No Better Plenitude: 1685
By James McAdams
“I have wanted to kill myself a thousand times, but am still in love with life.”
Francois M. said his garden was better—“But your garden is all well and good,” he added, striding around the garden crimping leaves and smelling with evident lack of impression the flowers, shrubs, and larger vines that comprised Herrenhausen. His inflection was slow and dispassionate, indicating a sort of distracted scorn. “Although your garden is…je nais sais quoi…far from perfect.”
“It’s not my garden,” said the Duke of Hanover. “It was built for my brother by our famous librarian and courtier, Leibniz. I assume you know of him.”
“I too have created a garden, an opus of negation, of hybrid plants and black vines, of flesh-eating flowers. I could describe to you the most hideous and bizarre things.” He coiled his hands in the air, as if searching for the proper phrasing.
The Duke observed him looking in perplexity at the sandbox. Everything about Francois M. promoted a protest against the world and a corresponding cultivation of deformity, illness, and negation. He was tall and thin, with a long red face and carbuncular, flaky skin. His hair was shorn in uneven patches like a peasant and uncovered by the Baroque wigs and perukes affected by polite society. One of his eyes was completely covered by its upper lid, the resulting slit looking vaguely reptilian.
Francois M. returned to the table where the Duke sat with two officers of the court standing behind him. He eased himself onto a chair across from the Duke, issuing a bitter groan. He rapped on the stone pathway with his cane and said, “I must admit, my knowledge of Leibniz’s present inhabitance compelled my response to your invitation. The best of all possible worlds, c’est ne pas?” He scratched a tuft of hair over his ear and continued. “Leibniz is an unreliable advocate for a cruel world, an apologist for a non-existent God, a God whom, as I have famously said, we have had to invent since He does not exist.”
The Duke scoffed. “My wife and daughter are amused by him, for that reason alone I bear him.”
“Il faut cultivre notre jardin, you must agree.”
“We must cultivate our own gardens, yes, that is another of your elegant aphorisms. Well,” the Duke gestured equivocally, “I am a man too busy for gardens, aphorisms, or such twaddle. Such is the misfortune of high office: to order and rule, but neither to love nor be loved. Love is accepting that what who we dream of does not dream of us.”
Francois M. clicked his tongue on his superior palate (the white bacteria indicating the presence of Candida Albicans). “You love your daughter?”
“A daughter you have requested me to mort-er… c’est ne pas?”
The Duke shifted in his chair, crossing his stockinged legs beneath the table. This kind of impertinence was to be expected from Francois M., a seditious philosopher and assassin from Paris whose curriculum-vitae and –mortui were known throughout Europe. Consultants had warned him of the philosopher’s contrarian nature, but it was this attitude of contemptuous superiority that especially tired the Duke now.
“Still, she is my daughter,” he said, “and duty directs polite words. However, now that we have arrived at the topic, allow me provide you with some materials.” The two officers of the court approached the table and laid several parchments and manuscripts before the Duke, who began sifting through them with his eyes inches from the table. Francois M. raised his good eye with interest, producing the impression of a nefarious wink. The Duke pointed to one of the documents and said: “This is her room at the auxiliary palace, and this is the basement, where it is said she often is found.”
“And whom shall I say I represent and convey?” asked Francois M.
“Don’t concern yourself with that.” The Duke said this with a grimace of displeasure. “There is such debauchery there, such lack of discrimination that even servants, witches, and those who speak vernacular are invited to attend. My daughter has surrounded herself with children and dreamers, credulous simpletons who believe in fairy tales. They will not ask of you.”
Among the materials on the table was a portrait depicting Sophie Charlotte, the sixteen-year old daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Hanover, on her wedding day last year, to Frederick, the Elector of Brandenburg. Her face, still reflecting the delicate malleability of youth, was held in the composed mien demanded by conventions of the period—to smile in a portrait was then seen as indecorous. Frederick’s arm hooked her shoulder in a proprietary manner.
“And where is this Herr Leibniz?” Francois M. said, collected the remaining materials from the table.
“In the Harz Mountains, working on a windmill.”
“Just another of his schemes.” The Duke flipped his hand to indicate scorn. “He considers everything possible,” he added. “The operation is unsuccessful and I’ll soon recall him. Do you have everything you need?”
Non.” Francois M. creased the materials for the assassination of Sophie Charlotte into the central pocket of the briefcase he carried and, after removing a scroll and writing instruments from a distal fold, resumed his seat at the table. “I require my payment at this time.”
Francois M. leaned back and tapped his cane slowly on the stone floor: “Why, naturally.”
“Why must your daughter die?”
In her chambers, the Duchess of Hanover stood in a torus-shaped gown with a correspondence about Sophie Charlotte in her hand, looking down upon the geometry of Herrenhausen. The design, preparation, and construction of the Garden Project had been supervised by Leibniz and informed by his love for all things and curiosity regarding foreign flora, about which he frequently read. It took nearly ten years to complete. What he could not grow natively, he imported; what he could not import, he simulated. The Duchess remembered Leibniz’s speculative statement that the sandbox, of which he was most proud, represented the future of possibility (in the form of what he hypothesized were constituent silicone granules), but then her thoughts returned once again to Sophie Charlotte and the letter she had just received.
