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Interview with Adam McLean

Interview undertaken by Brian Wilson, on September 29th 2004, at McLean's workshop in Glasgow.
Go to other information about Adam McLean

BW: What originally got you interested in alchemy ?

McLean: Well, it seems most people ask me that. Ultimately I don't really know. Its like asking, why I like the music of Delius. Truly I don't know, I just accept alchemy as a key element in my life. It goes back to my childhood, and my fascination then with chemistry, mathematics and such things. At that time I had little stimulation from other people so I just had to explore things as I could. Out of this emerged an interest in alchemy which has lived with me ever since.

BW: [Laughs] I hope all your responses won't be that vague. I was expecting a bit more than that.

McLean: Maybe you are expecting me to play the self-deluding game, of making myself seem somehow inspired by some great vision, or through a meeting with some wise old alchemist. Well it wasn't like that. I just became fascinated by alchemy and when I was able to, I read my way into the subject. 40 years later my mind is now saturated with alchemy, my home stuffed full of alchemical material, and very few minutes go by when I'm not thinking about some alchemical matter.

BW: You are known to a small group of alchemical enthusiasts through all the specialist books you have published, but you have never written a book for the wider public, a general introduction or survey of alchemy. I am sure with your knowledge you could easily do this and this would bring your name to a wider public.

McLean: I have never felt the impulse to write a general book on alchemy. Partly this is because I do not really believe that particular format really communicates much about the subject. We have seen many such books during the latter part of the 20th century up to the present day. Some are more useful than others, but they all seem to fall short of their intentions. It is extremely difficult to boil down, or reduce the subtleties and details of alchemy into a few short chapters. For me the interest always lies in the details, not in making general points.

BW: What are your present publishing plans? You do not appear to have published anything for a year.

McLean: I have so many unfinished projects. Half-completed and needing more research to bring to a conclusion. I better not mention any specific titles or else people will keep emailing me for definitive publication dates. Over the past year or so I have devoted more of my time to producing study courses on alchemical matters. This does take up a great deal of my time and has prevented me working on new books. In a sense the study courses are really books under another format. I have made five study courses to date.

BW: Do you find the study course format attracts more interest in your work?

McLean: Well, partly. Certainly the first course I produced, the Foundation Course on Alchemical Symbolism, has proved very popular with I think over 500 people subscribing to it to date. The other courses, being more specialised do not attract such interest. The advanced course on alchemical sequences and the course on the Ripley scroll have each attracted about 70 subscribers and the recent course on the Trinosophia even less. I did think there would be more interest in the Trinosophia course, but [perhaps it seems too obscure for people. I always find myself immersed in the obscure. You can't write a popular book on obscure texts that few have heard of, and even fewer care to investigate.

BW: So have you other study courses planned?

McLean: I would love to be able to continue with the method I used with my course on Early English Alchemy. This course provides a straightforward reading of the text of the works in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, in which I explain the work almost line by line. Many people today are just not able to read this material without some help. This course surgically explores these texts and explains the points in their proper context. I let the work explain itself, and do not provide a trite explanation, or some inflated, esoteric perspective. I think this approach is valuable. Most people commenting on alchemical texts merely air their own ideas usually based on some philosophy which has nothing to do with alchemy. I would like to correct this in some small way. If this approach interests sufficient people I would love to be able to work on further such courses, say on Ripley's work, or Thomas Vaughan (another writer almost impossible for people to understand today) or Eireaneus Philalethes 'Marrow of alchemy' another key work completely obscure to most people. If I can get enough people interested in supporting me to do this there is no shortage of material to explore in this way.
I have also begun working on a further ongoing study course on alchemical emblems. I may call this - An Emblem a Week - or the Weekly Emblem. It sounds a bit humorous put that way. However, the idea would be that people receive each week by email an emblem with my reading of its symbolism. It would not take up much of their time and yet keep up a momentum of interest in emblems. After a year of that, they will either have a life long interest in alchemical symbolism or be so fed up they will begging me to stop sending the emblem lessons.

BW: I heard that you were no longer supported by the Ritman Library. Has this impacted greatly on you?

McLean: During the 1990's and the first few years of this century I was substantially supported by Joseph Ritman, who had set up the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam in the 1980's. This allowed me to devote a great deal of time to research and exploring alchemy without having to think about selling books to support myself. Mr Ritman's generosity enabled me to read and research widely into alchemy. He really acted towards me like a patron in the true sense. Without having the free time available to me I could not have developed the Alchemy Web site in quite such a way as I was able to do.

BW: Can I ask why this relationship ended?

