Wolfgang von Goethe
|Goethe & Alchemy
Notes from Various Books
Goethe's Interest in Alchemy
C.A. Burland, The Arts of the Alchemists
Macmillian Company, New York, 1967, p. 125
Goethe in many ways was a child of the philosophic alchemists. He studied the
literature during his illness of 1768-69, and read Swedenborg and Paracelsus.
His attitude to scientific work was that of one who seeks a unity in all nature.
His thought in later years was very like the best of alchemic feeling about the
nature of life as an ever-changing reconciliation, separation and recombination
of apparently opposed forces. He believed the life within nature was truly an
expression of the unified being of God. His Stirb und werde! was very
like the alchemical idea that the materia prima must die and be recreated
in a higher form during the process. The final version of Faust was the culmination
of a process of change within the soul of the philosopher-poet. It shows the curious
world of ancient occultism, its dangers and confusions, and the means of escape
from its alluring pitfalls. That Faust is not the iterant conjurer who wandered
around Tübingen cadging money from students is the measure of the drama.
The history of an indiidual expands into the drama of the great soul entrapped
by a magic glamour which could only lead to disaster. In the philosophic statement
that man must look within himself to seek the way of salvation, Goethe was already
following part of the mystery tradition which had come down from the ancient world,
and which was to find new prominence with the development of psychology in the
Goethe Reading Welling's Opus Mago-cabalisticum (1768-1769)
To excite and strengthen our faith in the possibility of such an universal remedy, the physician, wherever he found any susceptibility, had recommended certain chemico-alchemical books to his patients, and given them to understand, that, by one's own study of them, one could well attain this treasure for one's self, which was the more necessary, as the mode of its preparation, both for physical, and especially for moral, reasons, could not be well communicated; nay, that in order to comprehend, produce, and use this great work, one must know the secrets of nature in connection, since it was not a particular, but an universal remedy, and could indeed be produced under different forms and shapes. My friend had listened to these enticing words. The health of the body was too nearly allied to the health of the soul; and could a greater benefit, a greater mercy, be shown towards others than by appropriating to one's self a remedy by which so many sufferings could be assuaged, so many a danger averted? She had already secretly studied Welling's "Opus Mago-cabalisticum," for which, however, as the author himself immediately darkens and removes the light he imparts, she was looking about for a friend, who, in this alternation of glare and gloom, might bear her company. It needed small incitement to inoculate me also with this disease. I procured the work, which, like all writings of this kind, could trace its pedigree in a direct line up to the Neo-Platonic school. My chief labor in this book was most accurately to notice the obscure hints by which the author refers from one passage to another, and thus promises to reveal what he conceals, and to mark down on the margin the number of the page where such passages as should explain each other were to be found... We turned to the works of Theophrastus, Paracelsus, and Basilius Valentinus, as well as to those of Helmont, Starkey, and others, whose doctrines and directions, resting more or less on nature and imagination, we endeavoured to see into and follow out. I was particularly pleased with the Aurea Catena Homeri, in which nature, though perhaps in fantastical fashion, is represented in a beautiful combination; and thus sometimes by ourselves, sometimes together, we employed much time on these singularities, and spent the evenings of a long winter during which I was compelled to keep my chamber very agreeably since we three (my mother being included) were more delighted with these secrets than we could have been at their elucidation.
Experiments in Preparing Liquor Silicum
No sooner was I in some measure restored, and, favoured by the change in the
season, once more able to occupy my old gable chamber, then I also began to
provide myself with a little apparatus. A small air-furnace with a sand-bath
was prepared; and I very soon learned to change the glass alembics, with a
piece of burning match-cord, into vessels in which the different mixtures
were to be evaporated. Now were the strange ingredients of the macrocosm and
microcosm handled in an odd, mysterious manner; and, before all, I attempted
to produce neutral salts in an unheard-of way. But what, for a long time, kept
me busy most, was the so-called Liquor Silicum (flint juice), which is
made by melting down pure quartz flint with a proper proportion of alkali,
whence results a transparent glass, which melts away on exposure to the air,
and exhibits a beautiful clear fluidity. Whoever has once prepared this himself,
and seen it with his own eyes, will not blame those who believe in a maiden earth,
and in the possibility of producing further effects upon it by means of it. I had
become quite skilful in preparing this Liquor Silicum; the fine white flints
which are found in the Main furnished a perfect material for it: and I was not
wanting in the other requisites, nor in diligence. But I wearied at last, because
I could not but remark that the flinty substance was by no means so closely
combined with the salt as I had philosophically imagined, for it very easily
separated itself again, and this most beautiful mineral fluidity, which, to my
greatest astonishment, had sometimes appeared in the form of an animal jelly,
always deposited a powder, which I was forced to pronounce the finest flint dust,
but which gave not the least sign of anything productive in its nature from which
one could have hoped to see this maiden earth pass into the maternal state.
Goethe Hides from Herder his Alchemical Studies
One may well make this demand of himself; for to a man's capability of cultivation,
comes, with friendly aid, the light of nature, which is always active in enlightening
him about his condition: and generally, in many moral points of culture, one should
not construe the failings too severely, nor look about after the most serious and
remote means of correcting them; for certain faults may be easily and even playfully
removed. Thus, for instance, by mere habit, we can excite gratitude in ourselves,
keep it alive, and even make it necessary to us.
Goethe the Alchemist
This book sets out to show that Goethe was profoundly influenced throughout his life
by the religious and philosophical beliefs he derived from his early study of alchemy.
Alchemy can be interpreted in many ways: as the art of gold-making, as a symbolical
representation of mystical doctrines, or, as in the writings of C.G. Jung, as a
projection of the unconscious mind, concerned wiht the integration of the personality.
As Goethe knew it, it was primarily concerned with mysticism. In his hands, however,
it underwent some transformation: the mystical aspect became less important, while
he attempted to provide more logical, more scientific evidence of the symbolical
truth of alchemy.
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