But Who Was Fulcanelli?

On the Guitar album, Zappa named one of the solos "But Who Was Fulcanelli?". Many Zappa fans have asked the same question; so have countless others. Fulcanelli was, or wasn't, an extremely secretive early 20th-century alchemist. All that can be said for certain is that two books were published in the name of Fulcanelli - Le Mystère des Cathédrales ("Mystery of the Cathedrals") and Les Demeures Philosophales ("The Dwellings of the Philosophers"). These extremely remarkable books are highly regarded among most alchemists, and are some of the most influential and important works of alchemy to surface in the 20th century. Who really wrote them can probably never be determined; theories certainly abound. Fulcanelli himself has been said to have lived unnaturally long, died in several different places, risen from the dead - you name it.

As Patrick Neve points out, from the David Ocker interview under users.cableaz.com/~lantz/, we learn that Zappa was indeed interested in Fulcanelli:

AFFZ: Fulcanelli was the "last of the alchemists" - I believe he was immortal a la Comte St. Germain, and possibly also discovered the philosopher's stone. His true identity is obscure.

AFFZ: There is a little more to this story - Fulcanelli believed that the secrets of Christian hermeticsm were to be found in bas-reliefs throughout Europe's cathedrals - after he bestowed this knowledge upon a trusted disciple in 1920 (whereupon Le Mystère des Cathédrales was published) he disappeared without a trace. Thirty years later he made a single appearance to his disciple, before disappearing again, and, according to his disciple, actually had grown younger by at least 20 years.

DAVID OCKER: I've always wondered who Fulcanelli was since I heard Frank give that name as the answer to the question "Which character from history would you most like to meet?" (At the time I wrote the name down on a post-it note so I wouldn't forget and the post it note still lives in my desk drawer). I don't presume to understand either of the above explanations or whether they might contradict one another or not.

Sample Article on the Fulcanelli Mystery

To give some idea about the mystique that surrounds Fulcanelli, here is an article by Patrick J. Smith, posted on April 11 1996 to an alchemy forum on the levity.com website. [Disclaimer: This article does not represent the last word on Fulcanelli, was certainly controversial on the alchemy forum, and might be called heavily biassed.]

During the 1930s, an investigation into the identity of Fulcanelli was conducted by Robert Ambelain, a student of the occult who had been inspired by Fulcanelli's books. Having written a book of his own, Ambelain went to see Jean Schemit, the original publisher of Fulcanelli's works. While there Schemit told him that, in 1926, he was visited by a stranger who had not given his name, but had engaged him in conversation about the hermetic symbols encoded in Gothic architecture. A few weeks later, Canseliet appeared with the manuscript of Le Mystère des Cathédrales, which, Schemit noted, was filled with the same ideas and phrases used by his vistor of a few weeks before. Later, Canseliet returned with Jean-Julien Champagne, the illustrator, whom Schemit immediately recognized as the visitor. In his presence, Canseliet often referred to Champagne as his Master, and so, from these and other clues, Schemit became convinced that Fulcanelli and Champagne were one and the same.

Ambelain's attention was again drawn to Champagne by an article in which Champagne described one of his illustrations in clearly alchemistical terms, while Canseliet had always passed him off as a talented illustrator with no particular knowledge of alchemy. Hence, following his talk with Schemit, Ambelain decided to follow up his inquiries.

Champagne was born on January 23, 1877. He was interested in art from an early age, and is said to have begun his alchemical work at the age of sixteen. In 1916 he met Eugene Canseliet, who was then seventeen years old, and took him on as a student. In 1921, according to Ambelain's account, Champagne became the teacher of the sons of his friend, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was setting up a laboratory at Bourges. Champagne had boasted that within six months he would be able to manufacture gold, but succeeded only in losing about 60g of the metal. In 1922, Champagne met Jules Boucher, and was persuaded to take him and Gaston Sauvage on as students. It was Jules Boucher who later gave Ambelain much of his information. Boucher told Ambelain that his Master (Champagne) was the one who had corrected the proofs to both of Fulcanelli's books, and had made all the decisions concerning their production.

From the beginning of 1925, Champagne and Canseliet lived at the same address in Paris (#59 rue Rochechouart) in sixth floor attic rooms. During this period Champagne established a secret society known as the Freres d'Heliopolis to whom both of Fulcanelli's works were dedicated. This group, however, was limited to Champagne, Canseliet, Sauvage, Boucher, and a couple of others. It was through this group that the first mention of Fulcanelli was made.

Over the years, Champagne had told many people, both in writing and in person, that he was Fulcanelli, and even thus signed Boucher's copy of Le Mystère des Cathédrales. Evidently, he also left clues in Fulcanelli's books. Ambelain observed that on the last page of the original edition of Le Mystère des Cathédrales was a shield with the motto: UBER CAMPA AGNA, which is a phonetic approximation of Hubert Champagne (according to Boucher, his full name was Jean-Julien Hubert Champagne).

When Ambelain called at Canseliet and Champagne's old address in 1936, he found their ex-concierge, Mme. Labille, still there. She told him that in all the time Champagne had lived there he had only ever received three visitors: Canseliet, Boucher and Sauvage.

