‘Alchemists Everywhere,’ Part 2, a Pubcast Discussion with Travis Prinzi at The Hog’s Head

Thank you, Elizabeth, for keeping things jumping here at HogwartsProfessor in my absence! I enjoyed reading your posts in Oklahoma City, in Sikeston, Missouri, and in Moline/Rock Island, Illinois, this past week. I worry that you’ve raised the bar here significantly both in terms of frequency in posting and the quality of the pieces put up; the Substitute Teacher is always much better than the bumbling absentee (ask Hagrid!). I’ll do my best to raise my game this week lest the All-Pros summon Dolores Umbridge for a review…

Tomorrow I’ll share some thoughts from my trip and about an observation made by an Augustana College co-ed about the last three chapters of Deathly Hallows that left me slapping my forehead. Tonight, though, I just want to say “Hi!” and “Thank you, Elizabeth!” and “What do you think of the explanation I give to the question of why alchemy is so pervasive in contemporary best selling fiction?” You can hear that explanation — that we are materialists with spiritual longing — in the second part of my discussion with Travis Prinzi about literary alchemy at the Hog’s Head, PubCast #79. I spoke on this subject at the C. S. Lewis Conference in Oklahoma City and at Augustana College while opening up Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Meyers’ Twilight books.

I want to believe this answer touches on the heart of why we read, that is, ‘what we get out of reading’ and why books do what they do for us, in a profound way and I look forward to your comments and correction about this alchemical thesis.


  1. Elizabeth says

    Thanks, John! It’s been my pleasure! Since Twilight and History came out this week (offcially) and I’ve been trotting hither and yon to work with that, I’m glad I was able to keep things humming to your satisfaction! But I’m sure everyone is glad to see your triumphant return!
    Thanks to you, I think I see alchemy in the oddest places. I was watching something about the historical accuracy (or lack thereof) in Indiana Jones movies, and noticed the alchemical color scheme in the opening scenes of Temple of Doom (my least favorite of the set, so the one I’ve paid the least attention); but there is Indy in his white tux, black tie, and red carnation, with the bad guys in black, and the whiny heroine in red and gold. Who would have thought?
    (And even though I’m glad everyone liked the unicorns, you’ve never yet turned any blast-ended skrewts on us!) Welcome home!

  2. mentis splendidus says


    Just finished listening to the second pub cast, and I must say that I could not agree with you more about our materially obsessed world longing for substantive spiritual experience and finding it in fictional works built on “alchemical scaffolding,” especially now that I have been thoroughly schooled in all things alchemical by the alchemical guru.

    Much has been said lately on HogPro and other Potter fan sites about the importance of aesthetics in defining “good” or “worthy” literature. If I understand you correctly, John, you assert aesthetics, although a noble quality and one to which all authors should strive, are relatively unimportant in explaining why certain fictional works have broad appeal. In fact, I believe Travis threw down the gauntlet, as it were, at the end of the pub cast and challenged you on this issue (I suggest M4’s at noon at a hundred yards). I for one agree with you.

    You also mentioned that we are all materialists to some degree, and I am curious to know if you believe that it is this predilection that causes modern readers to place such a weighty emphasis on aesthetics in literature. If we are drawn to aesthetics by the materialist within, then that explains why I still take Pynchon off the shelf from time to time and give him a go.

    The aesthetic/materialist correlation seems logical to me because my relationship with postmodern literature is not unlike the relationship of Archie and Edith Bunker, with me in the role of Archie. Although the dingbat drives me crazy, there is something about her that keeps me from banning the loon from my life entirely. I have often asked myself why I continue to torture myself with occasional journeys through the twisted worlds of postmodernists, especially after reading one of their works and then finding myself sequestered in the back of my closet in the fetal position sucking my thumb and mumbling incoherently, but I have always hit the proverbial wall. Now I know what it is: it is aesthetics, the superbly crafted prose found in many postmodern works.

    But when considering thorough-going, died-in-the-wool postmodern literature apart from aesthetics what do you have left? Nothing really. At least nothing significant, nothing you can walk away from the work with and cling to. Take Pynchon for instance: few living authors can match him aesthetically, in my opinion. His prose is amazing, but reading him is like walking around in a purple haze, and when you finally crash you only remember bits and pieces of the journey, and the bits and pieces you do remember you wish you could forget. Aesthetics, then, would be absolutely essential to an orthodox postmodern work, because without it there is no story.

  3. For the record, I hardly “threw the gauntlet down.” If it sounded like that because of my frequent use of the phrase “crappy writing,” I apologize for the misunderstanding. That was for comic effect. I simply wanted to open the discussion, which I thought would be of interest to Hog’s Head readers, because upon re-listening, I was struck by the comment and wished John and I had had a chance to discuss it during our conversation.

