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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Carl Jung and Alchemical Symbolism (Part Four)

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, June 07, 2013

Initially Jung’s historiography of alchemy as a sequence of pseudochemical operations exemplifying an unconscious projection of individuation was very convivial, something which shouldn’t come as any great surprise given its notorious reputation as an intellectual cul-de-sac for contemporary historians of culture. Nevertheless in the aftermath of Jungian sensationism, radical and implacable polemicists like ex-Jungian Richard Noll (1959- ) have stressed certain subjective tendencies in Jung’s experimental methodology as well as socio-political stances fuelled by professional aspirations that have in effect promulgated feelings of substantial doubt surrounding his legitimacy as an objective interpreter of the Western esoteric tradition.

The first unduly disturbing concern is his own inability in recognizing the paradox inherent in his own historiographical analysis; how might certain views explicated in the Paracelsica, for example the deliberate and conscious appropriation of cipher codes for the sake of disguising an underlying mystical endeavour deemed an anathema by the Christian patriarchy, actually be reconciled with an unconscious projection of archetypal irruptions into laboratory apparatuses? In this particular instance an either-or-logic is mandatory. Moreover, some of the correlates intending to bring analytical psychology directly into line with ‘psychologized’ alchemy are sketchy at best; in Psychology and Alchemy Jung equates his four psychological functions–thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition–with the four elements, the four stages of the alchemical opus, and the four arms of the mystical cross without any satisfactory explanation as to why these correspondences should have been conjured in the first place. Here, Jung also has recourse to the neo-Pythagorean ‘axiom of Maria Prophetissa’, an idiom traceable all the way back to the fifty-third chapter of a European alchemical tractate called Turba Philosophorum (c. 900ce) in exposing the central importance of four in the creative process: the ‘one’ is the uroboric autarchy of paradisal perfection; the ‘two’ is differentiation into the phylogenetic strata of the total psyche; the ‘three’ is the coniunctio that produces the transcendental function; and the ‘fourth’ is the psychological totality arbitrated by the archetypal Self. Of course, yoking together concepts for their numerical relations is an epistemological blunder, a mistake that even his disciple and commentator Aniela Jaffe inevitably acknowledged: ‘There was no particular book that he valued above all others. He would single out one or another according to its applicability to the theme he was interested in… at the moment.’     

Another problem for the fort of analytical psychology has been the total lack of neuroscientific evidence that might support the existence of a transpersonal entity such as a collective unconscious. The observations from which theorization of the latter was eventually surmised came from Swiss patients that were more often than not apathetic, well-integrated, and endowed with an above-average acumen. With such a lopsided view of the consensus, the only rational course available to Jung was to perceive the greater corpus of mental conditions standing outside the ‘norm’ as symptomatic of a fundamental disconnection with the unconscious. This culminated in a quest to unearth a hitherto undiscovered phenomenon beyond the superficial processes of social cohesion, one which dipped all the way down to the rudimentary level of being and creatively affected the psychic blockades responsible for depression and dissociative states.

Incidentally, the most pivotal piece of the puzzle was offered up by one of Jung’s schizophrenic patients whose hallucinatory visions spawned carnal images of a sun endowed with a flexible phallus, one that would have no doubt resembled an elephant trunk. According to the patient, the four winds were generated at the behest of phallic motion. Strange as it was, the images offered up for observation were comparable to descriptions of a Mithraic liturgy found in an unpublicized Greek papyrus where a phallic tube suspended from the bottom of the solar nimbus embodied the aerial forces. In claiming that the patient lacked foreknowledge of any such or comparable images Jung could then explain the oddity away as a frequent case of telepathic projection, hence offering empirical evidence for an unconscious seat of primordial symbols of transpersonal character that manifest in visual hallucinations and mythologems universally. Attempts to discredit ‘the psychology of the unconscious’ such as those initiated by ex-Jungian Richard Noll have depended upon throwing dark veils of suspicion over the experiential legitimacy of this ‘Solar Phallus Man.’ Noll in particular has argued that both English and German translations of the Mithraic text were in circulation before the patient’s hallucination came to pass, an insinuation meant to undermine the empirical thread yoking the theories which buttress a Jungian interpretation for alchemy along with the integrity and character of the Swiss theorist himself. 

