David McConnell: The Last Book I Loved, The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry

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I’m always hunting for great nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century histories. Something about those rolling, periodic sentences, the lofty diction, the Olympian “great man” narratives gives the books an air of eternal authority I love.

Compared to them, recent popular histories feel tentative, as if all we can do now is apply incessant conceptual tweaks to the work the Victorian titans of research have already done.

Admittedly, most of these old histories are just quaint. Baggy rhetoric, outdated information and toe-curling prejudices get you thinking more about the author and his times (it’s always a “he”) than about the book’s ostensible subject. Others are classics: Jacob Burckhardt, Johan Huizinga, Theodor Mommsen, Thomas Macaulay and the Americans Francis Parkman and William H. Prescott. These historians drop moral judgments right and left in a way that feels naughty, even titillating, to modern readers schooled in infinite fairness. The revelation comes when you realize their super-confident judgments are often deeply humane—anything but musty or out of date.

In a completely modern way—plodding through the thickets of the internet—I found a gem of this kind, a scientific history. The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry by M. M. Pattison Muir came out in 1902. I suppose it doesn’t rise to the level of the truly great historians. In fact, Muir sometimes has a pedagogical “boy’s book” tone. But as intellectual history his book is as sharp and relevant as the best of last month’s New York Review of Books.

I know next to nothing about Muir. Even the “M. M.” had me stumped. His Wikipedia article is a stub and an orphan. But at least some of his work has been caught up in the epochal regurgitation of text going on right now in the web world. So you can find The Story of Alchemy through GoogleBooks and at Project Gutenberg. An extremely mellifluous audio version is even available at Librivox.org. A machine-quoted title page courtesy of GoogleBooks describes the author as a “Fellow and former Praelector of Chemistry at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.” Oh, and I see the “M. M.” stands for “Matthew Moncrieff.”  On another website I found his dates: 1848-1931. That’s all I know.

Muir is an eloquent and sensitive rationalist, not the snarky kind who goes into conniptions about the thick-headedness of belief in the supernatural. “Why does the Chemist toil so eagerly?” he apostrophizes gently. “Why did the alchemists so untiringly pursue their quest? I think it is not unfair to say: the chemist experiments in order that he ‘may liken his imaginings to the facts which he observes’; the alchemist toiled that he might liken the facts which he observed to his imaginings.” Only a latinist writes English like that. Yet it’s more than empty rhetoric. It’s an elegant way of bringing home Muir’s point that Alchemy was a form of emotional knowledge.

Muir has completely mastered his material—masses of hard-to-decipher Alchemical literature going back to Ancient Greece. Fantastical citations are one of the joys of the book. A certain Basil Valentine’s Tract Concerning the Great Stone of the Ancient Sages includes a description of the element fire that reads like symbolist poetry: “Fire is the purest and noblest of all Elements, full of adhesive unctuous corrosiveness, penetrant, digestive, inwardly fixed, hot and dry, outwardly visible, and tempered by the earth . . . . This Element is the most passive of all, and resembles a chariot; when it is drawn, it moves; when it is not drawn, it stands still.”

But reading The Story of Alchemy isn’t just an eccentric romp through glorious language. Muir’s book is an incredibly clear-eyed overview of one of the key transformations in human thinking. I always had a hard time grasping Alchemy. Muir is utterly convincing about which parts of that hermetic science were faith, which parts delusion, obfuscation, longing, fraud, art or ultimately—still poetic in its own way—chemistry.


David McConnell is the author of The Silver Hearted (appearing February 2010). His novel The Firebrat came out in 2003. His short fiction and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. He lives in New York City. More from this author →