Asking Good Questions about Alchemy

One of my goals as a teacher is to show my students how to look into the material themselves, rather than just spout information at them. So I tend to focus on disputed points in the scholarship, especially stuff like the “Spiritual vs. Physical” Alchemy debate. Since this is an art class I don’t have an urgent interest in motivating my students to do hardcore history of science study of alchemy, but I do want to make them aware of how contemporary history of science is revealing many things about alchemy that are of great interest to students of art. So I try to ask my students as many questions as possible about why we are interested in alchemical art and what it means for our lives, as well as what it tells us about (magical or nonmagical) “operative practice” and artistic craft. Alchemy is a Theorist’s heaven and a Literalist’s Hell.

Interestingly, it turned out that my students liked the lecture parts more than the class participation part. This was no problem in the sense that I can talk about this stuff until the cows come home, but it did leaving me feeling that I should have prepared more speeches, and perhaps should have brought in more xeroxed materials to look at and take notes on.

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Where are all the women?

My class was held at the most progressive school in a consortium of left coast seminaries. I was supposed to sell it as scholarship with a social-activist edge. So I was trying to ask questions to provoke my students into exploring ways that historical study of Alchemy and Art can inform our own contemporary practice and activism. I was not prepared for it all. One of the biggest problems I have been haunted by cropped up when a student kept asking “where are all the women?” –which I agreed is an excellent question. Any study of
historical religious, esoteric, or proto-scientific traditions and texts will appear male-centric. The good news, I said, was that Alchemy at least has a great many interesting female historical characters available for study. The legendary inventor of Alchemy in Antiquity was Mariah the Jewess.

Women wrote some of the most important occultist interpretations of alchemy in the 19th century. Think Mary Anne Atwood and H.P. Blavatsky. Many leading alchemical theorists in contemporary occultism and magic are female. We could profitably talk about Starhawk, Sandra Tabitha Cicero or any of the formidable post-Golden Dawn ladies if we want to get into contemporary “Alchemy.” (there are of course the Women of the Golden Dawn who have already merited a book of their own). I tried to bring all that up but I did not succeed in convincing my interlocutor that the study of alchemy isn’t just another odious example of the patriarchal problem. I’ve been haunted by the difficulty of justifying this study of Alchemy+Art ever since. It reminds me of the people who can’t understand why I would want to study an outdated science. I would love to be able to get through to them and share my enthusiasm, and hope one day to prove that the study of Alchemy and Art is indeed worthwhile, even if only as an academic exercise but also–and perhaps especially–as a source of inspiration for our own practice.

I had been inspired a great deal by the work of my friend Allison Coudert, UCD Religious Studies Prof. who moved from excellent books on Alchemy, Christian Kabbalah, and Leibniz to feminist study of 19th century religion. She turned me onto the excellent Signs feminist art analysis of Atalanta Fugiens, as well as
the work of William R. Newman on “Alchemy, Domination and Gender.” Many of the best scholars working today on Alchemy and Magic are women, and my work has been profoundly inspired by them. My MA thesis was inspired by the work of Deborah Harkness on the alchemist-neoplatonist-conjurer John Dee. My friend M.E. Warlick is a great example of a female Art History scholar confronting the problems of violence represented in Alchemical and Surrealist art. I’ve had the good fortune to attend an alchemy conference where I met amazing women scholars like Pamela Smith, Tara Nummedal, Jennifer Rampling, to name just a brilliant few who are on the cutting edge of historical study. But enough about me…

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Introducing Atalanta Fugiens

My class mascot was that brilliant multimedia alchemical text, Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens. We used De Rola’s “Golden Game” which has the advantage of presenting just the emblems in high quality, but doesn’t give the poetry or music. My strategy was to first go over each image, saying little to explain it in order to allow the visual puzzle to present itself. The emblems can be found ripped out of context here.

I would love to do a course with enough musically trained people to do sight singing of the music while going over the emblems. When I spoke with Joscelyn Godwin, a music professor, about his work on the text and music, he seemed not to be all that impressed with the fugues themselves. I wonder to what degree we should be taking them seriously and studying the music of the fugues as part of the whole artistic picture of the work. Certainly seeing some of them performed by an early music group at an Alchemy conference was very moving to me.

