Archetypal Imagination in Spiritual Alchemy
The Art of Alchemy in Archetype, Imagination and Soul
By Iona Miller, 2009
“Psyche cannot be totally different from matter, for how otherwise could it move matter? And matter cannot be alien to psyche, for how else could matter produce psyche? Psyche and matter exist in the same world, and each partakes of the other, otherwise any reciprocal action would be impossible. If research could only advance far enough, therefore, we should arrive at an ultimate agreement between physical and psychological concepts. Our present attempts may be bold, but I believe they are on the right lines.” --Carl Jung, AION
“To propose a psychology of Anima Mundi is to invite oneself to a relationship of intimacy with the soul of the world and its objects…From this point of view, the psychic reality of the world’s soul becomes available from the images. There is no way to separate our soul from the souls of others – and by “others” I mean people as well as everything that we can consider an environment. It is, thus no longer possible to work with the classical notion of individuation and its rhetoric of “my travel,” “my process,” “my journeys,” the blind frenetic pursuit of an inner Self, and to ignore the individuation of the soul of the world and its objects. The care of the soul does not necessarily mean introversion or denying the reality of the world, its substance and objects. There is no way to engage in soul-making if we keep ourselves attached exclusively to the Self, and exclude the world.”
--Marcus Quintaes on James Hillman’s Polemics in Archetypal Psychologies (Marlan, 2008)
The topic of ancient and medieval alchemy was rescued from obscurity largely through the efforts of C. G. Jung. Following an influential dream, he collected an entire library of alchemical works. He compiled alchemy’s universal truths in several of his works including Psychology and Alchemy, Alchemical Studies, Mysterium Coniunctionis, The Secret of the Golden Flower, and Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.
Jung codified the encrypted language of alchemy in terms of our human transformation process, including irrational consciousness. Yet, Jung’s is not the only interpretation of those elements, including the Quest and the Great Work. While initially we might learn about symbols, we have to learn how to work with them, to work within them since they contain us, rather than being contained within ourselves. The alchemist is a living symbol of the healing power of the Philosopher's Stone.
Jung’s second-generation followers adhered fairly strictly to his monist view of alchemy. Highlights of this period include now classic works by Marie-Louse von Franz and Edward Edinger. Edinger gave us Ego and Archetype plus Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. The works of von Franz include Alchemical Active Imagination, Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology, Number and Time, and Alchemy; An Introduction to the Symbolism and its Psychology, to name but a few.
Other Jugnian contributors include Henry Corbin with Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, on Arabic alchemy, M. Esther Harding's Psychic Energy, Robert Grinnell's Alchemy in a Modern Woman, and Edward Whitmont's Psyche and Substance. Another Jungian contribution is Mircea Eliade's The Forge & the Crucible. Their work was referenced and paralleled by scholars like Frater Albertus, Stanislas Klossowski De Rola, Richard Grossinger, Adam McLean and other modern commentators.
But the 3rd generation of psychotherapeutic practitioners were far more innovative than preservationist. In this they were true to the vital and reflective Mercurical Spirit. Revisioning the whole mindscape, James Hillman led a revolt against the ossified orthodoxy that came to be called Archetypal Psychology and later Imaginal Psychology. It freed the psyche from what had become a conservative fundamentalism with a party line and right and wrong interpretations. It brought back living process and moved interest out of the containment of the cloistered therapy room into the living, breathing World-at-Large.
A similar process is happening in the practice of alchemy, which has come to include not only scholar/practitioners and laboratory or experimentalists, but globalized cultural forms of spagyrics, fire circles, and other volatile practices, which have escaped the retort into the world. It has brought alchemy’s process-oriented spirituality down to earth.
The Way of Alchemy
Alchemy is not a sacred 17th century cow, embodied only in hoary texts, enigmatic laboratory procedures, and static pictures. Soul is made in the fractal reiteration of the deepening of experience – all experience – which molds character (narrative identity) with mythologizing. Alchemy is one of these dynamic means of moving beyond deconstruction into soul-making – a phenomenological approach.
Alchemy is a creative encounter with chaos and a struggle to understand the nature of healing. Chaos is the Universal Solvent. Healing springs from deep within. All apparent structure is hidden in chaos, and in chaos there are hidden forms. As we deconstruct our fictional selves, we find that deep within there is a primordial consciousness of pure Being. Connection with this wellspring is the Source of life and creativity. Chaos is the crucible of creation. Through alchemy, we move deeper into the images, and then become them, rather than merely interacting with them.
Alchemy, like therapy, is a practical Way of making life into a flowing story, and that story is necessarily illustrated to convey what cannot be said in words, to include what happens in the gaps in consciousness. The alchemy of by-gone centuries is as inappropriate today as obsolete science. Naturally, there is value there but we don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of its extant literature to apply its wisdom and gain its treasure.
Post-postmodern alchemy has broken the retort and escaped into the world at large, into bigger stories. We craft a personal narrative by recognizing and reiterating mythic claims, metaphorical enactments through reflective speculation, experimentation, projection, meditation, dream, image and fantasy. Reflection deepens into experience and expression through artful means of what never happens but always is.
Soul is an active intelligence because myth leads to practical moves. Soul is made through suffering the process and by taking up myth as a poetic perspective – a dramatic complexity of multiple metaphorical and symbolic dimensions of experience. In this sense, alchemy cannot be separated from life. The narration is one of life’s possibilities, of our alternative selves as realizable potential, including discordant elements, into meaningful story lived in and through the alchemical process.
If we are truly Mercurial, we oscillate in our thoughts, are enigmatic in our language, inconsistent with ideas, and resistant to any fixed definitions or propositions. Perhaps only archetypal imagination serves this mercurial nature. It is explored and embodied best through artistic expression of archetypal images, making the universal particular and moving archaic symbolism into the immediate present, rather than relying exclusively on stale retrievals and intellectual commentary.
What soul does is make fantasy images. Alchemy is a psychological metaphysics, a worldview that takes the soul further into mythopoiesis, producing images, events, and phenomena. Analysis and discourse (deductive and inductive reasoning) merely turns the libido into a narcissistic reflection of itself, when it could be embodied or manifested, even beyond self-evident intuition.
Soul-making approximates what it means to be “in soul,” esse in anima, immersed in both an internal and external process of transmutation. It is the process of making psyche matter, of making the World Soul – the Anima Mundi – through image, phenomena and pathologizing. It is not limited to so-called spiritual matters, but spiritualizes the whole sociopolitical field of human endeavors so that it all “matters.”
Imagination is stimulated by mythical fiction, which generates mythological imagination and speculative freedom of the soul. Breaking our containment in the ancient practices through artful means releases libido into the world, into the drive, which loves the world, even into erotic desire for anima mundi.
Embodying the Vision
Alchemy cannot be a closed system of static dogmatic thoughts. It is a way of reimagining and creating metaphors from different points of view or narratives that open the field of infinite meanings. Each reiteration creates new networks, new meaning, new insights, embodiments, metamorphosis and transformation. To participate in this process means mythologizing our own chaotic character.
It is a truism in therapy that art expression clarifies and releases emotional flow. The classical alchemists nearly always illustrated their works, making universal pictures with themselves as point of reference. Alchemy would be a dry discourse without its images, without the discipline of images that leads to flow, to solutio.
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Hillman, James; ANIMA; Spring Publications, Dallas, 1985.
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