THE LABYRINTH OF GREATER AND LESSER MYSTERIES
“Everything I had seen up until that moment was nothing compared to what they promised that I would see. However, it was not hard for me to take consolation when I reflected on this Celestial Empire, in which the All-Powerful appears seated on His Throne surrounded by Glory and Cherubims, Seraphims, Thrones and Rulers. There we shall see what the eye has never seen and we shall hear what the ear has never heard, since that is where we must experience an eternal happiness that God Himself has promised all those who strive to become worthy of it, since we have all been created to participate in this Glory.”
Pseudo-Bernard of Treves (François Alary), The Green Dream
The Great Work is, together with the squaring of the circle, the example par excellence of the vain quest for the impossible. Why, then, did the situationists refer to alchemy, which at first glance would appear to be the worst model a revolutionary theory could adopt, regardless of how little it is concerned with efficacy? This question requires two complementary answers.
The first reason—and the most obvious one—for the choice of alchemy as the pivot of a revolutionary theory is linked to the interpretation given by psychoanalysis and surrealism to the Hermetic art. If alchemy, as a practical activity, led to the results—or more correctly, the absence of results—with which we are familiar, in the 20th century, by virtue of having become a privileged expression of “depth psychology”, it recovered the credit that it had lost in times past on the material terrain of the transmutations of bodies. This interpretation is based on the way the esoterics and occultists of the 19th century viewed alchemy. Beginning in the late 1700s, since no one could seriously believe in material transmutation, the neo-alchemists tended to fall back on a psychological or “spiritual” conception of transmutation (whose origins lay in certain tendencies already present in alchemy in the 16th century);1 the operations that pertained to matter were translated to the level of the soul of the adept. The practitioners continued to manipulate substances in the laboratory but their real goal was of a different kind. The alchemical texts effectively could be easily used for this kind of interpretation, given the polyvalent character of their language and the wide variety of possible readings (operative, moral, religious…) to which they could be subjected. The practical failure of alchemy might have then been perceived as something secondary and superficial compared to its real objective: the transmutation of the old, imperfect man into a new man, like gleaming gold. The author of The Revolution of Everyday Life was absolutely convinced of this. And not long ago he once again reaffirmed this belief (in Le Chevalier, la Dame, le Diable et la mort), by defining alchemy as “the process of evolution that is leading us from the animal to the human that lies within us”.
The surrealists, as Vaneigem explains in A Cavalier History of Surrealism, also saw alchemy as an “exploration of human limits and potentialities” whose objective was “a cosmic unity divested of all anthropocentrism where the forces of the mineral, vegetable and human worlds all had their parts to play”. But surrealist alchemy erred, Vaneigem continues, because it strayed into a “mystical vision”, an “absolute objective idealism” ruled by the principle enunciated by René Guenon and “approved by Breton” according to which “historical facts have no value save as symbols of spiritual realities”. In such a case, “the experimental approach to the human was replaced by a purification of the ego by virtue of the alchemical Great Work” and “concrete problems of subjectivity became problems of being”. This “ontological shift”, modeled on the initiatory program of the so-called traditional sciences (in the Guenonian sense of the word), prevented, according to this interpretation, the surrealists from noticing the fact that alchemy, as “the experimental approach to the human”, could lead to the revolution of everyday life of the kind formulated later by the situationists. Vaneigem’s alchemy is intended to be a supersession of that of the surrealists: like the latter, it is about man himself and not material substances (metals, etc.), but it does not aspire to transmute the human spirit by “purification” in the name of a transcendence that the situationists did not acknowledge; its purpose was instead to transmute everyday life in its most “concrete” aspects, considered as the only really existing human universe, and therefore the only real framework within which it was possible to test “human limits and potentialities”. (Later, as we have seen, Vaneigem’s alchemy would rediscover the “cosmic unity” of the micro- and macro-cosmos, but this was not yet the case in his situationist period.)
