well, it is a small group and this was my intent by focusing on the Hermetic Corpus and alchemy. I've just gotten tired of talking about psychedelic drugs and always saying the same things over and over again, nevertheless it's a challenge to go outside my own ballywick. I mean I've had an interest in hermeticism and alchemy since I was about 14 and read Jung's psychology and (of) alchemy and it opened for me the fact of the existence of this vast literature, a literature that is very little read or understood in the modern context. The Jungians have made much of it, but to their own purposes and perhaps not always with complete fidelity to the intent of the tradition. We'll talk a lot about the Jungian approach but there are other approaches even within the 20th century. I believe, since I don't have the catalog I'm not absolutely certain, but I believe the catalog urged you to read Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Dame Frances Yates and this is, though Frances Yates scholarship is very controversial, I think that to get an overview of the landscape her book is probably the best single book between covers. It's not pleasing to some factions and we can talk about that, I mean, we will probably discover within the group all strains of alchemical illusions and delusions that have always driven this particular engine, but I thought to get one book that sort of covered the territory that was a good one to start with. Well then I found out that it's very hard to get this book. I didn't realize that because it's been sitting on my shelf for years. Richard Bird found a reprint at the Bodhi Tree. I wasn't aware of this particular edition so, though probably none of you brought it with you in heavily underlined form, if after this weekend you want to try and get it, it is available and if you can't get that edition, why, a good book service can probably come up with the first edition which is Routledge Kegan Paul.
I wouldn't hold a weekend like this simply to go over a body of ancient literature if I didn't think it had some efficacy or import for the modern dilemma and some of you may know the song by the Grateful Dead in which the refrain is "I need a miracle every day." I think any reasonable person can conclude that the redemption of the world, if it's to be achieved, can only be achieved through magic. It's too late for science. It's too late for hortatory politics.
Well, it's very interesting - every ancient literature has its apocalypses and in the hermetic literature there is a prophecy, I think it's in book two but that really doesn't matter, and the prophecy is that a day will come when men no longer care for the earth and at that day the gods will depart and everything will be thrown into primal chaos and this prophecy was very strongly in the minds of the strains of non-Christian thought that evolved at the close-at the centuries of closure-of the Roman Empire. When you look back into historical time it's when you reach the first and second centuries after Christ that you reach a world whose psychology was very much like the psychology of our own time. It was a psychology of despair and exhaustion. This is because Greek science which had evolved under the aegis of democratian atomism and Platonic metaphysics had essentially come to a dead end in those centuries. We can debate the reasons why this happened. An obvious suggestion would be that they failed to develop an experimental method and so everything just dissolved into competing schools of philosophical speculation and a profound pessimism spread through the Hellenistic world and out of that pessimism and in the context of that kind of universal despair which attends the dissolution of great empires a literature was created from the first to the fourth centuries after Christ which we call the Hermetic Corpus or in some cases the Trismegistic Hymns. Now this body of literature was misunderstood by later centuries, especially the Renaissance, because it was taken at face value and assumed to be at least contemporary with Moses if not much older. So the Renaissance view of Hermeticism was based on a tragic misunderstanding of the true antiquity of this material and there are people, hopefully none in this room, who still would have us believe that this literature antedates the Mosaic Law, that it is as old as Dynastic Egypt. But this is an indefensible position from my point of view. In the early 16th century two men, a father and son, Issac and Marik Casaubon, showed through the new science of philology, that this material was in fact late Hellenistic. Now, I've always said that I am not a Classicist in the Viconian sense, in the sense that there is a certain strain of thought that always wants to believe that the oldest stuff is the best stuff. This is not the case to my mind. To my mind what is amazing is how recent everything is. So I have no sympathy with the fans of lost Atlantis or any of that kind of malarky because to me what is amazing is how it all is less than 10,000 years old. Anything older than 10,000 years puts us into the realm of an aceramic society relying on chipped flint for it's primary technology.
What the Hermetic Corpus is is the most poetic and cleanly expressed outpouring of ancient knowledge that we possess. But it was reworked in the hands of these late Hellenistic peoples and it is essentially a religion of the redemption of the earth through magic. It has great debt to a tradition called Sevillian which means to mean Mandeanism and Mandeanism was a kind of proto-Hellenistic gnosis that laid great stress on the power of life, Zoa, Bios, and in that sense it has a tremendously contemporary ring to it.
