Monday, July 12, 2010

the stone desireth to be opened

The genius of Coleridge, said John Livingston Lowes, lies in this: he was able to submerge a collection of ideas in himself and transmute them into The Ancient Mariner. The ideas were ordinary enough, free for anyone to use, but he was the only true alembic, he was the one who burnt them down and purified them.

How long ago did I write about that? Months ago. March. Old Nicholas Flammel in the 1600s, translated by Marcella Gillick, and writing beautifully -- or translated beautifully -- in either case, beautiful, flowing, roaming -- describes alchemical processes -- Coleridge's bubblings:

And when thy Elixir is so brought unto Infinity, one grain thereof falling upon a quantity of molten metal as deep and vast as the Ocean, it will teine it, and convert it into most perfect metal, that is to say, into silver or gold, according as it shall have been imbibed and fermented, expelling and drying out far from himself all the impure and strange matter, which was joined with the metal in the first coagulation: for this reason therefore have I made to be painted a Key in the hand of the man, which is in the form of Saint Peter, to signify that the stone desireth to be opened and shut for multiplication, and likewise to show thee with what Mercury thou oughtest to do this, & when; I have given the man a garment Citrine red, and the woman one of orange colour.

I was reminded of Lowes and his Beloved C. by a recent reprint of Alexis Soyer's 1853 The Pantropheon or, The History of Food and its Preparation, From the Earliest Ages of the World. A strange thing: he has ideas that could be transferred into Proust. Soyer brings them up fleetingly though, he doesn't spin them out or turn them into elements of a broad philosophy and consideration of time and manners. He flits through with a joking tone.

LEEKS. This vegetable -- a powerful divinity, dreaded among the Egyptians, and a food bewailed by the Israelites in their journey through the Desert -- cured the Greeks of numerous diseases, which in our days it is to be feared would resist its medicinal properties. Everything changes in this sublunary world, and the leek no doubt follows the common law.

He could have traced leeks back and forth through the ages, as Proust traces the names of towns, and arrived at the same graceful conclusion, that the human perception of the leek changes according to culture and fashion. "[T]rue it is," Soyer agrees, discussing the ancient Roman dislike of horse-radishes, "that the manner in which objects are associated with our ideas determines almost invariably our love or hatred for them." So there he was, with Proustian material all around, but what he came up with was not À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or even a part of it, not even an equivalent of the passage in which Proust describes the phases of Odette's drawing room as if he's on an archeological dig, but the Pantropheon. (Genius, according to him, "is nothing else than the faculty of producing.") He is a person who, in Coleridge's day, would have written travellers' tales, but not The Ancient Mariner. Or perhaps not, perhaps this is not a matter of fate, like that, but of timing, and luck; and, born on a different day, in a different place, Coleridge would not have been Coleridge either, but Alexis Soyer.

And one begins by turning one’s eyes,
as if by eating bread
we traced the course of flour.

(From An Der Gewesenheit, by Eduardo Cote Lamus, translated by Laura Chalar)

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