Saturday, January 9, 2010

America's greatest alchemist

George Starkey: Harvard-educated alchemist and all-around crank.

It is hard to recapture the days before chemistry was a science, when the material of the world and our own bodies was a thorough mystery. All kinds of theories ran rampant, from organic models of metals "maturing" in the womb of the earth, to Democritus's theory of infinitesimal and diverse atoms in constant motion, separated by space. Total ignorance didn't keep people from making up theories, but it did make most theories dramatically psychological, involving sexual unions, wombs, sperma, and feces, comingled with the highest ideals of incorruptible matter and everlasting life.

Already from Greek and Islamic alchemists, the field had inherited a great deal of technology concerning the separation of metals from ores and from each other, dyes, fabric treatments, papers, inks, distillation, preparations of acids, sulphur, ammonias, explosives, etc. But alongside all this, and of far greater mystical attraction, was the "greater work"- quests for elixirs and something familiar to readers of Harry Potter- the philosopher's stone. This mythical beast, often sought in a "subtlized" marriage of mercury with small amounts of gold or silver (among many other possible ingredients) would stoutly resist the heat of any fire and transmute base metals such as lead into gold.

Image of the star regulus, a compound of antimony now called stibnite.

"Gehennical Fire" by William Newman, describes the career of one of the last great alchemists, George Starkey. Born in Bermuda in 1628, he attended Harvard in the 1640's, then pursued his career in London among the leading chemical lights of his age, before dying of the plague in 1665 in the midst of treating others with his alchemical "cures". Most remarkable to me was the primitiveness of chemistry at Harvard, not because it was not current with the latest ideas from the Old World, but because those ideas had hardly advanced beyond the opus received from the Islamic alchemists five hundred years before (especially, translations of Geber/Jabir by secular scholars Robert of Chester and Gerard of Cremona) and other ancients.

The degree process at Harvard sounds very much like a monastic disputation, long on direct debate, rhetoric, and scholarly citation, short on factual basis. They were still pursuing Aristotelian and Galenic ideas, combined with the newer Helmont-ism, among many other alchemical influences. Indeed, as late as 1771, a thesis at Harvard proposes: "Can real gold be made by the art of chemistry? Yes." In 1767: "Are all bodies (metals and stones not excepted) produced from seed? Yes." In 1761: "Is there a universal remedy? No." So Starkey was at the cutting edge, and became quite well-to-do as a New England doctor after graduating.

But he had caught the alchemical bug, preparing varied pharmaceuticals for his medical practice, but also experimenting on his own among the metals. He also began a fertile writing career, some in his own name, but far more successfully under the pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes. In 1650, he decamped to England with his young family, apparently to try his luck in the scientific center of the day. He had a long friendship with Robert Boyle, who, while a fellow alchemist and jack-of-all-sciences, was far less enamored of secrecy than was Starkey. Boyle was extremely rich, however, so Starkey engaged in a continual dance of disclosure with him to remain in his good graces, while hiding as much of his deepest secrets as possible.

Starkey was afflicted with drunkenness, a biting tongue, poor advertising skills, and a hopeless devotion to his art. In England, worked himself into destitution and isolation while seeking the philosopher's stone and other alchemical grails, as had so many others. Support came fitfully from Boyle, and from various sidelines in alchemical medicines/pills and perfumes/aromatherapy. Numerous ex-partners hounded him for fraud. He even tried political pamphleteering, which failed to gain him the royal preferment he sought from Charles II. Few who knew him seemed to like him, despite substantial respect for his (al)chemical chops. None suspected that he was the author Eirenaeus Philalethes, whose works led the field, becoming Newton's most valued alchemical references, and finding a second life among the Rosicrucians through the next two centuries. Some titles are:

The Marrow OF ALCHEMY Being an Experimental Treatise, Discovering The secret and most hidden Mystery OF THE Philosopher's Elixer.

SIR GEORGE RIPLYE'S EPISTLE TO King Edward unfolded. Chymical, Medicinal, and Chyrurgical ADDRESSES: Made to Samual Hartlib, Esquire.

SECRETS Reveal'd: OR An OPEN ENTRANCE TO THE Shut-Palace of the KING. Containing, The greatest TREASURE in CHYMISTRY, Never yet so plainly Discovered.

Here is Starkey satirizing some of his alchemical competitors, adherents of Sendivogius
"Yet reason with them on their work, and they
Will tell you of a monstrous uncouth Sperm
Panspermion called, this without a nay
Must be called Chaos for to use their term,
Of this is made each thing that in the Earth,
Is found, out of it all things are brought forth
It hath no proper form, yet being hath
'Tis non-specificated, therefore apt
All things to procreate, such is their faith
That as if they were in a vision wrapt,
They see in fancy such a thing as this,
And yet alas they know not where it is."
But he had his own dalliance with wrapt-ness in visions:
"This Chaos is called our Arsenic, our air, our Luna, our Magnes, our Chalybs, but in diverse respect, because our matter undergoes various states before our Regal Diadem is extracted from the menstrual blood of our whore. So learn who the comrades of Cadmus are, and who the Serpent who ate them, what the hollow oak, on which Cadmus transfixed the Serpent. Learn what the Doves of Diana are, which conquer the Lion, I say, which is really the Babylonian Dragon, killing all by means of his venom."
Newman explicates this passage in detail, giving identities to each element involved in making an amalgam of antimony with silver, sulfur, and mercury. Yet time and again, Starkey also thanks God for giving him the final formula for one of the grails of alchemy:
"From the year 1647 up to this year and day [1658], I have exerted myself in the search for the liquor alchahest with many studies, vigils, labors, and costs. Today (first) is has been granted to me and conceded to my unworthy self by the highest Father of Lights, the best and greatest God, to attain complete knowledge of it, and to see its final end. To Him let there be eternal praise, both now and forever. Amen."
Newman is particularly concerned with deciphering the coded language of randy queens, noble kings, potent sperma, green lions, and endless other obfuscating, metaphorical, language (for a fine example, examine this text). Newman's view is that his ability to recover a good deal of sense out of this ouvre, encompassing many basic operations of alchemy as well as the more etheral aims of the ultimate elixirs, transmutations, etc., which were all expressed in highly coded, richly metaphorical language, disproves the idea held by Jungian scholars and others that the alchemists were engaging in psychological, more than chemical, exploration.

I would beg to differ. Newman's lengthy exegisis of these issues is quite heroic, not to say occasionally tedious. But alchemy was ultimately sterile with respect to its own aims- there was no elixir, transmuting stone, or universal dissolvant (i.e., the liquor alchahest, to which Starkey was particularly devoted). These were purely psychological projections- theories with little empirical input and much fervent imagination. Through its practical operations and its curiosity about the properties of matter, (and through more sober heads than Starkey's), alchemy ultimately led to modern chemistry. But that was only by virtue of shedding the countless projections and psychological encumbrances that characterized it for hundreds of years, whether expressed in allegorical codes for basic procedures, or in free-floating fantasy. (The modern new age community perpetuates many of these tropes.)

An interesting comparison can be made with shamanism, (and its modern remnant, theology), which offers medical cures and esoteric knowledge as does alchemy. Shamans tout their cures and powers, but, beyond than spinning elaborate myths, are tightly secretive about their ultimate nature and origin. Shamans engage in complex public as well as private rituals and preparations whose purpose is to motivate an extensive placebo effect, as well as a self-delusional system of putative knowledge and magical powers.

The richly psychological language of alchemy had similar effects, of both publicizing the knowledge and esotericism of the adept, while veiling its actual operations and origins. In both cases, real procedures are engaged (creating medical concoctions, assimilating vital forces from the inanimate world into the animate world, or from animals and plants) and described in flowery language.

But in neither case is the practitioner ultimately able to carry off the work, other than in the minds of his subjects. As soon as alchemy passed from the imaginary to the concrete science of chemistry, the veils fell, the language became specific and pointed, (and terse), and powers heretofore only hinted at were either set down and described for fame and profit, or else demonstrated as chimerical. Knowledge turns out to inhabit a different psychological landscape than the portents of knowledge.

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