Alchemy Class Notes – Session Eleven

“The Suffering of Salt, Toward a Substantial Psychology,” is the title of chapter three of James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, and the starting point for the first class of year two of the Jung Platform’s online course. Hosts Patricia Berry and Robert Bosnak focus the discussion on the notions of salt, commonality and substance.

I am beginning to see an increased importance in the ideas presented in this chapter to much of Hillman’s work, as I understand it anyway. The alchemical marriage itself may be at the heart of Hillman’s proclivity to substantiate ideas, and also to see interiority within substance, even granting to substance a subjectivity. Beyond human subjectivity, he asks us to look within each substance for inherent qualitative aspects. The stones will cry out!

Might there be a subjective truth that invites us to look to the interiority of otherness for its own subjective qualities? That seeking will tell us something about our interiority, but with practice expand the qualitative distinctions we glean from others, enlivening us, and the world as ensouled; an Anima Mundi.

The alchemical work of psychology is precisely then the work of coming to know qualities; to learn of their essence as we learn of ours. Understood this way, we see much of the work as a practice of discernment; separating and specifying the nature of psychic substance, such as ideas and sensation, giving weight to them as we more readily do with physical substance. Here we will find the commonality of experience, as is the alchemical “sal” and salt in nature. At the same time, we educate our perception, looking more directly at the nature of both our, and the world’s suffering.

“Not only is the macrocosmic world personified and alive with subjective qualities that we nowadays allow only to human beings, but the microcosm of the human being, because it is a microcosm of nature, is also a mineral, physical object, consisting of substances such as salt.”

Our modern sensibilities may resist the notion that all substances and beings have a discernible nature accessible to others. Aren’t we locked up inside our skin, limited to knowing only through our own subjectivity? A deeper study of anything, or anyone, will admit that the limitations on what we can know, do not entirely keep us ignorant of the subjectivity of others. We better know that fire can burn, people can harm us, and as well, that we need warmth and love to live. We are not alone. Ours is a between state, one that we continually negotiate. The desire to settle into, or concretize any pattern as permanent, is death or at least ignorance of the inherent motion of all things.

“…we shall be activating the image of salt (1) as a psychological substance, which appears in alchemy as the word sal; (2) as an operation, which yields a residue; (3) as any of many physical substances generically called “salts”; and (4) as a property of other substances.”

In alchemy, psychic quality belongs as part of physical substance:

“The word sal in alchemical texts, especially since Paracelsus, often indicates the stable basis of life, its earth, ground, body. However, the term also more particularly refers to alums, alkalis, crystallizations, bases, ashes, sal ammoniac, potash, as well as to the sense qualities equivalent to these materials: bitterness, astringency, pungency, mordancy, desiccation, and crustiness, dry stings and smarts, sharpness and pointedness.” Emphasis added.

So why the “suffering of salt?”

Robbie and Pat talked a lot about salt as both common and necessary. We suffer the salt through the commonality of our human experience. To find our own essence, we must first see our commonality, how impersonal our fate and suffering may be. Then, instead of the focus of suffering aimed at what was done to me, we turn to the qualitative experience of our suffering. Failing to see the commonality of what we suffer, seeing only what was done to me, we are more apt to crystallize experience into encrusted memories whose force of repetition itself is a rewounding that remains open until we see into, or interiorize the nature of the wound rather than the wounder.

To be clear, it’s not so much how suffering occurs, but how we experience it.

Zubdat-al Tawarikh in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul

Although not discussed, it occurred to me during the class that Hillman begins the book with the suffering of salt because the practice of alchemical psychology, whether in the context of therapy, or within an individual’s life, is indeed a work of deepening experience through the stages of what the material presents to us, transforming not only our relationship to physical substance, but also giving substance to our ideas and coming to see how they work on us. Hillman suggests that we all embody both the ideas and the substances; that they make us. We encapsulate in miniature the nature of the cosmos, physically, and therefore, psychically. That is also the basis for astrological correspondence. We are each of us, a microcosm, salt of the earth.

“Not only is the macrocosmic world personified and alive with subjective qualities that we nowadays allow only to human beings, but the microcosm of the human being, because it is a microcosm of nature, is also a mineral, physical object, consisting of substances such as salt.”

