Each a sort of promise

23.5 Degrees

Alchemical symbols trigger in me what feels like happy nostalgia. Like remembering when all that is marvelous was still before me, still somehow within reach.

When I look at the image above with fresh eyes and put aside what I was thinking about while I drew it, the rippling liquid suggests to me that something below the surface is moving into or out of awareness. The colors trigger associations. Gold suggests value. Green suggests something vital and alive. For me that sort of musing has always been very satisfying and even emotionally refreshing.

I remain charmed by the visual delights of alchemy, and by the fantastic images evoked by some alchemical texts, which can be fabulously entertaining and generally have me muttering, “What the heck is that supposed to mean?” But over time I find that a layer of intellectual (if I may use so lofty a word) enjoyment is getting blended in as well, proceeding from a growing sense that three rather distinct flavors of alchemical writing are coming into focus.

1. True Believers

There is an alchemical text called The Golden Chain of Homer that gives us moderns an opportunity to deep-dive into the mind of an 18th century alchemist. Unlike many alchemical works that offer how-tos with smatterings of philosophical references, The Golden Chain presents at length, in well-organized and devout terms, the author’s theist worldview from which an alchemical approach proceeds founded upon what appears to me to be sort of eclectic fundamentalism. The book begins…

NATURE is that amalgamation, which is brought together by the Creator, including the visible and invisible worlds, and containing in Itself both visible and invisible creatures, all of which function solely due to the essence (being) and presence of God.

For the better understanding by men of the creation, the natural visible and the supernatural invisible realms are separated, but, in the final analysis, this is of no concern to us, because we believe that all and everything has been naturally made by God, out of the Chaos and the Great No-Thing of Void.

The Golden Chain was written by Dr. Anton Josef Kirchweger and first printed in German in 1723, but it has been lovingly translated into plain-English and edited by volunteer members of the Restorers of Alchemical Manuscripts Society. Perhaps because my thoughts cannot untangle themselves from my understanding of myself as living in a particle accelerator epoch, I find much of the book uncomfortable to read. But that may be the book’s biggest gift to me — a stark reminder that belief in an unverifiable something or someone can persuasively serve as the foundation upon which massive structures of thought can be built. I marvel that late in human history, and very late in the history of alchemy, an accomplished, articulate German doctor’s studies and experiments would move him to compose a work that systematically details his understanding of how formless chaos transitions to all the stuff of physical existence through a process established long ago by a creator and ruler of the universe. Set down at a time when alchemy had lost its glamour and was generally coming to be understood as the old name for chemistry or a scam.

It may be confirmation bias talking, but these considerations bolster my instinct that psychology and physics ever and always careen along parallel tracks, and what ties them together is the human mind’s tendency to frame information in fundamentally human terms…prominent among them that there are beginnings and ends, and that we matter.

2. What they were “Actually” doing

For a wonderful contemporary take on alchemy check out The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 by Jennifer M. Rampling. One of the fun progressions the book charts is the shift in center of gravity for alchemical authority, at least in England, from the teachings of sages of old to experimentation, especially in the 1400s — three centuries before Dr. Kirchweger’s deist-centric Golden Chain. I find this especially thought provoking since I think it is reasonable to regard Dr. Kirchweger as a rather prominent experimenter of his time. Yet for him, his studies and experiments pushed the origins of alchemical causal principles back beyond the teachings of Aristotle and other revered authorities to assumed divine intentions at an assumed beginning of time. I ask myself, who has intentions and thinks in terms of beginnings and ends? I’m pretty sure human beings do, and I think it’s possible nothing else does. Consequently, I wonder if perhaps Dr. Kirchweger studied what he was seeing as deeply as his capacity and tools permitted, then projected pious intentions upon all antecedent steps back to an assumed starting point of all physical existence.

3. What it all means (in a psychological sense)

The Golden Chain discussed above offer lots of marvelous ideas. For example, fire moves air, air moves water, and water moves earth. Another is the cosmic origins proposition that a warm breath “resolved and thickened” into a water out of which every thing emerged. I’m reminded of a take away from C.G. Jung’s autobiography (another marvelous read) – a modern person might note that someone has projected personal psychological material onto an external object, but that same modern person must not forget to also consider deeply the possible meaning of the image cast by the projection for both the person making the projection and oneself…an exercise that can sometimes trigger a sensation like remembering. Like standing once again before a door that is always and ever opening.

For example, Jung worked with a patient who was 17 years old and catatonic when he first met her; “her hands were cold and bluish, she had livid patches on her face and dilated feebly reacting pupils.” The young patient believed that she lived on the moon where she offered herself to a vampire as a way of shielding the moon’s women and children who had long been victimized by the monster.

Let’s imagine Jung and the patient meeting together, week after week. The patient’s occasional mutterings gradually expanding into intelligible sentences. All the while Jung is entirely confident that he is in Zurich on the earth, and the patient is certain she is on the moon. Chico Marx’s immortal quip, “Who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?” comes to mind.

