Alchemy: The Subjugated Science
Issue #51, October 2000
In his quest to discover the golden mean, this friend of mine who does, in fact, possess a heart of gold, was heartbroken. He got burned by a woman who couldn't see that he was a diamond in the rough. Afterwards, he considered going to therapy because his heartbreak was causing him violent physical pangs and profound sensations of loss centered in the chest region. He knew he would never be the same and, in fact, I believe his very body chemistry had been permanently altered. His first experience with heartbreak was a real trial by fire.
Do the clichés used in this short narrative add to or detract from the main character's experience of pain and loss? Is a cliché a trite expression or a universal truth that has lost its currency? What is significant about the clichés in this narrative is that they are derived from the ancient practice of alchemy. Despite the fact that it has been consigned to oblivion through the dominance of more "exact" sciences, alchemy nevertheless continues to haunt our cultural landscape. The passage above draws attention to two related facts about the alchemical tradition that serve to trouble our long-standing commitment to objective science. The first is that alchemy is still hanging around despite its status as a subjugated science. The second is that it is precisely its secondary citizenship that may recommend it as a foil to traditional psychology. Psychology is a therapy industry that tends to wrap itself in a mantle of hard science no matter how tangential the connection may be. On some level the clichéd metaphors "heart of gold," "diamond in the rough," and "trial by fire" speak to the universal, the tried and true, the basically "normal" experiences that we share.
These clichés lose their resonance because we are encouraged — in therapy, as elsewhere — to forget that passion and desire are necessary and healthy emotions. We are persuaded to suppress these feelings by psychiatric and pharmaceutical industries that profit from psychosis. As Adam Parfrey has written, conquering — or, rather, controlling — the beast in man is the raison d'être of Christianity and its decadent flower, capitalism. The capitalist priestcraft of modern psychiatry, working in tandem with the State bureaucracy, regulates and polices the new restriction and gelding of desire. Damned desire equals unhappiness, and unhappiness creates a motivation for buying things. Complicit with the therapy industry's project to undermine natural impulses is its attempt to eradicate the occult arts, whose relationships with objective science are deemed impure and misguided. However, these systems of knowledge have not been successfully erased and continue to offer valid and helpful perspectives to living. They hover beyond the confines of dogmatic psychology as patient, but persistent spirits. As a way of combating the dogma of disease and the service to capitalism perpetuated by the therapy industry, I offer the insights garnered from a historically rich alchemical tradition.
First, a brief sketch of the contours of alchemy. Any time we try to harness an essence, find what something boils down to, undergo a ritual of purification, or simply seek the Truth, we are in the realm of alchemy. Any time life works us over to the degree that we experience combined physical and mental pain (usually stemming from some kind of loss), we are in the realm of alchemy. We are truly being burned, cooked, pressed, processed and, ultimately, chemically altered by experience. Despite the deliberate opacity of alchemical terms and methods (to protect the initiated adepts from the profane and uninitiated), most alchemical texts are in agreement on a few essential points. Although its origins can certainly be traced to a mystical tradition, alchemy differs from mysticism and other occult arts in its combined focus on precision in both chemical and spiritual processes. Alchemical transmutation takes place on two, sometimes to our modern minds conflicting, levels simultaneously: matter and spirit, or objective and subjective planes. The physical transmutation of base metals (lead) into gold involves the burning off heavy dross through a series of repetitive applications of the philosopher's stone or the catalyst (sulfur and quicksilver). However, the real goal of alchemical work is not to obtain material gold, but spiritual gold: a state of enormous power, clarity, and purity. This, however, does not describe transcendence or an afterlife but rather wholly realized and enacted within lived experience. In short a golden man is one that has earned, through hard labor, a correct vision that eschews institutional restrictions and material gain. The real goals of alchemy protect against the chicanery and greed rather than serving as its ostensible purpose.
The quest to become golden also reflects a rational correspondence between the objective world and the subjective self — an essential connection between the macrocosm and the microcosm. A maxim reiterated by alchemists is that "all that is reflected without, is reflected within." The idea is that, as a chemical reaction (transmutation) is taking place in the retort or oven, a profound alteration likewise occurs within the alchemist himself. The alchemist internalizes the practice on the unified physical-spiritual plane. Paradoxically, the alchemist who accomplishes transmutation is no longer interested in material gain. Surely, even modern day chemists would agree that chemical reactions do not merely take place in beakers, but within the human body as well.
