Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Elixir of Life in Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough 1917


The Elixir of Life in Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough 1917

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Immortality that proves such a curse in the case of the Wandering Jew forms the basis for various other stories. The elixir of life was a favorite theme with the Gothicists, being used by Maturin, Godwin, and Shelley, and has continued to furnish complication for fiction since that time. The theme has been popular on the continent as well as in England, Balzac and Hoffman being the most impressive users of it.

Bulwer-Lytton, in A Strange Story, introduces the elixir of life together with other forms of supernaturalism, such as mesmerism, magic, spectral apparitions, invisible manifestations, awful bodiless Eyes, a gigantic Foot, and so forth. Margrave attempts to concoct the potion that shall give him endless life, but after mysterious preparations, incantations, and supernatural manifestations, at the crucial moment a stampede of maddened beasts, urged forward by the dreadful Foot, dashes the beaker from his lips. The irreplaceable liquid wastes its force on the desert sands, where a magic richness of herbage instantly springs up in contrast to the barrenness around it. Flowers bloom, myriads of insects hover round them, and all is life, but the man who sought the elixir with such pains lies dead. The author suggests a symbolic meaning for his story, hinting that the scientist’s laboratory holds many elixirs of life, that all growth and life are magical, that all being is miraculous.


Rider Haggard, in She and Ayesha, its sequel, describes a wonderful woman who possesses the secret of eternal life and has lived for thousands of years, ever young and beautiful, supernaturally enchanting. Her magic potion not only gives her length of days but protection against danger as well, for her rival’s dagger glances harmlessly away from her, and she is proof against chance and fate. She gains her immortal life partly by bathing in a secret essence or vapor whose emanations give her mystic force and immortal beauty. There are many other elements of supernaturalism in association with the not impossible She,—magic vision, reincarnation, a mystic light that envelops her body, the power to call up the dead, to reanimate the skeletons in the desert and raise them to dreadful life. She is an interesting but fearsome personality.

In Ahrinziman, by Anita Silvani, we have magic chemistry yielding up the elixir of life. Jelul-uh-din has lived for five hundred years and looks forward to a still more protracted existence. His magic drug not only gives him prolonged life but will do anything he wishes besides, since he has hypnotized it. Yet he is found dead. “On his wrists were marks of giant fingers, scorched and burnt into the flesh like marks of hot iron. And on his throat were marks of a similar hand which had evidently strangled him.” It is apparent that his master, the Devil, got impatient and cut short the leisurely existence that he felt belonged to him.

Hawthorne was greatly interested in the theme of the elixir of life. He gives us two brews of it in Septimius Felton, one an Indian potion concocted by an old sachem. The red man gets so old that his tribe find him a great nuisance and obstacle to progress so they gravely request permission to kill him. But his skull is so hard that the stone hammers are smashed when they try to brain him, his skin so tough that no arrows will pierce it, and nothing seems to avail. Finally they fill his mouth and nostrils with clay and put him in the sun to bake, till presently his heart bursts with a loud explosion, tearing his body to fragments. This brew of his is matched by one made by an European scientist after long endeavors. Here the ultimate ingredient is supposed to be a strange herb that grows from a mysterious grave. At last, just when the youth thinks he has the right combination, the woman who has lured him on to destruction dashes the cup from his lips, saving him from the poison he would have drunk. The flower has grown from the grave of her lover, whom the young scientist has murdered.

In The Dolliver Romance, that pathetic fragment Hawthorne left unfinished at his death, we find another treatment of the theme. It seems symbolic that in his old age and failing powers, he should have been thinking of immortal youth, of deathless life. In this story various magical elements are introduced. The herbs grown in old Grandsir Dolliver’s garden have a strange power, for when a woman lays a flower from one on her breast, it glows like a gem and lends a bloom of youth to her cheeks. The old man seeks the one unknown essence, the incalculable element necessary to make up the elixir of life, as did the youth in Septimius Felton. He drinks occasional mouthfuls of a strange cordial that he finds in an old bottle on the shelf, and seems to grow younger and stronger. He, too, like Septimius, has a visitor; a man that demands the cordial as belonging to him by ancestral right, snatches it from the aged hands, drinks it down at a draught and grows violently young, but dies in convulsions.


In Dr. Heidigger’s Experiment Hawthorne gives us another sad symbolic story of the quest of the elixir of youth. The old physician invites four aged friends to make an experiment, to drink of a cordial which shall restore youth, but which he himself is too wise to share. The strange potion proves its power by restoring to beauty and perfume a rose that has been dead for over fifty years. When the old persons drink they become young and happy and beautiful once more. Age drops from them like a mantle discarded and the world glows again with passion and color and joy. But alas! it is only ephemeral, for the effects soon pass away and senility is doubly tragic after one snatched hour of joy and youth. There is a sad philosophy of life expressed in these symbolic allegories such as Hawthorne alone knows how to tell.

Elsewhere Hawthorne shows his deep interest in the theme. In The Birthmark the scientist intimates that he could brew the life elixir if he would, but that it would produce a discord in nature such as all the world, and chiefly he that drank it, would curse at last. The subject is referred to in other places, and a flask of the precious, dreadful elixir is one of the treasures in the Virtuoso’s collection. In a note concerning his use of the theme in The Dolliver Romance Hawthorne states that he has been accused of plagiarizing from Dumas, but that in reality Dumas plagiarized from him, since his book was many years the earlier.

