2 Satirizations, or Nigredo THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT: 1144–1789 The early
Middle Ages effectively lost sight of alchemy. In the course of the twelfth-century
Renaissance it began to reemerge and set out on what might be called its golden
Author: Theodore Ziolkowski
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Category: Alchemy in literature
The figure of the alchemist has, in recent years, become an enormously prevalent image in advertising and popular culture. You can scarcely open a magazine or the Internet without encountering references to economists, chemists, artists, and others as 'alchemists' of their fields. This study examines the alchemist in literature from Dante to the present and shows how the popular response to that figure varies from period to period. From the Middle Ages down tothe Enlightenment, when many people still believed in alchemy, writers treated alchemists with ridicule and exposed them as charlatans out to cheat the gullible public. When alchemy was discredited bymodern science, the alchemist himself was romanticized by some writers, who turned the figure into a social altruist, poet, or religious thinker. In the twentieth century, under the influence of C. G. Jung, the figure of the alchemist was further popularized, becoming an image for transmutations of every sort-from economics and medicine to music and art. This vast popular appeal encouraged many writers to undertake fictions of various sorts-historical novels, juxtapositions of present andpast, contemporary settings-featuring protagonists who regard themselves in some sense as modern alchemists. In sum, the figure of the alchemist provides a seismograph by which we can measure shifts inpopular culture.