Thursday, December 07, 2006

I had intended to start this series out with a brief nod in the general direction of Emmanuel Swedenborg and Francois Mesmer, then proceed without delay to the sad tale of a failed alchemist and diviner, just before arriving at the house of the Fox sisters and their new friend, Mr. Splitfoot.

Along the way to that very brief post, the Universe intervened and persuasively argued for a more complex narration of some of the days before the Victorians. In October, I had some extreme chest pain that didn't subside during an asthma attack. After an hour or so of this, one of my friends drove me to the hospital, where I spent approximately four hours hooked up to an EKG machine, an iv, and a pulse oxygen meter. Between the fuzzy consciousness that the hypoxia of an asthma attack brings while listening to the beeping sound of an EKG in a room with very bright light and the sight of the iv dripping fluids into my arm, I was led inescapably to the Romantic era, alchemy, and the places deep inside us where monsters are kept under lock and key, at least most of the time...

"Gooey Things Part I"

The roots of the Frankenstein story include European alchemy, Taoist healing practices, and the tales of European explorers who'd come back from the New World and Siberia.

1816 was the year "without a summer", due to the Tambora volcano eruption of 1815 . Saying "It was a dark and stormy night" is completely appropriate here, for deep from the mountains of Europe, possibly from Castle Frankenstein itself, stories about 18th century alchemists like Dippel and the electrical experiments of Ben Franklin and Volta would seamlessly fuse in Mary Shelly's mind. Her monster was "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus" . The first vampire novel, "The Vampyre" by Polidori was written at the same time as Frankenstein, so both Hollywood staples were born together.

Most folks know the Frankenstein story mainly from the Universal films starring Boris Karloff (and others playing the monster) or the British Hammer Films versions of the 1960's that usually starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The impact of the original novel is generally lost on movie audiences who rarely read the original story. The horror the protagonist Victor Frankenstein faces is one, literally of his own making. Shelley's description of the exact means used to create the monster, (called "Adam" by Shelly in one oral telling of the tale) are left disappointingly vague to those of us who were brought up expecting spark gaps, lightning, and the rest. (The earliest film treatment of the Frankenstein story by the Edison film company in 1910 has the monster created in a bubbling alchemical retort, which is possibly a better fit for the 18th century origins of the monster).

Victor Frankenstein, a student of classical alchemy and naturalism, studies bones in his charnel house, working late into the night by the illumination of a single gutting candle. Once his work is done, the yellow eyes of the monster open and fix on their creator, and he knows he has broken a law of nature in bringing this monstrosity to life and sins further by not destroying it immediately. He compounds his error by creating a second being. (The James Whale sequel to the Universal version of "Frankenstein" titled "The Bride of Frankenstein" is considerably closer to Shelley's tale than any version before or since its time.)

Shelley's monster was of course, not the first artificial being in literature. Most creation myths involve someone or something sculpting the first humans out of dust, the body of a dead god, or something similar. There were many examples of these stories in Europe, including the golems of Jewish mysticism and the homunculus of the alchemists.

Within almost every culture, there's a long tradition that connects breath and bodily fluids with health and the processes that sustain and create life. The classic study of this for the Indo-European world is by Richard Onians, titled "The Origins of European Thought: About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate". An exceptionally deep book, bring your Latin and classical Greek lexicons and a grammar, as many of the text sections aren't in English.

In brief, Onians notes that most European cultures connect cerebro-spinal fluids, tears, semen and blood with expressions of vigor and life. These notions are reflected in the mythologies of Europe as well, giving us the "ichor" that flowed through the veins of Greek deities, the hydromel (sacred honey drink) of the Norse, the wild, rushing torrential streams of poetry from the third cauldron of the ritual poet in the Irish text referred to as "The Cauldron of Poesy", and possibly the soma of the Vedas. For those with access to a really good library or very deep pockets, read
"Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from LA Tene to the Viking Age"by Michael J. Enright. This book is one of the very few deep discussions of the socio-magical role of women in parts of northern Europe, tying together the role of poetry, Sovereignty, political and economic power, sacrifice, the position of women in society and sacred myths.