We also are living in the twilight of a great empire, and I don't particularly mean the American empire, I mean the empire of European thinking created in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of modern industrialism, the empire, in short of science. Science has exhausted itself and become mere techni. It's still able to perform its magical tricks, but it has no claim on a metaphysic with any meaning because the program of rational understanding that was pursued by science has pushed so deeply into the phenomenon of nature that the internal contradictions of the method are now exposed for all to see. In discussing alchemy especially we will meet with the concept of the coincidencia apositorum-the union of opposites. This is an idea that is completely alien to science. It's the idea that nothing can be understood unless it is simultaneously viewed as both being what it is and what it is not and in alchemical symbolism we will meet again and again symbolical expression of the coincidencia apositorum. It may be in the form of a hermaphrodite, it may be in the form of the union of soul and Luna, it may be in the form of the union of Mercury with lead, or with sulphur, in other words alchemical thinking is thinking that is always antithetical, always holds the possibility of by a mere shift of perspective its opposite premise will gain power and come into focus.
I think it was John, when we went around the circle, who mentioned his interest in shamanism. There's a wonderful book called The Forge and the Crucible by Mircea Eliade in which he shows that the shaman is the brother of the smith, the smith is the metalurgist, the worker in metals, and this is where alchemy has its roots. In a sense, alchemy is older than the Trismegistus Corpus and then it is also given a new lease on life by the philosophical underpinings which the Corpus Hermeticum provides it. Alchemy, the word alchemy, can be traced back to mean Egypt or a blackening and in its earliest strata it probably refers to techniques referring to dying, meaning the coloring of cloth, and gilding of metals, and the forging and working of metal. I mean, we who take this for granted have no idea how mysterious and powerful this seemed to ancient people and in fact it would seem so to us if we had anything to do with it. I mean how many of us are welders or casters of metal. It's a magical process to take for instance cinnibar, a red, soft ore and by the mere act of heating it in a furnace it will sweat liquid Mercury onto its surface. Well, we have unconsciously imbibed the ontology of science where we have mind firmly separated out from the world. We take this for granted, it's effortless, because it's the ambience of the civilization we've been born into but in an earlier age, and some writers would say a more naive age, but I wonder about that, but in an earlier age mind and matter were seen to be alloyed together throughout nature so that the sweating of mercury out of cinnibar is not a material process, it's a process in which the mind and the observations of the metalworker maintain an important role, and let's talk for a moment about mercury because the spirit Mercurius is almost the patron deity of alchemy.
You all know what mercury looks like-at room temperature it's a silvery liquid that flows, it's like a mirror. For the alchemists, and this is just a very short exercise in alchemical thinking, for the alchemists mercury was mind itself, in a sense, and by tracing through the steps by which they reached that conclusion you can have a taste of what alchemical thinking was about. Mercury takes the form of its container. If I pour mercury into a cup, it takes the shape of the cup, if I pour it into a test tube, it takes the shape of the test tube. This taking the shape of its container is a quality of mind and yet here it is present in a flowing, silvery metal. The other thing is, mercury is a reflecting surface. You never see mercury, what you see is the world which surrounds it, which is perfectly reflected in its surface like a moving mirror, you see. And then if you've ever, as a child, I mean I have no idea how toxic this process is, but I spent a lot of time as a child hounding my grandfather for his hearing aid batteries which I would then smash with a hammer and get the mercury out and collect it in little bottles and carry it around with me. Well, the wonderful thing about mercury is when you pour it out on a surface and it beads up, then each bead of mercury becomes a little microcosm of the world. And yet the mercury flows back together into a unity. Well, as a child I had not yet imbibed the assumptions and the ontology of science. I was functioning as an alchemist. For me, mercury was this fascinating magical substance onto which I could project the contents of my mind. And a child playing with mercury is an alchemist hard at work, no doubt about it.
Well, so then, this is a phenomenon in the physical world and then mind is a phenomenon in the Cartesian distinction, which is between the Res Extensa and the Res Verins. This is the great splitting of the world into two parts. I remember Al Wong once said to me, we were talking about the yin yang symbol, and he said you know the interesting thing is not the yin or the yang, the interesting thing is the s shaped surface that runs between them. And that s shaped surface is a river of alchemical mercury. Now, where the alchemists saw this river of alchemical mercury is in the boundary between waking and sleeping. There is a place, not quite sleeping, not quite waking, and there there flows this river of alchemical mercury where you can project the contents of the unconscious and you can read it back to yourself. This kind of thinking is confounding to scientific thought where the effort is always to fix everything to a given identity and a given set of behaviors.
