Submitted by Don M. Garabaggio
Nearly two hundred years ago New England poet and journalist Nathaniel Parker Willis (1807-1867) penned a poem titled “The Dying Alchymist”, depicting a man floundering in his ability to save his mortal body from natural death. Willis explores in detail the anthropological and cosmological perspectives of the Alchymist on his deathbed. Remarkably, this nineteenth-century poet summons in the Alchymist’s death-throes a worldview much like the popular current attitude in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Willis portrays the Alchymist’s over-reliance upon scientific knowledge and ability as the product of a contemptible and meagre perspective of the world. To the Alchymist, it seems only his own hand can stay death, thus his faith, like the faith of modern man, is clutched within his own fingers.
Willis’ contemporary, the novelist William Beckford (1760-1844) writes in his Gothic novel Vathek, “for it is but just, that men who so often arrogate to their own merit the good of which they are but instruments, should attribute to themselves the absurdities which they could not prevent.” Just so, Willis’ Alchymist presumes to a mastery of nature and balks at the dead-end out of which his mastery ought to navigate. Mistaking scientific knowledge and its applications for superiority over nature and license to subvert it is the Alchymist’s downfall. His pose of godlike power and longevity is so crucial to his worldview that its negation, even at the hands of natural and predictable events, causes him to founder. Contemporary writers like Romano Guardini and Wendell Berry also mark this end-of-life shock in the reaction to postmodernity’s confused ideas of man and his place.
The threat of coronavirus, the unseen and imminent disease, brings alongside economic shutdowns and quarantine orders unexpected and (in modern times) unprecedented time to reflect. Public reactions to the pandemic show signs of belief in science and technology as the entities which Americans rely upon most to protect them from disease. Of course, this is nothing new. What is new, as Guardini and Berry write and Willis pre-emptively captures, is the intense focus upon science as the guarantor of mortal life whose end is unacceptable. In short, a prevailing view that this life is all; that life is worthless for its natural end, but infinitely redeemable through superior science’s revisions.
This article offers an interpretation of the Alchymist’sperspectives in Willis’ poem and connects them to contemporary attitudes noted by Guardini and Berry. The poem is presented in its entirety first.
“The Dying Alchymist”
The night wind with a desolate moan swept by;
And the old shutters of the turret swung
Screaming upon their hinges; and the moon,
As the torn edges of the clouds flew past,
Struggled aslant the stain’d and broken panes
So dimly, that the watchful eye of death
Scarcely was conscious when it went and came.
The fire beneath the crucible was low;
Yet still it burn’d; and ever as his thoughts
Grew insupportable, he raised himself
Upon his wasted arm, and stirr’d the coals
With difficult energy; and when the rod
Fell from his nerveless fingers, and his eye
Felt faint within its socket, he shrunk back
Upon his pallet, and with unclosed lips
Mutter’d a curse on death! The silent room,
From its dim corners, mockingly gave back
His rattling breath; the humming in the fire
Had the distinctness of a knell; and when
Duly the antique horologe beat one,
He drew a phial from beneath his head,
And drank.An instantly his lips compress’d,
And, with a shudder in his skeleton frame,
He rose with supernatural strength, and sat
Upright, and communed with himself:—
I did not think to die
‘Till I had finish’d what I had to do,
I thought to pierce th’ eternal secret through
With this my mortal eye;
I felt—oh God ! it seemeth even now
This cannot be the death-dew on my brow!
And yet it is—I feel,
Of this dull sickness at my heart, afraid!
And in my eyes the death-sparks flash and fade;
And something seems to steal
Over my bosom like a frozen hand—
Binding its pulses with an icy band.
And this is death!But why,
Feel I this wild recoil? It cannot be
Th’ immortal spirit shuddereth to be free?
Would it not leap to fly,
Like a chain’d eaglet at its parent’s call?
I fear—I fear—that this poor life is all!
