Image and Will in alchemy

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As a scientific technologist with >40 years of experience in my field I have become more and more convinced that elements of WILL facilitate some chemical interactions. Many's the time I've watched one person preparing all the constituents of a complex solution and ending with something which didn't work. Another worker doing the same process got excellent results, both used the same process. Why? Classic examples are techniques involving impregnation of nervous tissue with heavy metals for detailed study of thin sections of such tissue. (Neurohistology) In classrooms where the techniques are taught allowance was often made for a proportion of failures in the processes. Everyone started with identically prepared tissue and solutions from a common stock. Same room, same temperature, same protocols. So how come some obtained superb results while others got a black mess?
Carelessness? Not really most of those people were diligent students. Once again why? Same goes for the precise preservation of material intended for transmission electrom microscopy. Some get excellent results with standard protocols, others don't. Experienced professionals in the field also experience the frustration of failures for no apparent reason. I have always made a point of thinking positively when involved in such work, giving it intense concentration, trying to visualise the structures I wish to study. I seem to do O.K. Is mental attitude and concentration a more important factor in this work than is generally accepted? Were our old time predecessors correct after all about that effort of will? Any thoughts? Comments?
Best regards
Tom Mc Rae


Tom McRae suggests that will, concentration and imagery can affect chemical processes. This might be the case, but I suspect that `physical' alchemy is somewhat more complex.
It would for instance be simple for the most un-esoteric chymist to write, you must visualise and will the result. But none (as far as i am aware) do. Likewise there is the message that one can only make gold after the desire to make gold has been given up. (In this there appears a radical disjunction between alchemy and magick)
Also the texts tend to be luxurient in images, which certainly implies visualising, but it is an indirect kind of visualising.
i.e. no-one expects the mercury to look like a lion or whatever -though it might resemble a lion in some way.
So what is the function of the image within the work?
Certainly it may be that images have effects, and thus can be worked outside the context of the `physical work', and apparantly with some success, But I think, and I'm hesitant here, that it is more to provide a certain kind of concentrated suspension, within which the substance can manifest in the way that it is already inclined.
"nature seeks to make gold"- not the alchemist bending nature but helping, clearing (implications of Heidegger) a space within which the process can occurr.
But what do others think.

1) is the function of the will in alchemy?
2) is the function of the image?
Jon Marshall

The will I leave to others, but the image seems to me to be clearly intended for use in conjunction with the art of memory. Many of the alchemical manuscripts seem to my eye to be memorial cues for information, maps of how concepts articulate (based on the images as representations of informational and experiential structures), as well as standard emblematic allegories.
Have any of the other Alchemy forum participants worked with the Art of Memory as the source of many alchemical techniques?

Regards,

Oliver Perrin
Semyaza@alamut.is.net

I confess that I haven't done the work, but I also have been struck by the similarity between some forms of alchemical imagery and the art of memory, particularly given the way the ars seems to have been a transformational way of cosmic relation. but I am unsure how to proceed with this idea of yours with respect to any particular text, or series of texts.
So I would be enormously interested in any details or suggestions you, or anyone else, might have.

Jon Marshall

John Marshall asks, what:

> 1) is the function of the will in alchemy?
> 2) is the function of the image?

I propose that -- like the hermetic vessel in which the opus is carried out -- alchemical work is thoroughly paradoxical. I suggest, accordingly, that alchemical action entails a willing that is _not_ willing. This brings to mind the "not doing" of Taoism. Marie-Louise von Franz, for one, indeed reports a connection between Taoist and alchemical action structures (see her NUMBER AND TIME). I also am reminded of Heidegger's "gedanc," a medieval German word which he interprets as connoting a thinking that is also feeling, a thinking/thanksgiving that is both active and passive at the same time.
As for the role of the image in alchemy, I would propose that alchemical imagination also is paradoxical, entailing a "seeing that is no-seeing." The quoted phrase is found in Zen writing, suggesting another link with the East. Similarly, alchemical hearing would be a "hearing that is no-hearing," as in listening to the "silent music of the spheres."
Another way to talk about all this would be to say that alchemical operations are _archetypal_. Here I use the term 'archetype' not in the Platonic sense of a fixed invisible template that pre-determines the manifestation of visible forms, but in the sense of a primordial _action_ that supersedes the very division of visible and invisible, objective and subjective, etc. I recognize that I would have to say a lot more about this to make it intelligible, but I have probably said quite enough for now.

