Friday, February 12, 2010
Brief Interlude: A word about a word… and the word is “Alchemy”
I did a google search using the words “Alchemy” and “metalsmith” partly because I’m conceited and wanted to see myself on the internet, but mostly because I wanted to know if this little blog here had been picked up by the search engines and indexed yet.
A blow to my ego - no, I didn’t show up, but I did come up with 112,000 different listings - which roused my curiosity because I’ve never met another actual metalsmithing Alchemist and I was curious as to what all of those people I’ve never met were up to. Sooo… in the true spirit of experimental philosophy, I opened up all 112,000 of them and had a look (just kidding. I breezed through the first page). What I discovered was not unexpected, but it was still disappointing.
The word “Alchemy” has pretty much lost it’s meaning.
What I mean by that is that people use the term - maybe because it sounds mystical, magical, or neat-o cool - but have little, if any, idea what the word means. At best it seems to be used as a synonym for “change,” or the more exotic “transformation,” which is, I suppose, correct in the very, very vague way that the word “dog” means “friendly.” Change is certainly an important part of Alchemy, but it is hardly the defining characteristic.
I said that this was not unexpected. From the time of the Renaissance when ancient manuscripts made their way into Europe via the Middle East, along with Middle Eastern (primarily Muslim) works extending and developing the ideas found in those manuscripts, right up into the 18th century, Alchemy was an extremely important - if not THE most important - world view in Europe. Pretty much everybody engaged in any kind of intellectual work, ranging from mathematics, to physics, to medicine, to philosophy, and even the arts, was working from a background based on Alchemy. The philosopher/logistician Emmanuel Kant, the philosopher/mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, the mathematician/scientist Sir Isaac Newton, to name but a few, were Alchemists. Not just until they learned better - they were Alchemists until the day they died, and all the ideas, all their work, all they accomplished - were based on their explorations in Alchemy.
In the work of Shakespeare a person knowledgeable of the symbolic language of Alchemy (called “the language of the birds”) can find many Alchemical ideas clearly expressed. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Shakespeare’s final work, the hauntingly beautiful The Tempest.
In this play, the dual creative/destructive power of Hermes (Hermes is energy, and energy can be either or both creative and/or destructive) is played out between the “Airy Spirit,” Ariel, and the destructively ignorant Caliban. Miranda and Ferdinand form the royal couple in the sacred marriage, while Prospero acts as the master Alchemist who brings about the Grand Conjunction and union of opposites, transforming himself in the process. (We don’t know enough about the life of Shakespeare to know for sure whether he was a practicing Alchemist or not, but the Alchemical content of his plays is part of the evidence used to support the theory that Francis Bacon - philosopher, scientist, lawyer, statesman - and Alchemist - wrote them.)
And then… suddenly…
As the centuries slip from the 18th into the 19th, Alchemy vanishes from the face of Europe and the collective memory of Europeans. The foundations of the very thought processes which created the modern world we live in were completely forgotten. It’s as if, after having gone to college, earned your degree, and found a job, you suddenly forgot all those years you actually WERE in college. You knew what you had learned, but forgot the whole process of learning it - the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the leads that panned out, and the ones that dead ended - to say nothing of all those good times you had with your friends after hours.
So Alchemy vanished.
But not really…
A better explanation is that it blew apart as a result of the energy it generated.
Because Alchemy was a complete, integrated system in which all aspects of human experience and knowledge interacted, as each separate facet of knowledge reached a critical mass and began to develop exponentially, there was suddenly too much for any one mind to hold or even make sense of - order moved to chaos by taking the road marked “Complexity.”
In order to restore order, complexity had to be reduced. This was done through an act of separation (in Alchemy, we refer to this as “distillation”). The individual “fields” of knowledge were separated from one another, and each pursued by people who became increasingly specialized in one particular field - and, consequently, ignorant in the others.
Hence, the physical part of Alchemy became “Natural Philosophy” which divided into chemistry, physics, geology, botany, biology (you can see how this separation has continued. Biology is now cellular biology, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, etc., etc.).
The internal, mental part of Alchemy became philosophy and psychology - both of which explore what we know and the way in which we know it.
The third part of Alchemy was the exploration of the soul (in Alchemy, things are typically divided into three parts - the physical part - referred to as “Salt,” the mental/intellectual part - referred to as “Sulphur,” and the soul part - referred to as “Mercury”). The exploration of the soul fell, for a long time, into the hands of powerful organized religious groups and languished due to their control. Currently, with the influx of religious thinking coming into Europe from other cultures, and the rise of new forms of spiritual expression - or the reemergence of old ones - the strangle hold of Western organized religions is loosening, and this area is beginning to advance as well.
What had once been an idea - that all areas of knowledge are intimately connected, intertwined, with each supporting and illuminating the others - was lost to specialization.
And a funny thing is now happening.
While I know that Alchemy, as Alchemy, will never really come back - it’s been too thoroughly forgotten - the basic idea behind Alchemy is returning. Thinkers, such as Edward O. Wilson, are pointing out what should be obvious - if what we learn in chemistry is true, it should tell us something about biology, which is based on chemistry. If what we learn about biology is true, it should tell us something about psychology, which is based on biology. And, to extend the thinking, - if the soul has a place in the body, understanding psychology should tell us something about the soul.
These people are telling us that all branches of knowledge are intimately connected and intertwined, with each supporting and illuminating the others…
Hmmm… it seems like I’ve written that before…
So this is what Alchemy REALLY is - not the freakish abortion of pre-scientific thinking, but the very essence of knowledge itself - the belief that all things are interconnected (Hermes sez: As it is above, so it is below). It’s the whole ball o’ wax, the big enchilada, the grand theory of everything.
Welcome to the return of Alchemy - the theory that everything which IS fits together, and the way in which it all fits together can be understood, and, being understood, can be used to accomplish tasks that seem magical. Maybe we are standing on the razor’s edge of the first real golden age for humanity - not as idealized legends, but as an actual reality.
Maybe we can make it, or maybe not. But I do think it is up to each of us to decide whether we are willing to do the work necessary to bring order out of chaos. And those of us who are trying are the New Alchemists.
Think about that the next time you hear the word “Alchemy.”