NOTES on ALCHEMYI know I tend to long-windedness, and if I offer a wide view of a thing, this arises from a respect and courtesy owed my reader to attempt to give the best explanation I can. So, in the effort to balance presenting too little against presenting too much—in order to arrive at presenting enough—I have broken down the following into sections. For those only interested in what does alchemy consist of and how does this apply to writing, skip ahead to the section THE PROCESS OF ALCHEMY. After all of that, I try also to describe how this might apply to writing or creativity.
AN IRRESPONSIBLY ULTRAQUICK HISTORYBACKGROUND of A VAST TOPICIn the twentieth century, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung became one of the most deeply read scholars of the 1700 years of European alchemical practice. He undertook this study, which occupied more than 1,000 pages and three books in his output—Psychology and Alchemy (1944), Alchemical Studies (1968), and his last full-length book Mysterium Conuinctionis (1956)—because he saw in European alchemy an analogy the mechanics of the psyche and with the psychology of integration, which forms a centerpiece of his psychological studies generally.
Before going on, I want to say alchemy does not originate with Europe; the word itself derives from Arabic, from its many practitioners, but even amongst them the practice originates further afield, most likely in Egypt. With typical European racism, the tendency in Occidental authors (including Jung) when discussing this involves only going as far back as supposedly Greek texts, which almost certainly means Greek translations of preexisting Arabic or Egyptian texts. Alchemy also flourished during the European period that Jung studies elsewhere in the world in other guises. Besides the historically very recent articulation of the cabala, not only were there Buddhist alchemists in India—not called by that name, of course, and in traditions of Buddhism that have since pretty much long died out—the most enduring form of Indian “alchemy” derives from tantrism (from approximately the eighth century AD onward). On a wider bases, various forms of Gnosticism tend to play well with or wind up closely related to alchemy, alchemy often serving as a kind of applied Gnosticism. I mention all of this only to give a general context for alchemy.
If I would hazard a sort of unifying description for all these forms of alchemy, they involve the transformation of inert matter into magic; amongst the Buddhist alchemists, for instance, it becomes very easy to mistake them for sorcerers. This physical magic of transformation makes it one of the forerunners of chemistry, therefore, and one encounters the stereotypical description of (European) alchemy as the failed and inadequate forerunner of that science.
However, for Jung (and at least for the Indian tantric practitioners, which have some familiarity with) alchemy denotes a spiritual, i.e., psychological, practice of transformation; it involves, in other words, a sacred act. In its European context, it existed at a time when Christian dogma dominated the intellectual landscape, and from time to time Jung waxes amazed at the well-nigh heretical views held by European alchemists, who nonetheless say no contradiction in their (orthodox) Christian beliefs.
Similarly, for ourselves in this secular age, we needn’t see (and in fact I invite us not to see and reject) the “spirituality” implicit in alchemy as heretical or in contradiction with our “rationalist” or “scientific” outlooks. I’ll explain more, using Jung as an example.
THE “PURPOSE” of ALCHEMYAlchemists (everywhere) tend toward solitary practice, or sometimes (as especially in tantrism) with a single sacred partner. For this reason, the “use” to which people have put alchemy, i.e., its purpose, varies necessarily by individual and thus very widely. In the European alchemical texts Jung examines, for instance, even the alchemists make fun of one another (good-naturedly or not) for having a thousand books, none of which any other can understand. And so, recognizing this fact, it becomes perilous to claim to say what the purpose of alchemy might consist of.
What Jung discerns in all of the practitioners of alchemy involves the process of psychological individuation, though he acknowledges that certainly some alchemists seemed more focused on creating a literal Philosopher’s Stone (whatever in the world that might mean, in the final analysis) than changing their own psychology. In other words, Jung interprets the practice of alchemy as a symbolic form of psychological self-investigation that fosters mental health, psychological integration, creativity, peace of mind, and the like. Whether we can defend this interpretation of alchemy as factual or not matters less than if we find it helpful toward our own goals of psychological integration, individuation, mental health, happiness, creativity, interpersonal relating with others, and the like. For the same reason, it doesn’t matter much if we take up any metaphysical commitment to the “magic” of alchemy or see it simply as a “symbolic” process. My experience of people, in any case, suggests that some people must insist that “magic” work while others readily accept that magic happens only “metaphorically”. We don’t need to get in fights with one another either way—we all agree we want the outcome, and we do not need to insist that the language or description we use to get there takes only one form.
