Infinite Fire Interview – on Jung & Alchemy on Sonu Shamdasani, Peter Forshaw & Hans van den Hooff

Before I discovered alchemy I had a series of dreams which repeatedly dealt with the same theme Beside my house stood another, that is to say another wing or annex which was strange to me

Each time I would wonder in my dream why I did not know this house, although it had apparently always been there Finally came a dream in which I reached the other wing I discovered there a wonderful library dating largely from the 16th and 17th centuries Large fat folio volumes bound in pigskin Among them were a number of books embellished with copper engravings of a strange character and illustrations containing curious symbols such as I had never seen before

At the time I did not know to what they referred Only much later did I recognise them as alchemical symbols In the dream I was conscious only of the fascination exerted by them and by the entire library It was a collection of medieval incunabula and 16th century prints The unknown wing of the house was a part of my personality and aspect of myself

It represented something that belonged to me but of which I was not yet conscious It, and especially the library referred to alchemy of which I was ignorant, but which I was soon to study Some 15 years later I had assembled a library very much like the one in the dream Good afternoon and a warm welcome to our guests of the Ritman library: Sonu Shamdasani, Peter Forshaw and Hans van den Hooff I would like to give Jung the floor first

My idea is to offer you a few quotes to let him, so to say, speak for himself and invite you to comment on some of his ideas and of course I would like to start with the Red Book, and I quote you: I worked on the Red Book for 16 years My acquaintance with alchemy in 1930 took me away from it The beginning of the end came in 1928 when Wilhelm sent me the text of the Golden Flower, an alchemical treatise The contents of this book found their way into actuality and I could no longer continue working on it with the help of alchemy I could finally arrange them into a whole

So Sonu, how did Jung discover alchemy and why was it so appealing to him? Well, first to note that Jung was always a good storyteller, that he's first familiar with alchemy At the time he was writing Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, in 1911 or 1912, he makes some references through his works and his first turn in 1929 when he published The Secret of the Golden Flower His commentary to that with Richard Wilhelm is to the East It's really only in about 1934-35 that his engagement with alchemy in a major way gets underway It's his first, what he calls his Eastern Intermezzo

That's interesting to note because in certain ways, part of the the template that he's developing for his understanding of alchemy, he's developed in his reading of eastern texts And that he then in terms of the notion of a symbolic of a process of transformation having its depictions in symbols and the way in which you can correlate these two becomes transferred onto alchemy as a form of Western yoga He's first developed this kind of hermeneutics in his engagement with Eastern texts The significance of alchemy, to go back to 1928-29, he finds himself in a quandary He's been engaged in, a secret experiment that's only known to people he's initiated into it, it's an esoteric experiment

He has not spoken publicly about it He has tried to initiate and to foster similar processes in his patients and he has not published this either And, there's a question, is this just something that he's cooked up himself? Is this just down to suggestion and auto-suggestion or is there something more than that? Is there historical analog, is there something wider than that? And as he says that the text that Wilhelm sends him breaks him out of his isolation and for him resolves this quandary of, yes there is a parallel as he saw it between the centering process depicted in this text and significance that he was finding in the circular forms to which he adopted the term mandala and the issue vis-à-vis alchemy was that he felt that it had a particular historical significance in the West The only way to substantiate his psychology was through history and cross-cultural historical comparative study of symbolic processes And alchemy was then the main element that he concentrated on as having the most significance in the West and also, you ultimately saw his own psychology as a continuation of taking up the psychic legacy of alchemy

So just to take this image of Philemon stemming from an issue from Ovid's Metamorphoses via Goethe's Faust The statement here you have is written in English, a citation from the Bhagavad Gita The Bhagavad Gita says: Whenever there is a decline of the law and an increase in inequity then I put forth myself for the reform of the pious and for the destruction of the evildoers for the establishment of the law I am born in every age One of the questions Jung is posing and has posed in a way for historians as to who is Jung's Philemon, is the question

Is this figure particular to himself? Is it his own invention, or is what he's in touch with here something that belongs to something more broadly and collectively human and then Jung's answer is that it is, and here we have this parallel being provided here by the Bhagavad Gita Well that's a wonderful of connection with another quote I chose, where, and that's from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and Jung says or writes there: Only after I had acquainted myself with alchemy did I realise that the unconscious is a process and that the psyche is transformed or developed by the relationship of the ego to the contents of the unconscious In individual cases that transformation can be read from dreams and fantasies In collective life it has left its deposit principally in the various religious systems and their changing symbols Through the study of these collective transformation processes and through understanding of alchemical symbolism I arrived at the central concept of my psychology: the process of individuation

