Appearing in book form for the first time, The Atheist in the Attic is a suspenseful and vivid historical narrative, recreating the top-secret meeting between the mathematical genius Leibniz and the philosopher Spinoza caught between the horrors of the cannibalistic Dutch Rampjaar and the brilliant “big bang” of the Enlightenment. Also Delany’s “Racism and Science Fiction” combines scholarly research and personal experience in the unique true story of the first major African-American author in the genre. This collection features a bibliography, an author biography, and the candid and uncompromising Outspoken Interview.
About the Author
Samuel R. Delany changed the tone, the content, and the very shape of modern science fiction with his acclaimed novels and stories that bridged the apparent gap between science and fantasy to explore gay sexuality, racial and class consciousness, and the limits of imagination and memory. His vast body of work includes memoir, comics, space adventure, mainstream novels, homosexual erotica, and literary criticism of a high order.
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The Atheist in the Attic
"Philosophy is homesickness. It is the desire to feel at home everywhere."
— Novalis (as cited in Thomas Carlyle's essay of 1829)
Shortly after I accepted employment with the duke, John Frederick, in November 1676, I, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, arrived at the house of the Amsterdam acquaintance with whom I'd be staying for three weeks while performing legal offices for my patron. By the end of my second afternoon I had made a five-hour trip for a six-hour visit to Baruch Spinoza's home in The Hague (the first of three visits over three consecutive days). Back in my Amsterdam rooms, I thought over those hours. I was thirty when I wrote these reflections — wrote them rather too freely, I now suspect, given what has occurred since his death three months after our meeting, as well as over the last twenty-two years of my life. (Gunter and his sisters have divided themselves between Africa and the New World. Would you believe it from what I've written below? I wouldn't.) Since the death of Ernest Augustus and the ascension of George, I've reread it. But I don't think I shall rewrite it, since in two years the eighteenth century will open up about us — or enfold us in its chaos.
There was nothing grand about his home, which almost all things here — the candelabra on the lace cloth at the ends of the downstairs dining table, the brass bar holding the carpet to the back of each broad step, the yellow blossoms brocaded on the wand of the bed warmer leaning by the fireplace in my bedroom suite — make me remember. (Though severity is in keeping with the nation, domestic Dutch decor is too austere.) In the few hours I've been back I've seen three servants: one man coming from a door at a second-floor corridor's end and (I glimpsed them over the banister) two women walking together across the front hall. They were carrying starched lace toward the dining room, as I was going up.
No Peytor yet, but apparently he was among the lowest in the house.
Gunter does not live opulently. He keeps a household staff here of only sixteen, for him and his three younger sisters — one of whose conversation and anecdotes about her travels I find more interesting than Gunter's; one of whom I find a lively talker about fashion and gossip, if the topic itself is a bit tedious for me; and none of whom is currently at home. From my last visit two years ago, I suspect all three girls find their younger brother a bore.
But aren't journals such as this basically occasions for candid assessments?
No. They're not. They're for telling oneself the fictions that are as honest as you can make them and still keep your life bearable.
Sixteen in this house is not quite one servant for every two rooms.
There, of course, I'd seen only one — and would have been surprised were it more than two. The woman who'd answered the door turned out to be the landlord as well as the red-brick building's owner. An owner answering her own door? That's very Dutch. Or seems so to a German like me.
But I write this back at Gunter's.
Yesterday morning just before daybreak I took a cart up from the boat (I am so glad the duke owns his own yacht), with my three trunks containing eight pairs of pants, a dozen lace-fronted shirts — party and plain — jackets for everyday wear, enough wig powder to choke a full reception of young officers, my travel cloak, my greatcoat, my smallclothes — since baths are at a minimum I travel with lots of them, which makes me eccentric — my mechanical calculating machine (my own design, with just the fewest suggestions from the Hamburg horologist who constructed it last summer according to my seventeen pages of careful plans) stored with my books (some of mine for casual gifts, two of his I hope no one but he will know — while I'm here — I have) and papers in my luggage — and my calculus still in my head. That's where I want to keep it right now, ready for the upcoming attempt at friendship in England.
