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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 Two)

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, May 31, 2013

Roughly twenty years after the circulation of Waite’s texts, the Sinologist Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930) sent Jung a cryptic Chinese Taoist treatise entitled, The Secret of the Golden Flower. In a first perusal of the text Jung was struck by the ample use of mandala symbolism –the wheel of life or magic circle–which cropped up repeatedly in the psychedelic dreams and visions of many of his own ailing patients, including those of his eccentric maternal cousin Helene Preiswerk (1881-1911). It had even manifested in his own ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ in the years between 1912 and 1917, a creative period of infernal turmoil that led to some monumental revelations about the nature of the human psyche. During this time innumerable conversations with subpersonalities including an inner daemon by the name of Philemon convinced Jung that the psyche is intrinsically teleological; two conflicting psychic forces within, the conscious and the unconscious–were in eternal opposition. When there were in communion with one another the inner kingdom was prosperous, healthy, fulfilled, and integrated; on the other hand a prolonged divorce spawned repression and inflation, a ‘dark night of the soul’ that shattered the conscious life and erected psychological; barricades like neuroses, psychoses, and physical diseases. Hence the psychotherapist’s chief goal was to heal the split and reinitiate the psychic flow of energy between the two dissimilar stratums of consciousness, a deed which would invariably put any individual suffering from dissociation back on the golden path to self-discovery, self-transformation, and a fair more meaningful and balanced existence. If the presence of cipher codes like the mandala symbol in waking fantasies; in dreams; in artistic ventures like drawing, painting, and craftsmanship; and in other subtler and more unconscious aspects of an individual’s life was numinous and able to transcend cultural and religious barriers then it made perfect sense that underlying mechanisms of metamorphosis that delineating their evolution and final culmination design were also universal. Jung’s conviction was no doubt conditioned by the demographic. Most of the clients who sought his professional help were plagued by deplorable feelings of worthlessness and emptiness: ‘About a third of my cases are not suffering from any clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and aimlessness of their lives.’  

In his discussion of The Secret of the Golden Flower, Wilhelm claims that the latter has been in circulation amongst esoteric circles in China since the seventeenth century. Written by an unknown author, the central thesis of the text appears in a section named Hui Ming Ching or Book of Consciousness and Life where an overarching instruction is given: ‘If thou wouldst complete the diamond body with no outflowing, diligently heat the roots of consciousness and life. Kindle light in the blessed country close at hand, and there hidden, let thy true self always dwell.’ Any interpretation that elects to stays faithful to the traditional milieu from whence this treatise originated cannot escape the inexorable conclusion that what is being alluded to here is spiritual integration through meditative instruction. But the developed West with its superiority complexes and systematic aspirations rarely adheres to this rational and coherent canon as a hermeneutic tool of interpretation. It attempts to make accessible and intelligible foreign philosophical concepts for which no indigenous equivalent actually exists by implanting them into Western hierarchies of scientific knowledge, a misunderstanding based on ethnic egocentrism that promotes an erroneous sense of cross-cultural unanimity.

Transposing this reality to the Golden Flower we see that the Chinese signs hun and p’o, in essence multiplex metaphysical symbols for a higher-soul remaining temporarily active after death and a body-soul disintegrating at death, are deciphered by Wilhelm as animus and anima, respectively. Wilhelm’s translations did not preclude personal aspects of being and were informed by the pictograms conjured by the characters making up the signs for the psychic structures; the first was a masculine cloud demon, the second a corporeal white ghost. Jung’s understanding of these concepts was heavily contingent on the more ‘objective’ descriptions given by Wilhelm, however to make them accord with his own ‘psychology of the unconscious’ he had to strip them of their metaphysical associations and personal aspects and confine them to the sphere of the personality. In this way we get an animus understood as a masculine logos-cutter innate to the soul of a woman and an anima assumed to refer to the feminine eros-glue predominant in a man.

Distorting the definitions in such a way Jung swiftly arrived at the conclusion that ‘the roots of consciousness and life’ and ‘the blessed country close at hand’ must be the unconscious; the indestructible ‘diamond body’ the hypothetical meeting point between conscious and unconscious from which the archetypal Self emerges; and the circulation of light alluded to intermittently by the anonymous author the simultaneous activation of all components of the personality through active imagination and guided fantasy. In his comprehensive annotations Jung argues that the generation of the ‘diamond body’ is none other than ‘superior personality’ born from an inner reorientation so that the psyche’s centre of gravity is not the mental ego with its associative network of idiosyncrasies, dissociations, and neuroses, but an extramundane, unattached, and objectified consciousness free of inner and outer entanglements. As pointed out by Jung himself, it was the Golden Flower through which a historical prefiguration for his phylogenetic categorization of the psyche –the unconscious and the psychological archetypes–as well as its individuating tendencies was first cogitated. Assuming a historiographical stance it becomes blatantly clear that East Asian spirituality was the cosmological vehicle that shuttled Jung back straight back to the forgotten foothills of a hypothesis that he himself had hastily dismissed.

