Poet Lore/Volume 4/Number 11/Newton's Brain

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Jakub Arbes3293340Poet Lore, vol. 4, no. 11 — Newton's Brain1892Josef Jiří Král


By Jakub Arbes


Dr. Sperlich passed his hand over the forehead of the corpse, felt the pulse, unbuttoned the white jacket and the shirt, and declared that it really was an embalmed corpse that was lying in the coffin. Some of those standing nearest followed his example to test the truth of his words, and no one doubted it. I too put my hand upon the forehead ; it was ice-cold. Bowing nearer to the face, I did not notice the least breath. The hand, too, was cold, and the half-uncovered bosom showed unmistakable signs of death.

In order to prove beyond any doubt that the body in the coffin was lifeless, Dr. Sperlich drew out a pocket-knife and thrust it into the chest of the corpse. The body was moved by the thrust, but otherwise remained unchanged. The guests could not comprehend this in any way. There was an exchange of opinion among some, others returned to their places. In five or six minutes there were not more than twenty persons remaining by the coffin. About to go back to my place, I looked once more at the corpse’s face.

The rosy leaflet of an exotic plant lay on the rigid lips, and just as I fixed my eyes upon the face, the leaflet shivered as though a feeble breath had touched it. I looked at the face more fixedly, and noticed that the eyebrows seemed to be trembling, and again the breast looked as though it had moved. At once I grasped the corpse’s hand to see if my eyes were not deceived. The hand was no longer ice-cold, but warm; and it seemed to me as though its warmth were increasing. I was about to call Dr. Sperlich’s attention to the sudden change, but before I could do so the eyes of the corpse slowly opened and closed again. A slight cry escaped my lips. Some of those standing nearest came still nearer; but in a moment all stepped back in amazement. The corpse moved, or rather shook convulsively, as though an electrical current had suddenly gone through it; and I distinctly perceived the symptoms of returning animal life.

About three minutes later the head moved, then both hands, and in a few moments the whole body was in motion. The corpse sat up with difficulty and remained awhile in that position; then it fell back into the coffin, then rose and sat up again. The surprise of those present grew into awe. Whatever may have been the effect of the unexpected occurrence upon this or that one of the guests, it was certain that there was no one who was not amazed in the highest degree. Evidently no one thought that the performance of an escamoteur would be opened in such an original way. All eagerly wondered what would come next.

After the corpse sat up in the coffin, a general silence prevailed. Not a finger stirred ; all eyes were bent upon the wonderful automaton which the experts had just pronounced to be an embalmed corpse.

And now the corpse gave further signs of life! True, it sat motionless for some time, but its eyes glistened. Then it moved its head, and looked around as though it were seeking some one; then it nodded as if satisfied; a light smile passed over its face; the mouth opened and spoke, “De mortuts nil nist bene

How strange! All that had been going on before the eyes of the guests until now failed to elicit one single word of admiration or surprise. The sound of the human voice drew out the first response, and stormy applause rang through the hall accompanied by shouts of, “Bravo! Well done!”

At the same time all the lights went out suddenly; utter darkness filled the hall. A few moments later, however, the lights were lighted again; but instead of the catafalque, the coffin, and the animated corpse, there appeared before our eyes a simple writing-desk and a chair, and behind the desk there stood my friend in an elegant black dress.

Again a long roar of applause filled the hall, and everybody shouted, “ Very good!” or “ Bravo!”

After the stormy manifestations of approval had subsided, my friend addressed the guests,—

“You will excuse, gentlemen, this unusual way of opening my performance; but as I have begun, so shall I finish it; only between the acts, permit me to say a few words which may interest some of you. You see a man before you whose brain is not his own, but—another’s.”

Then with his right hand my friend grasped the top of his head, and as easily as if he were taking off his cap, he took off the upper part of his skull, and holding it awhile in his hand, advanced a few steps to the foreground.

“Nearly all that I am going to tell you now will seem improbable,” he said, “but any of the savants present may convince himself of its truth. Allow me!”

Stepping down into the half-circle of guests, he seated himself on a chair and continued,—

“Let some one who knows anatomy and physiology examine my brain!”

At these words some of the guests at the professors’ table arose, surrounded my friend, and began to examine. One of them undertook an oral explanation.

“Truly, so it is! We really see the skull pared off and the surface of the brain. The surface shows quite normal convolutions. Under a microscope some of them might, perhaps, show some differences in size and form, but now we can only see a common surface. We see, plainly also the well-known gray matter, composed of nerve-cells and deposited all along the surface in small convolutions,—and, for the benefit of laymen, I add that modern physiologists designate this gray matter as the seat of consciousness, thought, talent, and recollections. More I do not pretend to say.”

“It will be my turn now,” my friend remarked, as he put the skull on his head, and slowly walked back to his desk.

