Saturday, 28 March 2015

On Spiritual Alchemy

Alchemy may be taken, in any of its pre-modern forms, as an attempt to understand and control matter within the framework of a world of gods and God. It has, in this respect (both in relation to material science and healthcare), largely been displaced by scientific method and medicine. It should be of largely antiquarian interest. However, the residue of this world view has re-emerged in the modern world as 'spiritual alchemy': the attempt to read back into the past an analogical element that applies, to the self, soul and mind, the method and findings of material alchemy.

The idea that lead (the material self) can be transmuted into gold (spiritual perfection) through mercury (the quickening process of thought) is self-evidently a model of human development and we will return to this when we reach Jung below. The later idea that the Philosopher’s Stone might be used to summon or communicate with angels may be a ‘real belief’ (which it certainly was) or an ‘analogical belief’ by which we mean that the Stone represents the catalyst for a type of thinking that can command and understand a Heraclitean flux of thoughts and emotion. This is a belief system that says that analogical thinking within a particular framework can aid personal transformation and. like all belief systems that do not argue against the findings of science, it cannot be argued against with any certainty once it has abandoned the physical alchemical laboratory.

The Historicity of Alchemy

This is much more like the modern mechanistic read-back of scientific analysis into our ideas of mind than we may think. It is simply one out of our time and place. The modern scientific model of mind is clearly flawed but that is no reason, in itself, to allow an even more flawed older model of 'science' to become the basis for a retrospective and a largely poorly evidenced attempt to build up a hermetic positive psychology. Are we prepared to accept knowingly that what we are engaged in is a mythic re-construction? As poetic or artistic analogy, on the other hand, alchemical language has its own strange beauty, a beauty perhaps first presented by the German mystic Jacob Boehme but also by other alchemists of the early modern period such as Heinrich Khunrath.

There are analogous systems of thought in China and India and there is no doubt that it is not a modern invention in the West. There is a clear history going back to the Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes and probably beyond. But we also have to remember that few 'scientific' writings have survived from the Ancient World. Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical texts after a revolt in Alexandria (292) which, in itself, suggests some important political aspect to such material in what was the central port for the supply of essential grains to the over-populated urban centre of the Empire. But whatever was taken from Hellenism to Europe via such significant Arab figures as Khalid Ibn Yazid, it was not 'political'.

Something very dangerous to the existing order of empire had been suppressed and turned into something mystical and private, much as modern science has often been shifted into New Age models by people desperate to invoke a meaning for the void and yet functionally powerless. Perhaps what Diocletian was doing was little different from the imperial policies of Germany and Russia against the Polish intellectual elite in 1940 - the determined destruction of a particular culture so that it could never stand against them. The fact of the Roman Empire holding its sway for many more years than the monster-empires of Twentieth Century Europe may well have shifted the progressive community of thinkers towards their salvation as individuals within more extensive state-backed cosmopolitan faith traditions.

The Use of Alchemy

Using the operations of the material world to describe the 'spiritual' nature of man is a common human trope in times of alienation from the ability to think freely – the imperial systems (eventually Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Muslim) have offered ready-made approved models into which archetypal thinking can be forced to fit. We may think equally of the machine model of eighteenth century ‘philosophes’ under the Ancien Regime right through to modern philosophers' attempt to describe our minds in terms of hardware and software. Prevailing orthodoxy always has gaps for creative analogy. To describe our intrinsic, inexplicable being in terms of the retort and of alchemical transmutation was simply another case of trying to explain and live out our complex nature in terms that seemed analogically appropriate at that time.

The 'discovery' of spiritual alchemy in the late nineteenth century occult revival should be seen not so much as a seeking after truth as of an attempt to avoid the brutal implications of the new positivistic world emerging before the eyes of an insecure Western urban middle class. Because it could not find analogies for actual experience from contemporary analytical knowledge, it looked backwards, for lack of alternatives, to older scientific models – the exact opposite of the process of near trans-humanism in Russia which was explored by Andrew Vee. This reactionary approach to the world implicit in occult spiritual alchemy is rarely commented upon but this is not to find it wanting.

The 're-constructionist' approach to alchemy served a purpose as a mythic, analogical, artistic and creative response to the fact that descriptions of the world that were undoubtedly true in regard to the material world were far from the experience of men actually living in the world. New myths were required. Until the rise of phenomenology and existentialism (and the reactions to the latter), a mechanistic view of the human condition was the only alternative to an organised religion that failed to take account either of the new science or of personal experience. Until men and women had found their own myths from philosophies that could escape the clutches of Plato and Aristotle (which could not happen until very recently indeed), the source of such myths had to lie either in the past as reconstructionism or in the future as science fiction.

