I recently ran across Hans Magnus Enzensberger's strange and wonderful book Mausoleum: Thirty-seven Ballads from the History of Progress, a treasure trove of hot takes on historical figures, whom he references only through their initials and dates (birth and death). Below is Enzensberger's ballad to GW Leibniz.
G. W. L. (1646-1716)
We don't know his feelings. The periphery seems proper
as in a perfect apparatus. The privy councilor's state coat
was covered with buckles and buttons and laces and sashes.
Behind the wire-wig, the switching network metallized,
in a very dense packing. Motionless motion prevailed
under the cranium. Data -- recorded, encoded,
and processed and stored: Tabulation of knowledge,
Monatliche Auszüge, Journal des Savants, Acta eruditorum
What he left to a helpless world was a hayrick
of annals, reports, memoranda, catalogues,
miscellanea; a hurly-burly of abstracts and abstracts
of abstracts and abstracts of abstracts of abstracts....
(We of the Defense Department were never happy with L. True,
he's a genius, no one denies that. But there's one imperfection:
and that's his perfection. His "human traits,"
a certain love of money, a slight podagra, are camouflage,
cunning loops in his program structure, tricks,
to mislead us. It very nearly worked. Proof:
So far no one in the ruling house has any suspicions.
But we say openly: L. is an artifact, and presumably,
he, humming, is employed by a remote and alien power.)
Hanover of all places, where the houses are so cramped!
This preference for dismal boondocks, for residences
in the German provinces, dimly lit and disreputable,
in short, a taste for the inconspicuous makes you wonder.
He collected fossil creatures and was like a petrifact himself.
But, tapping, he spread his net, tested, registered. Met Spinoza
in Amsterdam, Newton in London, Kircher in Rome, in Basel
the Bernoullis. Chinese interests: he corresponded
with Peking. Novissima Sinica: On the binary number system
and the I Ching. Conversations in parks about research planning,
negotiations in chancelleries. His carriage jolted and jogged him.
a whole academy, over the cartways of Europe.
(Our files, says the CIA, yield the following picture.
Private life: none. Sexual interests: negative. Emotionally,
L. is a moron. His relations to others are as discourse
and nothing else. Furthermore, the thing that drives you crazy
is that insane diligence. No matter what, anywhere,
any time, he reads, writes, does arithmetic. The stepped drum rotates.
Like an automaton. Like an automaton that has built an automaton.)
He wrote his programs himself. The algorithms were new:
Infinitesimal calculus, probability theory. He, brooded over
Lullian arts, the total trip: Characteristica universalis.
He posited, humming, that the world-machine is unconscious
but reasonable. The only thing that should matter is
wheedling reason out of it. Oh combinatorics! Oh blind faith!
I Ching: One picks a few yarrows, separates the stalks,
and counts, and separates and counts the stalks and separates, and states an oracle,
a universal method with whose assistance all the verities
of reason can be reduced to a kind of calculation.
At the same time, this would give us a language or a code
for guiding reason, for breaking error.
(We suspect, however, that it is in the nature of automatons
to optimate optimism. Harmony is their fixation.
Their consciousness, which is happy, betrays them without demur.
Aside from that, the commission wonders how he
came to Boolean Algebra two hundred years too soon,
and it replies that there can be only one explanation:
L. is an automatic astronaut, an extraterrestrial probe.)
He printed out a number, countless, of metaphysical propositions
and emitted a cloud of philosophemes, containing
his sovereign mastery of navigation, commerce, manufacture:
The virtues of these things proceed from the science of nature
and mathematicks. The working of the ore mines in the Hartz, for instance,
raised problems of drainage; sprockets and buckets,
whimseys and winches didn't suffice. Even the ventilation failed.
So he designed ingenious man-engines, colliery-fans, mine-pumps,
and crossings. Moreover, he studied the enigma of phosphorus,
rape-seed cultivation, coinage reform; moreover he proposed astronomical observatories,
clearing-houses dye-factories; moreover, feeling no scruples, he planned
the silver standard and the conquest of Egypt.
(The Holy Office declares: We do not share the qualms
concerning him; for L. is a mere machine,
and higher beings, whose lot it is to live on the earth,
are using him. A thousand invisible hands are thronging
and moving in the world, hands of the angels who employ his hands
merely in lieu of gloves, for purposes we do not divine.)
Truth very often comes to us painted, weakened.
with a pallid face, thinning hair, old hands,
or disguised, nay, depraved and deformed; moves rigidly
and gravely, humming like a puppet, expediently and consistently,
which lowers its worth and boon. I have a taste
iroh on my tongue: He finally said it himself.
He had no imagination. But if one were to make it evident
(Truth), one could extract gold from excrement, diamonds from cesspools,
and light from the darkness, and, with utter clarity
make the progress of our knowledge apparent. Ah yes!
Someone, anonymous, claims he spent his final days
seeking to decipher the language of angels.
+ + +
Source: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Mausoleum: Thirty-seven Ballads from the History of Progress, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Urizen 1976), 23-28.