Sleet Seasonal Supplement — Summer 2011

Mark Rigney

The Heisenberg Approach

The following is excerpted from Werner Heisenberg's recently discovered diary, kept during what were, for physicists, the fruitful years of the late nineteen twenties. It is, to say the least, an atypical entry, shedding new light on the development of what may well be Heisenberg's most famous theory: his Uncertainty Principle. The authenticity of the diary, translated from the original German by former student turned journalist Rolf Kromer, is beyond reproach.

Copenhagen, February 15, 1927

Dear Diary,

Tonight, I feel restless and my work gives me no solace. Schrödinger has departed and Niels is gone to Norway on a skiing trip. With little else besides my work and my walks, I opted to lunch today with an author friend, an old acquaintance, and something about his profession—his very manner—began to resonate within me. Long before the meal concluded, it occurred to me that perhaps I have been trying too hard to get at the solution to my problem. Could it be that a more oblique approach might better stir my muse? Without telling my friend, I resolved that I would try my hand at his particular paint pot. Idle dabbling, I'm sure, but sometimes, when one muddies the waters, the strangest patterns emerge. Perhaps I begin—thus!

I have in mind a character, and I shall meet him at his birth and stalk him straight to death. He shall, necessarily, be born after me and die, likewise, before––but never between shall he escape my clutches, my solemn roving eye. His only refuge: the afterlife, that hidden ground where I, in life, cannot trespass. The rest is mine to observe, and rightfully so. (I admit that this approach dares the precise opposite of the advice given me by Einstein, to fit the observable phenomenon to the theory at hand, but here in the realm of letters, I am inclined to ignorance; perhaps, unlike physics, observation is the only path for the arts?)

In any event, such is the fate of this, my character.

Let us call him Johann. Or Adam. Or Vaclav, Wu or Umslopagas. The name matters little, although, of course, it just might signify, later on. For now, a name is only a beginning, a jot upon a chart, the filled-in lines of a simple birth certificate. Johann. Johann Heilemann. What is he like, this newly formed Heilemann? Is he virile, is he angry, is he quietly in love? Does he glide through life sidelong, darting away from death's blunt and gaping frown? Or does he charge it like a rhino, head on, treating life like the last unlit hall in a building that burns?

Perhaps he enjoys my spotlight. Perhaps he dances all the faster when cast into the furnace of the public sphere. But no. He is reticent, retiring––shy, even. I must draw him out, one batted lash at a time. "Gently," he says, speaking his first word. Parental love gushes unbidden from my soul! Soon he will utter his first sentence––wait, I can hear it coming, softly, softly...there!

"Hold my hand," he says. "Hold my hand."

I do so. I usher him forward with encouraging pats, little reassurances. "You can do it," I say, and give him a push. Will he disappoint? Does he have the stuff, the moxie for even the most kindly of audiences? I think—I hope—yes! I retreat to the wings and watch my creation perform.


Johann ducked as a third cannonball sailed above his head, then threw himself to the side as the Russian's heavy saber swished past his ear. Rolling, he pulled from his boot Clarissa's small shining dagger—her parting gift, given with a kiss so passionate that his knees had all but buckled—and flung it through the looming smoke, the furious breath of battle-stink, at his enemy. The Russian saw the action of the throw and tried to dodge—too late! The blade buried itself in his throat. The great man swayed, stricken; he pawed briefly at his neck, then clutched instead at the salton air. Finding no purchase, he pitched forward and collapsed to the deck, felled simultaneously from behind by La Fontaine's pistol shot.

“Well met, Johann!" La Fontaine cried, with a merry, insouciant grin. “I had an idea I might find you here."

With a cry of joy, Johann leaped to his feet, forgetting completely the danger of the ongoing fight; his feet raced forward of their own accord and his heart sang in his breast. “Louie!" he exclaimed, embracing his long-lost friend and very nearly knocking him into the mizzenmast. “By God, it's you!"


Ah, Johann! Who would have guessed? A man of action! A man of dash and derring-do! Romance, adventure, who knows what? And that knife—it has about it the faintest whiff of scandal, intrigue. Perhaps this Clarissa is a married lady; she sounds vaguely British. Married to a nobleman, no doubt. We suspect our Johann of having fine tastes, after all. What wines would he sip, what songs would he sing? Galley chants? Hardly! Operatic arias! And only those of Mozart or the best, most sumptive Italian virtuosos.

