Jung’s method of research was pre-eminently historical.
It consisted essentially in comparing his ideas and intuitions, and the insights he had gained from the empirical material provided by his patients, with the historical evidence.
This method enabled him to view his own psychic experiences and psychological discoveries objectively and to establish their general validity.
The obscure, confused, and often grotesque statements of the alchemists played the most important, indeed the decisive, role in this respect.
It was largely the correspondence between the alchemical statements and images and the results of his researches into the unconscious that helped Jung to put his psychology into historical perspective and hammer it into an objective science.
During the period of friendship and collaboration with Freud, from 1907 to 1912, Jung had a number of significant dreams which could not be satisfactorily interpreted on the basis of Freud’s conception of the unconscious as a reservoir of repressed psychic contents.
It was then that the idea of a much more comprehensive unconscious – a collective unconscious which was the source of impersonal, autonomous contents – came to him for the first time.
After the separation from Freud, Jung followed up this trail and began to experiment with the unconscious himself.
He immersed himself in it, using for this purpose a method of “active imagination” which he himself had developed.
He would let the contents rise up from the unknown psychic depths, not only carefully observing them but treating them as realities to be lived with, felt, and experienced through active participation.
These “imaginings” or fantasies brought up a whole world of strange images, often of a religious or a mythological nature, and he himself became the protagonist in a series of enigmatic but intensely exciting psychic dramas.
For the time being, however, the meaning of the images and of what was happening remained for him a complete mystery.
This experimental phase began at the end of 1912 and lasted till about 1919.
It was a period of pioneer work in the jungle of the unconscious, which not unnaturally isolated Jung from the scientific world of his time.
He nevertheless called those years the most important in his life, for during them there burst forth – if only as a torrent of emotionally charged fantasies and images – everything that was later formulated conceptually in his scientific writings.
“It was the prima materia for a lifetime’s work.”
The scientific processing of this “fiery magma” was indeed a long-drawn-out affair, and it was only after some twenty years that Jung was able to understand, in some measure, the products of his active imagination.
In his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he wrote, First I had to find evidence for the historical prefiguration of my inner experiences.
That is to say, I had to ask myself, “Where have my particular premises already occurred in history?” If I had not succeeded in finding such evidence, I would never have been able to substantiate my ideas. Therefore, my encounter with alchemy was decisive for me, as it provided me with the historical basis which I had hitherto lacked.
All the same, a good while had still to pass before Jung became seriously interested in alchemy.
Before a lucky chance first brought him face to face with an alchemical text, he had made a thorough study of the Gnostics during the years 1916-26.
What attracted him to them was the fact that they had been confronted with “the primal world of the unconscious” just as he and, as he was to discover, the alchemists had been.
The study of Gnostic traditions nevertheless left him unsatisfied. For one thing, they were not less than seventeen or eighteen hundred years old and too remote historically for him to establish a living link with them.
For another, the tradition that might have connected the Gnostics with the present seemed to him to have been broken.
Later Jung realized that alchemy should in fact be considered the connecting link between Gnosticism and the modern psychology of the unconscious.
This crucial discovery revealed the unbroken historical continuity of a cultural current that for much of its course flowed underground.
There was a continuous chain of great wise men, known in alchemy as the “Golden” or “Homeric Chain,” who from antiquity had undertaken the “unpopular, ambiguous, and dangerous voyage of discovery to the other pole of the world,” or, in psychological terms, who had sought to explore the mystery of the psychic hinterland and to bridge the gulf between the conscious and the unconscious.
In 1928 Jung began to study alchemy. Concurrently with his practice, his scientific researches, and the major works he had written in the meantime, the work on his own unconscious had quietly been going ahead.
His most important discovery during these years of experimentation was the fact that a process of development was going on in the unconscious which had as its goal the wholeness of the personality.
This process (Jung later called it the “individuation” process) frequently depicts itself in the form of images from the unconscious representing the crcumambulation of a center.
Also the goal of the process, man’s psychic totality or the “self,” embracing both conscious and unconscious, often appears as a circle, a static mandala.
Although he recognized the significance of these figures, for many years Jung kept quiet about the insights he had gained from the practice of active imagination, as well as from the material presented by patients, concerning the meaning of the mandala in relation to the individuation process.
The results of his investigations seemed questionable to him in more than one respect.
“My results, based on fifteen years of effort, seemed inconclusive, because no possibility of comparison offered itself. I knew of no realm of human experience with which I might have backed up my findings with some degree of assurance.”
The turning point came when the Sinologist Richard Wilhelm sent him the manuscript of his translation of a Chinese alchemical treatise of Taoist origin entitled The Secret of the Golden Flower with the request that he write a commentary on the text.
It was a rare work quite unknown in Europe at that time, its content deriving from an ancient Chinese esoteric doctrine.
The oral transmission of the text goes back to the Tang Dynasty (eighth century) and to the esoteric religion of the Golden Elixir of Life, whose founder is said to have been the famous Taoist adept, Lü Yen, according to folklore one of the “eight immortals.”
Later the text was circulated in manuscript.
The first printing dates from the eighteenth century.
In 1920 a thousand copies were reprinted in Peking, together with another treatise, the Hui Ming Ching (Book of Consciousness and Life), and distributed to a small circle of readers, among them Richard Wilhelm, who was then a missionary in China.