“Have the dinner arrangements for our guests been accomplished?” asked the Duke, appearing in the doorway.
“We have received another correspondence about Sophie Charlotte.” The Duchess walked across the room with her long chin held high, handed him the letter, and walked back to the window, whose surface she pensively palmed. “From Mathilde.”
Mathilde had grown up with Sophie Charlotte in Hanover and had been commissioned to accompany her to Brandenburg to assist with all who knew Sophie Charlotte’s temperament (especially Leibniz) predicted would be a difficult transition. Six months ago the proud parents received the first letter from Mathilde. Its testimony was concerning: Sophie Charlotte had damaged her crown sliding down a banister drunk; she had lost ten pounds because she refused to eat; in the neighboring laborer towns, tales circulated of orgies between her and boys with thick foreheads and no knowledge of Latin, and the way the moon twinkled her ripped moiré fabrics when she climbed down from her balcony was local myth.
“Apparently our daughter has removed herself from Frederick’s love,” the Duchess said, and even out of the palace. “She now lives, if that’s the word, in an auxiliary palace ten miles south of Brandenburg. People attend there in various masks, imbibe various spirits, and parody all civilized form.”
“It’s taken care of,” said the Duke.
“Did you send Leibniz?”
“I don’t see why he should always be involved in family business,” the Duke muttered.
“Sophie Charlotte trusts him. I can’t think of anyone else we can say that of.”
“That’s why she’s like this. She was raised on those fancies of his: logical possibility, romantic love, individual dignity.” He noticed he was speaking too rapidly and cleared his throat. “I implicate these beliefs as the cause of this decadence, all these rash deeds.”
“I’m writing him a letter,” said the Duchess, sitting down at her desk.
“I would not advise that.”
The Duke shrugged. “We are part of something greater. I have taken care of things.”
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz removed his spectacles, squeezed the rounded cartilage in the bump of his nose, and murmured, “So much to do, so little time,” inventing an immortal phrase for which he would never receive credit—there would be so many things for which he would never receive credit. His brown eyes looked severe glassed behind his spectacles, but contracted into vulnerable, almost melancholy points when exposed. The spectacles rested on the inclined draftsman’s table he sat before; the table was covered by papers with graphs, equations, designs, and correspondences he was reading while eating his eupeptic supper of brown bread and milk.
The table and chair he sat in were the only items of furniture in the simple wood cabin which had been improvised for his stay in the Harz Mountains, the altitude of which aggravated his gout and created sinal complications. He blew his nose. Leibniz’s rubicund complexion and flabby broad chin were typical of a German of that time, but the ostentatious wig he wore from his days in Paris was an affectation for which he was ridiculed behind his back by the Hanoverian court and to his face by the rude Thirty-Year War veterans who labored skeptically on the construction of the windmills. Leibniz was so short and his wig so affected that it looked like a knight’s plumed helmet attached to the head of an infant, the Duke had once remarked.
Leibniz sat at his table thinking of many things, some possible, some abstract, but one thing he most definitely thought of was Hanover. He missed Hanover, although it is true that when in Hanover he spent most of his time and energy arguing for his presence in the illustrious cities of Europe—Paris (he would never forget his years there), London, Vienna. But what he regretted when traveling was the feeling of security Hanover provided him with, a feeling that settled his nerves, and a schedule which aided his research into mathematics, physics, the natural sciences, metaphysics, Chinese ideograms, exotic geography and geology, theodicy, and logical possibility. Most importantly, the presence of his closest friend, the Duchess. No other human—from others he often felt separated as if by a plane of glass—cured his loneliness as she did, and learning, the love of objects and words, was insufficient to cure his sense of isolation and disconnection.
But he had other concerns than the windmill, his loneliness, and his gout—there’s always something, another phrase he often used. Two correspondences had arrived, together but exclusive. The first from the Duke, terminating the windmill experiment and ordering that Leibniz return to Hanover; the other from the Duchess, intimating that Sophie Charlotte’s emotional problems had re-surfaced in Brandenburg. Three possible decision, therefore: to Brandenburg (as the Duchess wished), to Hanover (as the Duke wished), or to remain in Harz, in service to humanity and his intellectual responsibilities.
The foreman walked through the cabin’s threshold holding his hat. “More problems, sir,” he said. After waiting for a minute, the foreman cleared his throat. “Herr Leibniz?”
Leibniz looked from the correspondence to the foreman. “Indeed,” he said, standing and creasing the letter from the Duchess and placing it in a fold in his long cloak. “Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to learn,” he said, taking the foreman by his arm and walking down with him to the wilted windmill.
Leibniz arrived at the castle later that same night accompanied by Lord Pangloss, a clerk of the court whom the Duke had ordered to convey Leibniz eastward. The Lord also had an additional document written by the Duke for Francois M.
