Literature chemistry

Literary reactionsChemisry and Literature (2012)
Left: English physical chemist Philip Ball’s 2008 Chemistry World article “Literary Reactions”, in which he gives a thorough overview of the historical use of writers who use chemistry logic and models as conceptual elements of the plot in literature, including: John Donne (The Comparison, c.1590), William Shakespeare (King Lear, 1606), Johann Goethe (Elective Affinities, 1809; Faust, 1832), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818), Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973), and Oliver Sacks (Uncle Tungsten, 2001). [5] Right: German writer Georg Schwedt’s 2012 Chemistry and Literature, which covers similar ground, from Goethe’s Elective Affinities to Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”. [11]
In human chemistry, literature chemistry is the use chemical theory, principles, laws or models in the construction of a literary work or the study of the use of chemistry used in literature. One of the best representative passages form a literary work that directly employs chemical theory as a model for human interactions is found in the 1999 novel Milton’s Progress by American author Forbes Allan in which one of the characters states:

“People are like particles, they behave in groups as if they were molecules in a test-tube.”

One character of the novel, a “Ilya Meiliakin”, is modeled on Nobel Prize winning chemist Ilya Prigogine, noted author of numerous social thermodynamics theories.

The relationship between literature and chemistry has a long history, reaching back to the time before the existence of chemistry as a scientific discipline, to alchemy and natural philosophy, and to philosophers and poets like Epicurus, Lucretius, and in particular Empedocles and his famous chemistry aphorisms.

The first definitive mention of chemical theory arguments in literature seems to have been made in an October 23, 1799 letter written by German polymath Johann Goethe to his associate German author Friedrich Schiller, wherein Goethe criticizes the work of French author Prosper Crebillon to the effect that Crebillion's writing is not realistic in the sense that it is not based on the reality that people react according to the principles and outcomes of chemistry. The specific comment by Goethe, in this letter, in which he first mentions the outlines of his soon-to-be theory-infused novella, is as follows: [7]

“There is no trace of the delicate verwandtschaft (affinity) through which they (his characters) attract and repel, neutralize each other, separate again and re-establish themselves.”

In other words, in 1799, Goethe viewed the forces of personal relationships to be chemical forces, just as is chemical affinity understood, in modern terms, to be the force or reaction. [7]

Goethe was a first rate chemist in his own right, having been conducting his own chemical experiments since the age of 19 and reading and doing research in chemistry for over 40 years, even employing his own personal chemist, German chemist Johann Dobereiner as a personal research assistant in later years. Goethe eventually transformed this theory into his 1809 novella Elective Affinities, which is generally held to represent one of the most notable metaphoric explorations of chemistry; with its suggestion of human connections as originating at a chemical level. [2]

In particular, a year before publication Goethe, who had been studying chemistry for a period of forty-years, told his friend Friedrich Riemer that ‘his idea for the new novella was to portray social relationships and their conflicts symbolically’, as in a, b, ac, abd, abcd, etc., a statement in reference to a Scottish physician and chemist William Cullen’s 1757 pioneering development of chemical affinity reaction diagrams, versions of which formed the basis of Bergman's reaction diagrams, made by Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman in 1775 in utilized by Goethe as models for human relationships in the construction of the 36 various chapters to his novella. In the famous chapter four, Goethe assigned the following Bergman-style letter chemical symbols to each character in the novella:


Verbal assignment
Charlotte von Stein 75 newCharlotte
Provided it does not seem pedantic,’ the Captain said, ‘I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact: A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraced the other’s partner.’

 AB + CD \to AD + CB \,

‘Now then!’ Eduard interposed: ‘until we see all this with our own eyes, let us look on this formula as a metaphor from which we may extract a lesson we can apply immediately to ourselves. You, Charlotte, represent the A, and I represent your B; for in fact I do depend altogether on you and follow you as A follows B. The C is quite obviously the Captain, who for the moment is to some extent drawing me away from you. Now it is only fair that, if you are not to vanish into the limitless air, you must be provided with a D, and this D is unquestionably the charming little lady Ottilie, whose approaching presence you may no longer resist.’

