The Secret Of Dr. Honigberger

"Einem gelang es – er hob den Schleier Goettin zu Sais..." Novalis I One morning in the autumn of 1934, a messenger brought me a rather strange letter, adding he was waiting for an answer right then and there. The letter was from a lady, Mrs. Zerlendi, whose name I had never heard before, inviting me to visit her that very afternoon. It was a very correct letter, excessively polite, as it was customary in our parents' time when a lady wrote to a gentleman she had never met. "I heard that you had just returned from the Orient, and I believe you would be interested to research the collections gathered by my husband," she was writing to me, among other things. I confess I was hardly interested at that time in meeting people who invited me to see them just because I had spent a few years in the Orient. More than once, I had to give up some otherwise promising friendships, because I did not accept to recount platitudes about the "mysteries of Asia" – fakirs, miracles, or jungle adventures – those sensational details my companions expected me to comment. But Mrs. Zerlendi's letter mentioned some Oriental collections, without describing their nature or origin, and this was enough to arouse my curiosity. Indeed, I was interested in the lives of those Romanians who were overwhelmed by their passion for the East. To be honest, I must confess that, many years before this event, I had discovered a trunk full of books about China with one of the antiquarians on the Dambovita River embankment; those books had all been read, annotated, and sometimes even corrected in pencil for a long time, by a man who had bought them and whose signature I found repeatedly on the title page of many of them: Radu C. This Radu C. had not been an amateur, though. His books, which are today in my possession, proved he had conducted a serious, systematic study of the Chinese language. He had annotated the six volumes of Memoires historiques by Se-Ma Ts'ien, as translated by Edouard Chavannes, and he corrected all the printing mistakes based on the Chinese texts, he knew the Chinese classics in the Couvreur editions, he had a subscription to the T'oung Pao magazine, and he had bought all the volumes of Varietes sinologiques published in Shanghai until the beginning of the war. I became interested in that man ever since I was able to rebuild part of his library, although for a long time I was unable to learn his full name. The antiquarian had bought several hundred books by 1920, but, apart from a few postcards, which he had sold immediately, he had not found any buyer for this collection of Sinological texts and studies. I was wondering then: who was that Romanian man, who had set out to learn the Chinese language so seriously and who left nothing behind, not even his full name? What obscure passion attracted him to that distant land, which he did not wish to approach as an amateur, though, but whose language he wished to learn, whose history he labored to penetrate? Did he ever manage to reach China, or did he die early, in some hole of the war front? To some of those questions I had in my mind, feeling confused and melancholic, as I was browsing his books there, with the antiquarian on the embankment, I got an answer much later. An answer itself intertwined in numberless mysteries. But this is a completely different story, without any connection to the events I am beginning to describe now. Still, remembering this Radu C. and a few other Orient scholars or enthusiasts of Eastern things who had lived, in total anonymity, here in Romania, I decided to accept the invitation from this unknown lady. That same afternoon I went straight to the house on S. Street. When I stopped at number 17, I recognized one of those houses which I could never walk by without slowing down and spying on, eager to guess what was going on behind those aging walls, who lived there, and struggling with what destiny. S. Street is right in the center of Bucharest, very close to Victoria Street. What miracle had managed to keep that aristocratic house untouched, at number 17, with its iron trellis work, pebbles in the yard, locust trees and sweet chestnut trees freely growing, crushing part of the facade with their shadow? The gate opened heavily and, among the rich autumn flower beds, a basin where the water had long since dried up and two dwarfs with discolored heads welcomed you. There was a sense of a different atmosphere in that place. A world that had slowly entered into twilight in the other proud neighborhoods of Bucharest, but which had endured here, courteous, without the agony of decrepitude or misery. It was an aristocratic house of the old times, but well kept. Only the dampness of the trees had made the facade wither out too early. The main entrance was protected, as it was fashionable forty years ago, by a foggy glass fan. A few stone steps, green with moss, and carrying large flower pots on each side, led to a marquee with colored upper windows. There was no name card near the door bell. I was expected. An old, limping housekeeper opened the door for me immediately and ushered me to an enormous living room. I had little time to glance at the furniture and the paintings surrounding me, because Mrs. Zerlendi showed up from behind an oak door. She was a woman past the age of fifty, but a hard one to forget even if you saw her even once. This lady – well, she did not grow old like everybody else. Or, perhaps, she was getting old like women in other centuries: in a mysterious comprehension that through death she would go toward the great illumination of all meanings, rather than toward the end of an earthly life, with the