HITTING THE ROAD WITH JOHN RUDY: THE BERKSHIRES

TRAVEL TO THE BERKSHIRES

by John Rudy

When referring to The Berkshires, we typically point to a group of towns in Western Massachusetts including Great Barrington, Lenox, and Stockbridge and to institutions like Tanglewood, the beautiful summer home of the Boston Symphony where they bring in hundreds of incredible students to learn and perform.  There are many other interesting things to do in the Berkshires, and it is very easy to spend weeks taking in what the region has to offer.  It is mostly a straight run west from Boston on the Mass Pike.  Here are some of the things we did in early August of 2019.

We went to three concerts at Tanglewood. One was the BSO performing in “The Shed” which holds about 5.000.  Another 10,000 or so brought chairs and food, sat outside on the grounds, and listened.  The second was a trio of Emanuel Ax, Yoyo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos playing Beethoven Piano Trios in Ozawa Hall.  This time, we sat on the lawn, but since we arrived early, we were only 20’ from the open doors to the hall, so we saw and heard quite well.  The third time, we heard three Beethoven Piano Sonatas played by Yefim Bronfman in Ozawa Hall.  It rained that evening, and, due to lightning, they shut down the lawn seating.  (Indoor tickets must be bought well in advance for the more popular performances, but lawn tickets can be purchased at the last moment.

We also visited Hyde Park, NY, the site of Springwood, the childhood home of Franklin Roosevelt.  His Presidential Library & Museum is about 80 minutes away.  It is a fascinating place with excellent guides.

Daniel Chester French sculpted the Lincoln Statue at the Lincoln Memorial (actually he had 6 Italian brothers, expert stone carvers, do the final carving). Three plaster models of the Lincoln statue are at French’s Chesterwood Studio, a National Historical Trust site in Stockbridge.  They have a wonderful tour.

The Mount was Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox (another National Historical Trust site). There are fascinating inside and garden tours.

There are dozens of good places to eat all over the area.  There are also some wonderful ice cream and gelato stores.  Try The Scoop and Peace Love & Chocolate.

The Berkshire Museum is in Pittsfield. When we went, they had a temporary exhibit of machines built from Leonardo DaVinci’s drawings.  But even without this, it is a beautiful museum.

Jacob’s Pillow (which we did not attend) has dance performances.

The Clark Museum in Williamstown MA is a bit over an hour away. It is a beautiful site with excellent exhibits.  We saw a special Renoir exhibit.

The entire area will be full of color in the coming months–and we are ready to return!

BOLLI “Matters” feature writer John Rudy

A long-time technology expert and guide, who also happens to be an enthusiastic chef, John provides his helpful hints in both areas for BOLLI “Matters.”  Hmm…could there be a travel feature in his future as well?

 

 

IN MY OPINION: NOVEMBER, 2020

In response to the Writers Guild prompt, “A Matter of Life and Death,” the opinion expressed in the following bit of rhyme is not necessarily that which is held by all BOLLI members.

NOVEMBER, 2020

By L. Schwirian

Trumpty Dumpty

Sat on his wall.

Trumpty Dumpty

Had a great fall.

All the King’s henchmen

And all the King’s Zen

Couldn’t put Trumpty

Together again.

BOLLI Matters feature writer and Writers Guild co-chair, Larry Schwirian

Architect Larry and his fellow architect wife Caroline live in an historic preservation home in Newton and have led BOLLI courses on architecture.  Larry has been an active participant in and leader of the Writers Guild special interest group as well as serving on the BOLLI Journal staff.  

BOLLI AFTER DARK: FALL THEATRE OFFERINGS

FALL THEATRE OFFERINGS

 

 

 

by Donna Johns

As the hot summer days fade away, your BOLLI After Dark reporter emerges from her air-conditioned cave to sniff the air and check out theater offerings for the fall. After yawning through the Broadway in Boston list (all good shows but awfully pricey for touring companies), I cast my net wider and found a local theater with an intriguing 2019-2020 season.

Speakeasy Stage Company, performing at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End, is presenting five plays and offers subscriptions from $210-$270 for all five.  I often avoid subscriptions, preferring to choose my own shows.  But, this season, I am tempted to subscribe.