So, Hans, as a psychotherapist what is most useful to take from Jung's ideas about alchemy and the process of individuation Well, you see Esther, I think Jung saw alchemy and as a language He's being, as a psychiatrist early in his career working with people in the psychiatric clinic in the Burghölzli, were there were often psychotic people speaking their psychosis and their bizarre fantasies He was in a way like a physicist and trying to have a frame for physical phenomena like the famous apple falling from the tree You know, understanding the electromagnetic, the gravitational forces in physics

He was interested in looking at psyche also as a kind of a mechanism or as a kind of a frameable dynamic, let me use those words And I think that the ultimate meaning for Jung that he found in alchemy was that it gave him a metaphorical language for transformational processes that he has also experienced in working, you know with his patients So what perhaps is mathematics to physics, is maybe alchemy to psychology for Jung For example, the solutio process where in alchemy images of a drowning king which correspond to maybe the experience that you see with some psychiatric and psychotic patients, they're disappearing And today in modern science where we only frame experience in rational categories we don't have a framework to frame the depth of psyche

We have processes like solutio which I just said, disappearing in the water but also the separatio to distinguish the ego from the rest of the unconscious The coagulatio where we are slowly evaporating all the moisture until we are much cleaner and solid, and all the moisture disappears which causes shrinking, which is by the way an explanation why the Americans call a psychiatrist a shrink Hans, your favorite experience the king in his red box Let's go to see it This is one of the works that Jung had by Michael Maier

We see here a king, he is in his red box he still has his crown on so that we know that he is a king but there's a fire underneath it and steam coming from everywhere and he needs to be as the text says, de-moisturised, and we can compare that with people who are full of swollen complexes as Jung calls them They're identifying the ego with other unconscious stuff and that's the de-identification from that, so the letting go of all the moisture, the shrinking of psyche to more powdery, white powder, as seen here, one of the alchemists calls it There's also in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, there is a quote and Jung says: When I began to understand alchemy I realised that it represented the historical link with Gnosticism and that continuity therefore existed between the past and present grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand into the past to Gnosticism and, on the other, into the future to the modern psychology of the unconscious So my question to you is in fact because alchemy seems to become more and more popular and the interest in Jung's ideas as well What, according to you, is the relevance of alchemy in the present day? Ok, that's interesting for a guy who spends his life with his nose in 16th and 17th century books to the present day

In Jung's last major work on alchemy he returns to the fact that alchemy is a fantastic treasure house of symbols I think that's what still relevant that still keeps people finding something of interest there and of inspiration in alchemy and those images give a different perspective both on how the alchemical scientists of their day communicated knowledge but also are extremely vibrant really for people looking at the images today as well on a different level with different sciences for example, psychologists looking at them, because they touch on a lot of areas of human experience which are actually often swept under the carpet There are sort of pathological images of of incest for example and cannibalism and skeletons there and so it lets you touch on areas maybe which aren't usually the standard discussion in the drawing room for example One thing that springs to mind is for example in esoteric libraries, Tarot You get Aleister Crowley, he's famous for his Thoth Tarot deck and the image of temperance is the art, he's renamed it that and that's the art of alchemy

But people like Robert Place are doing alchemical Tarot decks and things like that But also it spreads into literature I mean from very early on the chemical wedding, we're in a Rosicrucian library, the chemical wedding is a very famous text inspired by alchemy In the 20th century you have the Chymical Wedding of Lindsay Clarke and earlier you have Frankenstein of Mary Shelley Frankenstein is reading Paracelsus for his ideas

And then, you know, right into the present day you've got Harry Potter for example where I love the fact that Dumbledore's partner in alchemy is Nicholas Flamel I hope that JK Rowling – hello JK

Rowling! – will write a short story on their escapades, it would be fantastic But also in the area of music we've got Damon Albarn and the opera Dr Dee, inspired by the English alchemist John Dee We have Alan Moore who collaborated with him doing amazing comics, now Promethea, which has got alchemical and caballistic and magical influences What else have we got? We've got revivals of Michael Maier's music at Atalanta Fugiens, which you know that 17th century book which has got images 50 alchemical images and 50 pieces of music

