In my previous blog post, I examined a selection of the texts in the Bibliotheca Hermetica series, a recent addition to our catalogue. In this post, I wish to take a wider view of alchemy, and how the material connects people of different time periods. History is inherent to each manuscript, not only detailing the provenance and creation of each work, but also how the content shaped the lives of the people who read it. In this way, the collection of alchemical texts in the UL is a rich fabric of interwoven connections and textual interpretations, which spans centuries of academic understanding, creating almost a visual mind-map of human curiosity and giving the impetus to discover and learn more.
One particular example of how ideas interconnect across time, is Carl Jung, the Swiss 20th century psychiatrist, and The Secret of the Golden Flower (9840.b.17). Although psychology and alchemy may appear to be vastly different fields of enquiry, Jung’s approach to his specialism had a lot in common with the historical alchemists he researched. Like them, he was concerned with the unification of opposites, focusing primarily on the conscious and the unconscious, a theme he noted in a variety of Eastern archetypical images. Jung’s concept of individuation is also reminiscent of Western alchemical practices. In differentiating the self into conscious and unconscious elements, Jung was applying to psychology techniques which alchemists had applied to early approaches to natural science.
Jung’s interest in alchemy is most clearly demonstrated in his interest in the work mentioned above, The Secret of the Golden Flower. Jung was so inspired by what he read, that he went on to write the commentary for the 1929 German translation of the text. Written originally between 1688 and 1692 via a method known as Fuji or spirit-writing, The Secret of the Golden Flower described an Eastern branch of alchemy called Neidan (or internal alchemy), which used Taoist doctrine to prolong life and create an immortal spiritual body that would survive after death. Many of these practices are metaphorically reminiscent of Western Early Modern alchemical experiments; in Neidan the body is described as a Ding (鼎), a cauldron in which Essence (Jing), Breath (Qi), and Spirit (Shen) are cultivated. However, it was principally the Neidan focus on Xiu Dao or Taoist meditation which intrigued Jung, whose commentary often focused on Eastern philosophical efforts towards mental or internal self-improvement. In his commentary, Jung wrote “the Christian subordinates himself to the superior, divine person in expectation of His grace; but the Eastern man knows that redemption depends on the ‘work’ the individual does upon himself” (The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Chines book of life. Translated and explained by Richard Wilhelm, with a European commentary by C. G. Jung [Translated into English by Cary F. Baynes] page 134).
Jung went on to write several books detailing his approaches to various forms of alchemy. One particularly noted work is Mysterium Coniunctionis or “An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy” (196.c.97.1773). In it he sought to demonstrate that several traits of modern man were prefigured in alchemical processes, among them the symbology behind dreaming. Jung saw the way that Western alchemists included Greek or Roman deities in their experiments as projections of their fantasies or enduring beliefs, turning their quest for knowledge into a collective dream. What made it of consistent importance to Jung, however, was that this dream, being one dreamed by our ancestors, is rooted in the psyche we in the West have had passed down to us. Jung saw this in himself, as he inherited ideas about individual differentiation from 17th century Chinese philosophers.
It is this enduring web (which Jung might label a dream) of interconnecting ideas and knowledge patterns which interests me, as the texts remaining from that time tell, not only what their authors believed (or dreamt), but also the history of where they learned, and who taught them to do so. Even today, we are still rediscovering knowledge to advance our understanding of the world and people around us, making Jung’s assertion that “the world of alchemical symbols does not belong to the rubbish heap of the past, but stands in a very real and living relationship to our most recent discoveries” increasingly more pertinent (Mysterium Coniunctionis; An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy C. G. Jung, abstract, Page 2).