Jung wrote in his memoirs, I devoured the manuscript at once, for the text gave me undreamed-of confirmation of my ideas about the mandala and the circumambulation of the centre.
That was the first event which broke through my isolation. I became aware of an affinity; I could establish ties with something and someone.
For Jung it was a surprise and a satisfaction to find in this old Chinese alchemical text, based on meditative practices, symbols for psychic contents and psychic states that were well-known to him from personal experience and that of his patients.
In the first place he was struck by the mandala symbolism: a most unexpected analogy presented itself between the “circumambulation of the centre” he had discovered and the Chinese concept of the “circulation of the light.”
Here too the circular movement was intended to set in motion a development of personality leading to individuation.
The visionary golden flower or flower of light which the circulation causes to blossom forth in the center of this movement is a true mandala symbol.
Psychologically, it is a symbol of the self.
A further analogy is to be found in the two concepts for the soul, personified by the masculine “cloud demon” hun and the feminine, earthbound “white ghost” p’o, which Jung interpreted as equivalents of the animus and anima.
Above all, there was an affinity between the goals to be reached: the production of the “diamond body” through meditation was a symbol for the shifting of the psychic center from the ego to a transpersonal, spiritual authority.
The meditative process thus involved a psychic transformation which Jung had recognized and experienced as the goal of individuation: the recession of the ego in favor of the totality of the self.
Nothing less than this was also sought by the Western adepts of the hermetic art in their endeavors to produce the incorruptible stone, the lapis philosophorum.
The affinity of images and ideas which emerged from the meditations of Western and Chinese practitioners alike brought Jung the long awaited confirmation of his conception of the collective unconscious and also of the archetypes.
The presence of these organizing factors and structural forms in the unconscious would explain the similarity and sometimes even the identity of myth motifs and symbols found among all races and in all parts of the world. Jung called such images and motifs “archetypal.”
Their practical importance lies not least in the fact that they facilitate human communication in general, and indeed make it possible at all.
Recognition of the common archetypal contents and motifs behind the differences between individuals and cultures helps them to understand what is alien to them.
Jung described his commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower as an “attempt to build a bridge of psychological understanding between East and West.”
Richard Wilhelm, too, was surprised and impressed by the similarities between Jung’s findings and ancient Chinese wisdom.
He expressed his astonishment by saying that he had “encountered Jung in China.”
He went on, Chinese wisdom and Dr. Jung have both descended independently of one another into the depths of man’s collective psyche and have there come upon realities which look so alike because they are equally anchored in the truth.
This would prove that the truth can be reached from any standpoint if only one digs deep enough for it, and the congruity between the Swiss scientist and the old Chinese sages only goes to show that both are right because both have found the truth.
Even so, Jung never failed to stress the other aspect of the human personality: the common archetypal foundation of the psyche can become a meaningful reality only in the diversity of individual lives, variously conditioned as they are by history, culture, tradition, and by constitution and environment.
The psychic background – the collective unconscious and the archetypes – is everywhere the same; the conscious configuration in the foreground is always unique, combining and varying the archetypal figures in ways that are ever new.
The Secret of the Golden Flower had thoroughly aroused Jung’s interest in alchemy.
Soon afterwards he acquired the first alchemical work for his library from a bookseller in Munich.
It was the two volumes of Artis Auriferae, a compilation of some thirty Latin treatises, published in Basel in 1593.
This did not remain his only acquisition, for he soon turned into a collector, and in the course of the years his alchemical books and manuscripts came to constitute a substantial part of his library.
After his death, over two hundred items were catalogued.
Important events in Jung’s life often announced themselves beforehand in dreams. Such was the case with his discovery of alchemy.
Jung tells about it in his memoirs:
Before I discovered alchemy, I had a series of dreams which repeatedly dealt with the same theme. Beside my house stood another, that is to say, another wing or annex, which was strange to me. Each time I would wonder in my dream why I did not know this house, although it had apparently always been there. Finally came a dream in which I reached the other wing. I discovered there a wonderful library, dating largely from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Large, fat folio volumes, bound in pigskin, stood along the walls. Among them were a number of books embellished with copper engravings of a strange character, and illustrations containing curious symbols such as I had never seen before. At the time I did not know to what they referred; only much later did I recognize them as alchemical symbols. In the dream I was conscious only of the fascination exerted by them and by the entire library. It was a collection of medieval incunabula and sixteenth-century printings. The unknown wing of the house … and especially the library, referred to alchemy, of which I was ignorant, but which I was soon to study. Some fifteen years later I had assembled a library very like the one in the dream.
The dream goes back to about the year 1925. In 1940 Jung’s collection was more or less completed.
He was well aware of its value and its rarity, and this was a source of pleasure to him.
With true collector’s pride he would show his library to book-lovers whenever opportunity offered.
Yet he was no bibliophile in the ordinary sense of the word.
He collected books not for their own sake but for their content.
Among them were photocopies of two alchemical manuscripts, the Codex Vossianus Chemicus from the University of Leiden, and the eighteenth-century Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques of Abraham le Juif from the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, as well as modern works like the three volumes of Marcellin Berthelot’s Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris, 1893).
