September 21, 2004

‘Behmenists and Philadelphians’, etc.

Saturday lunchtime I brought home two paperbacks from the Antikvariat on the street where I live. I normally enjoy browsing in second-hand bookstores, but I’m not so keen on this place. Its proprietor is altogether too solicitous: ‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’ he asked, & I replied that no I was just browsing, and that I knew where the English books were to be found. So I browsed, but sensed the man’s impatience, as I had on previous visits to his shop, and so didn’t feel quite comfortable just browsing, and then, after no more than fifteen minutes, when I selected my two volumes, and handed them to him, he made a comment to the effect of ‘So, at last, you have found something you wanted,’ as if to indicate dissatisfaction at my unhurriedness.

Detail from a frontispiece of one of the works of Jacob Böhme.

Anyway, one of these two books, the one I am currently reading, is a splendidly obscure thing by the title of The Behmenists and the Philadelphians: a Contribtion to the Study of English Mysticism, written by one Nils Thune, apparently as his doctoral dissertation, published (in English) at Uppsala in 1948. A Behmenist, by the way, was a follower of the thought of the Teutonic theosophist Jacob Böhme (1575-1624). The Philadelphians (in this context) were a society of Behmenists in 17th/18th-Century England centered around the figure of Mrs Jane Lead (or Leade, 1624-1704).

Detail from a frontispiece of one of the works of Jacob Böhme.

I’m reading this book even though I hadn’t finished either of the two novels I’d been pecking away at before: Michael Cisco’s The Tyrant and Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which, as unalike as they are, could both still be described as varieties of horror story, I suppose. And I’d started reading those after having gotten bogged down in Peter Eszterhazy’s novel The Celestial Harmonies… it’s been weeks since I’ve found myself at the end of a book.

Detail from a frontispiece of one of the works of Jacob Böhme.

I don’t know what it is about a mystic like Böhme that appeals, superficially at least, to an atheist like me: perhaps it’s the aesthetic dimension to his thinking, and its imaginative power. In his book, Thune concedes that Böhme is perhaps more of a poet than he is a philosopher, that his thinking, whilst it derives from a state of profound inspiration, is untidy, unsystematic and sometimes inarticulate, in the sense that he seems often to lack the right words to communicate the intensity of his experiences.

Detail from a frontispiece of one of the works of Jacob Böhme.
What is still concealed? The true teaching of Christ? No! But the philosophy and the deep Ground of God, celestial bliss; the revelation of the creation of angels; the revelation of the horrible fall of the Devil, which is the origin of evil; the creation of this world; the deep Ground and mystery of man and of all the creatures of this world; the last judgement and the metamorphosis of this world; the mystery of the resurrection of the dead and of eternal life - Jacob Böhme, quoted by Nils Thune.

It was Böhme’s ambitious project to explain the insights he had claimed he had been granted into these subjects…

Detail from a frontispiece of one of the works of Jacob Böhme.

According to Böhme, the drama of the Creation came forth from an eternal stillness, an apparent nothingness which nevertheless contained everything, ‘the Abyss,’ as Böhme termed it, in which there arose an ever increasing longing in God to be conscious of Himself. The eternal abysmal Will, from which everything created has its origin, ‘expressed’ itself, in Böhme’s words, ‘in a longing to reveal Itself.’ As this longing intensified, the divine Will turned inward on itself, as if in introspection, and in so doing, God ‘made a mirror for Himself’, and beheld the wonders concealed within Him, giving rise to a second yearning, one which would see these wonders realised. And so on to the creation of the Angels, and of the World, and of Man, and the twin catastrophes of Lucifer’s rebellion, and Adam’s temptation: interestingly, earthly sexuality, and, presumably, Eve, are consequences of the Fall of Man as Böhme tells it.

Detail from a frontispiece of one of the works of Jacob Böhme.

Böhme wrote dozens of books, so that’s just the tippy-top of a very large & complex iceberg. The images above, by the way, are details from a series of frontispieces (and other illustrations) from the works of Böhme as collected in a 1682 publication of his collected Theosophical Works and reproduced in Stanislas Klossowski de Rola’s book, The Golden Game (previously mentioned here). To see the complete images from which these details were cut, click here, here, here and here.

Posted by misteraitch at September 21, 2004 09:31 PM | TrackBack

The impatient Antikvar reminds me of the used bookseller in Munich who apologetically informed me that his shop was closing for the day. "I don't think you'd have found anything you wanted anyway," he said as he politely shooed me out the door.

Posted by: Prentiss Riddle on September 23, 2004 07:29 PM

This is why I'm not as nostalgic for the "good old days of bookstores" as many. They all used to be like that: suspicious owners hassling you to buy something or get out. "This isn't a library, you know!" Thank god for Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other book emporia where you can browse as long as you like and buy or not, without anyone caring. (And of course the great used book stores like the Strand in NYC or Acres of Books in Long Beach, Calif., where the same laissez-faire attitude has always applied.)

Posted by: language hat on September 23, 2004 08:56 PM

I don't care if Böhme was insane or a religious nut or otherwise. The illustrations are genius work, no matter what time they were produced! (The jpegs you scanned are not large enough.) Was this stuff reinterpretation of earlier engraving, or was it brand new? The work displays a mastery of composition, line form and shape. Who did this? And when? (And how?)

And by the way - this just happens to be one of the best web sites in existence...

Posted by: Martin Archer on September 24, 2004 08:28 AM

Thanks, Martin: I found the following information (here) regarding these images:

The [Gichtel] edition [of Böhme’s Collected Works] was illustrated with a number of symbolical representations by an anonymous designer, who must have been highly familiar with the contents of Böhme’s works. In the past Abraham von Franckenberg has been suggested, who, although he did give visual shape to some elements from the work of Böhme, had died long before 1682; also the engraver Jan Luyken (1649-1712) and persons from the circle around Gichtel himself: Johann Georg Graber whose name is on the title-page of Gichtel’s posthumously published Kurtze Eröfnung und Anweisung der dreyen Principien (1723), and Dionysius Andreas Freher, the designer of the illustrations to Boehme's collected works in English.

In The Golden Game, Klossowski de Rola only mentions that these designs utilise alchemical imagery, and draw from that iconographical vocabulary, before going on to explain some of the symbolism. If you find these images striking, then you should certainly look up The Golden Game: it’s full of such treasures.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 28, 2004 12:09 PM

Just by the by, Christosophia oder Weg zu Christo from 1731 has just been digitised by H.A.B. It has a number of the spectacular images you've scanned here and maybe a couple of others (I haven't quite worked it all out so to speak, yet). LINK

Posted by: peacay on July 19, 2007 04:37 AM

Now that I've had a bit closer look, there are only 4 of those full page illustrations and I am surprised to note that there are no plate marks. Some of the text in the illustrations has faint ruled lines too. I suppose they could be a combination of woodcut and post printing handwork but if my life depended on it I would vote that these are hand drawn ink illustrations. The quarter page vignettes earlier in the work are definitely engravings and a different hue of ink maybe. I think this book is a combination of shorter writings and perhaps the illustration designs were taken from his earlier works. Intriguing.

Posted by: peacay on July 19, 2007 05:16 AM
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