“The brain which one of my esteemed guests has just examined,” said my friend, opening his preliminary explanations, “is not, as I have mentioned, my own, but another’s. I borrowed it for the same purpose for which millions of others have for ages been borrowing the most precious results of the activity of other people’s brains,—their ideas; for it is easier to think with another’s brain, to boast of another man’s ideas, and to benefit thus oneself and others than to hammer out an idea in one’s own brain. I had long been thinking which brain would be the most suitable, and finally I decided to try the brain of a man whom the whole civilized world classes among its most acute thinkers. I knew that the brain of that man was preserved in the British Museum; by stratagem I succeeded in securing this invaluable treasure; and when after the battle of Königgrätz the longed-for opportunity came, and my own skull was cut off by a sabre, I replaced my brain with that of Newton.”

“That is an impossibility!” was shouted at the table of the physicians, anatomists, and physiologists.

“An absurdity!” said the lawyers.

“Nonsense!” concluded the philosophers.

“A godless blasphemy!” sounded indignantly from the theologians’ table.

This many-sided expression of displeasure failed to embarrass my friend. He must have expected it; and he went on quietly,—“I beg your pardon, my esteemed friends. Every one judges after his own fashion; every one perceives, qualifies, and names various conceptions and objects in the way he has learned and acquired, and as he likes. Different opinions and different names do not change the things themselves in the least; they remain such as they are in fact.”

This sophistical turn apparently allayed the resentment of most of the guests, but convinced no one. Accordingly it was not surprising to hear new shouts from among the crowd,—“A proof! we want a conclusive proof!”

“A conclusive proof”—my friend resumed his talk—“is something that I am unable to offer at this moment, just as none of us can furnish unanswerable proofs of the most ingenious hypothesis of all ages,—Newton’s law of universal gravitation. I must, therefore,ask my honored guests to accept my views, as those often do who, disregarding proof, rely always on their own conviction, so-called. Please be, at least, as much convinced of the truth of my words as the ancient Greeks were of the divinity of their Zeus and the Romans of their Jupiter; as the ancient Hebrews were convinced of the divinity of their gloomy Jehovah, and as the orthodox adherents of that creed are still convinced of the coming of a Messiah—”

“Good!” came from the table of the theologians. Not minding the interruption, my friend continued—“as the ancient Hindoos were convinced of the omnipotence of their world’s creator,—Brahma; as they were convinced of the immortality of the soul, which migrates from one body to another, and, thus purified, returns to the Eternal Being from which it originated; as the later Hindoos were convinced that, besides Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu also were eternal, omniscient, and almighty gods; as they were convinced of the truth of the ingenious, ennobling, and poetical, original idea of their religion, that in this world good and evil will ever fight until the evil shall be subdued and forever extinguished—”

“Well! very well!” responded the theologians.

“—and as all of us who have unwittingly become Christians in our infancy are convinced that, although without the will of our omnipotent, omniscient, most wise, benevolent, just, indulgent, and merciful God, not one hair may fall from our head, yet every one of us who commits a mortal sin is doomed to eternal perdition.”

After these words the theologians remained silent; but a subdued expression of approval was heard from the table of the philosophers.

“For the time being, then,” continued my friend, “let us suppose, my honored guests, that my brain has really been supplanted by the brain of Newton. How odd, how childish, then, must appear to me this so-called enlightened age! We study the past ages and compassionately smile at, nay, we ridicule, the godlike simplicity, awkwardness, and roughness of our ancestors, without reflecting that later ages will likewise ridicule us. We boast that our age is an age of enlightenment and progress—and millions of our neighbors live in beastly stupidity. We rejoice that the humane maxims which have been unknown for centuries have finally been recognized, at least; and yet we look on in the most selfish indifference at the misery and sufferings of thousands who are born, languish, and die without any purpose. Suppose our attempts and aims were analyzed by an acute, merciless reason, where would it find us at the end of the nineteenth century? In the stage of formulas and definitions,—in the age of phrases. Many of us are acquainted well enough with the achievements of the human mind, but for a thousand reasons emanating from pure egotism, we ignore them, for fear of stirring up prejudices. Or is it possible to speak of progress when it is still necessary to employ errors of various kinds, not in order to save,—for an error can never save,— but to enslave mankind?”

“Stop your moralizing lecture!” was shouted at once from the tables of the theologians, the philosophers, and the government officers.

“No, no! Go on!” implored the artists, writers, lawyers, and physicians.

