I've just read a masterful work by a Penn State colleagues, Mark Morrisson. The title is Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory. The premise of this book is that the occult revival in Britain, c. 1890-1935, corresponded to the discovery and development of modern atomic science—and that the two cross-influenced one another, mostly in the matter of the diction they both used in the public eye. Furthermore, there were some member of the Alchemical Society who were also prominent scientists, and that Society helped to popularize the idea that modern atomic theory WAS the scientific realization of Medieval alchemy's original dreams.
In other words, many scientists, occultists, sci-fi writers, and members of the public thought that the functions of radium and of radioactive transmutation were the same as medieval alchemical transmutation. It's a brilliant thesis, and perfectly well supported.
I first picked up this book, of course, because of its relevance to my Charles Williams studies: CW's occult mentor, A.E. Waite, was a member of the Alchemical Society. This society was founded in 1912, at the same time that Waite was Chief of the Isis-Urania Temple. In other words, Waite's occult and pseudo-scientific interests were at their highest right before he and Williams started talking, seven years before CW joined the F.R.C.
I wrote to the author that his contextualization did help me better understand at least one aspect of Williams's complex personality. Since he considered himself a strongly committed Anglican, and since most of his works are deeply and overtly Christian, I have wondered what line of reasoning led him to occult practices. The Church of England mustn't have been too delighted with its members dabbling in alchemy, astrology, Kabbala, tarot, and the like. But Morrisson made sense out of this for me, when he quoted what Waite wrote in The Unknown World about "the 'superstitions' of the past, or, more correctly, ...the science of the future." If Waite and his followers truly believed that all of their occult practices would be proven scientific in the future, then there could be no quarrel with established religion, since the Christian God is also the creator of all nature and hence of all true science. I have not yet come across anything in Williams's writing that suggests he went through this thought process (he seems singularly unconcerned by, or even unaware of, the unorthodoxy of many of his beliefs and practices), but perhaps he was involved in conversations about this with Waite, maybe even before deciding to join the F.R.C. It is a fascinating possibility.
One other element was particularly relevant for my CW studies. One writer, Ellic Howe, described of the Golden Dawn as "an ingenious construction of arbitrary relationships between different symbolical systems." This is so right that it's funny: Waite and the others did layer symbols with a complexity to rival the stratigraphy visible in the Grand Canyon. Williams bought into this kind of arbitrary symbol-layering wholeheartedly: In fact, in his poetry, he took all of the symbolic systems of the F.R.C., piled them up, associated them with one another, then added two additional layers: human anatomy and European geography. You can see an image of this body map here. This kind of complex layering makes more sense to me in the larger context of the occult revival that Morrisson discusses. I will also have a sharper eye open for alchemical imagery in the poetry as I go through it now. I wonder whether his drive for a totalizing mythology (a drive that many writers seem to have been possessed by, from Blake to Tolkien and beyond) was at all related to the alchemical search for the prima materia? It certainly had a hermetic aspect, since he was convinced of the unity of "things above" with "things below" -- in short, of the doctrine of correspondence. Stephen Dunning has called him a Monist, which appears to me to have a relationship to not only broader hermeticism but also to the specifically alchemical project. The legend of Atlantis/Numenor also influenced the development of his geographical myth, and Morrisson talks about this myth and its connections to alchemy and atomic science.
Morrisson also mentioned many other works related to this theme, and I am sure that reading them would also help broaden my ideas about CW's historical and literary context. They include:
Yeats, "Rosa Alchemica"
Aleister Crowley, Moonchild
Mary Anne Atwood, Suggestive Inquiry
H.G. Wells, The World Set Free