The reduction of alchemy to psychology or to a “spiritual” dimension paved the way for a rehabilitation of the alchemical thematic in the context of surrealism. For André Breton, alchemy represented the revenge of the imagination against the domestication of the spirit by rational thought. This point of view must be understood in the context of the surrealists’ interest in the unconscious and Freud’s doctrine. In an article entitled Freud de l’Alchimiste à l’Hygiéniste [“Freud: From Alchemist to Hygienist”], published in 1924 in the journal, Le Disque vert, and republished in the book, Mon corps et moi, René Crevel subjects psychoanalysis to an alchemical reading: according to him, the psychoanalytic cure is an alchemical operation because it allows for “the rediscovery of pure and simple instinct” by ridding the individual of the neuroses that keep him separated from himself and prevent him from acting in a spontaneous way. By purifying the material of metals, alchemy leads them to perfection; in the same way, psychoanalysis restores to the individual the key of his own original essence. Just as it does for Vaneigem, transmutation for Crevel consists in the liberation of the individual from the social conditioning that imprisons him and prevents him from acting and expressing himself freely; unlike Crevel, however, the situationists thought that psychoanalysis had by no means succeeded in achieving this liberation. For them it is, to the contrary, a tool for the maintenance of the social order, since all the help it brings to the individual consists in making him accept the necessity of conditioning, internalized as a fundamental law. Indeed, Freud affirmed that the abandonment of the “pleasure principle” in favor of the “reality principle” constitutes the basis of all social life; that is why he thought happiness was impossible, except as “a transitory experience” (Civilization and Its Discontents). Influenced by Henri Lefebvre, the situationists postulated, in complete opposition to Freud and Schopenhauer, that the exceptional “moments” of life can become, thanks to the conscious construction of “situations”, the substance of a new life, one from which frustration and boredom have been expelled. This is what they called “authentic” life, as opposed to the simple “survival” that psychoanalysis and all the other forms of psychosocial conditioning assumed as a function to legitimate. The situationist perspective differs from that of Crevel—and from that of the surrealists more generally—in that creative spontaneity is not conflated by the situationists with unconscious automatism, but rather with the conscious domain of the abilities of the individual. To see all good in the unconscious and all evil in reason, as the surrealists did, amounts to prohibiting any reconciliation of these two domains. For the situationists, the opposition between the conscious will and the unconscious passions is an effect of “separation”; once the latter is abolished, the conscious goals of individuals must logically (if one admits that postulate) no longer be opposed to their unconscious drives. To celebrate the unconscious to the detriment of reason is therefore to serve the maintenance of separation, preventing the individual from recognizing himself as a whole. Only the revolution will permit the individual to concretely resolve the internal conflict that afflicts him, which can only be abolished by abolishing the cause that produces it. The revolution is this elixir that transforms the dross of the neuroses into the pure gold of subjectivity.
In Le Chevalier, la Dame, le Diable et la mort, Vaneigem willingly admits that he has “embraced a somewhat shallow understanding of alchemy”, one that is, however, more than sufficient for the purpose of “delimiting … the various stages of a process in accordance with which he sought to live each day”:
“I accept the three stages, distinguished by Hermetic tradition. These are, viz., the black Work: putrefaction, dissolution, dereliction, desperation; the white Work: treatment of the negative, resurrection; the red Work, or rubifaction: philosopher’s stone, the powder of projection or of sympathy, youth or the abolition of age….
“I continue to return to everyday alchemy, which consists in subjecting the negative accumulated in unwholesome strata to the heat of this athanor that constitutes the body, in order to proceed from the black Work to the red Work and then to the philosopher’s stone.”
One of the leading authorities on the “Hermetic tradition” to which Vaneigem refers is the esoterist Eugène Canseliet (who was a friend of Vaneigem),2 along with Fulcanelli and René Alleau. Vaneigem had also read the dissident psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, whose psychological interpretation of the alchemical texts and imaginary is very much appreciated by the esoterists. In his Dictionnaire de citations pour servir au divertissement et à l’intelligence du temps (1998), he quotes a passage taken from Psychology and Alchemy, in which Jung clearly sets forth his perspective:
“… while working on his chemical experiments the operator had certain psychic experiences which appeared to him as the particular behaviour of the chemical process…. He experienced his projection as a property of matter; but what he was in reality experiencing was his own unconscious.”
