Saturday, December 19, 2009
Next to my bathtub I have three reading choices. A long outdated (Madonna and A-Rod) People magazine, a more recent issue of Yoga Journal, and The Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery by Lyndy Abraham. This third thing is the one I reach for. It's not a New Age thing at all. It's this woman's Doctoral Thesis at Cambridge University and to write she she ventured into the depths of the Vatican's secret libraries and cruised the coffers of ancient memory to dredge of these defitintions of things I never used to think about.
Things like: alembic/limbeck, the red dragon, albification.
I read this book with remarkable pleasure.
For me, it's like reading the poems of Shakespeare. . . only maybe even better.
I feel this is my own private world, a book few others venture to pay nearly $40.00 for on Amazon (used: $29.45). It's a language I share with these ancient minds. . . women and men who influenced great poets and composers. . . Goethe. . . Rilke. . . Jung. . . they challenge me, stretch my mind, and I marvel at their creativity. . . and expand my mind with every word I read.
What I like best about it, it never becomes something rational.
Reading this stuff, like reading great poems, keeps me always in that metaspace--like love, like dreaming, like doing a really good crossword puzzle and it all starts coming together as though you don't even have to read the clues anymore because your mind has become one with that of the puzzle designer--where my mind is cruising just under its own surface.
I laugh out loud when I read it. It's a laughter like: damn, you guys were good.
For all the darkness and spookiness clouding around alchemy all these years, reading it is pure joy. Joy in language. Joy in life. Joy in the mysteries of the human mind and the joy of getting deep into symbols and stirring stuff up from thousands of years ago.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
In Alchemy, there are many symbolic systems. Often, a practitioner would create his or her own system. These would possess a variety of properties.
The symbols are polyvalent, an understood and accepted fact, so that once a practioner "knew" the basic structure of the alchemical process one could read another's work (often rendered in artwork) without being confounded.
It was also understood that the process is reiterative and in constant flow (why detachment is necessary--one is never "finished") so a reader or viewer would not expect the writer or artist to deliver the information in a sequential manner.
A third property of the systems involves concealment. While the information begged to be shared, it could only be shared in a way that would reveal its content only to one's peers. These were not breadcrumb trails for strangers but rather records maintained for safe-keeping. One writer described the alchemical knowledge as "a secret set afloat across the sea of time." To maintain the secrecy, the writers were incredibly playful. Wonderfully so. But they were playful with such dark images that it hardly resembles play.
Even under the manifold symbolic systems, there are a number of inviolate levels.
--matter going through the opus will alternate between two states of being: coagula et solve, or coagulated and dissolved.
--matter going through the process will move through three states denoted by color: nigredo, albedo, rubedo.
--matter going through the process will move through seven states: calcinatio, dissolutio, separatio, calcinatio, crucifixio, putrefactio, fermentatio (resurrectio).
Ascribe to each of these "states" about 1000 symbols each and you have the complex symbology of any alchemical text, (check out the colors/animals/plants in Book of Revelations in the Bible). But they denote the same process.
The symbolic systems employ animal imagery (often blending species), colors, plants, shapes, objects (tomb, crucible, bedroom) and human figures (the son, the mother, the virgin, the King) to denote various stages in the process.
The color red denotes the final stage of the process. Symbolized as staining with blood, or blood itself, the red dwells hidden within the whiteness of the albedo phase ("know that in whiteness there is redness hidden" --Artephius). "At this union, the supreme chemical wedding, the body is resurrected to eternal life," writes Lyndy Abraham in The Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery.
The Red Book is Jung's Chemical Wedding, so its color is befitting. What's so beautiful and fascinating about alchemy is that every single thing is symbolic. No part of life is left out of its sacred lexicon, down to the color of inks and books.
And just to make thing s little more interesting, Sir Isaac Newton's home was decorated primarily in crimson as well. . .
This book is different from Jung's other books.
He writes that this is the book that started the whole Jung thing. Everything he wrote after The Red Book was an echo of the Red Book, of the experience he has within these pages.
This is not a book about mystical experience. This book is his mystical experience. In it he uses the writing and art as transformative tools in moving across the gap in the mind between conscious and unconscious aspects of the self. The writings and mandalas guide him, show him what he needs to see, believe, think and surrender to. This is art without vanity. It's his journey into his soul. After The Red Book, Jung strove to make sense of what had happened within him.
I think it's funny how we so easily take our sanity for granted, meaning, more often than not, we just assume we're perfect and don't need to do any more "work." People don't attempt to understand what's going on, or what has happened within us. Recently I've been learning a lot about how narcissism denies itself. A person can be entirely caught up in him/herself and not know it. And blame everybody for everything they've got going on that's wrong. We know these people. More often than we'd like to admit, we are these people.
As countercultural icon, a psychotic, a dreamer or madman, Jung and his legacy, bear the burden of one who strove to overcome narcissism. Egotists have no patience for non-egotists because the ego only wishes to preserve its hold on reality. Jung's work challenges this hold. The Red Book throws down a serious gauntlet in the modern age: the mystical journey is not a thing of the past, of long lost prophets and flying nuns, and this is a map of how to do it. This is the man's alchemy of himself.
Lately, I've been thinking about how maybe all the sacred texts work together as a ladder out of the self, out of the blindness of narcissism. I've been thinking that perhaps "ego" and "the self" are ways of saying "narcissism." And alchemy, as buddhism, as Christianity, as Kaballah, as Judaism, as Hinduism, as Islam, is the means of overcoming it. And, thinking of the immense Red Book, religion stripped of affiliation, I think of how treacherous it is.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Last week I went into Malaprops with my daughter. We had some time to browse prior to a reading I was doing at Posana. I bought some Moleskins for a workshop group for the following day, some pens. I bought my daughter a pair of journals, one for her and one for a friend. I was paying for it all when I saw it. The Red Book.
The secret book by Carl Gustav Jung, sealed away in a chilly Swiss bank for a century and now sitting before in all its red immense glory, beckoning to me. Not saying "buy me, buy me, buy me" (though I knew I would) but rather "open me, open me, open me."
Let me tell you a thing about me and books.
When I took a group of my boy students (as their teacher at a boys' boarding school) to go see the Dead Sea Scrolls in Charlotte five years ago, by the time I exited the exhibit, they'd all found new girlfriends and had bought them sodas. I had spent that long looking--no: gazing--into the strange cases built to house them, complete with low lights on timed dimmer switches so the paper bears the weight of light, and sight, for only seconds at a time. I swear I wanted to see every stroke of whatever language they were written in. Not that I could read it, but I know there's power in the word, and there's greater power in words written in that metastate of illumination.
"What are you?" I whispered to them, under my breath, but no low enough for the Rabbi standing near me to hear, close his eyes and nod very slowly in agreement with my awe.
I don't take these matters lightly.
So, there was the Red Book. "Please," I said, unable to complete the request. And within a moment, this enormous book was under my hands. I touched it first, much in the way I touch a horse as I move alongside its enormous body, toward its face, careful not to startle it, careful to let it know I"m here.
I opened it. . .