Chapter One: Alchemy - The Pursuit of Gnosis
Before a true exploration of the theories of Artaud in relation to Alchemy can commence, I feel it is prudent to provide the reader with a brief history of the development of Alchemy. An in depth discussion of Alchemy’s history would not be possible within the confines of this thesis; however by briefly exploring the origins of the subject I can set aside some common misconceptions regarding Alchemy. From this brief history I hope to provide a clearer understanding of the ‘Great Work’ and help the reader to consider the alchemical paradigm as a philosophical tool rather than the experimental metallurgy of charlatans. 9 Within this chapter I shall focus upon the development of Western Alchemy, and the role of the Alchemist within this transformative operation.
In order to trace the origins of this most esoteric of subjects I shall consult some of the earliest theories regarding its development, and the common recurrence of the alchemical Demi God-like figure Hermes Trismagistus. I shall consider references to selected treatises from Corpus Hermeticum (commentary by Yates, 1964) which provides a key insight into the alchemical philosophy central to the movement of Renaissance Alchemy. Additional references have been taken from The Kyballion (Three Initiates, 1916) as a contemporary source of hermetic literature which would most likely have shaped Artaud’s understanding and thoughts surrounding Alchemy.10 My understanding of the subject shall be enriched by reference to social commentator and alchemical scholar Terrence McKenna. By allowing the time to properly contextualise the subject of Alchemy, it becomes clearer that that the philosophical frame of mind between Artaud and Alchemist is serendipitous. Ultimately this will allow me to frame 'The Digital Double' as alchemical, and, a-priori, an Artaudian scenographic language.
The origins of the word ‘Alchemy’ are somewhat unclear, and there are multiple theories regarding its original source.
“The word may have originated from multiple sources “Kmt or chem", the ancient Egyptians name for their country or possibly within the Greek language “chyma", meaning to fuse or to cast metal” (Holymyard, 1957, 17)
Egypt and Greece are primary contenders for the original practitioners of Alchemy due to the common representation of the alchemical godlike figure known by the Greeks as Hermes Trismagistus (literally translating as ‘thrice greatest’) 11 and the Ancient Egyptians, as Thoth, the Ibis headed god of knowledge and wisdom. The hermetic tradition is crafted from the axioms of Hermes Trismigistus, and is an alchemical metaphysical school of philosophy, firmly believing in the transformation of the self. 12 These concepts are central to the alchemical practice and shall be discussed shortly within a brief exploration of the Hermetic Corpus. Alternative theories regard the origins of Alchemy within the realms of Plato’s mythical tale of Atlantis.
“Other tales speak of Alchemy being the teachings of Atlantean refugees, fleeing from their sinking continent to Egypt. Others state that the word Alchemy is derived from the Hebrew word “chamaman” which means ‘sacred mystery’. (Author Unknown, 1994, 20)
Clearly Alchemy’s origins are submerged within the veils of history and myth. Regardless of the true origins of Western Alchemy, in can be determined that it was practiced in Hellenistic Greece and Egypt. This leads to an essential collection of literature which profoundly influenced the Renaissance Alchemist; The Corpus Hermeticum, attributed to Hermes Trismagistus, and erroneously dated prior to Plato and Pythagoras in Ancient Egypt. 13 Yates describe the alchemical Renaissance as a “renaissance of antiquity” the Alchemists of the Renaissance believed that their salvation lied within the past. The discovery of ancient texts and artefacts from the past brought with it a sense of great excitement and wisdom, for these past civilisations were considered “better and higher than there own” (Yates, 1964, 3). However the alchemical ideals with which this Renaissance was founded are somewhat misguided due to a radical misdating of the Corpus Hermeticum. In their lust and admiration for wisdom of antiquity, the Corpus Hermeticum was thought to originate from ancient Egypt, but now it is known the texts origins are between 100 and 300 AD (Yates, 1964, 2). It is important that I engage with the teachings of these texts as they were interpreted by the Renaissance Alchemist, and in doing so I am admitted a greater insight into their epistemological worldview. If I attribute Artaud’s theatrical model to an alchemical philosophy then I must attempt to understand the perception of those first reading the Hermetic Corpus. The authorship of this corpus is similarly incorrect, attributed to Hermes Trismagistus.
“In any case, however, they were certainly not written in remotest antiquity by an all-wise Egyptian priest, as the Renaissance believed, but by various unknown authors, all probably Greeks...” (Yates, 1964, 3).
In informing an understanding of the Hermetic alchemical model I wish to refer to the role of ‘Man’ within this Corpus. This is a curious position, as within ‘Pimander’ (Yates Commentary, 1964) the Hermetic Genesis, Man is described as brother of the Demiurge God.