McLean: The Library, like any institution, had to reprioritise its expenditure and it eventually proved impossible for them to continue supporting me. One cannot expect such funding to last for ever! The funding I did receive enabled me to do so much. So I have returned to producing books and CD-Roms in order to support myself.

BW: Are the books sales and so on sufficient then?

McLean: Well, I am a bit limited by finances. I find I can no longer justify spending long hours in the Library, and here I mean the Ferguson Collection of alchemy books and manuscripts in the University Library here in Glasgow, the best collection of alchemical material in the world. I have to spend a large amount of my time producing material that I can gain some income from. There is really only a small interest in obscure alchemical texts so the sales are very small. Some books I produced back in the 1980's in editions of 250 still have some copies left to sell. That will give you an idea of how small the sales are. 20 plus years and still not sold all 250 !

BW: So are you looking for other sources of funding for your work?

McLean: I would be happy to accept any offers of course, but I am realistic. There are not many people interested in supporting someone to investigate alchemy. I will struggle on in the way I have been and can continue this as long as I can. External funding would allow me to do so much more as it would free all the time I have to spend on mundane tasks like the book binding, and I could think of larger scale projects. But if one lives thinking of what could be, if only one had the money, then one will not get on and do things. I have always tried to find ways to do things without being limited by money considerations. Perhaps in the longer term someone might emerge to provide some way of preserving my work. As I get older this becomes somewhat more pressing.

BW: Your workplace is full of marvellous paintings and as you showed me earlier you have an incredibly complete library full of really obscure books. I suppose they are worth a lot of money. Your workplace is like an alchemy research centre.

McLean: Sadly, they only really become worth something after you die, and that is no use to me. Yes I do have a substantial amount of material that I suppose could one day provide the basis for a research centre. I have been thinking a lot recently about what to do with my archives. I would not want them to be broken up and sold off piecemeal, but in the situation I fell under the proverbial bus, that is probably what would happen. I am concerned that at present I cannot afford to insure all my material.

BW: I noticed earlier that you were painting some alchemical images. You showed me one of an image from the Splendor Solis. You seem to try to make an exact copy. Why don't you make original works? I would think they would be really collectable. You know, take alchemical images and modernise them into a painting. I am sure you could do that.

McLean: What I like doing is working within and learning from the tradition. So I find it rewarding personally to make a facsimile painting. There are so many problems to solve in doing that, and each of the steps one takes one learns so much from. For example, how to achieve a certain modelling effect, should one work with the wet paint, or let it dry and paint the modelling on top, stipple or blend. Its all about taking decisions like that. Thats the fun you get when you make some effect work. I am particularly interested in the Flemish Primitives at present, and intend to make some copies of the more emblematic of those works. I see myself as a transmitter of the alchemical tradition, and that is why I like making these facsimiles. In a sense I am doing what alchemists did before, making copies of earlier manuscripts and images. I have also made over 800 coloured emblems, and this is now a very important resource. I am not attracted to making original works using alchemical imagery. I am aware of the neo-surreal visionary art movement, which often uses traditional esoteric images and paints them in a modern context. I am afraid much of this seems boring and banal to me. Its really just a form of mystical collage painting. Except in a very few examples such paintings seem trite and empty to me. The symbolism is just thrown together, sometimes to make a stupid empty joke, and they have none of the depth of content one finds in an alchemical emblem. I certainly don't want to waste my life's energies making such works even if they might be commercial. I suppose such paintings are best suited for album covers. The artists just choose images on their own whim, and not through any understanding of how an emblem is constructed. I suppose I know have enough knowledge of the inner workings of alchemical emblems to create one myself. But I have not felt impelled to so far. Perhaps one day.

BW: So are you going to make many more paintings? I suppose you can easily sell them? They are technically very good.

McLean: I really don't have the time to do much oil painting. It takes many many hours to complete the kind of detailed oil painting that I do. I want to have such fine detail that I paint most of the painting with an 00 brush. I have given up using anything larger than a 1. Its rather amusing that my local art store can't understand me only buying such small brushes. I wear out two or three brushes per painting. I have sold all the oil paintings I made over the past four years. The ones I have here on my walls I like too much to sell at the moment. I suppose its a matter of the price. If I set the price high enough for me to make a reasonable amount from them, they would be too expensive. It can take 50 hours of my time to make an oil painting. How much is 50 hours of ones time worth ? I have sold paintings for between £500 and 600, but this is really not enough for the time involved. Often everything comes down to money. Is that a hidden criticism, you saying - technically very good ? I think you would prefer me to make modern paintings updating alchemical imagery. Believe me these works are much more interesting. No one else is doing such work. Everyone wants to be an artist and express themselves. I just want to be a painter and enjoy the task.