Yours,
Steven Rosen

One of the best examples in print I know are reproductions of a series of 16th century German woodcuts in Bob Black's 'History of Alchemy'. Most definitely evocative of the processes if looked at with a correct attitude.
Unfortunately Bob's book is currently restricted to we members of The Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. The Society published it some years back and I am trying to get it released to the wider public it so justly merits. Will keep you posted but if any of you British participants know Bob Gilbert well you could discuss the matter with him.
As to the will, I am convinced it has an important role to play. I think Crowley's definition of magick sums it up, I would paraphrase this as..the science of affecting change in some aspect of the physical environment by the exercise of the will alone. Looking at some Golden Dawn processes, they certainly seem to have looked on the will as being of importance in their protocols. Black spells out one of those in detail in his book with processes such as setting the base solution on a flashing tablet, exposed to sunlight for a specific number of days during which time rituals were also performed.
Mention was made by someone in an earlier mailing of the sulphur, mercury, etc used in alchemical processes being purely symbolical names for other substances. This was certainly not always the case as we see from Vaughan's disastrous distillation at Oxford I mentioned earlier. Many of those early workers martyred themselves through working with substances about which they knew little or nothing. In doing so they laid the foundations on which modern science was built, we owe them a great debt.
Regards
Tom Mc Rae

Dear Steven,

Thank you for your interesting post. If I may attempt to respond point by point:

>I propose that -- like the hermetic vessel in which the opus is
>carried out -- alchemical work is thoroughly paradoxical. I suggest,
>accordingly, that alchemical action entails a willing that is _not_
>willing. This brings to mind the "not doing" of Taoism. Marie-Louise
>von Franz, for one, indeed reports a connection between Taoist and
>alchemical action structures (see her NUMBER AND TIME). I also am
>reminded of Heidegger's "gedanc," a medieval German word which
>he interprets as connoting a thinking that is also feeling, a
>thinking/thanksgiving that is both active and passive at the same
>time.

It has been my experience that the process of thinking itself (for which English posseses too few, and far too ambiguous a group of words) fails to grasp that which it purports to pursue. For this reason a gnostic experience of the concepts, ideas and memories within is necessary. By gnostic experience I refer to those instances in which one becomes the object contemplated as well as its surroundings, and during which the realizations which occur actually change the object's form. Of course "Wu Wei" partakes of a similar fence straddling. Does this correlate with what you have reference to?

>As for the role of the image in alchemy, I would propose that
>alchemical imagination also is paradoxical, entailing a "seeing that
>is no-seeing." The quoted phrase is found in Zen writing, suggesting
>another link with the East. Similarly, alchemical hearing would be a
>"hearing that is no-hearing," as in listening to the "silent music of
>the spheres."

This seems to draw in and relate the sensory aspects of what you had reference to above, and it appears that it should follow quite naturaly from what you have asserted. The synaesthetic impression of the memory image serves to hieghten the sense of paradox with which the reason is confronted. In the state of gnosis the seemingly paradoxical elements of the constellated form are wed. Unfortunately, given their origin and their nature the senses report the experience as see/not see and hear/not hear.
Whether or not this suggests a traceable link with the Orient, or rather, to paraphrase Terence, that "since I am a man, nothing of the hman condition is foreign to me," I do not know.

>Another way to talk about all this would be to say that alchemical
>operations are _archetypal_. Here I use the term 'archetype' not in
>the Platonic sense of a fixed invisible template that pre-determines
>the manifestation of visible forms, but in the sense of a primordial
>_action_ that supersedes the very division of visible and invisible,
>objective and subjective, etc. I recognize that I would have to say
>a lot more about this to make it intelligible, but I have probably
>said quite enough for now.

It is indeed said that the image precedes the realm of manifestation. This is why I have taken such interest in the works of Ibn al-Arabi and various other Islamic writers who touch upon the Mundus Imaginalis. At the same time you may be interested in the relationships within their theology between the absolute and relative natures of existence (God if you will) and the fact that the one is bt the face of the other, no matter from which direction you approach. That is of course, if you are not familiar with it already.

Just a few ideas that may fit into the true Magnum Opus...

