Philip Ball is the author of the brilliant Critical Mass which is about phase transitions. This is a very different book. This is a biography of Paracelsus,a renaissance doctor and alchemist who was half-way between a scientist and a magician.
His real name was Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim and I has assumed that the word 'bombastic' derived from his boastful style of writing (Ball calls it "verbose, undisciplined and ungrammatical", it contains many neologism, at least one undefined, as with other alchemical writings sometimes it seems to seek to conceal more than it reveals, and it was argumentative, frequently insulting, libellous and vituperative). But Ball tells us that 'bombast' was cotton padding "and it is from this origin that the connotation of 'puffed up' derives." (p 18)
His mum died young so he was brought up by his dad, a (probably unqualified) country doctor; they were poor and Paracelsus suffered from rickets in his youth. He was knocking around at the same sort of time as Agricola, who studied metals and mining, and Agrippa, who was an out and out magician and someone very like Paracelsus: "it is clearly unrealistic to demand too much coherence from a character as contrary as Agrippa of Nettesheim. He was apt to say whatever came into his head, and if it was not the same thing as he said the day before, it was nevertheless equally likely to offend someone." (p 87)
Ball suggests that aspects of the life of Paracelsus may have contributed to the legend of Faust and he tells the story of Johann Faust who, according to Adrien de Jonghe in Batavia, worked for Coster, the inventor of printing, but stole the secrets and sold them to Gutenberg (the reality is probably that ne of Gutenberg's backers was called Johann Fust). I must check this against Ruickbie's biography of Faustus. Furthermore, Ball points out that Simon Magus, the gnostic magician who sought to purchase church office (hence the sin of simony) and challenged St Peter to a miracle battle, had a companion called Helen of Tyre, not a million miles from the Helen of Try who appears in Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.
Ball follows Paracelsus on his travels from North Africa to Scandinavia including a spell in Russia when he is captured by the Mongol hordes, and follows the travails of his thought through his extensive writing. It was, like all times seem to be, a very interesting time; Paracelsus met Erasmus and Zwingli of the Protestant Reformation; Osiander refused to publish a book by Paracelsus and went on to publish De Revolutionibus by Copernicus.
But there is sometimes too much detail. Detail can easily transmute the surface glitter of alchemy into base metal, though here Ball comes up with perhaps the best line of the book: "if you want men to leave no stone unturned in their enquiry into nature, say that there is gold to be found under one of them." This is the only way to make sense of the thousands of men who devoted their lives to the noxious, laborious and fruitless art of alchemy: it wasn't even as if popular opinion held alchemists in high esteem or egged them on in the societal belief that their efforts would one day be rewarded. Alchemists were hated, feared and mocked. Among the more famous and successful alchemists Ball describes is the Londoner Simon Forman who appears in The Lodger by Charles Nicholl. It struck me that the principle of The Philosopher's Stone was catalysis and that enzymes, biological catalysts are very much like The Stone in their dual ability to facilitate chemical reactions and to create life.
First and foremost, Paracelsus was a doctor and he wrote a book describing the ideal doctor (doesn't sound much like him!) who "must not be married to a bigot, should not be a runaway monk, should not practise self-abuse" and "must not have a red beard". (p 209)
But he was a rough bird who admitted "I do not wash to the satisfaction of everyone." (p 340)
But Paracelsus still dabbled in the occult. He believed that he could make a homunculus by sealing sperm into a glass vessel and heating it in horse manure for forty days. (p 344)
Unusually for a biographer, Ball continues well beyond the death of Paracelsus in Salzburg. There are two chapters devoted to tracing his legacy in detail.
Ball points out that the word 'disaster' literally means 'bad star'. "To most, astrology was just the way the world worked. But the philosopher needed a reason why - a mechanism."
There were a lot of interesting things in this book but, perhaps like the writings of Paracelsus himself, there was too much and I sometimes lost my way.
June 2016, 398 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57