Yet thus to pass away !—
To live but for a hope that mocks at last—
To agonize, to strive, to watch, to fast,
To waste the light of day,
Night’s better beauty, feeling, fancy, thought,
All that we have and are—for this—for naught!
Grant me another year,
God of my spirit !—but a day—to win
Something to satisfy this thirst within !
I would know something here!
Break for me but one seal that is unbroken !
Speak for me but one word that is unspoken !
Vain—vain !—my brain is turning
With a swift dizziness, and my heart grows sick,
And these hot temple-throbs come fast and thick,
And I am freezing—burning—
Dying ! Oh God ! if I might only live !
My phial—Ha ! it thrills me—I revive!
Ay—were not man to die,
He were too mighty for this narrow sphere !
Had he but time to brood on knowledge here—
Could he but train his eye—
Might he but wait the mystic word and hour—
Only his Maker would transcend his power !
Earth has no mineral strange—
Th’ illimitable air no hidden wings—
Water no quality in hidden springs,
And fire no power to change—
Seasons no mystery, and stars no spell,
Which the unwasting soul might not compel.
Oh, but for time to track
The upper stars into the pathless sky—
To see th’ invisible spirits, eye to eye—
To hurl the lightning back—
To tread unhurt the sea’s dim-lighted halls—
To chase Day’s chariot to the horizon-walls—
And more, much more—for now
The life-seal’d fountains of my nature move—
To nurse and purify this human love—
To clear the godlike brow
Of weakness and mistrust, and bow it down,
Worthy and beautiful, to the much-loved one—
This were indeed to feel
The soul-thirst slaken at the living stream—
To live—oh God ! that life is but a dream !
And death—Aha ! I reel—
Dim—dim—I faint—darkness comes o’er my eye—
Cover me ! save me !—God of heaven ! I die!
‘Twas morning, and the old man lay alone.
No friend had closed his eyelids, and his lips,
Open and ashy pale, th’ expression wore
Of his death-struggle.His long silvery hair
Lay on his hollow temples thin and wild,
His frame was wasted, and his features wan
And haggard as with want, and in his palm
His nails were driven deep, as if the throe
Of the last agony had wrung him sore.
The storm was raging still.The shutters swung
Screaming as harshly in the fitful wind,
And all without went on—as aye it will,
Sunshine or tempest, reckless that a heart
Is breaking, or has broken, in its change.
The fire beneath the crucible was out;
The vessels of his mystic art lay round,
Useless and cold as the ambitious hand
That fashion’d them, and the small rod,
Familier to his touch for threescore years,
Lay on th’ alembic’s rim, as if it still
Might vex the elements at its master’s will.
And thus had pass’d from its unequal frame
A soul of fire—a sun-bent eagle stricken
From his high soaring down—an instrument
Broken with its own compass.Oh how poor
Seems the rich gift of genius, when it lies,
Like the adventurous bird that hath out-flown
His strength upon the sea, ambition-wreck’d—
A thing the thrush might pity, as she sits
Brooding in quiet in her lowly nest!
Willis’ poem describes the inner turmoil of a man who despises his natural life so much that he spends all his power trying to make more of it. Much like the modern mind, the Alchymist despises the natural because it imposes a hard limit on the inventions and synthesized ideas – or super-natural pursuits – that the mind can conjure. What the poet calls “the rich gift of genius”, the Alchymist thinks of as an object distinct-from but dependent-upon the natural body as if it were “chain’d” thereto.This mind-body animosity is especially noticeable in the contemporary era with its fantasies of disembodied minds housed online, AI competent to human cognition, and practical acceptance of transgenderism.
The initial stanza of the poem begins setting the physical stage for the poem and introduces the most important themes. There is a storm raging: absolute, neither directed nor discriminate. The physical particulars of the scene are all old, stooping, unbuttoned, well-worn relics of an age and formalism now derelict. They are nearly unmoored, swinging freely, attached only to the pieces connected to underlying form. The theme of vision and dimness arises; first in the form of the windows, the points-of-access to the inside of the relic-house, which are so broken and dirty that even in good conditions they should barely admit or emit any vision, then in the moon and “the eye of death”, that struggle against this structure of dimness, demonstrating the unnatural character of the place.
