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.”