The, I mean friends of ours, between those performances, Les Canards Chantants, the singing ducks, the Ensemble Plus Otres, have recorded as well So it's interesting that alchemy is clearly inspiring music, it's inspiring theater, I mean Ben Jonson is still popular with his The Alchemist in England and you've got literature and art as well and that's shows that something these metaphors or myth themes of transformation of metamorphosis and so forth are there And on top of that, of course is the psychology, and historians of science will probably want to smack me for saying it but alchemy has gone through transformations and transmutations throughout history from the 3rd century in Alexandria right up to the present day and alchemy has changed In the Middle Ages it was making the Philosopher's Stone and then in the 16th century it starts becoming chemical medicines Paracelsus, the Swiss author whom Jung was delighted to write about is often classed as the father of homeopathy so you've got Jung inspiring practices to do psychotherapy but also supporting the new age in many of its interests in things like alternative medicine

And then talking about sources it's wonderful that we can set out a lot of these books that he had access to that he had collected himself All of the works, of course in the first place Hermes and Paracelsus and Dorneus and all the others What do you think or is this known: Who would be the most favourite amongst them? That's maybe a question for all of you I think what's to me interesting is his working method in that he basically constructed an encyclopedia of alchemy for himself in terms of assembling quotations and then highlighting terms and indexing them and this encyclopedia was what he constructed all of his works out of In certain ways you could actually use it to construct new works as a virtually still working, scholarly tool in these alchemy copy books

So that you then begin to grasp his working method that is being able to develop an argument and then immediately look under certain terms in terms of the relevant quotations It also indicates and shows why he's working in a world that's de-contextualised and de-historisised, because he's working on cross-cultural trans-historical symbolism is what he's trying to cross So in a way it's not to me the single works, but the way he's trying to get at the root of who is in a way the hidden author behind that and his argument is that hidden author is still present in contemporary dreaming I find that interesting, I mean okay I have not looked at the copy books you have but from the books you wrote on Jung's biography and books, there it seems primarily that he's he's going, he's wordy, he's going through the words of alchemy I mean and he's making an index of terms, of alchemical terms, Does he ever have a sort of image library as well because he's clearly inspired by the visual image as well and then they turn up in his collected works He's collecting images in a certain sense

At one point he is sending Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn to the British Museum to collect images and says: Do not tell anyone what work you're doing and who you're doing it for So yes he's scouting for images as well, his spies digging around for him I think that making that encyclopedic inventory of alchemical imagery in texts that Sonu has pointed to also illustrates that real that mapping attitude that he had and we can almost compare that little booklet with all his quotes from the different alchemical sources to the chemical periodic table where you have a very well-structured document to somehow grasp the almost ungraspable and and what he is really I think fascinated by is that he's deeply convinced that that corresponds to somehow the laws of the unconscious Yes, for me as a historian what I like, is that looking at the copy books the images that you provide, he's taking and adopting an alchemical methodology I mean the Rosarium Philosophorum, you know I mean if people ask which images are really important with you it's that very famous series from the 1550 Rosary of the Philosophers

What you've got the king and the queen, the man and the woman basically, yes, sleeping together and there are deaths in different senses of the word, not just a Shakespearean sense and where they dissolve in an acid bath and then they're shown in a tomb with the the spirit or soul separating from the body and then coming back down again But then the whole text is a florilegium, it's a collection of quotes from different alchemical sources and Jung is sort of perpetuating that, in a way that I have to say I really like that you can see how alchemists of different centuries are mystified by the tradition they're working in and they're trying to crack this code and he's doing something similar but what he's doing is he's allowing for different dimensions or levels of reading and you find that even within alchemy you find alchemists who adapt Kabbalah trying to crack the code others who are trying numerology to decipher what's going on and so Jung really is, and I'd like to say, is the 21st century alchemy There is not just alchemy as a monolith Historians and scientists say there are alchemies, and certainly I'd say Jung is one kind, he's one of the latest manifestations of that It extends beyond that in terms of method because his alchemical works are themselves allegorical

In a way it's important to suspend the referent, because the prime subject or the prime referent is the transformation process What he himself has undergone and fostered in his patients He's using alchemical texts as a mode of allegorical writing In the same way that alchemists often use allegory and assembling quotations as a way of speaking of the secrets of the transformation processes So in a way his texts are themselves double-sided On the one hand they purport to be about medieval alchemy but the real subject, the true art is the transformation process of which he decided not to speak

