Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

“The Imagination of Air and the Collapse of Alchemy,” is Hillman’s next to last chapter in his book, Alchemical Psychology. He reminds us at the start of the chapter that it is the images of air and not their measurement that was the focus for the alchemists. The chapters of this wonderful book get meatier and meatier and so please forgive me for the increasing length of these posts. Even so, what is presented here is just a glimpse of this very heavy chapter on air.

Geist, Logos, Pneuma, Spiritus, Prana, Ruach, Psyche, Anima/Animus – words of air, forms of its imagination. Air makes possible this perceptible world, transmitting the colors, sounds and smells that qualify and inform our animal immersion.

Aspiration, inspiration, genius is structurally inherent, a pneumatic tension within each soul.

A pneumatic tension. In the latter days of alchemy, through the chemical imagination, a bridge is created leading to a new era in which the effects of air upon physical substances spurs a revolution in science birthing inventions that greatly change the technology of everyday life. Transportation powered by steam and gas for lighting streets, homes and businesses helps to usher in both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Dispelling the dark however, removes the sense of the mystery of the invisibles from our imaginations. To us moderns, if you can’t count it, you can’t count on it.

IMG_20140517_101614815Hillman notes the shift from alchemical work done for personal benefit, to that work which leads our focus out into service of the world. One of the first of many airy inventions was hot air balloons, leading eventually to the technology of flight. Through the use of burning coal and the construction of city gas lines the illumination of the great cities of Europe, America and eventually much of the world had begun.

The control over nature, that bringing light to the masses provides, leads to the powerful ideals of a progressive movement that now envisions the possibility of improving conditions of humanity, so much so, that we might one day eliminate crime, hunger and poverty.

The enlightenment literalized and moralized: deprivation of gas-lighting becomes a privatio boni. To light the night, and actually dispel darkness, its dreadful dominion, implies the upgrading of mankind.

File:Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Thomas Phillips.jpgHillman goes on to show us, through the discoveries of latter-day alchemists, that their work with air itself brings a spirit and a puer sensibility to their lives and undertakings. Here, he starts with the work and writings of Humphrey Davy to show us some of that puer spirit and the part he played in the transition from an alchemy of subjective value to a science that serves humanity. Davy’s work in chemistry alone identified 47 new chemical elements.

Davy gives us, further, a clue to the spirit of empiricism that informs the period from Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Boyle through Davy. These men played even as they measured:  Benjamin Franklin with his kite; Robert Hooke with his gadgets; Stephen Hales examining his animals and plants; Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac ascending to 7,000 meters in a balloon; Humphry Davy and his crowd sniffing.

It was not merely that magical tricks and alchemical transformations still pervaded the new chemistry, but that the occupation with air constellated its elemental force: risk, flight, fancy. The spirit of experimentation – the puer impulse had not yet succumbed to the pre-arranged intentions of what experiments came to be in later science. A lab experiment now is a senex ritual repeating what is already known. Less an investigative act of curiosity, it is more an initiation into the scientific paradigm by an imitative performance of what the figures of science, now senex patriarchs of scientific laws, did centuries ago.

Hillman notes the shift in perspectives between those who held to the use of a substance called Phlogiston to explain chemical phenomena and those who advanced the understanding of chemistry through experimenting with chemical reactions, such as oxidation, contributing to a pivotal moment in the transition to modern science.

Let me demonstrate the paradigm shift, the death knell of alchemy, before your imagining eyes. If a strip or bar of metal is calcined, that is, dry roasted in the intense heat of a burning glass – the old alchemical operation of calcinatio  – the calx or powdery residue of the metal weighs more than the original metal. Does this heavy calx remaining mean that something volatile in the metal has been burned away, subtracted, leaving a heavy deposit? If this is your account, then you belong to the school of Stahl and would call the “something volatile” that has burned away phlogiston. If, however, you consider the heavier residue to indicate that calcining has added something to the metal that is present in the calx and was not present in the metal (at all or to the same degree), then you belong to the school of Lavoisier and the “something added” is oxygen.