In the course of his psychological interpretation of alchemical texts, which were then not understood at all, Jung came to realize the truth of the alchemical saying “liber librum aperit” (one book opens another).
For this reason he wanted to study the texts in their entirety and, if possible, to own them.
Jung’s collection still stands today in the spacious study-cum-library, unchanged since his death, in his house in Küsnacht, a suburb of Zurich.
The library is open to students, but the alchemical collection, because of its rarity, is to be used only by specially qualified persons.
Fundamentally it was not the thoughts of individual alchemists that were of importance for Jung’s researches so much as the inexhaustible variety of their arcane images and descriptions, apparently so different yet all interrelated.
In this sense his collection was an indispensable help to him and a mine of psychological insights. There was no particular book that he valued above all others.
He would single out one or another according to its applicability to the theme he was interested in and was writing about at the moment.
In his old age Gerard Dorn, a learned natural philosopher, doctor, and Paracelsist from Frankfurt-am-Main, who lived in the sixteenth century, came to mean more to Jung than most other alchemists.
Dorn’s profound meditations on the spiritual significance of the alchemical opus, on the three stages of the coniunctio, and on the concept of the unus mundus (unitary world) gave him a clue to the meaning of the alchemists’ labors and are discussed in great detail in the last chapter of his Mysterium Coniunctionis.
One of the books most frequently quoted by Jung is the anonymous Rosarium philosophorum; it was first published in Frankfurt in 1550, and is also contained in the second volume of Artis Auriferae.
Jung’s monograph “The Psychology of the Transference” is a detailed interpretation of the text and illustrations of this treatise.
At one of my first analytical sessions during the late thirties Jung greeted me with the words that he wanted to show me something “very precious and secret.”
He fetched a slim folio volume down from the shelves and gave it to me.
It was called Mutus Liber, a picture book with no text, published in La Rochelle in 1677, the first alchemical book I ever held in my hands.
Looking at its pictures and talking about alchemy, we passed one of those unconventional analytical hours which were characteristic of Jung’s “method” and exerted a lasting influence.
In his memoirs Jung tells us something about the method which gave him a key to the language of alchemy, its obscurities and riddles.
It was a long while before I found my way about in the labyrinth of alchemical thought processes, for no Ariadne had put a thread into my hand.
Reading the sixteenth century text, Rosarium philosophorum, I noticed that certain strange expressions and turns of phrase were frequently repeated.
For example, “solve et coagula,” “unum vas,” “lapis,” “prima materia,” “Mercurius,” etc. I saw that these expressions were used again and again in a particular sense, but I could not make out what that sense was.
I therefore decided to start a lexicon of key phrases with cross references.
In the course of time I assembled several thousand such key phrases and words, and had volumes filled with excerpts.
I worked along philological lines, as if I were trying to solve the riddle of an unknown language.
In this way the alchemical mode of expression gradually yielded up its meaning.
It was a task that kept me absorbed for more than a decade.
In 1935, after years of alchemical study, Jung presented his findings to the public for the first time.
At the Eranos meeting in Ascona, Switzerland, he gave a lecture entitled “Dream Symbols of the Individuation Process,” which traced the alchemical parallels in the dreams of a modern individual, and the following year he lectured on “The Idea of Redemption in Alchemy.”
During seven more years of intensive research these lectures were elaborated into one of his key works, Psychology and Alchemy (originally published in 1944).
The Eranos lectures had already made it clear why the alchemical texts were so important as sources for investigating the unconscious: the alchemical opus could not be regarded as a purely chemical procedure.
To a far higher degree than was generally recognized, it was psychic in origin.
Matter, for the alchemists, was still a mystery.
It is a psychological rule that the unconscious is constellated whenever a person is confronted with something unknown.
New psychic contents rise up in the form of images and get mixed with the unknown object, seeming to make it come alive and intelligible.
This was what happened to the alchemists.
What they experienced as properties of matter was in reality the content of their own unconscious, and the psychic experiences they had while working in their laboratories appeared to them as the peculiar transformations of chemical substances.
Although, as Jung says, the adept’s preoccupation with matter may be regarded as a “serious effort to elicit the secrets of chemical transformation, it was at the same time – and often in overwhelming degree – the reflection of a parallel psychic process.”
Thus it came about that the alchemist projected another mystery into the mystery he was trying to explain; namely, his own unknown psychic background.
In the alchemical symbolism, the stages and imagery of an inner process of transformation were expressing themselves in pseudochemical language.
“Consequently alchemy gains the quite new and interesting aspect of a projected psychology of the collective unconscious, and thus ranks with mythology and folklore. Its symbolism is in the closest relation to dream symbolism on the one hand, and to the symbolism of religion on the other.”
Naturally Jung was eager to find texts that would bear out the nonchemical nature of the complicated alchemical procedures, showing that though the old masters busied themselves with alembics and furnaces in the attempt to produce the metallic gold, they were also aware of the psychic background and the deeper, religious significance of the transformation processes they described.
This he soon succeeded in doing.
In the oldest as well as the more recent texts he came upon hints as to the psychic aspect of these procedures, and found descriptions of the dreamlike, visionary experiences that often accompanied the opus.
