Colour My World, Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black

One of my favorite James Hillman books is his, “Alchemical Psychology,” which I have just recently read. The book is a fascinating tour of the alchemical process and its correlative psychological journey as told to us by the Alchemists of old. Yes, they weren’t only interested in literally transforming substances, but about experiencing the transformation of the psyche and finding the Philosopher’s Stone. Hillman begins by suggesting that one of the primary sources of neurosis is a deficiency of imagination which can be heard in the one-sidedness of the language we use – which is an important means to understand ourselves and the world.

“My neurosis resides in my mental set and the way it constructs the world and behaves in it. Now, the essential or at least an essential component of every mental set, of every personality, is language. Thus language must be an essential component of my neurosis. If I am neurotic, I am neurotic in language. Consequently, the one-sidedness that characterizes all neuroses in general is also to be found specifically as a one-sidedness in language.”

He goes on to talk about the similarities in what drives people to therapy to what drove the alchemists to their work. It doesn’t matter so much what you want to change, but that you want to change something. The work, whether on ourselves or on physical materials, generates a psychic response. Hillman suggests that the difference for the alchemists was that they did not conceptualize their mental states in the way that we do today, but lived them through the work. In Alchemy there is what is referred to as the Opus, the Great Work. Hillman refers often to C.G. Jung’s writings on alchemy in which he refers to the Opus as the Opus Contra Naturam, a work against nature, which I understand to mean against the inclination towards entropy. The alchemical stages are experienced as colors:

  • Black
  • Blue
  • Silver/White
  • Red
  • Yellow

Each color represents a phase that is entered into in the work:
The first four color terms – black, white, red, and yellow – are also the primary color terms embracing the entire alchemical opus: nigredo, albedo, xanthosis or citrinitas, and iosis or rubedo. These color terms describe: (1) stages of the work; (2) conditions of the material worked on; and (3) states in the psyche of the artifex or worker-alchemist.”

He then notes that the idea of the color in each stage that we move through as we make our way through life is sensate and naturally embedded with images and ideas as compared to conceptual notions that especially modern psychology would use. In the black or nigredo phase of the work Hillman says:

“First, as non-color, black extinguishes the perceptual colored world. Second, the blackening negates the “light,” whether that be the light of knowledge, the attachment to solar consciousness as far-seeing prediction, or the feeling that phenomena can be understood. Black dissolves meaning and the hope for meaning. We are thus benighted.  Third, the two processes most relevant for producing blackness –putrefaction and mortification – break down the inner cohesion of any fixed state. Putrefaction, by decomposition or falling apart; mortification, by grinding down, as seeds in a mortar are refined into ever thinner and smaller particles.”

I hope to continue on this theme and at least run through each stage of color and briefly describe them. I will leave you with one more quote from the book:

“This is the Nekyia,  the night sea journey through the underworld made also by Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, and by Eurydice, Inanna, Persephone, Psyche, by Orpheus, by Christ. Whether this underworld is frigid and ghastly or burning with the hots of hell, it is a realm characterized by temperatures suitable only for demons, ghosts, heroes and heroines, goddesses and shades who are no longer altogether of the upper world. Outsiders. Marginals. Alchemy is a profession of marginals; those at the edge. Those who live from their own fires, sweating it out, self-sustaining their own temperatures which may be at variance with the collective climate.”

All quotes taken from: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 292-293). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thanks to Chicago for this lovely tune:

Links to all posts in the series: Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black http://wp.me/pZ0y1-T7 Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue http://wp.me/pZ0y1-TA Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver http://wp.me/pZ0y1-Um Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White http://wp.me/pZ0y1-UT Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow http://wp.me/pZ0y1-WV Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red http://wp.me/pZ0y1-XT Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air http://wp.me/pZ0y1-11b Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum http://wp.me/Z0y1