In recent years, the Jungian school has also had to contend with a growing band of scholars seeking to demonstrate alchemy’s importance in the transition from Renaissance vitalism to post-Enlightenment mechanistic philosophy. For instance Isaac Newton’s lifelong interest in chemico-operative alchemy and the extent to which it acted as a formative stimulant to his conjectures on classical mechanics is illuminated by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs (1930-1994) in her book The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy (1991). An analogous argument is paved with respect to the man who is more often than not considered the founder father of modern chemistry in Lawrence Principe’s book The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest (2000). On the other hand the French historian of science Barbara Obrist (1950- ) has sought to purge late medieval and Renaissance alchemical literature of psychospiritual interpretations inspired by nineteenth-century Victorian occultism by asserting that the religiously-flavoured metaphors exploited by the authors are merely rhetorical devices and should not be used for academic extrapolations in favour of a vitalist cosmogony. We find an itemized argument against the ‘presentist’ approach in her extensive reading of Aurora Consurgens, an emblematic fifteenth-century text that Jung frequently used as a psychoanalytic hermeneutic; its lucidity, Obrist claims, is far greater when viewed without the kaleidoscope of analytical psychology than with.

Obrist also argues that Jung’s erroneous and timeless ‘historical vision’ gave rise to sweeping generalizations about the ethos of all self-professed alchemists working in the medieval period. The fundamental misunderstanding allowed Jung to envision these individuals as progressive inheritors of an ancient soteriological quest for selfhood that embodied the qualities of religiosity and vitalism, one which operated on a collective scale as an outright defiance of church dogma. From the descriptions of the lapis-Christ parallel offered up in chapter five of Psychology and Alchemy, it becomes blatantly clear that Jung perceived the dissemination of Christological leitmotifs amongst medieval alchemists as an exoteric masquerade for an individuation process forced to descend into the subterranean darkness of the unconscious. Indubitably this same process had enjoyed unhindered expression under the Gnostic doctrine of the Anthropos (i.e. the Visions of Zosimos) at a time when the religious climate was much more liberal. Obrist’s outright dismissal of this view is evident in the words:

In the texts attributed to Arnold, the metaphor of Christ appears amongst others which are used as examples, helping to demonstrate chemical processes that are difficult to understand. They are metaphors like the others, and nothing but metaphors, a fact which Arnold and the authors who follow in his tradition explain extremely well, and which also applies to the illustrations of such treatises. Nothing allows us to speculate on the religiosity of an author when he uses a consciously rhetorical process.   

The resolve of historians of science like Obrist and Principe to demonstrate organic coherence between alchemical methodology and the evolutionary development of modern science has reinforced limitations wrought from deliberately oversighting the socio-political and cultural milieu in which any historiography must be couched in favour of a psychological frame of reference that would have been unfathomable in the medieval and early modern periods. In ‘Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy,’ Lawrence Principe and William Newman adhere to the same line of argument in identifying twentieth-century figures like Jung, the psychoanalyst; Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade; Helene Mertzger (1886-1944), a popular historian of chemistry; and the writers Carolyn Merchant (1936-) and Evelyn Fox Keller (1936-) as advocates of ‘presentist’ interpretations that either devalue the natural philosophical or ‘scientific’ aspects of the Great Work or dismiss it outright as a ‘hair-raising chemical fantasy.’ Speaking in reference to the unlikelihood of the collective unconscious as an objective entity, the researchers argue that the same alchemical symbols used by Jung to progress his non-chemical rendition are contrived Decknamen (codenames) for chemicals and minerals bearing no association with nascent unconscious content. If the symbols were products of unconscious projection then the ‘possibility of working backwards from them to decipher such images into actual, valid laboratory practice’ would be impossible.

Never at any stage do the authors entertain the notion of a dual interpretation; why do the symbols have to be relegated to either a chemical or a psychological ontology? Isn’t it in the nature of a symbol to embrace multiple meanings? After all, Western alchemy has always been a philosophical storehouse for a plethora of religious and mystical ideas in the manner that the cosmopolitan Alexandria was the transmutational receptacle for knowledge arriving from the four corners of the world in late antiquity. The Emerald Tablet, otherwise known as the Tabula Smaragdina in Latin, is a condensed and apocryphal summation of Alexandrian alchemy that was reintroduced to the Latin West sometime during the thirteenth century. In it, Hermes Trismegistus ascertains that the alchemical work delineates the processes of all creation. That would include every empirically validated or speculative theorization about the workings of the cosmos that has existed, exists, or shall come into existence in the future. Perhaps the recent germination of ‘panpsychic’ models of interpretation are an unconscious bid to unclog a univers imaginaires and balance the determinism and materialism that has orientated and restricted contemporary science since the publication of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). Or would this be too Jungian a thought to adhere to?    

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