The Book of Krates (ninth century) presents the whole alchemical doctrine in the form of a dream.
In a late treatise by Abtala Jurain, alleged to have been translated from Ethiopian into Latin and from Latin into German, the author describes how, on letting a few drops of the “consecrated red wine” fall into a vessel of carefully prepared and clarified rainwater, the story of the creation of the world was re-enacted before his eyes, “how it all came to pass, and such secrets as are not to be spoken aloud and I also have not the power to reveal.”
“Seeing with the eyes of the spirit or the understanding” is a phrase used by several authors, among them Michael Sendivogius (seventeenth century) in his treatise “Novum lumen”:
“To cause things hidden in the shadow to appear, and to take away the shadow from them, this is permitted to the intelligent philosopher by God through nature. … All these things happen, and the eyes of the common men do not see them, but the eyes of the understanding and of the imagination perceive them with true and truest vision.”
In sayings like “aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi” (our gold is not the common gold), and in the concepts “lapis invisibilitatis,” “lapis philosophorum,” “lapis aethereus,” “lapis est spiritus,” and the axiom “tarn ethice quam physice” (as much ethical – i.e., psychic – as physical), as well as countless other metaphors in the same vein, the spiritual side of alchemy is revealed in all clarity.
Above all, the ever repeated attempts to describe the enigmatic qualities and transformations of matter contain such a wealth of religious ideas, so many allusions to a hidden numen, that they endow alchemy with the significance of a religious movement.
It was this aspect that gripped Jung’s interest.
For him the psyche was “one of the darkest and most mysterious regions of our experience,” and the greatest of all its mysteries was the genesis of religious symbols.
This mystery came to light in alchemical projections, in the meditations and visions of the adept.
Matter for the alchemists was a source of numinosity.
They saw it as the vessel of a captive, divine spirit from which it had to be liberated.
For the Paracelsists, matter acquired the ineffable quality of an “increatum,” and hence was coexistent and coeternal with God.
Since it was conceived as a spiritual and even divine substance, it is hardly surprising that the alchemist’s experimental work in the laboratory, his philosophizing, his dreamlike immersion in its transformations, and the practical investigation of its qualities took on the character of a religious rite, an opus divinum.
Jung’s “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy” is one of his most important contributions to the creativity and religious nature of the psyche.
The theme “anima naturaliter religiosa” (the soul is by nature religious) was one that engrossed Jung for the greater part of his life.
In “Psychology and Religion” (the Terry Lectures, delivered at Yale University in 1937), he developed this theme on the basis of his 1935 Eranos lecture.
His point f departure was a comparison of archetypal motifs – mandala, circle divided into four, quaternity – such as are common in alchemical literature, with the dreams of a modern man who had no knowledge of alchemy.
They were significant, “big” dreams of an unquestionably religious character, one of which left behind on the dreamer an impression of “most sublime harmony.”
For the alchemists such symbols and configurations were no less impressive, no less rich in secret meanings.
In particular it was the rotundum or sphere that was considered a symbol of the supreme religious or spiritual reality in both old and late texts, thus bearing out Jung’s discovery of the mandala symbol and its meaning: in Western as well as Eastern alchemy the circle must be regarded as one of the central archetypal figures of the collective unconscious.
For the alchemists it was identical with the incorruptible philosophers’ stone, and it also signified the sought-for gold; in either form it referred to the “treasure hard to attain” and the goal that had to be reached “tarn ethice quam physice.”
Combined with the quaternity as a circle divided into four, or as the famous squaring of the circle, it was counted an allegory of God.
It seems surprising at first that a symbol with such profound religious implications should have its place in alchemical speculation.
But it is so only if alchemy is understood as pseudo chemistry and the labors of the adepts as an expression of genuine religious aspiration are overlooked.
Their mysticism of matter was fundamentally a mysticism of the soul; psychologically speaking, they were gripped by the numinous images and symbols of the unconscious which they beheld in the medium of matter.
It was only natural that in their attempts to describe the properties, behavior, and transformations of chemical substances, their visionary experiences and religious intuitions should also have been alluded to symbolically.
This accounts for the bizarre, grotesque, and sometimes barely decipherable melange of chemical, philosophical, religious, and profane concepts and images, and for the scurrilous language of some alchemical texts.
Equally scurrilous and fantastic are the woodcuts and colored vignettes that adorn the old works and often make a powerful impact.
It was a style that found its way into profane art and reached a high pitch of perfection in Hieronymus Bosch.
The profusion of paradoxes which is characteristic of alchemical language can be explained by the fact that the adepts were seeking to express unconscious contents only dimly discerned or experienced as in a dream.
Clear statements are possible only in an area illuminated by consciousness, i.e., about concepts and facts that can be elucidated by rational thought.
What transcends consciousness, what falls within the realm of the unconscious, can be adequately described only by paradoxes.
“Unequivocal statements can be made only in regard to immanent objects; transcendental ones can be expressed only by paradox,” says Jung.
Through imagination and speculation the old masters were endeavoring to find or to produce a matter that was not only matter but also spirit.
They called it the “arcane substance,” and they sought to grasp it by an infinity of paradoxes and antinomies.
Jung’s interpretive comparisons have shown it to be a symbol of the unconscious.
