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From alchemists to mad scientists: Part I

From Faust to Strangelove by Roslynn D. Haynes

Kirk Smith 11 August 2015

Experimental: a 19th century image of Faust

The complexity and obscurity of alchemical 'expertise' would have seemed as inaccessible as twenty-first century astrophysics or molecular biology do today

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the first of a three-part essay review of a truly classic text in the history of science in fiction, from our regular contributor Kirk Smith. Use the navigation buttons on the top right to access the next part.

The book From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (1994) by Roslynn D. Haynes, an academic at the University of New South Wales, is not widely known. In my search for fiction about science, I came across a passing reference almost by accident while searching the web for something else.

Haynes’s first chapter title, “Evil Alchemists and Doctor Faustus,” surprised me. Since I’d begun thinking and writing about lab lit, it had never occurred to me that there was any link between alchemy and the Faust character in legend and literature stretching back to the Middle Ages and the image of science and scientists implicit in much of modern fiction.

Although From Faust to Strangelove is not for everyone who enjoys reading about the private lives of working scientists, it will be of interest to anyone who is concerned about the negative image of the scientist in much of popular culture, or who would like it to be more accurate and realistic. Haynes’s useful and insightful history actually extends beyond the mid-1960s of Strangelove and covers some fiction written as recently as the 1970s. Over the course of her book, Haynes marshals an impressive case for her claim that historical events and prominent scientists of the time shape contemporary people’s beliefs and attitudes about science as a human enterprise. These in turn influence the image of scientists found in fiction and on stage – and more recently, on movie and television screens. Haynes supports her argument by showing the connections among fiction, nonfiction and historical events in each century from the Middle Ages to mid-twentieth century.

Readers may legitimately quibble about the validity of Haynes’s thesis. She doesn’t directly address the possibility that very popular or influential works of fiction, including plays, movies and television series, could sway the average nonscientist’s perception of scientific research and those who pursue it. Still, readers interested in promoting realistic portrayals of working scientists should at least know about Haynes’s work.

Haynes’s book is so extensive and detailed that the best I can do in this review is to sample a few of the virtually unknown gems she has uncovered, along with some of the better-known examples of scientists as characters in literature that she discuses. Haynes also covers a wealth of lesser-known poems, novels, plays and movies. Keep in mind that I have read only a few of the titles mentioned here; however, in the interests of brevity I have phrased Haynes’s assertions without explicitly attributing them to her.

The cultural parallels between alchemists of the Middle Ages and scientists of today in the eyes of ordinary people may seem unwarranted to many contemporary scientists. We tend to look back on alchemists as charlatans and at their “knowledge” as misguided at best and fraudulent at worst. But it is worth remembering that to the average person of the time, the complexity and obscurity of alchemical “expertise” would have seemed as inaccessible as the technical details of twenty-first century astrophysics or molecular biology do today. If we concede for the moment that an alchemist in fiction is a prototype for a modern scientist character, then “The Yeoman’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is an early example. It has not one but three exemplars, and as Haynes shows, each represents a different facet of how the ordinary person regarded alchemy. Only one is a positive image, by the way.

One of the two master alchemists in this tale is clearly a charlatan, who deceives others for personal gain, especially with the promise of transmuting lead into gold. The other master alchemist is more ambiguous. In his public persona he practices the same type of alchemy as the first, but not for personal gain. Rather, he tries to amaze and impress others with the power of alchemy. The third is the second one’s apprentice, who goes along with the public show, but knows very well that he can’t change base metals into gold or satisfy any of alchemy’s other claims. Both he and his master have become disillusioned with the promise of great wealth and lost everything in their pursuit of alchemical studies. From this story, we see examples of diverse and sometimes conflicting agendas that motivate some scientists even today.

The Faust of Haynes’s title was a mythical figure in German folklore long before he became a character in literature. But the basic outlines of his story and character didn’t change, nor did the ambiguity of his motives. A common element of the plot is that he sold his soul to the Devil, but in exchange for what varies widely. Most of the poems and plays about Faust portray him as selfish and evil. But Christopher Marlowe, in his play Doctor Faustus (1604), has him asking for scientific knowledge, although what he actually gets in the end are evasive answers and a parade of the seven deadly sins.

