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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 Three)

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, June 02, 2013

In the second part of Psychology and Alchemy we encounter intellectual fruits hoping to unearth correlations in support of an inherently self-regulating psyche, a ten month labour that involved the examination of fifty-nine dreams and visionary experiences belonging to the unconscious life of Nobel prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Paoli with whom Jung had collaborated to pioneer the synchronicity principle. It was collaboration with favourable outcomes for both; Paoli, who was experiencing bouts of depression and consequent withdrawal from an unhindered engagement with life, was permitted the chance at treatment from a leading psychotherapist whilst Jung could heal the psychological disequilibrium of a learned mind and at the same time look for experimental validation of his ‘psychology of the unconscious’. Foremost of symbolic uniformities manifesting across the entire sequence of dream leitmotifs was the anima; she initially appears as a veiled woman seated on a stair [visual impression 6] before uncovering her face so that it shines with a scintillating light [visual impression 7] and then proceeds to dominate the autonomous psychic terrain with an assortment of inexplicable guises. Like the chameleon, the anima’s colours change to reflect the ever-fluctuating relationship of Paoli’s ego-conscious and unconscious: in her third appearance she is a psychopomp lighting the way for him [visual impression 10]; in the fourth she assumes the form of his own mother and sister [dream 15]; and in the fifth she inverts into a female head emitting light [visual impression 19].

The pattern continues into the second series of emblems whereby the mandala symbol is emphasized. She is a gruesome foe and assailant [dream 6, series 2] yet she also transforms into an overly zealous woman contending for her lover’s attention [dream 7, series 2]; she expresses herself as the subject of a portrait painted by the dreamer [dream 23, series 2] yet she is also the woman with pains in her uterus appealing to him through an articulately written letter [dream 32, series 2]; she is the spirit guide showing him the mooring post around which all perambulations occur [dream 40, series 2], the wicked witch facilitating a ceremonial dance with Lilliputians [dream 44, series 2], and the solemn priestess engaged in a ritual to commemorate the summer solstice [dream 56, series 2]. These fragments are accompanied by a visual impression of an unknown woman balancing on a globe and worshipping the sun, a leitmotif almost identical to the fourth plate of woodcut images belonging to Solomon Trismosin’s famed Splendor Solis (1532-1535).

Jung has recourse to his own theory of psychological types in his psychoanalysis of Paoli’s depression. He identifies sensation and thinking as superior functions uninhibited in their expression, a reality epitomized by his choice of profession. In Paoli’s case this integral preference for functions sympathetic to masculine ego-building consciousness has proliferated unimpeded for some time, resulting in a sacralisation of the masculine and a disidentification with the anima, the archetype associated with feminine aesthetic qualities of feeling and intuition. Psychologically, then, the profusion of recurring images and symbols inextricably linked with a chthonic feminine embodied by tail-swallowing serpents, fountains, seas, and the anonymous women must be the subtle undertakings of a dissatisfied unconscious hoping to frustrate the ego as to create a contrasexual reorientation of the ego-Self axis and hence have the polarization corrected. As an adherent of Johann Jakob Bachofen’s dualistic conception of collective consciousness, Jung would have no doubt perceived in Paoli’s psychological syzygy a personalized echo of two cosmic energies–the archetypal feminine and the archetypal masculine–in eternal conflict with one another.

The clearest expose of Jung’s position on alchemical symbolism is no doubt  given in Mysterium Coniunctionis, a work which stays faithful to Silberer’s rudimentary vision in identifying the coniunctio oppositorium (’conjection of opposites’) between sun and moon or the egocentric conscious principle and the unconscious as the chief aspect of the alchemical opus. Speaking with reference to Gerard Dorn’s attempts to harness a substantia coelestis or ‘spirit of wine’, Jung posits that ‘no amount of incineration, sublimation, and centrifuging of the vinous residue can ever produce an “air-coloured” quintessence.’ What he’s meaning to say is that the chemico-operative aspect is merely expedient parallel for the more significant psychic processes of individuation, a ritualistic embellishment of no objective significance in itself. This intermediary, ahistorical position was also extended to encompass cosmological premises from which the medieval alchemists believed they were operating; men like Morienus, Gerard Dorn (c. 1530-1584), and Michael Maier (1568-1622) knew that the nigredo, for instance, had something to do with psychic danger yet they were not fully aware that it was a confrontation with the shadow aspects of their own personalities. Jung informs that psychological projection into alembics, retorts, and other laboratory equipment insulated them from egoic inflation, and so they were able to work purposely and rationally; all the same the cultural milieu encumbered hyperopic vision of a psychological recipe for individuation that could be arrived at via active imagination.

And what is active imagination? Basically a psychotherapeutic tool of hypnagogic and meditative quality pioneered by Jung in the 1910s aiming to (re)integrate dissociative and fragmented aspects of the personality into a unified stream of consciousness. Described in some detail in Mysterium Coniunctionis it involves conscious appropriation of ‘a spontaneous fantasy, dream, an irrational mood, an affect or something of the kind.’ Intense concentration on fantasy content that is quintessentially passive and receptive rouses an inversion that leads to action, a proactive participation with outer reality that allows the masculine ego principle to disidentify from the detrimental affect completely.      

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