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“There is the one Hermeticism which you cannot enter for it is closed, the one you can enter, which closes you up, and the one which invites you to enter so you should open what is closed.” (A. Artaud, “Suppots et Supplications”)
Any attempt of an interpretive amendment to render exactly the message conveyed by the alchemic language meets, at its first hindrance, the hermetic obscurity of the texts, the repetitive structure of these discourses and their apparent absence of internal significance logic. The attitudes taken towards this type of language are totally contrary. Thus, we can ascertain “the obscurity of the subject, the chimerical side of the issues to be solved” (M. Berthelot, “Collection of ancient Greek alchemists”) and we feel the need to problematize “why has the alchemy been such an obscure science, so less approachable for our modern intelligence, brought up to the school of the admirable scientific precision?” (G. Lambert, “Alchemy”).
On the other hand, there are cases of influence or recognition, for instance in Jung’s works or in the surrealists’ ideas. Yet, most of the affinities to a philosopher’s expression only preserve few traces of authentic phrases or images, no longer keeping in touch with the inner meaning of the ouroboric language.
The practice of such texts leads to considering their wrapping “shadow” as an attempt with initiatory connotation, consequently asking for a new deontology of the reading, judging by how frequently the alchemists had previously denied any possible clarification that would result from the exterior of the Tradition-bound texts. “The descent into the mine” (after an expression coined by Novalis) doesn’t lead to a truth of subsequent exposure in the light of the sovereign Good, like Plato’s descent into the caves; this time, a proof of the darkness must be experimented as such, so as to be transmuted, without privileging the reason.
If the language that uses concepts belongs to a space certified as homogenous, able to hold categories, then the alchemic language is characterized by a fragmentariness likely to confuse the acknowledged logic, so that the one venturing into understanding such a language runs the risk of getting lost, not only because it might be difficult for him to read, but also because he would end up being charmed by the visual opportunities of the verb. The intention of such a narrative discontinuity, given the staple analogy, may lead to an emotional state in which comprehension would change according to the matter’s manifestations, so intensely subjected to transmutation twisting and multiplications.
The ratio exteriority/interiority is overthrown in such a language that tries to put together the necessity to tell and convey – the very purpose of any kind of language – with the necessity to make obscure, which is characteristic to any esotericism. It’s as if the alchemic texts were urging to an initiation on a different level in which the relationship exterior/interior is shifting to an inner dialogue in order to merge with the discourse body: “the esotericism is not an opposition regarding something else, but a magnet for all antagonisms, a dynamic center of gravity” (A. Faivre, “Esotericism in the XVIIIth century, in France and Germany”).
In this purpose, the act of reading is no longer an entertainment or a technical knowledge for the alchemists, but it also solicits a different mood, one not far from a straying invested with a high initiatory value: “who he has not got lost yet hasn’t started at all, and the errors do nothing but guide you along into what to do and what not to.” (M. Maier, “Atalante fugitive”). The only accepted straying, one requested by all the alchemists, is to allow for some thresholds of spiritual wakening: “the books are labyrinths abounding in locks, which are to surrender their own keys” (M. Butor, “Alchemy and its language”).
The reader is requested another kind of scrutiny, meant to raise the problem of how the act of reading can encompass different perspectives for a unitary direction, the direction of the summoned Book.
The first method would be of adopting, at every new reading, a predominant point of view. Even if it’s the theme or the symbol that are being looked into, these reiterated readings bring along a well-structured linguistic itinerary: “the reading of the best alchemic treatises may be of no avail unless it is performed in an active mental state, especially by searching along the entire reading the answer to a single question” (B. Husson, “Introduction to three alchemic texts of the XVIIth century”).
However, there still is the risk of privileging only a single aspect, detrimental to the whole, by a reasoning process upon different registers found in the text. Maybe there is the necessity to leaf through the layered text: by every reading, a connection would be achieved for all the levels of a single reality, and this is attributable to interstices, to discontinuities. Bachelard describes this reading by the notion of “reverie”- a so-called descent into the intimacy of the substances – considering it the mere archetype of accomplished readings: “breathing a beautiful poem is nothing but drinking the alchemists’ astral gold, finding life’s cosmic spirit” (G. Bachelard, “Air and Dreams”)
The alchemic language is a paradox: it mixes, apparently chaotically, the search for a consummate harmony, a state of communion between the reader and the text, along with the systematic destabilization resulting from the insertion of some discontinuities whose meaning couldn’t be but to mediate, to render possible the sheer circulation of the meaning. At the level of the text, there appear sometimes some coarse cryptographic methods: letters instead of numbers or vice-versa, numbers which suddenly come out within the sentence; the word “kabalistic” meant to break into pieces the continuity of a phrase. Beside these methods there is one even more appropriate to the alchemic “work”: fables, allegories, so widely disseminated in the XVII-XVIIIth century.
The interpretation of this specific feature of the hermetic discourse should orient toward weighing all the signs pretending to trigger an urge for the reader to embrace and become, at his turn, a matrix: every form endowed with a meaning would transcend the environment’s familiar significances. The pre-meditation of such a language is only obvious; the language tends to fight a much too monotonous unfolding of the sentence, since the latter is perpetually subject to a contorsionist blockage of the meaning, preventing it from a free passing, and forcing it to take a new way: the reader’s, interactively involved.
It would be too hazardous to infer that in every incomprehensible language knot the alchemists “could hide the truth now in strange and affected contingencies, now in the very simplicity of their words” (H. A. Barma, “The reign of Saturn, changed into century of gold”), as the truth they pursue lies not really within isolated textual units, but in the bigger picture provided by the discourse. The ratio between signifier and signified is always disturbed, thus opening the path that transmutation will take towards a coincidentia oppositorum mediated by the verb: “the same terms are applied to different realities, and different terms to the same realities” (M. Maier, “Atalante fugitive”).
The textual fragmentariness signals a transfiguration: the one who performs the self-initiation by adequate reading doesn’t suffer from alterations into the continuity of his memory and consciousness, otherwise he would “end up” different without being forced to violate his own identity. The ratio unraveling/occultation governs the relationships between the patient rereading and the abrupt “awakening”, between the quasi-sacredness of the books and the need to annihilate them, between the uniqueness of the Book and its unlimited reproduction process.
On one hand, the reader is always called for a silent insistence – to silently read texts perpetually postponing a definitive uttering, and on the other hand, there is no clear-cut wording of all the attitudes to be taken for the enlightenment to come. These “patiences-sapiences” (F. Bonardel, “The philosophy of alchemy”) to repeat the act of reading are totally opposed to the necessity to free yourself from the reading.
Probably the meaning of this persuasion imposed to the reader resides in the refusal to lose its multiplicity – the straying remaining as important as before; to lose the same textual ground in favor of the paradoxical revelation of wanting to destroy the books: “so that now I no longer inspire from any human learning, nor from a science taught in school. I draw my inspiration from my own book that has opened in me.” (J. Boehme, “Confessions”). But it is as legitimate as possible to recommend the re-collection of the Book from among its fragments scattered in different treatises: “one of the books proclaims the other and what is absent in one will be added in the other” (D. Zachaire, “The true natural philosophy of metals”).
Paradoxical and contorted, this language is nothing but the improvement of the Book that stands for guiding the philosopher’s Nature. The artist – artifex, “nature’s monkey”- is investing genuine perseverance and patience in his quest for a verb appropriate to Nature, choosing the most difficult yet advisable path: the ouroboric discourse, the only “natural” one. The reader is advised not to judge the texts “by the cover and the exterior message of the words, but rather by the power of nature” (D. Zachaire, “Nouvelle lumiere chymique”), and proceed to a discussion with Nature, thus making “matter” a place of the future transmutation.
A hermeneutics of the hermetic language, not exactly symbolic, not exactly conceptual either, will search to follow the ramifications and the labyrinthine bents inside the philosopher’s itinerary, always risking blockage from the language into limbs – to use a term coined by M. Tournier (his book “Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique” carries a strong philosopher’s print).
Moreover, words must and can be considered only by their true significance, respectively of “crucibles” in which and by which we are to operate a simultaneous uniqueness and multiplicity. By refuting itself, the alchemic discourse summons and urges, at the same time.
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