Moonlight and window light had flecked the broken canal. The three of us in the Duke's party staying in the city crossed on an early ferry. Horses huffed out breath and hoofed at cobbles, and the deepest blue emerged above the water and was reflected in it; nor was the air that cold.
And today I am back again — from my first visit.
Settling into my suite, where I'd slept a few hours and risen before three in the morning, I'm trying to make sense of the fragments of these last hours, these last days, this life, and the possible world that might sensibly hold both a here and a there.
Today was my first visit anywhere since I'd arrived, you see. Or, for accuracy, I could say it was my second. "One" is the easy fiction. "Two" is the slightly more embarrassing one that society, good manners, and expediency compel: I did it.
It wasn't that important.
Let's leave it out.
I would have felt very bad if I hadn't at least thanked that young man back in Hamburg who'd cast his wheels and cogs, and bolted his cylinders to their metal rack, and his grown daughter of almost thirteen who'd polished them all, and his father who'd actually come in one day and made the two suggestions that allowed the whole thing — as I said above, or did I say it? — to work. Did I thank them? The uncertainty throws guilt over all my present actions. But experience says forget it — or write him a note apologizing for the oversight if it's still that disturbing. Writings that have come down to us from the classical Greeks suggest those bright people had a mail service of sorts. But most of the last thirty years in Germany, save in the larger cities, there has not been.
And I can imagine a third fiction that says: Oh, of course, modes of politeness are not important: They're not important the way garbage carts are not important. The way sewer pipes in cities are not important. (And Venice and Amsterdam have developed such different sewer systems from Paris — which practically doesn't have any — or from London, which does.) They're not important the way money that moves around the city and keeps buildings and byways, churches and bridges from falling to pieces through extravagance or bad judgment isn't important, or the peoples who have been forced by laws — and our laws, after all — largely to confine themselves to the management of financial loans in the greater mode of investments are not important. (They're not important unless you don't know them.) It's not important the way anything is "not important" that we leave out of fictions too quickly and glibly told. In short, what could be more pressing to articulate, to analyze, to carefully oversee than politeness — the thing we assume is so well understood, so widely shared, that it allows a simple "good morning," "good day," or "good evening" to make sense? Suppose our days were six months long, and our nights as well — as some claim is the case at the poles of our own great globe, which has grown so much larger in the last hundred years that whole counties can lose their postal systems for a century or so? What would happen to the most ordinary greetings on the street? What happens if there are no streets as such on which to greet each other ...? Is that a good enough reason to think that China and India, Africa and the Americas, whether at pole or equator, are simply uncivilized because they are different? Or that anyone from them, unto their greatest and most powerful rulers, is not worthy to clean up our shit? Really, such ponderings are absurd. At least I think they are. Sometimes.
And other times, they don't seem so.
Or take this in an entirely different direction: Does bringing such questions and assumptions to light mean you are a politically revolutionary genius, so that all you have to do is shout — in the proper place (that is, in the most improper place you can think of) — "birth!" "joy!" "sewer pipes!" "money!" "slaves, women, the poor!" "onanism!" "copulation!" "smallclothes!" "shit!" "pain!" or "death!"? Or that such improprieties might lead to a revolution for the benefit of the nation, the world (or poor women slaves)? In truth, I don't know. I must be mad. (Why did a great queen privilege an old, rude genius, who, twenty-six years ago, must have been at least ninety at her court ...? Everyone who's anyone today knows that's where he died. No one remembers that I passed through with my uncle when I was six — and I remember meeting him. And where shall I end my life, should my age suddenly and surprisingly treble? Some place where I shall be not more remembered there than I was then?) But a thank-you note might be a start.
