Friday, January 09, 2009

Squandering the philosopher's stone

Searching EEBO for something else, I recently came back across Johann Joachim Becher’s Magnalia naturae, or, The philosophers-stone lately exposed to public sight and sale being a true and exact account of the manner how Wenceslaus Seilerus, the late famous projection-maker at the emperours court at Vienna, came by and made away with a very great quantity of pouder of projection by projecting with it before the emperour and a great many witnesses, selling it &c. for some years past / by John Joachim Becher : published at the request, and for the satisfaction of several curious, especially of Mr. Boyl &c. (1680).

Re-reading this work, purportedly written to gratify the interest of Robert Boyle (no less), I was again struck by its indeterminate genre. The ‘true and exact account’ reads truly and exactly like a tale of Baron Munchausen, or a winning entry in a lying contest. A fraudulent narrative from an author tainted with fraudulence, Magnalia naturae purports to be a narrative both from personal witness and personal inquiry, but has every air of a free-wheeling invention.

As the narrative tells it, the subject (or rather hero of this fiction), Friar Wenceslaus, was forced into the monastic life, and was determined to buy his way out. He hears his fellow monks speak of a treasure buried their monastery, learns the magic art from a cow-keeper’s wife, and acquires a magical ball of wax (which will roll towards any buried treasure) from a woman who doesn’t herself seem to have made any use of it. Wenceslaus recruits an older monk, already a cabalist, to help him try its effectiveness. When the magical ball of wax finally activates, it runs to a particular pillar. Well, they cannot demolish the church, but their luck holds, because an opportune tempest does. Inside the wrecked pillar they find a copper box, which they secretly carry away. To Wenceslaus’s disappointment, it only holds papers and four boxes of red powder. The narrator (whom we have to assume is Becher testifying to all this), intervenes at this point:
“he found a piece of Parchment, on which there was some Inscription and Writing: I once had a Copy of it, but I lost it amongst my other Letters … I do also remember, That amongst other Writings, there was this Motto, AMICE, TIBI SOLI, which I English thus, Friend, to thy self alone. Under this Parchment there were other Letters laid, marked with Characters, which contained Directions how to multiply the Powder, as the Inscription shewed: and under them there were four Boxes full of a red Powder.”

(He used to have a copy, but lost it! This careless narrator will soon forget that instructions for making more of the powder were included in the box, the rest of the story depends on Wenceslaus’ inability to produce any more.)

At the opening of the copper box, Wenceslaus does not himself recognize that this is the philosopher’s stone, something which was expected by alchemists to be a heavy and fragrant red powder, but the older monk does. To test it, a pewter plate is folded into a crucible, then a knife’s point of the powder added: “As soon as ever the Powder was cast in, the Pewter stood still, came to a suddain Congelation. Then the Fire was suffered to go out, and the Crucible to wax cold, which being broken, there was found a ponderous mass of Metals, very yellow and variegated with red lines”. A goldsmith later re-melts the mixture, and produces a small gold ingot, which he gladly buys for £20.

The older monk then becomes the first of a series of convenient deaths which enable the feckless Wenceslaus to get away from intellectually superior operators. He ends up being chased from state to state by princes who are each keen to secure permanently the cooperation of this veritable gold-egg-laying goose, by imprisonment if needs be. Though he is capable of using the powder to project gold, Wenceslaus cannot manage to augment his stock of the powder (despite the instructions on how to do just this), and is determined to hang on to what he has. At one point, a pushy crony he has acquired proposes that they feign inability to project gold so as to keep all the powder for themselves: “we may both be sheltred under the Continuance of the Emperors Protection, and yet we may keep the Tincture; And after the time designed for its augmentation is elapsed, we will easily devise some colorable Excuse, to evade it; as, That the Glass was broken, or some Error committed in the Operation. For, the Truth is, (said he) The Emperours Court is not worthy so great a Treasure; it will be Prostituted there and made common.”

This co-conspirator also dies, and so Wenceslaus does put himself under the protection of the Emperor (meant to be Leopold I). But he proves a troublesome artist-in-residence, and, having made a pest of himself, maneuvers to get his own separate quarters:

“In the mean time he both desired to be acquainted with some noted Chymists and eminent Artists, and several Imposters and Sophisters intruded themselves into his acquaintance, so that from thence resulted very frequent junketings, drinkings and merry meetings, and many foolish trifling Processes wrought by him; from whence F. Wenceslaus learned rather several cunning and subtil Impostures, than any real augmentation of his Pouder: But the noise & multitude of so many Importunate Visitants, being cumbersom at Court, where F. Wenceslaus had his Diet, under the severe inspection of Count Wallestein, he thereupon pretended, that he had occasion to make some sorts of Aqua Forts and other Menstruums, which would be dangerous to the whole Court, and cause such noysom Fumes and odious Smells, that they could not safely be prepared in that place; therefore a Laboratory was built for him, in the Carinthian Fort.”

For a while, Wenceslaus has it made, but he is spending lavishly, and his philosopher’s stone doesn’t seem to be capable of curing the venereal disease he also acquires:

“Fr. Wenceslaus being linked by Marriage into such a Family, did then fancy for a time, That all the Elements did conspire together to make him happy: for why? he was visited by Persons of the highest Rank, and withal was mightily respected by the most eminent Ladies, Countesses and Princesses: As for me, as Spectator of this Scene, I considered him in this Fools Paradise: Whilst it put me in mind of Cornelius Agrippa, who, in his Book of the Vanity of Sciences, under the Title of Alchymy, sayes, That if ever he should be Master of the Tincture, he would spend it all in nothing but in Whoring; for women being naturally covetous, he could thereby easily make them to prostitute themselves, and to yield unto his Lust. And it seems that not only F. Wenceslaus was so mighty a Proficient and so stout a Souldier in the School of VENUS, That he was brought very low by the French Disease, but also that his Wife Angerlee dyed of it. After whose decease Fr. Wenceslaus exceeded all Bounds of honest Modesty, and dayly let loose the Reins to all sinful and voluptuous excesses: for from that time he had obtained the Tincture, he spent in two or three years time more than Ten Myriads of Crowns, in all manner of Luxury: and he foresaw well enough, that it could not last and subsist long at that rate: for the Tincture would not maintain him. And to turn it into Gold, or sell it for a small price would turn to no Account, as he had alwaies hoped it would by Augmentation, and thereby to gain an inexhaustible Treasure.”

Still incapable of augmenting his powder, and running through his money, Wenceslaus ends up selling counterfeited versions. So, what is this work? It appears to be an entertaining fiction, pranked out with a collection of recognizable names. If Becher was really behind it, it might be an indirect explanation of how you might actually possess the philosopher’s stone, but still end up behaving like a charlatan and a trickster. This might have been a point Becher himself was sometimes pressed by circumstances to argue.

What is interesting is the close adjacency here of racy fiction: Wenceslaus is a picaro, a scapegrace hero always motivated by profit or women. He has no expertise, he is just a survivor. Like Epicure Mammon, possession of the long sought philosopher’s stone means only augmented power to buy sex.

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