Friday, June 13, 2008

The Act Of Making Was The Prayer

Following the model of Jesus’s hypostasis—His incarnation into flesh—and His resurrection, some alchemists conceived their purpose as the rehearsal of their own resurrection at the Second Coming. They studied the revelation of divinity in ordinary matter, and especially in the most earthy things, those farthest from heaven and most like themselves. They looked at purulent infusions and saw their own dying spirits. Turbid waters mirrored leaden thoughts. A dusky flask suggested a dark mind, and a foaming crucible implied inner turmoil. They saw the endless labor, with the recipes calling for a year’s worth of work to accomplish a single step, as painful allegories for their own lives, and their chances of redemption. But the Stone was a hope to be cherished, since it promised that their bodies could finally be balanced and preserved, and their souls made calm and clear.

In academic language, these are hypostatic allegories. They are a general truth about alchemy, but it is easy to overstate them, as I think Jung did. Most of the time it is implicit that whatever happens in the flask is of pressing religious importance, but it is rare to find alchemists drawing parallels between each experiment and a particular state of their immortal soul. Even so, most alchemy is theo-alchemy: it is about questions of eternal life, soul and spirit, resurrection, and incarnation. Alchemists knew they were rehearsing, and often speeding up, processes that the earth does naturally by brewing metals underground. That work was God’s, and it was the ongoing perfection of the world. As the universe drew near to the millennium, human souls as well as stony spirits were slowly being purified and brought closer to God. So, in a fundamental sense, the alchemists did see their souls in the retorts and crucibles, but they rarely spoke about their experiences in the terms that Jung implies: certainly they never mentioned the psyche, the unconscious, and the archetypes, which Jung proffers as the actual mechanisms driving alchemy. Even devoted theoalchemists who wrote about revelation, spirit, and redemption did not make explicit connections between laboratory recipes and their own souls. They implied as much by talking about the relation between alchemy and prayer, but they did not have the modern penchant for confessional self-analysis. The act of making, labor, was the prayer, ora. What counted in the laboratory was the wordless work. The theoalchemists such a Georg von Welling, the ecstatic prophets like Heinrich Khunrath, the philosophic mystics like Michael Maier, and even the “scientific” psychologists like Jung all came afterward, with their heavy interpretations in tow. It is essential to remember that no matter how crucial religious meanings were to the alchemists, there are no books written in the laboratory that speak about them. At the moment of making, the act is everything. Afterward, there is plenty of time—even centuries—to try to figure out what it all meant.

James Elkins
in What Painting Is

Negotiations Between Water And Stone

The Deliriously Beautiful World Of Unnamed Substances

Rembrandt, Magic And Substance Becomes Mind

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