Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

“The Imagination of Air and the Collapse of Alchemy,” is Hillman’s next to last chapter in his book, Alchemical Psychology. He reminds us at the start of the chapter that it is the images of air and not their measurement that was the focus for the alchemists. The chapters of this wonderful book get meatier and meatier and so please forgive me for the increasing length of these posts. Even so, what is presented here is just a glimpse of this very heavy chapter on air.

Geist, Logos, Pneuma, Spiritus, Prana, Ruach, Psyche, Anima/Animus – words of air, forms of its imagination. Air makes possible this perceptible world, transmitting the colors, sounds and smells that qualify and inform our animal immersion.

Aspiration, inspiration, genius is structurally inherent, a pneumatic tension within each soul.

A pneumatic tension. In the latter days of alchemy, through the chemical imagination, a bridge is created leading to a new era in which the effects of air upon physical substances spurs a revolution in science birthing inventions that greatly change the technology of everyday life. Transportation powered by steam and gas for lighting streets, homes and businesses helps to usher in both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Dispelling the dark however, removes the sense of the mystery of the invisibles from our imaginations. To us moderns, if you can’t count it, you can’t count on it.

IMG_20140517_101614815Hillman notes the shift from alchemical work done for personal benefit, to that work which leads our focus out into service of the world. One of the first of many airy inventions was hot air balloons, leading eventually to the technology of flight. Through the use of burning coal and the construction of city gas lines the illumination of the great cities of Europe, America and eventually much of the world had begun.

The control over nature, that bringing light to the masses provides, leads to the powerful ideals of a progressive movement that now envisions the possibility of improving conditions of humanity, so much so, that we might one day eliminate crime, hunger and poverty.

The enlightenment literalized and moralized: deprivation of gas-lighting becomes a privatio boni. To light the night, and actually dispel darkness, its dreadful dominion, implies the upgrading of mankind.

File:Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Thomas Phillips.jpgHillman goes on to show us, through the discoveries of latter-day alchemists, that their work with air itself brings a spirit and a puer sensibility to their lives and undertakings. Here, he starts with the work and writings of Humphrey Davy to show us some of that puer spirit and the part he played in the transition from an alchemy of subjective value to a science that serves humanity. Davy’s work in chemistry alone identified 47 new chemical elements.

Davy gives us, further, a clue to the spirit of empiricism that informs the period from Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Boyle through Davy. These men played even as they measured:  Benjamin Franklin with his kite; Robert Hooke with his gadgets; Stephen Hales examining his animals and plants; Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac ascending to 7,000 meters in a balloon; Humphry Davy and his crowd sniffing.

It was not merely that magical tricks and alchemical transformations still pervaded the new chemistry, but that the occupation with air constellated its elemental force: risk, flight, fancy. The spirit of experimentation – the puer impulse had not yet succumbed to the pre-arranged intentions of what experiments came to be in later science. A lab experiment now is a senex ritual repeating what is already known. Less an investigative act of curiosity, it is more an initiation into the scientific paradigm by an imitative performance of what the figures of science, now senex patriarchs of scientific laws, did centuries ago.

Hillman notes the shift in perspectives between those who held to the use of a substance called Phlogiston to explain chemical phenomena and those who advanced the understanding of chemistry through experimenting with chemical reactions, such as oxidation, contributing to a pivotal moment in the transition to modern science.

Let me demonstrate the paradigm shift, the death knell of alchemy, before your imagining eyes. If a strip or bar of metal is calcined, that is, dry roasted in the intense heat of a burning glass – the old alchemical operation of calcinatio  – the calx or powdery residue of the metal weighs more than the original metal. Does this heavy calx remaining mean that something volatile in the metal has been burned away, subtracted, leaving a heavy deposit? If this is your account, then you belong to the school of Stahl and would call the “something volatile” that has burned away phlogiston. If, however, you consider the heavier residue to indicate that calcining has added something to the metal that is present in the calx and was not present in the metal (at all or to the same degree), then you belong to the school of Lavoisier and the “something added” is oxygen.

This shift in paradigms moves the focus away from qualifying the material world to quantifying and measuring it.

When Lavoisier designed the shorthand symbol for his principe oxygine, he drew it with sharp points  because acids were imagined in the eighteenth century to be composed of atoms with spikes, hence their biting, corrosive effect. Phlogiston, through its sulfuric ancestry, was warm, oily, and generous; oxygen, through its acidic ancestry, was corrosive and aggressive. The chemical revolution brightened, and soured, the air.

The exchange of alchemy for chemistry was, in short, an exchange of phlogiston for oxygen. What went was vitalism and the final cause; what came was atomism and the material cause. What went was Stahl’s anima; what came was Lavoisier’s methode. What went was the meaning in chemical transformations; what came was their explanation.