gradual drying up of the flesh and its definitive melting into dust. I have always divided people into two categories: those who see death as the end of life and of the body and those who conceive of it as the beginning of a new spiritual experience. And I never try to judge anybody I meet until I learn their honest belief about death. Otherwise, the most brilliant intelligence or thrilling charm can mislead me. Mrs. Zerlendi sat in an armchair and pointed a high-back, wooden chair to me, with a gesture in which I did not recognize the usual familiarity of aged women. "Thank you for coming," she spoke. "My husband would've been delighted to meet you. He loved India, too, perhaps more so than his medical profession would have allowed him to –" I was getting ready to listen to a long story, happy because, during that time, I would be able to carefully watch the very strange face of Mrs. Zerlendi without offending her. But my hostess stopped for a few seconds, and then, slightly bending her forehead in my direction, she asked: "Do you know the life and writings of Dr. Johann Honigberger? My husband fell in love with India through the books of this Saxon doctor from Brasov. He probably inherited his interest for history, too, because history was the hobby of his entire family, but he began to get involved with India when he discovered the works of Dr. Honigberger. In fact, he kept collecting materials for years, and he even began to write a monograph of this Saxon doctor. He was a physician himself, and he believed he was capable of writing such a book." I confess I knew very little about Dr. Johann Honigberger at the time. I remembered that, many years before, I had read his main book, Thirty-Five Years in the East, in an English translation, the only one available to me in Calcutta. That was a time when I was studying the Yoga philosophies and techniques, and I researched Honigberger's book mostly for its details on these occult practices, which the doctor seemed to have been very familiar with. However, since his book was published by the mid-19th century, I suspected that the author's judgment was not critical enough. But I did not know that Dr. Honigberger, who had been remarkably famous in Orientalism, came from an old family of Brasov. However, now this very detail was the one that interested me. "My husband exchanged huge numbers of letters with various physicians and scientists who had met Honigberger, because, although Honigberger died in 1869 in Brasov, just back from his last trip to India, there were a lot of people who were still alive and who had met him. One of his children was a magistrate in Iasi; the doctor sired him by his first wife, but my husband never got to meet him, although he went to Iasi very often in search of some papers." In spite of myself, I began to smile. I was amazed that Mrs. Zerlendi knew the details of Honigberger's biography so accurately. She probably guessed my thought, because she added: "He was so very much interested in these things, that they got stuck in my mind, too, forever. These things and many others –" She suddenly stopped, musing. Later, I had the opportunity to see for myself how many accurate things Mrs. Zerlendi knew about Dr. Honigberger. One entire evening she only told me the story of his first stay in India, after having spent about four years in Asia Minor, one year in Egypt, and seven years in Syria. It was easy to surmise that Mrs. Zerlendi had repeatedly researched her husband's books and manuscripts, as if she had once wished to finish up the work he had interrupted. True, it was very hard to flee the mysterious magic of that Saxon doctor, a doctor because this is what he wanted to be, since officially, he only had a pharmacist's diploma. Honigberger had spent more than half of his long life in the Orient. At one time, he became the Court physician, pharmacist, head of the Armory, and admiral for Maharajah Ranjit-Singh of Lahore. Many times he gathered considerable fortunes and then lost them. A big-time adventurer, Honigberger had never been a crook, though. He was educated in very many sciences, both profane and occult, and his ethnographic, botanical, stamp, and art collections enriched many illustrious museums. Easy to understand why Dr. Zerlendi, passionately interested as he was in the past of our nation and in the history of medicine, spent so many years of his life reconstructing and deciphering Honigberger's real biography. "Because very early," Mrs. Zerlendi once confessed to me, "he reached the conclusion that Honigberger's life was hiding a lot of riddles, despite all the books that have been written about him. For example, my husband couldn't explain his last trip to India, in 1858, when he was feeling so ill from a journey to tropical Africa, that he was barely still alive. Why did Honigberger go back to India, crashed as he was, and why did he die as soon as he set foot back in Brasov?, my husband often wondered. "And again, the so-called botanical research the doctor conducted in Kashmir a long time before seemed questionable to my husband. He had reasons to believe that Honigberger hadn't traveled just to Kashmir, but that he had crossed over to Tibet, or, anyway, he had researched the science of occult pharmacopoeia in one of those hermitages in the Himalayas, and, so, his botanical inquests served only as a pretext. Anyway, you can be a better judge of that," Mrs. Zerlendi added. I must confess that, after taking a look at the books and documents on Honigberger that Mrs. Zerlendi's husband had collected so carefully, I began to be convinced, too, that the life of the Saxon doctor was veiled in riddles. But everything