Our work then is to know our common suffering, working the salt as a salve. Through deeper discernment of the nature of ourselves, our wounding, our commonality helps us to belong, embracing it as what unites us. Embracing our wounds and working the salt moves us out of crystallizing, or feeling stuck, towards curiosity, where love, compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others, including the non-living, are granted through our recognition of their own substantial nature, apart from, but always in relation to us. Awareness of the suffering of our commonality, and the commonality of our suffering, frees us to express a life more fully lived.

“The microcosm/macrocosm model requires a micro/macro-awareness. It asks that we feel into the world of matter with sensitivity for qualitative differences. It asks that we find in our objective experiences analogies with and metaphors of physical processes and substances. The micro/macro model works in two directions. While endowing the world with soul, it also indicates that human nature goes through natural processes of an objectively mineral and metallic sort. Our inner life is part of the natural world order, and this perspective saves us from taking ourselves so personally and identifying what goes on in the soul with the subjective ego.”

Previous Class Notes here, or here.

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

After Life

“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying, that you leave these convictions of certitude about the whole business. I certainly feel lots of that now, whereas my friend Higuchi says he’s living in the afterlife. Beautiful idea. Meaning his life is over, he’s living after life, but it’s also the afterlife.” James Hillman

In a conversation with my mother today, I hear her saying the most remarkable things. Yes, she twists age-old adages so the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” is now, “the grass is always greener outside.” Ironically, there’s a truth in her rephrasing. Although some would say it’s dementia speaking, I say, let it speak. Why see it as only a loss?

“Now, our finding our own dead in the United States involves so much history, close history, one hundred and fifty years of history, slavery, civil war, brutalities of all sorts, Chinese oppression, it’s just so huge, all the deaths of the Indians, and animals, that we’re blocked in a strange way by personal guilt. We enter the realm of the dead overloaded to begin with, with Protestantism and guilt, so I don’t know if we get to what you call ancestors. I don’t know if we have a sensitivity to whatever that means.”

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad.
My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad. Ca. 1945

I asked her what she’s been up to, and after a bit of silence she informed me that she’s been talking to her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, born somewhere around 1906, who has been dead for many years. My mother has never mentioned talking to the dead, ever. Her southern Baptist beliefs would prohibit that. When I asked her what Grammy had to say, she told me that they were going to Holland to see the ancestors. To clarify what she meant, I asked her if she was traveling by boat. She laughed and said no, she wouldn’t need one. Aha!

Great,Great Grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg who left Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her four daughters.
My great, great grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg, who left her native Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her five daughters.

Whether one believes that the ancestors are calling her to them or if she is seeking them out, either way, in finding an opening to the dead, she paves a path that someday I will follow. My mother has no clue about my devotion to the ancestors. She hasn’t read the writings of C.G. Jung or James Hillman, and if asked, would tell you she is a devout born again Christian. So where does her sudden reach towards the ancestors come from?

Like many of us, her wounds are deep, sometimes voiced as regret and guilt over events far in the past that continue to haunt her. As her child, I suckled on her wounds. As I grew, and my wounds manifested as a withdrawal from life, she saw my behavior as outward proof of her own wrong doing. When I began to understand my part in her story, and began to remove myself from a role she needed me to play to prove her guilt, my life began to become my own.

Beyond physically inherited traits, lies the unfinished ancestral business. We’re in a much bigger story than our personal experience allows us to easily see, especially when we’re young. Haunted we are, with the ancestors calling us to attend to these wounds, first on a personal level and eventually one that will lead us back to ponder their circumstances which often become ours.

Moms BookIn her retirement, my mom wrote an autobiography recalling in great detail family stories of struggle and hardship that show her amazing resiliency throughout much of her childhood. There were hard times in which my grandmother struggled to support six daughters and two bad marriages. The suicide of my mother’s step-dad, who probably had no idea what he was marrying into, are all told with insight, compassion, feeling and love. I needed this book.

In hindsight, reading the stories of my ancestors gave me a way to see myself within the context of a bigger story, offering me deeper insights into the choices, limitations and opportunities in my life.

My mother’s stories also offer insights into my familial and cultural past, loaded with images of struggle, loss and love in 20th century America. As all of us do, I entered the world in a story already taking place. A world felt to be not of my making; messy, in which the more I look, the more pain and suffering I see. Given our limitations as to where we enter, and the story we find ourselves in, I think the need for forgiveness and compassion cannot be overstated.