Although the majority of the alchemists considered themselves good Christians, according to some of them the “mystery of the stone” was even more sublime than the mystery of the Christian religion.
Melchior Cibinensis (sixteenth century) represented the alchemical opus as a paraphrase of the Mass, and for Paracelsus, who in this proved himself a true alchemist, there was a revelation “from the light of nature” which was equal to the Christian revelation.
A magnificent example of the religious character of alchemy in relation to the Bible and Christianity is the first part of Aurora Consurgens, a treatise attributed to Thomas Aquinas.
The compilation Artis Auriferae contains only the second part, and in place of the first there is an instructive notice, written in Latin by the typographer, in which he explains and justifies his refusal to print it on religious grounds.
Jung gives a précis of the argument in Psychology and Alchemy.
He [the printer] has purposely omitted the entire treatise consisting of parables or allegories because the author, in the manner of obscurantists (antiquo more tenehrionum), treated almost the whole Bible – particularly Proverbs, Psalms, but above all the Song of Songs – in such a way as to suggest that the Holy Scripture had been written solely in honour of alchemy.
The author, he says, has even profaned the most holy mystery of the incarnation and death of Christ by turning it into the mystery of the lapis – not, of course, with any evil intent, as he, the typographer Conrad Waldkirch, readily admits, but as was only to be expected in that benighted epoch (seculum illud tenebrarum).
By this Waldkirch meant the pre-Reformation epoch, whose conception of man and the world, and experience of the divine presence in the mystery of matter, had entirely vanished from the purview of the Protestants of his own day.
The image of God or of spirit which was central to the alchemical mystery was by no means identical with the supreme conception of God in Christianity.
From the numerical standpoint they differ in that the alchemical conception is characterized by the quaternity – in keeping with the Gnostic saying “In the Four is God” – whereas the Christian conception found its most differentiated expression in the Holy Trinity.
Alchemical speculations concerning the mystery gravitate round the idea of a spirit which manifests itself in the whole of Creation, in matter as well as in man – an “anima media natura” (soul as intermediate nature), likewise of Gnostic origin, an image which goes back to the ancient myth of Nous locked in the embrace of Physis.
Because of its elusive nature, this spirit or “divine presence in the mystery of matter” was named Mercurius.
Other names were filius macrocosmi, salvator, elixir vitae, deus terrenus, and lapis – in so far as the latter was understood to be spirit.
The spirit of the alchemical mystery was a chthonic spirit, and unlike the masculine Trinity it did not lack the feminine element.
When personified in the alchemical illustrations, it was for this reason usually represented as androgynous.
There are also hints that it contained the element of darkness and evil.
In contrast to the unequivocal meaning of the Son in Christianity, the alchemical filius was the subject of innumerable paradoxes and was described as the son of Mother Nature.
Alchemy thus stood in a compensatory relationship to the world of consciousness and to Christianity, just as a dream does to the conscious situation of the dreamer.
Compounded of the natural and often primitive manifestations of the unconscious, it reflected the lofty, spiritual concepts of Christian dogma as in a dark mirror.
Moreover, its images, having their origin in the earlier and deeper layers of the psyche, contain numerous archetypal and numinous elements that were eliminated from dogmatic theology.
The compensatory relationship between alchemical and Christian imagery gave Jung the Ariadne thread by which he found his way through the labyrinth of hermetic literature and the archetypal world of the psychic hinterland.
In a number of essays he pointed out the affinities and contrasts between the alchemical figures and those of Christianity, demonstrating in particular the strange, mirror-like analogy between the statements about the lapis and Christ.
The lapis too was a redeemer, a “savior of the macrocosm”; its light conquered all lights, it was spirit and body, the stone which the builders rejected and became the cornerstone, but it was also a deus terrenus, an earth god, the begetter not only of light but of darkness.
“The Lapis-Christ Parallel” in Psychology and Alchemy provides a clue to an understanding of the piety of the alchemists and its relation to Christianity.
Elsewhere Jung contrasted the transformation in the Mass with an analogous transformation process described in the visions of Zosimos of Panopolis, an alchemist of the third century, and compared the Christian ideas of redemption with those of the alchemists.
In the alchemical opus it is not man who is in need of redemption but matter, or rather, the spirit imprisoned in matter, in the darkness of physical nature.
The adept himself undertook the task of redeeming the chaotic prima materia, accomplishing the work of redemption, stage by stage, as his own individual opus.
From the psychological point of view this work was a projection of the individuation process into the transformations of the chemical substance.
Like the alchemical opus, individuation is a wearisome procedure to be accomplished in stages: by consciously collaborating with the unconscious, the individuant performs a work of self-redemption that makes him a whole and undivided personality, an “individual.”
The production of the alchemical “treasure” corresponds to the deliverance, or bringing-to-consciousness, of the self from the darkness and primal chaos of the unconscious.
It took many centuries before man’s consciousness was sufficiently developed to withdraw the alchemical projections into matter and to recognize as psychic that which had been psychic from the very beginning.
It is one of the outstanding achievements of Jung’s scientific work that it contributed toward this mental revolution.
The conceptual distinction between projection and object, or image and object, was for him an epistemological necessity of universal validity which he demanded of every science.
