The Organs of Sense

  • Review
By – August 31, 2020

What does it mean to see?

In front of me, I see Adam Ehrlich Sach’s new nov­el, The Organs of Sense. Here’s a brief descrip­tion of its eye-catch­ing cov­er. As you can see, an emer­ald green back­ground is adorned with what looks like a cutout paper doll of a beard­ed man’s tor­so and head — or, more accu­rate­ly, a set of lines, col­ors, and shapes that most human eyes would rec­og­nize as a human fig­ure. But the fig­ure has two black geo­met­ric stars where its eyes should be, and float­ing around it are the star-shaped, flesh-col­ored, eye-con­tain­ing cutouts, the would-be prod­ucts of a star-shaped cook­ie cut­ter. Imme­di­ate­ly, eyes or lack there­of seems as if it will be an impor­tant aspect of this nov­el. Prob­a­bly stars, too.

The age-old advice not to judge a book by its cov­er might come to mind. And indeed, any read­er who does that, and does not then ask them­selves if they can or should trust or draw any con­clu­sions from what they have seen or believe they have seen, has missed the point of this nov­el. Because The Organs of Sense, although about” a blind sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry astronomer’s far-fetched pre­dic­tion, is real­ly about per­cep­tion: how it works, why we trust it, if indeed we should trust it, how it relates to knowl­edge, how it relates to reality.

In sprawl­ing, self-ref­er­en­tial prose char­ac­ter­ized by an almost bound­less amount of infor­ma­tion, inter­nal debate, philo­soph­i­cal inquiry, and cir­cu­lar­i­ty, Sachs relates the sto­ry of how the astronomer lost his eyes and came to make his dra­mat­ic pre­dic­tion. It is a dense, cere­bral sto­ry that encom­pass­es kings, art, fam­i­ly dynam­ics, Catholi­cism, vio­lence, and much more, all the while inter­ro­gat­ing the natures of vision, intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty, san­i­ty, and oth­er such triv­ia. The sto­ry is fil­tered sev­er­al times before it gets to the read­er: Sachs’s nar­ra­tor recounts the expe­ri­ence of Got­tfried Leib­niz (the real-life math­e­mati­cian who invent­ed cal­cu­lus), who heard the sto­ry from the astronomer. The nar­ra­tor alludes to the third hand nature of the nar­ra­tive repeat­ed­ly, as if to remind the read­er that sto­ries, like all aspects of human per­cep­tion of the world, are sub­jec­tive. On every lev­el, from the astronomer’s pre­dic­tion to his life sto­ry to the way it is told to Leib­niz to the way the nar­ra­tor presents it to the novel’s ulti­mate punch­line, The Organs of Sense is about the rela­tion­ship between what we see, what we believe, and what actu­al­ly exists. Sachs man­ages to address these pro­found­ly philo­soph­i­cal top­ics from sev­er­al angles, while still main­tain­ing a dark­ly com­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty that has echoes of Pyn­chon and DeLil­lo. Any­one inter­est­ed in the nature of ideas, espe­cial­ly but not only math­e­mat­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic ones, is like­ly to appre­ci­ate this absurd, wit­ty nov­el. Sachs’ work is, it must be said, visionary.

At least that’s how I saw it.

Miran­da Coop­er is a NYC-based writer, edi­tor, and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. Her lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, essays, and trans­la­tions of Yid­dish fic­tion and poet­ry have appeared in a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Jew­ish Cur­rents, Kirkus Reviews, the Los Ange­les Review, Pakn Treger, and more. In 2019, she was named an Emerg­ing Crit­ic by the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. She is also an edi­tor at In geveb: A Jour­nal of Yid­dish Stud­ies.

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