Following his dissection of the Golden Flower Jung shifted his attention to medieval alchemy, an exponent of Christian esotericism. He commissioned a Munich bookseller who specialized in inconspicuous and out-of-print works to locate as many alchemical treatises as possible. The confusion evoked by the echoing tirade of winged dragons, tail-swallowing serpents, and copulating couples in these works would have been so vexing and exasperating as to provide any competent intellect the added impetus of taking on and surmounting the monumental task of decryption. Aided by Silberer’s and Freud’s impression of mythical folkloristic literature as collective dreams of humanity, Jung unravelled this Gordian knot by fathoming the multiplicity of symbols (i.e. mercury, water, menstruum, Mother Ocean, lead, earth, salt, and so forth) connected with the prima materia–the base substance that alchemists allegedly worked from–as primeval connotations of individual differences in autonomous psychic content projected unconsciously onto outer reality.

The prima materia had been bestowed many names simply because the specificity of projective material was different for each individual. Just like the phylogenetic stratum of the psyche called the collective unconscious, it’s true form and essence was indeterminable and unknowable. In truth the striking likeness between the two could only mean one thing; that they were one and the same transpersonal entity. By the same token the alchemical hermaphrodite represented the sequential couplings of ego-conscious and unconscious, a mystery facilitated by fires of suffering and experience that produced vital changes in the ego-Self axis. Jung stipulates that the exalted state of self-actualization can be attained with or without the intercession of an analyst, however complete submission to an alchemistic cycle both threefold and sevenfold in nature cannot be avoided. These include: calcinatio, a reduction of ego complexes; solutio, the subjection of questionable ego attitudes to intense scrutiny; coagulatio, the promotion of objective ego building; sublimatio, the acquisition of a comprehensive standpoint effective in day-to-day problem-solving; mortificatio, becoming aware of shadow or loathed aspects of one’s personality; separatio, awareness of the subjective and objective in reality; and coniunctio, the realization of the Self through an amalgamation of conflicting psychic forces mediated by the mental ego. Jung then connected the nigredo or blackening with calcinatio, solutio, and mortificatio; albedo or whitening with the culminatory aspect of calcinatio; and rubedo or reddening with the greater coniunctio. The last of these, whose connection to a Philosopher’s Stone able to turn base metals into nobler ones and prolong human life indefinitely is known, was a phenomenal externalization of man’s deepest truth, the actualized Self where conscious and unconscious stand as affectionate, considerate partners in a healthy marriage. So too was the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ.      

By forging such theoretical connections and then backing them up with experiential evidence allegedly unearthed through psychotherapeutic methodology, Jung could progress a psychologized yet ahistorical position and concurrently attract minimal criticism; alchemists were projecting the same unconscious contents into their laboratory utensils that contemporary psychotherapists make conscious by manner of active imagination and guided fantasy–nothing more, nothing less. The historical precedent was first presented in its entirety in Psychology and Alchemy (1944) and then dialectically expounded to explain correlations between alchemical motifs and psychological concepts in Alchemical Studies (1968), a heterogeneous collection of prior essays on alchemy, and the impressive Mysterium Coniunctionis (1956). Together the three tomes comprise the final cerebral undertakings of his Collected Works and absorbed him until his death in 1961.

As the initial publication on the subject in book format, Psychology and Alchemy conveys a fundamental kernel of his belief system: ‘that the soul possesses by nature a religious function.’ This explains a millennia-long individual and collective orientation towards the Christian Godhead. Now it just so happens that the interjection of the Catholic Church in the evolutionary trajectory of the communal psyche has been detrimental, having in fact forced a temporary rupture in the communicative channels between conscious and collective unconscious by way of inflexible cosmogony and morals. Furthermore, the patriarchate has been guilty of endorsing and emphasizing the physical, tangible, and quantifiable, all primary characteristics of masculine ego-building consciousness. Consequently all complementary aspects of being have been disregarded or under rug swept, severing humanity from the numinous and creative fountainhead of all life, the unconscious. In the face of such a phenomenon the proliferating nexus of archetypal shadows–in this case ‘anima’ qualities deemed aesthetically feminine– will pursue variant avenues of expression to correct the psychic distortion and restore both inner and outer harmony. Jung identified an exoteric Christianity and an esoteric undercurrent of alchemy as a historical example of such a disharmony and compared that sociological ontology with the psychological syzygy of ego-conscious and dream life. ‘It [alchemy] is to this surface as the dream is to consciousness, and just as the dream compensates the conflicts of the conscious mind, so alchemy endeavours to fill in the gaps left open by the Christian tension of opposites.’    

The epic implications of this ‘discovery’, or dare we say ‘rediscovery’, were stressed in his memoirs Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

My encounter with alchemy was decisive for me, as it provided me with the historical basis which I had hitherto lacked… As far as I could see, the tradition that might have connected Gnosis with the present seemed to have been severed, and for a long time it proved impossible to find any bridge that led from Gnosticism–or Neo-Platonism–to the contemporary world. But when I began to understand alchemy, I realized that it represented the historical link with Gnosticism, and that a continuity therefore existed between past and present. Grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand into the past, to Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious.

When I pored over these old texts everything fell into place: the fantasy-images, the empirical material I had gathered in my practice, and the conclusions I had drawn from it. I now began to understand what these psychic contents meant when seen in historical perspective. My understanding of their typical character, which had already begun with my investigation of myths, was deepened. The primordial images and the nature of the archetype took a central place in my researches, and it became clear to me that without history there can be no psychology, and certainly no psychology of the unconscious.

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