The Atmosphere of Heaven by Mike Jay
Originally published in 2009 ‘The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius’ is an outstanding work of historical non-fiction by Mike Jay. His previously published drug-related works include such titles as ‘Blue Tide’ and ‘Emperors of Dreams’ and this offering is an examination of, arguably, the era in which modern drug writing first flowered. The book is full of fascinating research, which manages to thread together science, politics and philosophy in an extremely engaging and well written narrative.
The Atmosphere of Heaven tells the story of physician and scientist Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) and his circle of colleagues, as they attempted to revolutionise medicine through experimental chemistry, during the turn of the nineteenth century. The book is set against a backdrop of social tension; it opens with a mob rampaging through Birmingham on its way to setting fire to the home of theologian, natural philosopher and political theorist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Riots pepper the book and as war with neighbouring France drags Britain’s poor to the brink of starvation, the nation is split between the royalists, like the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), who wage war with the newly formed French Republic and those progressives who see the war as a battle against equality and the rule of the people. Science, Jay so aptly illustrates throughout the text, was not immune from the political discourse of the day, and Thomas Beddoes fully embodied both.
Beddoes, along with Priestley, was part of a group of individuals, largely industrialists, freethinkers and progressives, called the Lunar Society, which was based in the Midlands. This informal group of intellectuals included such individuals as Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who, Jay writes, was “perhaps the closest and certainly the most successful model for the career he [Beddoes] had in mind” (Jay 46). A physician, poet and natural philosopher, Darwin was the hallmark of an Enlightenment man and Beddoes did indeed follow in this multidisciplinary tradition; however, Beddoes’ great interests were in geology and chemistry and, more specifically for this book, his interest in gases. While he remained a physician throughout his life and repeatedly bemoaned the state of the nation’s health, it would be through his interest in experimental chemistry that he hoped to overcome those disease-ridden times.
Beddoes opened the Pneumatic Institute on the first day of Spring 1799, in Dowry Square near Hotwells, Bristol. Numerous benefactors contributed to this experimental and medicinal centre, including Tom Wedgwood, youngest son of the aforementioned industrialist. Tom’s tale is a sad one. Beddoes hoped his research with gases would reveal a cure for the consumption that ravaged the poor, and this was one of the reasons for setting up the institute where they did, it was a location that drew the desperate and dying for its reportedly curative spas. Yet Tom was no pauper. He was a wealthy and intelligent man but was blighted by an unknown sickness all through his short life, and there was nothing his personal physician, Beddoes, could do for him. The way Jay tells his story in the narrative is reflective of a great many themes throughout; courage, generosity, desire and adventure but all against the backdrop of a darkness, both political and medical. In many respects Beddoes failure to save his friend is indicative of his failure to cure consumption through gases. However, it was the incredible research done on Nitrous oxide at the institute that gave birth to something altogether different and unexpected.
Jay expertly maps the changing times through the birth of new ideas and changing prominence of the figures who wielded them. The text is geared toward showing a passing within this localised, historical period from the Lunar Society in the Midlands, with its great influential and door-opening powers, to a new era based in the South-West, in Bristol, around Beddoes and his ‘sons of genius’, one that eventually took new shape in London. One such ‘son’ was Cornishman Humphry Davy (1778-1829) and it is from the title of a poem that he wrote that Jay took the term ‘sons of genius’. Davy joined the institute as a laboratory superintendent on the recommendation of Beddoes’ long-time friend Davies Giddy. A highly proficient and adventurous chemist, it was Davy who took the initiative in the Nitrous oxide research, testing it on himself to disprove previous claims that it would cause fatality. What Davy found in the experience was hard for him to fathom and the attempts to find a language to describe the experience would have far reaching consequences on literary drug writing.
“He felt as if he were awaking to a world that existed in parallel to the one where he had spent his life thus far, but of whose existence he had until this moment been unaware. As he struggled to grasp what was happening to him, he was swallowed up in a crescendo of sensations, as if every organ of perception was competing to exercise its new-found freedom to the limit” (Jay 172)
Beddoes, and Davy to a lesser degree but perhaps by extension, had an interest in Brunonian medicine. Devised by Scotsman John Brown (1735-1788) and outlined in his book Elementa Medicinae (1780), the system believed diseases to be caused by either excessive or defective excitation in the individual, which is to say an imbalance of excitation. Initial ideas that Nitrous oxide might act as a counter-balance to defective excitation proved of little practical use; however, there were a number of poets on scene, part of a vast array of individuals who wished to participate in the experiments, who lent their skills for describing this profound subjective change. These included the future Poet Laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843) and one Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). It was Beddoes and Coleridge’s interest in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1802) that Jay seems to indicate lay the foundation for their thoughts, though perhaps resting on different interpretations.
Although Beddoes “would never learn to read Kant with pleasure” (Jay 61) he continued to revise his understanding of Kant’s assertion that there exists a priori knowledge. He came to believe that he was “not arguing that space and time are absolutes” but rather “an inevitable part of human existence” and for philosophy and science to move on “they must do so by investigating the structures of the mind, for it is there that the deepest reality lies” (Jay 119). Coleridge, as Beddoes’ pupil, also learned of Kant, but his Unitarian beliefs added a further component to the understanding of Kant’s work, one that Beddoes disregarded; namely, that one should believe in God because it allows one to act morally. The structures of the mind and the moral ground of God; two forms of understanding that have pervaded literary drug writing down to the present day and which Jay has brilliantly unpicked in his research, and presents eloquently as a thread within the text.
Coleridge himself wrote almost nothing on his Nitrous oxide experiences, in the main only his experiment note for Davy, but this is just as he virtually did for his opium experiences: “It would be left to his later acolyte, Thomas de Quincey, to examine and confront opium’s powers explicitly, and also to lay the unfortunate weakness of his mentor before the literary public in unvarnished form” (Jay 195). However Davy wrote Researches Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and its Respiration (1800) and helped pave the way for literary drug writing. And “the version of Kant’s philosophy that he was now absorbing from Coleridge underpinned the further idea that the mind that recognised this process was not an impartial observer, but was somehow constructing these forces in its own image” (Jay 194). Kant’s system itself was revolutionary at the time and demonstrated a method of arguing against Enlightenment materialism; it could easily be said that this argument is still found repeated today, throughout esoteric drug writing.
However, to over-emphasise and extrapolate Jay’s remarkable pin-pointing of Kant’s role, is to do a disservice to the rest of the book. The Atmosphere of Heaven is not packed with oblique theory, rather Jay juxtaposes ideas alongside the mentalities and the histories of the individuals involved in this remarkable time. The intimate details of their lives and loves are the vibrations that give the book its literary and engaging narrative, and when placed against lucid backdrops like industrial Birmingham, rugged Cornwall, desperate Bristol or bustling London, the reader is never short of stark imagery. For anyone who enjoys history, and for any serious scholar of literary drug writing, The Atmosphere of Heaven is a must read.
For more information on author Mike Jay please visit his website here.