In the second stanza, the Alchymist’s working-fire wanes during the storm, mirroring his fading state. The crucible remains on the fire as if this sickness took him in the middle of his work. Despite its diminished state it lingers and he stirs the coals with great effort in order to coax the flames back to life. The continual coaxing of the energy of life by his own hand shows his fight against the body.
Yet from his dying and near-senseless grasp fall the tools of his trade and study, and his natural faculty of sight begins to fade to dimness. So, he curses death, as it comes dimming both his body and work, agnostic to both his accomplishment and fervour. The room only echoes it, poking fun at his fading and impotence by its emotionless silence. Even the fire which the Alchymist stirs to excitement with his feeble and desperate energy is distinctly unexciting, his supposed final efforts completely monotone.
This shakes the Alchymist, who then seizes his potion and downs it. The effect is immediate as the power swells within him, the magnus of the magus stirred by a scientifically-alteredhand. His very mortal coil shudders at the infusion of power – he does have power over life and death. He rises on his pallet with supernatural power and returns to himself in counsel and enjoyment. What does he know but that life is good and to die is bad? How sad that the time to die comes before the means of life is distilled.
In stanza three, the Alchymist realises through a rational inward analysis that, obviously, he is going to die. This reflection upon the obvious, which he has to process scientifically, reveals that his work has consumed his entire lifespan. He believes that his sacrifice to the work ought to have sustained the life until the work was complete. What was that work? It was sustaining life and wringing its riches out through its secrets and backdoors, it was the Alchymist’s wish to use and refine the inferior tools of natural life to “pierce” the supernatural, to leverage the momentum of the human tendency of discovery to sustain himself and take a lion’s share of the spoils. In this pursuit, he believes himself synonymous with the revelatory process and its products: “With this my mortal eye;” (emphasis mine). Still, the liquid sustains him as he goes to assert this belief again, but he is rattled like his house in the raging storm as he sees the truth. Despite the temporary power to fight nature that his work gives him, the Alchymist’srealisation that he is not synonymous with this work – that scientific knowledge is impartial and will not reward him simply for his pursuit of it – undermines the sense of existential value he felt in his studies.
In the fourth stanza, the Alchymist turns and acknowledges again the feeling of natural power overwhelming him. However, his long denial leaves him only a “dull” fear – no comfort or familiarity with powerlessness – in his heart. He feels only the hollow, gnawing drop of a stomach denied first its desire by necessity, then its necessity through stubbornness. Almost in rebellion against him, the Alchymist’s eyes sparkle with the pulsing of slowly-dimming energy. I suggest that it is the supernatural in his life overlaid with clumsy artifice and belief that fades. The unknown agency of death seems to appear amidst his doubt and creeps sneakily over the falsely-stirred fire in his chest, smothering it, tightening up the cords of his body, and dimming the coals back to frozen stillness. Before this swiftly-stirred fire, he sees, he was frozen. He is bound once again as a prisoner is re-bound after awakening from a dream of freedom. The virility of the natural encloses its end and this reality overruns the presumptive thumos with which the Alchymist infuses his work. Ironically, the Alchymist is with his dimmed eye, about to “pierce th’ eternal secret” at which he has so long clawed.
The link to the scientific mindset is introduced in the fifth stanza, and it is therefore incredibly important for this study. The Alchymist is afraid of the finality of the natural death. The feverish tone of his work and dedication suggest that this fear is a perpetual condition and a motivating factor for all his work. His constant “recoil” at the natural and his attempts at subjugation of the natural to his crypto-scientific investigations demonstrate that the Alchymist views nature as something repulsively compulsory, as something primitive to be overcome. His belief that the supernatural nature of his work would surpass and sustain life for the work’s extent necessitates the anthropological lie he has told himself; that is, that the purpose of his investigations, his life, is to “pierce th’ eternal secret.” This cannot be true, as the goal of the pursuit has the finite end of acquiring the supernatural knowledge which he clearly believes is attainable, whereas it is only this supposedly-worthy pursuit of the knowledge which he believes sustains him against the natural forces. Obviously, he believes that securing the secret would be to secure life, but his fear of nature is so total that he frames his life work against it rather than for the supernatural.
