Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Detecting Alchemy

'Twas a peculiar Christmas this year, treeless and improvised, but thanks to fraternal company quite enjoyable. Then a mysterious illness struck yours truly: a finger swollen to triple its size, an infection or virus, or maybe an allergy? In any event, I snoozed through New Year's eve, spent New Year's day in hospital and, well, 'twas all very peculiar. But now, during my convalescence from whatever-that-was, and using my newly deflated finger to press the 's's and 'w's ever so gingerly, it all comes together. Indeed, one question, an old chestnutty favourite of mine, has permeated this holiday season: what, and why? (Ok, technically, that's two questions, but you will soon see why they are really conjoined twins.)

History and storytelling, apart from their obvious etymological connections, have at least one thing in common, in that they phrase and package, arrange and alter (often unwittingly) information, and knock it into a shape that makes sense to an audience, be it amateur armchair sleuths or academics. They identify a 'what', manufacture a coherent 'why', and present it all in a more or less straightforward fashion. Incidentally, if your academic writing mimics the plot of a mystery novel (it takes 63 pages of lead-up to produce one resounding, simple, 'duh'-inducing answer), you know you've been raised in a German academic institution. Kidding. Maybe.
Behold the fraternally bestowed Christmas goodie!
Image from Amazon.co.uk

Anyway, to take one example that has distracted me so entertainingly while I was half adaze with antibiotics, consider Lord Peter Wimsey, the 1972 BBC series. I distinctly remember seeing similar scenes in school programmes (our form of media entertainment beyond the overhead projector): ESL resources from the '70s, packaged in twee, twilled Englishness, complete with silver tea pots and butlers. Even back in my school days I wondered, was England really like that? A school exchange with a posh private school for privileged boys (which, to be honest, scared the be-jeezes out of me, as they say these days) gave a clear answer: yes and no. Funnily enough, those things I could not imagine anyone having, doing, wearing or eating all materialised (think Laura Ashley-style curtains, horse races, dressing gowns and cold cuts for 'tea'). But some supposedly quintessentially English items introduced in these programmes were nowhere to be found in this London suburb I visited; they had all but vanished into obscurity, or perhaps never existed, who knows?
Hugh Fraser as Hastings, David Suchet as Poirot, busy sleuthing
Image from IMDB

Beyond cultural stereotypes, mysteries-made-film like the abovementioned Wimsey, or indeed Poirot, even CSI sell 'sleuthness', the only way to detect and solve, and far from the everyday experiences of those who figure out whodunnit down the road. Much more than the novels they are based on, these TV adaptations sell a style, an atmosphere which we recognise and like so much. Tweeds. Afternoon teas. That sort of thing. But beware of confusing the speed of CSI's DNA analyses with actual forensic lab work. And honestly, no detective, or indeed any other person, will exclaim "I say!" when making a discovery. And yet, the traits we educated mystery viewers recognise in TV detectives do bear some relation to what it is their real-life models do for a living. Perhaps filmed mysteries are like those plastic presentation dishes in Japanese restaurants. You'd never want to bite into one of the latter, nor live in Poirot's world, but looking at either is, oh, so tasty. To learn about the nitty and even the gritty of real forensic science, detection, and the horror of real-life crimes, you'd have to see the sites, smell the smells and look at millions of insignificant dust specks through microscopes in police stations, forensic labs and at crime scenes. Personally, I find that reading the newspaper, walking the streets of Philadelphia on an early Saturday (post-clubbing-night) morning and trying to find my house keys is enough of an impression to put me off an internship at the Met forever.

But for me as an alchemy scholar and person who cooks, the implications of spruced-up stories about certain professions go one-and-a-half steps further. The half step is the realisation that dinner parties have changed in the past few years. What with cooking shows and utterly self-conscious, self-fashioning TV chefs, it seems impossible to talk about food, cook a meal or entertain guests without absorbing some of this attitude. What are you - an adjective-abusing, dangerously luscious Nigella-in-the-making or a **** Gordon Ramsey, a homely '70s Delia or a hands-on eccentric, Julia Child-style? Do you call your desserts 'beau'iful' or adopt a Swedish Chef approach, in defiance of the dictum of modern chefness? By the way, Junior Masterchef, a cooking competition for ca. 10-year-olds who talk about their 'passion for food', the fact that they've been cooking 'from a very early age, about 2 or 3' and their hopes that appearing on Junior Masterchef will be 'good for my CV' (your CV? You're 10 years old!) makes me queasy. But that's just an aside.

Back to cooking: I have lost the sense of what it is that professional chefs actually do, and why everyone wants to be one. Cooking fifty of the same dishes day in, day out, in the heat, on one's feet all day cannot possibly be much fun. More to the point, what it is like to be a chef I'd only know if I were to work in a professional kitchen. The same goes for alchemy, and this is where I take the full step from mystery to alchemy (as promised above). I truly don't know how much self-consciousness went into the fashioning of an alchemist. The recipes that survive in manuscripts are either mere reminders to the proficient alchemist, stripped to the bones, or elaborate presentations of metaphorically dressed narratives. The images drawn, mostly by Dutch painters decades or even centuries after the heyday of alchemy, present alchemists as the non-alchemical public wanted to see them, recognise them and draw comfort from this familiarity. None of the historical evidence provides a full picture. So, what is a historian to do? And why?
The Alchemist (detail; 17th century, school of David Teniers II)

One answer, and in my humble opinion a rather smashing one, has been proposed by Professor Pamela Smith: observe, handle, do, smell... learning about practices by observing, or even practising, them. Because it gives an understanding of a craft and skill that goes beyond intellectual appreciation and further than the written words surviving today. Pamela has applied this theory to her work on ceramics (see her wonderful The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution) and given me and others the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the worlds of metal casting and silver smithing (in an observing capacity, of course). And all of a sudden, while watching silver smiths at work, using skills that have been handed on for many generations and using their hands and bodies, their timing and senses in a way purely motivated by what works best for their craft, far away from cameras and public audiences, a lot of information, knowledge and the puzzle that is the history of alchemy fell into place in my head. Of course, that was just the beginning (and moreover, this was five years ago). Here's hoping there's more of this to come in my future.

And with this, a note with (I am sure) a moral (somewhere), I wish all my readers a happy, curious and eye-opening new year. May it sparkle in its own way.

1 comment:

Seth Sanders said...

Brilliant--lovely style, and the points are quite useful to me. I think I'll need to delve into Smith's Body of the Artisan when I write the article that this blog post: