Alchemical Psychology – Part VI, Red

In the last three chapters of James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, we turn our attention to the last stages of alchemy imagined as the reddening, or rubido: a) images of the goal, b) changes that led to the collapse of alchemy, and finally c) alchemical caelum, or the “aesthetic condition of mind.” There’s a lot left to this book so in this post we’ll look at images of the goal.

Hillman begins by offering a bit of hope for humankind, something he does not often do in his writings.

“…that the intellect of the human animal bears witness to the cosmos, and that the good of society requires both the courage of disciplined imagination and the courage of the imaginative disruption of discipline.”

Again, Hillman reminds us to take care of how we think of the goal. It’s no surprise that the goal is always imagined as something of lasting value; gold, pearls, elixers, and healing stones, but Hillman stresses that it is because these images of the goal are of lasting value that they compel us to stay the course.

“We are thus obliged to inquire into the goal idea before we look at goal images, asking why the psyche invents these goals. What is the function of goal-thinking, goal-fantasying? What do goals do for the soul? Why does the psyche need them? The goal propels us into the work. …the urging impetus, without ever being exteriorised into an objective literal aim.”

For myself, I am a bit suspect of goals, especially ill defined ones. It seems to me that some goals, those we define with conceptualized ideas (whole, healthy, happy, enlightened, free, etc), rather than imagistic ones (musician, writer, lover, dancer, linguist, priest, student, parent, runner, nurse), act as a dangling carrot, perpetually out of reach, the unobtanium “other” – unreachable because things like wholeness, health and enlightenment are static concepts. Immersing ourselves in the work, ironically allows the goal to be in the work (do you wash the dishes to clean them, or to be done with it?), changing the substance through the dynamics of living.

Next the discussion moves to specific images of the goal and the value they hold in their display. In our culture, especially in spiritual work, this may seem at first a huge disappointment. If it’s all about display, why not just razzle and dazzle ’em with fine clothes and fancy speech? But display here is not mere pretence, but something of genuine, lasting value displayed for the sake of the world; anima mundi, unveiling, revelation. Shine on you crazy diamond!

“Despite the endless warnings in alchemy against the vulgar, and alchemy’s deliberately arcane mystifications, the goal, evidently, is display, and this gives another sense to the psychology of alchemy. Rather than emphasis upon the closed vessel as the modus for self-knowledge, we are to ”freely give.” Revelation. If the goal is an idea that motivates the opus all along the way, then ideas of display and exposure must lead the mind.”

“What is the use of concealed diamonds … to the world?” To the world,” that little phrase, suggests a wholly social, political, ecological, communal aspect to the entire opus, an unnamed goal named” world.”

What follows is a lengthy discussion of the specific nature of each image of the goal – pearls, gold, elixers, etc. Hillman writes in detail about the symbology of each, drawing from mythology and wisdom of many ages and cultures that help reveal a deeper more complex nature in each.

He makes the distinction between spiritual only goals and physical only goals noting that through images of the goal we see that the physical and spiritual happen together, so “the pain is not prior to the goal.” What a relief, I say, for no longer do we have to try not to suffer, but to recognise that the “pearl is also always the grit.”

“Instead, I prefer to read alchemy, and its goals, as images of psychic conditions always available. Then the pathologized aspects of the grit and the pearl, the lead and the diamond, the hammer and the gold are inseparable. The pain is not prior to the goal, like crucifixion before resurrection, but pain and gold are coterminous, codependent, corelative. The pearl is also always grit, an irritation as well as a luster, the gilding also a poisoning. This accords with life, for we are strangely disconsolate even in a moment of radiance; we suffer an inmost irritation simultaneous with exhibition, for display harbours as well the feelings of shame and awkwardness. The superiority of clear-sighted surety – when we truly see and know, brilliant as a diamond, as an eagle – always carries with it, unredeemed, the loneliness of distance and the insensitivity of certitude.”

He goes on to discuss the nature of each of the operations in alchemy; separation, mortification, putrefaction, and how their functioning continually serves psyche, for the goal is better served by not envisioning it as a moment in time in which we are perfected, but rather, moving cyclically, repeating and refining, as is necessary, all that we do throughout our lives.

“Remember: it is the nature of each bit of psyche to want to persist as it is. What succeeds wants to continue as it is. The drive to persist and resist alteration is the very nature of substance, according to Spinoza. Thus there will always be a profound and natural resistance to the psyche’s own innate movement. That alchemy imagines movement in soul by means of the repulsive rot of putrefactions and the killing torture of mortification shows how obdurate and compacted, shall we say stone-like, is the stuff of the psyche and how hard indeed it is to bring about change.” 

