Some have taken me to task for my unflattering portrayal of the great inventor of printing, Johann (or Johannes) Gutenberg. Why, reviewers and readers often ask, did you portray him as so egocentric and selfish? There are two answers to this question.
The first is that I don’t see him at all that way. In my view, he’s less egocentric than driven; he’s not so much selfish as wholly devoted to achieving his goal, no matter what the cost. I don’t believe that his goal was mainly to achieve glory for himself, although this cannot be excluded as playing a role. I believe he was one of those obsessive geniuses so focused on his prize that the rest of life—human interactions, basic hygiene, you name it—came far behind. Today we might call him autistic or Asperger’s or “on the spectrum” – he was arrogant, combative, vituperative, and absolutely pig-headed in his determination to see the thing through. It took ten to fifteen years to perfect the technology he began work on in the 1440s in Strassburg, and through it all, he didn’t give up.
The second answer is: I surmise all this from the historical record. I didn’t set out to topple Germany’s most cherished hero from his pedestal. Not at all. But as I delved into his life, and began to grasp the way he dealt with people, I began to see him as a brilliant but fairly callous guy. He was ruthless in defending his own interests; he did have the Mainz treasurer seized for nonpayment of his annuities; two of his three businesses ended in acrimonious lawsuits. The most telling lawsuit for me was one filed against him by a jilted woman who claimed he had promised her marriage. Gutenberg won the suit, but apparently insulted one of her witnesses so colorfully that he was fined for his foul language.
He was a complex character: devout and close to clerics of the cathedral chapter, and yet bitter, too, possibly seeing himself as a victim of the endless strife between the guilds and his own patrician class. Ultimately Johann was not accepted as a full-fledged member of the “Elder” class, because his mother was a commoner. Because he didn’t have four patrician grandparents, he wasn’t allowed to be a member of the elite club the Companions of the Mint. He left Mainz in his early 20s to seek his fortune elsewhere. His biographer, Albert Kapr, noted that he drank “impressive quantities” of wine. I imagined him as a person driven not only by creative energy, but a chip on his shoulder and a need to make his mark.
In the novel, Peter constantly asks himself and the Abbot Trithemius whether a person has to be hard in this way to achieve something truly great. (The movie “Whiplash” raises the same question). It’s a question for which psychologists don’t really have an answer. It is necessary to have a kind of tunnel vision, to not care in the least what others think or do or say, to create something truly new and transformative? Many great artists have been this way; megalomaniacal behavior is fairly common among tech innovators and fine printers alike. Maybe it goes back to the God of Hebrew scripture: yes, he was generative, but a little too heavy on the fire and brimstone for my taste.