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


Carl Jung and Alchemical Symbolism (Part One)

Paul Kiritsis - Thursday, May 30, 2013

As a major interpreter of the Western esoteric tradition–most notably alchemy, astrology, and the Gnostic sects of antiquity–Car Gustav Jung’s (1875-1961) opinions were informed by the cultural milieu of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contrary to the tapering, reductionist view of eclectic contemporary scholars who have contributed the ongoing mythologization of Jungian psychology by taking the Swiss psychotherapist’s words at face value, the latter was not the inaugurator of a psychological take on alchemical symbolism. An initial connection between the two had already been made some twenty years prior by Herbert Silberer (1882-1923) of Zurich, a reputed Freemason and psychoanalyst whose cerebral juxtaposition of dream leitmotifs derived from patients and alchemical symbols culminated in a pivotal insight; ‘elementary types’, that is, psychic prototypes that might better be described as inherited irrepresentable forms or concepts of numinous and transpersonal nature separate from the sphere of the mental ego, had actually ‘insinuated themselves into the body of the alchemical hieroglyphs’ as the spiritual alchemists ‘struggled to gain a mastery of the physico-chemical facts by means of thoughts’.

Put in layman’s terms Silberer was implying that unconscious content of a transpersonal nature was projected onto the same chemicals and experimental methods that were being utilized by the alchemists for the production of the red stone, elixirs, and other homeopathic remedies. The dual proposition that alchemical symbols primarily reflected unconscious projections born from the gradual orientation of the ego-Self axis towards self-actualization or ‘individuation’ and to a much lesser extent chemical methodologies is the central thesis in his Problem der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik (Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism, 1914). In addition to its masterful, dialectic compartmentalization of alchemical symbology with myths, legends, and folktales as psychic remnants of collective human infancy that freely offer themselves up to psychoanalytic scrutiny, Silberer’s observations form an esoteric framework from which a much more technical version decked in scientific terminology could be forged some twenty years afterwards. That these proto-psychological attempts at an explanation of alchemical symbols should be fobbed off by Jung as ‘too primitive and still too much wrapped up in personalistic assumptions’ and then modulated altogether once he chanced upon the ‘discovery’ himself shouldn’t really surprise us given the sinful tendency of intellectuals to cover up their formative tracks in an attempt to garner credibility, awe, and admiration through deceitful claims of original thought. The premeditated oversight makes perfect sense when viewed from this kaleidoscope.

Prying into the recesses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we see that Silberer’s own work is relative with the spiritual breed of alchemy garnered during the Victorian fascination with the occult. During this time, the Enlightenment denunciation of obscurity caused chemico-operative alchemy and its material quest for the Philosopher’s Stone to fall into universal disrepute, however the Romantic disenchantment with the determinist and reductionist perspectives introduced by Sir Isaac Newton and his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) spawned a spiritual countermovement involving a Renaissance-style fusion of alchemy with astrology, theurgy, and natural magic. As a result there was an explosion of innumerable interpretative schools of esoteric spirituality, the most popular being the occultist variety which regarded the chemical terminology and symbology of alchemical treatises as superficial veneers disguising teleological outposts of inner psychospiritual processes intrinsic to the soul of each human. There was a plethora of esoteric writers and secret circles that took up this interpretation; Albert Pike, American Freemason Ethan Allan Hitchcock (1798-1870), Mary Anne Atwood (1817-1910), Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1842), the Pietists of Germany and the United States, the Gold- und Rosencrantz, the ‘L’Association Alchimique de France,’ and a Parisian Masonic order called ‘The Convent of the Philalethes’.

It appears the adaptation of alchemical symbols like the numinous dragon, the black sun, the salamander, the hermaphrodite, and the copulating king and queen to the inner transfiguration of a human psyche seeking illumination, conscience, and unio mystica with the godhead through the distillation of carnal machinations and pleasures was especially favoured by the Freemasonic circles. The just mentioned Hitchcock, whose father was responsible for the amalgamation of masonic heraldry into green-rich seal of Vermont, echoes a chiefly spiritual interpretation based on a consummate moral life in his Remarks upon Alchemy and the Alchemists (1857): ‘Man was the subject of Alchemy; and that the object of the Art was the perfection, or at least the improvement, of Man.’ More importantly perhaps,  his elucidation in the preface that ‘alchemical works stand related to moral and intellectual geography, somewhat as the skeletons of ichthyosauri and plesiosauri are related to geology’ is something of a rudimentary humus from which Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious–the phylogenetic strata of the psyche encompassing universal, archetypal, and primordial forms that stand outside the spatiotemporal realm and affect the entire human race–sprung forth. 

Silberer, who we’ve dealt with already, was also Freemason and it just so happens that before writing his exposition he became intimately acquainted with Hitchcock’s work. Further, the analytical ground laid in Probleme der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik was influenced by a Protestant soteriology perceiving in alchemical symbolism a dialectical psychospiritual pursuit towards salvific illumination. This proclamation rests faithfully upon the shoulders of a ‘parabola’ now correctly attributed to Guldener Tractat vom Philosophischen Steine, an exposition of natural philosophy with medieval content composed by chemico-operative alchemist Johannes Grasshoff (c. 1560-1623). As the chief catalyst behind Silberer’s innovative work the ‘parabola’ alludes to the Christian determination of self-knowledge, self-mastery, and self-improvement of a seeker of truth who is both an initiate and an alchemist, and in doing so invokes the ‘physical mysticism’ of Waite. Before his fatalistic renunciation of Victorian occultism in favour of 1920s positivism, the latter espoused formative opinions holding that the Hermetic Art was truly a dual pursuit of metallic transmutation and spiritual transcendence. He expounds this esoteric doctrine considerably in Azoth (1893), reasoning that ‘alchemical literature deals primarily at least with the conscious intelligence of man, and with the unevolved possibilities of the body and mind of humanity.’

Hence chemical operations able to alter the inner configuration of matter possessed psychic equivalents that were to be paralleled on the ethereal plane and were to be recapitulated for the sake of acquiescing further increments of consciousness. This sounds remarkably like the Jungian approach, which didn’t invalidate the physical processes altogether but consigned them subordinate to the principle aim, which was transformation of the psyche on both the personal and collective levels. The latter and a host of other phenomenological similarities between Waite’s and Jung’s views on alchemical transmutation are brought to light by Lawrence M. Principe and William R. Newman in a paper entitled ‘Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy’. In their eyes the Jungian mimicry of a quintessentially occult model wasn’t at all coincidental; in fact, Waite’s earliest treatises had been disseminated amidst an eclectic Jungian circle in Zurich way before Jung advanced a psychological importation of alchemical symbology. At the very least the rude exposition unveils the depth of Jung’s knowledge of and preoccupation with Victorian occultism; at most it suggests a direct borrowing that was, to all intents and purposes, conveniently oversighted.

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