Sax Rohmer's Preface
to Apollogia Alchymiae: A Re-statement of Alchemy
by R. W. Councell
"Sax may also have become a member of a Rosicrucian Society, and by this I mean a branch rather less well known and rather more significant than the brotherhood which currently operates under this name in the United States. Rudyard Kipling is said to have been admitted to the Society at the same time. The Society, which came into existence at least as early as the sixteenth century, is international, with lodges or orders in all civilized countries. What goes on within these lodges is not much known outside. It is known only that the Society is founded on a belief in the existence of a fund of secret wisdom handed down through the ages and transmitted only to the initiated."
"Sax's introduction to these societies came through Dr. R. Watson Councell, who was the Ward family doctor and had treated Margaret Ward [Sax's mother] during her final illness. Dr. Councell was an enthusiast of the occult, and became Sax's mentor in this area over a period of years. When, some years later, Dr. Councell's book Apologia Alchymiae was published (London: John M. Watkins, 1925), it contained a Preface by Sax Rohmer, the only known instance when Sax wrote introductory matter for another person's work." -- Master of Villainy pp. 29-30. Cay Van Ash and Elizabeth Sax Rohmer. Ed. Robert E. Briney.
Only 500 copies of Apologia Alchymiae were printed.
Of the illusions which amuse the childish mind of man, that of Scientific Progress is not the least absurd. It is the most popular toy in the nursery called Modern Civilization. The wisdom of yesterday is the jest of today, the superstition of tomorrow. Human experience shows this to be the case. Yet we go on believing we are making discoveries. In the days of the Regency a physician looked upon a patient who refused to be bled in much the same way that a modern practitioner regards an appendicitis case who declines to have the inflamed fragment removed. Harley Street, in 1923, assures us that old time surgery resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths from loss of blood. Harley Street, in 2023, will probably declare that our present method resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths from loss of the appendix. We believe we understand the phenomena of solar and lunar eclipses, and believe that we have measured the distances from this our earth to the visible planets. Five hundred years hence our calculations will almost certainly be proved ridiculous. Nevertheless, we go on believing we are making discoveries. A day must surely come when crowds shall throng the waiting room of some consultant, famous for his having established the efficacy of cupping; when all shall know that eclipses are not due to the earth's shadow; when to common knowledge this same earth be stationary, whilst stars, moon and sun revolve around it.
What, then, do scientific discoverers discover? They discover (with certain notable exceptions) new bottles to contain old physic. They exhibit for our awe a tube of brick coloured powder, which they have named something ending in "ium." It has always been, that brick coloured powder. An earlier race, dwellers, perhaps, in a great Sun City now lost beneath an ocean, used it to dye their beards. They proclaim radium. And one day, it may be in some forgotten tomb, a practical radium lamp is found still alight. They bear witness to the triumph of steel by erecting, in New York or elsewhere, the worlds highest building; forgetting that somebody or another built the Great Pyramid. They acclaim certain Japanese craftsmanship the finest of its kind until among the treasures of a buried pharaoh yet finer examples are unearthed. Signor Marconi can talk to his friends who are hundreds of miles away. So could Apollonius of Tyana. The cinematogragh shows us moving figures of those who have passed over. Any high priest of Osiris could have shown us the same; so could Moses. The churches assured the world that we had emerged from the black ages of barbarism and were civilized. Thereupon we plunged into the most savage and sanguinary war recorded in the annals of man.
What, then, is Evolution? That it is a slow process in the case of humanity, experience would seem to show; but since Lord Rayleigh calculates the age of Mother Earth to be 925 million years, the possibility of endless cycles suggests itself. That, by means of a ceaseless chemical operation, the elements (which we are constantly and confidently "discovering") become merged in forms variously known as coal, diamonds, lead, gold, and a host of other commercial practicabilities, would seem to be a Truth as opposed to a Theory. And since many natural processes can be artificially reproduced, why not this wedding of atom to atom?
Professor Richardson, speaking of recent experiments relating to the structure of the nucleus of atoms, declared the artificial transmutation of chemical elements to be now an established fact. In short, it would almost seem that we find ourselves upon the eve of "discovering" the Philosopher's Stone of medieval alchemy. Professor Irving Fisher, of Yale, recently startled the world by announcing that a German chemist had succeeded in making synthetic gold from base metals by means of an electric vacuum furnace. Referring to this alleged experiment, in an interview with a representative of the "Daily Mail," Dr. Irvine Masson, of University College, London, said: "So far no definite transmutation of an element by building up heavy atoms of gold from lighter metals has been achieved. On the other hand, Sir Ernest Rutherford has disintegrated certain of the lighter elements into one still lighter. While one cannot say it is impossible, there seems no reason why gold should be specially singled out by Nature to be the ultimate product of a building-up or breaking-down process.
"Supposing a certain amount of gold had been found to be a product of change, the question would arise as to the utility of the process. At present the only transmutation that has been affected has been, from the productive point of view, extraordinarily ineffective and extravagant. I think that most scientists are interested in these alleged discoveries, but are inclined to be somewhat skeptical until definite proofs are forthcoming, which is my position in the present case."
