Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Deliriously Beautiful World Of Unnamed Substances

Alchemy is a discredited pseudoscience. It took a long time dying, but the end was in sight early on, as the sciences began to move forward after the Renaissance. Oswald Croll, a seventeenth-century German alchemist, wrote a book with a picture of himself emerging from the alchemical vessel and striking a kingly pose. It is supposed to be an image of the Philosophical King, the very embodiment of the Stone. Croll calls his likeness “the earthly treasure and earthly God” but he is a flabby, nude, fifty-year-old man, and he looks pathetic—like an overweight suburbanite who stepped into a pot by mistake. Even then, in the golden age of alchemy, there were those who suspected that alchemy might be hollow. As modern chemistry got going, alchemy lost ground, and in the nineteenth century scientists stripped it even of the dubious prestige it had once had. In the last fifty years things have gotten even worse, because now alchemy is either mummified within Jung’s heavy psychological theories of the mind, or evaporated into New Age dreams.

In a perverse way, some alchemists reveled in the ruins of their discipline. If things looked bad, and they were expelled from court, or called quacks or “puffers,” then that meant their art must have some miraculous secret. Because it seemed empty, it must be full. Because it was despised, it must be magnificent. Countless books begin with versions of the epigram “What good are glasses to those who cannot see?”—implying that the book will not be understood by anyone unless they already believe in it. As the criticism from outside became more strident, the alchemists dug deeper into their unwavering convictions and unconscious self-deceptions. Current alchemy happens far from serious chemistry, physics, philosophy, and literature: that is the price it pays to keep its hope alive.

The weight of history is against the alchemists, but in a sense they are right, because there is truth in alchemy even if it does not reside in vague recipes or ecstatic prayers. I hope I have made it clear that alchemy is not just a fusty old activity fit for cranks, or a mystical New Age pursuit suitable for adolescents. It has its truths, and they were hard-won in encounters with unknown substances. Above all, alchemy is a record of serious, sustained attempts to understand what substances are and how they carry meaning. And for that reason it is the best voice for artists who wrestle every day with materials they do not comprehend and methods they can never entirely master. Science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the world. Alchemy and painting are two of the very last remaining paths into the deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances.

James Elkins
in What Painting Is

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