Thursday, January 03, 2019

In Defense of Alchemy

This oil painting by Portland narrative artist Jen Brown is part of a political allegory series. I served as the model, but the painting is not intended as a portrait of me. It certainly is not intended to portray alchemy in a positive light. In fact, the allegory relies on the assumption that alchemy represents not just unscientific error, but outright fraud. This is a stark example of how an artist's intent can be different from what a viewer gets out of a work of art. I think it is a good portrait and I like being portrayed as an alchemist. I especially like the way the painting itself has an appropriately old-master Renaissance feel with the rich textures, glassware reflections, and esoteric gestures. There is even a subtle nod to modernity - there is a magic 8 ball next to the skull. I've cropped the picture of the painting to remove the political content.

Alchemy was a highly valued occupation during the Age of Wonder, as can be seen in the collage series "Views of the Zymoglyphic Region." Many of the collages in that series were inspired by, and include, engravings from old alchemy texts. Alchemical imagery is a rich source of the enigmatic and obscure. Two excellent compendia for these images are "The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century" by Stanislas Klossowski de Rola and "Alchemy and Mysticism" by Alexander Roob.

Alchemy is appealing to me as a non-literal science, the physical science counterpart to the chimerae and mermaids of cryptozoology. Its flames and tubes and glassware, solvents and reagents, evoke a nostalgia for childhood chemistry sets and a naive feeling for the possibility of great discoveries to be had in test tubes, up to and including the creation of life itself from the formless ooze of the materia prima.

In Goethe's "Faust", a Renaissance alchemist conjures up a devil and together they revisit classical mythology, creating a homunculus along the way - a sassy little human spirit that flies around in a bottle. At nearly the same time (1830s), Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" gives us the prototype of the Modern Age equivalent of an alchemist: the mad scientist. It turns out that, in the Modern Age, it may actually be possible to create living things from basic inert molecules, an energy source, and no magical or demonic assistance. However, this long-term, incremental work is carried out by large groups of highly specialized scientists, not by inspired individuals.

If the Age of Wonder was an era of discovery and a celebration of the physical world, the Modern Age may be seen as an opportunity for individual discoveries to be made in unconscious and creative realms. Carl Jung's book "Psychology and Alchemy" argues that alchemy is really a symbolic system that describes the transmutation not of physical substances but of the process of individuation. The book goes into great detail about the archetypal significance of each aspect of alchemy.

So ultimately alchemy becomes a metaphor for the creative process. Ordinary matter, whether pigments, graphite, digital bits, or sticks, moss, effluvia, and detritus, is subjected to various processes, such as inspiration, fermentation, composition, decomposition, and integration, to create something that is more than the sum of its parts and links us to deeper realms. The link between alchemy and creativity is explored in Jeff Hoke's book "The Museum of Lost Wonder," where the book is the museum. Each exhibit hall of the museum corresponds to a particular various stages of the alchemical process mapped onto the creative process.