So then, the basic purpose of alchemy, which we see in the pre-European, European, and Indian varieties, involves different techniques to “liberate” the spirit “trapped” in matter. In the literal-minded, this specifically involved the redemption of fallen Nature, much as we see in Hasidism, Sufism, and many social mystic practices generally. For the greedy minded, this meant the literal production of gold from lead (or “earth” in its “earthiest” form, feces). For Jung, and definitely some of the European alchemists, this meant the liberation of psychic material from the unconscious in order to transform it (integrate) it into consciousness in a transformative way—generally toward a positive end, like creativity, peace of mind, feeling “centered” and the like. As a matter of principle, Jung gently insisted that the literal minded and the greedy minded themselves, too, sought this psychological end, but did so (as extroverts) by projecting the process more outside of themselves.
A BRIEF ILLUSTRATIONI want to speak briefly about what I call here the psychology of integration (or individuation), from a personal angle. What Jung writes about never involves a “theory”—rather, he provides a descriptive vocabulary for experiences people have had and will continue (as human beings) to have. He could give, and I could give, a rat’s ass about any “theory of neurosis”. Jung himself experienced, for an extended period of time, an intense encounter “with the unconscious” if you will—he didn’t merely expound a theory, he had an experience and attempted to explain it. And it constitutes his generosity and his genius to attempt to find a general expression for the kind of experience he had, and he found the experiences of European alchemists (at least some of them) as very emblematic of the process as well.
Fine, but so what, yes.
Recently, I experienced a literally paradigm-shifting event. Who I “am” has changed—more precisely, I feel more “centered” (I actually don’t like the word centered to describe it, but it conveys, in this short spec, the kind of experience I speak of). While meditating, I had a vision—and that vision changed me. Not unrecognizably, but still fundamentally. Specifically, just so I have a concrete example to work with, the vision consisted of a symbol, a solar hyena: I mean, a blazing sun wheel at the center of which peered out a hyena’s face. I could say a vast deal more about this specific symbol, but I don’t need to here.
Here, alchemy comes in. This psychic material, this vision, which I did not ask to arrive, had (has) a quality like staring into the sun; it threatens (or offers) to overwhelm. Those who have visions know what I mean. Even at a low level of intensity, it tends to preoccupy consciousness. Now, sometimes people repress these things because they don’t want to deal with them, and maybe that works forever, but maybe it works only for a time, and then it comes back. Every day we get visited by minor visions, and most of them (like whims and impulses) disappear back into the unconscious without much fuss. And sometimes even a major vision may disappear back into the ocean of the unconscious without a fuss. But for those visions that persist, that will not stay away for good, that nag and want attention, or simply demand attention whether you will give it or not, to ignore these things ultimately leads (Jung noted) to neurosis, even psychotic episodes, or permanent insanity.
In other words, it becomes necessary to confront, to engage, to acknowledge, or at least finally in some way integrate this symbol, this vision, this visitation, whatever it means. Now, perhaps because I’ve read a ton of Jung, perhaps because at the time of the visitation of the symbol I was writing a blog on the Tarot Sun card, which concerns the emergence of a new consciousness, but I had no trouble recognizing lost the instant I encountered the symbol that things would change for me.
Yay me, whatever. My point: the way Jung conceives of alchemy, it involves fundamentally the tempering, the admixture, of consciousness and material from the unconscious. For all of the minor moments in life, we don’t necessarily need to resort to alchemy, though we might. We might understand even the smallest details in our life as worthy of integration, if we can find or make the time for that. Because, it takes work—doing the magic of making cake (microwaves notwithstanding) takes some time to mix the ingredients together and then the care to ensure the cake doesn’t burn. For Jung, alchemy kicks in in a crisis—because, in general, psychologists only see people when things have gotten bad, when the symbolic content of their psyche has become so dominating that they can no longer function in daily life as they want to, perhaps even to the point of becoming institutionalized.
What I mean to say by this autobiographical anecdote involves stating bluntly: the psychology of integration, which Jung uses the alchemical process to describe, does not involve—or need not involve only—an empty abstraction. We could speak about the process as if it happens to others, an find use in that, but it also applies even more where the rubber hits the road, and I can say from personal experience in the very recent past that this shit works, if you will.
THE PROCESS of ALCHEMYAgain, given the differences in personal practices by alchemists, it become almost laughable to want to talk about the process of alchemy. And, somewhat to my frustration, Jung almost never gets to any clear exposition about this process, spending vastly more time ferreting out the various manifestations of alchemical symbols, which run all over the map. However, this happens (in Jung’s writings) in part because the European alchemists themselves describe the process as it happens to them (or as they do it) and typically do so in symbolic terms, partly because they encounter symbolic content and partly to put their writing in code to avoid persecution by the Christian church.
However, here I provide my stab at describing the process as I glean it from Jung’s books.