Then again, could it be that Clarissa is nothing but a trollop, a lady of the night? Ah, so what if she is! Our Johann would not disappoint so soon; we must grant him the benefit of the doubt. If Clarissa turns out to be a so-called fallen woman, then we shall assume that she has the finest of hearts and only circumstance, dire and unpredictable providence, has forced her into this shameful (and obviously temporary) predicament. Our Johann, good-hearted rogue that he is, has sensed the good in her. He means to return, and free her from such heinous bondage. Bravery! All for one and one for all! That's our Johann.


Frigid blasts of Arctic air beat at the cabin's roughened walls, clamoring to get in. Frost lay encrusted so thickly on the single ill-made window that the panes threatened to break, bowing inward with the sheer weight of the enveloping ice. The fire was almost out and no wood remained but for the chairs, the single table and the walls themselves. Outside, the baying of wolves grew louder on the winds.

Johann Heilmann, lately arrived from the warm and cozy metropolis of San Francisco, stared unseeing through the depths of his pewter mug. The rancid coffee had long since gone cold. Another wolf howled, closer this time, and Johann shivered involuntarily. “Holy Mother of God," he muttered, “how did I get myself into this?"


Curious: Johann appears to have changed professions and perhaps even nationalities! Was he not lately a member of some merchant marine, plowing both tradition and the watery main? But soft—perhaps we'd best let the scene unfold before rushing to immoderate judgment. Observe:


“Johann," Clarissa whispered, reaching out a thickly mittened hand to touch the skins and furs protecting his shoulder, “do not blame yourself. We might yet be rescued. Even if we are not, I trust that we still have God, and each other."

Johann turned on her, furious, teeth bared. “I have had enough of your platitudes!" he barked. “Your simpering about God hasn't done us a damn bit of good, has it? If your God's so loving and benign, then why did he lead us here, to this wretched cabin? To our deaths? There's no gold here, Clarissa! There never was! Only wolves and snow! The universe is empty, devoid! Uncaring, vicious—“


Johann! Enough! You're braying. Stop it, at once. All this bleak talk of God and empty universes! Rot and rubbish. (Does he know nothing of Galileo—that devil of a man—or Planck?) Why, if it weren't for the stalwart character of our dear Clarissa, who knows where we would be, or what might befall our hero? Johann's mental energies change like the seasons, leaping this way and that, running the gamut from cheerful boyish optimism to dread and wintry gloom. Clearly, some harsh directives are in order. Parental discipline. Hard work. Does he understand? We hope so. We shall renew the experiment. Let us peek again and see the results:


It was summer and the beach was bright and hot and sandy. The water lapped at the shore as waves sometimes do. John sat in the shade of the bar and watched the old man pushing at his boat, trying to launch it. The old man pushed with difficulty. John took another sip of his drink. He did not know what he drank; it did not matter. It also did not matter if the old man launched his boat. He would not catch anything, or, if he did, it would not be worth talking about. It would be just a catch, a fish. That was what the old man did. He caught fish while John drank. John drank in the bar whose name he could never remember and he watched the beach and most days he watched the old man who always had difficulty launching his boat and usually John was sitting there still when the old man returned, tired and spent, to push his boat back on to the beach. These were long days for John, long and good days filled with sadness and many, many drinks.

Louie the Frenchman approached him at noon, when the sun was highest and burned holes in men's eyes. He said, “John, I have been looking for you. A message has come." But John did not hear him, his mind was far away, he was thinking of a woman whose name was forgotten like the name of the bar.

“I miss her," he said to Louie, and then, not wanting to make a scene, he took another drink. He let the ice in the glass touch his lips and thought of rain. It was a good thought, long and slow and filled with the sadness that drinking has.


Heavens! Johann goes from bad to worse. Now he sounds like an expatriate American, one of these much-ballyhooed "modernists." Didn't he heed our warnings, take note of our caveats, our entreaties and injunctions? He goes his own way, speeding around the globe exactly like an electron freed from its orbit. Where it will end, I've no idea, but I have little hope left for a satisfying outcome. The man is more unpredictable than Germany herself in these awkward post-war years. And speaking of women, what of Clarissa? The fool has forgotten her, he thinks she's an illusion, a vapor, a ghost! Obviously, I shall have to rededicate myself. Apply a greater amount of rigor to my investigations. If Johann is to be controlled, made malleable for the fictional process, then I shall have to tackle him by the roots and catch him unawares, at his very inception. To ensure this, I shall forgo location entirely, in favor of essence.