“I suppose,” my friend continued, “that every one of us will concede that the human brain has always been made of the same material, that ages ago it was composed of the same parts, that its actions were governed by the same laws, that its surface was composed of the same convolutions, and that ages ago even there was deposited in these convolutions that wonderful gray matter, surrounded with white matter and composed of nerve-cells, which modern physiologists designate as the seat of thought, reason, judgment, and talent. The chief organ of thinking and of talent is, therefore, the same. But what are its functions? Why do they differ so substantially from the working of that same organ in the past? Why is it that there do not arise in the brains of our age thoughts like those that originated in the brains of Homer, Sophocles, Æschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, Milton, Petrarch, Tasso, Calderon, Molière, Voltaire, Rousseau, and others? Where are the brains which gave birth to the wonderful works which have been left to us by Michael Angelo, Rafael Sanzio, Rubens, Titian, Murillo, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, Guido Reni, Leonardo da Vinci, Hogarth, Salvator Rosa, Correggio, Anibale Carraccio, Ostade, Ruysdael, or even by our own Škreta and Brandl?[1] Where are the brains to be found to-day which marked the long array of ingenious sculptors beginning with Phidias, Skopas, and Praxiteles? Where are the brains which constructed plans of magnificent domes, palaces, pantheons? Where are the brains of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn? Where are the brains of the Garricks, Keans, Talmas, Rachels? And if we live in the age of progress, what shows that progress?”

“Modern pedagogy!” some one ironically remarked at the lawyers’ table.

“Truly,” my friend replied, “modern pedagogy can boast of an unusual success. Study is our motto, and the accumulation of knowledge our aim; and from our earliest childhood on we are being whipped with both moral and real rods in order to force our brains to a greater, unusual activity. And yet that wonderful gray matter of our brain can never be different in substance from what it actually is; and its mysterious processes cannot result in any other way than that conditioned by this supposed organ of thinking, feeling, and recollection.”

“But the law!—” From the pedagogues’ table came this sarcastic exclamation.

“—can boast of a brilliant success,” interrupted my friend; “for if in spite of all efforts it has failed to establish the very meaning of right, in return it has blessed mankind with billions of laws and regulations,—some obscure, some clear, but all of them elastic. Each law may be construed in a thousand and one different ways, and each may be evaded and opposed. How strange! Even modern justice has to be guarded by bayonets and cannon. In the background yawns the prison. Is there any one who can boast of knowing all the innumerable laws? At any step we may tumble down and fall into the trap of some law unknown to us. And if there were no instinct—”

“Good!” applauded the physicians, with malicious joy.

“I have to admit,” my friend continued, “that the physicians, whom we may justly deem the greatest benefactors of mankind, do recognize the merits of their colleagues the lawyers. But which one of them can step forward and say: I do not act like that wise Erasistratus of whom it is written somewhere that he favored rich lords, and himself drank refreshing raspberry juice, but when he was called to an ordinary plebeian who was getting a little yellow, he would rip open the sick man’s stomach without hesitation, look at the liver, look at the spleen, put in a wholesome powder, bind the wound, and turn over his patient—to the will of God?”

A storm of applause rewarded this anecdote, and shouts of “Good!” came from all sides.

After a moment, my friend went on,—

“And yet we must admit that it is the physicians who have done the most to alleviate human suffering. Unusual has been the progress of surgery. But the final result? Suppose medical science will really reach such perfection that it will be able to cure every single hurt and disease. What will be the consequence? Simple,—very simple. Men will not die then as heretofore on account of various diseases which they shall or shall not have brought upon themselves; they will not die prematurely; yet die they will. After fifty, seventy, or perhaps a hundred years, they will die of marasmus. All medical skill, in the highest degree of perfection, would, therefore, do no more than defer the possibility of death one or two generations. That is all! That is the result of all this gigantic mental work! But what does it matter whether it be twenty, thirty, or fifty years sooner or later if we have to return thither whence we have come? Truly, while that mysterious gray matter of our brain is in its normal state, many a one fears,—nay, dreads it. But the billions of beings who have gone before us are a sure guarantee that we shall perish like them, that no human power will avert our final doom.”

“And yet how many a work of art or science would have been finished had not its author died a premature death!” some one remarked at the authors’ table.

“True,” my friend went on; “but if finished, only to take the course of all earthly things,—to go to nothing at last. The most spirited performance of an orator or actor dies away in the next moment, and will be forgotten before one or two generations pass away; the most solid and most magnificent buildings and monuments will crumble into dust after a few thousand years; the most beautiful paintings and statues often meet that fate in a few centuries. Whatever we may undertake, all is doomed to complete destruction.”

At these words the archbishop arose; and turning half toward my friend, half toward the assembly, he said in a pleasing, sonorous voice,—

“I beg pardon for interrupting. I do not know what the speaker is aiming at, and I shall not criticise him therefor; but we, the clergy, have had to listen to words that are, to use the mildest expression, intolerable. It is true they were set forth in the garb of sarcasm or humor, and based on grounds seemingly scientific; but their essence does not agree with our views. If, therefore, our honored host means to proceed in the discourse which is apparently indispensable to his later experiment, then I ask him to avoid questions the solution of which is not in the power of man.”