Sincerely,

Oliver Perrin
Semyaza@alamut.is.net

From: Flamel@aol.com

From my perspective, the alchemy's central theme is that it is an opus. It is a kind of "operational mythology," a doing something with the psyche. It is one of the finest examples in Western culture of the intuitions of a group of individuals who were seeking the highest potential in humankind - in its fullest development and individuality. As a psychologist, IMHO, what the alchemists sought to achieve was a living relationship with the substances of their matter - those elements, functions or principles of metals they perceived reacting within their flasks once they located the prima materia, the basic stuff of matter. Once they located the prima materia, they then subjected it to the right operations in the hopes of creating a miraculous substance, a transcendent entity.
Indeed, the question about the function of image in alchemy raises, for me, the whole question of why bother to study alchemy at all? What's the point?
As a psychologist, for me, alchemy is a kind of empirical research into the illustrious symbols and images of the psyche and the transformations of energy - what Jung has termed the individuation process - in as near a raw form as one could get it in Western culture. Unbeknownst to most modern individuals, these images and "operations" appear quite regularly and uniformly in their dreams. Since it is impossible to establish the full range of meaning of a psychic image from the associative material of a single individual, although it is of importance to do this for practical therapeutic purposes, for this purpose I turn to those periods in human history when symbol formation still went on unimpeded, that is, when there was no epistemological criticism of the formation of images, and when, in consequence, facts that in themselves were unknown could be expressed in definite visual form. The period of this kind closest to us is that of medieval alchemy. Here, as in a reservoir, were collected the most enduring and the most important mythologems (i.e., psychic images) of the ancient world.
By "no epistemological criticism," I mean only that fantasy was at liberty - the outer world (the phenomena) was described by the categories of one's own fantasy - we can't do that anymore - by in large, we have an epistemological curtain, so to speak. The distinction is made between the subjective and objective sources of data. For the most part, alchemists lacked that - their fantasy flowed freely into their descriptions. The result is this vast panorama of psychic images that unfolds before us. For me, this extraordinary treasurehouse depicts the transformations of energy in the psyche.
I would like to hear from others on the list about how they feel about the significance of the study of alchemy today. Is it a personal issue and/or a professional or scholarly matter, etc.? Why bother?
Having stated my own bias, Jon Marshall's more specific question in his post on June 14th about the function of image "within the work" itself reminds me of the concept of *meditatio* which I will post separately.
Hoping this contributes to the discussion,


Dear Oliver,

In response to my post on "I wonder," you wrote:

> It has been my experience that the process of thinking itself (for which
> English posseses too few, and far too ambiguous a group of words) fails to
> grasp that which it purports to pursue. For this reason a gnostic
> experience of the concepts, ideas and memories within is necessary. By
> gnostic experience I refer to those instances in which one becomes the
> object contemplated as well as its surroundings, and during which the
> realizations which occur actually change the object's form. Of course "Wu
> Wei" partakes of a similar fence straddling. Does this correlate with what
> you have reference to?

If I am properly understanding you, my answer would be 'yes'; what you say about "gnostic experience" does seem to correlate with what I was trying to indicate. Another way to put it is that alchemical/gnostic work was/is not limited by the post-Rennaisance exoteric division of subject and object. And this merging of subject and object seems very much part of the Taoist way of operating as well.

> The synaesthetic impression of the memory
> image serves to hieghten the sense of paradox with which the reason is
> confronted. In the state of gnosis the seemingly paradoxical elements of
> the constellated form are wed. Unfortunately, given their origin and their
> nature the senses report the experience as see/not see and hear/not hear.
> Whether or not this suggests a traceable link with the Orient, or rather,
> to paraphrase Terence, that "since I am a man, nothing of the hman
> condition is foreign to me," I do not know.

I agree that synaesthesia likely plays a role in alchemical/gnostic experience. And yes, such awareness is awareness from within coniunctio, an awareness that looks to be _merely_ paradoxical from the outside. As for your last point, it appears there _are_ traceable links with the Orient, and these links may be based on the common human substrate to which Terrence was referring.

> It is indeed said that the image precedes the realm of manifestation. This
> is why I have taken such interest in the works of Ibn al-Arabi and various
> other Islamic writers who touch upon the Mundus Imaginalis. At the same
> time you may be interested in the relationships within their theology
> between the absolute and relative natures of existence (God if you will)
> and the fact that the one is bt the face of the other, no matter from which
> direction you approach. That is of course, if you are not familiar with it
> already.

Interestingly, I am currently corresponding with an Indian psychologist on the possibility of building a bridge between Western humanistic/existential psychology and Sufi spirituality. So your reference to Islamic theology is very meaningful to me. And I do see much value in the notion of the interpenetration of the absolute and the relative.
Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting response to my post.

