Letter 432d

432d. Johann Wilhelm Ritter to Schelling in Munich: Munich, 24 May 1808 [*]

[Munich] 24 May 1808

The longer I went without seeing you these past weeks, the more unpleasant has the notion become of not being able serenely to wish you a really good morning today. [1] For the past 4 weeks. I have lived amid the most irksome and wretched hardships, amid which those of life were joined by literary ones as well.

The latter notwithstanding — the former did in fact arise from earlier sins taking a more cumulative vengeance than ever during a more recent time, which I likely never would have experienced without the latter. Since details will little serve you, let it suffice to assure you that those who had no need to learn of those details are indeed fortunate. I have, however, also engaged extraordinary measures to brave it all, and the success of those measures is also assured; it is just that, as is so often the case, delays have arisen that have created and indeed continue to create a situation in which currently — should help not come quickly — in about two weeks I will be utterly abandoned.

I am anticipating a sum of 2400 rt., which will completely cover things for me, and it will come; but insofar as it is not yet here, it cannot protect me — as has already been the case on several occasions, though now is almost the most severe — from not knowing how I will make it through the next day. I am utterly exhausted; all the usual measures have been exhausted; I must force myself to seek extraordinary ones.

Is it possible for you to respond in a more fortunate way now than last autumn if I ask whether you might spare 4 Carolins or thereabouts for — by the way — by no means longer than two weeks? — One need not possess particular acumen to discover that I am not putting this question to you at the very best of times, but dear God! — I am forced to do so! [2]

I will be wholly wretched if tomorrow morning I am unable to pay 30 rt., and the house, already furnished more sparsely than ever, also lacks everything. The week I am free becomes now like a year to me, and days without prospects can no longer even be compared with “time.” Such is the expression of a present that, though near to the end, nonetheless weighs like a genuine in-finity. Perhaps I have occasionally ignored such things in too “philosophical” a fashion previously! —

But just so this letter not remain entirely in the service solely of sin, and that it might compensate at least in part for its unpleasant contents, — let me say a few things now that are a bit more independent.

I know through Gehlen that you are interested in Dupuytren’s experiments with breathing. Might you not prompt Spix, for example, whom I have not seen for a long time now, to attempt to determine whether death might not be held in abeyance if the severed nerves of the 8th pair were tied into the circle of an active strong or weak Voltaic pile and maintained there? [3]

If all the essential organs are all still present, an electrical impulse, properly applied, would certainly substitute for the brain completely and in every respect. I am returning here to an idea I already ventured to express earlier in my Beweis etc. 1798 p. 166. [4]

Once we understand the brain, and to this degree (by equivalent stimulants) represent it, we will also be able to conquer death in all cases where it derives from brain failure or exclusion (through death or separation), and artificially maintain the phenomenon of life. I am not turning the brain here into a cabinet instrument, but intend rather to suggest how the greater earth takes on the organism, becoming its head and brain when the lesser earth fails it.

The frog preparation that twitches in reaction to zinc and silver is already standing in this relationship to the earth, and the galvanized severed head or decapitated torso would view all movements etc. as its own if it but still had the organs to do so.

There is almost nothing missing here for elevating what I am describing here to the status of the highest practical value (and especially in an age when so many nerves are cut through) except some thing, that is, a means by which one can stitch nerves, or even describe what in my Beyträge, vol. II, no. 4, p. 249, I posited as the next electrical task for experimental science after Volta’s pile, namely, an instrument capable of imitating and thus also replacing the nerve. [5] (For Galvani’s cell [?] and Volta’s pile have only begun to replace the brain.)

In any case, we are now on the way to something that will prove to be fertile in an increasingly higher sense once we have more experiments of the Dupuytren sort following those proposed above. At the present time, however, I can unfortunately undertake only the very fewest such experiments, since, as you saw above, I am myself currently suffering from severed nerves of the eighth pair.

Yours truly,
J. W. R.

[some days later?]

Your answer, of whatever sort it had to be, resembles not the simple 4 Carolins I wished, but that which can be freely compared with such, namely, friendship. Let me extend to you my heartfelt thanks for it. A person is confirmed when he no longer sees himself standing alone. . . .

I am admittedly doing very badly indeed, though that should improve. Forsooth! I have gradually had my fill of this entire business.

I would have come myself this morning except that I have a sick child, whom I cannot leave alone, [6] and since midday Campetti, too, has come down sick; [7] after coughing up moderate amounts of blood this morning, at midday, right in front of Jacobi (the doctor), after a sudden fit of coughing he expelled an enormous amount of blood, and is now lying here at my place and drinking Nitrium. [8] So now I have double worries! . . .

I will contact Baader as well today. If you see him by tomorrow, please be so kind as to tell him what I wrote you today, and try to urge him to help me. Nothing is more difficult for me than to negotiate with Baader concerning such things; I am familiar with his circumstances. But perhaps he will help me anyway. I doubt not that he would not help me over in the lesser things as well [unclear], especially now, when I am able to present proofs of how poorly I am doing. But again my ardent thanks for your kind response. I will see you as soon as I am able.



[*] Source: Fuhrmans 3:500–03. Back.

[1] When Ritter stopped by the Schellings’ residence on 21 March 1808 to speak with Schelling about a loan, Caroline seems to have functioned as a gatekeeper to keep him away from Schelling. See Ritter’s letter to Schelling on that day (letter 431a). Back.

[2] Clemens Brentano remarks to Achim von Arnim on 10 October 1808 (Achim von Arnim und die ihm nahe standen, ed. Reinhold Steig and Herman Grimm, vol. 1 [Stuttgart 1894], 259):

Ritter, through utter mismanagement of his own finances — for, after all, he has a salary of 1800 fl. [as a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities] and is able to conduct grand experiments at no cost — has gotten into such ruinous difficulty that he is daily pursuing Jacobi and every other acquaintance with letters begging for 2 fl., or even for 24 xr.; he has allegedly run up debts of 10,000 fl., something I know from Sömmerring and Jacobi, and his cheekiness apparently knows no bounds. Back.

