Salman Rushdie and the History of Alchemy

Dr. Margareta Petersson, Lecturer, Department of the Humanities, Högskolan i Växjö, Sweden [Margareta.Petersson@hum.hv.se]

Alchemy is one of the oldest eclectic traditions. It was prevalent in Europe and Egypt, among the Arabs, in China and India and the different traditions have influenced each other. Its origin is veiled in obscurity but it is often located to Alexandria and the first centuries A.D. Many cultures converged here: Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, Persian, Syrian and Christian and out of this cosmopolitan environment, thronging with immigrants, grew syncretistic rites, cults and a conception of the unitary character of nature or matter. Rushdie refers in East, West to a couple of books about occultism by James Webb. He emphasizes the central historical role of Alexandria: "the City where the East touches the West". Webb's books deals in a syncretistic way with ockultism in general, tarot, cabbala, theosophy, Rosicrucians and other secret societies - phenomena which play a certain role already in Grimus . The symbols of the alchemical tradition are recurring elements in Webb's books. Mircea Eliade's The Forge and the Crucible (1956) is more important as a survey of the conceptions of the alchemcal tradition. Most essential for my analyses, however, have been several of C.G. Jung's books, such as Psychology and Alchemy, Alchemical Studies and Mysterium Coniunctionis.

It is striking that the countries where alchemy developed play a significant part in Rushdie's texts. Even if the novels take place in India, Pakistan and Britain, there are constant references to Persia, Egypt and Greece. Allusions to Greek mythology are scattered in the novels, most densely in The Satanic Verses. A Persian myth structures the plot in Grimus, a Persian alchemist as well as an Egyptian moon god are important to the main character in Midnight's Children. In Shame the main character takes his name from a Persian poet. I have already stressed the importance of The Arabian Nights. Brennan has noted the significance of Persia in the novels. The country is, he writes, a meeting place between Europe and Asia and a legendary proof of a common heritage.

The Arabs were in charge of the alchemical tradition from the eight century and through them the Greek speculations about the elements were inserted into alchemy. The Arab or Persian alchemist Ibn Sina developed an elixir as a universal remedy. The alchemical elixir was regarded as having the same therapeutic role in sixteenth century Europe. =46rom this conception the idea of an elixir of life arose. The elixir in Grimus grants immortality. Alchemy was not transmitted to Europe until the twelfth and thirteenth century when a series of Arabic works were translated. The crusaders were possibly another important intermediary. Alchemy had an era of greatness during the seventeenth century. Alchemical conceptions and symbols were taken up in secret societies, of which the Rosicrucians are the most well known. The artist and alchemist Michel Maier is by this time working in the "Mecca" of alchemy, in Prague. He has made emblematic images of alchemical ideas, for example, of the cyclic process, embodied in the mythical serpent Ouroboros. He also provided his precursors in the tradition with emblems. I think that one such emblem, attached to Ibn Sina, has been of great thematic importance to Rushdie.

References

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation . London: Macmillan, 1989.

Webb, James. The Occult Establishment. Vol II, The Age of Irrational. Glasgow: Richard Drew Publishing, 1976.

Webb, James. The Occult Underground . La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1974.

Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment . London: ARK Paperbacks, 1972 repr. 1986.


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