    You’ll note, upon re-listening, that I agreed with John’s major point about deeper-level artistry being of the utmost importance. I am not, however, ready to entirely give up on the importance of aesthetics, as though that’s either a side-issue, or worse, an indicator of materialism. We wouldn’t say that same thing about visual art. We wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter if a painting is well done or not, as long as carries a message in it that hits the human heart. We certainly wouldn’t apply the same logic to pop music, concluding that it doesn’t much matter if the music is any good, as long as the lyrics convey a message to the human heart.

    There’s something in between, “A book is completely worthless, no matter how popular, if its prose and dialogue are lousy” and “Prose and dialogue don’t matter at all as long as there is deeper-level artistry.” I’m looking for that in-between.

  4. mentis splendidus says

    No Travis, I apologize for my crappy writing. I did not intend to leave the impression that I thought you and John had major philosophical issues or that you had been snotty or disrespectful in disagreeing with him about aesthetics. I understood where you were coming from and was simply dabbling in hyperbole (or at least trying to) and writing for “comic effect” as well. You have no need to apologize.

    Also, I did not mean to suggest that you are a materialist when I asked John about “the materialist within.” I was more concerned with why I am still drawn occasionally to read the likes of Pynchon, even though I find most of his themes repulsive. John had suggested that we are all materialists to some degree (assuming I have understood him correctly) due to the influence of our present age, and I was interested to know his thoughts on whether or not the materialist within me was drawn to the aesthetics of Pynchon’s works.

    I agree with you that an aesthetically pleasing work of art with a “message…that hits the heart” is certainly to be preferred than otherwise, but I assert that the truth in art, the allure of art, is in the message, aesthetics or the relative lack thereof notwithstanding. Consider the paintings and drawings of children. Although they leave much to be desired aesthetically, these works often convey powerfully meaning. If you are a father then I am certain that you have some of these juvenile masterpieces hanging about your house somewhere. Assuming that your children are not burgeoning Rembrandts, what message do these aesthetically anorexic works of visual art convey to you? As a father myself, if I were to see the artwork of your children would they not convey the same message to me?

    I believe the same argument can be made about music. Take the song Man of Constant Sorry for instance. The Soggy Bottom Boys performed this song (a humdinger, I might add, aesthetically and lyrically) for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. What few people realize, though, is Bob Dylan wrote and performed this song many moons ago. The Boys adapted the piece for the own ends and produced an aesthetically pleasing song with a powerful message. Bob Dylan’s version also conveys a powerful message, but musically he sounds like a dying cat singing it.

    The same can be said for literature. The aesthetics of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, one of my favorite stories and one of America’s most enduring novels, was criticized in many circles soon after its publication, but few (if any) questioned the power of his anti-romantic themes, religious skepticism, and his exposure of the inhumanity and degrading nature of slavery. More recently Ms. Rowling has been skewered by the literary establishment for her “amateurish prose.” Now, I do not happen to agree with that assessment, but let’s compare her with another living author. Aesthetically speaking, who is the better writer: Rowling or Pynchon? Personally, I believe Pynchon is Rowling’s master in crafting prose, but Pynchon does not come close to matching Rowling’s ability to touch the public’s heart. Why is that? Why can’t Pynchon, master aesthetitician (yes, I know it’s not a real word) that he is, do similarly? If aesthetics is so important to literature why have Pynchon, Roth, Morison, and others of their ilk not found a broader audience?

    Travis, I appreciate you responding to my post and furthering the discussion on aesthetics. That has been my goal too. I also hope that I have not proved offensive to you, John, or any one else here at HogPro. I am sincerely interested in the subject and wish only to broaden my knowledge. I am not an expert on much of anything, much less the intricacies of literature, but I do enjoy batting the ball back and forth.

    Hope all is well with you and yours.

  5. Mentis, no worries. The only thing you have to apologize for is your insulting of Bob Dylan 😛 [As a side note, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is a traditional folk song that was recorded by Dylan, not written by him. As another side note, the “Soggy Bottom Boys” are really Dan Timinski and Union Station (of Alisson Krauss and Union Station) – some of the best music out there right now. But I’m taking us on quite the tangent here.]

    Good points, all, and yes, I have many of my 3-year-old’s “masterpieces” hanging around the house.

    You’re definitely correct that aesthetics is not the be-all, end-all of literature. I always think of Luther’s insult to Erasmus – that his arguments were like golden plates carrying dung. Well written, no substance. (For the record, I’m not here making a judgment call on Erasmus, but simply remembering a witty quote by Luther.) Better for Twilight to have amateurish prose and iconological depth than no depth with beautiful writing.

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