Friday, May 20, 2011

materia prima, the elixir of life

Whatever you have planned for tomorrow, you may not have considered laboring over the 'Great Work' that so consumed alchemists from Geber (8th c.) all the way to Isaac Newton (17th c.). For centuries, these chemist-philosophers sought to discover the correct formula for what was known primarily as 'the philosopher's stone' (though there were numerous other aliases which we will come to momentarily...) This substance, if identified, was said to have the power to transform cheap metals into gold. Further, it was also whispered to possess the ability to heal all manner of injuries and illnesses... and even to extend life into immortality. Anyone who found a way to make the dry powder, this materia prima, would then be assured of spiritual elevation, purification, ability to alter substances and situations, panacea for all manner of malady, enlightenment, bliss, life everlasting. Not too shabby!

Indeed, this highly regarded (and perhaps protected) secret is not just (or foremost) a fictional creation of J. K. Rowling. Geber, an Islamic alchemist more commonly known to his peers as Jabir ibn Hayyan, approached his analysis of metal through the lens of the Aristotelian elements -- earth, air, fire, and water. Of course, as these stories (a.k.a. "history") tend to go, these were not, in fact, sprung from Aristotle's mind, but from an even earlier philosopher, Empedocles of Acragas. Born in Sicily around 492 B.C., Empedocles was born into an aristocratic family that gave him the freedom to explore ideas, to write poetry, to expound on the meaning of life, and to generally loaf around and go on to establish the foundation for modern Western science. It is not that we still believe that all matter is composed of the aforementioned elements, or that, like Geber, we should explain other metals through their varying degrees of hotness and coldness or moistness and dryness... but rather that the complexity of the world can somehow be simplified. That matter must have smaller and commonly shared elements. And, perhaps even more significantly, that all should align with lex parsimoniae... Occum's razor... the law of succinctness...the simplest explanation should stand until we have proof to lift us to a theory of greater complexity.

But back to Geber. His idea was that if all metals were variations on these basic elemental themes -- hotness, coldness, dryness, moistness, then one metal could be transformed into another by rearranging or recombining these elements. And if that were true, then there existed some intervening substance that would incite this metamorphosis. Thus, the search for this elusive powder, the 'philosopher's stone' began.

Out of Geber's Islamic world, but not attributed to him, came the Emerald Tablet. Though this tablet -- said to be molded out of a single jade crystal -- has various origin stories, it first appeared in republished (and more user-friendly book version) in a treatise of advice to kings. Somehow, between 'rule with an iron first' and 'produce robust male heirs' was hidden the secret formula for the philosopher's stone.... the wind of the belly, the taile of the Dragon, the water of wise men, the spittle of Lune, the Red Stone, the fifth element, the "Father," the living gold, the quintessence, the holy grail, the white stone by the river, the sword in the stone, Adam, Antidotus, Dominus philosophorum, Frater, Chaos, Panacea salutifera, the master of whisperers, the king of the reach, the game of thrones... oh wait... scratch those last three. I got really excited for a moment about episode 6 of Game of Thrones which is going to be on HBO tonight!!!

