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Thread: General Comments on Alchemical Texts

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    General Comments on Alchemical Texts

    Regarding the books written by the authors we consider to be 'The Classics'...

    Throughout years of reading, practical experience and much applied discernment, I have come to the realization that a considerable number of Alchemical writings (that we usually cherish) are in fact close to utterly useless when it comes to the Great Work itself. People were people then, as they are today - and I don't need to elaborate on what this means...

    And the texts that are actually useful, even the ones more difficult to access publicly, are almost never to be regarded as plain or explicit recipes/methods/instructions/indications. In all or most cases, certain key factors will be either omitted or so cleverly disguised that they can only be found if the readers already know in advance what they are looking for.

    This is partially because what we usually refer to as the 'Alchemical Corpus' actually consists of more than the writings themselves. The writings are in most cases (not unlike most spiritual traditions) accompanied by ORAL TRANSMISSIONS, from one generation of Alchemists to another, and these oral transmissions would most likely be of an Initiatory nature, much more and beyond disclosing plain instructions or recipes. There is of course another important factor related to these orally transmitted initiations, which is the readiness of those who receive them.

    Like in all Arts and Sciences (let's call them 'The Liberal Arts'), one must pass through a process of selection, either natural & auto-initiatory (not uncommon), and/or by a Mentor who is an already accomplished MA (Master of the Arts). Alchemy is no different in this regard.

    Another interesting phenomenon is when people gather in a non-hierarchical way to cooperate in The Great Work. Such people usually will each have Something of Value to bring to the table, for the sake of sharing and mutual enhancement. And by 'Something of Value', I do not mean access to some rare alchemical texts with 'clear instructions' or similar. Such associations/study groups based on texts alone are usually doomed to failure. Much more than just texts is needed for such associations or cooperative endeavors to work.

    To summarize, our precious alchemical texts are only part of the equation, among other factors of equal (if not greater) importance. Yes, the texts can be very valuable, but definitely not enough in and of themselves.

    This is just my perspective. You don't have to believe it. Just follow your best texts to the letter and see where it gets you...
    Last edited by Andro; 02-13-2013 at 10:28 PM.

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    I have come to the realization that a considerable number of Alchemical writings (that we usually cherish) are in fact close to utterly useless when it comes to the Great Work itself.
    Would you mind elaborating on this? My assumption is that by "classics" you are referring to 17th-18th century texts and earlier.. maybe you could cite some of the texts or particular authors you are thinking of, and why you feel the works are close to utterly useless? Just curious

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    There are a lot of reasons why the books are veiled and incomplete. Any text unfortunately assumes context that is only really accessible at the time they were written. Many books in the tradition are lost in their original language, including the Emerald tablet (I think Egyptian is a good candidate, given the way the prepositions are translated into Arabic in different manuscripts, but all that means is we have no real basis for reconstructing the sense). The way people use text has changed dramatically over the centuries. For example, the entire sutra literature is essentially lecture notes originally written on palm leaves, with a premium value on economy of space. Some of them are surprisingly clear (and it's really beautiful when they pull it off) but a lot of them read like a professor's notes scrawled onto a napkin before a lecture and are frankly indecipherable even with copious post facto exegeses desperately trying to justify that they have some relevance to anything.

    A lot of the early texts were designed to be read by initiates of specific mystery schools, and so the authors could count on not only a shared experience but a personal acquaintance and shared philosophical background. Once a discourse is started the tone tends to be respected and many later authors (I have to plead guilty to this myself) emulate this mysterious and "ecstatic" (okay maybe literally ecstatic to you, but that doesn't always translate well to another reader) style to the detriment of their purpose in writing. Until the eighteenth century authors could rely on their readers to have studied years in person, since it was mostly passed down through the universities in Europe, and until the Golden Dawn broke up and all got publishing deals authors could rely on their readers to at leads be well studied in the literature, or at least to have the money to buy all those books after reading the new text. Combined with the sense already by the eighteenth century that enough books on the topic had been published you'd be a fool not to get it by now (who was it who said you could make the road from Mainz to Frankfurt nice and soft with them?), there was also a lot of sloppy and self-indulgent work done during this period, to say nothing of the shucksters who started getting into the game around this time. I suppose the prime example is the Rosicrucian manifestos. To really understand these books, you have to know the context in which they were published. At the time, the printing press was still new media. Books were sold primarily in huge book fairs in a few German cities. These fairs would have the whole square full of tables piled with books, each with a publisher trying to sell them. The "second" edition of the Fama Fraternitatis was a run of I think about a hundred copies - as few as they could print and still have it published. Being a tiny run from an obscure publisher, the authors could feel assured that nobody would care at all. This was the contemporary equivalent of a Geocities page in the nineties, and the most likely culprits were university students - if you read through the alchemical symbolism the book is mostly about how cool they are in the most vague way possible for being initiates of the art and how they "totally have to get together every year, man" and even a shout-out to their bro who died. The rules listed for being a Rosicrucian are to dress like a normal person, meet once a year, and give free medical treatment to the poor. Call me cynical, but I can think of one of those rules I expect they followed after graduation.