The true purpose of the Alchymist’s investigations is to prolong his own detested life and stave off a more-detestabledeath. It is much the same in the world which believes it has to supersede the natural cycle of birth, sickness, and death – or the natural order of man and woman – in order to live any valuablelife at all. It is much the same in the world which will determine the worth of a life by its prospects at the outset. The mindsets of scientific tinkering and worrying ostensibly adopt curiosity as an excuse to make unpalatable and fearful pursuits noble.
The Alchymist here asks, unprepared, whether what he is finally experiencing is death. This rhetorical question is truly a sign of ignorant disbelief, disbelief which he then capitalizes upon to make an assertion of supernatural will over the natural. He proclaims that it is impossible for the spirit to wish to be free of so instrumental a body and so critical a study. He bemoans the natural order in the simile of the eaglet and its parent, claiming his body is a chain binding the soul. He rejects the natural order of the soul and afterlife in the guise of child and parent, respectively. The Alchymist’s attitude and the attitude of modern science is captured in the final line of the stanza: “I fear—I fear—that this poor life is all!”
In the sixth stanza, the Alchymist appears to regret dying riddled with fears and uncertainties, so to assuage such fears, he lists the constructed certainties his studies command. Before this, however, the Alchymist proclaims his most pessimistic observation: he calls his work “a hope that mocks at last—”. By decrying this perpetual pursuit as unworthy of life, he may intend to place pursuit of knowledge above life, merely disclaiming the insufficiency of the natural, but he actually positions himself in limbo between a perceptually untimely death and an unsatisfying plunge back into the chain-body of unfulfilling pursuit. He summarises: everything is for naught. Yet he fears the naught because it is ultimately unpredictable and beyond the bounds of his study, it is the barrier between himself and “th’ eternal secret” in the end. His perspective has now developed within this story of his death. The supernatural for him is the avoidant pursuit of natural benefit, which he in turn now denies has any value, no longer even hoping for its instrumentality in the continued pursuit. So, the fear of death, in the crucible of its own face at its encounter, becomes nihilism undermining any incentive to death’s avoidance.
In stanza seven, the Alchymist begs a God in whom he has no confidence to grant more time in a natural life he by rule despises. It appears as if for a moment the Alchymist will claim the materialist motivation behind his study, but he defers. He claims God as the “God of my spirit,” and asks a boon to satisfy his spiritual thirst. (Does he abandon the principle of his own study, that everything is transactional? What now does he offer to God?). Yet still, his bent spirit is apparent when the boon the Alchymist asks is once again secret knowledge. It appears only as madness that a man recognises the futility of his supernatural pursuits and contrivances, rallies to a higher power, then asks for the success of those very same futile projects. And for what, except “to know something here”! Ultimately, the Alchymistdemonstrates the confusion of the materialist mindset which bends its spirit not in humility, but to scrounge up the gnostic detritus of experimentation with the natural life as its broom.
In the eighth stanza, the Alchymist moans again the nihilistic descent of his wasted personhood (in the form of a dedicated and failed task) and talks of his brain turning. Perhaps this suggests the unmooring of rationality in there stressed moments, or perhaps it suggests his recognition of the failure of his own power. The fear-sickness at heart again washes upon him. He cries out to God, begging to live – then turns again to his own hand and takes his revival from himself.