First up is Choir Boy, a 2019 Tony nominated play written by the screenwriter of Moonlight. It’s a coming of age story set in a private school for young black men. Pharus Young longs to be the leader of the school’s prestigious choir but his talent may not be enough to achieve his goal. Take a listen to an example of the music which sets the tone for the play:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DPNJsvi8WQ

Admissions, the 2018 winner of the Drama Desk award for best play, tells the story of Sherri and Bill, two educators with a strong commitment to diversity. Their bedrock principles are challenged when their son tries to get into an Ivy League school. How far will they go to help him?

Pass Over, the 2019 Lortel Award winner for outstanding play, is described as a mashup of Waiting for Godot and Exodus as two young men of color look for a way out of poverty, danger, discrimination.

The Children, 2018 Tony Award Nominee for Best Play, is a look at each person’s responsibility to future generations. After a nuclear accident, Hazel and Robin, two retired physicists played by Paula Plum and Karen MacDonald, are living quietly in a cottage in England. A former colleague intrudes with a shocking request.

Bright Star rounds out the season.  Steve Martin, playwright, comedy legend, and bluegrass performer and composer partnered with Edie Brickell to tell the story of literary editor Alice Murphy from her beginnings as a backwoods girl to her maturity as a mentor to a soldier returning from the war. Here’s a sample from the rousing score:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcPR0YFE8mc

In short, an interesting season with lots of variety. Tickets and more information can be found at Speakeasy’s website:  http://www.speakeasystage.com/

Looking to spot your BOLLI After Dark reporter?

I’ll be hanging out with the SIX wives of Henry VIII at American Repertory Theater https://americanrepertorytheater.org

And then, I’m hopping over to the Huntington to check out an impromptu rap battle in The Purists, directed by Billy Porter.  https://www.huntingtontheatre.org

I’ll wear a carnation so you can spot me…

BOLLI Matters feature writer Donna Johns

Donna is a teacher/librarian, writer of unpublished romance novels, sometime director of community theater and BOLLI member. She has two fantastic faux knees which set off the metal detectors at Fenway Park.

WE HAVE A PLACE FOR YOU!

SHARE YOUR FAVORITES ON BOLLI MATTERS

There is a place for you on our BOLLI Matters blog!  No need to feel constrained or obligated to create items for a regular feature (unless, of course, you WANT to)–just send material reflecting your interests, concerns, experiences…whatever and whenever.

No blogging or journalism background is necessary–we will happily do basic editing for you and/or make suggestions for you about whatever you send us.

(We will need a digital image and a brief “bio” statement to accompany your submissions.)

What Can I Write about?

Local restaurant recommendations

Local “Hidden Gem” museums, craft centers, etc.

Local theatre, choral, orchestral, or other groups

Local, reasonably priced “lessons” available in anything and everything from pottery to kodo drumming, table tennis, or boxing…(I’m serious about the drumming and table tennis, by the way…maybe, for that matter, even the boxing.)

Local day trip ideas

Fellow BOLLI members to introduce and feature for all of us

Other interests that BOLLI members might well share

The Benefits!

You’ll find fellow BOLLI members who share your enthusiasm for places and pastimes as well as those who decide to try new ventures as a result of your sharing your experiences.

And, of course, seeing your work in print is totally cool…

*

SUBMIT ITEMS TO susanlwurster@gmail.com

BOLLI MATTERS blogmaster Sue Wurster

While I’ve overseen school yearbook and newspaper production, blogging was a new form for me when I joined BOLLI three years ago.  It’s an easy and totally satisfying venture–hope you’ll take part by providing items focused on your interests, concerns, and experiences!

 

 

 

 

 

 

STORIES FROM STEVE: AT THE BORDER IN DREAMLAND

Prompt: Eating an American meal in a foreign country

At the Border in Dreamland

by Steve Goldfinger

I sat in a run-down taqueria, savoring my mac and cheese, trying to give the locals a sense of what really good food could be—when, suddenly, I got hit in the cheek with a viciously thrown enchilada.  It was followed by another that splattered on my elbow. Two hot tamales followed. A chorus of “Yankee go home!” erupted from all four tables. Then, the kitchen door opened, and out stepped Pancho Villa, rifle in hand, chest covered with medals and two crossed belts of shiny bullets.

What to do?  Only the day before, I had tried to get back home to the states, but a huge wall had prevented me from crossing the border. I begged. I pleaded. But the policia federal would not let me cross it.

And now, I was begging Pancho Villa not to kill me.

