Paracelsus Magic into Science – Henry M. Pachter
Collier Books – 1951
I was looking for a new book to start at the end of November when I picked up a most peculiar volume off my shelf. 100,000 Years of Man’s Unknown History had come as part of a set of cooky ancient-alien books that I bought years ago, and as I skimmed through it, I saw mention of the mysterious Count Von Küffstein and his homunculi. (If you’re not familiar with the Count Von K, you might want to check out my post about Aleister Crowley’s strange creations.) I was intrigued, but I was about to spend half the day on a bus and I wanted a smaller book that would fit in my pocket. I was buzzing off the idea of homunculis though, and so I picked up the biography of Paracelsus that I had found on a ‘free books’ table when I was in university.
Paracelsus was a travelling doctor/healer in the 16th century. He disdained the traditional academic approach to medicine and tried to figure out better ways to heal people. Most of his methods would sound very silly to us today, but his approach, which was based on reasoning and experiment, has contributed to the development of the modern scientific method. He was a pretty cool guy too. He traveled around Europe, healing people, writing books, getting drunk and starting arguments with local professors and doctors.
The man’s life was interesting, but in truth, this book is actually quite boring. However, when it comes to books on Paracelsus, I reckon the boring ones are probably the most trustworthy. Pachter’s focus is on how Paracelsus influenced science, and while he never denies Paracelsus’s fascination with the occult, he doesn’t give it as quite as much attention as I maybe would have liked. There’s only a few very brief mentions of Homunculi in here. (Paracelsus claimed it was possible to create miniature human life by placing glass bottles of sperm into steaming piles of horseshit.)
Pachter acknowledges that other writers have gone completely overboard with their interpretations of the more mystical aspects of Paracelsus’s writings, and even though I was fairly bored with Paracelsus when I finished this one, I went straight on to a silly book on Paracelsus that I had been meaning to read for the past year.
The Life and Doctrines of Paracelsus – Franz Hartmann
The only attraction of this book is the fact that it seems to have been the text that brought the story of Count Von Küffstein to the attention of the occult community towards the end of the 19th century. In the 8th chapter there’s a chapter on Homunculi that contains an extremely lengthy footnote telling the story of Count Von K. As far as I can tell, this book was originally written in German and later translated into English. If it was originally published in German, we can presume that the footnote on the Count was a paraphrase of the account given in Die Sphinx. (Again, read my post on Crowley if you’re not following this.) This would mean that nobody has ever actually translated Die Sphinx directly. I have been toying with the idea of translating and publishing it myself, but I don’t want to waste my time if it was already been done. If anyone has any information on this, please let me know.
Aside from a single footnote, this book was un-fucking-bearable. The first chapter gives an account of Paracelsus’s life, and the rest explores his beliefs. This is basically the exact opposite of Pachter’s book. While Pachter gives perfunctory mention to the more nonsensical ideas of Paracelsus, Hartmann wallows in them. I read the first two chapters and then skimmed till I got to the homunculus bit. I simply wasn’t prepared to give these dated and stupid concepts the attention that would be required to make sense of them. This book was utter shit.
From The Book of Alchemy
Paracelsus was actually cooler than I expected, but these books were a real chore to read. I’m reading two other dry ones at the moment, and I don’t think I’ll move straight on to 100,000 Years of Man’s Unknown History as I reckon I ought to treat myself to something a bit more enjoyable first. The story of Paracelsus played a part in shaping the Faustian Legend, and I am now considering a reread of Marlowe and Goethe’s versions of that tale for a future post on the same.
Paracelsus was Swiss born, but James Joyce thought so highly of him that he included him in a list of Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity in Ulysses.
7 thoughts on “The Trials and Tribulations of (reading about) Paracelsus”
I love Marlowe’s Faust, and am looking forward to reading Goethe’s at some point, as well.
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I read Marlowe a long time ago, but I also really enjoyed it. I never actually got around to the second book of Goethe’s version as I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get most of the allusions in it. I think it’s about time to give it a go!
Apparently there is a possibility that the word bombastic comes from his middle name, though there is another possibility, that it is to do with a word meaning padding. Dr Bombastic, very fantastic …
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I’ve just updated the post there to include Paracelsus’s Irish connection.
That’s hilarious! Is that from The Citizen bit of Ulysses?
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I disagree with your review on Franz Hartmann’s work regarding Paracelsus. That book is most excellent, and has even been used by the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Disagree to your heart’s content!