Sunday, 8 May 2011

Now You See It - Now You Don't

The British Public are a curious beast when it comes to elections. Sometimes the unpredictability, or rather the ability to pick, en masse, an option which shoves 'common' sense into a sad, lonely position, makes me want to flap my ears in the sad rhythm of Tanita Tikaram's Twist in my Sobriety. Yes, it is that bad.
Photo from

I am, of course, talking about the TV show we call So You Think You Can Dance, where Brazilian hip hop dancer Rithy, who is just plain brilliant, landed in the bottom four and had to dance a solo to stay in the competition not once, but two weeks in a row. The public's phone-in vote was not strong enough to keep her safe. I watched in disbelief: had the other viewers not seen what I see? And while I was relieved that Rithy and her also-very-talented partner Shane made it through the dance-offs (twice), three themes kept bubbling up in my flabbergasted brain. And all of them link voting and dance to alchemy (because that's the way this brain works).
Poster available from Paper Scissor Stone

1. Perception & Preferences
Had the other viewers seen the same show I did? Their eyes certainly did (allowing for minor fuzz which their friendly optician could fix in a spec), but their minds did not. Viewers may like a dancer for any reason, but more often than not the reason will be something 'special'. What stands out to the individual viewer relies much on his or her background and preferences. So, while the technical ability, effortlessness and talent of Rithy might seem very obvious to me, others might pick up on something completely different, like hair styles, costumes, the perceived attractiveness or the regional origin of a dancer. What they like and what I like is therefore completely different, and may even change over time: a viewer who becomes more educated about dance may concentrate on different aspects in the next season. And needless to say that our grandparents, who grew up dancing with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in the background, would make a completely different story out of the contest.

This 'now you see it-now you don't' effect also shows itself in the history of alchemy. A relatively young field in the history of science, the history of alchemy has left its bibliographic conception behind, went through an infancy of considering alchemy an inferior, esoteric predecessor of chemistry, and is now half-way out of an adolescence which connected it with social and intellectual history as well as truly interdisciplinary approaches (including archaeology and chemistry, not only for the reconstruction of historical experiments). Its future looks bright, partly thanks to its openness to diversity and eagerness to communicate with other disciplines. We now see different ways of approaching alchemical writings, concepts, language, experiments and material culture which the founding fathers of the discipline did not spot. And I am certainly looking forward to changing my mind about those in the next few decades.
A fire and water-damaged manuscript
check out this blog for a technical discussion of manuscript rescue and preservation!

2. We'll Always Have...
Like anyone who is really good at something, Rithy seems, I'll say it again, effortless. That makes her prone to being taken for granted. Those who phoned in to vote for other dancers probably thought that she would not need their support, or rather, that others needed it more than she did. In that sense, her repeated (wail!) landing in the bottom four is not a surprise. The very assumption that she will always be there may send her home.

It is here that I recall, with more wailing, the flood which damaged many unique and irreplaceable manuscripts in Prague in 2002. Among them were alchemical manuscripts - and I need barely hint at the significance of the court of Rudolph II of Prague to tell you how lamentable this loss is. Apart from being stored in what I can only assume were inadequate surroundings, the majority of manuscripts in the archives had not been microfilmed or preserved in other formats, either. The assumption that they would always be there contributed to their loss. To read more about the attempts at recovery of what the Prague flood had not swallowed whole, check out the Guardian article. And if you find any way to support archives operating on a shoe string (be it through donations, adoption of a manuscript or volunteering), please go ahead. While you can.
Not quite the type of alchemical scholarship I'm after...
Marie-Louise von Franz, Alchemy, on Amazon

3. The Meh of the Common Man
I'll say it again, Rithy is really good (I refuse to use the word 'awesome', which is not only an ugly word but also pretty much meaningless). But it is for this reason that she is getting as little attention as, say, those who do well at school. Perhaps (though I certainly hope not!) she will eventually find herself whizzed out of the way by those who need help, receive attention and therefore support and lessons that would further anyone. Their best will still be worse than her unaided best, but will be more appreciated: everyone likes a struggler who overcomes obstacles. Why else would reality TV glorify extreme slimmers and ignore those who have a perfectly normal figure? (I can hear a general 'meh' in my ears as I type this).

Some themes in the history of alchemy, science, or even generally in scholarship are similarly meh-ed at. No one picks a good, solid topic just for the sake of it any more, perhaps in the hope that a 'sexy' topic will get more attention when the researcher applies for the all-important fellowship or lectureship of his bill-paying, life-beyond-mere-survival-living, young and hopeful dreams. And it is a world of survival out there. Some acquire big scholarly elbows, others become professional box tickers on the skills sheet, yet others hope to impress with more degrees, another conference and, certainly, a list of publications longer than their longest article. Does it work? I'll tell you when I get there. I have a suspicion, though, that there is no patent recipe for lectureships or happiness. (I find myself flogging a dead self-help manual here). And I openly admit that I picked the history of alchemy as my poison, sorry, passion because there are just so many interesting, special, unusual things to research!

Meanwhile, though, there really are topics no one wants to poke with a stick, much less pick up and run with: the general overviews, the obvious questions and the topics which seem just too unspectacular or unfashionable to receive attention. The unwritten studies are those I often try to find in secondary literature, for hours, thinking and then screaming "Can you believe no one has written about this?" followed by "Goodness, where will I find that basic, vital information?". They will always be there for someone to do, I suppose. But tell you what: give me a lectureship, and I'll do them.

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