“Now, when he saw the creation which the Demiurge had fashioned in the fire, the Man wished also to produce a work, and permission to do this was given him by the Father. Having thus entered into the demiurgic sphere, in which he had full power, the Man saw the works of his brother, and the Governors fell in love with him, and each gave to him a part in their own rule”. (Yates, 1964, 25)
Man is then considered above the animal, and to be ‘brother’ of the Demiurge God, not an inferior being existing at the mercy of his creator. 14 The second notion which is spoken of within Pimander and central to this understanding of Alchemy is the duality of humanity. Man’s placement within the world is a fall from the past, however within Man still lies a divine nous. “He consists, not of a human soul and a body, but of a divine, creative, immortal essence and a body.” (Yates, 1964, 29) In fact Man within this corpus is considered to have a ‘double’. A curious moment of serendipity within Artaud’s preoccupation of ‘The Double’. Ultimately this self focussed divine practice led to the persecution of those practicing Alchemy branding them as heretics. The Alchemist who still wished to practice their art hid their true intention under the guise of metallurgy. Alchemical literature would either be written anonymously or under the alias of another writer, philosopher, or Alchemist, lending credibility to their theories and also protecting the original identity of the author. A body of cyphers and codes hid the true alchemical intention from the eyes of the uninitiated, further pushing alchemical philosophy into the veils of obscurity.
In order to build an understanding of the Hermetic philosophy influencing the Renaissance Alchemist, two precepts are required. The position of Man is elevated to that of brother of the Demiurge God, and that Man is a creature of dual being, physical and metaphysical. Now that I have established these core tenets of Hermeticism, I can discuss the philosophical ideology behind the alchemical practice itself.
The development of the alchemical principle can be seen as child of Aristotelian metaphysics. Aristotle believed that the universe is composed of primary matter, which remained inactive until pressed upon by one of the four forms; fire, earth, water and air. (Holymyard, 1957, 21-23) Aristotle thought that every substance is composed of varying amounts of these four elements; as the elements are interchangeable and can act upon one another, this school of thought believed that mastery of the four elements conferred upon the wielder the ability to craft any substance or form.
“Here we have the germ of all theories of metallic transmutation and the basic philosophical justification of all the laborious days spent by Alchemists over their furnaces. If lead and gold consist of fire, air, water and earth, why then not the dull and common metal have the proportions of its elements adjusted to those of the shining, precious ones.” (Holmyard, 1957, 23)
The idea of harmony within the universe was central to the alchemical ethos, “All is one, and one is All”. (Holmyard, 1957, 22) This led the Alchemist to believe the the spirit of the universe could be called upon within their transmutation, in effect calling forth the Alchemist’s ‘double’ or ‘divine' aspect. “The theory of unity of the world permeated by a universal spirit had a corollary in the assumption that every object in the universal possessed some sort of life.” (Holmyard, 1957, 22) The Alchemist, therefore, became a channel for this universal spirit, and by calling upon its power was gifted the ability to alter and change the materials around them. This universal spirit inherent within all matter was regarded as the Quintessence. 15 But what was the objective of this power possessed by the Alchemist? Those uninitiated in the philosophy of The Great Work will consider the primary outcome to be the creation of gold from lead, however this is merely the exoteric metaphor of an esoteric journey.
“For a more select company, however the fascination of secret knowledge and the idea of grasping the hidden key to understanding the universe held an even greater appeal, and from the beginning, the practitioners of Alchemy claimed that it taught the secret of a spiritual transformation”. (Author Unknown, 1994, 10)
The Alchemist therefore had to recognise that their existed a power within matter outside of its physical appearance and that the Alchemist was in fact affecting the substance both on a physical and metaphysical level.16 As the Alchemists believed the material contained within it a hidden Quintessence, a transformation of gross material substance into refined ones could take place; this is evident within the transformation of the bass material lead, into gold. Applying the Hermetic framework I have constructed, the Alchemist was first connecting to their ‘double’ aspect, and enacting the transformative gift of Man. Through practical experimentation the Alchemist understands better themselves, their world and the subject of their transmutation. This is a core concept of the Hermetic philosophy; in enacting their divine gift as Man, the better the Alchemist would come to know ‘God’ or ‘The All’.
“Therefore unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God: for like is not intelligible save unto like. Make yourself grow to a greatness beyond measure, by a bound free yourself from the body; raise yourself above all time, become Eternity; then you will understand God.” (Ficino Translation, 1839, 33-34)
From this perspective the alchemical pursuit was far from purely material. The Alchemist, as they toiled within laboratory amidst the fumigated stench of sulphur and mercury pursued a divine gnosis. “In philosophical terms, then Alchemy is the art of transforming the base metal of ignorance into the gold of wisdom, or divinity.”. (Author Unknown, 1994, 23) The esoteric pursuit of gnosis was matched through the exoteric creation of the ‘Philosophers Stone’, or ‘Alchemist Stone’.