Sincerely,
Steve Rosen

Oliver wrote

>It is indeed said that the image precedes the realm of manifestation. This
>is why I have taken such interest in the works of Ibn al-Arabi and various
>other Islamic writers who touch upon the Mundus Imaginalis. At the same
>time you may be interested in the relationships within their theology
>between the absolute and relative natures of existence (God if you will)
>and the fact that the one is bt the face of the other, no matter from which
>direction you approach. That is of course, if you are not familiar with it
>already.

If I may take the liberty here of refering people to works I'm sure they already know: Henry Corbin "Creative Imagination in the sufism of Ibn`Arabi", "Avicenna and the Visionary Recital"& William Chittick "The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al `Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination"
To some extent i have an epistermological problem here.
It seems to me that the Mundus Imaginalis is constructed in sufism, however vaguely after the `sensual world' ie we *look out* at it, when in fact it is a world that shapes us, that we in a sense *look from*
Even for Jung in the Mysterium there is the hint that the archetypes are cosmic forces from which we and the `material world' arise from. we can never see them, as such, we can only see there effects which include our lookings. and which we can `use' or be `used by' to work transmutations at all `levels'.

Jon Marshall

Jon:
I have selected the following from another post of mine to a different list but which seems especially pertinent to your epistemological concerns--
".... it would appear to me that (Sheldrake's) "nonlocal informational fields" is redundant of what Artistotle meant by entelechia, or Plato's archetypal intelligibles. The term "nonlocal informational fields" is indeed an oxymoron since "nonlocal" means acausal and not limited to time and space whereas "field" indicates just that, time and space! The ancient philosophers were not subject to this tautological dilemma simply because they recognized the realm of Being (which we would call absolutely "nonlocal" but which in fact intends "Eternity.") and the realm of Becoming that is conditional and subject to change, transformation and evolution. This is the big problem in the modern post-Darwinian understanding of Evolution--a concept of Being is dumped and in having been done renders all logical discourse tautological; that is, where the conditional realm of Becoming is made self-predicating.
Notably, "It" (as thing) is because it is, when in fact the old philosophers fully understood that only the realm of Being (of entelechia and archetypos) may be self-predicated without committing the epistemological boner of tautology.

Bernard X. Bovasso

Maury writes:

> >By "no epistemological criticism," I mean only that fantasy was at
>liberty - the outer world (the phenomena) was described by the categories of
>one's own fantasy - we can't do that anymore - by in large, we have an
>epistemological curtain, so to speak. The distinction is made between the
subjective
>and objective sources of data. For the most part, alchemists lacked that
>- their fantasy flowed freely into their descriptions. The result is this
>vast panorama of psychic images that unfolds before us. For me, this
>extraordinary treasurehouse depicts the transformations of energy in the
psyche.

Maury:
I believe you are overlooking the phenomenon of Modern Art and "abstract" painting, and some approaches developed by painters and sculptors. What the alchemist did in his workshop in a process of transmuting substances according to certain chemical and mechanical reactions, the painter does on canvas where certain "accidents" of color, form, texture, etc. do in effect autonomously configure certain abstract and imaginal relations that are distinctly of a psychic nature. What you call an "epistemological curtain" I recognize in my own work and teaching ( I am a painter) as simply the overbearing and ubiquious presence of the modern ego. But I do not believe that the alchemist was any less blocked because his registers of consciousness were certainly loaded with the imaginal paradigms of religion, philosophy and a groping understanding of chemistry. The blocking capacity of such obdurate imaginal paradigms was no different than the epistemological curtain. In the modern case the ego is over-qualified in personalistic paradigms which are just as obdurate. Accordingly, in my own practice (of painting) or when teaching, I have evolved a method of penetrating past such barriers and in effect lowering the ego so that a spontaneous flow takes place. Ordinarilly and from a psychological standpoint, lowering of the ego may precipitate a flow of unconscious contents that may be alarming. But there is a difference between the alchemist (and modern painter) from someone suffering a pathological dissolution of consciousness. The alchemist and the painter are able to invest such contents in material substance. Each have a ready prima materia (paint, canvas, chemicals, etc.) which effectively serves as a buffer by which consciousness and the unconscious are co-mingled. It is much like the alchemist beholding his cucurbita, a flask where such things as the coniunctio of the twins, or sponsus and sponsa, took place. In other words, the cucurbita, like the canvas, serves as a channeled (and hence safe) agency by which the projection is received and performs. Because this buffer is virtually an Other (to himself) it serves as a container, or vas, a projected interiority that provisionally (during the creative experience) separates itself form the artist.
In view of your query, I thought you may have been interested--if you are not already aware- of the modern alternatives to the alchemical process.
Bernard X. Bovasso

Dear Maury,

Your post of July 17 was of considerable interest to me. I'd planned a longer, more systematic response but we are gearing up for a trip to Germany and the Czech Republic, so time is short. (I noted with interest that another of the Network's participants is also headed for the Czech Republic. Maybe we'll run into each other at one of those alchemical sites!)