H. G. Wells uses this theme combined with the transfer of personality. An aged man bargains with a youth to make him his heir on certain conditions. The purpose, unknown to the young fellow, is to rob him of his youth to reanimate the old man. A magic drink transfers the personality of the octogenarian to the body of youth and leaves the young man’s soul cabined in the worn-out frame. But the drug is more powerful than Mr. Elvesham supposed, for it brings death to both who drink it and the bargain has a ghastly climax. Barry Pain has a somewhat similar situation of the tragic miscalculation, in The Wrong Elixir, the story of an alchemist who brews the life-giving potion but means to keep it all to himself. On a certain night he will drink it and become immortally young, in a world of dying men. While he waits, a gypsy girl asks him to give her a poison to kill a man she hates. He prepares the potion for her and sets it aside. He drinks at the time he planned, but instead of eternal life, the draught brings him swift-footed death. Does he drink the wrong elixir, or have all his calculations been wrong?

An example of the way in which the magic of the old fiction of supernaturalism has been transferred into the scientific in modern times, is seen in The Elixir of Youth, by Albert Bigelow Paine. A man in an upper room alone is wishing that he had the gift of immortal youth, when a stranger in black enters and answers his thought. He tells him that to read the mind is not black magic, but science; that he is not a magician, but a scientist, and as such he has compounded the elixir of youth, which he will give to him. This drug will enable a man to halt his age at any year he chooses and to make it permanent, as Peter Ibbetson and the Duchess of Towers did in their dream-life. The stranger leaves the flask with the man and goes away. But the one who wished for immortal life decides that after all God must know best, and, though his decision not to drink has not crystalized, he is not greatly sorry when the flask is shattered and the liquid spilled. This is symbolic of the real wisdom of life.

The frequent use of the theme of the elixir of life, of deathless youth, illustrates how humanity clutches at youth with pathos and shrinks from age. Red Ranrahan, the loved singer of Ireland, whom W. B. Yeats creates for us with unforgettable words, makes a curse against old age when he feels it creeping on him.

Various other stories of supernatural length of years appear in English fiction, besides those based on the definite use of the life elixir. The Woman from Yonder, by Stephen French Whitman, shows us the revived, reanimated body of a woman who has been buried in a glacier since Hannibal crossed the Alps, till she is dug out and miraculously restored, by blood-transfusion, by an interfering scientist. The writer queries, “If the soul exists, where had that soul been? What regions did it relinquish at the command of the reviving body?” A humorous application of the idea of the deathless man is seen in A. Conan Doyle’s The Los Amigos Fiasco, where the citizens of a frontier town, wishing to kill a criminal by some other method than the trite rope, try to kill him by putting him in connection with a big dynamo. But their amateur efforts have a peculiar effect. They succeed only in so magnetizing his body that it is impossible for him to die. They try shooting, hanging, and so forth, but he has gained such an access of vitality from electricity that he comes out unscathed through everything, resembling the ancient sachem in Hawthorne’s novel.

The Flying Dutchman forms the theme for stories in folklore, of a wanderer of the seas condemned to touch shore only once in seven years, because he swore he would round Cape Horn in spite of heaven and hell. Hawthorne has preserved a letter from the Dutchman to his wife, in the Virtuoso’s collection, and John Kendrick Bangs has furnished the inevitable parody in his Pursuit of the Houseboat. The Dead Ship of Harpwell is another story of a wandering, accursed ship. There is a similar legend told by C. M. Skinner, of a man, who, for a cruel murder of a servant, was condemned to wear always a halter round his neck and was unable to die.

Bram Stoker furnishes us with several interesting specimens of supernatural life, always tangled with other uncanny motives. The count, in Dracula, who has lived his vampire life for centuries, is said to be hale and fresh as if he were forty. Of course, all vampires live to a strange lease on life, but most of them are spirits rather than human beings as was Dracula. In The Lair of the White Worm, Stoker tells of a woman who was at once an alluring woman and a snake thousands of years old. The snake is so large that, when it goes out to walk, it looks like a high white tower, and can gaze over the tops of the trees.

Bulwer-Lytton’s The Haunters and the Haunted tells the story of a mysterious being who passes through untold years with a strange power over life and the personality of others. He appears, no man knows whence nor why, and disappears as strangely, while about his whole career is a shroud of mystery. Thackeray, in his Notch on the Axe, burlesques this and similar stories in playful satire, yet seems to enjoy his theme. It is not wholly a burlesque, we may suppose. He adds a touch of realism to his humorous description by the fact that, throughout his hero’s long-continued life, or series of lives—one doesn’t know which—he retains always his German-Jewish accent. Andrew Lang describes the person who may have been the original of these stories in real life. Horace Walpole has mentioned him in his letters and he seems to have a teasing mystery about his life and career that makes him much talked-of.

Edwin Lester Arnold tells a story of continued life with an Oriental setting and mystery. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, by the introduction of a magic sleep makes a man live far beyond the natural span and be able to see into the distant future, while the youth in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court has a magic length of life, living a dual existence, in Arthurian England and in present-day America. H. G. Wells uses something of the same idea, in that he makes his hero live a very long time in a few hours, compressing time into minute tabules, as it were, as he does in another story of the magic accelerator that makes a man live fast and furiously with tenfold powers at crucial moments. The story of Peter Rugg, the Missing Man, is that of another immortal wanderer, whose story is told in Myths and Legends of Our Land, and utilized by Alfred Austin. He goes out into a storm, saying, “I will see home to-night or I will never see it!” He flies forever pursued by the storm, never resting, and never seeing his home. This is symbolic of the haunted soul pursued by its own destiny.

The theme of the elixir of life is one of the old motifs of supernaturalism retained in modern fiction. The conventional alchemist has given place to a more up-to-date investigator in the chemical laboratory, yet the same thrill of interest is imparted by the thought of a magic potion prepared by man that shall endow him with earthly immortality. The theme has changed less in its treatment and symbolism than most of the supernatural elements in fiction, for though we see the added elements of modern satire and symbolism, its essential aspects remain the same.

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