In the ninth stanza, the Alchymist explicates his work’s true thesis, yet-hidden in the poem by his own delusions about his purpose. His first claim is that death, the running hourglass on a man’s life, is the sole barrier to his mastery of the natural and transcendence to the court of the Maker. His second claim, that with training and proper timing for his action man couldtranscend, assumes that the first claim is correct and that the Alchymist is on the right path. However, his assertion of these claims seems faulty considering his own waning confidence in his mission, as seen in stanzas 3-7. The situation is clearer if we see it as the Alchymist experiencing a mental revival and reinforcing himself against all natural facts. This strengthens the bulwark of his belief in his doomed mission as an echo of the physical revival his first draught brings in stanza 2.
In stanzas ten and eleven, he continues his reinvigorated restatement of assertions, of the value and justice of “this thirst within” which begs satisfaction, and stretches his neck to spit upon forces greater than nature, which he supposedly surpasses and to which he succumbs. Even as the natural body fails him in his mission with the corruption of time, he repudiates it, painting over the natural world a scene accessible, formulaic, and without mystery. He calls the natural decay “waste,” and with his reduction dismisses the value of all before his dimming eyes.The spheres are pierced like soap bubbles to him – or would be – if he only could study more. Zeus, Neptune, Helios, all spiritsand forces would fly before him, he claims, stumbling and impotent, were his eyes truly opened. His sight must be discovered and defined – divined even – by the blind.
In stanza twelve, we may wonder if the Alchymist turns and sees the error of his ways. Does he see the truth of his weakness, or does he again fantasise past it? He feels the very core of his nature shift, or oscillate. Its agitation stirs him to shift dialogue to love and eternal things, yet the attitude is that of a man who thinks he is too late. This movement weakly seems to cure the haughty, “godlike brow”. Its “mistrust” is expurgated, but so is its weakness – it is expurgated into hopelessness. It “bows down” and perhaps for the first time, tastes real knowledge, bitter and dark.
In stanza thirteen, the Alchymist finally perceives the contradiction developed in his own mind in stanzas 1-11 and repents of them, relinquishing the mastery of the “life-sealed fountains” to the supremacy of “the living stream.” He perceives the fantastic (or properly, mysterious) nature of the natural life with its obsessions, and sees death’s dimness approaching. Rather than bewail his eyes’ dimness, his blindness to the natural, at last the Alchymist begs for cover. In the darkness, he begs for cover and turns beyond himself at last. Here the reader finds that external focus can also be a tool of selfish or inward-focused thinking, but true external focus involves sacrifice of self to the external’s overwhelming supremacy – it can still involve inward-focused or selfish thinking (like all decisions must), but acknowledges the inferiority of the self and most importantly gives up control). What is catching about this shift in the thirteenth stanza is that it prescribes an antidote to the modern perspective through the dual example of rectification with the natural and the supernatural in one move.
Stanza fourteen is the symbolic fulfilment of this last-minute rectification. In the morning, the Alchymist is alone, dead. His friendlessness left his natural body with no one to care for it. As a result, in the last there are no natural worries or worriers for him. His body is entirely, wholly abandoned to whatever nature wills; he has failed entirely in his life’s work. He has, however, through his trust and the Maker’s cover, surpassed the body and transcended – not in the desecratory way the Alchymist designed, but through a way endemic to the body from its beginning. His eyelids, the constant symbols of his natural might, the enemies of nature’s dimness, are open, staring, clear, piercing finally unencumbered and looking entirely focused upon the world. It appears that he stares right through it, straight beyond its details. His lips are snarled as if in a fight. As he predicted, the natural body is a “waste”, but it was not through its own wasted effort that he left it behind. “…in his palm / His nails were driven deep…” mimicking the crucifixion of Christ, marking his long-left body with signs of his struggling and redemptive agony.
The storm outside the home continues going on in its terror in stanza fifteen. Its harshness is unchanged by any event of the night, following the unmarrable course of nature unperturbed. It reckons nothing of any man’s will or heart, be they breaking for the storm’s weight or broken already by a complete change of nature. The poet here shows the whirling circumstance of natural life is unassailable – yet surpassable – by the power of the Maker, i.e. by a refusal to accept the natural life as an unfortunate pit from which the intrepid spirit must climb.
