Alchemy is a term that is currently appearing with regularity in all sort of areas - revived and used anywhere and everywhere from the marketing speak of a computer corporation using "alchemy" lazily to describe a vague notion of combining art and science, to the use of the term in a more scientific context referring to the latest possibilities offered by nanotechnologies in the manipulation of elements.
The general concept communicated by the term alchemy is the desire to turn base metals into gold or the search for the "philosophers stone". Even though this is accurate and is a key idea in alchemical thinking and practice - it can sometimes distract rather than illuminate this arcane, complex and often impenetrable subject where simple summaries of ideas are not possible.
Alchemy and the Unconscious
From its earliest origins in ancient Egyptian ritual and early Greek science, the practice of alchemy occupied a space where there was little or no delineation between where religion and spirituality ended and what we now know as science began.
Alchemy operated on a cusp between investigative science, chemistry, philosophy and spirituality.
Even today scientists and chemists studying alchemical practices can find themselves in direct opposition to the psychologists and artists examining the same material - with some scientists dismissing any sort of psychological interpretation, as alchemy from their position serves only as a route towards modern chemistry.
It was the exhaustive studies and examinations by the psychologist Carl Jung which re-evaluated the practice of alchemy. Jung believed the work of alchemists and the wealth of alchemical texts to be a unique and valuable resource of the history of the unconscious and workings of the human psyche.
He used this historical documentation to confirm his ideas of archetypes; a belief that universal dream symbols are common to all humans;and the collective unconscious; that the human psyche has a constancy which runs beyond the existence of individuals and extends backwards and forwards across history.
He expanded his analytical psychology to encompass the interpretation of the often surreal and obscure texts with the same system he had already applied to the interpretation of dreams with his patients. He identified dreams symbols from his patients who had no knowledge of alchemy to be remarkably consistent and sometimes identical to those used in alchemical practice; symbols which he recognised to be universal.
From this perspective Alchemy becomes a key historical documentation of the unconscious - a means to look deep into the psyches of other eras and see parallels with our own age.
Material-Spiritual or Physical-Psychic
From Jung's position, those practicing alchemy worked almost within a duality or parallel practice which was essentially a combination of material and spiritual or the physical and the psychic aspects of what they were doing.
The combination and subsequent observation of two chemicals reacting, or the distillation of a chemical to gain a solid from a liquid by heating, was essentially a scientific process. It was about the physical material and the observation of one element changing to another or the distilling of impurities.
But alongside this there was a parallel psychic or unconscious interpretation for the practitioner.
The reaction of chemicals was symbolic as well as actual spawning drawings and surreal narratives which in turn generated momentum to further experiments.
"Take some gold which is called the male of the Chrysokolla and a man who has been kneaded together. The gold of the Ethiopian earth produces it from its drops. A certain species of ant brings the gold to the surface of the earth and enjoys it. Put him together with his wife of vapour, till the divine bitter water comes out. When it has thickened, or coloured red with the juice of the golden vine of Egypt, then smear over it the leaflets of the light bringing goddess and also of the red copper or of the red Venus and then thicken it until it coagulates into gold"
Olypiodorus 5Th century AD from The Divine Art
The means for the alchemist to describe an experiment and its results was frequently poetic, dream like and often quite hallucinogenic. Drawings and texts have an extraordinary power and the intensity of description often reads like a dream or even a drug experience.
It seems that some descriptions actually were written under the influence of plant hallucinogenics, but often it was the toxic effects of alchemists working with lead and mercury which were at the root of their altered states. Rather than these creating inaccuracies within this proto-scientific environment, these deeper psychological experiences were fused with the physical experiments with the results and descriptions having no clear line between creative embellishment and actual experience.
"The lead is so possessed by devils and is so shameless that those who want to learn about it fall into madness on account of their unconsciousness"
The alchemist Olypiodorus 5th century AD:
There was no clear delineation between either of these sides of alchemy - the physical and psychic - one fed the other, symbiotic and interdependent they ran in parallel.
