Thursday, January 25, 2007
School's in: A murder mystery that features Immanuel Kant, detective
By DAN BARNETT
"Inside the ample glass jar, the severed head lolled in a swirling sea of cloudy preserving alcohol. Tangled gray-red sinews, clots of blood and gore shifted gently in the straw-colored liquid like the trailing tendrils of a jellyfish."
Something fiendish had happened to the victim; his head preserved a secret only the finest mind might discern.
It is February, 1804. Hanno Stiffeniis, a magistrate in Lotingen, Prussia, is summoned by King Frederick Wilhelm III to Königsberg. "Our beloved Königsberg (is) in a grip of terror," the King writes. The summons takes Stiffeniis completely by surprise.
Stiffeniis sets up headquarters at the Fortress of Königsberg. The basement, where prisoners are herded to an uncertain fate, reminds Stiffeniis of Hades; "the upper floors were as confusing as the maze of Crete. Gloomy, ill-lit passages shot off left and right of the main corridor, no feature distinguishing one way from any of the others."
That seems to describe the investigation into the strange murders in Königsberg. Which way to turn? Some believed Napoleon was planning to invade Prussia and was leaving a calling card of terror. Others proposed not a political but a spiritual cause. All of the victims (just a handful, but unsettling in the extreme) were killed as they were kneeling; the cause of death was unknown but rumor was spreading that the Devil's Claw had done them in.
Stiffeniis tells the tale, and what a tale it is, involving not-soon-forgotten characters such as an albino prostitute; Dr. Vigilantius, a necromancer and follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg; and Immanuel Kant himself, now retired and sickly, who is collecting the heads of the victims.
Heady stuff, indeed, this "Critique of Criminal Reason" ($25.95 in hardcover from Thomas Dunne Books) by Michael Gregorio, a philosophy professor who lives in Italy. Gregorio draws on the new authoritative biography of Kant by Manfred Kuehn and interweaves invented characters and real personages into the lives of Kant and Stiffeniis.
Immanuel Kant is one of the giants of philosophy, an exponent of pure reason who famously wrote that all rational beings would wish to do away with emotion since it leads right thinking astray. According to the Kuehn biography, Kant wrote a little-known work, "Dreams of a Spirit-Seer," in which he seemed to mock Swedenborgian spirituality; in "Critique of Criminal Reason" Kant tells Stiffeniis that it's "the only book of mine for which I have ever apologized."
In the story, Kant himself has called Dr. Vigilantius to "listen" to the corpse of one of the victims and Kant who sets up a clandestine laboratory in which he collects the heads-in-jars. This is a side of Kant that seems very much out of character with the little man of Königsberg whose daily walks were so carefully timed residents could set their clocks. But Kuehn confirms that the elderly Kant was working on a manuscript at the time of his death that attempted to unite his metaphysics with physics, the natural world. Gregorio deftly uses this device to deepen the mystery surrounding the last days of Kant, who, in the story, becomes obsessed with the idea writing about "murder without motive," "cold-blooded murder."
The revelation of the murderer is satisfying but not surprising; in a way the story is more about the secret side of Kant and of Stiffeniis when faced with the mesmerizing aspect of Death, and the central importance of love. This "Critique" is engaging and thought-provoking. I'm assigning it as homework.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.