The Formula of the Fantastic (Part 2 of 2)

The second historical figure featured in Kehlmann's novel. the explorer Alexander von Humboldt (Portrait painted in 1806 by Friedrich Georg Weitsch)

The second historical figure featured in Kehlmann’s novel, the explorer Alexander von Humboldt (Portrait painted in 1806 by Friedrich Georg Weitsch)

Alexander von Humboldt, as characterized by Kehlmann in Measuring the World, is a different type of man from Gauss all together. Kehlmann represents him as a man determined to classify, calculate, and quantify the world around him; and never to doubt that such things are possible. Within Kehlmann’s text, Humboldt is driven in this task because he is in fact terrified by everything that he does not know. Kehlmann communicates this through the character of one of Humboldt’s professors, who teaches him that “Whenever things [are] frightening, it [is] a good idea to measure them” (Kehlmann 16).

Kehlmann’s novel postulates that the fantastic makes itself inescapably known to Humboldt whenever he thinks he has reached the pinnacle of human knowledge about the world which surrounds him. One of the firmest examples of this device is found in the chapter entitled “The Mountain”, in which Humboldt and Bonpland, his companion and assistant, seek to scale the mountain Chimborazo. This journey is fraught with visits from the fantastic to the point that even Humboldt’s comedic companion Bonpland is at the mercy of them. The narrator tells us, “At first Bonpland was oblivious to the gentleman in dark clothes trudging sadly at their side. Only when the figure transformed itself into a geometrical shape…did he feel uneasy” (Kehlmann 144). Even so, it is Humboldt himself that seems the most dogged by these inexplicable visions. The narrator tells us that Humboldt, “As for himself…[had] been seeing the lost dog for quite some time…It wasn’t a pretty sight, and he was having to keep a tight hold on himself to keep from screaming” (Kehlmann 146). Humboldt is seeking to deny the experience to himself. By treating it rationally and without emotion, Humboldt tries to ignore that which he can not quantify.

The great mountain Chimborazo, the site of one of Humboldt's exploratory triumphs and his few moments of self-doubt. (Photo by Hans Stieglitz via Wikimedia Commons)

The great mountain Chimborazo, the site of one of Humboldt’s exploratory triumphs and his few moments of self-doubt. (Photo by Hans Stieglitz via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet even for the great rational naturalist, reason is not sufficient defense against the fantastic. At the end of his great achievement, when he is trying to quantify the amount they have climbed, how much of the world he has conquered with measurement, he breaks down. “Please excuse him, said Humboldt, he was having difficulty pulling himself together. Please could someone put the dog on the lead!” (Kehlmann 150). As much as Humboldt tries to rationalize and ignore the fantastic events that infringe on what he thinks of as reality, Kehlmann demonstrates through his use of this romantic aspect, that there are experiences in life that even the greatest naturalist cannot catalog and dissect . Humboldt cannot accept such unknowns and therefore he tries to deny their existence.

A century or more after Humboldt’s great explorations, Commander Dave Scott flew the fifteenth Apollo Mission to the moon, becoming the seventh man to step foot on our nearest planetary neighbor on the 31st of July, 1971. Looking out over the lunar landscape formation of Hadley Rille, he offered this thought to the people back on Earth:

“As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature, Man must explore . . . and this is exploration at its greatest” (“Space Quotations”).

It's a small wonder that science which opens up the human experience to such other worldly sights and ideas may also be the sight of the fantastic (Photo of the Apollo 15 Lunar Rover and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin, taken by Commander Dave Scott)

It’s a small wonder that science which opens up the human experience to such other worldly sights and ideas may also be the sight of the fantastic. (Photo of the Apollo 15 Lunar Rover and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin, taken by Commander Dave Scott)

“The wonders of the unknown” are what every explorer from the dawn of time has sought to penetrate and unravel. Kehlmann presents us Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss as such voyagers into the unknown, albeit in very different ways. One preferred a telescope to a canoe, and the other couldn’t measure a mountain without climbing it. Furthermore, they had very different relationships to the “unknown” aspects of the world. The character of Carl Friedrich Gauss seemed to revel in the fact that there were things he could not truly know, things beyond even his great mind. Conversely, the character of Alexander von Humboldt lived in fear of the things he could not classify. Rather than accept that within this world lays things that cannot be rationalized or understood, let alone measured, he tried to deny that such things could possibly exist. Daniel Kehlmann uses his historical fiction novel, Measuring the World, and its romantic aspect of the fantastic to get across a larger message. That the true mysteries of the world are beyond the understanding of man; they can’t be quantified, or even explained. In fact, the world is, at its heart, immeasurable.

Works Cited

“Space Quotations: Apollo Moon Mission Quotes.” Space Quotations: Quotes on Star Gazing, Rocket Riding and Moon Walking. 2010. Web. 08 June 2010. <http://www.spacequotations.com/apollo.html&gt;.

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About rsjeffrey

A thinly published author who is widely read. No type of fiction is off limits, and I even enjoy plunging into the odd, well-written nonfiction tome as well. I am driven by a need to continuously move forward, so expect to see a lot of activity from me!
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One Response to The Formula of the Fantastic (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: The Formula of the Fantastic (Part 1 of 2) | Simple Complexities

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