This Emerald Tablet, containing most powerful secrets and potential powers, has been translated by numerous alchemists -- both masters and dabblers alike. The variations amongst translations make the search for the elixir ever more confusing. The first line alone has been translated as both: "This is true and remote from all cover of falsehood" and "I speak truly, not falsely, certainly and most truly." Most truly? Mostly true? Hmmm. Nonetheless, it doesn't seem to be much of a formula but rather a collection of cryptic word puzzles. Perhaps what it comes down to is belief without evidence... what we tend to call faith. This is one of the fundamental aspects of accepting the occult. The skepticism so inherent in modern science and, indeed modern thought, runs counter to what is needed to discover the philosopher's stone. Its secrets come at once from man and from above. It is sort of like the emperor's new clothes dilemma. Are you to be the one who believes in his most elegant, most luxurious clothing even though it appears invisible? Or are you to see through the charlatan's trickery, approaching all with suspicion, skepticism, and question after question? Was Lethbridge writing science fiction... or alternative archaeology? According to the British explorer, if we could get beyond our stubborn need for logic and proof, if we could approach everything with a more open mind, then the secret principles of the universe would be within our grasp. He felt there were two kinds of people, those who are willing to believe in 'the odd' and those who resist:
The reader is perfectly at liberty to believe that my wife and I imagined all this, but, if so, there is no point in reading this book. It is for people with wider knowledge of what anthropologists call 'the odd' and this is found in all groups of humanity everywhere in the world. It ranges from 'couvade,' when the father of an unborn child feels ills before its birth, to the 'pointing bone' of the witch doctor who by this kills his enemy. Those who have had dealings with the odd are not interested in the disbelief of those who have not. Actually research with the pendulum [something that Lethbridge was working on at the time of his death] shows that many who cannot, or will not, appreciate the odd frequently have something lacking in their nervous system. Their bodily bio-electronic potential is too low and they are actually incapable of experiencing it. It is similar to being colour-blind or tone-deaf. Colour-blindness affects about one male in ten; odd-blindness about one in three. Perhaps therefore one person in three can never see a ghost, experience telepathy or work a pendulum or divining rod. For some reason this often turns them to frantic denial of the existence of the faculty. It is probably subconscious irritation at not being completely human! (T. C. Lethbridge, Legend of the Sons of God, 1972)
So there, you zombies! We have all witnessed some variation on what Lethbridge addresses above. For me, it was when I was hanging around with my cousins and one of them had a book of autostereograms which were so popular a few years back. If you aren't familiar, these books contain pages upon pages of optical illusions... pictures which appear as a flat mass of dots and blurry mazes and zig-zagging repetitions and flat chaos....which, if you stare at long and hard enough, will suddenly transform in front of your eyes into a 3-D picture that makes sense. Et voila! A tea-time ready table appears with cup and saucer and petite spoon and petit fours! Really, they are quite a cool experience. That moment when all transforms from chaos to clarity in full depth and you feel like you can enter the image is pretty amazing. However, my uncle just couldn't ever seem to get to that point. We tried working with all of the 'instructions' to get him there. Try to see through the image as through a window. Don't focus on any one part. Let your brain switch from normal to stereoscopic vision without trying to force it.

Well, he still couldn't see anything. And, in his utter frustration and sense of deficiency, he argued that none of us could see anything and we were all just in cahoots as part of a big conspiracy. As it turns out, he was right about his inability, but wrong about the conspiracy part. Much as Lethbridge predicted, there exists a rather significant portion of the population (from 4-10%) who cannot see in 3-D. Some doctors argue that this inability is a treatable medical condition. With the aid of "graduated methods and physical aids (lenses) as 'training wheels,' ... people can eventually learn how to 'point both eyes to focus on the same space.' It's like riding a bike. Once you learn, the training wheels come off and you can't imagine not doing it." (Rafe Needleman, "Why I can't watch 3D TV," CNN Tech, Jan. 15, 2010)

This all takes us back to the philosopher's stone... sort of... by way of digression... and faith. Is believing in what we cannot yet see a choice? Or is it built into our DNA, a lack of our nervous systems for some of us? Are we smart to be skeptical? To see this magic elixir as just another hokey con with a long history of mass deception? Or is there something there? And will we be the ones to unlock the secret?

Meanwhile, we have to decide. Because the invisible abounds. Christopher Brosius, who immersed himself in the understanding and history of our sense of smell ("We think because we smelled!") and who has produced cult fragrances such as 'Gin and Tonic', is now concocting an 'invisible perfume.' Because, like 3D vision, some people can detect particular smells to which others are immune. Others still suffer from anosmia, a condition in which all sense of smell is lost. Eating must really suck as so much of our sense of taste is wrapped up in the experience of odor molecules. And what about memories? We speak of memories as being redolent with such-and-such... but the definition of the word redolent is first and foremost, odorous, and then, reminiscent. Scents inform our experiences and later trigger those very memories.

But, I am sure you have probably been reading this entire blog entry while distracted by one essential question. Why 'the philosopher's stone' if it is in fact a formula for a powdery substance? Well, the reason is that the word stone is meant to imply the four universal, fundamental concepts of ancient philosophy. Further, the notion of a stone enables the representation of this magic potion into a geometrical form (shown above in two diagrams.) While the circle encapsulates the cosmos and the male and female aspects, the square represents the four basic alchemic elements (earth, water, fire, air)... and these all exist within the triangle of mind, body and spirit... thereby connecting the material to the spiritual world. Allegedly, it is within the balance of this duality that lies the secret of the stone. When the mind unites with the heart, enlightenment is achieved. Perhaps we do not need the stone or the secret formula after all. Perhaps we can find our perfection and immortality in the simplicity of a shared 'aum' -- the sound of light itself. Namaste.

1 comment:

  1. Love the artwork. And 'aum' to you, also ;) Never considered the potential of this in terms of alchemy with this substance. My interest is piqued. I assume not it itself, but rather its proper internalized use? As within, so without? Curious.