On the one hand, Jung the psychiatrist can see that the patient is projecting her personal psychological material upon her earthly surroundings, but he also notes that on the moon she is the hero of an epic adventure…a savior who protects women and children from a horrible fate. A circumstance very different from the abuse her family, and others she should have been able to trust, had inflicted upon her, against which she could not defend herself and had driven her insane. As the patient began to recover an awareness of the earth she explained to Jung, “Why should I return…this world is not beautiful, but the moon is beautiful and life there is rich in meaning.” From their overlapping combinations of inner and outer experiences, layers of meaning emerged for Jung too, who gradually earned the opportunity to also become a redemptive figure in their now shared story. Slowly drawing the young woman back from the “lunacy” that was sucking the life out of her.

In his late 20s, W.B. Yeats gave voice to “the revolt of the soul against the intellect”. I think Jung might have counseled that soul and intellect are fellow travelers. Or as Giovanni/MacDonald might have styled them “pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.”

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Tobacco, Flying Saucers and Hypnosis

Saucers Over Hollywood

Is every creative act a form of biography? Does everything we elect to do with purpose and care paint a portrait of us in miniature? And what about those things we do spontaneously with little care? Perhaps even carelessly? Might they actually be the most accurate indicators of who we are – even when we can’t see it ourselves?

And then there’s the stuff that comes to us uninvited? Dreams, imaginings, visions. Is that biography as well?

One of my earliest memories is of a dream. A merchant steamship is moving slowly through thick, silvery fog at dawn or evening twilight. A time that could be any time. The captain steps out of the wheelhouse and leans against a railing looking out into the mist, listening. A lit cigar is pinched between the first and second fingers of his left hand. Smoke drifts from a cylindrical ash at the tip. With the unconscious ease of a maneuver performed a thousand times, the captain brings the cigar to his lips, takes a puff, then grasps it between his thumb and index finger. He flicks briskly with his middle finger and I fall away from the glowing ember. At first I drift on a misty breeze. Then I’m bobbing on the sea, but only for an instant as I feel myself dissolve into the vastness of the ocean, becoming one with it.

I love the memory of that dream, and it may have predisposed me from a very early age to associate tobacco with transformation because I love tobacco too. I don’t smoke often. Perhaps one pipe full or a cigar every six weeks or so. This is intentional so that each experience is intense and approached with sweet anticipation. Colors are more vivid. The edges of objects more distinct, as if outlined – an especially exciting effect when looking at something detailed and dynamic like the swaying bough of a tree. My visual depth of field expands so that items both near and far appear in the same plane and in focus. And I’m filled with contentment and a sense of optimism. As the last puff swirls away and is gone a nostalgia embraces me, like a vacationer saying goodbye to Venice or some other extraordinary place.

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Earth, Air, Water

Desser House Chips

People have been acting for a very long time, and the profession is rich with allure. Nearly 2,500 years ago, in his tragedy The Bacchae, the Greek playwright Euripides observed:

Headlong he runs to death.
For death the gods exact, curbing by that bit
the mouths of men. They humble us with death
that we remember what we are who are not god,
but men.

What joy to speak such lines before an audience! To call to the assembled crowd, enjoining them to consider such themes! What ham bone could resist such glorious occupation.

But actors also engage fundamental notions by which people understand the world in a way that transforms them. There is no higher praise than when a performance elicits remarks like, “I really believed what she did!” Or “He made me forget I was watching a play – I was there with him in some other place and time!”

The desire to work such magic can tempt the actor to dabble in risky psychic business. Participation mystique, for example, regarding which C.G. Jung explained, “It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.”

If everything works out all right things are cool, sometimes even impressive. But, as my shrink Tom once remarked, “It’s like walking around with your unconscious hanging out…no wonder strange things happen.”


Imagine the interior of a 1966 BMW sedan. We had been on the road since 2 am, talking movies and screen plays and actors and directors. Ahead Highway 86 glided through the halo of our headlights, sliding endlessly away under the car. Out the back and side windows the star crowded sky glistened above the empty black silhouettes of the hills.

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Tempest in the Wild

Mountain Road

In the 70s a pal of mine, Danny, decided to stage a minimalist production of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” All fifteen of the primary speaking parts would be played by just four or five actors. The action of the play takes place on an enchanted island that is perceived differently by various characters, so Danny gave his actors the opportunity to experience first hand some distant, non-urban locales. Places like a remote area of the desert at sunrise and a sunset viewed from high in the mountains.

Dawn in the desert was an especially magnificent experience. Darkness and stars. The gradual booming of wind as the sky lightened. The silhouettes of shrubs, the ripple of dunes on the horizon, and my companions slowly appearing out of the gloom. Gray, then vibrant color as the air began to warm.

But the adventure in the mountains was different. It calls to mind a line from the play that runs, “Hell is empty and all the devil’s are here.” One of those opportunities to remember to be careful what you wish for.

To put some aspects of the story I’m about to tell in context, this was a time before cell phones and text messages. There was still enough space between all of us that the Symbionese Liberation Army could rob banks, commit murders, and elude Johnny Law for three years while accompanied by a celebrity millionaire. It was the decade of Ted Bundy – 30 homicides in seven states. And anyone who had watched footage from Vietnam on television knew what an M16 assault rifle looks like.

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