Some Thoughts on Alchemical Metaphors, by Ted Hand


An Unfinished Substance: Cut-Up #5 by Zac Odin

If you’ve an interest in alchemy and haven’t checked out Ted Hand’s Twitter feed and accompanying Live Journal presence then you’re missing out. Ted’s tackling masters work in Renaissance magic and contributing some pertinent online insights in the process.

Forgive the formatting, the following brief ‘essay’ is a collection of some of Ted’s recent thoughts on alchemical metaphors and the hypermedia potential of symbolism. These are assembled posts, edited slightly for context, collected from his Twitter stream.

Bringing things down from the clouds, Ted sees alchemy as a very practical tool that’s been lost in misunderstanding, miscommunication and poor scholarship. As the philosophers have often admonished, before scaling the angelic heights seek first the treasures found in dirt.

– David Metcalfe

*Special thanks to Ted Friedman and his In Media Res experiment.  His efforts collecting themed Twitter conversations to accompany articles on similar themes for the In Media Res journal got me thinking about all the interesting folks I’ve encountered online. With the speed of “real time”, how many insightful fragments are lost in the stream?

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Some Thoughts on Alchemical Metaphors, by Ted Hand

Alchemical metaphors are interesting not because of some special alchemical power behind the symbol but because of the magic of all language.

Alchemy texts are beginning to be decoded for their chemical significance: what is needed now is summary and explanation of literary methods. Lawrence Principe and William Newman explain the figurative language used in alchemy,  debunking Jungian mystification’s. They  show alchemists were self-aware and not fooled by their own metaphors.

Alchemists used figurative language to preserve trade secrets, but also to require students to puzzle over the materials–a form of Socratic pedagogy. The term “golden game” refers to the playful nature of alchemical language, which by magical correspondence maps Nature’s own playful hiding hermeneutic.

Michael Maier’s alchemical emblems are 4-dimensional hypermedia puzzles mapping alchemical processes that take time, encode geometric jokes. His alchemy is a “Serious Joke” in a manner similar to Discordianism or Surrealism–it seeks to do guerrilla ontology for science.

Carl Jung was wrong about alchemical “projection” but his books on Alchemy are nevertheless very interesting and useful to students. Initiatory understanding of the “keys” to the code doesn’t reflect the intentions of the medieval writers of alchemical texts. Alchemy was not a separate religion, but a science that wasn’t intended to supersede their own religion, be it Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.

Medieval alchemists were primarily interested in physical transmutation of matter rather than any “projected” spiritual practice. While Alchemy seems to be an important “occult science” it doesn’t make much impact on Renaissance Magic theories– which form a separate discipline.

“The possible historiographical danger of the “rehabilitation program” is that one downplays the various other connotations the practice of early modern natural philosophy could have, besides those which are directly translatable into something like current scientific language. While the work done by Principe and Newman seems highly valuable for making sense of the experimental context, and the “rationality” of alchemy so to speak, there seem also to be obvious religious connotations to much alchemical work. When one takes fully into account the focus on reading the book of nature, of signatures, correspondences, analogies, the place of nature within salvation history, and other such themes which permeated early modern natural philosophy, the attempt at a direct “translation” of alchemy into the language of modern chemistry seems a bit simplistic. Something significant for its understanding will be lost in the process.” from  Lawrence Principe and the Rehabilitation of Alchemy by Emil Asprem, an article recommended by Ted

Alchemical texts need more solid/boring humanistic study: most crucial signification is happening at very mundane rather than mystery levels.

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About David

Specializing in the Unattended, Invisible and Overlooked
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