The European alchemists variously identified a number of steps in their process, which I will not detail here because the variations hide the forest for the trees; I’ll just say the typical approaches have 3, 4, or 7 steps. I cannot say anything useful about the seven step process, or what its relationship to the 3 or 4 step process consists of—someone, please do some further research for us—but I will speak a little to the three and four step process.
More precisely, it seems the alchemists waffled about whether one needed three or four steps. And, moreover, this all boils down, doesn’t it, to exactly how one identifies an counts these steps in the first place. All the same, part of this ambiguity results from a fundamental idea in alchemy, one that goes back (in the texts) to a fourth century AD Greek one by Zosimos; the idea being: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth”.
On the strength of this idea, which Jung treats as a formula for the process of the psychology of integration, one seems the ambiguity: if what comes out of the third as one really only amounts to one (whether we call it the fourth or not), then have we finished the process already (in three steps).
But, let’s imagine this another way. Imagine a circular clock face. Start at 12 o’clock and proceed around the quarters: first to 3 o’clock, then 6 o’clock, then 9 o’clock. We have now taken three steps, but with the next step we return back where we started. And, in fact, we might note the curiosity that we start at 12 o’clock (not zero or even one o’clock). Hence, out of our third step comes the one (the beginning again) as the fourth. So the “mystery” here arises because the process consists of a circular one.
Let’s take another step back. I start from whatever state of consciousness I currently occupy. This moment does not denote a “beginning”; I already exist as a creature in time. If I imagine tracing a pencil around a circle, just as I can call any point where I might start “its beginning” at the same moment that “beginning” represents the “end” of any previous loop I drew. So any “now” from which I move forward into a future already denotes a “then” also, as the end of whatever previous journey I already took.
So, I start from whatever state of consciousness I currently occupy—and then, through whatever processes of transformation I experience, however many the steps, I wind up ultimately where I began—at my current state of consciousness—but changed also by the transformation.
And. Of course, someone might say: “But, at each step along the way, don’t you come to occupy a ‘current state of consciousness’ as well?” Yes. If alchemical transformation overall involves four steps, we can understand each step itself as a transformation as well.
And so what mattes in this involves it being a sequence of transformations, and it also involves that different kinds of transformation happen in the sequence.
But I don’t know how helpful it gets to bog down too much in such details—or at least the justification for using such terminology. We can find in this that charming linguistic paradox: we realize we always exist “here” and “now” in which case how do we ever “transit” from this “now” to another “now” or from one “here” to another “here”. Linguistically, we cannot get “there” from “here”. &c.
We see this proposes a problem in language, and I say that the formula of integration above leans on or participates in that language problem. But we experience this strangeness. How does “one” change into someone else? In this, while “something” changes, at the same time, something remained the same, otherwise I would not know myself (and you would not know me) after such a change.
Let’s leave that conundrum for now, though.
Whether in three or four steps, whether bogged down in a linguistic paradox or not, one may still sketch in, in a rough way, the steps the alchemists would follow.
The process, in its most abstract description, involves the transformation of the prima material (the prime material) into the lapis philosophorum (the philosopher’s stone); more precisely, it involves the liberation of the spirit within the prime mineral so that the philosopher’s stone manifests.
Jung takes this all in a psychological sense. The prime material indicates my current state of consciousness, which includes my unconscious (though my unconscious, of course, remains invisible to me).
The first step—all of the steps have many names; I will stick with just one set—involves the “blackening”. In its most general sense, this involves a breaking down of the current state of things—you can imagine it literally as busting rocks to get out the gems or precious ore inside.
In psychological practice, this breaking down may already have happened, in a literal mental break down. When manifest psychic material enters our consciousness unbidden—as when we have a vision (although “visions” do not have to occur only visually, often they manifest as overwhelming feelings, impulses, &c)—and threatens or offers to overwhelm us, this already represents an involuntary version of the alchemist’s blackening. The prime material of our consciousness disintegrates under some kind of mental pressure that has brought forth the still raw ore of unconscious material.
The second step involves the “whitening”—and seems mostly simply understood as “washing” the rough ore liberated by the blackening. So, we break some rocks, and then have to “wash” the ore of any bits of still clinging rock. We might do this by more chiseling, we might do this literally with water, it might require a different solution, like acid, or whatnot. If the “stuff” we want to work with already consists of a fluid (like salt water), then we may need a process of distillation to remove the salt from the water, &c. Alchemists resorted to all sorts of terms along these lines—the ablution (washing), the solutio (soluting)—etc.