According to this interpretation, when the alchemists spoke of metals or worked with them, they only really saw them with their own unconscious, which they “projected” onto matter.3 Such a psychologizing of alchemy, based on the frequently aberrant analyses that Jung made of texts and images removed from their historical context and which sometimes actually had nothing to do with alchemy,4 in our time constitutes for many people the truth of the “alchemical tradition”. If the modern esoterists have given it a warm welcome, this is because it presents many points in common with their own view of alchemy.
The Jungian theory of “archetypes” that structure the collective unconscious allegedly proves what in reality it assumes; that is, the existence of precisely a collective unconscious that is always the same in every era and which can easily be discovered, under the thin shell of cultural, historical and geographical variations, by resorting to analogy as the general principle of interpretation. In other words, history has no importance at all; it is nothing but the inessential unfolding of a time which does not really modify the basic characteristics of the human “soul”. Jung’s disciples did not refrain from compiling vast catalogs of symbols from all eras and countries, or, in the apparently more scientific form of the structuralist model, charting the “anthropological structures of the imaginary”. The relationship between this kind of focus and that of the esoterists—which is moreover completely deliberate, and is even proclaimed by Jung and his emulators, with Gilbert Durand at their head—is due to the fact that the esoterist interpretations of alchemy are always based on the idea that alchemy has no history: according to them, it is a “traditional” art that had arisen fully formed from the head of Hermes Trismegistus, and that it has been preserved as such, since time immemorial, by way of a secret transmission, following the form of the chain of initiates (for the esoterists, furthermore, alchemy is joined with astrology, the Kabbalah and magic as just one part of the vast whole of the “secret” or “occult” sciences, which comprise a totality and which must be studied together).
This ahistorical view of alchemy did not emerge out of thin air. It was adapted from the image that the alchemists sought to confer upon their own doctrine: already in the very earliest days of alchemy, in the Hellenized regions of Egypt, in the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Christian era, alchemical texts were attributed with a false antiquity and were signed with prestigious names (Democritus, for example) or even purely fictitious names. The same thing was true of the magical texts, as well as many other types of writings; in an era when individual originality aroused mistrust this was a way of guaranteeing the validity of the doctrines that were being promoted. This fabrication of apocrypha was not necessarily due to “frauds” in the sense that we understand that term today: at that time it seemed natural to confer merit on a doctrine that was taken to be true, and which furthermore was not claimed to have been a recent invention, with the authority that its attribution to a prestigious author would confer. Hence the profusion, especially among the Arabs, of alchemical treatises attributed not only to Jâbir, but also to Plato, Aristotle, Hermes Trismegistus…. In one of the most famous texts of medieval alchemy, the Turba Philosophorum (“The Assembly of the Philosophers”), an Arabic compilation whose complete text has only been preserved in Latin, the Greek philosophers—Thales, Pythagoras, Parmenides, etc.—meeting in an assembly, deliver speeches one after another in order to explain their conception of alchemy.
The elimination of real history from this art in favor of a legendary history, based on the fiction of an immutable doctrine that goes back to the depths of antiquity, was so successful that it is today very difficult to date some of the texts. When it is possible, the esoterists ignore it and continue to believe, despite the evidence, in the authenticity of the writings of Llull, Flamel or Basil Valentine…. They are still persuaded, against all the evidence, that the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus is the oldest of all alchemical texts, and that it contains in a deliberately cryptic form the totality of the doctrine to which subsequent authors only added commentaries. This supposedly ancient Greek text, however, is in reality an Arab text dating from the 9th century, and it was only recently proven that when it was composed it was not even an alchemical text, but a text of talismanic magic, interpreted alchemically a posteriori. Alchemy was never a complete doctrine; like all the arts, sciences and traditions, it evolved at the whim of different eras, places and milieus.