My mom’s dementia is not only a physical disintegration. I see her engagement with her mother and the ancestors over in Holland as somehow necessary for something essential to her eventual death and mine. In the last few years she seems softer, much more light-hearted, with an honest portion of sadness and regret. Her dementia has me seeking new ways to reach her, and myself, not to bring her back to who she once was, but to invite her to share with me the world she’s slipping into.

Cora'sGirls
My mom, 2nd from the left, with her mother and sisters.

It will not be easy to lose her when the time comes, and I suppose the fear of that loss finds me very willing to meet her where she’s at and to stay connected somehow.

She may not know it, but she gave me an unexpected gift that I will cherish forever. To share with her this movement toward our ancestors makes life a little less lonely for me and affirms my need to remember the dead. When Higuchi says he is living in the after life, I recognize that feeling a little more each day. It’s not morbidity, but the recognition that living my life in the stream of the ancestors, brings insight to the complexity of human experience.

All quotes: Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Duende

Browsing the WordPress reader I was pleased to be reminded of Duende by blogger Jaq who has a great blog at Ars, Arte et Labore.

Jaq links to a lecture on Duende by 20th century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca:

“In his brilliant lecture entitled “The Theory and Play of Duende” Federico García Lorca attempts to shed some light on the haunting and inexplicable sadness that lives in the heart of certain works of art.”

I am not familiar with Lorca, but enjoyed reading his lecture on the Duende so much that I thought I would post the links here and say a little bit about Duende.

Lorca begins the lecture by quoting Manuel Torre:

And Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I’ve known, on hearing Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’ And there’s no deeper truth than that.”

Duende is associated with dark spaces, dark sounds, tragedy, wounds that never completely heal and only appears where there is the possibility of death alongside life:

“When the Muse sees death appear she closes the door, or builds a plinth, or displays an urn and writes an epitaph with her waxen hand, but afterwards she returns to tending her laurel in a silence that shivers between two breezes. Beneath the broken arch of the ode, she binds, in funereal harmony, the precise flowers painted by fifteenth century Italians and calls up Lucretius’ faithful cockerel, by whom unforeseen shadows are dispelled.

When the angel sees death appear he flies in slow circles, and with tears of ice and narcissi weaves the elegy we see trembling in the hands of Keats, Villasandino, Herrera, Bécquer, and Juan Ramón Jiménez. But how it horrifies the angel if he feels a spider, however tiny, on his tender rosy foot!

The duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation.

With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit. Angel and Muse flee, with violin and compasses, and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.

Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’”

Storyteller Michael Meade, who I first heard speak and tell stories at conferences with James Hillman and Robert Bly, works with at risk youth by connecting them back to myth, ritual and story in their own lives. He has written some very good books and has lived an interesting life that includes spending time in a military prison for declining the opportunity to fight in the Vietnam war. He writes of Duende:

File:Archway in Paigah tombs.JPG

“Duende is power, not simply work and not only thought, but a struggle with spirit in the blood. Not a question simply of talent given or skill earned, but an issue of genius entering life at the moment of birth and continuing to whisper dark notes to the mind and the heart. More a matter of true living style, of style written in the soul and born anew each time the self is willing to die again. Duende is the power that compels us to sing the song within despite and because we are torn apart by living. It is a sacrifice growing within, a tragedy pursed at the edge of knowing, a little dance with death that make life more than simple possibility.”

Duende helps me understand (on a good day anyway), that there’s value in the wound when we can make room for the gifts that come out of woundedness that is suffered both from personal tragedy and as a condition of life. The suffering that birth exposes us to along with life’s tragic experiences that are common to all although dark in nature, create an opening and a space. The darkness, when experienced through woundedness makes an opening that is the space in which creative energy wells up from the chthonic depths deep within the earth.

“Duende is the wound-womb we cannot hide and only suffer more each time we try to cover it over. The wound burdened with its songs and mysteries, always on the verge of reopening, perpetuating the specifics of sorrow, drawing us to its dark waters, creating out of painful necessity all the arts of healing.”

“The real dilemmas of life are never solved; the darkness between notes is never relieved, for each art and each life arises from that ancient ground- the mud of all creation, inviting us into the fervid dance that eschews progress in favor of being. The deeper song of life and death intoned again through us; the requirement that those who receive the gift of breath fashion the world over again.” 

A link to Jaq’s blog:

http://supersededotcom.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/the-theory-and-play-of-duende-federico-garcia-lorca/#comment-936

And to the Lorca lecture:

http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm

Photo from Wiki Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Archway_in_Paigah_tombs.JPG