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Things to Emphasize Early On

When I prepared my first lecture for “Images of the Alchemical Art” class I hoped to make clear my focus on looking at what it means to call alchemy an art. Next time I want to put more class structure into the useful problems of understanding what an art was for ancients, medievals, Renaissance and Early Modern people. Alchemy was a proto-science before science was the term being used. Alchemy was an “occult science.” These terms are being used misleadingly by many of the dubious contemporary alchemy authors out there, so it is especially important to get straight which alchemists were using which terminology and to what effect

Next thing I wanted to make clear is that homework for an alchemy images class isn’t just reading. One must look at the pictures. Adam McLean in his “Alchemical Mandala” suggests gazing meditation practices. I recommend asking questions about what you see in the images, taking notes on what strikes you as strange or intense, and thinking about how this was intended as a learning aid for understanding medieval matter theory, in addition to any uses we might put it to in terms of spiritual inspiration or psychological projection and metaphor. The chemical meaning of the images, in addition to any spiritual or aesthetic value that exists independent of the chemical logic, is a powerful and important element of the artistry that must be taken into account. Alchemical images are all the richer when we keep in mind the chemical meaning as well as the mythological and symbological ones. Next time I want to spend more time in class looking at pictures, especially quiet time, make more effort to structure class time around the images. So many of the images are just so great, they each deserve a few minutes at least of serious in-class looking time, in addition to any discussions or interpretations of the images that are worth talking about.

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Key to Reading Alchemical texts?

There is no secret key to reading alchemical texts. Each must be read in its own language. The histori cal context must be taken into account. It is amazing how many books on “alchemy” claim to offer some deep or comprehensive insight into how to decrypt alchemical codes, but go off into outer space spinning new age mumbo jumbo about spiritual alchemy and psychologized, self-help personal transformation. They rarely have much to say about the texts themselves. Instead of showing us what and how they mean, they are telling us what they’d like to think they mean. Why is it that in the case of alchemy there is so much of a tendency to get so far out, both in terms of the bizarre head trips of contemporary alchemical exponents, as well as the more simple matter of being “far from the text”. I can understand why careful language study (one must do the Latin in order to understand medieval and Renaissance alchemical writings, at least, and preferably get some Arabic) and dry scholarship does not appeal to those who want to wax Romantic about alchemy, or design magical/mythopoetic projects using unhistorical spiritual and psychological readings. But I myself only find academic writings on alchemy useful, for the most part, in my own personal and spiritual investigation of the possibilities of alchemical symbolism–both medieval and contemporary. I think we have much to learn from alchemy, not only as an abstract academic exercise, but also because the symbolism has become such a powerful cultural form. It moved from occultism into art. Perhaps this is a “secret key” to alchemical texts–the ideas are constantly being adapted with each reading and rewriting, according to the interests and capacities of the alchemical enthusiast. I happen to be enthusiastic enough about what we can establish with certainty about Alchemy not to feel the need to go very far out into speculation. I want to understand the texts themselves a great deal better before I can advance my understanding of the spiritual meaning or value of alchemy. So rather than develop some speculative interpretive project my aim is to understand the facts of the texts as best I can. When trying to understand the meaning of an image or symbol I want to know as much as possible about where it is attested in texts, how it is being used. I don’t want to construct interpretations that appeal to anachronistic post-19th century concepts of alchemy.

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On Teaching Alchemy

I’m not the kind of alchemy teacher that claims to be able to initiate you into some secret mystery. I’m interested in alchemy from an academic point of view, and my goal as a teacher is to initiate my students into the usual methods of researching and writing about any topic. But I hope not to be the kind of academic who disregards the point of view of those who have a more mysterious view of alchemy. A large part of my efforts in discussing historical alchemy must involve a great deal of debunking of bad historiography of alchemy, anachronism, misreadings of the texts. But contemporary occultist notions of alchemy have become their own cultural form, and deserve study as “contemporary alchemies.” I think that we can learn a great deal from the alchemists–both modern and medieval–but this means looking at rigorous historical scholarship, as well as practical initiatic alchemical traditions, in order to understand the meanings of the language actually present in the texts.

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