Alchemy Class Notes – Session Twelve

“Enter alchemy – thing-words, image-words, craft-words. The five supposed sources of alchemy are each a technology. Each is a handwork physically grappling with sensate materials: (1) Metallurgy and Jewelry: mining, heating, smelting, forging, annealing; (2) Cloth and Fiber Dyeing: dipping, coloring, drying; (3) Embalming the Dead: dismembering, evacuating, infusing, preserving; (4) Perfumery and Cosmetics: grinding, mixing, distilling, diluting, evaporating; (5) Pharmacy: distinguishing, tincturing, measuring, dissolving, desiccating, pulverizing.”

Although admittedly going off on a tangent here, this post was inspired by Session Twelve of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology. What I’ve recently come to appreciate is that the study of alchemy is as inexhaustible as is its application to my life.

Alchemy is styled and practiced in a number of traditions dating back at least to the 3rd and 4th century BCE. With that in mind, my focus here is to review the general structure of Western alchemy, while staying with Hillman’s emphasis to work one’s perspective by giving substance to soul and soul to substance.

Alchemy is a practice; a work in which a transformation of some kind is initiated through the desire and aim of a goal. In everyday life, it can be applied to cooking, writing, relationships to any person, place or thing, or the learning of a craft, trade or art. You may think of other applications.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) Title: Soul in Bondage

Prior to the 18th century, before science divorced herself from the arts, it may have been more readily understood that the work on the materials would simultaneously “work” the practitioner. Alchemy then was a quest for knowledge about the nature of particular substances and processes in the world.

The modern sense of our individuality reflects science’s need to distinguish between subject and object, self and other. These changes bring much freedom to the individual, while also coinciding with a loss of soul, or soul’s substantiality. Not only a sense of one’s personal soul, but the felt sense that the world herself is ensouled, enlivened by all creatures and substances and their varying degrees of autonomy and obeisance.

One might say that the more one feels the divide and separation between themselves and others, the more we might miss, or dismiss the autonomy of other beings and things, leaving no room for acknowledging the invisible, autonomous forces, except where science quantifies them (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.).

Modern ideas of alchemy deeply reflect these changes of self-perception and our place in the cosmos. To speak of a literal alchemy in which base materials are turned into precious metals has lost credibility with all but a few practitioners. As well, the work, if undertaken at all, seems narrowed by an emphasis on personal transformation. But, if alchemy itself is a reflection of an evolving consciousness of universal import, we might see this modern emphasis on self as a necessary stage before the gap between material and non-material existence can dissolve.

Limbourg brothers, Title:Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry English: Anatomical Man.

If alchemy lives on anywhere, as a practice of noting influence and correspondences between the microcosm of one’s human experience and the macrocosm of the hidden nature of the greater cosmos, we have astrologers to thank. For astrologers have never abandoned the idea that human nature and experience is a reflection of the nature, motion and resemblance shared throughout the cosmos, enhanced all the more by our apprehension of it.

With that in mind, we can break alchemy down into three dimensions of the practice: the materials, the operations and the stages of the work.

Materials

In alchemy, as in astrology, the elements are the givens, each of which have mythological, planetary or astrological correspondence. The idea of turning base medals into gold, literally or psychologically, requires coming to know the nature of each material substance. Alchemical psychology and Western astrology, borrowing much from their mythological heritage, see in each planet a corresponding metallic nature.

When alchemists link the planet Saturn to lead, it sees leaden characteristics, knowable by working directly with the substance lead. Alchemy, like astrology, does not stop here, but sees lead’s slow, heavy nature as an influential psychic force corresponding to our nature as well. For example, Saturn’s influence is said to be felt as weighty, depressive, slowing us down in some way in both mind, body and circumstance. As Saturn is associated with the Greek god Kronos, where we get our word for time (chronology), there may also be a need for time or attention to some aspect of our lives.

Hillman says of the alchemists work with metals:

“The metals were imagined to be made of coagulated moist vapors, like a condensed gas whose spirit could be released by the proper operations. Because the metals were inherently moist, that is, embodying phlegm, they had a phlegmatic tendency to be passive or inert, requiring fire. Resistance to change is given with the seeds of our nature and only intense heat can move human nature from its innate inertia.”

When we moderns deprive ourselves of seeing any correspondence between ourselves and the nature and motion of the cosmos, we risk increasing the feeling we may already have of alienation, with both ourselves, others and the world we are literally pieces and parts of.