“And since these goals – diamond and pearl, rubedo and lapis, elixir of immortality – are imaginal and mythical, they are beyond time, dissolving the literalism of the laboratory and its measures of time into images, rather than temporal steps, images of drying and moistening, distilling and condensing, therewith moving the method of alchemy itself into myth.”

And although priorities in the stages of the work will arise organically from the nature of the material to be worked on, the steps or stages of alchemy themselves are not necessarily ordered by linear succession.

“I regard each rung for itself and apart from the ladder, each step a necessary standing place offering understanding for where one is and what one is undergoing. And, therefore, I understand the operations of alchemy as topoi rather than as pieces of a system for achieving the utopic.”

The image of the stone brings more surprises. Why a stone? Isn’t that the very image of concreteness and stuckness that we started with in the nigredo? No, because the stone is that which comes forth from the work of blackening, blueing, whitening, and yellowing.

“The stone’s dryness bespeaks the psyche’s move from subject to object, the subjective person no longer stuck to identifications, the gluey, gooey moisture dried to ashen powder, desert sand. Personal life reflects the objective psyche, thatness rather than me-ness, or better said, a me-ness that is simply thatness. Spiritual disciplines might call this compassion “that thou art,” a kind of unity of feeling with any thing. Yet I believe the stone’s feeling is yet more strange. It feels, let us imagine: “there is just that,” “even I am just that.” All that other people are and the world is, from rivers and elephants to teacups and toasters is essentially what I call “me” as part of an ensouled anima mundi and yet utterly depersonalized as molecules dancing in dry air.”

2012-12-29_14-28-15_165The stone is the image of what the work creates in us. It frees us from defining our lives only by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” so that we may experience a metaview of ourselves and others allowing us to meet in a shared realm of depersonalized experience where we can recognize each other in the archetypal realms we are all touched by.

“Metal” etymologically means “mine,” the verb “to mine,” from the Greek mettallao, means to search, inquire. The stone’s movement is not growth, development, or metamorphosis but rather intellectual curiosity. Pray and study, work and read, oratory and laboratory, one book opens another, explain the unknown by the more unknown – these were the maxims for the stone, or of the stone, the stone’s own teachings. Not grow, become healthier in mind and body, develop and transform but the seeking and searching of the awakened mind, the light of the intellectus agens, like a burning jewel in the stone. Learning is the key. Study. Experiment. Travel. Read. These are the processes that work the stone and follow from the idea of its metallic seeds. Dig. Mine. Quarry.”

And finally I will leave you with this:

“A stone-like love, a love utterly dehumanized, as if there is something about me that loves something about you, like the love of two stones. Cool, distant, apathetic? As if our planetary bodies were asteroids sharing a mythical affinity? Rather, I feel this notion of love is not so much cold as simply unconcerned with love, stone-focused rather than love-focused. It is indeed a fevered concupiscence, engaged in a coupling conjunction soul to soul as the alchemical images show – naked, sexual, crazy – yet having nothing to do with anybody anywhere. Let us imagine it as a love of two stones. Externally solitary, yet interiorly they are not distant from one another because they are not different. They are akin in their impersonal stony essence, descendents of a common body, Gaia, brothers and sisters, their love the incestuous passion of kinship libido, that calor inclusus which urges all things, including humans, to participate in the cosmos. We love the world unspeakably because of what burns within our silent, lapidary essence.”

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 5472-5474). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you Wake Owl for such fine music like this song, appropriately titled, Gold.

I don’t feel like I’m falling,
I’m up against the sky,
I said I’d taken it all in to make the good life,
I don’t feel like I’m falling,
I’m up against the sky,
Let’s grab the heart of the world and turn into the light

Links to all posts in the series:

Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black

Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue

Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver

Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White

Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow

Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum

10 thoughts on “Alchemical Psychology – Part VI, Red

  1. Dig, mine, quarry! I love that, could easily be my motto. I see more and more clearly from your posts how brilliant Hillman was and how I need to put him at the top of my reading list. I have bought his book on animal symbolism in dreams. It seems fascinating.
    I am also suspicious of any clearly defined goals.


    1. Dig, mine, quarry – Yeah, now that would make a wonderful t-shirt 🙂
      So happy to share Hillman. That is one of the things that is near and dear to my heart.
      But, I am equally happy to have met so many wonderful writers here whose voices are also shining and brilliant.
      Thanks again for leaving a note. It is much appreciated.


  2. I have always adored pearls for the great beauty they have made out of irritation and pain. To take the salt water (or what could also be tears) and transform into inner opalescent luminosity. Wonderful reminders shared here with such a great soundtrack layer to float ones thoughts on. Yum yum yum. -x.M


    1. Thank you seeingm! The salt water as tears, love this association. Things of lasting value, born of pain and suffering, so true.
      Glad you enjoyed the music, yum, yum, yes!


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