Stanza sixteen reports that the hubris of the Alchymist’sworks and tools remains as a consequence within the natural world. The pieces cool and are as useless as the coals beneath the Alchymist’s driving fire. No elements will be combined or defied by them any longer. The futile instruments are just like the body cooling on the bed, “the hope that mocks at last”: well-wrought, perhaps, but ill-used, unsuccessful, and ultimately static as greater powers whirl on. Without the will to drive them and to drive them properly, all the pieces of the house are sorrowfully and naturally still.
In the final stanza, the poem depicts the Alchymist’s body – sans soul – in its true form, corrupted with pride and selfish, short-sighted contrivances. He was thrust down to Earth, it seems, back within the compass of the natural without pity. The Maker’s “gift of genius” was wasted in the Alchymist, not because he didn’t use it, but because he believed more firmly in it and its power to secure him wellbeing than in the Maker Himself. By rejecting the natural, the Alchymist lost sight of the very supernatural mystery of his own gift, de-mystifying and unenchanting his own power. He begged in the end to be granted more time to brood on things, but to the very end worked more frantically to deny and overcome than to understand.
Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World on the topic
In his analytical work The End of the Modern World, Romano Guardini identifies and discusses the main eras of philosophical and anthropological thought of the western world – a world in which Nathaniel Parker Willis’ poem is centred and though which it works. Guardini’s thesis, to quote Frederick D. Wilhelmsen’s introduction, is that “for the first time in history, man has absolutely no place in the universe”. The book proceeds through its essays to paint a serious-but-realistic vision of the coming era, where “the universe of relativity physics has abolished the concept and the very reality of place itself”,thrusting man into a world of his own construction where he is, but is without reference. Guardini says that the hallmarks of the modern man are an emphasis upon following nature, acquiring acculturation, and developing personality. However, in the new-and-coming conception of the world, which Willis’ Alchymistpersonifies, the new “Mass Man” will reject nature as nothing more than a crippled raw material awaiting the exploitation, anthropocentration, and salvation of Mass Man’s own scientific devices. Wilhelmsen summarises: “Thus nature [to Mass Man] either fades away and becomes that last inaccessible residuum lying just beyond the reach of scientific understanding, or nature is admitted within the walls of technology wherein it is symbolised in mathematical formulae”. This situation leads to a man without personality, without identity, except in the power over his natural circumstances and their world. To this man – to Willis’ Alchymist – personality is sublimated entirely into accretion and expressions of power, which, upon contextualisation within a higher mystery, may be sounded as hollow by an honest use of the same reasoning that evaluates power within a lower context.
Guardini writes in the section entitled “The New Concept of the World and of Man,” “When we examine the motives of human endeavour and the play of forces set in motion by historical decisions, we discover everywhere a basic will at work, the will to dominion”. In every era, this will is expressed differently: in antiquity, it was harmonised with the overarching harmony of the universe – men acted in accordance with God’s will; in the middle ages, this same “authority and holy power” was relied upon, but from its position outside the world of men; in modernity, this power fell from the sky and the will was free to determine its own ends within the rational processes of nature. To Mass Man and the Alchymist, this will to dominion is expressed not in accordance with nature, but in fear of it and its inevitable overrunning of their designs. The fear of the natural at once confuses Mass Man’s perception of his power over inanimate nature and his powerlessness in the face of animate nature, whose workings remain a mystery. This fear also drives him to attempt to control animate nature by inelegant force. This process devalues and negates all a priori worth of natural life by subjugating all inborn values to misinformed expedience. Guardini captures it: “To wield power that is neither determined by moral responsibility nor curbed by respect of person results in the destruction of all that is human in the wielder himself”.
Guardini comments on the alchemical nature of Mass Man’s perspective at length, often in the same verbiage which the poet uses describing the Alchymist’s thinking. He writes,
The modern world view conceived of a nature that was as much its own norm as it was a system of security. Nature was considered to be a complicated apparatus of laws and interrelations which on the one hand bound man, and on the other safeguarded and warranted his existence. Today, knowledge and technology are breaking up the natural forms. Even the elements are open to seizure. […] nature today is a mere sum of matter and energies under man’s control (page 188).
