The Chemical Wedding of Art and Science, the Secular and Sacred

I still do not know quite what to think of the relationship between Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson and the occult. His fifth solo album “Chemical Wedding”, the single “Man of Sorrows” and his hand in writing the recent film also titled “Chemical Wedding”. The songs on the album are harder than the pieces he worked on with Iron Maiden, but they do evince more than a passing familiarity with occult thought and symbology. I have yet to see his film, but my most respected esoteric friend seems very critical of it. Still, I remain curious.

The occult has had a long and productive relationship with art, which is intriguing for the divide between the esoteric and exoteric demands of the tradition. Yet they both function through similar, metaphorical channels and ways of thinking, and, like Goethe’s claim in Faust, can be hidden openly in the artistic work. Not only hidden, I contend, but addressed and developed as well. Representative of the divide between Newtonian and Goethean alchemy, it has been the primary mode of esoteric exploration in the west since the Enlightenment. Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Peter Birkhäuser, Achille-Claude Debussy, William Blake, and many more besides. At the end of the 19th century the Newtonian interest in the occult, that is to say, the experimental, physical emphasis, looked to be reviving in the work of the London Society for Psychical Research, with William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace, Oliver Lodge and the journalist W.T. Stead’s efforts at the scientific popularization of esoteric research. Unlike many other modes of thought, it seems likely that this realm of exploration benefits equally from artistic and scientific exploration, for both its psychological and physical effects on human knowledge, and the primary place of pattern recognition in its myriad manifestations.

For More Information:

Faust, Alchemy, Everything and Nothing

Goethe’s Faust is one of the most commonly begun, and most infrequently finished, epics of the western literary tradition. Romantics drawn to the tragedy of the first part, the personal drama and heartache, are often estranged from the archytipical allegory of the second, but this is to their own detriment. It is the second part of Faust that really reveals how it is an alchemical drama, and finally makes sense of Faust’s otherwise puzzling statement to the demon Mephistopheles “I hope to see your nothing / turn to everything for me.”

While it may seem prosaic to modern readers, the emphasis on the four elements in the second part of Faust is actually a completion of Faust’s statement. While Earth, Water, Air and Fire might not seem like much to us moderns, with our gaggle of elements to chose from on the periodic table, in the medieval setting in which the Faust drama plays itself out, to say say those four things is to describe the basis of everything.

With this in mind, the concepts of transformation and prime matter inherent in alchemy take on a much more profound meaning.

In 1768, during his convalescent period, Goethe read a number of alchemical authors with Fräulein von Klettenberg. He studied Paracelsus, van Helmont (a follower of Paracelsus who introduced his theories to Newton and his contemporaries) as well as the American George Starkey (who was also influenced by Paracelsus and influential in the Newtonian circle in London) . After his alchemical initiation Goethe became increasingly interested in the chemical-philosophical process, and hoped to create a substance called: “Virgin Earth, which would give birth to other substances from its own womb; to imitate as it were the creation of the universe by producing a microcosmic world of his which would develop of its own accord”. This Virgin Earth appears to have been a purified form of the “prime matter” of the alchemist.

His work in this respect was ultimately fruitless, as one scholar observed: “although in old age he was still struck by the beauty of the experiment, he was disappointed in his efforts”. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Goethe was well versed in the astrological, numerological and alchemical lore which he elaborated upon, and occasionally criticized in Faust. His notebooks from his time in Frankfurt and Strasbourg have large sections dealing with figures such as Paracelsus and Agrippa, as well as showing his interest in cheiromancy, astrology, and numerology.

The scholarly world, and particularly the English world, has yet to fully embrace the implications of Goethe’s engagement with alchemy, and in particular the role Paracelsus played in his thought. With a better understanding of Paracelsian principles we can gain greater insight into how they inspired Goethe’s account of the role of the devil in creation, as well as the view that the whole world is in the process of revelation through restlessness. Furthermore, it seems more likely that the character of Faust himself was in some ways more based on the person of Paracelsus than the legend of Faust, given the alchemist’s relation to authority and metaphysical doctrines. Finally, with an elemental understanding of the nebulous “Mothers”, we find a greater source of unity in the second part of Faust which binds together the seemingly disparate scenes and phantasmagoric carnivals into a coherent whole. In short, for Faust: “what keeps the world together in its inner essence [rough translation of: “Was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält“] is nothing less than alchemy.

A Tale of Two Alchemists

The story of Isaac Newton’s alchemical concerns is a relativity recent, but already much explored facet of the father of modern physics. Yes, he was predicting when the world would end using heretical biblical exegesis. Yes, he was trying to spiritualize matter. The “occult” quality of gravity was actually informed by the occult, and his contemporaries were completely justified in criticizing it as such.

Yet what is more interesting to me is how Newton’s alchemical project compares to that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s. Goethe as a young man, ostensibly a poet and man of letters at this time of his life, went through several years of intensive alchemical study and experimentation. And yet over time he became increasingly critical of the material truth of his project, calling it a “beautiful idea” and instead dedicated a reasonable part of his later intellectual activity to elucidating its spiritual truth.

Thus we have a state in which Newton, the “great” of British science, clung to a literal view of his alchemical work, while Goethe, viewed by some historians of science as a mere dilettante, tried its truths and rejected their materiality, opting instead to focus on the power of the ideas themselves.

The matter becomes only more interesting if you consider the opposition of Goethe’s and Newton’s optics. But that is a story for another time.

Resources of Interest:

Gray, Ronald D. Goethe the Alchemist: A study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works. Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2002.

Jantz. Harold. “Goethe, Faust, Alchemy, and Jung” in The German Quarterly, Vol. 35,No. 2 (Mar., 1962), pp. 129-141.

Raphael, Alice. Goethe and the Philosophers’ Stone: Symbolic Patterns in ‘The Parable’ and the Second Part of ‘Faust’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.