“...it is the philosophical gold or even the marvellous stone, the lapis invisibilitatis (the stone of invisibility) or the lapis aesthereus (the ethereal stone) or finally the unimaginable hermaphroditic rebis...” (Jung, 1953, 232)
All previous transmutations served as preparation for the fabrication of this most coveted of treasures. Once fashioned the Philosophers Stone would confer upon the individual extraordinary powers. Of course the most well known of these powers was the ability to transform any metal into gold; but it also served as the primary ingredient in the Elixir of Life. Additionally the Alchemist could place the smallest of fragments into a bowl of water and watch as a miniature universe would be born in front of his eyes, thereby conferring the Alchemist a first hand account of the laws of universe and the powers of creation. (Hoeller, 2016)
The creation of the Philosophers Stone was accompanied by a highly complex and deeply symbolic practical method. I must reiterate that the practice undertaken here, was merely the physical process of a deeply metaphysical experiment. The process listed bellow is the ‘four stage process’ however as Hamilton notes;
“The alchemical process of transformation has been variously described, according to the text that is consulted, as being a six-stage process, 12 stage, 20, 22, 50, and even 75 stage process!”. (Hamilton, 1985)
This begins with the Negrido or blackening, Albedo, whitening, Citrinitas, yellowing and Rubedo, reddening. During this process both the material and Alchemist are subject to increasing purification, the material outset of the Alchemists experiment is mirrored within the psychological process they undertake. 17 A full exploration of the meaning behind these alchemical processes shall be undertaken alongside the methodology of Artaud when I consider Artaud himself as an Alchemist.
Within this short introduction I have attempted to guide the reader as to the potential origins of Alchemy and set aside the common misconceptions surrounding the subject. As I proceed in creating a model of 'The Digital Double' as an alchemical and Artaudian scenographic theory, it is crucial that I establish a suitable framework for this theory to sit. The correct contextualisation and exploration of the base elements of this theory is a necessity. The concern of the Alchemists was with a spiritual purification with which metallurgy was merely the practical accompaniment. Matter is not fixed, and by demonstrating the ability to manipulate matter upon a miniature scale the Alchemist is able to determine the malleable nature of their very soul. This ideology is reflected within the Hermetic axiom “As above, so below; as below, so above”. (Three Initiates,1966, 50) Within their practical experimentation the Alchemist is able to justify their metaphysical world view, and develop their understanding of the universe to bring about a personal transformation of their base soul into alchemical gold. The Hermetic Corpus while misdated provides a key insight into the position of Man within this alchemical paradigm. We are creatures of duality, as Yates eloquently phrases; “...This Egyptian Adam is more than human; he is divine and belongs to the race of the star demons”. (Yates, 1984, 29). By placing Man at the same level of Demiurge God, the Hermetic texts infuse an otherworldly quality within humanity, which the Renaissance Alchemists pursued within their art. There is an innately theatrical profundity to both the position of Man and the alchemical process with which Artaud’s fascination of the subject seems only a natural occurrence.
9 (Nichol 1980, 8) humorously refers to the Alchemist as being perceived as a “chemical con-man”.
10 See (Jefferson, 2011). Artaud never directly references this texts within his Oeuvre however it is speculated that Artaud did in fact read the Kyballion.
11 See (Mkenna, 1970). Hermes is named ‘thrice greatest’ having mastered the arts of Astrology, Alchemy and Theurgy.
12The wisdom of the Hermetic teachings must be applied within life in order for it to be truly understood. “If you are a true student student, you will be able to work out and apply these Principles- if not, then you must develop yourself into one, for otherwise the Hermetic Teachings will be as ‘words, words, words’ to you.” (Three Initiates, 1966, 4)
13 The scale of this mistake can been seen within McKenna’s (1992) humorous remark; “This is the equivalent of us finding out that George Washington was alive in Greenwich Village in the 1930s.”.
14 This supposition counters the Christian ideology that God created the universe we inhabit but rather proposes a semi complete creation which man imbued within divine power is able to shape. McKenna humorously remarks of the Christian perspective“...you’re like a worm suspended over an abyss, held there only by the love of a merciful God; implying that if he weren’t a merciful God, he’d just let go of your thread and you’d go down the tubes.” (McKenna 1992). Within the alchemical perspective, Man is afforded an empowering position.
15 Paracelsus, a famously gifted medicinal Alchemist, wrote of this Quintessence regarding it as; “The divine breath, the central and universal fire, which vivifies all things that exist” (Paracelsus, 1289).
16Nicholl writes that during the transformative operation of the bass matter; “The Alchemist saw a spirit arising liberated from the embrace, the dark prison, of matter.” (Nicholl, 1980, 4).
17 Jung noted that the physical operation of Alchemy is mirrored by a psychological operation. “This sounds as though the alchemical maturation should go hand in hand with the maturation of the physician.” (Jung, 1967, 124)
18 While not directly referencing Artaud’s theatre Nichol’s ‘The Chemical Theatre is an excellent source for contextualising theatre as an alchemical process. This text focusses upon the alchemical nature of Shakespearian tragedy, and claims that the story of King Lear is transformative and alchemical. “...King Lear is deeply and intentionally alchemical. That King Lear is a masterpiece of ‘chemical theatre’. (Nichol, 1980, 144) Nichol also notes the theatricality of the alchemical transmutation process by referencing the work of the notorious Edward Kelly. “Kelly’s Bohemian Alchemy, whether or not it turned crude mercury into philosophical gold, was a series of performances, with some of the most powerful figures in Europe, political and intellectual, as audience” (Nichol, 1980, 22)