At the same time, it was the study of alchemical projections that enabled him to embark on a wholly new investigation of the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious and to view his own work in the light of a process of human development extending over thousands of years.
By comparing the contents of the unconscious in modern man with those of alchemy (whose historical roots go back to Egyptian mythology), he came to see that archetypal images portray the basic facts of the psyche which have remained the same for thousands of years and will remain the same for thousands more.
Only in their relationship to the conscious mind can we discern an infinitely slow development, pursuing its course like a “drama that began in the grey mists of antiquity and continues through the centuries into a remote future – a drama that makes the present seem but an episode. This drama is … the dawning of consciousness in mankind.”
The results of his researches not only led to differentiations of theory within psychology itself but also afforded a deeper understanding of the problems that arise in practical psychotherapy.
As a doctor, Jung was daily confronted with the still-unresolved problem of assimilating the “darkness” and “evil” in human nature, which had a perfectly natural place in alchemy and was expressed in the symbolism of the dragon, unicorn, serpent, nigredo, quaternity, etc.
He became passionately interested in this question, because for him it was not only a religious and moral problem but the eminently practical one of assimilating the “shadow” – the inferior side of the personality.
His observations on the religious aspect of evil start from the ancient numerical dilemma that runs through alchemy: the opposition and interplay of the trinity and the quaternity, where the “fourth” takes over the role of evil.
The definitive formulation of this theme is to be found in “Answer to Job.”
Another practical problem which Jung reinterpreted in a deeper sense on the basis of alchemy was the process which Freud called the “transference.”
Both Freud and Jung attributed a crucial role to this psychotherapeutic phenomenon.
Jung chose the alchemical illustrations in the Rosarium philosophorum as a starting point for his exposition of the problem of interpersonal and psychic relationships in the aforementioned monograph, “The Psychology of the Transference.”
Although the peculiar and sometimes scurrilous pictures in the Rosarium are not conscious representations of the transference phenomenon, they portray it as the unconscious premise underlying erotic relationships in general.
Jung compared the various “stages of conjunction” they depict with the stages of the transference and the transformations it brings about, which in turn may be regarded as the stages and transformations of the individuation process.
If any work of Jung’s is calculated to refute the exclusively personalistic and sexual interpretation of human relationships, it is this monograph.
Behind the bond between the sexes stands the self, the archetype of wholeness, which contains and at the same time unites the opposites in human nature.
This duality and unity are expressed in the figurative language of alchemy by pairs of opposites such as Rex and Regina, Adam and Eve, Sol and Luna, bird and snake, or by the more general and abstract concept of a coincidentia oppositorum.
In the world of consciousness the transpersonal, paradoxical unity of the self, the alchemical conjunction of sun and moon, is experienced as a synthesis of “I and Thou.”
In so far as “Thou” is projected upon (i.e., transferred to) another person – in psychotherapeutic treatment, the analyst – the transference relationship at least gives the patient an anticipatory experience of wholeness and the possibility of realizing it by withdrawing the projection.
The stages of the transference thus become a way of psychic development and so create the basis for a cure.
“The conventional guises are dropped and the true man comes to light. He is in very truth reborn from this psychological relationship.”
The progressive realization of the self and a consideration of those aspects of wholeness which come to consciousness through fantasies and through the variegated facets of the transference raise the interhuman relationship out of the realm of personal entanglements and set it in the wider context of a transpersonal, psychic process with subtle shades of meaning that can be properly expressed only in symbols.
Among the alchemists also there were some who did not work alone, but sought the gold or the mysterious stone with the help of a female companion, the soror mystica.
The gold and the stone signified wholeness.
Variations on the transference theme occur in the symbols of the “chymical wedding,” the unio mystica, and the immense field of traditional hierosgamos symbolism.
This reaches all the way from ancient Egypt to the Helen episode in the second part of Faust, and is still alive today not only in the unconscious of modern man – as is evidenced by dreams, visions, and artistic creations – but, surprisingly enough, in Christian dogma as well.
The dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950, contains several allusions to the “heavenly marriage,” thus proving how the unconscious world of images reasserts its timeless significance as a dark counterpart to the spiritual world of Christianity.
Both are concerned with the mysterium coniunctionis.
The central alchemical image for the polarity of the psyche is Mercurius, whose extraordinary diversity of meanings Jung has discussed in a special study.
As “Mercurius duplex” and utriusque capax (capable of both), he is the source of all opposites, for which reason the alchemists endowed him with a bewildering variety of names and paradoxical qualities.
“He is God, daemon, person, thing, and the innermost secret in man.”
His polarity is such that he comprises not merely masculine-feminine, good-evil, light-dark, conscious-unconscious, etc.; the paradox of Mercurius is far more profound and even more baffling.
He has to be understood as a symbol of the unconscious itself, and his nature expresses the opposites that are inherent within it.
In alchemical tradition he is both a material and a spiritual being: quicksilver, and at the same time an elusive spirit of immense power.
This realization brought Jung up against one of the most important and difficult theoretical problems confronting the psychology of the unconscious.
He had advanced as a hypothesis a corresponding antinomy regarding the nature of the unconscious or, to be more precise, the nature of the inexperienceable and unknowable (because it is unconscious) archetype per se that underlies the archetypal image.