All processes took on symbolic significance and the distillation of a chemical was as much about a distillation or change in the alchemist's psyche as within the vessel which contained the chemical itself.
If the alchemist is admittedly using the chemical process only symbolically, then why does he work in a laboratory with crucibles and alembics? And if, as he constantly asserts, he is describing chemical processes, why distort them past recognition with his mythological symbolisms?
The Psychic Nature of Alchemical Work
Jung CW Psychology and Alchemy pg243 top
The processes of change and movement of physical things were also about psychological change and movement of the alchemists mind - the apparatus and vessels used for experiments were also spaces for a form of spiritual development. The practice of alchemy and the dedication of those who followed it became almost like the observation of a series of live dreams - guiding the alchemist to the goal of universal and self knowledge.
Jung interpreted alchemical practice as a visible display of the process of individuation the balancing between the conscious and unconscious sides in the individual - a psychic equilibrium, a point where an individual became whole and realised what Jung defined as their Self.
Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness,a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination. Therefore an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.
"On Psychic Energy" (1928). In CW 8: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. P. 111
Central to Jung's philosophy is the concept of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is invisible intangible and over arching a shared pool of symbols embedded in a universal psychic structure common to all human beings - a concept common in Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism.
Jung pinpointed that dreams are the space where there is a dialogue and tangible relationship between the worlds of the personal and collective unconscious' sharing this world where archetypal symbols guide us towards self knowledge, understanding and balance our own psyches using collective symbols or archetypes to form our dreams which guide and even determine our waking states.
The Internet as a psychic space
The concentration of material in one place, put there by a mass of individual will and desire makes the internet a place of intense numinosity. The presence of the internet makes the concept of a collective unconscious tangible and understandable and much less abstract.
It becomes a repository for ideas, emotions and knowledge; material both known and unknown to us; conscious and unconscious. This material is beyond individual awareness, and made up from every possible aspect of human existence is a collective repository - it becomes what I call a psychic vessel.
People deposit material to, or receive material from, a shared space. This process, and each of these individual actions, like the processes in alchemical practice also operate in a duality, a parallel process, a combination and fusion of the physical and the psychic.
The process of internet use becomes - in part - a dialogue with the Self - the united whole, the complete psychic entity of ourselves both personal, collective, conscious and unconscious - with the internet mirroring the unconscious, working on both a collective and personal level - with use affecting the process of individuation
The internet begins to function as an intermediary alchemical space as I call it, a place of psychic gestation which hovers between a personal and collective conscious and unconscious which maps a change and movement in the psyche of the user.
"We must always ask now whether a mental phenomenon is conscious or unconscious and, also, whether a "real" outer phenomenon is perceived by conscious or unconscious means"
Maria Von Franz - Science and the Unconscious
Man and his Symbols
The processes of alchemy were explorations - both physical - the exploration of chemical processes and also psychic - the relationship of these processes to the psychic shifts in the alchemist and how the two related to each other. A process of cause and effect. These changes were not just passive responses to the material the alchemist was viewing, or the methods they were using but it involved a process that could be described as interactive.
This was a psychic interactivity that worked on many levels - and moved fluidly between the physical or material and a psychic or spiritual reaction or interaction with it on the part of the practitioner.
"The double face of alchemy laboratory and library- corresponds to the twofold nature of the individuation process - active participation in outer reality and relationships together with a process of inner reflection."
Alchemy - An introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology M.L. Von Franz
The process of using the internet can also free elements our unconscious via a process of isolated dialogue. This is a 'dialogue' with our Self in the same way the alchemist used physical processes, consciously or unconciously to interpret their own states of mind. People use the internet in a sense of physical isolation but with an intense relationship with their own unconscious. Alongside the user physically interacting with equipment is a psychic interface .
This psychic interface flows "between" the user and the machine beyond buttons, controls, machines, navigational logic and hand-eye co-ordination and even content. It is experiential and communicates with the unconscious of the user; this is the interface of the gamer and the immersed user of the future.