In his hand, the spear. In his heart, wonder and a touch of alarm. His eyes are sharp, his mind achingly clear. But his stomach, it is empty. Days and days and days and now, before him stands an impala, crippled and far from its own. Amazing that hyenas or a leopard have not happened on the poor, frightened animal. It does not matter. Joon creeps forward, his bare feet imprinting the parched, dried grass. He thinks of his mother, how she'll clap her hands at the sight of fresh game for the fire. He thinks of his father, the pride in his eyes as he examines, from a distance, his son's first kill. Later, he will lead Joon by the hand to the center of the circle and tell the People that Joon has found the first road of manhood and is ready for the seventh sense, premonition. He, Joon, will drink from the sacred gourd of the elders, carved with teeth and wide-staring skulls, and he will dance until his visions leave him trembling on the ground. All this and more races through Joon's mind as he hefts the spear and hurls it into the chest of the suddenly still impala. A snort, a whistle, a kind of fearful whine. A shiver, then a final flexing tremor. Now the impala is dead.


Calamity! Johann's not only changed his name, he's become some sort of aborigine! This is intolerable, and not because of his new skin color. It's how he keeps changing on me! Every time I fix him, in either time or space, I lose him, he wriggles away! I won't have it. Johann remains mine, does he not? Am I not the master puppeteer?

Obviously, the so-called artist's muse is, in reality, a demon—worse by far than Maxwell's. Did my author friend attempt to warn me? Did I turn a deaf, insensitive ear?

There's nothing for it but to put my shoulder to the wheel with renewed energy. I shall seize the reins as never before, see if I don't! I shall shine a still brighter light upon my subject, a lamp with the intensity of the sun. (In fact, it occurs to me that what I really require is a microscope of incredibly high resolving power.) Attend:


“Call me Joanie. All my friends do, especially my boy friends, by which I mean all the boys: Gilda and Lisbeth and Burgel and darling Mimi and all of us here at the club. Marlene especially—nobody looks better in white pearls than Marlene. Even my mother says so. (You remember Clarissa, don't you, love?) ‘Style,' she says. ‘You boys could teach that Mary Pickford a thing or two about fashion sense.' She's right, of course. If only mainstream fashion could get used to women with broad shoulders! I mean, a bust line you can add, but we haven't found the surgeon yet who can trim a ribcage or tuck a clavicle. Such a shame, too. I'd be a nice fit in some of Clara Bow's gowns if it weren't for the shoulder thing. Oh, and did I mention? Just the other day, Oscar Wilde came by. He threw me a flower, I saw him, I swear it, I did, I did! So what if he's dead? Such a gracious man. And so witty. A multi-linguist. But who cares. What matters in a man is how he performs in b—"



I am afraid this last page is destined for the nearest lit hearth. My apologies, oh dear and patient diary. I have clearly lost my head. Copenhagen's famous liberality must be getting to me.

Perhaps I shall return to my notes—that, or another midnight ramble through Faelled Park. Either would provide context: something more ordered, something with rules and principles. My attempt at fiction is nothing but a jumble and I require, if ever I'm to get to sleep, a tidy little solution. Something more agreeable, easier on the digestion. Viewer and viewed, unaffected one by the other; the classic, basic phenomenon of certainty. What could be simpler, or more desirable?


If uncertainty itself is the basic condition of art and if, as it's said, life must imitate art, then does it not follow that nature must in itself behave, at least at the sub-atomic level, with some degree of that very same uncertainty?

I believe I have an idea...

(Delta p) (Delta q) > h


(Δp) (Δq) > h

Oh, diary! What have I done?

“The Heisenberg Approach" was previously published in The Kit-Cat Review, Summer 2000, Volume 3, Number 1, edited by Claudia Fletcher.

Mark Rigney is the author of the play Acts of God (Playscripts, Inc., 2008) and the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press, 2003). His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appears in The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, with upcoming work in Black Gate, Altered States, and Birkensnake. Two collections of his stories are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His website is at