The reduction to matter is not necessarily a fall, a defeat of the wing; materialization is a means by which spirit becomes differentiated, makes itself knowable.

Quoting the scientist Henry Cavendish:

Since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions, of number, weight, and measure, in the make of all things; the most likely way therefore, to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the creation … must in all reason be to number, weigh and measure. 

Much is gained by this new method of revealing nature’s secrets.

God can thus be present in the method and not only in the material as alchemy thought. This is the watershed between alchemy and chemistry: where alchemy sought the secret in matter, chemistry imagined the secret in the modes of examining the matter – measure, weight, and number. Hence the importance of technical apparatus, mathematical models, laboratory experiment – these were divine instruments. To call this merely quantification or technology or applied science is to lose the inspiration, aspiration, effervescence, illumination, and ascension – the gas – that suffuses the discoveries and the heights of vision to which the methods led.

The collapse of phlogiston freed the spirit. It had been held in an alchemical vestige, for phlogiston was, as Stahl insisted, a kind of matter, yet one which no method could analyze. Lavoisier’s accurate method overcame that subtle matter, releasing spirit from that style of alchemical materialization. Now the place of spirit was in the method of “free” scientific inquiry, which together with the social, religious and technical revolutions that inseparably accompanied the new method, breathed the aerial soul, and its inflations, into the free-thinking spirit of the times whose watchwords were both measure, weight, number and liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Hillman spends much time detailing the lives of these new scientists and especially their lack of relatedness and particularly to women. Many of these men never married. Rather than find one’s soul through the love of a woman, nature now became the object of their adoration.

The new weightiness of air corresponded with a new substantiation of soul in the material world. Physical experiment made the invisible more visible. 

The fascinating mistress was not woman, but the mystery within the natural world.

This “fascinating mistress” though is also a call from one’s genius, often seen as a puer trait. Anytime the puer archetype is seen the senex is never that far away, which might help us to understand the drift in modern science towards scientism, where the guards of the hen-house have in some instances starved the hens.

It is easy enough to attribute inventions to genius, but genius is also an air, a nimbus around the head. Genius was the Roman word for psyche or daimon, for a vapor-like spirit that “blows.”  It is not an ego, but breaks in upon it – invenio – a gift of the genie in the bottle who speaks to the “boy,” a guiding presence telling the attentive worker how next to move his hand, waking him in the night with flashes of intuition as to how best respond to the demands of the invisible to become visible by means of invention.

Of course, these men were often solitaries; they reserved their ears for the subtle “invenio” of the airy genius.  “I do not think I could work in company,” Faraday said, “or think aloud, or explain my thoughts.”  The genius of making, poesis: apparatus as poem.

I love that Hillman sees the lives of these transitional scientists as still serving soul and that much as the myth of Eros and Psyche is a story of love and attraction that brings joy, so it is that anytime there is love you will find psyche.

We must therefore read the chemical revolution neither with progressivist heroics for what had been conquered nor with nostalgia for loss of feminine soul. The genius of air was still imagining by making new images, and these men were still serving soul as it seems to have asked to be served. 

Love was there in the work itself because psyche was there when, following Jung, we see that “suitable objects” can be “lodging places” of psychic events. The experiment, the laboratory, the apparatus, and the paper (Black, Davy, Dalton, Faraday, Boyle each wrote hundreds of papers or delivered hundreds of popular and scientific lectures): here was eros, anima, joy; and an aesthetics of usefulness.

And one last thought to remind us that alchemy is not necessarily lost to us moderns.

Though our minds are still ruled by the mechanical enlightenment, animation works in the laboratory hands, elaborating fantasy, inspiring things with new life, like the puer spirit now playing in computers. Alchemy, therefore, did not collapse – if we mean by alchemy a poesis of matter.

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 6604-6607). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you 5th Dimension for Up, Up and Away

Love is waiting there, in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air, in my beautiful balloon
If you’ll hold my hand, we’ll chase your dream across the sky.

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

11 thoughts on “Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

  1. Erik Andrulis

    Gotta say, I had never heard of Hillman until you and another blogger introduced me to his writings. Good stuff. I’m gonna have to read up on it.


    1. Great! Several people who are reading this series have told me that the Alchemical Psychology book is out of print and will be available in October 2014.
      If you like biographies, there is a recently published authorized biography that spends equal amounts of time on Hillman’s life and his ideas. I highly recommend it – if you enjoy biographies.


  2. I am a very airy creature so I really relate to all this. Puer spirit is what animates me and some heavier earth or water signs have tried to pull me down, in vain. How I love the wind and poems about it.
    Thank you again!


    1. Yes, me too! Lots of Puer spirit here. The chapter surprised me at first. I don’t think I had ever made the connection between, air, oxygen as a spring board for chemistry. Go puers!!! 🙂


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