Now, the other hermetic perception that is well illustrated by just thinking for a moment about mercury is the notion, and this is central to all hermetic thinking, of the microcosm and the macrocosm. That somehow the great world, the whole of the cosmos is reflected in the mystery of man, meaning men and women, it's reflected in the mystery of the human mind/body interface. So, for an alchemist, it makes perfect sense to extrapolate from this internal, what we call internal psychological processes, to external processes in the world. That distinction doesn't exist for the alchemist, and let me tell you, the longer I live the more I am convinced that this is absolutely the truth.
The myth of our society is the existential myth that we are cast into matter, that we are lost in a universe that has no meaning for us, that we must make our meaning. This is what Sartre, Kierkegaard, all those people are saying, that we must make our meaning. It reaches its most absurd expression in Sartre's statement that nature is mute. I mean, this is as far from alchemical thinking as you can possibly get because for the alchemist nature was a great book, an open book to be read by putting nature through processes that revealed not only its inner mechanics, but the inner mechanics of the artifex (person performing experiment)-the person working upon the material, in other words, the alchemist.
Well, in other contexts I've talked about the importance of language and how our world is made of language and part of the problem in understanding alchemy is that the language is slipping out of our reach. We are so completely imbued with the Cartesian categories of the Res Verins, the world of thought, and the Res Extensia, the world of three dimensional space, and causality, and the conservation of matter and energy, and so forth that in order to do more than carry out a kind of scholarship of alchemy we have to create an alchemical language, or a field in which alchemical language can take place. Some of you may have been with me a couple of weeks ago in Malibu when Joan Halifax and I debated the roots of Buddhism and I think Joan deserves great credit for saying that Buddhism would never have taken root in America were it not for the psychedelic phenomenon. Not that Buddhism is psychedelic, it in fact is fairly touchy about that, but Buddhism would have gotten nowhere in America had not psychedelics created a context for Buddhist language to take root, And I wager that I would never have gotten to first base with proposing a weekend on alchemy at Esalen were it not understood that psychedelics have prepared people for the notion that mind and world can be pureed together like mercury and sulphur, like the Sophic waters, to create a new kind of understanding because otherwise modernity has fixed our minds in the category of Cartesian rationalism and so I will not claim, and do not in fact think it's so, that there was anything overtly psychedelic in the sense of pharmacologically-based about alchemy. When we look back through the alchemical literature there's very little evidence that it was pharmacologically driven. Only when you get to the very last ademptions of the alchemical impulse in someone like Paracelsus do you get the use of opium. But it is interesting that the great drugs of modern society were accidentally discovered by alchemists in their researches; distilled alcohol is a product of alchemical work and then, as I mentioned, opium was very heavily used by the Peracelsian school. But what they possessed was an ability to liquify their mental categories and then to project the contents of the mind onto these processes and read them back.
Now this is what made alchemy so fascinating to the Jungian school because the Jungians were discovering the unconscious and they realized, before Jung's involvement with alchemy, that the best material for psychotherapy to work upon was dreams and mythology and these were the two poles of the data field that the discovery of the unconscious was working on. Well then Jung had the prescience to realize that alchemy, which to that point, as the gentleman over here said, had been dismissed as a naive effort to turn base metals into gold-this is the first fiction that you have to absolutely purge from your mind, the only alchemists who ever tried to turn base metals into gold were charlatans, the so-called puffers. They were called that not only for their exaggerated speech but for their use of bellows to drive their fires. Alchemy has always had a core of true adepts and then a surround of misguided souls and outright con artists who were trying to change base metals into gold. Now, it's interesting that science, in its naivety, in the 20th century has actually completed the program of psuedo-alchemy. You can, if you have a sufficiently powerful nuclear reactor, change lead into gold. I mean, the cost is staggering. It has no economic importance whatsoever but it can be done by bombarding gold with a sufficient amount of heavy particles. Lead, you can change it into gold, but this is not what the original intent was. In fact, when we look at the history of 20th century science we will see that, in a way, it's a misunderstanding of what the alchemical goals were to be and, one by one, it has done these things that were stated goals of the alchemists except that the alchemists always spoke in similies and in a secret control language that was symbolic.
O.k., now, another point that was brought up in going around the circle was the externalization of the soul and what we're trying to do in this weekend is study and talk about the idea of redeeming the world through magic. And how is this to be done? Well, the philosopher's stone is a complex of ideas that, no matter how you divide it, no matter how you slice it, it's very difficult to hold the pith essence of this concept, but what it really comes down to is the idea that spirit is somehow resident in matter in a very diffuse form. The goal of hermetic thinking and later alchemy is the concentration and redemption of this spirit, a focusing of it, a bringing of it together. This is an idea that was common in the Hellenistic world not only to hermetic thinking but also to Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is the idea that somehow the pure, holy, real light of being was scattered through a universe of darkness and of Saturnine power and that the goal is that by a process which we can call yogic or alchemical or medatative or moral/ethical, the light must be gathered and concentrated in the body and then somehow released and redeemed. All esoteric traditions, East and West, talk about the creation of this body of light and we will not, in this weekend, talk very much about alchemy, non-western alchemy, Taoist and Vedic alchemy, but in those systems too the notion is about the creation of this vehicle of light. This is one metaphor for the externalization of the soul.
The philosopher's stone is another and I will challenge you to try and imagine what the achievement of the philosopher's stone would be like because it's in trying to think that way that you begin to dissolve the categories of the Cartesian trap. So, image for a moment an object, a material, which can literally do anything. It can move across categorical boundaries with no difficulty whatsoever. So what do I mean? I mean that if you possess the philosopher's stone and you were hungry, you could eat it. If you needed to go somewhere you could spread it out and sit on it and it would take you there. If you needed a piece of information, it would become the equivalent of a computer screen and it would tell you things. If you needed a companion, it would talk to you. If you needed to take a shower you could hold it over your head and water would pour out. Now, you see, this is an impossibility. That's right, it's a coincidencia apositorum. It is something that behaves like imagination and matter without ever doing damage to the ontological status of one or the other. This sounds like pure pathology in the context of modern thinking because we expect things to stay still and be what they are and undergo the growth and degradation that is inimical to them, but no, the redemption of spirit and matter means the exteriorization of the human soul and the interiorization of the human body so that it is an image freely commanded in the imagination.
Imagination. I think this is the first time I've used this word this evening. The imagination is central to the alchemical opus because it is literally a process that goes on the realm of the imagination taken to be a physical dimension. And I think that we cannot understand the history that lies ahead of us unless we think in terms of a journey into the imagination. We have exhausted the world of three dimensional space. We are polluting it. We are overpopulating it. We are using it up. Somehow the redemption of the human enterprise lies in the dimension of the imagination. And to do that we have to transcend the categories that we inherit from a thousand years of science and Christianity and rationalism and we have to re-empower and re-encounter the mind and we can do this psychedelically, we can do this yogically, or we can do it alchemically and hermetically.
Now there is present in the world at the moment, or at least I like to think so, an impulse which I have named the archaic revival. What happens is that whenever a society really gets in trouble, and you can use this in your own life-when you really get in trouble-what you should do is say "what did I believe in the last sane moments that I experienced" and then go back to that moment and act from it even if you no longer believe it. Now in the Renaissance this happened. The scholastic universe dissolved. New classes, new forms of wealth, new systems of navigation, new scientific tools, made it impossible to maintain the fiction of the Medieval cosmology and there was a sense that the world was dissolving. Good alchemical word-dissolving. And in that moment the movers and shakers of that civilization reached backwards in time to the last sane moment they had ever known and they discovered that it was Classical Greece and they invented classicism. In the 15th and 16th century the texts which had lain in monasteries in Syria and Asia Minor forgotten and untranslated for centuries were brought to the Florentine council by people like Gimistos Placo(sp?) and others and translated and classicism was born-its laws, its philosophy, its aesthetics. We are the inheritors of that tradition but it is now, once again, exhausted and our cultural crisis is much greater. It is global. It is total. It involves every man, woman and child on this planet, every bug, bird and tree is caught up in the cultural crisis that we have engendered. Our ideas are exhausted-the ideas that we inherit out of Christianity and its half-brother science, or its bastard child science. So, what I'm suggesting is that an archaic revival needs to take place and it seems to be well in hand in the revival of Goddess worship and shamanism and partnership but notice that these things are old-10,000 years or more old-but there was an unbroken thread that, however thinly drawn, persists right up to the present.
So the idea of this weekend is to show the way back to the high magic of the late Paleolithic, to show that there were intellectual traditions, there were minority points of view that kept the faith, that never allowed it to die. And, to my mind, this alchemical, hermetic, Gnostic, Egyptian, Caldean thread is the thread and if we unravel it with sufficient care and attention then we can build a bridge from the otherwise nearly incomprehensible high magic of the late Paleolithic. We can get it as near to ourselves as John Dee, who died in 1604. We can discover that it's no further away form us than the beginning of the 30 years war and, for my money, after that, it gets pretty mucked up. I mean, after Ulias Levy, who's already waffling, I'm not very interested in the occultism of the 17th, 18th and 19th century but it's not necessary because scholarship gives us the Caldean oracles, the Trismegistic Hymns, the library at Nag Hammadi, and so forth and so on. So my impulse is to, in the most austere sense, repopularize, reintroduce this kind of thinking so that people can live it out. Then, step, by step, we can evolve our language and evolve our understanding to make our way back to the garden, back to Eden.
It's occurred to me recently, you know it's said that Christ opened the doors to paradise, yes, but he closed the doors to Eden and paradise is a very airy place where everybody sits around on clouds strumming their lyres. I think that what we want to do is make our way back to the alchemical garden. That's where our roots are. That's where meaning is. Meaning lies in the confrontation of contradiction-the coincidencia apositorum. That's what we really feel, not these rational schemas that are constantly beating us over the head with the "thou shalts" and "thou should." but rather a recovery of the real ambiguity of being and an ability to see ourselves as at once powerful and weak, noble and ignoble, future-oriented, past-facing. We each need to become Janus-based(?) and to incorporate into ourselves the banished contradictions of being that so haunt the enterprise of science. We can leave that behind and when we do we reclaim authentic being. And authentic being, make no mistake about it, is what alchemical gold really is. That's what they're talking about-authentic being.
(question from the group): So right now we're lead?
That's right, we're Saturnine and we'll talk about Saturn and Pluto and all of that. Yes, tomorrow we'll talk about the stages of the alchemical opus and though the stages are many and multifarious, it all begins in what is called the negrado, the blackening, the depths of the leaded, Saturnine, chaotic, fixed place. And that's where we have been left by science and modernity and so forth and so on. That's where the alchemist loves to begin. That's where he or she stokes the fire and begins the dissolucio et coagulatio that leads to the appearance of the stone.
I'll show you some books and this is by no means exhaustive. The literature on hermeticism and alchemy is vast and I could have brought 5 or 6 boxes of this size from my own library. This a smattering. It doesn't mean that what I show you is the best. It simply tries to spread over a large area. Oh, someone put this here. This is a new novel that's just been published by Lindsay Clark called The Chemical Wedding and I see last week it was number 10 on the New York Time's best sellers list which is astonishing for such an obscure subject. It's a retelling of a famous incident in alchemy in the 19th century when a woman named Mary Alice Datwood, who had a very, very close relationship to her father, Dr. South, and the two of them worked together, she on a text, he on a long poem and to make a long story short, eventually they decided to destroy both the poem and the book feeling that they had said too much and given the secret away-at least that's one version. So this is fictionalized retelling of that incident intercut with a modern cast of characters very clearly modelled on the poet Robert Graves. So if you like to absorb your information in a fictionalized form, this is a wonderful book. John Borman the movie director recently optioned this book-the guy who made "The Emereld Forest" and "Excalibur" so we may have an alchemical movie downstream, a year or two.
A number of compendiums of alchemical texts have been published over the centuries and if you wish to study alchemy you have to obtain these. If you're fortunate enough to read French you should read Vespugiare and Berthelo. They collected alchemical texts into encyclopedic-sized volumes but unfortunately these have never really come into English. One that did come into English is the Museum Hermeticum Amplificarum et Theatrum, I think, which A.E. Waite, who some of you may know for his role in the Golden Dawn, collected. There are about 40 alchemical texts and all the greats are in here: Lull, Vilanova, Michael Maier, Basil Valentine, Kramer, Edward Kelly and so on and so forth.
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