The archbishop sat down; but it seemed as though his words failed to make the impression on the assembly that he desired. All eyes were fastened upon my friend, who, standing behind his desk, listened with stoical calmness to the archbishop’s words, and then answered as pleasantly and politely as he had been addressed,—

“I too beg to be excused for deviating from the subject of my lecture in making a reply. I take the liberty to assure his Eminence that I did not and do not intend to attempt a solution of religious problems, and it was not without purpose that I did not touch upon philosophy,—the scientific opponent of religion. The object of my discourse will first be plainly seen after my final experiment. For this reason I ask your indulgence.”

“Good!” was shouted in many parts of the hall.

“Go on!” urged the artists and savants, simultaneously; and my friend proceeded,—

“We boast of the progress of science, forgetting that all its achievements are employed to serve bad as well as good ends. The printing-press — said to be the greatest benefactor of mankind— is equally employed by the tyrant and the philanthropist, the wise and the foolish, the religious fanatic and the coolest thinker, the honest, conscientious scholar and the shameless quack: the Press will serve, as it has ever done, the direst as well as the noblest purposes. Where, then, is the eulogized benefit to mankind? Who will vouch for it that this wonderful instrument for the propagating of ideas will at any time become the exclusive property of honest hands and serve good only?”

“To make such a commonplace remark a person certainly does not need the brain of Newton!” observed some one at the writers’ table.

At the same time cries of “Good!” were heard from the table of the military men. “The penny-a-liners have always been superfluous and useless creatures!”

“It is true,” my friend went on, “that Newton’s brain has existed but once; and having done its task, it can never appear in the same form again. But the mysterious gray matter of the human brain, which our physiologists look upon as the source of thought and the home of mental abilities, still remains the same in substance. Ideas spring from it, and human talents are hidden in it. For this reason, notwithstanding all the difference of ideas and faculties, the unknown laws which govern this mysterious process remain forever the same; in a word, logic is one and eternal. Who knows whether the brain of some farmer, mechanic, servant, or slave, long forgotten, if shaped under the same circumstances, laboring in the same direction, under like conditions as the brain of Newton,—who knows whether that brain would not have reached the same conclusions, or perhaps grander results, and much sooner than the brain of Newton?”

“No one will dispute a sentence so conditioned,” came from an unknown voice at the authors’ table.

“Why, then, that absurd worship of the so-called geniuses, when it is known that the same conditions under which this or that celebrated deed or work was done exist with thousands of others who do not even attempt performance?”

‘Bravo! bravo!” the noblemen applauded.

“But why, too, that still more absurd worship of men without any talent who have become famous only through the genius of others, hired and paid?”

There was heard a suppressed murmur of disapproval from the table of the noblemen and officials; but my friend wenton,—

“Why worship one’s own genius, one’s own deeds, one’s own age? Why those eternal eulogies on the age of enlightenment and progress when we are still so far from the true universal enlightenment, when we know that all that the human mind has achieved in the course of ages may be abused? Is not a modern working-man, attending a machine, still the same slave as ever? Is his life any more pleasant, safer, or happier than it used to be? Do we not know that all the sciences, from mathematics (the queen) down to the last, often charlatanical, pseudo-science,—do we not know that all achievements, old and new, are alike employed in the mutual killing of men? The progress of modern strategy and military tactics shows that all newly discovered means of communication are used to convey large armies in the shortest time to places where they may engage in reciprocal slaughter. Mathematics, chemistry, optics, mechanics, and a series of other sciences furnish their latest and best productions to subserve that purpose. Ay, even history, dealing with mere facts, and pedagogy, pointing to models, have oftentimes the same object. What is the model heroism of which the historian speaks, what this modern drill,—these army orders,—but the refined means which stimulate human souls to a passionate, furious, and often useless battle?”

The military men fell in line with, “Don’t insult your own vocation!” and from the rear a deep voice asked,—

“How is all this connected with the experiment?”

“Very simply,” my friend replied. “My experiment is based on a scientific hypothesis.”

“Well, why don’t you take up your experiment?” the same unknown voice suggested.

“Go on with the lecture!” came from the tables to the right.

“No, no! The experiment! We want the experiment!” came from the left.

“Speak! speak!” urged the centre.

Such a noise and din arose in the hall that for a time not a word could be understood. This lasted several minutes; and strange as it may seem, persons whose profession led them to frequent public speech-making—the divines, legislators, and professors—showed the greatest impatience in calling for the experiment; whereas people who seldom tried to deliver a lecture in public — such as artists, architects, soldiers, etc.—evidenced an especial willingness to listen to my friend’s rhapsodical discourse. Nothing was left for him but to satisfy both.

Translated from the Bohemian by Josef Jiří Král.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1951, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 72 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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  1. Karel Škreta and Petr Brandl, two noted Bohemian artists.