Placing his briefcase on the floor of the broad entrance hall, Leibniz looked around the castle with his ubiquitous curiosity, coughing bronchially. There were bodies passed out like the dead in Brueghel paintings, furniture broken and wet with urine, things written on walls in exotic vernaculars. He walked quietly down the steps toward the mournful sounds of a piano’s repeating tinkled notes.
From the threshold he recognized her hair, which had been dyed with some herb with bleach-like properties and trailed down to her waist as it had when she was a child. She was slumped on the bench, tapping with one finger the same despondent note. After a few moments of reflection, he walked away sadly, wondering what it was about this generation that made it so prone to melancholy and anomie. How could it not perceive the wonder of things, the pre-established harmony and collaboration within the universe—how could they not find one thing to love, even if they remained unloved themselves (as he admitted he himself was unloved)?
Francois M. was exhausted; he was in his room at the castle preparing the lethal concoction for Sophie Charlotte. He had no interest anymore in making murders look like suicides. Sure, talk of suicide epidemics for which he was significantly responsible once made him proud, but the event itself now, the way the focus of dead eyes turned in on themselves like the wilting of petals and portrayed a boredom he met nowhere but in his own looking-glass—to these his heart had grown unresponsive.
He’d killed more than a hundred, but less than a thousand. The third edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy cited statistics partially determined by Francois M. himself. He knew this, but nobody else did, which made him feel lonely. The feeling of your true self being unrecognized by others—a feeling he’d felt since he was a young child, that there was him, and there was the world, and that the two were fundamentally incompatible, separated as if by a plane of glass. His response to this was to declare war on the Other, on that to which he could not relate.
Lord Pangloss walked into the room, stared in wonder, and cleared his throat. With a glance, he indicated the scroll he held in his hands.
“The Duke has requested an additional operation from you,” Lord Pangloss said.
Francois M. unwound the scroll and read its brief contents, and the hint of a smile appeared on his face. He read on, a rare excitement bumping his heart. It’s one thing to portray the false suicide of a maimed Thirty-Years War veteran; yet another still, a melancholy young princess. But it’s a whole other unprecedented thing to falsify the suicide of the foremost philosopher of secular happiness, optimism, and trust in the world. “Murder Leibniz too,” the document read.
When Leibniz awoke Sophie Charlotte stood in his room’s doorway. Her stained nightgown trailed down over her knees, below her waist where her hands fluttered, unfisted, thumbs rubbing the hem. Her gaunt eyes followed him as he stumbled erect in the bed, reaching for his peruke on the bedside table and squinting into his spectacles. He lit a candle. Her eyes glowed and hung in her face like captured things. She twisted her mouth into a pained smile resembling a grimace and said, “I knew you would come, but I don’t speak in Latin no more.” She shut the door behind her. “I only speak in vernacular now.”
“I don’t like your arms,” Leibniz said. “I don’t see why.”
“They remind me,” Sophie said. “I’m trying to remember.”
“No, I don’t like them at all.”
Sophie rubbed her arms, which were covered with scars.
“You lied,” she said. “I’m not angry,” she continued, approaching the foot of the bed, “I just think that you should stop saying stuff like that to people, stuff like rumors of what’s possible.”
“Rumors of the possible? Everything’s possible. You know this, Sophie.”
“To be a beautiful thing, a great person, that’s what I wanted. You said I could. You said I could be beautiful and happy, doing things with people on islands with citrus. Anything’s possible, you said, in the garden so long ago, remember? The sandbox, remember?” Leibniz didn’t say anything. He just there upright in bed, his mouth silently moving.
She walked across the room, pulling a strand of hair behind her ear, and sat down on the bed beside him.
“I love you, Sophie,” he said. “A lot of people–“
“If you live as long as I have, you will too.”
“Well I won’t live as long as you, and that’s why I ran away, to here.”
“I can whisper you a secret that will make your life amazing. Can I tell it to you?”
Sophie Charlotte shrugged, but didn’t move away.
Francois M. snuck through the castle in darkness, his hips square to the wall for feeling. His sneaking was more of an adjustment to shadows and the feeling of walls. One benefit of granite-floors: no possibility of creaking. Then he saw a beam of light bisecting the floor below. He strode down the stairs sticking in the shadow until he arrived at the door. He leaned by the door listening, clutching the killing materials. He was happy then. A girl’s tearful voice spoke in vernacular, but the man, his voice calm and reassuring, spoke in Latin, rhapsodizing about concepts like love, possibility, and optimism. It was Leibniz. Francois M. stood there in the shadows, listening, his heart beating faster than it had since he was young, when everything seemed possible, before the betrayals, frustrations and loneliness of adult life had turned his child’s curiosity and trust into ennui and desperate rage. He pulled out the potions, uncorking the bottles and approaching the door.
James McAdams has published fiction in Temple’s TINGE Magazine and Carbon Culture Review, serial microfictions in the Annals of American Psychotherapy, as well as forthcoming fiction pieces in per contra and Modern Language Studies. Before matriculating at college, he was a social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University, where he teaches writing, tutors, and edits the university’s literary journal, Amaranth.