The Elixir of Sunbeams

An entry on Meingast was written for the 1923 edition of the Grundriß der Geschichte der Philosophie (Schwabe & Co Verlag), but Meingast’s attorney wrote a short letter demanding that it not be included because Meingast did not want “to erect his tombstone quite yet.” The publisher wasn’t able to supply a draft of the entry, but they did send me copies of some of the source materials. A childhood friend from Vienna, Herbert Schmidt, supplied the publisher with the following:

Adalbert did not skip or sing in the church choir or fritter away balmy summer evenings playing “find the witch” in a hay barn, but rather he sought what fit the measure of his supple and Brobdingnagian brain: optics, rotordynamics, animal anatomy, local history, Lucian’s Kataplous. He performed a notable feat of engineering at the age of 19, during the Second Schleswig War, by lugging five sloops 5,000 Galician feet overland. At 20, his illumination began. All his rotordynamics and translation of sloops over dale and down was drawn into this ecstasy, and he threw himself into his “impractical” studies. He wrote long philosophical letters to eminent young ladies and always signed them “The Elixir of Sunbeams.” He began to wear a glimmering szablya when in formal velvet dress.


  1. Meingast underwent his first “mystical illumination” in 1865, while secluded in his family’s country estate at the outskirts of Vienna. In a letter to Countess Anna Strachwitz, Meingast recounted the incident like this:

    “During those days I was exceedingly restless. Now I sat awhile, now I wandered back and forth through the house. It was like a torment. But one evening, something extraordinary happened: I had shed and transcended all my faculties so as to reach the delicate gust of emotion that ran unnoticed among the heavy rocks of my conscious thought. The mental friction that accrued during those days has brought down the Colossus, rendering insignificant the confused twilight world of my youthful pursuits, which now struck me as empty, devoid of all purpose. And it was precisely then that, in a sudden glory, the image of the szablya entered my soul. I was transfixed. Guided by the image, I plunged the depth of the subliminal process, immersing myself in its continuous movement, becoming one with it, and one with myself (which is really one and the same thing). While in this state, I felt no vexation, only a strange, quite supernatural contentment. I was a bird on air, floating in the wind. But there was no landing place in sight, only the floating. There I heard without sound; there I saw without light. And my heart became bottomless, my spirit formless, and my nature immaterial.”

  2. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities led me here – Meingast is quoted by Ulrich who declares he is reading a book in order to instruct himself “about the ways of the holy life.” Ulrich prefaces his citation with, “This is how the saints describe it,”:

    ‘During those days I was exceeding restless. Now I sat awhile, now I wandered back and forth through the house. It was like a torment, and yet it can be called more a sweetness than a torment, for there was no vexation in it, only a strange, quite supernatural contentment. I had transcended all my faculties and reached the obscure power. There I heard without sound, there I saw without light. And my heart became bottomless, my spirit formless, and my nature immaterial.'” (Sophie Wilkins translation).

    Your more complete citation then renders what immediately precedes this in the book all the more apt: “…it’s like looking out over a wide shimmering sheet of water – so bright it seems like darkness to the eye, and on the far bank things don’t seem to be standing on solid ground but float in the air with a delicately exaggerated distinctness that’s almost painful and hallucinatory. The impression one gets is as much of intensification as of loss. One feels linked with everything but can’t get close to anything…You swim like a fish in water or a bird in air, but there’s no riverbank and no branch, only this floating!”

    I was delighted to find this website and find out more about Meingast. The characterization of him as the Playful Philosopher also connects him, in my mind, to Ulrich personality, particularly his constant sense of irony. I am not surprised that Musil obviously knew of Meingast. I am glad to hear about the work you all are doing, but I am so disappointed to hear that so much of this man’s work was lost.

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