Quinta Essentia

August 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm (Alchemy, Enlightenment, Exclusive Societies, Geology, India, Japan, Kabbalah, Literature, Metallurgy, Mythology, Religion, Shakespeare, Symbology, Technology, The Ancient World, The Occult, The Renaissance, Theater) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

–   The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene ii

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

This dizzyingly rich quotation is familiar to any student of literature, and has become a sort of mantra to those who practice the theatrical art of soliloquy. But what interests me here are not the layers upon layers of meaning that Shakespeare wove using these words, but rather one individual word in particular. That word is quintessence which, as it is used in this context, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The most typical example of a category or class; the most perfect embodiment of a certain type of person or thing.” But a bit of etymological reasoning leads to more questions than answers. Why would the prefix quint, meaning five, when attached quite literally to the word essence, produce a word synonymous with archetype or apotheosis? What is this mysterious fifth essence that has seemingly sneaked unnoticed into our contemporary lexicon? The answer, it turns out, lies in various ancient philosophies, ranging from the ancient Greeks to the age-old practice of alchemy.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

The practice of alchemy, which combines elements scientific, philosophical, and spiritual, is believed to date back to traditions of the ancient Persian Empire, as early as the 8th century BC. While certain aspects of alchemy bear resemblance to complex spiritual systems such as Kabbalah, its more practical attributes can be seen as a precursor to modern chemistry. Although alchemists practicing in different eras and parts of the world embraced drastically differing systems, one unifying theme running through them all is a concern with physical elements.

earth, air, fire, water

The four primary, or Classical, elements are earth, air, fire, and water.  This way of dividing the physical world can be found in various ancient cultures. In many traditions, however, there is a fifth element that is considered to be the most important one of all. Known to the Greeks as Aether, the Hindus as Akasha, and the Japanese as void or sky, the notion of a fifth, ethereal element that ties the four physical elements together is pervasive amongst ancient philosophical traditions. It is from the alchemical interpretation of this fifth element, this quinta essentia, that we receive our term signifying an example of perfection. Sometimes referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone, the fifth element is the unity that comes with the mastery of the four lower elements, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is just this notion that Shakespeare was evoking when he dubbed man “the quintessence of dust”. After all, even a ghost in the machine, no matter how powerful the spirit and how complex the mechanism, is still a mere ghost in a mere machine. This conclusion was, it seems, one of the weights that made Prince Hamlet’s head so heavy.

Some Further Reading:

The online text of a University of Virginia class focusing on the history of alchemy

An analysis of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man…” soliloquy

The entry for lapis philosophorum (the Philosopher’s Stone) from Symbols.com

A site that catalogues the history of chemistry, from alchemy to nanotechnology

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Carlo Gesualdo, the Murderous Composer

June 30, 2009 at 10:07 pm (Death, Murder, Music, Sexuality, The Renaissance, The Vatican, Women) (, , , )

Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613), Prince of Venosa, was an Italian Renaissance nobleman and composer widely renowned amongst music aficionados for his compositions that were centuries ahead of their time. The beauty of his famed madrigals is eclipsed only by the savage ferocity with which he committed one of the most notorious acts of violence in the history of western music.

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Gesualdo had long been acquainted with Donna Maria D’Avalos, his first cousin, but it wasn’t until the year 1586 that her beauty overwhelmed him and he took her hand in marriage. Several years into the marriage Donna Maria began an affair with the Duke of Andria that was well known to many, but not to Gesualdo. It took two years before news of the affair reached him, at which point he resolved to catch the lovers mid-tryst. In 1590 Gesualdo allegedly left on a hunting trip and, once the lovers were in each other’s arms, burst into the bed chamber and stabbed the two where they lay (some reports even alleging that Gesualdo forced the Duke to don the lady’s eveningwear before he slaughtered the emasculated interloper).

Far from keeping the violent affair out of the public eye, Gesulado strew the remains of his wife and the Duke in front of his Florentine manor for all to see. The murders, in fact, became fodder for the Renaissance equivalent of a media frenzy, inspiring a generation of tawdry and sensationalistic poetry. This publicity did little to put Gesualdo’s freedom in danger since noblemen of the day were immune from legal prosecution. He was, however, officially censured by the Vatican, which issued the claim that Gesualdo’s violent acts betrayed, “secular perversions and a lurid internal conflict setting decency and morality at the feet of carnal desires.” Despite the disapproving glare of the Vatican, Gesualdo went on to produce some of his most cherished composition in the 23 years between the murders and his death. These years were marred, however, by a debilitating depression that caused a desperate Gesualdo to go as far as ordering his servants to physically beat him on a daily basis.

Gesualdo2

The relationship between creative genius and the propensity for brutality is a common theme in the evaluation of historically significant artists. The self-mutilation of Vincent Van Gogh, the bloody suicide of Earnest Hemingway, the reckless, pistol-waving outbursts of Phil Specter. These well-known instances illustrate the savage potential associated with the sharpest creative minds. Authors Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine summarized this coupling of notions well, in this case focusing specifically on musical creativity, in their book Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer:

But more particularly is there a definite connection between music and murder, although it may not be readily apparent. Not that many musicians have actually committed murders (apart from Gesualdo, one can only think of Salieri who, as everyone knows, poisoned Mozart); nor, strange to say, have many musicians been murdered themselves, except Mozart and Stradella. The connection between the two activities is much more subtle but nonetheless close. In the first place, the significant fact should be noted that the beginning of the decline of murder as an art dates from precisely the same period as the development of music as a personal expression, i.e., the beginning of the 17th century. In the middle ages music was more a craft than an art, because the emotions which we now express in music were then actually expressed in life. In these good old days one committed a murder if one felt like it, and thought no more about the matter; today we write an Elektra or a Cavalleria Rusticana instead, in order to work off our feelings. In definite relation to the increased difficulties attendant upon the practice of murder, music has become more and more sadistic. In place of inflicting the utmost pain on a single individual, we outrage the ears of thousands.

Some Further Reading:

An entry from Reference.com about Gesualdo

An essay focusing on Gesualdo the murderer

Some of Gesualdo’s music on Rhapsody.com

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