In the Cauldron of the Negative – Jean-Marc Mandosio

“I responded: ‘Kind lady, as I have based my actions on your tempting promises (like those others whom you see there, lost in error), every time that I encountered some artificial phantasm on such a frequented route, I was not able to separate myself from it without learning its hidden meaning; now that I have understood, thanks to ingenious machines, the degree of poverty to which you lead men whom you enchant with your sweet discourses and magnificent promises, the reason why I crossed the raging river and came to this forest is obvious: when I crossed it I could not contain my laughter, for I saw how insanely men allow themselves to be convinced (motivated principally by the avid desire to improve their stations in the world and to become great) not only to wander as if they were possessed through this place that so resembles a chaos, but to remain within it nourishing a perpetual hope, in the expectation of obtaining what no one has ever obtained despite long labors and great expense’.”

Giovanni Battista Nazari, Della Tramutazione Metallica, Sogni Tre (“Three Dreams concerning the Transmutation of Metals”)


The researcher closed the book he had just finished reading. Absorbed in reading, he had not noticed the onset of night; the darkness would soon spread its long black fingers over him. He got up, took a few steps to stretch his legs, looked distractedly out the window, turned on the light and sat down again. Pensive, he once again took up the book and opened it to the first page, in order to re-read a passage that had intrigued him:

“Having, then, to take account of readers who are both attentive and diversely influential, I obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, I must take care not to instruct just anybody. The unhappiness of the times thus compels me, once again, to write in a new way. Some elements will be intentionally omitted; and the plan will have to remain rather unclear. Readers will encounter certain lures, like the very hallmark of the era. As long as other pages are interpolated here and there, the overall meaning may appear just as secret clauses have very often been added to whatever treaties may openly stipulate; just as some chemical agents only reveal their hidden properties when they are combined with others.”

This reminded him of something, and it seemed to him that this manner of writing was not so new. He got up again and scanned his bookshelves for a volume that he finally located. It was a relatively recent reprint of a text published in Paris in 1678: The Summit of Perfection, or the Handbook of the Perfect Teachings of the Philosophers, by Geber. He read:

“I declare, first of all, that in this Summit I have not been able to teach our science in a coherent way, but that I divulged it in fragments, here and there, in various chapters. And I have done so deliberately, because if I had arranged all of it in a coherent order, the wicked, who would utilize it for evil purposes, would learn it as easily as the good, which would be vile and unjust. Secondly, I declare that where it might seem that I could have spoken with the greatest clarity and in the most open way concerning our science, I spoke instead in a most obscure manner and concealed a great deal.”

The words were different but they reflected the same way of writing, called “the dispersion of knowledge” ever since Geber explained its principles. Geber’s book is so misleading that the name of the author was itself a false lead: “Geber” was the Latinized name of Jâbir ibn Hayyân, an Arab sage and alchemist who allegedly lived in the 8th century A.D.; he did not write even one line, however, and was not actually responsible for the contents of most of the Arab texts that circulated under his name. The Summa perfectionis magisterii was a Latin text from the late 13th century whose author (perhaps a Franciscan monk by the name of Paul of Taranto) signed it with Jâbir’s name in order to confer more authority on his doctrine. The work quickly became one of the classics of alchemy and until the end of the 19th century it was thought that Jâbir was really its author. Even the French translation, published anonymously in an anthology entitled Bibliothèque des philosophes chimiques, attributed the authorship of the text to someone who did not write it, the Englishman William Salmon, based on the initial “S” that is inscribed in the work, when in reality it stands for a doctor from Poitou named Nicolas Salomon. The history of alchemy is full of false attributions, decoys and fakes, and that is why the researcher was interested in it. That is why it was not difficult for him to discern the tutelary shadow of the pseudo-Geber behind the first few sentences of the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord.

This identification, however, merely led to new problems, since The Summit of Perfection is hardly ever read outside of a handful of erudite circles of a particular kind, whose members are devotees of alchemy and the occult sciences. And Debord himself, in the book in question, clearly expressed his disdain for “the profitable daydreams of charlatans and sorcerers”, propagators of “false hopes”. He had never changed his views with regard to such matters since the times of the Situationist International, when he published articles that ridiculed the surrealists’ interest in séances or the popularity that the magazine Planète enjoyed at the time. There was a former situationist, Raoul Vaneigem, who paid a great deal of attention to alchemy; but when he resigned from the SI in 1970, Debord did not refrain from harshly denouncing his idealism and his tendency to self-contemplative mysticism. It would therefore be hard to imagine that Debord was an avid reader of the pseudo-Geber, and it would be more reasonable to assume that he stumbled across the text by accident.

In his autobiographical texts, however, Debord took pleasure in presenting himself as a reincarnation of the devil, even going so far as to describe the situationist adventure as the quest for an “evil Grail”. The researcher had attended a conference on this topic, whose title, References to the Occult in Contemporary Social Critique, had intrigued him: although he was somewhat suspicious at first—the conference was held at a Dominican Monastery by a rather unsavory association of university professors—he left the event with the conviction that Debord’s relations with the diffuse mass of doctrines known as “occultism” were not as simple as they appeared at first sight; and at the same time, this made it less implausible that Debord might have read some of the most famous alchemical texts, beginning with The Summit of Perfection.

After closer inspection, the researcher also noted that alchemy had already appeared in the texts published by Vaneigem when he was still one of the leading members of the SI, above all in his The Revolution of Everyday Life,1 which could hardly be proven to be in flagrant contradiction with the main theories of the situationists. This was quite odd. Just how did alchemy fit into the history of the SI? Was it a mere deviation that the critiques of 1970 had purged, or did it fulfill a more basic function in situationist theory? Perhaps the connection that he thought he had discovered between the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and The Summit of Perfection was only the tip of a very interesting iceberg. And even if his hypothesis regarding the use of the pseudo-Geber should prove to be incorrect—since the absence of any bibliographical citations renders certainty in this matter impossible—the question that had thus been raised seemed to merit more in-depth investigation. But this task involved a lot more than just a little philological inquiry concerning a minor detail.

It was getting late, and the researcher told himself that he would see everything more clearly when he had more time to devote the question. For the moment, other matters awaited his attention. He put on his coat and his hat, turned off the light and closed the door behind him.

  • 1. The original French edition was entitled Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes generations; the most well known English translation was published under the title of The Revolution of Everyday Life. All subsequent references to this book in this translation will be made to the latter title for the convenience of the English-speaking readers [American Translator’s note].