February 2013

Patrick James Dunagan


The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe

Alchemy is a subject in which the accuracy of known facts is too often as elusive as the subject itself is appealing. The Secrets of Alchemy, however, rather succinctly addresses what's factually verifiable in the historical record or discoverable via laboratory experiment. It's an apt assessment of the current situation in relation to the ongoing ancient practice. Lawrence M. Principe, both a chemist and scholar, is ideally suited to the task. While he attends to the lore concerning occult-related aspects of the alchemical arts -- its long hold upon the fascination of poets and artists, along with conspiracy theorists and secret society fanatics -- his emphasis throughout remains one of scientific scrutiny upon what proves to be a rather murky history.

Principe points out that "much of the modern world's familiarity with alchemy is more apparent than real." He acknowledges that much of this record along with the popular imagination seeks to "link alchemy in various ways -- both favorable and unfavorable -- to religion, psychology, magic, theosophy, yoga, the New Age movement and, perhaps most often, to loosely defined notions of the 'occult.'" After all, as he says, "alchemy has always been considered secret and privileged knowledge" and "the alchemists did not make it easy for others to understand what they were doing." This accounts in part for its lasting allure among the more imaginatively inclined; encouraging the richly varied yet nevertheless disturbing array of false impressions as to what exactly the pursuit of the alchemical arts entails.

The roots of alchemy may be assuredly said to extend back as far as Greco-Roman Egypt, but beyond that little is known other than that chemistry inextricably shares the same background. The two disciplines at the very least repeatedly mirror each other throughout the historical record in such close paralleling that "many historians of science have adopted the practice of using the archaic spelling chymistry to refer to the whole range of practices that nowadays would be classed under chemistry and alchemy." Principe dependently elucidates upon what is both certain and uncertain. Identifying the earliest records of the emerging term "cheimeia -- from which the words alchemy and chemistry derive" and noting "one popular notion is that chemistry derives from the Coptic word kheme, meaning 'black,' alluding to the 'black land,' Egypt, in reference to the color of Nile silt." In addition, he notes that as "Greek was the language both of the earliest alchemical texts and of literate Greco-Roman Egypt. The "chem" of alchemy and chemistry very probably derives from the Greek cheō, which means 'to melt or fuse.'" And as "Al" is the definite article in Arabic, by name alone alchemy at its roots hints at a blending of Greek and Arabic influences. Accordingly, Principe delves into the Arabic impacts upon alchemy. Observing that "historians have had to rediscover the primary sources of Arabic alchemy" and "anonymity, pseudonymity, secrecy, mysteries, false trails, and subterfuge fill the entire subject from beginning to end."

Principe stresses the broad cultural across-the-spectrum nature of alchemical practice. Alchemists weren't isolated cranks or one hit wonders, but rather a vital contributing factor of society. Practicing alchemists form an intricately connected network through the centuries of seekers in search of common lore. The pursuit of alchemical knowledge has richly invigorated the continual development of Western Civilization upon multiple fronts.

Alchemy's place in early modern Europe extended far beyond the confines of smoky laboratories; it diffused itself through a wide swath of contemporaneous culture. Artists, poets, humanists, playwrights, devotional writers, theologians, and many others borrowed from and commented on alchemy. [...] Ways of thinking natural to alchemists illustrate profound differences between the ways early modern people saw and thought about their world and the ways we (or at least most of us) do today. The study of alchemy therefore opens a window onto a remarkable and meaning-rich vision of the world that has largely been lost today.

Which he later reiterates, "... alchemy forms a part of not only the history of science, medicine, and technology but also the history of art, literature, theology, philosophy, religion, and more."

Principe drives home a clear point in regard to misconceptions concerning alchemy which is usually due to one or more sundry misreading: alchemical texts do in fact provide clear evidence of actual laboratory experiment and the accompanying instructions when followed do lead to actual chemical reactions which are reproducible. That "Jung claimed that alchemy was really a description of the unconscious" and "very few of the processes aiming to produce the Philosophers' Stone (or much of anything else) contain, in Jung's opinion, any recognizable chemical meaning" are representative of how far from the reality of historical contexts such misreading allows for popular perception to have drifted. Principe's own alchemical experiments (which he undertakes following instructions from alchemical text -- albeit at times cloaked in "allegorical" detail he must first unravel) do provide clear substantiation of the forward-thinking functionality occurring in the historical alchemy workshop. While Principe himself never quite turns lead into gold, he nonetheless demonstrates beyond a doubt just how grounded and rigorous the practice of alchemy remains when held up against the scientific method.     

Principe's book is a terrific argument in favor of a historic-centric reading that disengages as necessary from biases of its own time. When I undertook study in the now defunct graduate program in poetics at New College of California, the curriculum was structured roughly around historical periods with at least two classes covering each period; one focusing upon the writing of one or more poets of the era while the second a "context course" looked at any and all other writing and art. The intention was to attempt to convey the cultural milieu in which the poet(s) lived and, without a doubt, were influenced by. There's an incredible difference made by the acquisition of an understanding that allows for discrepant perspectives which exist in the gulf separating our current readings of a text and those surrounding it at the time of its composition.

The hopeless blurring of disciplines we now conceive of as separated out from one another was for centuries a matter of no concern for alchemists (or society at large). Throughout various historical periods alchemical knowledge spread or shrank exponentially as texts were traded and thus enlarged, as well as shortened, or adapted and utilized anew, according to prevalent views. The result is an intricate mesh of textual history, rich in accompanying visual symbology with texts overlapping and correcting, as well as likely corrupting, one another. Principe provides an excellent framing for viewing alchemy in extensive depth and from all sides. This is a first-rate guide to the discipline while also usefully serving as a necessary reminder of the benefits brought on by a broad-encompassing and unflinching open approach towards discovery in any historical subject.

The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0226682952
296 pages