This shift in paradigms moves the focus away from qualifying the material world to quantifying and measuring it.

When Lavoisier designed the shorthand symbol for his principe oxygine, he drew it with sharp points  because acids were imagined in the eighteenth century to be composed of atoms with spikes, hence their biting, corrosive effect. Phlogiston, through its sulfuric ancestry, was warm, oily, and generous; oxygen, through its acidic ancestry, was corrosive and aggressive. The chemical revolution brightened, and soured, the air.

The exchange of alchemy for chemistry was, in short, an exchange of phlogiston for oxygen. What went was vitalism and the final cause; what came was atomism and the material cause. What went was Stahl’s anima; what came was Lavoisier’s methode. What went was the meaning in chemical transformations; what came was their explanation.

The reduction to matter is not necessarily a fall, a defeat of the wing; materialization is a means by which spirit becomes differentiated, makes itself knowable.

Quoting the scientist Henry Cavendish:

Since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions, of number, weight, and measure, in the make of all things; the most likely way therefore, to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the creation … must in all reason be to number, weigh and measure. 

Much is gained by this new method of revealing nature’s secrets.

God can thus be present in the method and not only in the material as alchemy thought. This is the watershed between alchemy and chemistry: where alchemy sought the secret in matter, chemistry imagined the secret in the modes of examining the matter – measure, weight, and number. Hence the importance of technical apparatus, mathematical models, laboratory experiment – these were divine instruments. To call this merely quantification or technology or applied science is to lose the inspiration, aspiration, effervescence, illumination, and ascension – the gas – that suffuses the discoveries and the heights of vision to which the methods led.

The collapse of phlogiston freed the spirit. It had been held in an alchemical vestige, for phlogiston was, as Stahl insisted, a kind of matter, yet one which no method could analyze. Lavoisier’s accurate method overcame that subtle matter, releasing spirit from that style of alchemical materialization. Now the place of spirit was in the method of “free” scientific inquiry, which together with the social, religious and technical revolutions that inseparably accompanied the new method, breathed the aerial soul, and its inflations, into the free-thinking spirit of the times whose watchwords were both measure, weight, number and liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Hillman spends much time detailing the lives of these new scientists and especially their lack of relatedness and particularly to women. Many of these men never married. Rather than find one’s soul through the love of a woman, nature now became the object of their adoration.

The new weightiness of air corresponded with a new substantiation of soul in the material world. Physical experiment made the invisible more visible. 

The fascinating mistress was not woman, but the mystery within the natural world.

This “fascinating mistress” though is also a call from one’s genius, often seen as a puer trait. Anytime the puer archetype is seen the senex is never that far away, which might help us to understand the drift in modern science towards scientism, where the guards of the hen-house have in some instances starved the hens.

It is easy enough to attribute inventions to genius, but genius is also an air, a nimbus around the head. Genius was the Roman word for psyche or daimon, for a vapor-like spirit that “blows.”  It is not an ego, but breaks in upon it – invenio – a gift of the genie in the bottle who speaks to the “boy,” a guiding presence telling the attentive worker how next to move his hand, waking him in the night with flashes of intuition as to how best respond to the demands of the invisible to become visible by means of invention.

Of course, these men were often solitaries; they reserved their ears for the subtle “invenio” of the airy genius.  “I do not think I could work in company,” Faraday said, “or think aloud, or explain my thoughts.”  The genius of making, poesis: apparatus as poem.

I love that Hillman sees the lives of these transitional scientists as still serving soul and that much as the myth of Eros and Psyche is a story of love and attraction that brings joy, so it is that anytime there is love you will find psyche.

We must therefore read the chemical revolution neither with progressivist heroics for what had been conquered nor with nostalgia for loss of feminine soul. The genius of air was still imagining by making new images, and these men were still serving soul as it seems to have asked to be served. 