He let his gun drop and strode to my table. “There are many ways to die,” he said with a toothy grin. Then he reached into his sack and pulled out a huge jar of chili peppers, dumping about half of them onto my mac and cheese. He stirred them in with the barrel of his rifle. “This should do it,” he said.

“Do what?”

“Burn your kishkes out.” A roar of laughter filled the small establishment.

What did I hear?  Kishkes?

“Lansman?” I countered cautiously.

“Yes, yes……Galicia,” he responded. “And you?”

“Litvak.”

“Mexico isn’t what you think it is, and certainly I am not. Listen, you can call me by my real name…Schmuel.  And I’ll take you to the best restaurant in Guadalajara. Ratner’s.”

“Ratner’s? How can I believe you Panch—I mean Schmuel?”

“Well, those photos on the wall were taken in 1916 when General Pershing was sent here to get rid of me. Actually, we became good friends, and he loved it when I took him to Ratner’s. He adored gefilte fish. Also kugel and kasha varnishkas. When an outbreak of diarrhea nearly decimated his troops, he ordered each of them to eat 10 matzohs a day—a few too many for some who got so bound up they had to be evacuated. The general used the same remedy when dysentery felled hordes of his soldiers in World War I.”

Schmuel “Pancho” Villa continued.

“Pershing didn’t want to leave Mexico—not after I introduced him to Rosalita and she made him her exclusive at the Casa de Delicias.  He called her his little gattito, and she bathed him every day in her special love potion, oil of licorice. If you ever wondered how he got his nickname Black Jack, my lansman, that is how.”

So much history I never knew.

BOLLI Matters feature writer Steve Goldfinger

After a long career in medicine, Steve has been exploring his artistic side.  At BOLLI, he has taken writing courses, been active in the Writers Guild, and even tried CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) where his imagination made him a singular player!

MEDICAL MOMENTS WITH STEVE: WHO KNOWS? TWO CANCERS

TWO CANCERS

by Steve Goldfinger

The patient had turned 50 and was in perfect health when she went for her first colonoscopy. There, at the very last segment of bowel to be examined, was a small cancer growing in the region of her appendix. Surgery to remove it was performed the next week. Seventeen months later, she was dead from metastases throughout her body.

At age 55, my father noted constipation. Within weeks, he was unable to have a bowel movement. As a physician who was well aware of his own body, he could recognize each wave of peristalsis curving in his abdomen and then stopping abruptly where his colon met his rectum. He told me these things the night he brought home the films from the barium enema he’d gone through that day. Without doubt, a cancer completely obstructed his bowel. The next day, he signed in to the local community hospital, spared the foreign intern by cavalierly writing his own history into the chart, and called upon his surgical buddy “Chippy” to do the operation. No need for a major medical center or a renowned surgeon to take care of things. And Chippy was pretty good at what he did.

My mother and I sat in the waiting room, she in her thoughts and I in mine.  A third year medical student having just completed a three month exposure to surgery, I expected the worst. When Chippy finally came in, I saw him smile. “No lymph nodes,” he exclaimed, “it all grew in.”  My father lived another 32 years with nary a bowel complaint.

“It all grew in.”

Just what signal from the interior of my father’s bowel had directed those cancer cells inward?  And with such force as to not allow any to escape in the other direction. Was it anything akin to the earth’s magnetic field that directs each salmon to its personal spawning rivulet? Impossible. Swallows travel 6,000 miles to return to Capistrano to resettle in their cliff nests each year. Instinct, memory, wind currents, and who knows what else. Nothing that seems to pertain to a cancer cell.

More likely, my father’s cancer cells didn’t all home inward. Perhaps some escaped from his colon but could not thrive in the outer world. Possibly, they found the soil of whatever tissue they reached inhospitable, not letting them set up shop and multiply. Or perhaps his cancer cells, unlike those of my patient,  were unable to secrete a fertilizing substance that would allow them to dig deep and flourish in foreign lands.

Questions begging for answers.

Who knows?

BOLLI Matters feature writer Steve Goldfinger

After a long career in medicine, Steve has been exploring his artistic side.  At BOLLI, he has taken writing courses, been active in the Writers Guild, and even tried CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) where his imagination made him a singular player!

 

AUGUST POP CULTURE WITH DENNIS GREENE: GOOD OMENS

GOOD OMENS : A Unique “Buddy” TV Series

by Dennis Greene

            I have a special fondness for so-called “buddy-films”, and so, apparently, do lots of others. These movies depend on a special chemistry between the two protagonists, who are usually portrayed by exceptionally talented actors, and, of course, a brilliant script and strong supporting cast are also required. Some of my favorites include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The African Queen, The Odd Couple, Thelma and Louise, Some Like it Hot, Midnight Cowboy, and, more recently, Frankie and Grace. I have now added Good Omens to my list.