[3] Concerning Johann Baptist Spix, Caroline remarks in her letter to Schelling back on 25 April 1806 (letter 403):

I must say, this fellow has inordinately confused ideas of things — and were it not for his noble diligence and his industrious manner of getting things done, I do not really think I could trust him, for he has also already written a frightful number of verses. Back.

[4] Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Beweis, dass ein beständiger Galvanismus den Lebensprocess in dem Thierreich begleite (Proof that a constant galvanism accompanies the life process in the animal kingdom) (Weimar 1798), 166 (Ritter picks up from the previous discussion):

Assuming now that the Galvanic action that previously was coursing through all the parts necessary for this setup were diverted by some accident or other, perhaps by a nearby part that was now a better conductor, or that a lack of oxygen made it impossible for the appropriate qualitative difference in the lungs to emerge that is necessary for the action differential for the requisite modification of the contraction status of muscle fibers of those vessels, or perhaps some accident or other caused the direction of the action previously supporting life to be suddenly reversed (the nerves of the muscles that need to contract would, e.g., be negatively rather than, as previously, positively stimulated), — what would happen?

The blood would cease circulating, the ill person would appear dead.

Now, in the first scenario, in which the immediately obvious diversions were already familiar, one would introduce onto the entrance and exit of the series a better conductor than the latter offer. Or in the second scenario, one would — and has this not already been done? — perhaps by blowing in oxygenated air, provide the blood in the lungs with the opportunity to attain the necessary qualitative differential.

Or, finally, as in the last scenario above, one might introduce somewhere into the course of the effective circle an extremely strong action efficacious to life in the same direction and with considerable strength, e.g., that of two different metals, and which in the latter scenario would be strong enough to leave in the reversed chain an action sufficiently strong to stimulate the constituent parts of this chain system even after the removal of the opposite action grade; what might conceivably happen?

The pulse would begin anew, and the dead person would awaken.

It almost seems as if we are coming close to the grand mystery of the explanation of blood circulation. But it could only be seem thus, whereas the true natural scientist demands certainty, not the mere seeming appearance. Hence please pardon us these conjectures, which boldly and often occur — how could it be otherwise? — to some, or even many scientists, conjectures that, indeed, might be joined by a great many others.

Perhaps reasoning intelligence will protect us — familiar as it is with the entire wealth of Galvanic phenomena — until finally experience itself, which of necessity must have its say, speaks more definitively for the one or other.

Click on the following image to open a gallery of illustrations of laboratories and experiments associated with Ritter’s interest and esp. applications — as in the present letter with respect to overcoming death itself — of galvanism (illustrations from various editions of Aloysii Galvani [Luigi Galvani], De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius, cum J. Aldini dissertatione et notis. Acc. epistolae ad animalis electricitatis theoriam pertinentes [Apud Societatem Typographicam, 1792], largely reprinted in Jean Aldini, Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme: avec une série d’expériences faites en présence des commissaires de l’Institut National de France, et en divers amphitéatres anatomiques de Londres [Paris 1804]):



[5] Beyträge zur nähern Kenntniss des Galvanismus und der Resultate seiner Untersuchung, ed. Johann Wilhelm Ritter, 2 (1802) no. 4, 249–50:

The ultimate goal of what it [experimental science] has hitherto made and yet intends to and can make available in the way of instruments, apparatuses, etc., is to imitate artificially the organism itself, first in its constituent parts, and finally (as has long been made clear) as a whole.

We may reasonably leave in abeyance here the extent to which such experimentation can, will, or has already succeeded, except that we may be allowed the remark that Volta’s pile is neither the final nor the ultimate electrical tool that physiology can demand of experimental science.

The first thing such science needs to supply is an apparatus that imitates the nerve itself, i.e., something which, though of considerably greater length than breadth, bulk, or thickness, and which serves no other action than is necessary for the maintenance of the apparatus of unknown composition itself, so that no new action emerges (as in the chain or pile) through any new closure from the side, — and which yet receives new tension, new efficacious potential as soon as Galvanic chains or Voltaic piles are closed through it, as through nerves; and which, however, propagates this tension from the perspective of the locus of entry, and throughout its entire length.

This propagation of tension brings about its appearance at every more distant point γ at the cost of the tension previously present at point x, which thereby must again become zero; and finally allows it to stand and endure alone in its entire perfection at the most extreme end (or the final point z): where a kind of Voltaic pile is to be developed whose efficacy increases with the gradation of the influence of the real such pile on this entire instrument, and must remain present as long as the influence of the latter continues. —

And whosoever could assemble this instrument would also have discovered what Volta incorrectly believed he had already found in his own pile, namely, the true artificial imitation of the electrical organ of the electric ray etc. Back.

[6] C. L. Desrais and L. Sailliar (1771):


The Ritters had four children. Back.

[7] Franscesco Campetti, who had been in Munich since January 1807, finally returned to Italy during the coming summer (1808).

Concerning the ongoing episode involving Campetti, see the supplementary appendix on Caroline and Schelling’s interest in Francesco Campetti; also Schelling’s letter to Hegel on 11 January 1807 (letter 420a) and Caroline’s letter to Luise Wiedemann on 31 January 1807 (letter 421), and in general the correspondence over the past year. Back.

[8] [N.] Schwerdtgeburt and Moritz Müller, Ein Kranker auf seinem Lager (1814); Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. A1: 1831:


Germ., Nitrium, here presumably natrium, sodium, Na; uncertain medicinal reference. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott