The Wandering Alchemist

I’ve always felt an affinity to alchemy.  Not for the practice, or the ingredients, or its somewhat doubtful practitioners.  I’ve always appreciated what it represented:  the path that it chose between magic and science for thousands of years.  It paused between the two arts – borrowing from each one, twisting logic, assembling the mathematics of dreaming.

I could imagine the alchemist in his undefined hospice, surrounded by plates of dragons’ scales – their fires caught in jars, burning like imprisoned galaxies.  Flowers harvested from hidden countrysides hung from the rafters, their scent only a dusky memory, their colors confused and in transition.  Charts of odd symbols and obscure equations covered the walls, creating an endless map of nonsense and wishful thinking.

But in the 18th century, science put its fist down, frightening its whimsical intruder  into hiding – clouds of powdered bones and jewels rising from its trembling shoulders.  Science, bearing a quiver of rationale and common sense, made its presence known with such authority that this time became its own, and was called the Age of Reason.

The laboratories of scientists and chemists were as thrilling as those of the alchemists’.  Sinewy arms of smoke embraced those small rooms:  from the furnaces and fire-places used to burn elements down to their fundamental DNA, from the crucibles and Balneum Mariaes filled with metals reduced to lava.  They reeked with the brimstone smell of flowers of sulphur and hartshorn – the rutting scent of the deer’s antlers and hooves melted into a dark oil.  Ceramic gallipots populated the shelves, full of medicines and chemicals powdered into the consistency of deserts.  A network of glass tubing circulated around the scientist’s dank offices, creating an anatomy of desire and discovery.

The laboratory of Richard Siddall, at the Golden Head in Panton Street, near the Haymarket, London contained even more legitimate wonders:

All Sorts of Druggs

Hanging from the ceiling and braced against walls was a zoological garden of taxidermy:  a crocodile, the head of an elephant and of a rhinoceros; there were fish and shells – their glow of ocean life long lost.  Stoves and instruments, jars and clocks cluttered this sanctum of discovery – elements were boiled and split, their physical coil pulled apart and rebraided.  And overseeing this chemical mischief was a bust of Galen, surgeon to gladiators, vivisector, dissector, theorist, anatomist, philosopher – antiquity’s greatist physician and herald to a new type of scientific thought.

Buoyed by natural law and Galen’s benign profile, Mr. Siddall could make his claim, “Makes and sells all manner of chymical and Galenical medicines, with all sorts of druggs; wholesale & retail, at very reasonable rates. N.B. the elixir for the asthma, as also for the gout and rheumatism”

And alchemy’s defeat seemed absolute.   But during a century littered with the corpses of myth, a legend lived.

The Count of St. Germain was born in the early 18th century.  Descriptions of him were curious and tempting:  courtier, adventurer, charlatan, inventor, alchemist, musician, composer.  His mind was confused and courageous, buzzing into mysticism, occultism, secret societies and conspiracies like a foolish bee.  European society was charmed with this charming new toy, and gave him many titles:  Wonderman, The Wandering Jew, The Wandering Alchemist.

To Believe Or Not Believe

Details about the Count are scarce.  Some said he was the son of the Prince of Transylvania, or of Sultan Mustapha II – others claimed he was the illegitimate son of the widow of Charles II of Spain.  There were other theories too, storied vines twisting around a family tree that had long become obscured.

Horace Walpole was wryly impressed:  “he sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible”.  The peeress Lady Jemima Yorke with a flutter of fingertips and diamonds, was fascinated by this “Odd Creature… I can’t but fancy he is a great Pretender in All kinds of Science, as well as that he really has acquired an uncommon Share in some”.  Casanova dined with him and wrote at length about “This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds… I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.”

Salons – bored and rarefied – purred with gossip about his fabulous stories: and wished that every word was true. For this was as much the time of Cagliostro and Muchausen as it was of Rousseau and Schiller.