Amazon’s new series, Good Omens, is a six-hour feel-good delight created through the collaboration of two supremely talented writers–Sir Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods). Their book, Good OmensThe Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, was published in 1992. You can almost visualize the fun shared by these two then little-known writers, (who were to become recognized as masters of fantasy and comedy), as they communicated back and forth long distance thirty years ago to try and top one another with comic insights and visions. Gaiman, who excelled at creating elaborate worlds and portraying cosmic conflict, wrote the original draft of this biblical themed romp. It chronicled the development of the six thousand year relationship between Aziraphale, the angel who, since Creation, was God’s representative on earth and Crowley (formerly “Crawly”) the demon  who, in the form of a snake, tempted Eve with the apple, and then served Satan as his representative on earth. Each was charged by their respective side (i.e. Heaven or Hell) with preparing earth for the arrival of the Antichrist and for the Apocalypse, when the war between Heaven and Hell is to commence and earth and its human inhabitants destroyed.

Pratchett, a friend of Gaiman’s and a genius at writing absurdist comedy featuring quirky characters, liked the story. He told Gaiman that he knew what should happen next and then made a proposal. Either Gaiman must sell Pratchett the rights to the story so Pratchett could finish it or Gaiman must agree that he and Pratchett would work together on it. Fortunately for us, Gaiman chose the latter.  So Good Omens reflects two “buddy” stories, the fictional tale of Aziraphale and Crowley and the real-life friendship of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. In an interview, Gaiman offered the following example of their collaboration.

“I had written the following line spoken by a minor character: ‘When I was courting my wife, we would sometimes lay by that river and spooned.’

After reading the line, Terry called me and said, “I  have just added a few words and made it 17% better.” The modified line read, ‘When I was courting my wife, we would sometimes lay by the river and spooned, and, on one memorable occasion, we forked.’

             Terry had made the line 100% better.

Before his death in 2015, Pratchett made Gaiman promise to see that Good Omens was made into a film, and Gaiman carried out his friend’s wish. He wrote the screenplay for all six episodes, sticking closely to the book, and was involved every step of the way in order to honor “the gentle, sensitive incredibly articulate voice” of his friend which Gaiman felt presented “our best selves in the voice of the book”.  I suspect Pratchett would say he was successful.

One reviewer noted that “At its best, Good Omens is a cosmic gay romantic-comedy, with bad boy Crowley tempting Aziraphale to get out of his comfort zone and enjoy life, while Aziraphale simultaneously lures Crowley into being a better, less selfish individual. The series is intelligent story-telling and certainly not for everyone. Fundamental Christians and others who think the Bible is “history” (i. e. true) rather than fiction may be offended.  Others may be put off by hearing the voice of a woman, Francis McDormand, as God. But for the rest of us, the Good Omens series is a masterpiece. Mike Hale, in a review in The Times noted that Good Omens has the wit and good sense to mock The Sound of Music, and, for that alone, it deserves an Emmy. A soundtrack which features Freddy Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody is also notable. One reviewer called Good Omens “fluffy and fun, an antidote to The Game of Thrones

After rushing through a brief collage of significant events in history, in which our two immortals act to promulgate their respective ends, the action moves to the ten days before Armagedden. We don’t know the exact date, but cell phones have been invented, and Pollution has replaced Pestilence as one of the Four Horsemen. (Pestilence was retired after penicillin was invented.) Our friend Crowley lists as one his evil accomplishments, the invention of the “selfie.”