In psychological terms, this involves engaging and handling the psychically exposed material. First, we had a vision, and now we try to (as the handling metaphor has it) come to grips with it. If I might insert a touch of my own interpretation into this process, I would say that at this point we append a significance to it, a meaning.
For instance, I had/have a vision of a solar hyena; what does that mean? But generally, as writers and artists and creators, we all from time to time have “inspirations”—ideas that “appear” in our heads out of nowhere; ideas that captivate us, that make us want to write them down, &c. Or we have visions, that call us to change, to change the world. But those inspirations do not have a meaning yet; they appear in our heads, somewhat like uninvited alien beings, and we say—sometimes extremely quickly, but sometimes only very slowly—what the hell? What is that? And then quickly or gradually we ascribe a meaning to it.
Psychologically, ascribing a meaning to our inspirations, to our visions, to our unbidden psychic contents, denotes the alchemical phase of “whitening”.
The third step—generally accorded the greatest importance by alchemists and Jung—involves the “reddening” or the heating.
We tend to forget how weird fire is. We have become so accustomed to food preparation, that the weirdness of what happens in the process of cooking has disappeared. One simply has to imagine eating raw meat or cooked meat to get the “magic” of fire back into the picture. However tasty raw cow tastes, cooked steak rocks, &c. Or, perhaps even more impressively, the difference between flour, water, yeast (a little salt) and bread can astonish.
On a physical interpretation, fire itself makes an extremely literal image of transformation: burning wood turns into heat, light, sound. But for the alchemists, fire (heating, cooking, warming) more involves what happens when we make a cake—the transformation of a bunch of ingredients into something delicious and otherly.
I will stick with the notion of “cooking” because I think it gets best at what goes on here. Particularly in the sense that one combines multiple ingredients. That’s key here, because what this means, psychologically, involves the combination of (the cooking) of the unconscious material and the preexisting state of consciousness. This involves when the “vision” gets mixed in with one’s current mind or, alternatively, when one’s current mind “stews” in the juice of the vision.
In Jung’s psychotherapeutic practice, this “heating up” this “cooking” involved using one’s imagination (in conversation with the therapist) to “up the ante” on the manifest psychic content (that had become troubling). Instead of pushing it away or trying to explain it away, he would encourage the client to give the thing enough imaginative life to express itself. (This might still occur within the “whitening” phase.) So that in stewing over the material, the changes to consciousness occur with less destructive force, so that the image co-exists with having a life not undesirably distorted or skewed by the content in the present world. &c.
ALCHEMY & CREATIVITYAs a psychologist, Jung typically saw clients who had experienced involuntarily the manifestation of strong psychic content, whether in visual form as a vision or in uncontrollable impulses that were causing problems in their life. So he encountered clients who had already experienced the blackening phase of alchemy, as Jung understood it. And his process then involved the whitening and reddening phases, as part of an attempt to integrate that involuntary psychic material into one’s life. Jung saw the imagination as absolutely essential to that process.
For artists—as artists, to whatever degree we feel comfortable describing ourselves as such—we often have inspirations—visual, musical, &c—and then we set about trying to find a meaning or significance for it (whitening) and then concoct (cook) it in a form that exists in the world, as a piece of art, an offering. And we know, from the thousands of books on the creative process, that is about as varied as as not-subject-to-generalization as the alchemical process experienced by European alchemists.
I understand art particularly as a (deliberate) combination of disparate (selected) elements that composes a new meaning in society. In this respect, alchemy is (in Jung’s) description literally an art, and the alchemists often referred to it as such.
A very, very non-negligible point in this. Jung speaks continuously that one cannot “force” the Unconscious, at least as far as psychological practice goes. The material that the unconscious kicks up emerges as a symbol, and we do not make symbols, we only encounter them. If we try to make them up, we makes signs or slogans, and they might have some power, but not the particular transformative power of symbols.
In artistic terms, we might say we cannot force creativity either. But the alchemists may suggest otherwise to us. Definitely, many of them were very finely tracking their own psychological development—that the very act of doing alchemy, wandering in the world of its seemingly numberless symbols and, in particular, writing down a description of the experience, seems to have activated further psychological development. But we might also say that the process of alchemy could serve as a process for inducing creativity.
More specifically, I could not ahead of time concocted my vision of a solar hyena—and nothing says that that vision, even were I to represent it to you, would have the numinous power it does for me. Maybe, maybe not. The point, in any case: it would not have occurred to me to think it up beforehand. I had to discover it; I could not have composed it. And even if I drew an accurate picture of it, it would still yet not have the power it does for me. No problem.
But, now that I have this vision, now that I have found myself inspired to write a couple of poems about it, those “integrations” of the symbol into my consciousness may serve—kind of like feedback loop—to stimulate further activity. I can acknowledge my inability to “start” the process, but this doesn’t mean I have nothing to do to keep the process rolling.
