Spring 2010

The Soul Is a Trapped Gas

The pneuma world order

Justin E. H. Smith

Francisco de Zurbarán. St. Hugo of Grenoble in the Carthusian Refectory (detail), ca. 1633.

In Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 Mason & Dixon, Charles Mason, Sr., the father of one of the two great American explorers, claims to believe

that bread is alive,—that the yeast Animalcula may unite into a single purposeful individual,—that each Loaf is so organized, with the crust, for example, serving as skin or Carapace,—the small cavities within exhibiting a strange complexity, their pale Walls, to appearance smooth, proving, upon magnification, to be made up of even smaller bubbles, and, one may presume, so forth, down to the Limits of the Invisible. The Loaf, the indispensible point of convergence upon every British table, the solid British Quartern Loaf, is mostly, like the Soul, Emptiness.

Is bread in fact like the soul? It is well known that our own word for the biotic condition does not descend from the same distinguished Indo-European lineage as bios, vita, vie, and so on. Instead life, along with the related Germanic cognates such as Leben and leven, took the place of bios and its variations thanks to the intervention of the humble loaf, which originally had none of the connotation of the verb “to loaf,” but had instead only to do with bread. Indeed, loaf is a cognate of the Russian word for bread, khleb, and also of the Gothic hlaif. At some point, then, and I really do not know when, the ancient Germanic tribes started using the word for bread to denote life itself, since, obviously, bread sustains life, is a condition of life, and thus, in some primitive way of thinking into which it is not all that hard to work one’s way back, is life.

It is quite likely that Mason, Sr. is being made by Pynchon to paraphrase a commonplace of what was often called “chemical philosophy” or “chymistry,” but since the eighteenth century has been marginalized, in a classic case of what C. S. Lewis once called “chronological snobbery,” as “alchemy”: the primitive, irrational ancestor of chemistry. Chymistry, or alchemy, or whatever you wish to call it, had as one of its central goals the isolation of the “essences” or “spirits” of things through laboratory means such as distillation. In Johann Agricola’s Chymische Medicin of 1638, for example, we are given practical advice for the distillation of spirit out of flesh, blood, sugar, and, of all things, bread. The spiritus panis, which Agricola describes as a vapor that remains in the glass bubble of the alembic after the alchemist has performed his operations, is a sort of “pure bread,” or bread reduced down to its very essence. It is to bread what my immortal soul is to me.

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