Class nine of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book Alchemical Psychology, presented by Robert Bosnak and Patricia Berry, technically ends this first season of classes, which took us through the first chapter, Rudiments. Class Ten, notes to follow soon, begins the next chapter, The Suffering of Salt.
Robbie likens the work of alchemy to a downward spiral, deepening the material by slowing down the work, and by the embodiment of the images. Having recently read Robbie’s book, Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, I have much appreciation for his emphasis on embodiment, a work that grounds images and ideas into lived and felt subjective experiences.
Robbie and Pat start the session briefly discussing Hillman’s idea of psychological faith:
“The Pelican: vessel of psychological faith, a phrase used by a keen student of alchemy, Robert Grinnell, for an attitude or a devotion that calls for nothing less than giving in, giving over to the opus all personal demands one has upon it, for its sake, come what may.”
Using the example of his work at the Healing Sanctuary in Santa Barbara, Robbie argues that we do bring our expectations to the work, thereby challenging the notion that we “give over to the opus all personal demands.” I’d say, that in many ways, we do need to abandon an expectation of outcomes, or goals, or at least our ideas about how to get there and what the goals look like.
“General terms, simplistic diagnostics – abandonment, need, identity crisis, low self-esteem, depressive mood, dependency, masochistic helplessness – cannot adequately describe, let alone understand, the force of the void.
Because our collective Western natures abhor a vacuum, we reach out to fill the emptiness with anything, everything from junk food to junk self-help, from drink and shopping and the novelty of games and gadgets to the commiseration of soul-mates, or simply endless tears. Alchemy, however, suggests these feelings of emptiness are indications of a vessel forming (emphasis added). The void is building a shape, a particular shape. Perhaps several vessels. Modes of containing. Modes of measuring. Modes of differentiating. The reality of the psyche is forcing its way into life and reshaping one’s life by means of the feelings of emptiness.”
Pat reminds us too, that the void can be bigger than, and also exterior to us, specifically referring to the void in the earth described in Genesis. The void in this sense is necessary for creating, containing and birthing. Pat sees the void as a natural part of our experience, and our refusal of it leads to frenzied actions to fill the void. The emptiness often manifests as anxiety, and may not be recognized as a pregnant pause coming over us while something is being formed. Robbie quotes Hillman, who referred to it as, “lying fallow.”
The particularity and nature of the void, or emptiness, shapes what becomes manifest:
“The master painters in Holland and in nineteenth-century France showed the poppies and irises and roses, the pears and apples and grapes emerging from the hollowness of their containers, the void as source of beauty. If you examine the vases holding the flowers, the baskets and plates on which the fruit lies, these vessels are each manifestations of particularized shapes, colors and textures, and they are inherent to what they display. “If God had not given us a vessel / His other gifts would have been of no avail.” “
The furnace then, is responsible for shaping and forming the material. The construct of a stove is intentional, a conceptual system designed for a specific function or operation.
“Furnus: a logic of strong, well-built, carefully joined, enduring system. Ground rules, bricks and mortar of the trade, iron-clad discipline of the church or school or society which keeps the living spirit in focus, concentrated, and able to withstand the blaze of inspiration, the flashes and sparks of passion that would ignite grass fires and scatter the intensity.”
Here is where we find purpose, intention and attention necessary for the work. Discipline and knowledge of the materials is needed for specific operations, or kinds of cooking. Hillman refers to the stove itself as the discipline of multiplicity. Cooking requires an ability to know the qualities of materials and processes. Different processes yield different results: evaporation for condensing, distillation for clarity, sublimation for raising the material out of the sediment, coagulation and cooling to solidify a substance into a definite shape.
Robbie says the work of imagination requires the discipline to slow down any work on a dream image. Only then can it be embodied by the dreamer. Sticking to the image helps our waking self to subjectively experience dream images, so they can then speak to us, and through us, rather than be subjects of our interpreting or imposing a system on them.
As the saying goes though, “we’re playing with fire,” and we’re warned against letting the fire go unattended, therefore raging out of control. The furnace, Robbie reminds us, is focus (latin for hearth), intensifying the heat while containing it, by “holding the focus,” or “sticking to the image.” In alchemical psychology, the furnace is built through the work, by the practice in which we focus more and more intently on particular qualities of images and feeling. Psychologically this means moving away from generalizations of feelings, seeing precise images for the experience of our feelings. Here is where the rawness of the material is then cooked and consumed, allowing the digestion of events that previously could not be incorporated.
The Spirit of the Fire
Understanding and respecting fire’s spirit is essential to alchemical work. Hillman breaks this down to five ideas of fire:
“Any worker in fire can easily perceive fire’s primary characteristics. It rises. Its heat overpowers and changes materials. It gives off light. It cannot be touched directly. It cannot be satiated. Ascension, transmutation, enlightenment, intangibility, insatiability: these five ideas empirically witnessed in the laboratory affect the formulations of alchemical texts and later commentators on these texts. In brief, fire gives alchemy its spiritual readings.”
Ascension: fire and heat have a rising nature, from low to high. The images are that of perfecting, progressing, purification.
Transmutation: fire has the power to transform all that it touches, from soft liquids to the hardest metals, such as iron.
Enlightenment: fire lights up our world while darkening that which is not in its reach. The more light, the more darkness, a source of opposition.
Intangibility: fire is untouchable, intangible, grasped only indirectly through symbol, allegory, paradox and hints.
Insatiability: fire wants “only to grow and its appetite is insatiable,” but like a baby requires constant feeding and nursing.
And finally, with these qualities of fire, Hillman, as did the alchemists, warned against a runaway spirituality which knows no limits, ever-seeking more, devouring all for the sake of itself, rather than sticking to the work of the material at hand. The fire of alchemy better serves soul through images, which for Hillman are the rudiments of the work:
“Since soul recognizes itself in its images and since the making of images (poeisis) is soul’s primary natural activity, “the definite principle” that governs the “increase of fire” are images. They are the essential rudiments of the entire work. They are what the alchemist sees and smells and touches with his hands – and what he imagines. Focus on them limits the infinite metaphysical speculation (“the increase of fire”) to just what is just now.
Alchemy: a study of presentations as these appearances portray, define, and affect the soul. Consequently, alchemy’s insatiable spiritual drive, its “fire,” requires psychological limitations, an alchemy of soul such as this rudimentary chapter and the book as a whole intend.”