CHAPTER 2. Discursive Contexts of Boehme's Visionary Narrative
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CHAPTER 2  Discursive Contexts of Boehme’s Visionary Narrative In chapter 2 I attempt a partial contextualization of Boehme’s discourse by presenting the alchemical and negative theology discourses that Boehme avails himself of to articulate his speculative vision. If this presentation makes a historical claim about influence, the real interest is the systematic one of assessing the degree to which these discourses assist Boehme’s essentially theogonic program. As I make clear in section one, alchemy, especially Paracelsian alchemy, offers considerable assistance in this respect. Boehme’s narrative ontotheology can be regarded as the sublation of Paracelsian alchemy, in which theogony, at the very least, is inchoate. The linking of Boehme with Paracelsian alchemical discourse, however, subserves more than a taxonomic interest. It points toward genealogy. For it is not simply the case that each of these discourses helps to define the other as germ and realization respectively, but that one discourse (alchemy) anticipates Boehme’s discourse that completes it, but most importantly recollects it. To the degree to which Boehme’s narrative discourse is repeated in the modern period, then the Paracelsian tradition, and even Paracelsus remains alive. Conversely, echos of the Paracelsian tradition or of Paracelsus in modern discourse point toward Boehme’s discourse as their most ample context. The situation with regard to the relation between Boehme’s discourse and the tradition of negative theology—especially negative theology in its more speculative Eckhartian form—is more complicated, and consequently, my account of relation will be less straightforward. While Boehme most definitely inhabits this tradition in terms of vocabulary and image, I will show that fundamentally he subverts this discourse. This has the important consequence that it essentially rules out a genealogy that would yoke Eckhart and Boehme together, as Baur does in Die christliche Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit (pp. 880–98).1 More, it means that to sustain the case that one of these speculative discourses, for example, Boehme’s, is Gnostic, not only does not necessarily entail that speculative negative theology is, but it also makes it 57 antecedently unlikely that such a verdict will be brought in. Notwithstanding speculative negative theology’s considerable deviancy from the standard Christian traditions, another label will have to be found for it. The conditional anticipates the categorical. In Parts II and III I substantiate the hypothesis that Boehme’s discourse is Gnostic or Valentinian. 2.1. Alchemy as Discursive Context and its Sublation Since alchemy has an extensive and varied career in Western thought from the Middle Ages onward, not a great deal of light is shed on Boehme’s discourse by maintaining that it is influenced by alchemy. What is required is some notice of the identity of the specific brand of theology-friendly, but not necessarily Christianly-orthodox species of alchemy in circulation in the post-Reformation thought of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. If overall this identity is reflective and speculative rather than practical, and absolutely encompassing or pansophistic in its ambition, its particular identity is bound up with the name of Paracelsus (1490–1543) rather than with the names of Raimond Lull (1235–1315), Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494).2 This is not to deny, however, that the work of Paracelsus bears some relation to these speculative alchemical traditions, and particularly to that of Ficino and Mirandola, whose names are invoked by him, and whose thought is current in Paracelsus’s teacher, Trithemius (1467–1516).3 But the Paracelsian form of alchemy is itself a post-Reformation event in an ideational sense and not simply in a chronological one. Whatever the Renaissance ingredient , then, in Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus’s real name), it is the brave new world opened up by the Reformation that best situates his work.4 At one level, Paracelsus’s thought can be understood as the humanistic complement to Luther’s exclusive concern with Scripture. Nature too is a book, and no less than Scripture its mysteries or arcana demand elucidation. Moreover, the task of elucidation is far from hopeless, for like Scripture, nature is perspicuous. Transparence, however, demands critique, and becomes a real possibility when the distorting lens of Galenic and Avincennan medicine and Aristotelian physics is exposed. Truly earning the sobriquet of “bombastus,” for Paracelsus, transparence only becomes actual in his own works, which represent the reformation of physical and medical science. At another level, the book of nature is not Paracelsus’s exclusive focus—although even in this area...


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