Compare that breaking perspective to the Alchymist’s:
Earth has no mineral strange—
Th’ illimitable air no hidden wings—
Water no quality in covert springs,
And fire no power to change—
Seasons no mystery, and stars no spell,
Which the unwasting soul might not compel.
The struggle throughout the poem is against the natural powers over which the Alchymist presumes competence through his knowledge and technology. His fight is ever against nature, “to hurl the lightning back—”, and the interacting themes of dimness and vanity ever mock the presumption of this Mass Man. Guardini lauds the coming man who he hopes will use the Alchymist’s ambition and “gift of genius” to embrace responsibility and know the assumption of man into a higher power. Indeed, the Alchymist’s salvation is wrought from this assumption, yet unyielding nature still takes its toll. Where Guardini’s Mass Man finds harmony with nature in its higher, motivating powers and joins with it in responsibility, Willis’ Alchymist is dissolved by nature – he faces its consequences and is destroyed by the responsibility.
Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle on the topic
In Life is a Miracle, the writer Wendell Berry examines the modern (and yet-developing) popular perspective of the world in a series of essays. The first, second, and third essays, “Ignorance,” “Propriety,” and “On Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience,” respectively, discuss the perspective of Willis’ Alchymist and Guardini’s Mass Man.
In “Ignorance”, Berry expresses his sadness at the oversimplifications of life found in the sciences. He writes that modern science in the hands of Mass Man has in its attitudes and perspectives a distaste for the products of human experience, which comprise the natural and only source of understanding of value that contextualises human activity. Berry writes that there is a “danger that we can give up on life also by presuming to ‘understand’ it,” and “by treating it as predictable or mechanical”. This danger is ever-present now as the modern perspective has infused language, so that any discussion of life or nature happens in mechanized and simplified systematic terms. In other words, there is a presumptive spirit endemic to the current spirit of man that assumes mastery of nature at his own, unknown peril. Berry remarks, “it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding is inevitably to enslave it,” bolstering Guardini’s argument that following from fear of nature is an inelegant reaction of force aimed to control it. Where Guardini warns of the danger to others through this scientific reductionism, Berry warns of the dangers to the scientist himself. He writes, “Though we have life, it is beyond us,” and warns that the reclassification of that beyond “from creature to machine must involve at least a perilous reduction of moral complexity”.
To Berry, universal human experience reveals to man the limits of his own knowledge. It is a self-deception on his part to assume understanding or mastery of nature as a whole. His firm belief is that “to treat life as less than a miracle” is a shirking of man’s natural duty: it constitutes an abdication of the position of responsibility man has as a part of nature to act as part of it, in ignorance, alongside all the other whirling elements. The central question of science is how to act in ignorance, and Berry cautions the reader with words which may have served the Alchymist well, “to trust…our putative ‘genius’ to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion”. Berry asks, contextualising his attempt to centre study around man and his natural place once again, “what is the point of further study of nature if that leads to the further destruction of nature?”.