    Point being that each text is embedded firmly in the world that created it, which is to say the internal world of its authors and no other. In as much as you find you have things in common with these authors, you may be able to get a bit of help on the way, but not for nothing that the texts are unanimous in saying that you will get nothing from the word in and of itself, that you will find our first matter only in your own experience. You may get some mileage out of checking someone else's notes, but your results, and your work, are your own.

    Also, not that you can't find inspiration anywhere, I like to be sure if the notes are lab notes or slanderous encoded messages with a very specific intended audience regarding a mutual acquaintance.

    That's just a personal preference, though.
    From separation between the seen and the unseen, a feeling of distance.
    From separation between the seen and the seen, a feeling of breadth.
    From separation between the unseen and the unseen, a feeling of depth.
    From rotation of the elements, a feeling of motion.
    From the equivalence of alternate rotations, a feeling of choice.

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    Any text unfortunately assumes context that is only really accessible at the time they were written.
    Point being that each text is embedded firmly in the world that created it, which is to say the internal world of its authors and no other.
    Are these deductions based on your personal experience, or is this a commonly held idea being promulgated via current literature, or both? Can you give me examples of this kind of dating due to language in the western alchemical texts? For instance, would this view be applicable with regard to the language used by Geber, Ripley, or Philalethes (Eirenaeus)?

    I am curious about this .. from my perspective, even at a base level, it seems that if you were to ask a person to name a few qualities associated with a lion, or water, or the sun, you'd probably receive the same answers from a person a thousand+ years ago that you would from someone today, almost regardless of global location.. to me this implies a degree of accessibility somewhat free of time constraints or popular culture. Perhaps my perspective is flawed?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rheomode View Post
    I am curious about this .. from my perspective, even at a base level, it seems that if you were to ask a person to name a few qualities associated with a lion, or water, or the sun, you'd probably receive the same answers from a person a thousand+ years ago that you would from someone today, almost regardless of global location.. to me this implies a degree of accessibility somewhat free of time constraints or popular culture. Perhaps my perspective is flawed?
    What if -- regardless of timeline -- they had never seen nor heard of a lion?
    what answer, or qualities, would you expect them to give then?
    Last edited by Kiorionis; 03-04-2013 at 08:38 PM. Reason: less is more
    Art is Nature in the flask; Nature is a vial thing.

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    Archetypes do exist, some aspects of the collective pool we call consciousness (of the humanoid form).

    I suspect, having to know intimately the Northern aboriginals, their practices and symbols, they would probably attribute that power and strength and grace to a grizzly bear instead of the lion.

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    May be true, but they still wouldn't fully understand the lion; and their knowledge of the lion will only be as good as your ability to describe a lion to them.
    so when an alchemist is talking about a lion or water or the sun, is it more helpful to change it into some grizzly bear or try and understand the lion?
    Bel Matina's post, I thought, did an excellent job explaining the internal world of an author. I would also like to hear Androgynus' opinion on it all.

    My point relates to the original topic. Texts are helpful, but say you want to work on a material that isn't described in any books, and no processes are given for its manipulation on the internet? I think this is where the application of the Artist's understanding and skill would come in.
    Last edited by Kiorionis; 03-04-2013 at 09:35 PM.
    Art is Nature in the flask; Nature is a vial thing.

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    Adam McLean maintains also that to know the symbols (and meanings) of an alchemical text, one must know the historical and cultural context it was written in.

    Joseph Campbell emphasized the opposite, believing after travelling the world, that all cultures have one mythology (viz., use the same archetypal imagery).

    Both are valid, for me.

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    Any communication using language (arguably, any communication in general) places the greater part of the burden of meaning on an assumed common context. In using the word "lion", not only am I assuming that you know what a lion is and that those letters refer to it, but in using the term metaphorically I may rely on you knowing things about the behavior of lions and their relationships with other elements of the world. Someone who knows of a lion only as a fearsome animal in a museum will not understand metaphors relying on, say, the fact that the females do pretty much all of the hunting. Someone who lives their lives in close proximity to lions may not even think of the possibility of someone knowing about lions but not knowing that about them.

    While there is plenty of common context to point to with authors in any period, these are fundamentally common elements, and alchemy is nothing if not a holistic science. As otherwise inert substances may react in the presence of a catalyst, the same set of elements may produce vastly different structures depending on what else is mixed in there. The context on which the text relies may thus be very different from what we expect.
    From separation between the seen and the unseen, a feeling of distance.
    From separation between the seen and the seen, a feeling of breadth.
    From separation between the unseen and the unseen, a feeling of depth.
    From rotation of the elements, a feeling of motion.
    From the equivalence of alternate rotations, a feeling of choice.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Krisztian View Post
    Adam McLean maintains also that to know the symbols (and meanings) of an alchemical text, one must know the historical and cultural context it was written in.
    He also refuses to see any subtext and values an alchemical text only literarily. Which is a shame IMO, but then again scholars are like that alas.


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