A View from the Lab
The alchemist François Jolivet Castelot felt that neglect of a laboratory approach to the occult to be detrimental to the truth because too ‘mystical’ (by which he really meant psychological – the truly mystical power play of the likes of Maïtre Philippe or certain saints of the church is something yet again!).
So in support of the laboratory context, his book La Science Alchimique (1904) contained a photograph of himself and three associates at work in ‘the laboratory of the Alchemical Society of France’. Or rather, not so much ‘at work’ as posed in smart suits, gentlemen amateurs in theatrical attitudes of scientific discovery.
The ‘laboratory’ is decorated with the kind of tasteful wall paper one might expect to find in a well furnished provincial villa in his hometown of Douai, garnished with an array of presumably scientific hardwear, including a lit Bunsen burner, to which, ironically and possibly dangerously, no one is paying any attention.
One of the four consults a book as bulky as a church bible, whilst the other three are gazing in awe, at the mysterious contents of a small bottle.
This genteel display is obviously a far cry from the lab work of the Curies, shovelling tons of uranium ore in their back yard in search of radium, but at least it demonstrates an awareness of public relations remarkable for 1904. It is a pity that they backed the wrong horse, so to speak. And it was the Curies who picked up the Nobel prizes - although at a heavy cost to their health.
But the epoch was fertile for the exchange of ideas, and the most successful teachers and practitioners were also the most skilled communicators – such as Castelot, Papus or Paul Sédir in the esoteric field.
In part this meant involvement in group projects such as the recently revived Martinist Order but it included the willingness and ability to cross boundaries and talk to those of other schools of thought, including individuals of international reputation in other spheres.
One such was the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, who for some years was preoccupied with alchemy and wrote a review of one of Castelot’s books in the daily paper Le Figaro. During a wandering life he came to live in Paris for a time and uncharacteristically invited the young man to call on him. So one cold foggy winter’s evening François duly turned up at the shabby hotel – mostly occupied by students – in which Strindberg chose to stay. The concierge had a standing order to admit no one, for Strindberg hated visitors, but on persisting and sending in his card François was eventually admitted to a small chilly room that even lacked a fire.
The great alchemist playwright was seated at a bare wooden table on which some manuscripts were scattered, the remains of supper, and some miscellaneous items of glassware upon which a candle cast a guttering light. The only other furniture was an iron bedstead, a bedside table, a couple of wicker chairs, a small trunk and a portable wash stand.
Strindberg rose, very tall and straight, and offered his hand, putting Castelot in mind of an old Viking, with grey hair cut short over an immense forehead. He described him as giving the impression of a shy colossus, with pale blue eyes, cold as the fiords, as limpid as a child’s, with icy reflections of nickel and steel, and a bushy moustache that bristled like an angry cat.
He spoke execrable French with a guttural accent of which Castelot could understand not a word, but knew enough German for some conversation to be possible, though not without difficulty.
August Strindberg was a member of the Swedenborgian church and his ideas appeared close to occultism as a result. In alchemy the two shared much the same views, both believing in hylozoism, the presence of life in all matter.
Strindberg showed his visitor the result of some experiments he had performed involving iron sulphide, ammonia and oxalic acid and in time their relationship became closer. They exchanged formulae in regular correspondence, with the Scandinavian becoming an adviser to the French Alchemical Association and a regular contributor its journal, the Rosa Alchemica.
Castelot tried to convert Strindberg entirely to hermeticism, and introduced him to Papus and Sédir, only to be met with misunderstandings as Strindberg’s distrust, brusqueness, and sensitivity clashed with Parisian self-regard and deference to leaders of the Martinist Order. The project was eventually abandoned and the Swede continued his solitary way.
Castelot still cast his net wide however, remarkably including one of the most important figures in the scientific world, Marcellin Berthelot (1827-1907) – considered by some one of the greatest chemists of all time, and called ‘the father of organic chemistry’ in that he synthesised a number of organic compounds from inorganic substances – a transition regarded as impossible by conventional chemists but which was not entirely at odds with alchemical theories and assumptions. And in later life Bertholet researched and wrote books on the early history of chemistry and the origins of alchemy, and translated a number of medieval texts and manuscripts.
He even admitted the theoretical possibility of transmuting metals and the synthesis of elements, despite rejecting the burgeoning atomic theory, and was sympathetic to Castelot’s aims and ideas if not a follower of them – discussing amicably and questioning sympathetically Castelot’s beliefs and procedures.
Another important contact, of immense personality, social contacts and administrative power, was the colourful minor aristocrat Lieutenant-Colonel Count Rochas d’Aiglun, who was administrator of the archaic yet highly prestigious École Polytechnic, and played an important role in supporting and authorising research into subjects such as the theory and practice of hypnotic states, the exteriorisation of sensibility, the whole domain of magic, contact with the Other World , the appearance of phantoms, powers of the interior senses and the possiblities of enchantment and magnetic influence. Certainly no mage or sorcerer went further than Rochas into the realms of the after life. He was described by Castelot as a tough feverish little man with a sardonic expression on a face part faunlike and part Mephistophelean, fearless necromancer and pioneer magnetiser and magician without reproach who successfully thwarted occasional attempts to deprive him of his commanding academic position.
These early researchers had the courage of their convictions and could be thoroughly unreasonable as well as successful men!