One cold morning in Amsterdam...

An Article from the Saros Spring 1997 Newsletter

Precisely 330 years ago, Helvetius, thought of as the father of modern chemistry, was resident in Amsterdam, where, a few days after Christmas he entertained an interesting and disturbing visitor. The man, a stranger, arrived unannounced and inquired whether it was true that Helvetius did not believe in the existence of the Philosopher's Stone. Helvetius confirmed this was so. In which case, said the stranger, he was mistaken, for here it was. And he produced an ivory box which contained something that resembled opal. Could Helvetius take a sample for analysis? No, this was not permitted. But the stranger would return in three weeks to demonstrate its wonders. He did indeed return and this time left a small sample of the stone and a promise he would return the next morning to perform the miracle. He never did, but he had left enough hints for Helvetius to try the operation for himself. Lo and behold, a small amount of lead was transformed into gold, very good quality gold too, according to a local assayer.

This story is difficult to credit. While the transformation is theoretically possible, it is difficult to see how it could have been done without setting off a nuclear reaction that would have levelled Amsterdam and quite possibly obliterated Holland. Yet to dismiss it is to dismiss Helvetius as either a fool or a liar and there is no reason to suppose he was either. The story also has the apparent support of the philosopher Spinoza who, with the admirable thoroughness of a sceptic, interviewed the assayer and examined the crucible which still had flecks of gold stuck hard to it like burned rice in a saucepan.

Even if we can satisfy ourselves that there is an explanation to be found, other mysteries remain. Who was the stranger? He arrived dressed with puritanical simplicity. Was he tall or short, fat or thin? Helvetius does not say. What language did they speak in together in that polyglot city: learned Latin, High German or Low German, or French? The facts are not recorded. Considering he was the cause of a remarkable event the stranger does not seem to have left much of an impression. What stuck in Helvetius' mind was the stranger's heavy boots. Perhaps Helvetius' fastidious Swiss nature disapproved of such footwear indoors. But, if the stranger arrived in heavy boots in the middle of one of the exceptionally harsh winters of the 17th Century, we can gather that he was a human rather than a supernatural agent.

The stranger was an agent. He made it plain that he represented something, although he would not say what. The stone was not his to dispose of as he pleased. A generation before this event took place the European imagination had been seized by the announcement of the existence of the Invisible Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. Perhaps this Brotherhood was not invisible in the sense that its members had learned how to make themselves insubstantial but rather because they looked indistinguishable from everybody else. There have been other rumours, before and since, of organisations working secretly in possession of knowledge that was at once ancient yet with a far profounder understanding of nature than their contemporaries: The Order of Wandering Scholars, which may or may not have existed among the students who travelled Europe in the middle Ages, and if it did, has left no trace of itself except a collection of bawdy songs, or the Hedge Schools of Ireland which taught peasant children their letters and maintained the oral tradition of the Druids. Are there people who march alongside the human race but are not exactly of it? Was the Stranger one of them?

If so, why did they intervene then and there? With such an impressive miracle or illusion at their disposal, why did they not go to one of the great Courts of Europe where they could have exerted influence over the world? What were their motives? It can hardly have been an attempt to gain recognition for themselves or to humiliate Helvetius, since they made no attempt exploit the incident. If it were not for Helvetius' account we would know nothing about the affair. Perhaps the aim was benevolence, but it must be said that the Stranger does not seem to have been an especially kindly figure. When Helvetius doubted that his sample was enough to effect the transformation, the Stranger snatched it back, snapped it in half and handed over only part of the original amount.

The biggest question of all is what exactly was in that ivory box. True or false, it is this substance that gives the story its fairy-tale quality. Miracles are possible but only if you have the right magic dust (or the right friends to supply it). Wonder and knowledge are both elusive, which is why fairy tales are so poignant for adults. It is like the problem of infinite regress, best expressed by the old Camp Coffee bottle label: on it a Sikh is serving breakfast to a Scottish officer and on his tray is a bottle of Camp Coffee and so on.

What is the way out of this impasse? It seems to me that the Work can only be a way of preparation, the goods are held elsewhere, even if they are entrusted to us from time to time. Otherwise it is matter of remaining alert for that knock on the door. You never know who it might be.

Bill Saunders

This page, and all contents, are Copyright (C) 1997 by Saros. The material may be used freely providing the source is acknowledged.