But more than this: in principle, anything from the Unconscious can provide grist for integration. I mentioned before the daily small things that mostly just disappear all over again. But instead of letting those small things go away, we can recognize that—though small—they still comprise the stuff we can practice creativity on, can practice alchemy on. Seeing these little things—these impulses, these whims, these fleeting thoughts even—as tiny little moments of blackening, that we might then subject to whitening (refinement) and cooking (creatively) as a work of art, a poem, a short story, a knitted scarf, a new dish of food, &c.
Sometimes, when I hear people talk about Enlighten, I think of the Buddha’s—the whole light going on all at once and permanently—and I think, “Well, jeez. That won’t happen to me, probably.” And so, when I’m looking for the big one, I miss all the little ones going on continuously around me all the time. I can take that same attitude toward creativity. If I’m waiting for some big inspiration that’ll inspire me to write the next great novel or whatnot, and I’m feeling uncreative because that hasn’t happened, then I blind myself to all of the sweet effervescences of daily creativity perpetually available to me at every moment.
So why not apply the alchemical process to that, especially since applying that process almost surely adds inputs and creates feedback loops back into unconscious that might (will?) serve ultimately as one of the sparks to a major revelation. I can find, for instance, all sorts of “inputs” that led to the emergence of the solar hyena, none of which I would have predicted had any input-value.
For the step of the “blackening,” proposes to look at the offerings of the unconscious, most obviously in dreams as a source, but also in all of the little things in daily life that normally fall to the wayside of consciousness. If I find myself passingly attracted to someone, perhaps I can treat that as a moment for engaging with it creatively. At this point, I feel in no position to try to distinguish between “an offering of the unconscious” versus something different from that that might not “benefit” from a creative treatment. Perhaps, in practice, they end up indistinguishable. What I more want to emphasize: because we so often look for inspiration only in certain ways or certain forms, this moment of blackening offers us to look for the opportunity for creativity in, say, this old nail hole in the wall to my left.
With the process, then, of whitening, we imaginatively engage this “offering” we encounter, we treat it as a captivating symbol—or at least a symbol, even if its force of captivity seems minimal. To give one example of what this might mean: the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han describes as part of mindfulness “looking deeply”. By this, we invite ourselves not to see objects as such, but see their interrelationship in the world. Thus, instead of this soup spoon, I may imagine the people who mined its metal, the people who carried and shipped it, the ship on which it moved, the factory that produced it and all of the people within, the person who bought it and brought it to this cafe, and the person who cleaned it for me that I might use it. And finally, after taking a bite of delicious lentil soup, I even accidentally manage to see my face reflected in it. No mere soup spoon at all. I might do something similar with the nail hole in the wall to my left: how did it get there? Did art once hang here? Why has no one ever repaired it?
Looking deeply only describes one way I might engage with “offerings from the unconscious”—I haven’t even attempted to answer “why did this nail hole capture my attention”; how does the neglect I discern toward it relate to any sense of neglect in me? Why the soup spoon—although, I think the punch line (of seeing myself reflected in it)—might already answer that question.
Already, I imagine that you can imagine stories one might tell, poems one might write—about interconnectedness on the one hand or alienation in modern life on the other. But, just as Jung and the European alchemists placed the greatest premium on the reddening, the cooking, because the involuntary character of the blackening (typically) and the often extremely fast ascription of a meaning or a significance in the whitening have a tendency to happen “automatically,” then the critical moment involves putting the rubber to the road, the actual work of cooking, of integration.
Again, cooking seems like such a good metaphor. Though a watched pot never boils, when one cooks, it involves an iterative process. One follows a sequence, n then, as the cooking proceeds, one must add more of this, some of that to offset something else. It takes care. The legitimate objection to microwaves means no love goes into the cooking. No care. Who wants careless food? It means taking seriously the process. It means, also, that you will offer me (all of us) a tasty dish—not some slapdash shit you wouldn’t want to eat yourself.
It’s easy to crack a bag of chips and offer me a beer—nothing of you appears in that gesture, really, so you have no ownership or sociability. Such carelessness has the luxury of easiness, but in the process everything beloved and valuable in food (and art) goes out the window.
So we can’t kid around with the reddening. This involves where the food (the poem) I give you does implicate me. It may turn out my food (my poem) tastes more complex than you like—we all have different palates—but perhaps a part of my blackening involves learning how to cook also what you like, and for you to cook what I like &c. Because the growth alchemy promises arises, most of all, in integrating that which we previously rejected, right?