30 December 2019

ALCHEMY BY THE BOOK

Theodore Ziolkowski. The Alchemist in Literature. Oxford University Press, 2019.

What, no Colin Wilson? I searched in vain for him skulking round the index to The Alchemist in Literature. Not to be found. I shall presently return to this missing author. In his chapter titled 'Popularizations, or Projectio' the very found author Theodore Ziolkowski states.

“In some cases, finally the term 'alchemist' is used only metaphorically in fictions that have nothing whatsoever to do with alchemy.”

But for Ziolkowski we do have Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel The Abyss (1976) chronicling the life of the 16th century alchemist-physician-philosopher Zeno. A character inspired by Yourcenar’s reading of Jung and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. This book is said not to be about the practice of alchemy but, in part only, a recollection of Zeno’s “alchemical speculations which had begun in school, or rather, in defiance of the school.” And we are informed that Yourcenar’s intense research into the period was an attempt to “try and visualise ever more exactly the images which they create beneath their closed eyelids.” This is a practice “like Hindu ascetics” and for me, on Yourcenar’s part, an alchemical act of the imagination: the basic material of her research will be transmuted into a golden plethora of ideas and associations permeated by historical atmosphere.

Ziolkowski sees The Abyss as belonging to the genre of the bildungsroman – that is a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education. Now Yourcenar is a brilliant writer (The Memoirs of Hadrian is a masterpiece) and she undoubtedly writes a bildungsroman in as elevated a manner as the letter autobiography form of Hadrian.

Yet though Zilolkowski isn’t just examining high literature (Evan S. Connell’s 1991 The Alchemist’s Journal, Katherine MacMahon’s The Alchemist’s Daughter and Jeremy Dronfield’s 2001 The Alchemist’s Apprentice are some of his cited popular fiction), but these books don’t have very much (according to Zilolkowski) to say about alchemy.

It’s time to return to Colin Wilson and his 1976 SF/Fantasy thriller The Philosopher’s Stone – a work as erudite as Yourcenar’s The Abyss but far more down-market. However Wilson’s pulpish and Lovecraftian novel does play very cleverly with the alchemical process as a deep idea, for its protagonist has a metal alloy in the brain inside the pre-frontal cortex which results in a higher form of consciousness. I can’t defend The Philosopher’s Stone as serious literature, compared to the many scientific and non scientific / literary material carefully poured over by Ziolkowski but it’s a wonderfully entertaining read about the transformation of the self.

I have ticked Wilson’s book to re-read after Ziolkowski’s. This isn’t in any way a form of mischief-making in order to criticise or dismiss The Alchemist in Literature, but simply a means of temporarily taking a reader of Ziolkowski away from the hot furnace of serious conjecture on alchemy – though unfortunately a lot of these early literary texts that Ziolkowski had to read sound very cold and dry. At least he mentions scientific books devoted to “the pseudo science of alchemy” (My Collins dictionary definition) that appear more readable for the charm of their arcane language.

Half way through The Alchemist in Literature I almost gave up reading: for the cultural satirists dominate, in an obvious manner, the cultural scene until the end of the 1600’s. After that there’s a dearth of interest in alchemy until the very late 18th and early 19th century.

When the Romantic Movement entered the picture I picked up the book and read on with interest. Mary Shelley, William Godwin and Goethe are highly significant writers who ‘opposed’ the rationalism of the Enlightenment by creating wild fictions containing references to alchemy.

In his youth Victor Frankenstein, of Frankenstein, (1818) fell under the spell of “the masters of alchemy” only to eventually become a student and be told to read books on natural philosophy and chemistry. William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers (1834) doesn’t seek out an easy target for satire but attempts to be a moral warning, to practitioners and readers, of the suffering and loneliness that can result from a fruitless search for the philosopher’s stone. Whilst Goethe’s great drama Faust, part 1 (1808) and part 2 (1832) hardly mentions alchemy for its main theme is necromancy. However as a young man Goethe was a real, practising alchemist (It’s what he had in common with August Strindberg who also didn’t insert alchemical ideas into his plays.)

However what the three Romantic Age writers had in common was a new scientific sensibility.

“While the older alchemists are not rejected by their modern successor with contemptuous dismissal but praised for their achievements, their methods are replaced by the discoveries of modern science. Frankenstein’s education, in other words, exemplifies the historical shift from alchemy to chemistry that took place in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the persons of such scientists as Boyle and Newton.”

The Alchemist in Literature is a curious book: a very academically sound but somewhat tedious read. For Theodore Ziolkowski, in his search for relevant alchemical literary texts, has to settle for many books that reference in alchemy but are not about the personality and practice of the alchemist. This means he’s forced to paraphrase the contents of antiquarian books (Especially those pre – Romantic Movement tomes) that, to excuse the description, come across as old dross rather than relevant gold. Admittedly once past the 1800’s we’re into more persuasive territory – here an inter-play of interesting ideas occur, though without attempting to imagine the workings of an alchemist.

But, still no Colin Wilson: yet even his thriller didn’t reveal the redemptive face of God or evidence for the elixir of life. The big downside of Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone was that Lovecraft’s evil old ones of the Cthulhu Mythos were behind everything. At least Ziolkowski’s sensible and sincere book never reaches such a fanciful conclusion! -- Alan Price.



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