In “Propriety”, Berry discusses the “fittingness” of the works of man to his temporary and natural being and his responsibility to a higher law. He strikes against the individualism of the world which imagines man living without reference to the local variations and commitments of place or situation. This attitude of transcendence beyond the common life, the natural life, the particular, is a trait which Berry and Guardini note in Mass Man and which Willis’ Alchymistembodies. Berry critiques the current man:
The professionals of the disciplines don’t care where they are. Though they are inescapably in context, they assume or pretend that they think and work without context. They subscribe to the pre-eminence of the mind and … of the career. The questions of propriety, calling as they must for local answers, call necessarily for smallanswers. But small local answers are now as far beneath the notice of professionalism as of commercialism. Professionalism aspires to big answers, … for answers that are uniform and universal,”
in other words, for answers like magic charms or alchemical formulae. It is this “inescapably in context”-ness against which the Alchymist struggles. Though he is within nature, he longs for, and indeed deludes himself to believe he has achieved, transcendence of nature. The answers which the Alchymistseeks are indeed uniform and universal, bits of absolute truth to be leveraged as tools for the very “pre-eminence of the mind” which supports study in the first place. This self-referential nature of unnatural study that Berry notes in Mass Man’s professional pursuits is a recurring theme in Willis’ poem. The Alchymist fights all his life to the very last breath for a bit more life – he trades all his energy for a key to save himself energy. Berry continues,
But under various suasions of profession and personality, this legitimate faith in scientific methodology seems to veer off into a kind of religious faith in the power of science to know all things and solve all problems, whereupon the scientist may become an evangelist and go forth to save the world.
The Alchymist holds this exact perspective – it is only in his most dire moments (and interspersed with relapses to dependence upon his own hand) that he ever turns beyond his faith in his concoctions to sustain the body for continuedpursuits. It is exactly this perspective which leads him to the mistaken understanding of the unknown as the unknown-yet that Berry criticises in the third essay.
In “On Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience”, Berry is occupied with a critique of scientific hubris which he sees in the book named in the essay’s title. One of the chief reasons Berry has for rejecting Wilson’s arguments is that Wilson has a “doctrinaire intolerance for any sort of mystery”, especially of the sort inherent in that natural world which demands man act in ignorance. But Wilson, as a Mass Man of kindred spirit to the Alchymist, “understands mystery as attributable entirely to human ignorance,” just as the poet’s Mass Man claims that “Oh but for time to track” the natural world would complete mastery of the natural world and its powers be his. The Alchymist, just like Wilson, in Berry’s words “appropriates [mystery] for the future of human science; in his formula, the unknown = the to-be-known”. Berry goes on to assert that the scientific perspective rightfully-held is contextualised by the locality and personality of the scientist, thus Guardini’s Mass Man, as a man without personality and mere power in its place, is “no longer within the bounds of science”. This false science practised by Mass Man professionals and Willis’ student of the alchemical arts reaches “beyond the reach of proof” in its practise to an expression of what Guardini termed “the will to dominion” and turns into a demonstration of “hubris without a bang,” a self-defeating demonstration, a shout into a raging storm.
Berry repeats as a thesis for this third essay that “the only science we have or can have is human science”, replete with all the weaknesses, biases, and errors that limited knowledge and resources impose. It is foolish, then, to put faith into the processes of a specialised, human-limited practise in the best cases with the best motivations. How much worse can these processes become when used by the selfish, or by those in whom the natural bounds of nature hold no respect? “Science-technology-and-industry has enabled us to be precise in describing objects that are extremely small and near or extremely large and far away,” Berry concludes, but “it has failed utterly to provide us with even adequate descriptions of the place… we live in – probably because it cannot do so”. The act of describing place, by Berry’s meaning, goes beyond capturing a scene or reality – it includes perception of the human situation, reflection upon the place of people within the world.
The man in common between these works is one whosereliance upon scientific technique to overcome the natural leads him to increasing disorientation within the world he is attempting to counteract. His fear or denigration of nature leads him to rash action against it – and by extension against the body – viewing the natural mystery of life as only a problem to be solved. The fear with which the coronavirus presents the contemporary man is identical to the fear of the Alchymist. It is a malady of misinformation, faultily treated by buffering the life from its natural consequences. This is exactly the path of action demonstrated by the Alchymist in Willis’ poem. A man, nearing his natural end and lamenting his lack of control, sees too latethe loss in his life’s work, the humiliating arrogation of unnatural means to a loathsome end.
It is hopeful that public attitudes shift toward an acceptance of nature’s covering, that we may be informed by a proper anthropology and cosmology of humility before the inevitable dimness. But contemporary thought is alienated from an understanding that makes these proper -ologies obtainable: we stir our own spirits in deductive fires in the dark.