But whatever the facts may be regarding this modern operation, the attitude of leading scientists toward the possibilities of the German's vacuum furnace; yet the author of the present work, whose researches into the subject of Alchemy have been exhaustive, appears to have found good reason to believe that some of these made synthetic gold! In the preface to his "Alchemy, Ancient and Modern." Mr. Stanley Redgrave says: "The number of books in the English language dealing with the interesting subject of Alchemy, is not sufficiently great to render an apology necessary for adding thereto. Indeed, at the present time, there is an actual need for a further contribution on this subject."
The present work is apparently written with a view to rectifying certain misconceptions which are held by those who have criticized adversely the claims of the old alchemists. This the author has sought to do by quoting verbatim from the alchemystical writers themselves. That he has an extensive library dealing with this subject, goes without saying; and of his deep and wide personal inquiries mention has already been made.
His style betrays a profound belief in alchemy or, as he terms it, "the law of evolution as applicable to metals and minerals." In this he evidently does not stand alone, as men eminent in science are to-day holding this view as an hypothesis, and are making more than tentative experiments to test it.
The "Periodic Table of Mendeleeff" points in this direction, at least as certainly as fossils do in the evolution of animal and vegetable life. Sir Edward Thorpe and others have indicated definite numerical relations between the members of the halogen group of Fluorine, Chlorine, Bromine, and Iodine. Also in the case of the nitrogen group of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Arsenic, Antimony, and Bismuth. Apparently similar relations can be shown to exist between the members of the following group: Lithium, Sodium, Copper, Silver and Gold. "These numerical relations," says the author, "seem to suggest affinity, even if they are far from proving it, and affinity suggests at least a common parentage.
"Some investigators would appear to find in their study of alchemy, ground for putting forward an hypothesis that dogmas of religious belief are the foundations on which alchemic writers have raised a bizarre temple of chemistry. Further, that his chemistry was never practically achieved, but only used symbolically to veil certain tenets of religion, such as the trinity. However, considering the testimony on von Helmont and others, which cannot be lightly set aside, and also the experiments of present-day scientists, which far from disproving a law of evolution in metals, tend, indeed, to affirm it, such an hypothesis seems inadequate to account for the existence of alchemic literature."
Chemistry has been styled "the wise daughter of a foolish mother," but we see today that the daughter is investigating the maternal fairy tales with the utmost caution, lest they should be found too true. World-wide interests would be jeopardized by a discovery of the method of making gold by synthesis; and it is really remarkable that more fiction has not been written around this fascinating subject.
A cipher manuscript, by Friar Bacon, is now being investigated in America with a view to decoding it, and perhaps of getting at the truth of gold evolution. One would imagine it to be almost certain, however, that Bacon omits the names of his ingredients, or else supplies false names, as do other writers. There are many ciphers in alchemic literature which have been discovered such names as vitriolum, antimony, saturn (lead), stannum (tin), etc. each of which is condemned as an ingredient by a consensus of writers of repute. Doubtless, they are interpolated to distract the attention of the student from the name of their "proxima materia", which name they have mentioned openly and in the vulgar tongue.
This name according to the author of the present work is given in order to acquaint the alchemist's unknown brother adepts with the fact that he knows the material; it is not written for the information of the tyro. Thus, Sendivogius writes that he "intimated the art from word to word," but that his hearers "could by no means understand" him. Basil Valentine named the substance openly. Eirenaeus Philalethes asserts that he could tell true writers from sophisters "by a secret character." Therefore, he must have found this word or character in the writers form whom he quotes. It is, then, for others to find, but probably not in a cipher.
Alchemy, at one time, was undoubtedly under the aegis of the Church. The names of Flamel, Basil Valentine and Bernard Trevisan may be cited, but without undue stress; in the cases of Bacon, Ripley and Lully, the evidence is stronger. Ripley had the permission of the Church to withdraw from his sacerdotal duties, in order to devote himself to alchemy. It is impossible to conceive of the sanction of the Church being given if the art were fraudulent in all instances. History places it on record that certain alchemists were imprisoned by the sovereigns of states, not for fraud, but for refusing to exercise their art or to impart its secret. This seems to imply that success in the art had been proved beyond doubt.
These hypotheses, and others which arise out of them, are extraordinarily fascinating; but after all is said, remains the concrete fact that there has been in the present day no accredited demonstration of the art perfected, the great work of transmuting baser metals into silver or gold. Nevertheless, some of the foremost scientists of Europe and America are turning their eyes in the direction of that star which beckoned to Raymond Lully. We are possibly about to witness the phenomenon of the Philosopher's Stone, "myth" of ancient superstition, emerging, tangible, from an electric vacuum furnace! Who, now, shall deny the existence of fairies or doubt the birth of the Gods?
February 5th, 1923.
Copyright © 1997-2002 Lawrence Knapp. All rights reserved.