I live near Boston and teach philosophy at Boston University. Besides academic pieces, I write fiction when I’m up to it and poems when I can’t help it. I use a fountain pen—my link to tradition—and write to music. I’ve published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals. My most recent book is Heiberg’s Twitch.
Author's Note: During the Enlightenment, Königsberg was famous for its marzipan factory and its university, of which Immanuel Kant was the most brilliant ornament. Once the easternmost city in Germany, after 1945 Königsberg became the westernmost city in Russia. Stalin cleared the place of Germans and renamed it in honor the functionary who had been titular head of the USSR since 1919. Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin was distinguished for his unwavering subservience, even after the tyrant sent his wife to a labor camp. These days, what was once home to Kant is the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet. Like Leningrad and Stalingrad, the name of Königsberg has been wiped from the map while, ironically, that of Kaliningrad remains.
From his bedroom window Kant would stare at
a sturdy Prussian tower. It thrust up,
a sound categorical tower, firm against the
scudding clouds, upright in the winds
on which he wrote an early tome.
Kant believed gazing at this tower focused
his mind on the phenomenal, tuned
it in to the nebulae of the noumenal.
Psychologists would call Kant’s tower a
specific stimulus; that is, what cheroots
were to Freud and rotting apples to Schiller,
the tower was to Kant; that is to say,
as tobacco smoke infuses Eros
and Thanatos, the odor of fermentation
Maria Stuart and the Ode to Joy,
so the Critiques aspire into air.
History teaches that nothing changes
and everything does, lessons learned, forgotten,
repeated. Nowadays easternmost Prussia
is westernmost Russia. The tower,
I suppose, is still there. I’ve never been
myself and so can’t say for sure. The old
townhouses of Königsberg/Kaliningrad
are still German but not its citizens.
In the antique bottle there’s new vodka.
Kant was not unfond of a good Moselle.
Tutoring, cards, and pool kept him in funds.
His life did not lack for tension though the
drama was wholly interior. In fact, Kant
tried to save inner feeling from outward
mechanism, the absolute from the
relative, to clear a space in doubt for faith.
In short, he wished to serve mankind by
reconciling the irreconcilable and he
managed it too, for about two weeks.
Kant lived buttoned up in routine, hated
beer, so adored consistency he once
said he wouldn’t lie even to a homicidal
psychopath. Famously precise, people
set their watches by his daily march to
the University which he loved and
never left. Teach to the student of middle
ability was his recommendation. The
best don’t need you; the worst can’t be helped.
Kant was even more regular than the
tower’s clock, if indeed the tower had
a clock in it. Kant had no biography
to speak of but when he stared at his tower
he became original, a sort of grand
synthetic a priori gem. He looked down on
folk like his pious unread mother until
Rousseau set him straight and made him our first
intellectual with a sour conscience
about it. Eight years of pietistic
pounding drove the nail in but left him with
a life-long hatred of hymns. Still, privileges
must be redeemed, he felt. People are not
means but ends. The stewardess is the
flight attendant in embryo, a slave the
union man. The educated must advance
the rights of common folk. Toward the end of
his life, which began the year Newton died,
he lost both memory and sight and couldn’t
even recall where the tower was let alone
the virtue got from staring at it. Routine
disintegrated into fame. Kant held
some revolutionary sentiments.
Mikhail Ivanovich was a rebel,
albeit a Russian one thrice imprisoned
by the Czar, who fecklessly presided
for a generation over Stalin’s
icy inferno as his good wife froze
in the furnace. Königsberg has twisted
unaltered in our century’s howling winds.
Kant’s Königsberg had a river with two
islands in it. So does Kaliningrad,
I presume, though I’ve never seen the place.
Four bridges linked the bigger island to
the mainland, the smaller had but two, and
yet another united the two islands.
In Königsberg there were lots of ways to
cross the same river twice. Leonhard Euler,
who was a generation older than
Kant and believed in ether, showed that no
one could start at one point in Königsberg,
cross all seven of its bridges only
once, and return to where he began. This
is called the Euler Cycle. Perhaps one
sunny Sunday in May Kant set out to
prove Euler’s point by walking back and forth
across the seven bridges. I can see it,
the whole town turning out to cheer the Herr
Professor on. Bratwurst on the Pregel’s banks,
smacks on the river. What a red-letter day that
would have been in old Königsberg where
for all I know Euler’s puzzling bridges
and Kant’s staunch tower may still be seen today.
Starry heavens may yet wheel on high, perhaps
the moral law even towers within, but
Königsberg has vanished like a something
that filled a nothing, like Euler’s ether.
© 2017 Robert Wexelblatt
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