I'd arrived in Amsterdam planning to make eight visits, for all of which I already had letters of introduction from my duke and for most of which I had already written out personal notes to precede me. Only the first was I passionate about making, however. The others (which as of this evening still lie ahead) are to my patron — or to people my duke wishes to patronize.
As soon as my carriage had drawn up at Gunter's elegant grounds and town house, which I'd assumed would be my Amsterdam home for the next twelve days (two weeks, shy one weekend for travel on to the next place that lies ahead, as does another visit tomorrow to The Hague), and today assume will be for the next eleven, I'd climbed down to the paving between the hedges (the driver had been paid back at the docks). Someone declared: "Oh, you're here! Wonderful. You can go on up if you want — if you're tired, of course." It was Gunter, outside my closed carriage, in his own open one. (I leaned forward to glimpse him through the window in my carriage door, in morning wig and afternoon coat.) "But I don't remember you ever being tired before two at Altdorf! I've given you three rooms on the third floor. Mary and Peytor will show you where you'll be — when we get back, you and I. It's the suite my uncle used to work in whenever he'd stay with us. He's been dead four years; we've hardly used them since. You remember Peytor, don't you? Well, he remembers you! He didn't stop talking for three weeks the last time you left us. About you, too. And as soon as he heard you were coming again, he asked could he please be assigned you while you were here." (Wondering what he was getting at, I opened the door, which was slightly loose and, starting to climb down, smiled and shrugged.) "You know me. I let them run me," Gunter went on, "really I do. I haven't got the personality to do this sort of thing properly. And don't even talk about the girls." (Perhaps an invitation of some sort that he was leading up to?) "My inability to manage a house is half the reason why I never married. You could spend a bit more time with your host, couldn't you?" He burbled on, while I tried to fathom what was behind all this chatter. "Look, let them get your things up there if you don't mind them unpacking for you — they do it for me, whenever I travel: I take them around with me; certainly they can do it for you while you're here — you can look it over later." He sighed. "Peytor's not used to it." And Peytor ...? The truth is, right then, I had no idea whom Gunter meant. (Nor, since he meant a servant, was I particularly curious, right then, to know.) My last visit had been two years back, and Gunter had certainly never mentioned him in a letter. "But Mary will keep him in line. I don't know if you were aware of this — we rather rescued him from the country back in the summer of '72." He stopped, as if he'd remembered something. "My dear Gottfried, whom I haven't seen in ever so long, I have to" — he took a breath, and I realized he'd started in on a confession — "drive over to see an ... an old Jew. There's nothing for it; there's no getting out of it. Oh, you know how that is. Come with me, and we can at least start catching up ...?"
So it was an invitation, and one he was embarrassed about, of course. (My dear Gottfried, I have to take some money to a ... a young woman. Oh, you know how it is. I could hear him say it in the same tone of voice.) "I have a feeling I'm not going to see much more of you than when we were at school — and I don't want to think how long ago that is. You've written me how busy you'll be this trip." Leaning on his carriage edge, he smiled imploringly. "Come. At least I'll get a few moments with you." He really was perfectly happy to let his housekeeper assign half of his full complement of servants to devote themselves to my arrival so he could have another few minutes' talk with me before our day grew hectic. We are so selfish and squander so much at this social level where the fame and infamy that count are both invented.
"Certainly." It seemed rude not to. (Just as it would have were we visiting his paid mistress.) But I stood there a moment, between vehicles, feeling it would be unseemly as well to leap too quickly to fulfill my friend's awkward request. "You've always been a very generous friend to me," I said, wondering why he couldn't extend that generosity a bit more and leave me alone to arrive.
"And I always felt the time we did spend together," he offered as recompense, "was some of the most pleasant I've ever had with anyone."
Then he opened out his carriage door, and I climbed up. He stepped back for me, and I took a seat across from him. But such endless and minuscule anxieties as mine were the price, I reflected, of working so hard at — and sometimes even succeeding in — being a good houseguest.