Love was there in the work itself because psyche was there when, following Jung, we see that “suitable objects” can be “lodging places” of psychic events. The experiment, the laboratory, the apparatus, and the paper (Black, Davy, Dalton, Faraday, Boyle each wrote hundreds of papers or delivered hundreds of popular and scientific lectures): here was eros, anima, joy; and an aesthetics of usefulness.

And one last thought to remind us that alchemy is not necessarily lost to us moderns.

Though our minds are still ruled by the mechanical enlightenment, animation works in the laboratory hands, elaborating fantasy, inspiring things with new life, like the puer spirit now playing in computers. Alchemy, therefore, did not collapse – if we mean by alchemy a poesis of matter.

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 6604-6607). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you 5th Dimension for Up, Up and Away

Love is waiting there, in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air, in my beautiful balloon
If you’ll hold my hand, we’ll chase your dream across the sky.

Links to all posts in the series:

Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black

Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue

Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver

Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White

Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow

Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum

I’d Gladly Lose Me to Find You

As happens in all eras of big technological leaps, our modern world is changing us. No longer does our struggle to survive bring us the amount of direct contact with the raw elements to secure food, to build and maintain shelter, or to stay safe from both human and animal predators as our ancestors once experienced. Our struggles have leveled up to something a little more abstract. Our needs haven’t changed, but the means to meet those needs have.

The movie Life of Pi presents in film a powerful portrait of a very raw and direct struggle brilliantly showing how it is that otherness reflects our needs and purpose back to us.

But survive we do and on a pretty grand scale now days. Everything from refrigerated food storage, antibiotics, running water, to the transformation of fossil fuels into energy has redefined how we live our lives – perhaps increasing our expectation of peace and safety. Maybe that is why our modern plague of senseless crimes is shocking because we live in relative peace and safety.

And so, we cannot seem to avoid the curse of evil and the threat of darkness no matter how much technology enhances our creature comforts. We’ve increased the speed, breadth and amount of the information we can access through technology and find it harder and harder to opt out of its influence in our lives. Opting out must be a willful, conscious decision, with trade-offs we’re not always comfortable with.

Perhaps opting into an increased volume of information decreases our ability to digest and reflect. The speed of reception and the speed of reaction are driven by the technologies themselves. But it is through the slowness of  reflection that we are often moved to amend views that we no longer find adequate, meaningful or truthful compared with our knowledge and experience.

Because access to the internet is easy and fast – it invites a rapid response from us. How much time do we give ourselves to reflect and digest information exchanged through email, facebook and twitter? Are these exchanges more than invitations to like or dislike using prepackaged social, religious and political picture-grams posted by others? Just as an increase in the money supply deflates our currency, the increase in information supply deflates its value, bringing the exchange to new levels of absurdity:


The faster information comes to us, the quicker we must determine our relationship to it. Is it friend or foe? Do we duck, embrace, or swat at it? Either way, we respond quickly because technology works quickly. What the technology does not encourage us to do is spend much time reflecting on the meaning of events or our emotional responses to them. I don’t want my understanding of life to be defined by the culture being created through the use of high-speed technology, however much benefit can be derived from it.

I do so much enjoy reconnecting with old friends, keeping informed about local happenings and bridging some of the geographical distance with my family through the internet. And perhaps we are after all learning something about ourselves because the medium of exchange is different from direct, personal two-way contact.

And, I have found plenty of time for reflection in spite or even because of my use of technology. My views and understanding of life continue to shift because of new information. Yet, I remain skeptical that the benefits of what technologies provide outweigh the harm they might bring. Whatever their influence, they’re here to stay even though I am doubtful that the changes they bring will move us any closer to the peace and security we long for. Maybe longing needs to stay with us, prompting us to move towards finding a truer and more lasting purpose in our lives.

“And I’m looking for that free ride to me
I’m looking for you” Pete Townshend