‘One Woman and Two Great Men’ by Danielle Dutton

The last sentence of this story is a lie, but the story is fiction made of fact. Most of the events in the plot really happened; Fleur Jaeggy did translate Thomas de Quincey’s translation of Andreas Wasianski’s account of Immanuel Kant’s bedtime routine. But because Dutton’s gorgeous prose has a way of seeming gently tongue-in-cheek, it feels as though the events that she’s describing didn’t happen even though they did. The translations and usurpations of each ‘great man’ by another and another give Dutton’s summation of these events the dubious flavor of rumor—a summation, by the way, which isn’t really a summation since the events thereby aggregated have yet to conclude: de Quincey’s fame eclipsed Wasianski’s and then they died, Dutton says, but because Jaeggy still lives, who knows whether she might eclipse de Quincey in the ruins of literature’s so-called canon? And what about Kant? Ostensibly what matters here are not Kant’s philosophical achievements but various rumors concerning his eccentric way of going to bed and his uneventful way of quitting the world for good. But Kant did theorize that because our minds generate the structures (space and time and so on) which make reality intelligible, we have no idea what reality is in itself beyond the schemata we ourselves impose upon it. As such, Kant’s philosophy, which de Quincey said was the least interesting thing about him, could be a hidden engine of Dutton’s depiction of Jaeggy’s depiction of de Quincey’s depiction of Wasianski’s depiction of this:

“. . . first, he’d sit on the side of the bed and with an agile motion vault obliquely into his lair; next, he drew one corner of the bedclothes under his left shoulder and, passing it below his back, brought it round so as to rest under his right shoulder; fourthly, by a particular tour d’addresse, he operated on the opposite corner in similar fashion, finally contriving to roll the blanket around his entire person. How pleasing it is to imagine Immanuel Kant thus enswathed (self-involved as a silkworm) . . .”

Published here in The Chicago Review, November 2020