There is the path of occultism or Russian Cosmism, of Crowley or Wells, of rosicrucianism or scientology. Nineteenth century and twentieth century 'occult' or New Age ideas will often include highly pragmatic attempts to link the language of alchemy to personal development. Obscure symbolism and secret societies have become the chosen tools for persons dealing with a world they do not comprehend on the terms explained by the priests (the scientists) of our day. For them, it may have worked functionally and materially but engaging with the new priesthood is highly demanding of time and energy and intrinsically unsatisfying. Like all belief systems, even science requires an initial act of faith that can have no rational base so why not find another irrational base and see where it leads - so long as you do not try to build an aircraft with it. If the core framework of such attempts depends too often on misreadings and re-readings of texts (such as those of Hermes Trismegistus) outside their original context, one thinker, Jung, was attempting an analogical approach that updated alchemy to the world of analytical psychology.

The Insights of Jung

The interesting and more modern attempt by Jung to demonstrate that alchemy's hermetic language has a 'spiritual' context, an exposure of the Self's access to the collective unconscious, suggests something that might be treated both rationally and artistically. We have here an attempt to synthesise scientific reason (as a mode of thinking) with an exploration of the common psychic heritage of humanity whose drivers are the non-scientific worlds of spirit, magic and art. This is still an analogical use, a doubtful framework, yet Jung is probably correct that alchemy is a useful tool (amongst others) in trying to understand what the grounding for human psychology may be when hard science has reached its limits.

His master work in this respect is 'Psychology and Alchemy' which first appeared in German in 1944 but he wrote on the subject throughout his life from the 1920s until his death. Nevertheless, the introduction to the master work somewhat pre-supposes the 'spiritual' as a really existing concept instead of the less comfortable but more likely thesis that what he is exploring is merely undiscovered and probably undiscoverable science. In short, even here, spiritual alchemy is either a retro-manufactured tool for personal self and social development (whether it uses Western, Tantric or Taoist forms) or it is an exploratory tool for deep psychology into territories where scientific analysis cannot currently and may never go.

Jung, in this respect, takes a wrong turn but a wholly decent one. But, although no one can judge in these matters, the wrong turn is not the analogical use of alchemy as a symbolic path and theory for ‘spiritual’ development. Instead, faced with the failure of scientific method at the limits of human experience, he falls back on the 'spiritual' instead of moving forward (as he had once done in his own 'Red Book') into the territory of art and magic, the occlusive methods for reaching the Self.

What Alchemy Is Today

Alchemy, when it is not early scientific exploration within particular cultural frameworks, is not a matter of the spiritual or of science but of art and creativity, a more disciplined hand-maiden to the repressed sexuality of symbolism and the wild dream world of surrealism. To engage in spiritual alchemy is to add to the armoury of techniques that question the Self (in Jung's more rounded sense of Self) and it provides a framework for psychological self-management, using symbolism that can refer to the otherwise unspeakable.

It is, if you like, a practical and useful psychology of introspection but it cannot be redemptive because there is no redemption, simply different states of being that are more or less resonant or in tune with one’s self. What comparisons of Self and alchemical analogy and between Western and Eastern traditions can do is create an insight into the functioning of mind that no formally analytical mode of research can possibly match.

Analogies between alchemical thought and the process of individuation are never certain or absolute but they hit the ‘spot’ of so many people so often that we are talking of mythic operations that appear somehow biologically grounded. Analytical investigation cannot cope with the scale of humanity and its operations in time and in relation to itself so the theory of archetypes and their repetition in many varied contexts shows us templates, creatively re-imagined under local conditions, which are at the heart of our myths.

The infinite variation of these forms means that there can be no analytical law of archetypes or their operation but there are patterns. Coming to terms as a Self with these patterns, re-imagining them for our circumstances, is also at the heart of our own self-creation. Thus, we come around slowly to a ‘modernisation’ of spiritual alchemy, a process by which we engage with the archetypes, including such process variations as lead-mercury-gold or man-as-machine or software-driving-hardware, and, in critiquing them, we discover ourselves.

Jung’s driver was the search for ‘individuation’ – a concept far more useful than anything using the word ‘spiritual’ which gives excessive ‘reality’ to externalities and their hold over us. If Jung was right that alchemy was a form of proto-psychology (and there is evidence that this may be both true and an over-simplification), then its insights remain useful although the ‘myth of Gnostic survival’ should perhaps be taken less uncritically.

Above all, the simple idea that mercury (that is, the process of communication and flux) will transform our inherited leaden nature into something more individuated is not only intuitively right but interesting to consider in the light of the alchemical power on us of social networking. Social networks are not alchemically irrelevant because if we are conscious of their mercurial effects and make deliberate use of them in that light, we are more likely to become individuated over and against ‘real’ but inherited and enforced social bonds.

This is potentially liberatory, but both anarchic and troubling to traditionalists who may feel more relaxed when they consider that most of the users of facebook will not be seeking gnosis but merely the reinforcement of existing social bonds and attitudes and entertainment. We are probably engaged now in the biggest alchemical experiment in human history with the internet representing the application of mercury to the lead of humanity. The question is open whether this will create social gold or not.