Visions of Johanna – An Alchemical View

When I first started studying Alchemy in the writings of C.G. Jung and much later, James Hillman, I had difficulty finding its relevance in the life of us moderns. Already lacking enough time in the daily grind to leave room for a little reading, writing and relaxation, how does one find the time to devote to studying alchemy, enough to allow its relevance to bear fruit?

So in the past few months I have been looking for alchemical movement beyond what is written specifically about it, to how it can be seen in our modern culture through lyrics, movies and television. As presented by James Hillman, alchemy is the work of soul-making. Through the movement and expansion of our dayworld perspective we may begin to include the underworld perspective; its world of mystery and invisibles that unwittingly affect our lives. In the work, an Opus Contra Naturum (a work against nature), we move through the darkness of our human condition to the mystery of the goal, finding a way to navigate the darkness, authenticate our uniqueness, and in so doing, enter more fully and freely into life for life and death’s sake.

If you’re looking (or obsessed?), you can see alchemical movement everywhere, from song lyrics to television and most importantly in your own life. Perhaps by practicing seeing alchemy in the culture, we moderns can also see its relevance for our own lives.

Twice, in the past week, I heard Dylan’s haunting song, Visions of Johanna, an old favorite of mine playing on the radio. You can hear the song, at the two-minute mark, here. Looking at the lyric with alchemical glasses we immediately find ourselves in the dark, right in the first line:

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet ?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin our best to deny it

The song contrasts the writer’s dayworld experience of his lover, Louise, with the absence of another, Johanna. Although it’s tempting to see Johanna as only a past lover, perhaps more than that, Johanna is soul or the desire for soul itself, the lament of her absence pointing to a loss, leading to the dark feeling of the Nigredo stage of alchemy in which, when it is reached, leaves us there, in the dark, stranded.

File:Bob Dylan in Toronto1.jpg

“Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place”

The pangs of absence tells us we’re not ready yet for any mirrors, not able to reflect yet, it’s still too dark.

In the next verse there’s the admission of an attraction to danger and submitting to misery. As well, the misery starts to double in on itself as “the little boy lost” now complains about this awful state, bragging even and painfully aware of his own uselessness. Perhaps there can now be movement to the blue stage where the scintilla or spark so necessary for lighting the fire will be ignited.

“Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall”

Sure enough, next we see the bluing of the darkness in his reflection on DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, for even she must of had the “highway blues.” So, there it is, the recognition that although alone, you are still in the company of other travelers.

“Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles”

According to Wiki, this song was written shortly after Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds in 1965. Perhaps the dayworld marriage to Sara sparks a conflict in the soul whose love and need for freedom is threatened after feeling the weight of commitment that marriage and children bring.

“The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Saying, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”

There’s no resolution, but much conflict in the last verse of the song. But, “the empty cage” does suggest that something has fled. In thinking about this I wonder if the emptiness too is not a necessary part of the work. The fleeing itself suggests movement, and that the “empty cage now corrode(s)” may indicate that there is no longer a need for a cage. The soul, as the flow and movement of the life-giving (animating) force, must give up any containment that is life or soul-destroying.

File:Michael Maier Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 34.jpegA marriage is in order though, but one that we nurture and create providing for us a ground of being in which we can then navigate the course of our lives. In alchemy this marriage is imaged as heaven and earth; in which our dayworld perspective is continually fed by the mystery of the unknown, the underworld, the source of all creation so necessary for both our life and our death.

“And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes”

Lyrics copyright: Dwarf Music reprinted here

12 thoughts on “Visions of Johanna – An Alchemical View

  1. The daily grind…that is a challenging creation to navigate. It was an important one for me because “walking away” from it is what was such a big part of my initial awakenings. I would love to say how courageous doing that is, but quite frankly I was going to go crazy or die on the vine if I did not make some changes.

    It was a bit later though that I realized that true, real, deep lasting change did not come until I looked at my thinking about what was happening instead of just changing the external window dressing. This little shift is what made a daily grind no longer ever possible to occur because anything that could be considered or part of any grind before suddenly becomes the spring board and viola!, “you can see alchemical movement everywhere”. LOVE THE REMINDER!

    There are signs and there are signs…which we see and what they mean is up to us! Here is to celebrating the magic people like you who are seeing the signs everywhere from inside a ground of being. 🙂 -x.M


    1. Very cool Monika! One more connection between us too! There’s a lot of material given in Dylan’s writings 🙂

      I have always had a similar sense of him, that I could understand him. I simply love Blood on the Tracks. That album shows how to love and lose love in such a powerfully raw tone.

      I ran across a book back in the late 80’s that listed addresses of rock stars, mostly business addresses, so I decided to experiment to see how close Bob was to his business office. I mailedhim a check for $10.00 to see if it would get cashed. I received a very nice letter from his secretary along with the uncashed check, and a post-it note with Bob’s writing that said, “What’s this? Do not cash.” I still have the letter and the note.

      Not sure if I’ll get around to it, but in rewatching Lost (we’re up to the middle of season two), again, I can’t help but see alchemy along with all of the other deeply archetypal and mythological themes. The show is even better the second time around! Thanks for the tip (and the link).


  2. I remember a fascinating lecture Michael Ventura gave at Pacifica, ca. 1990. He had already collaborated with Hillman in writing “We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy,” but he talked of an area where the two of them strongly disagreed.

    Ventura was fascinated by music and the archetypal content of some recent expressions, very notably Dylan. He played certain segments in isolation and it was obvious. Hillman at that time refused to concede the importance of such expressions. I don’t know if he changed his mind later or not – he did have blind spots.

    I think you are very definitely on the right track. This is one of my favorite early Dylan songs too.


    1. I agree with you Morgan.
      I think the value of seeing alchemy and archetypal powers at work in lyrics, stories or art is about the practice of seeing with alchemical eyes.

      Maybe Hillman was discouraging all attempts to codify or conceptualize his ideas as had been done to Jung’s work. Who knows? You’re right though in saying that we all have our blind spots. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing that insight.


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