Saturn = Lead

Jupiter = Tin

Mars = Iron

Sun = Gold

Mercury = Quicksilver (Mercury)

Venus = Copper

Moon = Silver

Operations

The operations used in alchemy for initiating action and reaction upon the materials are primarily salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt as agent for thickening, loosening and resistance to heat, sulphur for heating and combustion, and mercury or quicksilver for fluidity. Hillman warns that there is no purity in substance, operation or stages of alchemical work but a blending and merging of one into the other.

Making Waffles – Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff (1824–1882)

“Whatever is said about salt is always contaminated, and must be so contaminated by the materials, vessels, and operations with which it is in interaction. Psychic materials are always in diffuse interpenetration, with other materials and do not remain singly self-consistent, and so require multiple interpretation. In fact, this very contamination is part of their definition: let us say that alchemy is soft-edged. Lines between its elements cannot be drawn hard and fast because these elements are also elementary living natures.”

Stages

The work both progresses and regresses in stages associated with coloration, usually three or more of the following: Black, Blue, White, Yellow, Red. The colors themselves have astrological and mythological associations. Alchemy in contrast to modern science, is the practice of knowing the nature of anything by the qualities it presents to us. Where modern science reduces things down to size and mathematical relationships, alchemy seeks essence through the quality and nature of relationships within and between things.

Hillman emphasizes the alchemist’s ability to see psychologically through any practice that involves working with the worlds substantive qualities. From this work a truer understanding of ourselves and the nature of the world emerges into the unique expression each of us then presents daily to the world. In coming to know the substances, images, environments and actions/reactions which influence us, we are continually ensouled through our sensual, everyday experience that sees our nature reflected back to us through the nature of the cosmos.

All quotes: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Class Notes – Session Eight

Session Eight of the Jung Platform’s online class on James Hillman’s book, “Alchemical Psychology,” moves the work from forge to stove, in which the use of glass vessels for heating the material make alchemy both possible and psychological.

“Glass also separates observer from observed. It is the material of distancing, separating events from life by means of fragile transparency, enclosing them each in its own “house” as the glass vessels were sometimes called.” James Hillman

10173760_10201083286964761_5569906944981627530_nGlass, like psyche, Hillman notes, is the medium by which we see into or through. In the furnace, Robbie points out that we can only see outcomes. Through the use of alchemical stoves we can see through or into the process as it happens, “without obstruction as if the glass is not even there.”

Through its properties glass shapes, forms and colors the perception of the materials. Pat and Robbie liken language to glass, which I find very satisfying. When the medium of language loses its transparency, words can be mistaken for the thing they refer to. Glass allows us to be present to the material, “an inside view,” as Robbie calls it. But glass also contains – according to its own structure, presenting bite-sized, specific, particularizations of the material. Containing the material allows us to work on the particulars rather than generalizations.

Vulnerable to a build-up of sediment from the materials within, glass may lose its clarity, just as our habits, theories or preconceived ideas create a film through which we see the material. Part of the work, Robbie reminds us, is to keep the glass vessel clean, especially as we move from one aspect of the work to another.

I wonder if we are not distancing ourselves from the subtle qualities of things through mass production – from the food that we eat to the instruments used for everyday tasks; do we now risk losing the ability to notice the subtlety of substance – glossing over properties, only to increase our focus on defect of functionality? I’ll be the first to complain about poorer quality of tools and many mass-produced things we’ve come to rely on. Through their use we lose not only the skill in making them, but a familiarity and respect for the material world that can come only from working directly with the substances.

“Glass as subtle body requires a subtlety of noticing. The sophistication of the material needs sophistication of insight. The alchemical mind was occupied with noticing properties. Which qualities, which attributes, are the “virtues,” in Paracelsus’s terms, of a substance? Natural things could be grouped, even classified, by their adjectives: hard, cold, bitter, wintry, could bring together phenomena from all three kingdoms – animal, vegetable, mineral. Because the world is inherently intelligible we can discover where each phenomena belongs by means of the study of properties, care with adjectives.” James Hillman

Sophistication, Robbie notes, is refinement; returning again and again to the same material to see deeper into its properties. The difficulties that the material presents to us, which Robbie likens to any work that we do: dancing, painting, writing, speaking, or day-to-day problems, require going back over the material to refine and discipline the work. The refinement can also move literal meaning into poetic metaphor, lifting a more subtle sense of meaning out of the mundane.

