Alchemy & Literature, Alchemy of Literature, Literary Alchemy

Here for your reflection and easy reference are  overdue and oft requested definitions of three topics and ideas that are easily confused:

Alchemy and Literature: As a baseline, I think we need to recognize the obvious fact and conventional understanding as normative. Metallurgical and esoteric alchemy are subjects studied by historians of science, Jungian psychologists, and comparative anthropologists and historians (it is an art or sacred science known in the Levant, China, India, and the West over a period of centuries). Literature, in contrast, while the subject of psychological reflection since Freud put Oedipus and Hamlet on the couch, is principally the domain of language wonks, e.g., English Literature studied by ‘English Departments,’ of occasional historians, and of the beloved amateur book lover and serious reader. As a rule with an increasing number of exceptions, the person knowledgeable in one area is not very well read in the other.

Alchemy of Literature: This is the Aristotelian cum Coleridgean phenomenon in which the reader of a poem or novel or audience member at a play so enters into the story, successfully “suspending disbelief” in “poetic faith,” becoming operatively the heart rather than the persona, that s/he elides with the principal(s) into the story action and experiences katharsis or purification (or trauma!) imaginatively as the principals do. This imaginative experience is heightened insomuch as the eye of the heart entering the story recognizes its reflection which makes the elision and identification and consequent cathartic experience that much more profound, even transformational. This is alchemical insomuch as the alchemical work was just such a simultaneous and corresponding illumination of subject and object through logos elision.

Literary Alchemy: Stanton Linden in Darke Hieroglyphicks, his survey of the use of alchemical symbols and themes in English literature from Chaucer to the Restoration, defines positive, as opposed to satirical, literary alchemy as “specialized vocabulary and individual images in the allegorization of transmutation subjects in light of Christian doctrine.” In the vernacular, that means the use of terms, images, symbols, stages, and colors from historical metallurgy and esoteric alchemy to foster the reaction between reader and text, audience and drama, that is the essence of ‘the alchemy of literature.’

To sum that up, ‘Literature’ and ‘Alchemy’ are distinct subjects of study, ‘the Alchemy of Literature’ is a description of what happens when we read or watch a play (not screened images, alas), and ‘Literary Alchemy’ is the use of alchemical tropes to foster our transformation while reading.

With that in mind, here is an exchange I had a year ago with that friend in Texas I mentioned yesterday, whose weblog you need to visit:


I just started reading Michael Ende’s book Momo to my kids from the recommendation of Jeffrey Overstreet.

I was trying to find more info on Ende, the author, and came across this quote that I thought would interest you (the English on the site is rough, so I wonder about the accuracy, but it does mention the authors overt use of alchemy):

He says “What I always try to do is very similar to the alchemists or storytellers in the Middle Age, i. e. to translate or transform the external world’s representation into the internal one’s figures…All the cultures in any region or any time are nothing but the formation of the external world by the internal one’s criteria,”

telling on the problems the 20th-century culture is with that “It’ll sound you extreme, but we’ll lose our whole culture if we are unable to make the external world and internal one to be mutually-permeable and circulable with reflected figures appearing on both mirrors,”

alarming the crisis we’re potentially going in for by the modern age which has already separated the external and internal ones. Aren’t we already in an urgent situation if we (especially those who live in cities) have already lost something indispensable for human beings by living surrounded by inhuman buildings?



He wasn’t kidding when he said the English was rough! I hope someone here can tease out the ‘alchemy of literature’ and/or literary alchemy’ in Ende’s musings!

My response:

Dear Artery, if I may,

Christ is Risen!

Thank you for this note. It arrives as I am reading Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe (ed., Newman, Grafton) which is definitely stretching my grasp of historical alchemy and astrology and helping to fix, less as in ‘repair’ than in ‘establish on firmer ground,’ my ideas about literary alchemy as a Romantic response to Empiricist beliefs, namely as a vitalist response to mechanism.

The last chapter on ‘Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy’ especially, in which the occultist frameworks (as opposed to strictly historical) of Jung, Eliade, and Metzger (if Titus Burckhardt’s work contra Jung and about alchemy is sadly neglected) is discussed at length. The conclusion of these historians is that the alchemical revival of the 1930’s is a skewed vision of the historical reality to advance criticisms of the modern, materialist understanding of the world, “the death of Nature” or a cosmological, sacramental view.

Which, in the hands of a Lewis, Williams, Barfield, and ultimately Rowling, I think is exactly right. I’m fascinated that Eliade is publishing his first work on alchemy in 1938 just as CSL’s alchemical novels, The Space Trilogy, are being printed — and that the works argue, if that’s the right word for a literary not discursive reproof, along similar Discarded Image lines.

I think this continues to be the importance of alchemy in English letters, as it has been since Coleridge at least, namely, the experience of cathartic transformation through the elision of subject and object, reader and read material, possible because of the “ensouled” character of matter (and, to the point, of poems, plays, and novels). As your citation of Ende’s comment seems to confirm?

Thank you again for sending this.



As always, I covet your comments, corrections, and edifying reflections!

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