that happened after my first visit to the house on S. Street was much beyond the mystery of Honigberger. "Then I thought," Mrs. Zerlendi began to speak again after a long break, "that it would be a pity to waste all this work. I heard about you, I read some of your works, especially those on India and on the Indian philosophy. I can't say I understood them completely, but I got one thing clear: that I can trust you." I tried to confess I was flattered, etc., but Mrs. Zerlendi continued the same way: "Virtually nobody has visited this house for very many years. Just a few friends, who don't have the special training my husband had attained. So his desk and library have remained unchanged since 1910. I was out of the country myself for a long time, and since I came back I've avoided mentioning my husband's name too often. His colleagues, the doctors, considered him a maniac at the time. This library I'm going to show you – well, only one person has seen it, I mean of the people who could appreciate it: Bucura Dumbrava. "I wrote to her the way I wrote to you, that I had a rich Orientalist collection, and she finally came, but after long postponements. I think she was very much interested. She told me she found here books that she had once requested at the BritishMuseum. But she didn't have time to research it methodically. She took some notes and promised to come back after her return from India. As you may know, she was going to a theosophical congress in India. But she never got to set foot on Romanian soil again. She died at Port Said." I do not know whether Mrs. Zerlendi ascribed some secret meaning to this death of Bucura Dumbrava's, right before her return. She fell silent again, intensely watching me. I felt I had to say something, so I told her that mystery was so active in our life, that it was not even necessary to look for it far away, in places like Adyar or Port Said. Mrs. Zerlendi did not answer me. She stood up from her armchair and invited me to go with her to the library. When we crossed the living room, I asked her if her husband had ever been to India. "Hard to say," she whispered hesitatingly, still trying to smile. II I have seen many libraries belonging to rich people, belonging to great scholars, but none has ever fascinated my heart like this one, on S. Street. When the massive oak door opened, I froze in wonder on the threshold. It was one of those giant rooms that can rarely be found, even in the richest houses of the 19th century. The large windows opened to the garden behind the house. The curtains had been pulled a little before we came in, so the clear autumn sunset light added even further to the solemnity of this high-ceiling hall, which was mostly upholstered with books. A wooden gallery surrounded a vast portion of the library. There were perhaps thirty thousand books, nearly all leather-bound, of the most diverse disciplines of culture: medicine, history, religion, traveling, occultism, India scholarship. Mrs. Zerlendi directed me straight to the exclusive shelves where only the books having to do with India had been gathered. I have seldom encountered such valuable books and so many of them in a private collection. Only later, after spending a whole afternoon in front of those numberless shelves, did I fully realize what treasures were lodged in that place. There were hundreds of traveling books about India, from Marco Polo and Tavernier to Pierre Loti and Jaccolliot. Obviously, Dr. Zerlendi gathered any and all books about India, because this is the only way I can explain the presence of phony writers, too, like for instance Louis Jaccolliot. Then, there were the entire collections of the Journal Asiatique and of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, not to mention the documents issued by a whole host of academies, hundreds of scholarly memorandums on the languages, literatures, and religious of India. Everything important that had been published in the field of India scholarship in the 19th century was there, from the grand dictionary of St. Petersburg to the editions of Sanskrit texts published in Calcutta or Benares. The volumes of Sanskrit texts provided my greatest surprise. "He began to study the Sanskrit language in 1901," Mrs. Zerlendi explained, as she saw me flabbergasted, "and he learned it thoroughly, as much as anyone can learn a language being far from its living centers." True, I found there not just elementary books or texts that an amateur would buy, but books that only a man who penetrated deeply into the secrets of the Sanskrit language could order. I discovered, for example, difficult commentaries like Siddanta Kaumudi, which proved his interest in the nuances of the Sanskrit grammar; or the enormous treatise by Medhaditi on the Laws of Manu; or those thorny sub-comments to the Vedantic texts, which are printed in the printing shops of Allahabad and Benares; or numerous books about the Indian rituals. I was especially stupefied by the presence of the Indian medicine books and the treatises of mysticism and asceticism. I know from my limited experience how profound and difficult such texts are and that they cannot be understood without a painstaking comment, and often they are only half-understood if they are not orally explained by a teacher. I turned my eyes toward Mrs. Zerlendi in astonishment. I had felt a thrill when I walked into the library, expecting to find rich archives about the life and work of Dr. Honigberger, but what I discovered was the library of a scholar on India, which, owing to its immensity and variety, would have made men like Roth, Jacobi, or Sylvain Levi envious. "He arrived at this point starting out