After six thousand years on earth, both Aziraphale and Crowley have come to enjoy their lives here and have become friends. They recognize that, after the Apocalypse, there will no longer be sushi, crepes, Queen, Crowley’s classic Bentley or lunches at the Ritz. They don’t accept the inevitability of the Apocalypse or accept that God’s plan is “ineffable” and conspire to prevent Armageddon, if possible. This alchemic combination of good and evil drives the action while the future of humanity hangs in the balance. The show is a pitch perfect pairing of David Tennant and Michael Sheen

Sheen (Masters of Sex and The Good Wife) and Tennant ( the tenth Dr. Who , Hamlet) are two superb actors who bring this unlikely friendship to life and make it believable. But they don’t do it alone. There is an enormous cast of well-known actors who amplify the story.  Among the faces you will recognize are Jon Hamm, Adria Ariona, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, and Derek Jacobi. And there are a number of supporting story lines which proceed at a rapid pace. One story involves the coming of age of “the Antichrist,” who, while a newborn under the care of Sister Loquacious, a Satanic Nun, was mistakenly switched with a very ordinary human baby and has become lost. This boy is essential to causing the Apocalypse and is now sought by the minions of both Heaven and Hell. Meanwhile, Adam, the eleven year old Antichrist, is living an ordinary eleven-year-old’s life in a small town with a small group of friends who are strikingly similar to the Stranger Things gang.  Another story line involves the romance between Anathama Device, a descendant of Agnes Nutter, the only witch whose prophecies were always correct, and Newton Pulsifer, a decendant of Thou-Shall-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer, the witch-hunter who burned Anathama’s ancestor Agnes. A third story involves a charming romance between an aging and slightly demented witch-hunter (portrayed by Michael McKean) and an attractive, mature psychic and brothel owner (played by Miranda Richardson).  There is lots of over the top comedy and very little subtlety in this irreverent and sweetly amusing narrative.

One reviewer noted that Tennant and Sheen “are so emphatically into their roles that they make each hour-long episode fly by and the absolute need for a second season apparent, … if for no other reason than to keep this disparate duo meeting throughout history to enjoy each other’s company.  In Good Omens, the alchemic bonding of Patchett’s and Gaiman’s world views have combined to produce a story that is pure gold.  Of course, the combination of Aziraphale and Crowley to form the perfect counter to the Apocalypse also reeks of alchemic influence.

If the evolving relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley intrigues you, and you enjoy fantasy and sweet-natured comic absurdity, with brief appearances by the Kraken and  the Lost City of Atlantis, take a peek at this uplifting feel-good comedy.

Rumor has it that God has given it four and a half stars.

“BOLLI Matters” feature writer Dennis Greene

 

 

 

NOVEMBER LINES FROM LYDIA: MY JUNK DRAWERS

MY JUNK DRAWERS

by Lydia Bogar

The junk drawer in my kitchen holds the tools that are not down cellar in my pink tool bag. Screwdrivers, both flat and Philips, a blue hammer, green florist tape, black electrical tape, twist ties, elastic bands. And then there are the Band-Aids, the razor blades, the box of matches from the Goat Island Grill in Georgetown SC, night light, broken night light, stapler, 3 boxes of staples, scissors, my Stanley tape measure and a carpenter’s pencil, a souvenir from my 2015 kitchen reno.

The junk drawer next to my bed holds pens and pencils, Sudoku puzzles, an extra pair of glasses, Chapstick, bookmarks, small pads of paper, more Band-Aids, Mass cards, hand cream, mechanical pencil refills, flashlight, 2015 Ellis Island Membership card, TV remote, Halls’ Lozenges, face cream, paperclips, and a miniature map of the Manhattan subway system.

What do these drawers have to say?  That I’m a little OCD and that there’s an obvious difference between the private drawer in my room and the larger, public drawer in my kitchen. Strange and personal, but under control.  After all, these contents are not on my bureau, kitchen counter, or the floor.

I think of my friend Theresa whose life resembles a junk drawer, one that she cannot unpack without professional support. So many trials.  So much self-destruction.  Not in the same ballpark as the items in my drawers that I call junk.

I have now consolidated the boxes of staples—some have been reunited with the staple gun while others have joined the stapler in my desk.  The loose razor blades are back in the box. The twist ties and broken night light have been tossed.  And the tape measure is back in the car, where I was compelled to purge the glove box and the console compartment.

I am thankful for my junk spaces–that I can unpack at will.

BOLLI Matters feature writer and co-chair of Writers Guild, Lydia Bogar

Our own “Renaissance Woman,” Lydia has done everything from teaching English to doing volunteer emergency service.  She says she “hails from Woosta– educated at BOLLI.”

 

AUGUST LINES FROM LYDIA: MY FIRST SGL

MY FIRST SGL

by Lydia Bogar

Liz David was my first SGL at BOLLI.  Her warm words and easy smile welcomed me, an outsider, from west of 495.

