In Class Six of the Jung Platform’s online series, Alchemical Psychology, presenters Robbie (Robert Bosnak) and Pat (Patricia Berry) begin with a discussion on deriving meaning from matter, or the materials. This is a continuation of the discussion on fueling the fire in alchemy which needs heat to purify and transform the metals, or materials. Knowing the nature of the fire also involves an understanding of the nature of the fuel used to sustain the desired temperatures in the work.
Robbie reminds us of Hillman’s urging not to be in a hurry to derive meaning from the materials but to stay with the image. The image, whether in a dream, a memory, or a substance – is that which already has its own qualities, layers and depths. The more we can stay with the image the more we begin to discern its nature. Pat uses the analogy of being a servant to the material; ‘…”a waiting on” that is invisible and had no desires of its own.’ She sees serving as something lost to our culture because of its modern, and mostly negative, connotations. Serving can be seen though, as a respected art, an art of leaving one’s personality behind, becoming invisible to give oneself over much as an actor or a writer does.
The idea of absence, or a lack of presence being seen as a desirable trait in alchemical work is very appealing to me and I really enjoyed Pat’s speaking to an idea that doesn’t get voiced very often today.
As Pat noted in Japanese Kabuki dance-drama, the karoko are entirely dressed in black and are the most valued members of the performance as they are responsible for changing props and scenery without being noticed. From Wiki:
“Scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. This is sometimes accomplished by using a Hiki Dōgu, or small wagon stage. This technique originated at the beginning of the 18th century, where scenery or actors move on or off stage on a wheeled platform. Also common are stagehands rushing onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these kuroko (黒子) are always dressed entirely in black and are traditionally considered invisible.”
The nature of invisibility returns the discussion back to charcoal, a porous substance already purified by fire, and so desirable as fuel. As Hillman says of charcoal:
“It has been through the fire, a twice-born fuel, first as natural wood, then as the essence of that wood. Charcoal: an opus contra naturam. Also, charcoal signals in its lifetime the colors of the alchemical opus: black lumps, white ash, yellow flame, red coals. Most mysterious: even the origin of the English word is unknown.”
As Robbie says, charcoal is a fuel that, because of its nature, does not interfere. As Hillman puts it:
“Neither reagent nor catalyst, charcoal is the fuel that does not interfere, a giver of energy asking nothing for itself in return. This is the quality of energy that fuels the opus.”
Air, a necessary fuel for the work is also invisible, and as Robbie notes “it is the inspiration not of the material but of the fire.” In alchemy there was often pictured a servant, called the Puffer, who worked a bellow to control the airflow into the fire to maintain the desired temperature for heating the elements. Air has always been known to us as a primary animating element, necessary for creation and for light. Air is the vital essence of soul or spirit, the very breath itself, called prana, ruach, chi or pneuma which still survives in words like pneumatic and pneumonia. It is also one of the four foundational astrological elements that make up the cosmos; air, fire, earth and water. And as spirit is air, it inspires or expires, as the breathing in and out a life force we are continually nourished by.
“Fire actually burns air, the flicker of the flame is the same oxygen that we combust. As we live, we are burning, consuming the wind, thereby generating the calor inclusus that sustains our days. Our death is expiration, the windbag emptied, the fire out. The act of breathing is our first participation in the cosmos, circulating in our intimate interiority.”
And because this passage is Hillman at his best…
“Fire lives on mind, and the sustaining heat of our warm-bloodedness depends on inspiration, on fantastic invention, breezy wit and windy rhetoric, on brain-storming, rarefied theories and cool ideas. The mind, a blast-furnace…The alchemist with his puffer and bellows sucks into his project inspiration from the nous of the world, the archetypal mind that moves like the wind around the whole earth.”
Here Hillman makes reference to those whose work has come before ours – texts, works and art that we inhale to inspire us, as one book opens another.
Also inherent in air is the quality of detachment, coolness and space. The fire, and our work, both need some breathing room, the right amount of detachment or cooling to keep it from getting too hot to work with or from going out.
We move next to the nature of the metals, which contain within them a correspondence as in astrology to the seven planets. They are then in Hillman’s words, “in touch with the gods; they bear mythical messages.” Each metal then carries within a spirit, a guiding principle that “teaches the artisan.” This spirit or subtle body becomes the focus of alchemy and is referred to as “the sophistication of the metals.” The idea is to realize a desired quality in the metal that will be desired in the goal, or the stone.
Each metal imposes its own discipline on us and has an astrological correspondence, iron/Mars: rage or passion, copper/Venus: beauty, surfaces, shine, lead/Saturn: weightiness, time, structure. The alchemist is then seen to be hastening nature, aiding the elements toward a desired perfection, an Opus Contra Naturum that still follows and is guided by nature, but not without resistance.
“Nature does enjoy its natural state and resists change, yet it also struggles against its predeliction for stasis, subduing itself and making change possible. Nature sophisticates itself, dividing its ambivalence into two aspects – the unchanging and the changing.
The natural body of the metal may become a liquid, a powder, a vapor; it can combine, shift colors, submit to the effects of other substances. The subtle body, however, persists in its own self-same unalterability.”
In conclusion Hillman insightfully gives us a more psychological way of seeing alchemy:
“It takes heat to subdue the innate resistance of a substance, a heat gentle enough to melt the stubborn and fierce enough to prevent regression to the original state. Only when the regression to the original “found” condition – the substance in its symptomatic presentation – is no longer possible, only when it has been thoroughly cooked and has truly separated itself from its historical and habitual mode of being can an alteration be said to have been accomplished. Then the substance, which psychology might call a complex, becomes less autonomous and more malleable and fusible, having lost its independence as an intractable object that objects and resists.”
All quotes except where noted: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
*Because I missed class 5, I’m going to skip to 6 for now. If time allows, I may listen to the audio of the session and write something in the future.