Goethe 75 newEduard

Buchholz 75Captain

Minna Herzlieb 75Ottilie

To go through the prime example (as depicted below right) of this logic used by Goethe, in the first chapter, the Eduard B and Charlotte A, considered purely as chemical entities, in the mind of Goethe, are bonded together in dull marriage, signified by the Cullen-notation of the bonding bracket “{“, who in turn invite their friend the Captain C to their estate to visit, where upon arrival Eduard B and the Captain C rekindle their old friendship, displacing Charlotte A from her bond with Eduard.
Goethe reaction
What Goethe did, ingeniously, was to arrive at the view that humans are evolved chemicals that react together according to the same laws that govern smaller chemical entities and, based on this view, used Cullen's 1757 dart-arrow reaction diagram method, as found Bergman's reaction diagrams (1775), to explain human relationships as being larger versions of chemical reactions, governed by the principles of affinity chemistry, as captured in the logic of Bergman's affinity table (a 59-column 50-row affinity table), and in doing so wrote out a 36-chapter novella, based on this logic, in which each chapter is a different description of a human chemical reaction, a task which brings validity-closure to Goethe's long-standing title as being the greatest genius of all time.

In technical terms, if chemical species A and B are attached in a weakly bonded chemical union, signified by the bonding bracket “{“, ordered such that if species C were introduced into the system, the greater affinity preference of B for C would cause or rather work to force B to displace A and to thus form a new union with BC, which equates to the following in modern terms:

▬▬▬AB + C → BC + A

Goethe ingeniously steps through thirty-six of these types of human chemical reactions in his novella. In commentary on the application of this type of logic, Goethe declared:

“The moral symbols used in the natural sciences are the elective affinities discovered and employed by the great Bergman.”

Goethe here is referring to Bergman's great 1775 chemistry textbook A Dissertation on Elective Attractions. [11] In other words, what is moral or amoral, in Goethe’s view, is a point of view inherent in the laws of chemistry according to which species react.

French writer Stendhal in his 1821 treatise On Love uses the model of crystallization to explain the process of falling in love, wherein the previously noticed imperfections of one’s newly forming mate slowly disappear and in many cases become marks of perfection and beauty. Stendhal described the process of twig crystallization as such:

"In the salt mines, nearing the end of the winter season, the miners will throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later, through the effects of the waters saturated with salt which soak the bough and then let it dry as they recede, the miners find it covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The tiniest twigs no bigger than a tomclit’s claw are encrusted with an infinity of little crystals scintillating and dazzling. The original little bough is no longer recognizable; it has become a child’s plaything very pretty to see. When the sun is shining and the air is perfectly dry the miners of Hallein seize the opportunity of offering these diamond-studded boughs to travellers preparing to go down to the mine."
In 1818, French writer Stendhal took a recreational trip to the Slazburg salt mines with his friend Madame Gherardi, wherein they discovered the phenomenon of salt "crystallization", in which a plain unattractive twig slowly transforms into a vision of shimmering beauty, in the eye of the beholder; a model which he he later used it as a metaphor for the mental-visual transformation process of falling in love, a process detailed by Stendhal metaphorically on the back of a playing card (above) while speaking to Madame Gherardi, of a plain sight turning into a beautiful sight over the course of the journey. This chemical model was used in his 1821 literature treatise On Love.

He then employed this model to explain the transformation that occurs when two people fall in love. "When we are in Bologna, we are entirely indifferent; we are not concerned to admire in any particular way the person with whom we shall perhaps one day be madly in love with; even less is our imagination inclined to overrate their worth."

In a word, in Bologna “crystallization” has not yet begun. When the journey begins, love departs. One leaves Bologna, climbs the Apennines, and takes the road to Rome. The departure, according to Stendhal, has nothing to do with one’s will; it is an instinctive moment. This transformative process actuates in terms of four steps along a journey: first admiration, second acknowledgement, third hope, and forth delight. [1]

English chemist Humphry Davy, noted for his 1813 theory of modelling man as a "point atom" or point center of force, had a direct influence on English romantic movement writers William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

In the epic 1869 novel War and Peace, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy utilized chemical thinking in his passage:

“A particle of matter cannot tell us that it is unconscious of the laws of attraction and repulsion and that the law is not true; but man, who is the subject of history, says bluntly: I am free, and am therefore not subject to laws.”

