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THE POWER OF VISION: LIFE OF SAMUEL HAHNEMANN
by Catherine R. Coulter
Ninth House Publishing, Arlington, MA, 2011,
softcover, 191 pages,
Reviewed by RICHARD MOSKOWITZ, MD, DHt
Catherine R. Coulter's Life of Samuel Hahnemann, her latest book, was written primarily for adolescents and young adults, and for the most part in simple language that even pre-teens can understand. Although the chapters expounding his principles and methods will naturally be a bit dicey even for most eleventh- and 1welfth-graders, some such shift in voice and tone is probably unavoidable, since her target audience encompasses the long formative period that extends all the way from late childhood into puberty, adolescence, and young adulthood, from chapter books to history texts. Any book that would span that distance must have something for youngest, oldest, and everyone in between: a tall order.
An adventurous life
Hence it seems entirely fitting that her account begins as a tale of high adventure, worthy of Harry Potter or the Hardy Boys, yet finds its ultimate fulfillment in a discussion of ideas worthy of a college lecture course. For Hahnemann's exemplary life does in fact embody both perspectives. What's more, quite unlike any previous biography, this one centers on his own childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood as a unique vantage point, from which his maturity and old age actually make a new kind of sense.
What I found most refreshing about this emphasis on his early life is its invitation to the reader to regard Hahnemann first and foremost as a man, rather than merely an icon or object of worship, and indeed most emblematically as a youth and a young man, long before he became famous, although a time when his greatness was clearly foreshadowed by predilections, habits, and inclinations already pre-eminent in the boy. We are thus reminded that his outstanding intellectual abilities were assiduously cultivated by his father, a semi-educated, impoverished painter of porcelain, who nevertheless often took it upon himself to lock the studious ten-year-old in his room, set him an intellectual problem, and keep him there until he had solved it. This well-known vignette thus itself becomes iconic, like the ill-fated cherry tree that young George Washington could not lie about.
Ms. Coulter's emphasis on his early, formative years also helps us appreciate how much inner work was required before Hahnemann's ideas suddenly burst forth from his brain like the goddess Athene, "full-blown from the head of Zeus," and astonished the world. We who know him mainly from his published work and the standard biographies of Bradford and Haehl are apt to overlook those long years of grinding poverty, which dogged him from earliest childhood, throughout his schooling and licensure, his marriage and family life, and his career as a young physician. For decades he eked out a meager living as tutor to his fellow-students, and later as a translator of medical works, while moving his growing family from town to town to seek a better having and to stay ahead of the doctors and pharmacists who were harassing him. We similarly tend to forget that he was in his forties before writing his first article on the subject that would commandeer the rest of his life, and that The Organon did not see the light of day until well into middle age. Reframing his long and immensely productive life as an epic of struggle and high adventure thus gets it exactly right in a way that his previous biographers, for all their erudition and attention to detail, tended to lose sight of.
As always with Ms. Coulter's work, these virtues are wonderfully enhanced by the beauty and elegance of her writing, and doubly so in this case by the purity and simplicity of her language, almost like that of a fable suitable for reading to even younger children. Here too, these literary qualities are highlighted by her emphasis on Hahnemann's childhood and early life, which are so thinly documented in the literature that she is free to invent several important characters from whole cloth, or at most with only a few clues, hints, and offhand remarks to go on. Two notable examples are Ernst, his inseparable boyhood friend, and Frau Martha, the wise and kindly herbalist who takes him under her wing, teaches him the lore of plant remedies, and thus initiates the boy, hitherto steeped only in book learning, into the natural world, a whole new cornucopia of inexhaustible beauty and healing power. Whether or not these persons actually existed, they might well have, and in any case they help to illustrate and explain those signal qualities and admirable traits in the man that were so highly developed in and indeed central to his work.
I was equally charmed by her way of elaborating other salient features of Hahnemann's life and character that are much better-known, such as his extraordinary gift for languages and indeed for all academic work, which he pursued with a dedication to excellence that even the severely straitened circumstances of his parents could not discourage. I loved her anecdote of the 12-year-old Hahnemann, who after his father had sent him away to learn a trade in a distant town, simply defected, came back home, and hid in his parents' attic, first with the help of his sister, then with the connivance of his mother, and at last winning his father's pained but truly chastened acceptance. Once again, Ms. Coulter makes a plausible conjecture thoroughly convincing, solely through the power of her language.
Hahnemann the scholar
The same theme of intellectual prowess developed by persistent application is then retold at various stages of his life, until it becomes a recurrent leitmotiv that provides meaning and context for everything that follows, like the old American legend of Horatio Alger, that rags-to-riches saga of industry and perseverance that was routinely preached to schoolchildren in days gone by. Thus, after the debacle of his apprenticeship, we learn that he was taken in by the town schoolmaster, Herr Muller, awarded free tuition--the only way he could possibly have attended-in exchange for tutoring and otherwise assisting his fellow students, and was graced with special kindness, affection, and esteem by teachers and students alike. Throughout his medical training, he was likewise singled out for favored consideration by a succession of teachers, mentors, and benefactors.
I also took particular delight in Ms. Coulter's imaginative rendering of certain members of Hahnemann's family who are little more than footnotes in the biographical information that is generally available. Two of his children come particularly to mind, namely, Friedrich, who though often surly and difficult, was also extraordinarily gifted, sensitive, and unselfish, and eventually became an accomplished homeopath in his own right, although dying young and unhappy; and Amalie, her father's favorite, who was closest to him emotionally and spiritually, and assisted him in his work after her mother died, yet graciously stepped aside in favor of Melanie when she came to Cothen to marry him and whisk him away to Paris for the remainder of his life. Both of them appear as children and adults at various points in the narrative; and both come vividly and almost palpably to life in a way that helps us to understand their father more authentically than any recital of ideas and accomplishments possibly could.
Hahnemann for kids
My only reservation about the book is the practical one of its audience. I enjoyed it thoroughly, on many levels; but I am a homeopath, already steeped in the lore and mystique of the man and his creation, with my youth far behind me. This biography is intended for young people, to persuade them to become homeopaths themselves, or at least to pique their interest in and enrich their understanding of the man whose teachings their parents have had reason and occasion to value. When I raised this question with Ms. Coulter, she expressed the hope that such parents would want not only to give but also in some cases to read it to their children, which I think would work quite well for the narrative, but less so for the didactic parts. By the time these children would be capable of tackling the Law of Similars, they would no longer need or want to be read to, and would long since have graduated from chapter books and the Hardy Boys to Dungeons and Dragons, video games, and the like, so that reading the expository sections would not be a top priority either. So I'm not at all sure that the book will succeed for a large part of the audience she has in mind, which is a pity. But I have no doubt that it will delight and enlighten their parents and grandparents, and might then spill over into the culture at large, as I hope that it will.