Two points:
1) Your comment about the mythic-imagistic functioning of alchemists reminded me of the work of the Swiss cultural philosopher, Jean Gebser. He spoke of several "structures of consciousness," one of which was the mythic. In fact, Gebser spoke of the need to _integrate_ these modalities. Therefore, rather than adopting the mythic-imagistic attitude alone, it would come to interpenetrate with what Gebser calls the mental-rational structure -- that is, with the post- Rennaisance, subject-object splitting, Cartesian modality.
2) You asked why we bother studying alchemy. Do we do it for personal reasons? For professional/scholarly reasons? For me, the alchemical mode is one in which the personal and professional_meet_, in which the normal split between them in our Cartesian world is superseded.
Anyway, I wanted to say something in response to your post, even though I have precious little time for it. Be back in early August.

Steve Rosen

Steve,

Thank you for your response.

Yes, you raise a good point about the various structures of consciousness and their integration. I have a cursory knowledge of Gebser's work. I have been very impressed with the profoundity of his thinking (_Ever-Present Origin_). In fact, since Gebser is so rarely mentioned, I have often wondered what others have thought of his work. Along with Gebser, Erich Neumann and Frederick Van Scheltema have postulated an evolution of consciousness that culminated in post-Renaissance modern rational culture.
As I recall, Gebser views the evolution into the mythological frame of reference as a step into a first sense of inwardness and personal separateness from what is now conceived as an outer, object world. As you say, existence is split in two. The individual feels an identity separate from others and the world at large. If I remember, Gebser draws attention to the fact that in the words "I am Odysseus," *I am* occurs for the first time of which we have record (Don't have my Gebser in front of me so I can't be sure of this). Didn't he view this as a step toward a first awareness of the soul itself having taken place, while ambivalence and polarity still prevailed in the soul's experience of the world as its own reflection?
BTW: I am also traveling this summer - to Florence and Zurich for a professional meeting. Would anyone know of any sites of alchemical historical interest in either of these two great cities?
Have a great trip and I look forward to continuing discussion when you return.

Maury

Bernard,

Thank you for your response. I found your amplification and description of your process of painting as a kind of _abaissement du niveau mental_ very interesting. I was struck with your remarks: "...in my own practice (of painting) or when teaching, I have evolved a method of penetrating past such barriers [the ego and its over-qualified personalistic paradigms] and in effect lowering the ego so that a spontaneous flow takes place. Ordinarilly and from a psychological standpoint, lowering of the ego may precipitate a flow of unconscious contents that may be alarming." Your remarks struck me as so similar to the alchemical concept of *meditatio* and the quote I gave from Khunrath: "Therefore, study, meditate, sweat, work, cook... and in this manner a wholesome flood will burst forth, which comes from the heart of the son of the great world."
I also found interesting the following:

>>...the curcubita, like the canvas, serves as a chanelled (and hence safe) agency by which the projection is received and performs. Because this buffer is virtually an Other (to himself) it serves as a container, or vas, a projected interiority that provisionally (during the creative experience) separates itself form the artist. <<

Your remarks recall the alchemical idea that the *vas* is often pictured as synonymous with the *lapis* so that there is no difference between the vessel and its content, i.e., it is the same arcanum. For instance, in the _Rosarium_, "There is one stone, one medicine, one vessel, one method, one disposition, " or in the _Philosophia reformata_, "In our water all modes of things are brought about....In the said water they are made as in an artificial vessel, which is a mighty secret." The Golden Tract depicts this vessel as "the true philosophical Pelican" (both the distilling vessel and the distillate) that restores one's security of life.
I am also reminded of John de Rupescissa recipe: "Have a vessel made after the manner of a cherub, which is the figure of God, and have six wings, after the fashion of six arms, turning back on themselves; and above, a round head....and put within this vessel the burning water..." Your creative process of painting sounds a little like this description of creating a transitional space by making a vessel out of one's selfhood and pouring in the *vinum ardens.*
Thanks again for sharing your personal creative process.

warm regards,
Maury