He's kept that veiled, there are only a few people that he's letting on to that and in way you can only understand that double layer, that hidden layer of his alchemical texts following the publication of Liber Novus, because there you find the hermeneutic key that he didn't publish in his lifetime of his own transformation process By the way that's something that historians of science haven't bothered to even begin to understand how you actually are supposed to read these texts I'm being cheeky, is there in the Red Book is there any intimation of, at least engaging with things that he later developed in alchemy or through alchemy? Well, one of the main themes in that is the question of the resolution of the conflict of opposites and also the cosmology of how is the universe constructed, what is a place of opposites within that, which find its major combination in Mysterium Coniunctionis He is trying to create a text that itself has, it stimulates the imagination that evokes the processes which it's starting to describe I mean one of questions I always have and I don't have an answer for it so maybe you do I mean if you think that with alchemy he's adopting the analogy of alchemy

And alchemy, I mean alchemists themselves often say: I haven't got to the Philosopher's Stone yet, I've got to a sort of a preparatory stage or at least I know what matter I got to work with but sometimes there's the sense that, yes, you can create lesser stones but the Philosopher's Stone always eludes you and is always out of reach so if that's what a lot of alchemists are saying, to what extent is Jung parallelling that Does he feel, for example, individuation or the coniunctio ever can take place or is that not the point? I think his understanding is that it's an ongoing process and that ultimately goes beyond the grave In the ultimate he does become convinced in his personal life of reincarnation And the sense that you in a way incarnate when the questions that are posed to you that you are in a position to take up And that in a certain sense that by, it's what I call his theology the questions what one is engaged in which one thinks is self-directed, in terms of the questions and topics and issues one chooses in one's life on the way in an attempt to answer questions posed by one's ancestors

I have never, but I'm just an average reader, I've never sensed a strong drive or need in Jung to find the stone I think he was also a bit of a phenomenologist He was, in the Liber Novus, or what led to the Liber Novus was a clear almost microscopic perspective of what came to him from the depth of the unconscious He sort of accurately as a good academic wrote that down to be that's my understanding of what drove him more to be true and to be objective and to write it down and to codify rather than to achieve a certain stone but I don't know if you agree with that I agree that the issue and it's there quite clearly in Liber Novus and the black book the notion of what I call fidelity to the event He's attempting to note down what is taking place Liber Novus is a bit different because he's trying to then elaborate a work, a literary work on the basis of that, but the first notations in the black books are dated entries

He's reflecting on his mental states, also I think with an understanding that something of what's going on has import, that it concerns not just himself No, it's objective manifestations It's in a way it's someone that is undergoing a process and to use a processive religious transformation but he becomes more interested in understanding the psychology of the religion-making process and how religions formed on the basis of, how do, on the basis of an individual's primary experience how us how do symbols arise how did they become codified and how do sects arise These are the sorts of issues he becomes interested in What I find very fascinating is to ask all of you about the parallels that you see between alchemical transformation and human transformation

It's such a big subject, and it's also very important to note from which perspective are we answering this question Is it from the initiate who has been through the process already and who can look back on what has happened to him or her or is it from the one who comes in the first time in the therapist's the room You know, with stress or anxiety or depression or other problems But from the perspective of somebody who's been through that process In alchemy we talk about solutio I've talked already about, it is losing yourself but then it talks about also the mortificatio so that we have something has to die in ourselves before we can, you know, really develop further and find energies in ourselves

Very important is the final alchemical step, namely the coniunctio it's the bringing back of the parts in us which we have separated before but not too soon so do the alchemists teach us because then we have the lesser coniunctio then we are going to put back that what has not been fully separated yet In human beings, you know, we can sometimes think that we are making whole but we have not split it yet sufficiently so there's plenty of those kind of analogies and so that's my take on it Esther Jung was interested in how religions were made I'm interested in how psychologies were made so the first question, on one sense I don't have a clue as to the parallels between alchemy and human transformations, that's not my question But what interests me is to say that you have various, what you could call ontologies of transformation, you have very systems that are of, in this case, of how a process of transformation has symbolic depictions and in the case of Jung it's become a cultural form itself, as Peter was saying in the sense that you've had over 75 years of this in the culture, people have been engaging in this practice, as Hans would be able to speak to far more interestingly than myself Now my interest is to say: How are these systems themselves put together? How do we arrive at this point so a psycho-alchemy that is a prevalent cultural form in the 20th century? What effects do they have, how do they compare with other cultural forms other forms of transformation? I would like to thank you very much and I am sure that not only me but also our audience would like to see this conversation continued, maybe that will be the case Thank you for this moment very much