bodies of iron

One of the strong influences on Heinrich Kleist was a scientist well known in the Germany of the early 19th century, G.H. Schubert. The man published a book entitled Views of the Night side of Nature. Fragments from this book were first published in a review of art and science, Phoebus, that Kleist edited. Here is one of Schubert’s fragments:

Among the most curious cases of so called human petrification belongs this one, to which Hülpher, Cronstädt and the scholarly Swedish almanacs have dedicated some notice. Here a corpse, which to all appearances had turned into a solid rock, fell into some sort of ash after a few years even though the attempt was made to put it under a glass bell in order to protect it from the incursions of the air. This antique miner was found preserved in the Swedish mine in Falun, as a break had been effected between the sinking of two shafts. The corpse, entirely saturated with ferric vitriol, was, in the beginning, pliable, but as soon as it was exposed to the air, became as hard as stone. For fifty years, at a depth of more than two hundred feet, in this ferric acid, the man had lain in the mine. Nobody had recognized the as yet unaltered features of the face of the poor lad; if it had not been for one old true love, nobody would have kept a souvenir of him through the time since he was laid down in the shaft. For as about the recently extracted corpse the people were milling, observing his unrecognized youthful features, there came an old mother, with gray hair and crutches, who with tears for the beloved dead man, who had been her bridegroom, sank down, blessing the hour that had given her, so far advanced on the path to the grave, this vision one last time ; and the people saw with wonder the reunion of this curious couple, of which the one, in death and in a deep pit, had preserved the youthful aspect, while the other, with the withering and aging of her body, had preserved that youthful love, true and unaltered. And as though at their fiftieth golden anniversary they were found, the still youthful groom, stiff and cold, and the old and gray bride, full of warm love.”

A deep message there for LI – for indeed, we have been trying to draw up from the past a vast body, preserved in its youthfulness but, indeed, dead: and that vast body is the way the people in the “West” once thought about their emotions; how they connected those emotions to their lives, their bodies, the way they worked and played and prayed. And what became of them as they became, over time, us. And if that body of thought and feeling is analogous to the dead miner, myself, I play two parts; one, the milling crowd; and two, the gray bride. The gray bride is, of course, my imagination, or my muse, tied to my aging body as a tin can is tied to a dog’s tail – to quote Yeats. Except that the marriage between this history in the fresh state and the imagination in a state of despair was made not on earth, but in some telluric vault.

On the other hand - isn't the whole and splendid vision of any work, which comes to the writer in a flash, like that body in the mine? As soon as you see it, it falls away, down black shafts, and you have to dig to get it out again, and when you finally do, it has altered into a mockery of what it was - and you are still not out of danger, for at the moment of at least extracting the thing, it is always possible that it will all turn to ash.

So - this is how I excuse myself for reanimating a seemingly endless series of half forgotten figures. One of whom is Madame Chatelet, Voltaire’s mistress, the translator of Newton, and a philosopher in her own right – actually, in possession of a much more acute metaphysical mind than Voltaire’s. Judith Zinnser recently wrote a biography of her, which was reviewed in the NYT. This relieves me of having to cobble together some biography.

Here are three grafs:

“Nonetheless, Voltaire could not resist the occasional joke at Du Châtelet’s expense. Belittling her devotion to physics (her ambitious translation of Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” remains, to this day, the only complete French edition), he nicknamed her “Mme Neuton Pompom.” He responded to her taking a new lover with “subtle mockery,” advising Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, the young poet with whom Du Châtelet became involved after Voltaire began an affair with his own niece, to take Du Châtelet “quickly to her toilette,” rid her of her “old black apron” and cleanse “her hand dirty with ink.” Only in abandoning her studies, the philosophe suggested, could the marquise hope to “reclaim all her charms” and obtain the love for which she was intended.

According to Zinsser, such “fanciful and subtly demeaning images” have distorted history’s verdict on Du Châtelet’s intellectual achievements, which were formidable by any standard. As a woman, Du Châtelet was deprived “by custom” of the formal collège (secondary school) education granted her male peers. (This privation later prompted her to declare: “If I were king, I would establish collèges for women.”) Undeterred, the marquise sought independent instruction from some of Paris’s most prominent scholars. In 1733, at 26, “she began lessons in advanced geometry and algebra.”

Over the next 16 years, working obsessively right up to her death from a pulmonary embolism in 1749, she became a respected authority in both these fields, and in physics and integral calculus as well. She translated Mandeville and Newton, was the first woman published by the Académie Royale des Sciences and was elected to a similar academy in Bologna. She also wrote a complex synthesis of Descartes, Newton and Leibniz that “formulated a ‘unified theory’... for the workings of nature.” All the while, she somehow managed to look after her children, please her husband and keep her lovers happy. This balancing act forced her to do much of her own work from midnight till 5 in the morning. Though she confessed to Saint-Lambert that her regimen “required a mind and body of iron,” it enabled her to fulfill the ambition that she experienced as “a frightening need.” And she never questioned her right to satisfy this need, even if she had occasionally to beg her loved ones “not to ‘reproach me for my Newton.’ ”


Duncan said…
I think this is your most beautiful post, Roger. It takes my breath away.