He described it as “psychoid,” that is, not purely psychic but to a certain extent physical and organic.
One might say that it too is utriusque capax.
The hypothesis of a psychoid archetype and a psychoid unconscious proved to have surprising parallels with the findings of microphysics, which in its turn had reached the limits of the experienceable.
“Microphysics is feeling its way into the unknown side of matter, just as complex psychology is pushing forward into the unknown side of the psyche,” and microphysics is faced equally with the necessity of hypothesizing this unknown as a psychophysical unity.
Wolfgang Pauli has postulated a transcendental and objective “cosmic order” to which both the psyche of “the perceiver and that which is recognized by perception are subject.”
Inner and outer, psychic and physical reality are manifestations of the same structuring order. C. F. von Weizsäcker declares that matter is “in reality only the objectivable manifestation of something else, for which the name chosen by the classical tradition of our philosophy is probably still the best, the name ‘spirit.’ ”
Jung for his part conjectured that the “unknown side of matter” and the “unknown side of the psyche” have a common transcendental background, that “in the Unknown beyond our experience” matter and psyche may be identical and that the whole of life, the multiplicity of our inner and outer world “rests on an underlying unity.”
This common background is antinomian and must remain inaccessible to investigation.
It is “as much physical as psychic and therefore neither, but rather a third thing, a neutral nature which can at most be grasped in hints since in essence it is transcendental.
To put it more simply, all reality is “grounded on an as yet unknown substrate possessing material and at the same time psychic qualities.”
Reverting to this idea of a transcendental unitary reality in his memoirs, Jung admitted that he had “reached the bounds of scientific understanding,” for which reason he called Mysterium Coniunctionis the culmination of his work.
The alchemical texts on which Jung based his final summing up were the “Physica Trismegisti” and “Philosophia meditativa” of Gerard Dorn.
Dorn used the term unus mundus to denote the “third thing,” the “neutral” background reality where the unknown in matter and psyche coincide.
The unus mundus was the unknowable, paradoxical, unitary world beyond the microcosm and macrocosm.
If ever the adept succeeded in establishing relations with it, “the consummation of the mysterium coniunctionis” would be attained.
The mythical, personified image of the third thing with its neutral nature was Mercurius, that mysterious archetypal figure, both divine and psychic, whose ungraspable essence was thought of as both matter and spirit.
By 1952, in his researches into synchronicity, Jung had postulated a transconscious background common to psyche and physis.
It was no accident that his essay on synchronicity appeared together with the paper by Wolfgang Pauli.
By “synchronistic phenomena” Jung meant the unexpected, meaningful coincidence of a psychic and a physical event which are not causally connected – for instance of a dream or a premonition that comes true and the temporally or spatially distant event it anticipates.
The connecting link between these inner and outer events is the equivalence of their content, because of which their coincidence is registered and experienced as meaningful.
The equivalence of content in such qualitatively different events, separated in time and space but acausally connected, must be due to the fact that the same archetype in the unconscious underlies both and “arranges” them.
It is the unknowable psychoid archetype that manifests itself in the world of consciousness, appearing here as a psychic and there as a physical event.
The archetype per se belongs to the realm of the collective unconscious, that antinomian world in the background which is “as much physical as psychic and therefore neither. …”
Consciousness breaks down into separate processes that which is still a unity in the unconscious, thereby dissolving or obscuring the original interrelationship of events in the “one world.”
In Jung’s view, synchronistic phenomena, or the acausal correspondences between mutually independent psychic and physical events, necessitate the construction of a new, unitary world-model.
The inner and outer worlds of spirit and matter are no longer opposites that cannot be united, but are aspects of that psychoid realm of reality on which they both rest
This new world-model is a reconstruction of the old, intuitive vision of the alchemists; for, as Jung points out, such a model would be “closer to the idea of the unus mundus.”
Besides the unus mundus, there were other alchemical concepts which we have already mentioned – arcane substance, Mercurius, lapis – that pointed to a psychophysical unity.
So far as the laborant was concerned, one of the most important concepts in this respect was the imaginatio, the fantasy activity inseparably connected with the opus.
Astonishingly enough, the alchemist conceived his imaginationes as something quasi-corporeal, a sort of “subtle body” that was half spiritual.
They were, therefore, of a psychoid nature, forming an intermediate realm belonging to both matter and spirit.
On account of the mysterious and manifold implications of the imagination Jung called it “perhaps the most important key to an understanding of the opus.”
The “subtle body,” or “breath body” as it is sometimes called, is an archetypal idea that can be traced back to classical antiquity.
It occurs in Poseidonius and Plotinus, in Proclus and Synesius, and later in Paracelsus.
Among the alchemists the idea of a subtle body grew out of their endeavors to find and transform the unknown, arcane substance by means of the imaginatio.
In their projections the psychic and the physical coalesced into a single experience.
So it is not surprising that the intermediate realm of subtle bodies disappeared from view after man had freed matter from psychic projections and began investigating it for its own sake, and chemistry and physics had evolved out of alchemy.
Equally, the idea of a subtle body was bound to lose its significance once he thought he knew all there was to know about the psyche.
Yet such a simplistic and therefore limited scientific approach cannot be maintained in the long run, despite the fact that it is still widely regarded as modern.