"Zappa invented the nature of music, he is music. His repeated references to the Devil is no joke, he IS the devil. He's been around to put rhythm in man's first footsteps. He casted a spell into the once silent bird's lungs to spread the word, the plauge, of music to everyone and everything. He knew the future of music and all its powers. It is no mistake where music is going, oh no, he has it all under control and always will. He set forth the sword of melody into the Chinaman to enrich emotions of war."
OnionPalac, alt.fan.frank-zappa, September 1999

Throughout his life, Canseliet steadfastly denied and dismissed the evidence pointing to Champagne. Jacques Sadoul also dismissed it for an interesting reason: that Champagne is certainly dead, and therefore couldn't be Fulcanelli. To understand this arguement, we turn to the year 1937, when Jacques Bergier was working as an assistant to the scientist M. Hellbronner, who was later killed by the Nazis. They were engaged in experiments relating to low-level nuclear transmutations in an apparatus which employed high power electrical discharges in an evacuated tube. One afternoon in June of that year Bergier was visited by a stranger who said that he was an alchemist and proceeded to warn him of the perils facing humanity from nuclear energy, and read a passage from Soddy's Interpretation of Radium to make the point. He also stated that:

Geometrical arrangements of extremely pure substances suffice to loose atomic forces without the use of electricity or the vacuum technique ...

Throughout his life, Bergier believed that the stranger was, in fact, Fulcanelli, and the story, which has been repeated in a number of publications, has become part of the legend. Years later, Bergier learned that the atomic pile could be described as a "geometrical arrangement of extremely pure substances" and indeed required neither electricty nor the use of a vacuum to loose nuclear forces. Bergier concluded that the stranger must have been decades ahead of official science. The problem with this is that there is a much simpler explanation.

The alchemical opus was generally described as a series of purifications which aim to produce a substance which is purer than anything found on earth. The Aristotelian elements which we perceive in the mundane world were thought to be corrupted to a greater or lesser extent, and thus were only poor approximations to the ideal elements of earth, water, air, and fire, much as in the allegory of Plato's cave, the shadows on the cave wall are mistaken for reality they only represent. The object of the alchemical work was to purify the elements, and the Philosopher's Stone was often described as a species of gold, purer than the purest. It was also described as a solid, heavy, crystalline substance, and was believed to possess the power of nuclear transmutation. Now, if a self-admitted alchemist explains that a geometrical arrangement of extremely pure substances suffice to loose atomic forces, the obvious conclusion is that he is describing the Philosopher's Stone! However, faced with this circumstance, Bergier thought that he must have meant an atomic pile, even though such had not yet been invented. For this, Bergier, who had little knowledge of alchemical philosophy, might be forgiven. But the story is repeated uncritically by Jacques Sadoul, Kenneth Johnson, and others, all of whom spent years studying alchemy!

Of course, this doesn't prove that the stranger wasn't Fulcanelli, although it does suggest that Bergier's visitor did not anticipate twentieth-century nuclear physics, but had a conventional understanding of alchemy. The identity of the stranger remains unknown. But his ideas, as related by Bergier, bear little resemblance to those of Fulcanelli, and there is really no evidence linking the two. Thus Jacques Sadoul's objection, based on the premise that Fulcanelli remained alive, begins to appear unsupportable.

But Canseliet also claimed to have seen Fulcanelli in 1954, twenty-two years after the death of Champagne. In that year, according to friends of Canseliet (who related the story to Kenneth Johnson), he was compelled to pack his bags and travel overland to Seville, Spain, where he was taken by a long, circuitous route to a large castle, somewhere in the mountains. On arrival, he was greeted by his old Master, Fulcanelli, who had not physically aged over the intervening years. Canseliet was conducted to the upper floor of a turret overlooking a broad courtyard where, later, he saw a number of children dressed in the style of the sixteenth-century. He was allotted a laboratory for his experiments, in which he became engrossed. Occasionally, Fulcanelli would appear and speak with him briefly. One morning, Canseliet descended the staircase to the bottom of the turret and, while standing in an archway that opened onto the courtyard, was approached by three women wearing long, flowing, sixteenth-century styled dresses. As the women walked by, one of them turned, looked at him, smiled, turned away, and walked on. Canseliet was stunned - the face of the woman was that of Fulcanelli! Canseliet eventually returned to France with only a vague, dream-like recollection of the events. He never again saw Fulcanelli.

The incredible nature of this story aside, the embedded alchemical symbolism is unmistakeable. In fact, without entering into a discussion of its exact symbolic meaning, it's interesting that similar alchemical analogies appear in Le Mystère des Cathédrales. For instance, on page 44 of the Neville-Spearman or Brotherhood of Life edition of the Sworder translation, footnote #8, Fulcanelli wrote:

It is said that Tireseas was deprived of his sight for revealing to mortals the secrets of Olympus. However he lived "for seven, eight or nine ages of man" and is supposed to have been successively man and woman.

Alchemists often symbolized alchemical operations or sequences under the guise of a journey, and Fulcanelli was well aware of this, as he had analyzed Flamel's symbolic journey in his first book. There, he described the Traveller or Pilgrim as emblems of the principle of Mercury. Though there is evidence that Canseliet did actually travel to Spain, his account of the events while there was almost certainly symbolic, and hence there is no reason to believe that Fulcanelli, whoever he was, survives.

Champagne died in 1932 of absinthe. Although a third Fulcanelli book was later rumoured, nothing more was ever printed. Jean Schemit died in 1945. Jules Boucher died in 1957. Jacques Bergier in 1978. Eugene Canseliet pursued the alchemical quest throughout his long life, but, in the end, admitted failure. He died in the mid 1980s. And thus came to a close a strange chapter in the strange history of alchemy. If Fulcanelli really was someone other than Champagne and yet survives, as some care to believe, it's difficult to understand how he could have let all his old friends and colleagues die when he had the power to save them. It is much easier to believe that Canseliet faithfully kept a promise to conceal the true identity of Fulcanelli, and over the years managed to keep his old friend and mentor alive in the minds of other men.

(If you care to read more about Fulcanelli (and one could hardly blame you), and you read French, you might want to seek out Geneviève Dubois's book Fulcanelli Dévoilé, which argues an identification of Fulcanelli with Champagne, Canseliet and a P. Dujols, working in collaboration.)

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