Tolstoy was said to have learned of the human particle view of people (or human molecule view) from Henry Buckle. [4] In the 1880 essay “The Experimental Novel”, French writer Emile Zola stated that his great source of inspiration as a novelist was French physiologist Claude Bernard, who studied the chemistry of the body. Other authors who have treated and explored alchemy and chemistry are E.T.A. Hoffmann, Mary Shelley, Alphonse Esquiros (1840), Edgar Poe, Charles Dickens, Ivan Turgenev, William Yeats, James Joyce, August Strindberg, Marcel Proust, Honore Balzac, Emile Zola, Isaac Asimov, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, not to mention philosophers as different as Auguste Comte, Carl Jung, and Gaston Bachelard. [2]

In the 1991 philosophical work Lila: an Inquiry into Morals, American philosopher Robert Pirsig gives a decent summary of chemical perspective of existence:

“Why should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), and nitrogen (N), 'struggle' for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? What's the motive?”
Elective Affinities (1996) (s)Arcadia
Left: The 1996 film version of German polymath Johann Goethe's 1809 Elective Affinities, the most explicit and direct use of chemical theory in literature ever attempted. Right: An opening scene from act II of a November 1998 performance Tom Stoppard's 1993 Elective Affinities remake play Arcadia done at Willamette University Theater. [6]

Reactions to the use of chemical theory as models for human passions and existence in literature have always been met with resistance, much of which results from the religious implications of the work. As German poet and writer and Goethe’s neighbor Christoph Wieland commented in an 1810 letter to a friend, which he said should be burnt after reading, he described Goethe’s Elective Affinities as a “truly horrible work” and considered the modeling of humans as chemicals to be "nonsense and childish fooling around". Wieland’s main objection was said to be about the radicalness of its Christianity.

Research scholars in this field of the study of the overlap of chemistry and literature include: Claus Bock, Jeremy Adler, Astrida Tantillo, Kevin Yee, Karl Fink, Philip Ball, possibly Bruce Clarke, to some extent, among others.

In the 1942 article “Alchemy and Chemistry in Literature” American chemist Eugene Blank summarized the use of chemical topics as literary themes from the days of alchemy to the present, the foremost examples he cites being Ralph Emerson (IQ=155), Johann Goethe (IQ=230), and Honore Balzac (IQ=155). [8]

In 1998, Jack Stocker published Chemistry and Science Fiction, which gives some type of summary of the use of chemistry in literature, film, and television; although it mostly seems to be a rehash of the various works of Isaac Asimov and Thomas Pynchon’s popular 1973 Gravity’s Rainbow, to a large extent. [10]

The 2002 three-page "Chemistry" entry by American physical organic chemist and science historian Stephen Weininger, in the Encyclopedia of Literature and Science, citing Jeremy Adler’s detective work on Goethe’s version of human elective affinities (Romanticism and the Sciences, 1990) and Jack Stocker, seems to be one of the first encyclopedia-style summaries of the use of chemistry in literature. [9]

American physical chemist Philip Ball's 2008 Chemistry World article "Literary Reactions" is a more recent example of an attempt to summarize the on-growing field of "literature chemistry" [5]

In 2010, American organometallic chemist Jay Labinger, noted for his 1995 Society for Literature and Science paper "Metaphoric Usage of the Second Law: Entropy as Time's (double-headed) Arrow in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia", published a decent nine page section on "Chemistry" in the Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, which notably also contains a sister section on "Thermodynamics" written by John Bruni. [13]

In 2011, at the University of Bergen, the British Society for Literature and Science, hosted an interdisciplinary conference entitled “Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities”, on the overlap of uses of chemistry in literature, and vice versa to some extent. [2]