We could ask ourselves if it was advisable on the part of Vaneigem to take a “tradition” that is essentially presented as a negation or rejection of history as a model for that historical transformation known as the revolution. The alchemical tradition appeared to him, like the millenarian tradition or the “resistance against Christianity” to which he devoted a book, as the testimony of the subterranean persistence of the will to live, necessarily assuming (or distorting) the philosophical or religious means of expression of the culture of its time, but basically opposed to “separation”; in short, a primitive form of social revolt. Such a representation is historically false: to the contrary, numerous alchemical texts justify secrecy by the need to preserve the existing social order, which would be ruined if gold were to lose its value by becoming easy to produce; there would then be no rich or poor, no one would want to work, authority would collapse…. The practice of alchemy was sometimes prohibited in one place or another, in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, by the civil or ecclesiastical authorities, not because they considered it dangerous in itself (the alchemists were neither sorcerers nor revolutionaries), but because most of those who passed themselves off as alchemists and offered their services to princes were actually counterfeiters. It was only after the time of Paracelsus and, later, the Rosicrucians (and before that, marginally, certain Franciscan groups), that alchemy was inscribed in a program of political and religious reform that was really subversive. In both cases, however, alchemy did not constitute anything but a secondary element of the “universal reform” that was advocated.
There is a second element of the answer, somewhat less evident than the previous one, to the question why alchemy was chosen as the model for a revolutionary transformation of society. The alchemists elaborated over the course of the centuries and in various forms a theory of qualitative change that constituted, indirectly, one of the sources of the Hegelian dialectic, and which also nourished the sources of the “Marxist” theory of the revolution. Since every theory creates its precursors, we can retrospectively read the alchemical literature as an attempt (expressed metaphorically or allegorically) to dialectically conceive the transformations of matter by way of the relations between the world considered as an organic totality, and the elements of which it is composed. In any case, it is not hard to discover in Hegel or in Marx analogies with what we could call the “primitive” dialectic that is present in the alchemical texts (not to speak of the recurring comparisons Marx made between capitalism and alchemy).5
Alchemy functions in situationist theory, as Vaneigem explains it, as a metaphor for the revolutionary transformation, in conjunction with the dialectical model. The notion of “supersession” is combined in this theory with that of transmutation, which is an alchemical term. The synthesis of these two ideas can in a way be traced back to the origins of the Hegelian dialectic. For the source of the latter is not to be found only in the conceptions of the dialectic elaborated by the philosophers since Plato,6 but also in the mystical writings of Jakob Böhme, who was very much influenced by Paracelsus. Hegel took from Böhme the idea of the “convergence of opposites”, which goes back, before Böhme, to a very old theological (exemplified especially by Nicholas of Cusa) and alchemical tradition. For the alchemists, the philosopher’s stone miraculously reunited the opposed qualities that were assumed not to exist in a body at the same time; according to the principles of Aristotelian logic and physics, a body, for example, is cold or hot, or it is dry or wet, but cannot simultaneously possess these two qualities “in actuality”. This convergence of opposites is translated in the alchemical texts by expressions that associate contradictory properties, which are called oxymorons in rhetoric: “the stone that is not a stone”, “the water that does not make your hands wet”, “virgin’s milk”,7 etc. This kind of formula made it possible for the imagination to grasp something that could not be rationally described. Thus, a non-existent thing seems to find a principle of realization in the mere fact that it is possible to explain it with words. In this sense, the rhetoric and imaginary of alchemy played a role that Plato had assigned to myth (in the Timaeus): when with regard to any particular issue “we are not able to give notions which are altogether and in every respect exact and consistent with one another”, it is necessary to resort, if we do not want to remain silent, to a “tale which is probable”.