Jung saw its end coming.
The moment when physics touches on the “untrodden, untreadable regions,” and when psychology has at the same time to admit that there are other forms of psychic lifebesides the acquisitions of personal consciousness – in other words, when psychology too touches on an impenetrable darkness – then the intermediate realm of subtle bodies comes to life again, and the physical and the psychic are once more blended in an indissoluble
It has been indicated in the foregoing that this moment has in fact arrived for psychology as well as for physics.
In psychology the collective unconscious and the archetype per se constitute a virtually “impenetrable darkness.”
Jung took cognizance of this by putting forward the hypothesis of the psychoid nature of the archetype and of the neutral realm in the background.
In both these concepts “the physical and the psychic are once more blended in an indissoluble unity.”
C. A. Meier has taken up the idea of the subtle body in order to shed light on the obscurities in medicine; even today psychosomatic relationships cannot be satisfactorily explained.
The influence of the psyche on the body and vice versa is just as improbable as it is probable, and since a causal explanation does not lead anywhere, Meier has put forward the fruitful suggestion that psychosomatic relationships be regarded as synchronistic phenomena.
The organizing factor would then be the archetype of wholeness, which is as much physical as psychic and may thus be thought of as a “subtle body.”
Synchronicity, Meier says, “presupposes a tertium, higher than soma or psyche, and responsible for symptom formation in both –approximating to the theory of the ‘subtle body.’ ”
It is the healer’s task to take measures which are “favourable to the appearance of this ‘third’ of higher order, the symbol or archetype of totality.”
Meier also drew attention to a so far inexplicable experimental result for which the existence of a subtle body may yet offer an explanation.
The Czech physiologist S. Figar made simultaneous plethysmographic investigations on the forearms of two persons in separate rooms who did not know of each other’s presence.
One of them was subjected to certain psychic stimuli which produced responses that could be registered in characteristic volume oscillations.
The surprising thing was that in the case of the second person, who took no active part in the experiment, the plethysmograph registered volume oscillations which showed a significant congruence with those of the first.
Figar’s experiments have been repeated in the United States on a larger number of subjects and with improved methods, and his findings have been fully confirmed.
The causalistic explanation would be that the ideas and “imaginations” produced by the psychic stimuli on the first person formed a subtle body which caused measurable physiological changes in the second.
But taking synchronicity as a principle of explanation, the inference would be that an archetype, which as a psychoid factor is itself a subtle body, manifested or “arranged” itself in the parallel events.
The phenomenon is in accord with the alchemical conception of imaginatio as a half corporeal, half spiritual being, whereby the soul is enabled to bring about “many things of the utmost profundity outside the body” by imagining them.
Michael Sendivogius says:
“Moreover the soul by which man differs from other animals operates inside his body, but it has greater efficacy outside the body, for outside the body it rules with absolute power.”
The speculations of the alchemists led to a profound understanding of the world which science is only now beginning to eye with due respect.
It is astounding that they were able, despite a total lack of modern scientific assumptions, to anticipate and build into their philosophy interrelationships which were verified only centuries later.
So great a treasure house of knowledge does not come to one overnight – even though it may be hidden in the psychic background.
Thus Jung’s interpretation and understanding of alchemy throws a light also on the character and humanity of the old masters.
The results of their laborings and imaginings give one some idea of the seriousness, devotion, and patience they dedicated to the opus.
Alchemy could hardly have provided so broad a basis for Jung’s investigations of the unconscious, nor could it have played such a decisive role as a historical touchstone for his insights, had there not existed a true affinity between him and the adepts of the hermetic art.
“The experiences of the alchemists were, in a sense, my experiences, and their world was my world.”
His experiment with the unconscious during the crucial years 1912-1919 was a true alchemical imagination.
“The process through which I had passed at that time corresponded to the process of alchemical transformation.”
His analysis and interpretation of countless alchemical texts, supported by a truly vast range of amplificatory material, culminated in a magnificent synthesis, a unitary vision of the whole.
Thus the alchemist’s injunction “solve et coagula,” which might be paraphrased “out of dissolution, unity!” was followed faithfully to the end.
Even as a child Jung had “his stone,” on which he would sit for hours, fascinated by the puzzle of which was “I” – he, the little boy, or the stone.
For years it was “strangely reassuring and calming” to sit on his stone, “which was eternally the same for thousands of years while I am only a passing phenomenon.”
For Jung the stone “contained and at the same time was the bottomless mystery of being, the embodiment of spirit,” and his kinship with it was “the divine nature in both, in the dead and the living matter.”
A cube-shaped stone, incised with inscriptions in his own hand, stands like an oracle before his Tower, Jung’s country house in Bolligen on the upper lake of Zurich, and the last great and solacing dream before his death was of the lapis.
He saw “a huge round block of stone sitting on a high plateau, and at the foot of the stone were engraved the words: ‘And this shall be a sign unto you of Wholeness and Oneness.’ ”
Yet, unlike the alchemists, what fascinated Jung his life long was not Matter, but Psyche.
For the scientist in him she was the object of rigorous empirical research; as a physician he succored her with deepest understanding; as a man he was the master and servant of her transformations. ~Aniela Jaffe, From the Life and Work of C.G. Jung, Page 34-48