For many years, my own perception of alchemy was of a primitive branch of science that was essentially closer to witchcraft than to chemistry. The precepts of alchemy, as I had learned them, pertained to the pursuit of three grails: the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elixir of Life, and the Emerald Tablet. It was believed that the Philosopher’s Stone could be created through the successive refinement and recombination of certain mineral compounds to a point where a truly superior compound emerged. This compound—the stone—was said to have properties that, when combined in the correct proportion, could turn any metal into gold. The Elixir of Life, like its name,was not only rumored to render its owner immortal, it was also said to create life—as in the case of Enoch and quite possibly the Golem. As for the Emerald Tablet, there are both speculative and substantiated descriptions that have been handed down through history. In terms of the speculative, the tablet is said to contain the most fundamental truths of the universe in a prose so simple it may be written on the face of an emerald. In terms of the substantiated, there are various translations of an ‘original translation’ of the tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Among the second-hand translators one will find a certain Sir Isaac Newton who is said to have considered alchemy as his principal vocation—before physics.
At some point in time I became fascinated with the highly pictorial illustrations of the alchemical or Hermetic tradition. As I began to explore this world in greater detail I began to gain insight into the spiritual nature of the discipline. As with any value system borne of the human condition, one can find the commingling of great complexity and utter simplicity. In the spirit of keeping things simple I will try to reduce the alchemical agenda to a simple analogy. To do so I will recall the most fundamental goal of all Freemasons: the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple. Not unlike alchemy—from which much of the Freemason tradition was derived—masonic culture relied heavily upon metaphor to delineate its message. While many have speculated upon the meaning of ‘rebuilding Solomon’s temple’, it is generally understood to reflect the commitment of the craftsman or the artisan to strive for greatness in every work as if their efforts were directed entirely towards this single goal. This sensibility of pursuing excellence or even purity of heart and spirit through one’s vocation or trade, comes directly out of the alchemical tradition whereby the practice of refining and purifying compounds had a corresponding relation to the refinement and purification of oneself.
If one one single theme could be said to prevail over all others within the labyrinthine realm of alchemy it would be that of transformation. Clearly the stone, the elixir, and the tablet are each saturated in transformative potential. This transformative potential is further crystalized by the notion that these ‘things’ are not as they seem but rather metaphors for something greater—something more profound whereby earthy pursuits (riches, youth, and power) allude to some nobler agenda. One point I would like to make here is that when metaphors are applied in the Hermetic tradition, both the signifier and that which is signified have equal legitimacy. For example, in the case of transforming a lesser metal to a higher metal, the physical act is of equal value to the spiritual act. In point of fact, one is contingent upon the other. In other words, one must be seeking to purify one’s own self (psyche / heart / soul, etc.) in order to purify the compound or vice versa. Historically, scientific scholars have emphasized the empirical act over the spiritual whereas esoteric scholars have frequently adopted the inverse position.
That said, the premise of this conversation will be aimed at exploring something of a ‘reconciled’ approach to the physical and spiritual alchemical modes. In my own personal case, the physical act is equated with the creative act–not to be confused with the creative idea. This act is typically manifested in one of two forms: literary works and visual works. The spiritual act is typically manifested in the form of my meditation practice which does in fact encompass a physical component as mine is a ‘walking meditation’. At the same time I would argue that there is definitely a spiritual component inherent in the physical acts. In any case, my postings within this category will be aimed at exploring the work of others, those who have inspired me, in the hope that they might do the same for you.
Of course some might ask: why is any of this relevant in this day and age? After all, Sir Isaac Newton’s greatest contributions were to Science not to Alchemy; in actuality he was something of a failure as an alchemist. While I have no intention of exploring the merits of metallurgy (in any way, shape or form), I am of the belief that the pursuit of a certain universal knowledge is an absolutely worthwhile pursuit. In The Present Age, Soren Kierkegaard stated: [ours] “is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.” This quote is as valid today as it was in the mid-nineteenth century–no doubt even more so. In this context, it is critical for individuals to understand that the search for meaning must begin from within. Clearly there are forces at work in the world that would like to sell us who we are and what we need (to buy). And yet, the world has a role to play in our individual paths to affirmation. It is after all our native habitat. Once upon a time, we had a much greater relationship with our environs both in the natural world and the places and traditions we inherited from our ancestors. I would argue that the practitioners of the Hermetic tradition were equally grounded in their reverence for the Creator and Creation. This is where what Jung referred to as the creative or active imagination comes into play.
And this is where our conversation begins.
Full from the energy of nature—walking with complete and total confidence but not from ego, from something within. And yet the confidence doesn’t belong to you; it is not of you. It simply fills you—gives your body purpose. You are all things at once yet separate and uniquely you. Everything makes perfect sense.
Setting down one’s fears, one’s preconceptions and prejudices. Walking down an unknown path. Accepting that it is folly to make assumptions about all that is familiar. Walking through life with all our constructed realities—believing them to be the steady we can count on…until something goes wrong—and something will go wrong, eventually—but until then we can take solace in their constant companionship.
Set it down. Set. It. Down. Freedom awaits.
Move. Somehow—move. But don’t flee! Move towards it as if towards your lover—your lover, the unknown but somehow so familiar. Move towards the burning Sun and the midnight path. Color must be known as well at night as it is during the day. Life must be known in the darkness as much as in lightness. The Sun and the Moon—Peter’s “partners in light, separating, reflecting, one light”; Klimt’s madness for light and shadow; Mayakashpa’s single bloom.
I can remember when I was a boy. Playing some sport or another. My shoelace would become loosened but not undone. I would play until I could bear it no more and then I would stop to tie my shoe. My god how good it felt afterwards. I was reinvigorated. I played with increased energy and resolve. So often I move through life with shoes loosened but not untied. At some point I stopped paying attention. I really must remember to tighten my laces more frequently.
Autumn’s evening—not to be wasted! Not even in April.