In modern fiction, there's the crazy General in "Doctor Strangelove" who is very concerned with preserving his vital body fluids and the possibility of theft of same by a woman, raising the possibility he was influenced by Taoist thought.

European alchemists didn't just try to make gold. They would pioneer studies of minerals, acids, and herbal healing. Many alchemical processes simulate fermentation or the natural growth in an organism. The world of an alchemist was a complex place, filled with aetheric fluids as well as influences from the planets and stars. One of the most famous alchemists of the 18th century was Anton Mesmer, born in 1734 and educated in Vienna. He is known to have attended the hypnotic healing sessions of the priest Johann Gassner, who held a metal crucifix while hypnotizing his patient. Mesmer popularized this healing method that operated through hand passes, the intent of the healer, suggestions to the patient, and the playing of a musical instrument, in this case, a glass harmonica. (Mesmer's notebooks reflect his use of a notation set that used more than seventy symbols, something characteristic of many alchemists of that era.)

This second major influence on medicine and popular culture in Europe c. 1800 was Chinese medicine. French Catholic priests in Asia were writing down accounts of the mysterious "magnetic" healing art of China, known to them as "Cong-fou". The healing modalities of the "Cong-fou" as understood by academics and popular writers of the time embraced acupuncture, massage, breathing, and a series of postures and movements that improved the flow of life energy through an organism. By 1817 this had been formalized into the "Swedish Health System" of P. Ling, which would be so popular in books, medical practices and gymnasiums that it would give rise to the military calisthenics in most European armies, and form the base of exercise regimens that were prevalent in the West until the 1930's (It is almost certain that Ling would infuse Delsarte theory into his system, given his use of triads.) Kellogg, the inventor of cold breakfast cereal and the five station health vibrator, would describe this "Cong-fou"as the discipline of moving energy flows through a body, directed by intention. (I'll cover this in greater detail in "Gooey Things II and III")

The third sources for Victorian healing modalities are from unexpected places: Siberia and North America. As Gloria Flaherty has so aptly demonstrated in her book "Shamanism in the 18th Century", popular and academic writers were fascinated by tales of the healer-priests in these diverse "primitive" societies. Algonquin first peoples and the shamans of Siberia used gestures, massage, dancing, and other techniques that resembled not only European alchemy but this exotic Chinese import "Cong-fou" as well.

One convergence point for all of this is Shelley's Frankenstein.

What's interesting is that in the almost two centuries between the publication of this novel and our time, it has come to be regarded as the first science fiction novel, more so than any work by Verne or other 19th century authors. So the prototypical cultural story of science and mankind gone wrong was penned by a Romantic writer and based on the principles of alchemy.

Before we get to the Victorians proper there are two more actors in this drama to consider--Emmanuel Swedenborg and John Chapman. Swedenborg (1688 to 1772) was an influential mystic and prolific writer. While it would take too long to get into his metaphysics here, there's one bit of relevance to the lifestyles of many later Victorians--Swedenborg believed in spirit wives. Swedenborg was not the only person to hit on this notion-- there are strong implications in the lives of many of the Catholic saints who had "Christ for a Bridegroom". Teresa of Avila, to cite one, and described her ecstatic experiences in fairly earthy sensual terms. Contemporary Korean mu dongs (priestesses) have spirit spouses, as do tribal healers all over the world. Virtually all of the spiritists, spiritualists and New Thought authors will cheerfully refer their readers back to the voluminous writings of Swedenborg for details on this, as will I.

John Chapman, aka "Johnny Appleseed" (1744? to 1845?) was a Swedenborgian arborist who was wealthy enough to roam the frontiers of the Ohio Valley and Illinois, planting apples as he wandered and distribute tracts by Swedenborg. Chapman never married on this plane of existence, preferring the company of his two spirit wives.

Next time I'll introduce a God-fearin' treasure seeker and the Fox sisters with their controversial friend, Mr Splitfoot.