from Honigberger," Mrs. Zerlendi explained to me, understanding my thoughts, and showing me another corner of the library, where I was soon to find the books and documents related to the Saxon doctor. "But when did he have time to collect so many books and research them all?," I exclaimed, still stunned. "He inherited a large number of them from his family, especially the history books," she added. "As for the rest, he bought them on his own, especially during the last eight years. He sold a few land estates." She uttered the last words smiling, without the slightest regret. "All the antiquarians in Leipzig, Paris, and London knew him," she continued. "And he really knew what to buy. Sometimes he bought entire libraries from the families of deceased Orientalists. But, obviously, he didn't have time to read them all, although those last years he stayed awake almost all night; he only slept for two or three hours." "Maybe that damaged his health," I said. "No, on the contrary," Mrs. Zerlendi answered. "His capacity for work was gigantic. And he had a special lifestyle: he didn't eat any meat, didn't smoke, didn't drink alcohol, tea, or coffee –" She seemed ready to add something, but she stopped suddenly and invited me to the other side of the library, where the "Honigberger corner" was located. All the books written by the Saxon doctor were there, along with most of the published works that deal with his exceptional life. In a corner, a reproduction of the Mahlknecht engraving, that famous engraving which shows Honigberger wearing his outfit as Ranjit-Singh's adviser. In cardboard files, Dr. Zerlendi had gathered numberless letters from Honigberger to the scholars of his time, copies from portraits and engravings of his family and contemporaries, maps on which he had reconstructed the itinerary of all the journeys made by Honigberger to Asia and Africa. I browsed melancholically through all those documents, whose value I was to discover later, amazed how come a man lived in our city only a quarter of a century ago, without anyone ever figuring out what a treasure he had amassed. "And why didn't he write the book about Dr. Honigberger?," I asked. "He had begun a draft," Mrs. Zerlendi spoke, after a long hesitation, "but he interrupted it suddenly, without ever telling me the real reason. As I told you, he exchanged lots of letters, looking for unpublished information and documents. By 1906, at the Exhibition, he met a friend of Constantin Honigberger's, the doctor's son by his first wife, who had a few letters and several documents he had gotten somewhat by chance. "That autumn, my husband went to Iasi and he came back rather troubled. I don't think he got the originals, but he made copies from all those documents. Anyway, since then, he stopped writing the book and got increasingly focused on the Indian philosophy. In time, he forgot all about Honigberger, and, the following years, my husband dedicated himself entirely to the study of the Sanskrit language –" Smiling, she showed me the library wall where I had first stopped, totally baffled. "And he never confessed to you the real reason why he gave up the fruit of such passionate work, of all those years?," I asked. "He rather hinted," Mrs. Zerlendi began, "because, since his return from Iasi, he had become rather silent. "He told me once that it was mandatory for him to get deep knowledge of the Indian philosophy and occultism in order to be able to understand a certain period in Honigberger's life, a part that had remained obscure, sunk in legend. When he took up Sanskrit, he began to be interested in occultism, too. "But this is an episode I know rather vaguely, because my husband never talked to me about his latest hobby. I gathered on my own that he was fervently interested in such studies because of the books he kept ordering all the time. As you can see for yourself," Mrs. Zerlendi added, urging me to another section of the library. It is difficult for me to express how my surprise was even greater in that place. Everything Mrs. Zerlendi had confessed to me since we had entered the library, everything I had seen that far made up so many surprises and fed my perplexities so powerfully, that I inspected the new shelves in silence, overwhelmed with bewilderment and admiration. It was obvious from the first look that the doctor had debuted very felicitously in building his collection of occult books. Those vulgar popularizing books, mostly spread out on the market by French publishers in the late 19th century, were absent. The majority of the theosophical books, which are, for the most part, mediocre and equivocal, were equally absent. Just a few of the books written by Leadbeater and Annie Besant, with the complete works of Mrs. Blatavsky, which I later had the opportunity to learn that Dr. Zerlendi had read especially carefully. In exchange, apart from Fabre d'Olivet and Rudolf Steiner, apart from Stanislas de Guaita and Hartmann, the library was extremely rich in the classics of occultism, Hermetism, and traditional theosophy. Old editions of Swedenborg, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Boehme, Della Riviera, and Pernety stood beside the works attributed to Pythagoras, the hermetic texts, the collections of the famous alchemists, both in the old printings of Salmon and Manget and in the modern edition of Berthelot. Also present were the forgotten books of physiognomy, astrology, and chiromancy. Later, when I had the opportunity to take my time to research those shelves, I discovered extremely rare works, such as De aquae vitae simplici et composito by Arnaud de Villeneuve, or Christian apocrypha, like for instance that Ada