The Count had gained the favour of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV.  Their jaded approval found him a suite of rooms in Chambord château, the filigreed jewel of the Loire Valley.  A laboratory was constructed for him, where – it was said – he invented dyes of new, subtle colors, melted and created jewels, and was seen to convert “iron into a metal as beautiful as gold”.  Within the depths of chemistry, the dreams of alchemy re-asserted themselves as he continued the search for eternal life and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Count de St. Germain dared to make many claims:  he spoke many languages and possessed several identities.   He also asserted that he had lived many lives.  And the aristocracy devoured the proof he offered,  that life spanned for centuries until it disappeared beneath the horizons like a distant sun and that for thousands of years he had wandered across the sky, gathering histories – holding them like stars in his hands.

He said he was part of the legend of the Wandering Jew, a Christian tale first printed in 1223.  He had met Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba.  He had anecdotes of life at the Valois court, the 16th century pit of politics and despair.  He had known Jesus Christ.  He had lived for thousands of years.

Voltaire described him as a “man who never dies, and who knows everything”.  He himself didn’t believe the Count…yet he knew that many did.

The Count of St. Germain died on February 27, 1784.  He was buried in a private grave.  There were no jewels left behind, or gold, or gallipots full of fabulous color.  There were no manuscripts or letters.  Perhaps they never existed.  Perhaps he took them with him, on another journey.

Yet he might have left something after all, an odd kind of hope – a faith in wonder.  He had once confided to Madame de Pompadour,   “Sometimes I amuse myself, not by making people believe, but by letting them believe, that I have lived in the most remote period”.  Anything could have happened, Count; it is just up to us to believe.

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8 responses to “The Wandering Alchemist

  1. Such a delight to read!

  2. This is delicious! A cult of St. Germain still exists here in California: they have a retreat up by Mount Shasta, and the locals all mutter about the mysterious doings there. It’s said that the Master himself still lives and appears before his faithful followers to impart his teachings. And like his contemporaries in the 18th Century, I would love to believe it’s all true. 😉

    • Wow – it sounds like a modern-day Hellfire Club! It’s such a fine thing that the Count should re-appear to share the knowledge he found during his travels throughout history and astrology. It’s a tempting idea, actually.

  3. Really interesting stuff. Such a shame science has wiped out so much that was magical in life…!

  4. Cool post. Love Voltaire’s description. I always considered wise woman medicine to be in the herbal realm – yet alchemy seems more toward the gender neutral. Male doctors in early times sure seemed to sterilize the entire field.

  5. “Creating an endless map of nonsense and wishful thinking” exactly. I too am amazed and entranced by the idea of this– this monomaniacal self-assurance that looks so great on paper but amounts to nada. An archetypal fear.

  6. In the end, isn’t this the best – and worst – alchemy of all? Not to turn lead into gold, or diamonds into a shimmering stream, but disbelief into belief.

    I couldn’t help but think of the incident in California this weekend, where followers of self-help guru Tony Robbins sustained burns walking across hot coals. One of the fellows who was badly burned said it was his own fault – he just didn’t have the right attitude. Others said, once you begin walking across the coals, you can’t stop.

    Perhaps that was at play with St. Germain, as well. Once people started following, they didn’t dare stop, lest they get burned.

  7. my search – Some say that there is still magic to be had; that it has gone underground, to be found only by those who dare to look and imagine. Science has the capability to do much – but it can’t erase the human imagination. While that continues to live, magic will lurk everywhere.

    amelie – It seems that the offices of doctors from hundreds of years ago seemed as madcap and unexplained as any alchemist’s. But your idea of neutrality is accurate – not based in reason, not fully irrational: alchemy sits on the fence and lets theories old and new fight it out amongst themselves.

    girl en chapeau – Sort of reminds me of taking math in grammar school. We had to provide an explanatory sheet of equations to show how we came to our final answers. I was utterly ignorant and just made up these equations – a muddle that didn’t even look good on paper. My teacher looked at me as if I was from another planet.

    shoreacres – This made me think of H.C. Anderson’s Little Mermaid: granted her desire to walk on land, her tail became legs – yet it would hurt like ‘a thousand knives’ with every step she took. Once the walkers stopped, reality must have hurt like a thousand knives.

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