The convergence of opposites is for Hegel the essential characteristic of the dialectic. In the The Philosophical Propaedeutic, he explains:
“Reason is negative or dialectical, when it indicates the passage from a determination of being (on the plane of consciousness) to the opposed determination. Usually, the dialectic is presented as the attribution to a single subject of two opposed predicates. In its purest form, it consists in showing how a determination that pertains to a predicate is, in itself, also its own opposite; and therefore how it abolishes itself in itself.”
We can therefore say that the philosopher’s stone is the imaginary expression of a dialectical reality, or the dialectical formulation of an imaginary reality. On the other hand, the Great Work—for which the philosopher’s stone is simultaneously the instrument and the goal (insofar as, once it has been obtained, all the rest must follow from it with great ease)—is a process: it involves the creation of a qualitative change in time, which is the same goal that is addressed by the dialectic of Hegel as well as that of Marx. Even though the Great Work is impossible to concretely realize, it is entirely possible to conceive it theoretically; that is why, towards the end of the 18th century, the theoretical possibility of the transmutation of metals was still being debated. The coup de grâce was only delivered by the new chemistry of Lavoisier, which led to the collapse of what was left of the conceptual apparatus that made the problem conceivable.
The theory of transmutation was based essentially on two ideas: that of the prima materia and the Aristotelian concepts of potentiality and actuality. The alchemical concept of the prima materia had emerged from the fusion of two old cosmogonic myths: the creation of the cosmos from chaos by the demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus, and the creation of the world by God according to the account in Genesis. For the alchemists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this account was not a mere myth: its authenticity was not subject to any doubt; it told about the way the world had really begun (the similarity of the Platonic myth and the Biblical account provided a supplementary testimony in favor of the latter). In the “little world” of the laboratory, the alchemist tried to find the prima materia of the metals, called “chaos” by analogy, reversing the process followed by God in his creation of the world from that prima materia that was the original chaos. Since the world had arisen from chaos, the latter must potentially contain, that is, in its latent, “hidden” state, the qualities that the divine creation had worked on in actuality, that is, in a manifest way.
From there the alchemists, like the majority of the philosophers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, proceeded to a series of analogies that allegedly clarified the process of creation: plant and animal reproduction (the seed contains in embryo, latently, the future being); fermentation (the transmutation of grains, of milk and of grapes into bread, cheese and wine), in turn identified with pregnancy; digesting (the transmutation of food into flesh and blood); and transubstantiation (the miraculous transmutation of the sacred host into the flesh of Christ). The transmutation of base metals into silver or gold was not, after all, either more implausible or less mysterious than those processes we have just enumerated, all of which are clearly authentic or assumed to be authentic and, except for transubstantiation, all of them are completely natural.
That is why the author of one of the most famous pseudo-Paracelsian texts, the Philosophia ad Athenienses, could write, in order to explain the content of the prima materia:
“The prima materia of all things is the ‘great mystery’…. Just as babies are born from the mother, it is from the ‘great mystery’ that all things are born, with or without sense, and also all other things, without exception. The ‘great mystery’ is the only mother of all mortal things….”
Here we are confronted by an explanation by analogy (which is not really an explanation, properly speaking) which is perfectly circular. For the “great uncreated mystery” that is the original chaos, analogous to a womb fertilized by the divine light during the course of the act of creation, then serves to clarify and explain the different “particular mysteries” that are the productions of new substances (cheese, worms….) from other substances (milk, rotten meat…), which are “like the grandchildren” of the original “great mystery”. Thus, the “great mystery” is the model of all reproduction and, reciprocally, the “particular mysteries” help us to understand how the primeval “great mystery” could have taken place. In reasoning by analogy, the different orders of reality refer to each other and serve to mutually confirm each other. Similarly, in his work entitled Paragranum (1530), Paracelsus affirmed:
“Nature is so subtle and so meticulous … that one can only win its favors through a great art. It yields nothing in a finished state; it is up to man to complete it: this process of completion is called alchemy. The alchemist is the baker who bakes the bread, the vintner who ferments the wine, the weaver who weaves the fabric. Thus, an alchemist is the one who allows everything that nature causes to arise for the use of man to reach the point that nature has ordained for it…. In order for its medicine to take effect,8 nature itself will show the way by which you must conduct your efforts. Just as the summer causes the pears and the grapes to ripen, its medicine must be administered slowly…. The medication that you prescribe is prepared by the stomach, that is, the alchemist.”