Why is this important? What can alchemy do for us today? What is spiritual gold? Christianity, capitalism, and psychiatry cooperate to instill in our culture body hatred and its concomitant repression of desire. Alchemy undercuts this long-standing prejudice because it does not seek to subvert, transcend, or deny the body, but rather to take a direct path through it. Sensations, passion, and desire are required catalysts to the distillation process. These states represent the various metals in their imperfect states. While it is true that alchemy does embody a theory of perfection or progression which one might find fault with, this telos ultimately teaches that we both need our passions and can learn to live with them peacefully in the world. Desire is the source of creative energy that propels us into various alchemical stages. The alchemical perspective lends its adherents the incredible power of self-definition. It grants the tools necessary to face inevitable obstacles with courage.
The therapy industry, however, views the human personality (spirit/soul) as an object of science that accrues damages. External circumstances are not viewed as unique experiences that build but destructive experiences that indicate the potential for psychosis. The therapy industry promotes stagnation by interfering with the dynamic thrust forward that pain allows. It encourages somnambulist purgatory by serving the basest egocentric tendencies toward perpetual wound licking and cowardly hand-wringing rather than promoting a philosophy of self-creation and transformation. The alchemical perspective, on the other hand, tells us that life itself is a creative or artistic endeavor and the human spirit is our medium. Life is a project of burning and stripping, with subsequent coagulating or rebuilding. The spirit is a thing to be cooked and worked on.
Certainly, the alchemical perspective implies a greater obligation, hence more work, on the part of the individual. But the benefit is that there are no mistakes, phobias, symptoms or psychosis in the alchemical perspective. Human foibles, weaknesses, and fears, when understood from the perspective of the adept, are catalysts in the process of becoming golden rather than pathological. Alchemy facilitates a personal empowerment that diminishes a need for the psychiatric industry and its loathsome life-numbing drugs that encourage people to avoid the pain of existence rather than embrace it as an experience that offers strength. Alchemy provides a space for self-creation, and an independent definition of how one might live apart from the dictates of social structures. This space is founded upon the actual experiences that awaken and initiate a chemical reaction in the mind/body unit. There is tremendous power in a life-view that can read a correspondence between external and internal circumstances. This view falls well outside the realm of psychology precisely because it flies in the face of exact science.
The scientific models of psychology look askance at alchemy as occupying the realm of the "pseudo" and practiced by quacks. But criticizing alchemy as an inexact science is not a valid reason not to pay attention to it since, as stated earlier, this is not the ground of its knowledge claims. It is no accident therefore, that alchemy has been relegated to the margins along with other occult practices. It is considered illegitimate knowledge, the embarrassing bastard child of a scientific curiosity gone haywire. People who know nothing of the history of alchemy usually have a vague sense that it is practiced by mad egomaniacs pursuing a bootless quest for material gain. The history of the development of exact science shows us that this effort is motivated by a passionate desire to cleanse knowledge of all remnants of spirit. The attempt to obliterate the influence of alchemy is to further enhance its role as a haunting spirit.
The presence of alchemy pervades our cultural environment on many levels. We find the Arthurian quest for the golden chalice re-circulated in the wildly popular Harry Potter books. Also, those within academic circles find a love of the quest. Theorists search for kernels of truth along the arduous intellectual paths, hoping one day to burst upon the key to all, to relinquish the brambled path for the road paved in gold. Academics, like masochists in general, learn to love this painful journey. Within the many different forms that the alchemical quest might take, the basic structure is the same. We usually start in one place and, if we have the courage to persist, find that we end up somewhere completely unexpected and find, at the end that we are not the same person. We have been permanently, physically and spiritually altered.
I am suggesting that claims toward a kind of universal truth are not outmoded. Before we get rid of "Truth," we ought to consider what we might be losing. Inasmuch as an alchemical perspective is capable of debunking institutions that profit from impotence and apathy then they do offer practical guidelines on how one might live well. The attempt to obliterate alchemy as a field of knowledge in order to make room for objective science is complicit with the goals of modern day therapy which merely masks its own variety of "quackery" beneath a guise of objectivity and masks an attempt to subject individuals to a consumer mindset. In other words, it supports the capitalist priestcraft which wants to make powerless purchases our sole source of happiness. Alchemists, at least, have always acknowledged what theorists today are just coming to terms with, that we cannot and should not try to escape from subjectivity with all of its challenges and difficulties.
Parfrey. "Latter-Day Lycanthropy: Battling for the Feral Soul of Man." in Apocalypse Culture Ed. Adam Parfrey. Feral House, 1987.
Michelle Silva is working on her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh.