'Ethereal Chemicals': Alchemy and the Romantic Imagination[Notice]

  • Maureen B. Roberts

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  • Maureen B. Roberts
    University of Adelaide

The introspective, radically symbolic and mythic language of hermetic philosophy of all ages, as well as its affirmation of a meaningful correspondence between mind and Nature, puts it - alongside Romanticism and the Platonic tradition - within a mode of thought and perception which draws its creative inspiration from a perennial substratum of innate archetypal ideas. Western alchemy, which flourished in Europe through to the end of the Renaissance, gradually faded into obscurity during the eighteenth century as a result of its incompatibility with the hypostasis of reason that characterised the spirit of "enlightenment." Romanticism, then, as a metarational reaction to empiricism, entails a reconnection to the archetypal realm and a corresponding reactivation of alchemical themes and symbols. It was through understanding the significance of alchemical symbolism that Jung came to formulate his central concept of individuation. In two of his most important works, Psychology and Alchemy and Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung turned his attention almost exclusively to the study of the psychology of alchemy. In the alchemical search for the Philosophers' Stone Jung saw a direct parallel to the quest for the divine inner centre of the self. As base metals are gradually transmuted into gold, the ultimate unity and perfection, so unconscious processes manifesting themselves as archetypal images and symbols are transformed into the psychological equivalent of gold or the Stone, the undivided self. Thus the symbolism of the alchemical process represents a centralising and unifying instinct which culminates in the production of the self as a new centre of totality. There is certainly evidence in alchemical literature that the alchemists were aware of the ultimately psychic nature of their procedures, as is evidenced by the sixteenth century Paracelsist Gerhard Dorn's injunction to: "Transform yourselves into living philosophical Stones!" Hermes Trismegistus, the semi-mythical founder of Near-Eastern and Western alchemy, proclaims from the start that the alchemical "work is with you and amongst you; in that it is to be found within you and is enduring." Mircea Eliade similarly agrees that the alchemists were seeking their own transmutation through the perfection of their materials. The union of self and Nature is fundamental to both the alchemical and Romantic imaginative quests. The Renaissance alchemist Paracelsus - one of Blake's mentors - anticipated the Romantic correspondence between objective and subjective reality: "Everything external in nature points to something internal," he writes, therein encapsulating the philosophical basis of alchemical practice - the essential correspondence between the synthetic principles of Nature and the inner impulse toward integration and wholeness. Alchemy is grounded in Nature such that Nature and human nature are to be "conjoined, brought together, and estimated one by the other." The alchemist "brings forth what is latent in Nature" such that alchemy is "the true and sublime Art of Nature herself." The ultimate goal of the alchemical process, the Philosophers' Stone, as an anticipated totality represents the paradoxical harmony of contradictory forces resolved into the uniting symbol. The quest for unity or wholeness central to both alchemy and Romanticism thus replaces the moralism of a redemption grounded in reasoned theological belief systems. In Romanticism and alchemy redemption is, in other words, displaced from the rational by a reassertion of an innate capacity to redeem oneself through the attainment of wholeness. This averment of self-perfection is, then, an instance of the "de-moralisation" of the religious quest, which characterises the subjection of the self to the morally neutral archetypal realm. The goal of the alchemical procedure is healing self-knowledge; the extracted quintessence, equated with gold and the Stone as the final principle of truth, is a panacea. Through the therapeutic power of alchemy wholeness …

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