By defining the baker, the vintner, the weaver and, finally, all men (who have stomachs) as alchemists, it becomes much easier to consider alchemy as something plausible; the “mystery” of its operations is no different in any respect than the one that is presented every day by these transmutations, whose familiarity leads us to overlook their profoundly incomprehensible nature, which is what artisans do when they transform a prima materia into a qualitatively distinct product, and which is also carried out, without us being aware of it, by our internal alchemist: the stomach.
The texts of Paracelsus, taken as a whole, are dizzying and almost impossible to translate without simplifying. The repetitive, confused and apparently contradictory nature of his writings is due to the fact that he attempted to convey the meaning of complex realities and processes that are impossible to rationally explain, and which can only be expressed by way of analogies and metaphors that are necessarily only approximations. And this is the nature of that “primitive” dialectic that we shall encounter, with various nuances, in most of the alchemical texts. We can see that the poetic and image-filled language of these texts does not possess a merely ornamental function, nor does it serve exclusively (although this is indeed one of its aspects) to transmit in a cryptic form, inaccessible to the vulgar, information pertaining to chemistry in the modern sense of the term: the processes of qualitative transformation, the paradoxical properties of the philosopher’s stone or of the prima materia surpass the descriptive potential of ordinary language.
Unlike the dialectic of Hegel or Marx, the alchemical “proto-dialectic” is not inscribed in a linear temporality, in which one proceeds by means of successive “suppressions” and “supersessions”. The processes described by the alchemists are not cumulative: each attempt to carry out the Great Work, with the inevitable failure that it entails, begins a self-enclosed cycle, one that reproduces the cycle of the history of the world, inaugurated with the creation and destined to be completed with the resurrection of the flesh; time only flows within the Great Work, where one must respect the time required for fermentation, cooking, ripening, etc. (which is furthermore almost never clearly indicated). From this point of view, it can be said that alchemy does not have a history. Although he stubbornly aspires to understand what his predecessors did, each alchemist is alone with himself when he works, without having any other guide than the enigmatic descriptions of the mysterious transformations (natural or artificial) of matter. That is why the alchemical model, which is certainly suggestive for the imagination, annihilates the revolutionary perspective from the moment we examine the discourse it utilizes from the point of view of its logical coherence.
Alchemy nonetheless preserves with the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic a formal similarity that merits further scrutiny. The different alchemical theories have in common the idea that the metals are formed in the same way, which enables one to speculate concerning their final return to the unity they exhibited prior to the historical accident that constituted the separation of the prima materia into various “species” (iron, copper, lead, etc.). In the same way, the dialectical triad (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) always presupposes an initial unity or affirmation, ineluctably shattered by the negative stage of separation before the return to a positive unity at a higher level, which has, so to speak, reabsorbed within itself the multifarious and the negative; this unity constitutes in turn the starting point for a new cycle, distinguished by the appearance of separation and the negative, etc. Although the alchemical cycle differs from the dialectical cycle due to its non-cumulative nature (the end of the cycle does not inaugurate the beginning of another, later cycle), the postulate of initial unity is shared by both forms of thought and governs the general conception of the process. Likewise, for the situationists, the idea that “separation” is not inherent, in one form or another, to every human society, and that there once existed, as Engels had already believed, a primitive communism, or at least, according to the formula of Debord, an initial state of “lazy liberty without content”, permits the conception of the supersession of the state of separation by way of the return to a freedom of a higher order. If the effective realization of this revolutionary supersession is not guaranteed, its possibility, on the other hand, seems to be certain by virtue of the metaphysical assumption according to which all historical processes are subject to a dialectical “law”. But there is nothing to indicate that separation, once a certain qualitative threshold of the irreversibility of the material (ecological) modifications of the world and of the ensuing transformations of the human species has been reached—a threshold that theory does not allow itself to anticipate, but which is only revealed empirically once it is attained—can still give way to a positive supersession. This is the intuition that the situationists had in 1972, in The Veritable Split, an intuition that was necessarily fatal for the theory that they had previously elaborated.