Having studied many different cultures, Liz had worked in hospice for years and written extensively on the different stages of life. She taught us about digging deep and not being afraid to embrace words of wisdom from Rabbi Kushner, Oliver Sacks, and Dr. Seuss as we age.

“As your study group leader. I see us as partners and will take my lead from you as we get to know each other …”

I take frantic notes as many of these references are beyond the front burner in my brain. She openly discusses her physical activity including running, walking, and workouts with a trainer. I strain to hear every single word when she tells us her age.  Really? OMG, you look marvelous.

“What does the sentence ‘home is where the love is’ mean to you?”

Liz has embraced Native American culture in her reading, writing, and lifestyle.  A magnificent rug showing the cycles of life rests on the floor of her second-floor home office.  Made for her 30 years ago, it features the phases of the moon, the owl, the eagle, and a woman.

To be invited into this place of refuge and strength silences me. And then there are the owls–hundreds, maybe more; many have even been sent home with friends and visitors.  Her generosity goes beyond her teachings and her smile.  She may be the most approachable teacher I have ever had.

“Have you ever felt that you were in a state of grace?”

Having raised five children in this large colonial deep in the woods of Sudbury, Liz and her husband Barry now enjoy the serenity of their flowers, trees, birdsong, and chimes. During lunch on their screened porch, we talked about BOLLI, particularly the evolution of classes and community in the ten plus years of the couple’s membership.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Liz has taught the art of legacy letters to friends and neighbors in her different communities, including BOLLI. Her approach is clear-eyed and joyful, a perspective that I am not ready to attempt during that first semester, from which the quotes above are taken. She tells us all that times change, and we change, that there is time to write and revise legacy letters.

“What about taking the measure of oneself? Fulfilled dreams/shattered dreams.”

I have learned so much in classes with Liz.  And now, as someone she calls a friend, I am learning even more.

Co-Editor and frequent BOLLI Matters blogger Lydia Bogar

Our own “Renaissance Woman,” Lydia has done everything from teaching English to doing volunteer emergency service.  She says she “hails from Woosta– educated at BOLLI.”

INTRODUCTION TO LITERARY ALCHEMY by Dennis Greene

Introduction to Literary Alchemy

by Dennis Greene

To understand what is meant by “literary alchemy,” a reader must first have a fundamental understanding of the term “alchemy” or “metallurgical alchemy.” Most American readers I have spoken to, including many well educated, serious readers, have little or no understanding of the term.

Most consider alchemy to have been a medieval pseudo-science by which the alchemist tried to isolate a catalyst (a so-called “Philosopher’s Stone”) that could turn base metals like lead or iron to pure gold and produce an elixir that would bestow immortality upon the alchemist. The popular belief is that alchemy was a misdirected practice used by mystics and sorcerers to make themselves rich and/or immortal. After our knowledge of chemistry and physics vastly improved during the Renaissance, alchemy was looked down upon and dismissed as simply “stupid” chemistry.

Because our American literary traditions developed post-enlightenment, our literature has been based on a firm belief in the physical sciences and naturalism, and we accepted this idea that alchemy was just “stupid science.” Scientific naturalism and materialism shaped our modern empirical worldview.

John Granger, an enthusiastic student of Literary Alchemy, describes alchemy in this way:

Alchemy is everything that scientific naturalism and materialism are not… Alchemy, in a nutshell, was the science of working toward the perfection of the alchemist’s soul. This heroic venture is all but impossible today, because the way we look at reality makes the concept itself almost an absurdity. Unlike the medieval alchemists, we post-moderns see things with a clear subject/object distinction; that is, we believe you and I and that table are entirely different things and there is no connection or relation between them. The knowing subject is one thing, and the observed object is completely “other.”

To the alchemist, that was not the case. His efforts in changing lead to gold were based on the premise that he, as the subject, would go through the same type of changes and purifications as the materials he was working with. In sympathy with these metallurgical transitions and resolutions, his soul would be purified in correspondence as long as he was working in a prayerful state within the mysteries (sacraments) of his revealed tradition. 

Historically, there was an Arabic alchemy, a Chinese alchemy, a Kabbalistic alchemy as well as a Christian alchemy; each differed superficially with respect to their spiritual traditions. In each example, however, the alchemist was working with a sacred natural science or physic to advance his spiritual purification.

This was only possible because he looked at the metal he was working with as something with which he was not “other” but with which he was in a relationship. The alchemist and the lead becoming gold were imitating and accelerating the work of the Creator. The alchemist’s aim was to create a bridge so that, as lead changes to gold or material perfection, his soul would go through similar transformations and purifications.