French protein thermodynamicist Joel Janin states that American J.D. Salinger, in some of his short stories (similar to Janin’s 1996 article title “For Guldberg and Waage, With Love and Cratic Entropy”), was an “alchemist of psychology like Goethe”. [12]

In study of chemistry in films, the generalized effect of interpersonal chemistry, particularly couple chemistry, as discussed by American film studies professor Martha Nochimson, in her 2002 book Screen Couple Chemistry, is an "energy issue". To exemplify the idea of "good chemistry", according to Nochimson, film provides for a means to capture human chemical reactions on film. The undeniable chemistry seen and felt between classic silver screen stars, such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, according to Nochimson, generates a kind of “raw energy” in which the relationships themselves become “freestanding energy vortexes” where couples become bigger than the films they made. What is good in contrast to what is bad (or evil) in chemistry, however, is a thick subject; generally having to do with spontaneity and the direction of energy flows. [3] A few representative film quotes are shown below:

“Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological process—or, shall we say, chemical—process … a lot of nonsense is talked and written about it.” Greta Garbo 75Greta Garbo (1905-1990)
Swedish actress
Ninotchka (1939)

“I miss her smell, and the way she tastes. It’s a mystery of human chemistry and I don’t understand it, some people, as far as their senses are concerned, just feel like home.” John Cusack 75John Cusack (1966-)
American actor
High Fidelity (2000)

A Certain Chemistry (2003)
The 2003 novel A Certain Chemistry by Mil Millington, an example of literature chemistry.

See also
Human chemistry (books)
Literature thermodynamics
Music chemistry

1. Crystallization (love) – Wikipedia.
2. Pratt-Smith, Stella. (2011). “Call for papers: Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities”, The British Society for Literature and Science, Interdisciplinary conference organized by the research group Literature and Science, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, The University of Bergen 27-28 October 2011.
3. Nochimson, Martha P. (2002). Screen Couple Chemistry, (pg. 13). Auston, Tx.: University of Texas Press.
4. Ball, Philip. (2004). Critical Mass - How One Thing Leads to Another (quote, pg. 75). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
5. Ball, Philip. (2008). “Literary Reactions: Chemistry makes Occasional Appearances in Fiction by Rarely takes Centre Stage: Philip Ball Unearths Chemistry’s Fictional Roles.” Chemistry World, Dec. 46-49.
6. Arcadia (photos) by Chris L. Harris –
7. (a) Lynch, Sandra. (2005). Philosophy and Friendship (Crebillon, pg. 37). Edinburgh University Press.
(b) Steer, Alfred G. (1990). Goethe’s Elective Affinities: the Robe of Nessus (Crebillon, pg. 37). Winter.
8. Blank, Eugene W. (1942). "Alchemy and Chemistry in Literature" (abs), School Science and Mathematics, 42(6): 550-58.
9. (a) Weininger, Stephen J. (2002). “Chemistry”, in: Encyclopedia of Literature and Science (pg. 77-79), ed. Pamela Gossin, Greenwood Publishing Group.
(b) Gossin, Pamela. (2002). Encyclopedia of Literature and Science (chemistry, 40+ pgs; §Chemistry, pg. 77-79). Greenwood Publishing Group.
10. Stoker, Jack H. (1998). Chemistry and Science Fiction. American Chemical Society.
11. Schwedt, Georg. (2012). Chemie und Literatur: ein Ungewohnlicher Flirt (abs). Publisher.
12. Email communication from Joel Janin to Libb Thims (6 Mar 2013).
13. (a) Labinger, Jay. (2010). “§4: Chemistry” (pdf), in: The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science (editors: Bruce Clarke, Manuel Rossini) (pgs. 51-62). Routledge, Abingdon (UK); Taylor & Francis, 2011.
(b) (a) Labinger, Jay. (2010).
(c) Bruni, John. (2010). “§20: Thermodynamics”, in: The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science (editors: Bruce Clarke, Manuel Rossini) (pgs. 226-38). Routledge, Abingdon (UK); Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Further reading
● Anon. (2011). “Conference Abstracts”, Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities, University of Bergen 27-28 October.

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