The Bain Marie

Essentially a double boiler, the Bain Marie, a vessel thought to be of Egyptian origin, heats the materials with hot steamy air, warmed by water, heated on a stove. The Bain Marie allows fire and water, two notorious enemies, to cooperate. Slow and gradual heating allows for the material never to over heat as long as an ample supply of water is provided.

“The warmth permeating the glass vessel from the bath is another way of imaging sympathetic attention, gentle encouragement, all-embracing tolerance. Knots, boundaries, strictures give way.” James Hillman

File:Mary's Bath 1528 detail AQ9 (1).tif

The Bain Marie

A slow, gradual increase of temperature changes solids to liquids, breaking down the materials, and in adding to them, re-thickens, as in the making of sauces. Blending, rearranging the materials can put substances into new relationships with each other thereby creating something new.

“Perform no operation until all has become water: rational analysis must wait for emotion to flow, reveries to float, collect in pools, stir, sink, find outlets. Discriminations blur. This and that melt into each other; right and wrong and their guilts grow soft and mushy; they hardly matter, no hard facts, no sturdy sureties to cling to. All yields to the warming water. We become gentler with ourselves. We lose intention for arrival, no hurry. A bath is not a shower. We are the substance, our body and our mind enter the vessel of the soul, Mary’s bath. We are the cook and the cooked, unable to feel the difference.” James Hillman

The Pelican

The pelican, a glass vessel tightly enclosing the material, recirculates from bottom to top, performing an alchemical operation called iteration or repetition.

“The Pelican, too, is a tail-eater: the lower end is consumed by the upper end, the head, but the process does not stop there with mental reflection. The head sends its product down again into the body, repeatedly. A continuing circulation ensues. What arises to the head does not escape. As the substance melts, steams, sending vapors upward, cloudy ideas form, pressures increase, lighter, uplifting feelings swirl. But these inspirations and hot ideas are re-processed down as too unripe, too soft-boiled, too unreal. Rather, they are fed back into the vessel as further nourishment. It is the opus that must be fed, continued at all costs.” James Hillman

The PelicanThe work inside the pelican is vital to alchemical psychology. Here is where both body and head are fed by shared images through containment and repetition. Feeding the body what is going on in psyche makes ideas matter. Feeding the head what the body feels psychologizes the body into metaphor.

Robbie suggests that the pelican, its shape and form, is itself refined much as our body is by the work happening within the pelican. The temptation here might be to release the refined insights from the top, or head, to enjoy a brief exhilaration at the expense of the iteration necessary for the work.

Hillman refers to the material worked in the pelican as sacrificial, much like the bird:

“Hence the term “Pelican,” since that bird, according to lore, drove its bill into its own breast to draw the blood that fed its young. Christ was this pelican, nurturing his faithful with his own life-blood. The pelican is thus a wounding, a repetitive ritual, a sacrifice, and a humiliation all at once. And, a necessary instrument for feeding the opus from within itself.

What arises during the work belongs to the work, not to the world. Before the vessel may be opened, its contents must be thoroughly psychologized, refined, sophisticated; its concretizations vaporized.” James Hillman

Here we see the importance of containment and repetition in the work, a need for privacy, to stew in our own juices before a creative work can be brought to fruition – something that can only be done when we admit to ourselves the necessity of the work, letting go of any desire for approval or progress. As Pat says, the realization that we are in a system, in process, is what makes the work alchemical.

The work is for its own sake, whether it be the work in therapy, art, dance, music, writing, or cooking, the focus within the work is the work. It does not aim at any static state, remove desires or bring peace, although we may experience a range of states in or from the work. Alchemical practice requires “the sacrifice of non-arrival.”

Thank you for enduring the extra length in these class notes. I’ll stop here with one last quote on the pelican:

“The Pelican offers an image for the wounding that the work causes. We feel the cost in blood. “Things must be cooked in their own blood,” is an oft-repeated admonition. We feel the draining in the body for what might come later but is now entirely unknown, the Pelican’s offspring, children of the imagination, for “Imagination bodies forth / The form of things unknown.”  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.” james Hillman

All quotes from Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Class Notes – Session Six*

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.

File:Old bellow.jpgFor the fire, air both increases the heat and cools it down depending on the application, and for us both gives and deprives us of life. From Hillman:

“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.