 Metallurgical alchemy was ancient history long before the pilgrims set sail to America, so it was never a part of our literary tradition. It is no surprise that American readers are almost unaware of it. This is probably no great loss, but it does have one consequence for Harry Potter fans. Alchemic references and imagery are near the heart of much great English fiction, from Chaucer to Rowling. To be ignorant of alchemic language, references, themes, symbols, and imagery is to miss out on the depths and heights of Shakespeare, Blake, Donne, Milton, C. S. Lewis, Dickens, Joyce and even J. K. Rowling. Ms. Rowling is very knowledgeable about alchemy, and her books are built on alchemic structures, written in alchemic language, and have alchemic themes at their core.

Literary Alchemy

 Sometimes the term literary alchemy is used in reference to the changes or transformations a reader or audience undergoes as he or she identifies with and experiences the same events as a character. Both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson understood Aristotle’s idea that the effect of theatre, in causing human transformation in the audience, is similar to the alchemic effect.

More commonly, literary alchemy refers to a writer’s deliberate use of alchemical subject matter, terminology, and processes as a useful organizing principle for his or her text, especially when writing about individuals undergoing trials and changes as they mature.

The basic structure of an alchemic transformation is well defined. We meet the subject character in his or her lowest or base state, with the soul and base material blackened with the taint of original sin and the fall from grace. During the first or “black” stage (the “nigredo”), the base material (and simultaneously the soul) must undergo dissolution or breaking down through a series of trials to be reduced to its respective original substance, so it and the sympathetic soul can be reborn in a new form. During the second or “white” stage (the “albedo”), the base material is cleansed or absolved until it transforms into a stone which briefly reflects all the colors of the rainbow before it turns a brilliant white. During the third “red” stage (the “rubedo”), the pure white stone is heated until a divine red tincture infuses the white stone to produce the Philosopher’s Stone which can transform base metal to gold but more importantly, can purify the soul and confer immortality.

The alchemic process requires subjecting the base metal to the action of two principal reagents, alchemical mercury (sometimes called quicksilver) and sulfur. These reagents represent the masculine and feminine polarity of existence. Together and separately, the two reagents advance the work of purifying the base metal. Ultimately, these polar opposite reagents must combine to enable a transcendence of the polarity to achieve a harmonious unity.

J. K. Rowling intended for the Harry Potter books to incorporate literary alchemy. The evidence is unavoidable. The title of the first book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Dumbledore is famous for his skill in alchemy; Nicholas Flamel, a key character in the first book, has the name of a famous alchemist; key characters are named Sirius Black, Albus (white) Dumbledore, and Rubeus (red) Hagrid; and Hermione is the feminine form of Hermes (the Greek name for mercury or quicksilver).

The Harry Potter series incorporates a number of patterns identified with classic English literary tradition. Harry certainly embarks on a hero’s journey which eventually leads to death, resurrection, and victory over evil. The story is cast as a classic English schoolboy novel in the nature of Tom Brown’s School Days. Throughout the series, in the tradition of the great English sleuths, Harry and his friends face one mystery after another as they try to unravel the events of the past which led to the deaths of Harry’s parents and to the current epic battle in which Harry must play a major role. Ms. Rowling’s extensive planning of the entire series enables her to make frequent use of “narrative misdirection” to keep these young sleuths and their readers baffled and engaged. The insertion of numerous postmodern themes, Christian symbols, and gothic background all pay homage to classic patterns of English literature. Literary Alchemy is no less an element of the Harry Potter series than any of the forgoing.

K. Rowling has never said directly that she intentionally incorporated alchemic imagery or structure, but in one interview in 1998, she said:

I’ve never wanted to be a witch. But an alchemist, now that is a different matter. To invent the wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount of alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the story’s internal logic.

Certainly some, and possibly a great deal, of the alchemy she learned did find its way into her books, in the great tradition of the literary greats who preceded her.  Some familiarity with literary alchemy might enhance the fun of reading her story and perhaps give the reader some new insights when exploring other great works of English literature.

For those who just want to read a good tale that takes place in a fascinating imaginary world and features likable characters facing many of the problems of our own world, the Harry Potter books are just plain fun. And for those who desire to examine this extraordinary work more deeply, there is much to discover.

“BOLLI Matters” feature writer Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer, forty as a lawyer, and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.