While on the street, from the house, from the garden behind it, from the small maintenance building to one side of it, his people were calling to each other to busy themselves getting my things inside, we set off to pay his Dutch Jew a call, as if the world had offered an unexpected stutter to my own plans: my secret Jew tomorrow, presaged by Gunter's ordinary Jew today.
And, yes, I wanted it to be a secret — candidly.
I wasn't planning to make much of my visit the next morning, either to Gunter or to anyone else. No, I wasn't hiding it — exactly.
But when you are a busy guest of a busy host at a sprawling and busy home, sometimes you can disappear for a day or even two or three and not attract much attention, either before it happens or once it is over. (Right now I hope only this journal will know. And probably even it will have to be studied and reread generously to reveal its secrets and separate chaff and grain, gold and grit — assuming there's gold or grain to it at all. Also, at thirty, one is of an age to know how silly most such hopes are.) I have been wondering since the beginning if I ought to record it, or even if — now that it's occurred — I might be too excited to write about it.
True: So far I am not. (I feel just excited enough ...)
But I remember, as I sat in Gunter's open carriage, more or less comfortably muffled (was it colder today?), listening to his chatter, and chattering back what seemed — when it seemed — appropriate, while we went off to see his Jew, if I should really be calling mine a Jew at all.
His own people no longer did. Did he? Today he signs his name Benedict instead of Baruch. I wonder if he's learned how little difference that makes in how anyone else talks of him — including me. Or if he cares.
And, of course, the always awkward third truth: this invitation to see another Jew this morning made me feel as if the world were mocking me, as if it were pushing me to say, even now: "You know I'm going to be seeing that Spinoza fellow tomorrow, if he'll receive me." And I was not going to say that to Gunter! I was not going to say it because I was protecting my own reputation. I was protecting Spinoza's as well.
And I was protecting Gunter's and his family's, I told myself, not to mention those strangers who'd already involved themselves in his case, those scattered in the Netherlands and Germany and France as well.
But wouldn't the world be a better place if I didn't have to?
(When your own reputation already entails a philosophy such as mine, serious thoughts about preferable alternatives can only make you weary.)
"Of course," I said, "let's go," just to plague myself with the discomfort of knowing I had decided — not to lie, exactly, but to withhold the truth, at least from Gunter. Or, at any rate, to delay his knowledge of it.
Till I have seen my Jew? Or till after I've left with my trunks and bags and notions of the world for another two-, five-, or ten-year hiatus in my friendship with Gunter. Would I tell him tonight or tomorrow? (No! That was insane! Would I tell him in a year, a decade, ever? How could I know?)
We drove in his carriage to the Jews' neighborhood, with more chat about his sisters, his servants — "Sophie will be particularly unhappy to have missed you" — his youngest sister — "as would Peytor if you'd come three months later — I'm giving him half a year off to go back to his family in Flanders and help them out." (What in the world is it about this Peytor?) "If he'd missed you, he'd never have forgiven himself or me, for settling his leave in winter instead of the spring —"
I asked, "Farming? His family?"
Gunter said, "Of course, that's what they do." He looked at me with the hint of questioning that asked, What else could it be?
And I wondered when (or if) I was going to see this young houseman. (Or was he an old one ...?) I had no memory of what this Peytor looked like. I assumed he was here on my last visit. But one meets so many servants in the course of the quasi-diplomatic circuits I am always moving through, I find myself not even trying to keep them in memory.
When we got there, Gunter gathered himself up. "Do you mind waiting out here? It's one of those matters ..." Now he smiled, shrugged, even opened up his hands, as if — I fancied — to show me he held no weapon. "I'm sure you understand."
"Not at all." I smiled back.
Gunter raised his eyebrows. "Unless you'd like to come in just to get —?"
Excerpted from "The Atheist in the Attic"
Copyright © 2018 Samuel R. Delany.
Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Atheist in the Attic,
Racism and Science Fiction,
"Discourse in an Older Sense",
Outspoken Interview with Samuel R. Delany,