BW: You seem to be pursuing two main aspects of alchemy, the texts and the imagery. Here in your workshop you are surrounded by piles of papers and everywhere there are images on the walls. Is alchemy all about such imagery?

McLean: The emblematic imagery is a significant part of alchemy. Many alchemical texts incorporate imagery in two main ways. They can have actual images, woodcuts, engravings or drawings in the text, or they can use the form of an allegorical story. These allegories are important. Few have been explored in any depth. I have set myself the task of producing coloured versions of as many alchemical emblems as possible, and at present I have made over 800, with a few hundred more to do. I would also want to provide people with access to alchemical allegories, though these need explanation. I began this with the Study course on the Trinosophia, which is a late 18th century alchemical allegory, probably the last alchemical allegory ever created. I hope to make further study courses on allegories. Not many people seem to appreciate the importance of these works, perhaps I can help change that over the next few years. I have recently set up an alchemical emblem project. I hope this can attract some interest and support and enable me to work further with this.

BW: Many people see you as too scholarly, too tied to the texts. How can an abstract intellectual approach allow one to grasp the amazing mysteries of an alchemical text?

McLean: I am not a recognised scholar. I have no scholarly credentials. I am entirely self-taught. For this reason many traditional scholars look down on me as a lightweight amateur. I do have some expertise in alchemy, because I have been studying the subject for over 35 years, and so I have some grudging though often limited respect from some scholars. The heavyweight scholars see me as an amateur, while some among the esoteric community see me as a blinkered academic. I can't win, as I am a rebel in both camps. This is a good space for me to occupy as I can act as a bridge between both viewpoints. I have become more scholarly over the years. Indeed, I often find myself more scholarly than some academics, particularly those with some agenda or underlying belief system. It is impossible to investigate a subject without some scholarly methodology. It is important to see the ways in which ideas were transmitted from one alchemist to another, and to base ones views upon what is actually in the tradition rather than on a belief system. I always come back to the source material rather than rush off following a fantasy. For me the texts, the books and manuscripts are my working material, not individual ideosyncratic ideas about alchemy. Unfortunately most people interested in alchemy do not have easy access to the original source material so they have to rely on later writers and interpreters. This means they are prone to error and misinterpretation. It is in this sense that I adopt a scholarly approach. Its merely a recognition that the final word on alchemy must come from the alchemists' own writings, their books and notebooks, and not some later 20th or 21st century interpreter, who is imposing some belief system onto the alchemical material he is presenting to the reader.

BW: Does alchemy have a future? How can it be made relevant to the present age?

McLean: You must be getting to the end of your questions. That is the same kind of question as the first one you asked and it will get the same type of answer I'm afraid. The truth is I am not really interested in this matter. I am interested in alchemy and every day I have some new thing to discover, some question to ask, or some answer emerges to something I have puzzled over for ages. I will get the impulse to colour an emblem, or struggle to translate a bit of text. So for me the question about the relevance of alchemy to the present age never presents itself. I suppose those people who are not so immersed in alchemy need to have that question answered. All I can say is that if you immerse yourself in alchemy in the way I have done, you won't need to have that question answered and you will find great satisfaction and delight in the sheer immensity of the subject. Does it answer the question what is life about ? I don't know. If you are having fun with alchemy you won't care.

BW: Do you not see yourself an alchemical teacher? Is there not a need for someone to popularise and make alchemy come alive for the 21st century? Is this how you see your work becoming?

Perhaps the reason I am now not so popular with some of the more esoteric people is that I dont go down the road of hyping up alchemy as the answer to global world questions. I dont elevate the work I do as having some great mystical transformative significance for society. All I do is try and make the delights and beauty of this amazing part of human culture available and accessible to people. I dont believe I am some pathetic old man living in some inflated self-deluding fantasy world, but instead see myself as a down to earth sort of person living each day with the texts and images of the alchemical tradition. If one plays the adept in this subject one can easily generate a bunch of followers. One could travel around the world wearing a white robe, giving lectures and workshops and probably generate truck lots of money. I prefer to live each day with the delights of alchemical material, puzzling over some confusing point in a text, or having the joy of discovering some previously unknown emblem. For me alchemy is a great fascinating journey. I would like to share this with others by encouraging them to pursue this subject in depth. I have been very lucky in being able to amass so much material and develop a deep knowledge of the subject. I am happy to share this with others, and assist them in their investigations. Perhaps that is the image of an alchemical teacher in this modern, open age, rather than some grandiose guru figure. I think we have all had anough of gurus.

My thanks to Adam McLean for his generosity with his time.
To some extent the text of the interview is my summary of what was said.
Brian Wilson <>