Coming much later, after alchemy had evolved into the science of chemistry, Goethe’s Faust (1828-29) characterizes him as a scholar who is sincerely seeking knowledge beyond the lonely, dreary pursuit of wisdom in his books and experiments. The devil offers the knowledge to be gained in experiencing real life. The libretto for Gounod’s well-known opera of the same name (1859) by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré is based Goethe’s play, but it has Mephistopheles offering Faust mostly youth and sex instead of knowledge.

Sir Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) writings had a major effect on alchemists and the practice of alchemy. Bacon argued for a more empirical, experimental approach to understanding the world and advocated wide dissemination of knowledge and its practical application. He was influential in the formation of the Royal Society to dispel the secrecy that had prevailed. However, the emergence of these “new scientists” did not improve their image in society or fiction. They continued to be lampooned for working on meaningless or even silly questions. The Royal Society, its members and its Transactions came in for their share of the ridicule as well.

One of the most striking figures in this period was Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), whose novel The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666) is a delightful illustration of the mockery of science at the time. Often cited as a very early woman writer, Cavendish was well versed in the philosophy of the time and wrote critiques of the popular mechanistic positions of Hobbs, Descartes and Boyle. However, her novel was at once a utopian science fiction novel and a satire of the “new scientists.” Haynes makes the premises of the story sound so alluring, I think it warrants a brief summary.

The main character is a young woman who via the North Pole enters another world peopled by talking animals that include the Bear-men, who are experimental philosophers, the Bird-men, who are astronomers, the Ape-men, who are chemists, and the Spider- and Lice-men, who are mathematicians. The characters mimic their counterparts in the real world as they engage in ludicrous debates instead of accumulating knowledge. The heroine becomes empress of this absurd world and manages to invade the real world with a futuristic navy equipped with submarines towed by Fish-men and an air force composed of Bird-men who drop fire stones. I’m not sure it’s lab lit but it sure sounds like fun!

Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (the Principia) was first published in 1687 and had a profound influence on the culture of the late eighteenth century. Society lionized Newton as a “scientist for God,” in Haynes’s words. One reason was perhaps the fact that Newton publicly professed his Christian faith. Interestingly, writers of the time and later played down his pursuit of alchemy (an obscure aspect of Newton’s reputation today). What followed Newton’s short glory outside of science was quite confusing. Perhaps the best generalization is that the literature of this period reflected society’s ambivalence about science. Some of the well-known scientists who succeeded Newton in the public eye lacked his religious conviction and were castigated for their arrogance and godless view of God’s Creation. Yet some of the most eloquent critics were of two minds about science, perceiving both the good and the bad effects science had on culture and society after Newton. In some cases, their works show both in the same novel, play or poem.

The complexity of historical developments also makes it difficult to connect them with the publication dates of some of the works cited by Haynes. However, for a reader familiar with the Romantic revolt against the rationalism associated with Newton, Haynes’s account of literary works ranging from the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century will be fascinating. It includes discussions of William Blake’s poetry and painting, Alexander Pope’s poems, Jonathan Swift’s novels, and Charles Dickens’s short stories, as well as two Americans, poet Walt Whitman – “When I heard the learnéd astronomer” – and author Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose short story “The Birthmark” has a chemist protagonist.

Haynes justifiably devotes an entire chapter to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her story has spawned countless variations in novels, sequels, plays, movies and television adaptations that have led to the iconic image of Viktor Frankenstein and his monster. I think many people who have read or seen only the more recent versions may be surprised to learn how the original story differs from the image they picture. I’m a good example. I was struck by how different my ideas about the Frankenstein monster were from Shelley’s more sympathetic treatment of both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation. I recount my reassessment in a review on my blog. Haynes’s analysis of Viktor’s character shows how his devotion to science becomes a fateful hubris. Viktor also came to represent for the Romantic movement the emotional insensitivity of scientists and their work. Moreover, he forms the basis of the popular image of the scientist who pursues a project without regard to its consequences for others and fails to take precautions to prevent the resulting creations from escaping from their laboratories.

In the second part of this review, I’ll consider Haynes’s analysis of the literature of the Victorian Age, including the first two decades of the twentieth century. These years also saw the emergence of the science fiction genre. During the period, the image of the scientist improved and characterizations in literature became more favorable. Finally, in the third part I’ll cover the years between roughly 1920 and 1965, when representations of scientists in literature again moved into negative territory, influenced in part by the impact on society of the atomic bomb.

To be continued