- 1 Contrary to what many people believe, it seems that “spiritual” alchemy did not emerge until quite late in the history of alchemy. The “spiritualist” interpretations of the “visions” of Zosimus of Panopolis (late 3rd century-early 4th century A.D.) by Carl Gustav Jung are erroneous, and those of the Arabic alchemical texts by Henry Corbin, who saw them above all as mystical exercises, must be taken with a pinch of salt, since they quite likely reflect the esoteric assumptions of the author. The Medieval Latin alchemical texts, in any event, have nothing “spiritual” about them, and the same is true of most of the alchemical texts of the Renaissance. It was, more than any other factor, the Paracelsian and, later, the Rosicrucian authors, who would elaborate a “spiritual” conception of alchemy.
- 2 “Eugène Canseliet, whose amiability was equal to his vast erudition, confirmed that the makers of gold lived in material poverty. He assured me, between laughs, that the alchemist could obtain, at the end of an operation that demanded considerable patience, attention and time, enough pure gold to manufacture a small nugget, which he could have purchased for one-tenth the money that it cost to make” (Le Chevalier, la Dame, le Diable et la mort).
- 3 Just like “sublimation”, “projection” is an alchemical term (the “powder of projection”) that acquires a psychological meaning for psychoanalysts. They were immediately stunned to find it in alchemical texts, and they have never ceased to see it, taking cause for effect, as the proof that alchemy was nothing but a kind of primitive psychoanalysis.
- 4 The basic principle—and the fundamental methodological error—of the Jungian interpretation is that any text or image of a “mystical” or “alchemical” kind can and must be interpreted exactly in the same way as the relation of a dream provided by a patient lying on the couch of the psychoanalyst. Interpreting some features in the light of others, it was easy for Jung to recognize in the former the “archetypes” that he thought he could discover in the latter, and vice versa, thus constructing a theory which by virtue of its circularity is rendered unscientific.
- 5 An Italian author, Luciano Parinetto, devoted an entire book, entitled Faust et Marx (1989), to “alchemical metaphors” in their relation with the “critique of political economy”. Some pertinent observations in this book are buried under an avalanche of more or less untenable analogies. See also, by the same author, Alchimia e utopia (1990).
- 6 In Plato, the dialectic consists in subdividing a problem into pairs of contraries for the purpose of precisely determining the essence of a thing (Pierre de la Ramée would rediscover and generalize this “dichotomous” method in the 16th century). Plato also distinguished between an “ascending” dialectic, which rose from the sensory to the Idea, and a “descending” dialectic, which started from the Idea in order to arrive at sensory objects. It is possible to see in the two methods of distillation distinguished by the medieval alchemists (ascendant and descendant) an application of the Platonic dialectic to the analysis of the constitution of physical bodies: the volatile substances, designated with the name of “soul”, rise from the “earth” (where the fixed substances remain, called “bodies”) to the “heaven” of the alembic, while condensation causes the “spirits”, in the form of a liquid, to descend within the container made for that purpose. “Ascendant” distillation and “descendant” distillation were practiced in apparatuses called ascensum and descensum, respectively.
- 7 These expressions initially served to describe the paradoxical properties of mercury (which made it hard to classify according to the customary logical and physical categories), identified with the prima materia of the metals, and therefore with the philosopher’s stone. In the 16th century, the debunkers of alchemy in turn used this rhetorical device, defining alchemy as an “art without art”.
- 8 Paracelsus was only interested in medical alchemy and rejected the alchemy of metals.