Carl Djerassi, exemplary forerunner of Post-Gutenberg Man

Carl Djerassi in the late summer of 2013 - postgutenberg [at]

Carl Djerassi at home in Green Street in San Francisco in the late summer of 2013
– photograph: postgutenberg [at]

Recorded with sadness:

Carl Djerassi,

29 October 1923 – 30 January 2015

In an unprecedented commemoration, in our experience, yesterday’s Guardian ran — in addition to a short obituary for the general reader — a long and detailed encapsulation of Carl Djerassi’s extraordinary life in its science pages, and in its arts section, a critique of his dramatic oeuvre by a veteran theatre critic.

The photograph was taken in a poignant, unforgettable afternoon spent with Dr. Djerassi in September, 2013 – in which he revealed that he was recovering from a surgical operation for an illness he hoped to defeat for a second time. One recurring conversational theme was a comparison of recent experiences of grief and bereavement: it was clear that he found the loss of his third wife, the literary scholar Diane Middlebrook, virtually unendurable. We were both unquestionably happier discussing e-publishing and the post-print future — the reason for his invitation after writing, improbably, to express his pleasure and surprise in discovering this ‘sophisticated and literary’ blog.

His mention of having personally designed the gorgeous cover of the book he is holding, in his portrait — Newton’s Darkness: Two Dramatic Views — made it impossible not to ask him to pose with it. This he graciously agreed to do without any fuss, issuing no instructions and imposing no conditions. He could not have been a more relaxed subject.

The cover image he chose for the joint publication in a single volume of his play, Calculus, and Newton’s Hooke, by the English dramatist (and father of a physicist) David Pinner — about curious incidents and relationships in the life of Isaac Newton — is a photograph of a sculpture by Salvador Dali, a perfect choice for the surreal life of the greatest scientist before Einstein.

The news that Dr. Djerassi had designed some of his own book jackets could not have been less surprising after the three entries on this blog nominating him as a leader in the transition to unbounded, unboxed, post-Gutenberg creative expression: ‘Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future’, parts 1, 2 and 3.

We did not expect to find any mention of his accomplishments as an early prototype of Post-Gutenberg Man in any obituary, and indeed there has been none in the dozen-odd specimens we have read so far. But on this blog and elsewhere, there will be a lot more to say on that subject.

In the meanwhile, because his interest in finding new readers of his work could not have been fiercer, all the way to his final weeks, here is an extract from Dr. Djerassi’s programme notes for Calculus – which should be of particular interest to readers of the most popular item in this site’s archives, ‘The Riddle of Ramanujan,’ an essay and review of a novelisation by David Leavitt of the life of India’s legendary mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Any mention of dabbling in mysticism by a venerated scientific figure is apt to make the typical working scientist bristle, snap, or break out in some other conversational equivalent of hives. Positively the last thing she or he wants to hear is about the brain of Newton not merely leaning heavily in that direction, but every bit as preoccupied by the extra-rational and occult as an ‘exotic’ subcontinental would be three centuries later.

Putting physics on a firm experimental and mathematical foundation – an approach coined Newtonism – earned Newton the ultimate accolade as father of modern scientific thought. However, a revisionist historical analysis, based in part on the discovery by the economist John Maynard Keynes of a huge trove of unpublished papers and documents, has led some scholars to consider Newton the last great mystic rather than first modern scientist.


… Newton spent much more time on alchemy and mystical theology than on “science”-composing over 1 million words on each of these two endeavors, much more than all his writings on physics combined! His alchemical library was huge and his alchemical experiments, though kept secret from all but a few intimates and servants, consumed much of his waking hours for decades. Even his religious convictions had to be kept secret, because his faith in Arianism (holding that Christ and God are not of one substance) was considered heretical within the Anglican Church.

Born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo’s death, Newton was so convinced of his supernatural powers that he once constructed a virtual anagram of his name (Isaacus Neutonus) in terms of “God’s holy one” (Jeova sanctus unus). His position as a fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a chair now held by Stephen Hawking), his subsequent elevation to the important government rank of Master of the Mint, and conferment of a knighthood by Queen Anne …

[ and here, because the playwright would prefer you to read his words in their context – and purchase and arrange for performances of his play — please continue to … ]