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Review Round-up: Secret Histories

Two books that re-examine the present, in light of the past – and the future. Confused yet? I'm just getting started. Read on for looks at The decline and fall of the British Empire and Alchemy: Ancient and Modern.

Decline and FallThe decline and fall of the British Empire - full title -  A brief account of those causes which resulted in the destruction of our late ally, together with a comparison between the British and Roman Empires, appointed for use in the national schools of Japan, Tokio, 2005 (1905) is an angry little pamphlet that, according to the press notices, created quite a stir upon publication. The anonymous author (later revealed to be Elliott E. Mills) spells out the collapse of the British Empire, with parallels to the fall of Rome, as seen through the eyes of a Japanese academic from the future: 

There is no written history of the Decline and Fall of England. A Chinese historian is reported to be engaged upon one, but he might spare himself the trouble, for, as I hinted in my Preface, it is all to be found in Gibbon. (3)

Conceptually, this is hard not to love - a great example of using a layer of speculative fiction to make a dry (and politically self-serving) essay on social policy more accessible and entertaining. The author does a good job balancing the medium with the message. Long paragraphs of historical (contemporary) fact are broken up with cheekily science-fictional footnotes, helping to identify "the author of Walden" and "newspapers of that period". The world-building is done with a sort of casual self-awareness, merely name-dropping a future in which "India has fallen to Russia, South Africa to Germany, Egypt to the Sultan [Ottoman Empire]; while Canada has taken shelter under the wings of the American Eagle and Australia has become a protectorate of the Mikado" (3).

Of course, the politics themselves are reactionary and hideously xenophobic - certainly by our 2012 viewpoint and quite possibly by the author's contemporary standards as well. The author decries the growth of the cities, and loss of the traditional 'countryside values', the needless push for education, rather than gainful employment for the working classes (who are unworthy or unsuited for university degrees), the decline in the physique of the people (why, the national cricket team is composed solely of professionals, as regular citizens no longer partake in sport!), excessive taxation, municipal extravagance and the inability of the British people to defend themselves or their Empire. Why, most of the fleet is composed of alien seamen, who, when Britain's enemies attacked, could not be trusted. [Pretty sure the author doesn't mean Martians. But you never know...] If it weren't for the quality of the writing, this could be tomorrow's Daily Mail.

Decline and FallI personally enjoyed Section IV: The Decline of Literary and Recreational Tastes. The author remarks that:

I have studied English writers of the Decline with great care. Few were really healthy and, from what I can gather, the best among them were neglected by the critics at large. Critics and annotators flourished as at Rome; but genius, as at Rome, seems to have been conspicuous by its absence. (15)

In short: 50 Shades of Grey was a best-seller and there were too many goddamn bloggers. 

For the sake of sixty-odd pages, The decline and fall is a great piece of kitsch: the creatively-formatted political snarkery of a previous era and an early example of pessimistic, Anglo-centric speculative writing, in the style of The Battle of Dorking (1871). As for its actual content, it is only depressing to think that, over a century on, we're still having many of the same discussions. (And, I suspect that we will be in 2105 as well...)

On the (even) more esoteric end of the spectrum is Herbert Stanley Redgrove's Alchemy: Ancient and Modern (1920). Mr. Redgrove opens the book decrying that all previous volumes on the subject have been dangerously one-sided. Either the books take the standpoint of the "chemist", decrying the alchemists as lunatics and fools, or as "mystics", who admire the language of the alchemists, but forget that it is grounded in physical science. Mr. Redgrove's theory is that one must take a synthetic view of the alchemists' work.

AlchemyCertainly, Mr. Redgrove takes a rose-tinted view of the alchemists' labours, and, for the most part, his argument is convincing. He argues that the alchemists' work was, primarily, research into the natural sciences. It was certainly coached in mystical (or even esoteric) terms, but they stretched that language to describe their new theories and revolutionary work. If the terms they used seem unduly philosophical or metaphoric, that's because they were: in all respects, the alchemists had to work with the tools available at the time.

Mr. Redgrove strains credibility in two places. First, he does touch on the transcendental aspects of alchemy, citing the great Hermetic tenet of "as above, so below" (Hermes Trismegistus) as the driving motivation of alchemy. The quest to refine goal (which Mr. Redgrove argues is the central tenet of alchemical science) is a quest to purify humanity: to refine the crude to the pure. If we can do it with a rock, we can do it with our souls. The gold, he suggests, is incidental. This is a charming picture, but seems an unlikely one. Even if you discount all the charlatans (which Mr. Redgrove does by omission), it seems a Utopian vision to suggest that no alchemist was on the prowl for gold qua gold. It is awfully shiny.

The second error - or, at least, exaggeration - is in drawing connections between alchemy and modern scientific advances (at least, to 1920). For the most part these are so vague as to be entirely untenable, proving only that the conceptual language of the alchemists has artificially lengthened their relevance. Where Mr. Redgrove excels is in creating an accessible, interesting primer to alchemists and their view of the world. Where his thesis stumbles is in showing how that view informs contemporary scientists.

Still, regardless of his ultimate aim, Mr. Redgrove has done readers a favour by creating a survey of alchemy and an excellent introduction to the subject. Although he gives the alchemists a bit too much credit for moral rigour and intellectual longevity, he ignores the prevailing biases and details the fascinating proto-science of alchemy without being distracted by the mysticism. 

And, as a geek and a gamer, this makes for some seriously useful fluff. 


Psst. Both of these books are out of copyright. You can buy really expensive POD versions, or download PDF, mobi or epub copies of the originals of The decline and fall and Alchemy for free from