“The Forge and the Crucible” & “The Basilian Aphorisms”

The demiurgic dreams of metallurgists and alchemists.

This past week I read two interesting texts centred around alchemy; the first was The Forge and The Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy (1956) by Romania historian, philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade. I thoroughly enjoyed his take on the origins of human interaction with metal and it’s sacred significance around the world.

He examines alchemical operations from various cultures who worked with metal; European, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian, as well as touching upon the practices of metal-workers in Africa and other parts of Asia. There is a significant undercurrent of mystical reverence for metals and those who forge them, whether it be admiration or fear. The cultures he investigates also all display elements of the belief that the alchemical process is a gestational procedure. He wanders through time to explore the relationship humans have had to various metals as well as their shamanic and ritual significance. The alchemist appears to have forebears in both the metallurgic and spiritual practitioners of many cultures.

Eliade speaks of the belief that the earth itself is a womb wherein elements are ‘gestated’ and then ‘born’ through rivers, caves and mines. The deciding factor for this transformational process – whereby one element can become another – is time. Those that work with metals – the metallurgists and smiths – can take these embryonic gifts from the womb of the earth and accelerate the process of change through elemental application, namely fire. So, with this view of the gestational earth, it stands to reason that the alchemist can also force these metamorphoses through a variety of judiciously applied operations.

Throughout the book Eliade seeks to understand whether the ancient alchemists were interested in mere transmutation of base substances into gold or whether the material operations were a coded language for another kind of immaterial process.

“We have seen that ores and metals were regarded as living organisms: one spoke of their gestation growth, birth and even marriage. The alchemists adopted and gave new significance to these primitive beliefs… Herein lies the novelty of the alchemical perspective: the life of Matter is no longer designated in terms of ‘vital’ hierophanies as it was in the outlook of primitive man; it has acquired a spiritual dimension; in other words, by taking on the initiatory significance of drama and suffering, matter also takes on the destiny of the spirit. The ‘initiation tests’ which, on the spiritual plane, culminate in freedom, illumination and immortality, culminate on the material plane, in transmutation, in the Philosopher’s Stone.”
P152 Eliade, M. (1956) The Forge and the Crucible, The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, University of Chicago Press

“Alchemy, as we shall see, takes it’s place in the same spiritual category: the alchemist takes up and perfects the work of Nature, while at the same time working to ‘make’ himself.” p47

I particularly enjoyed when Eliade considers the nature of the Philosophers Stone. It’s fascinating because it’s such a contradictory concept; is it a physical thing? An idea? A journey? A way of being? An incorporeal energy? My friend artist and writer Justine Giles wrote a piece to accompany my work (2016) where she postulated that the search for the stone IS the stone – personally, I love that idea.

On the nature and ubiquity of the materia prima English alchemist George Ripley (c.1415-90) writes: “The philosophers say that the birds and fishes bring the Stone to us, each man possess it, it is everywhere, in you, in me, in all things, in time and in space. It presents itself in base guise (vili figura). And from it springs our aqua permanens.” (divine water, eternal water – translation mine).

Zosimos of Panopolis (c.3rd-4th century AD) describes “this stone which is not a stone, a precious thing which has no value, a thing of many shapes which has no shapes, this unknown which is known of all.”

Instruction from Gerhard Dorn (c.1530-1584) on transforming oneself INTO the Stone:
“Transform yourself from dead stones into living philosophic stones.”
‘Transmutemini de lapidibus mortuis in vivos lapides philosophicos.”
Quoted by Jung P367 Psychologie and Alchemie.

I have read another work by Eliade – The Sacred and the Profane (1959) – where he observes the divide between the experiences of secularity and sacredness in contemporary society. It’s a fascinating read and I continued to pick up a similar thread as in this book of the author seeming slightly regretful that humanity has lost it’s awe and wonder in the wake of scientific discovery. There is a passage where he expresses this in a most bittersweet way – when speaking of the sacred experience of nature by the primitive human:
“It would be vain to wish to reconstitute his experiences; too much time has elapsed since the cosmos has been desanctified as a result of the triumph of the experimental sciences. Modern man is incapable of experiencing the sacred in his dealings with matter; at most he can achieve an aesthetic experience…
…it is clear that a thinking dominated by cosmological symbolism created a world vastly different from that accessible to modern man.”
p143

While there is great beauty in the unveiling of scientific discovery, I can understand his feeling around the loss of sanctity in modern life. My counter to this would be that there are things science can show us that, for me at least, evoke the same level of awe and wonder. It’s postulated that humans have an inbuilt propensity for religiosity and, despite being atheistic, I know that I have this inside of me. My fascination with esoterica and mysticism are born out of this sense of wonder and searching, but so is my interest in astrophysics, which seems to fulfil the same desire.

In contrast to Eliade’s discussion of the history of alchemy and metallurgy, Basilian Aphorisms is a translation of a collection of old hermetic canons that first appeared around 1608. Drs Mirco A. Mannucci and Aaron Cheak have done a lovely job of presenting the history and provenance of this work along with very interesting commentary on each canon. This is the sort of book you return to because it’s hard the canons are fairly inscrutable at first but are likely to reveals themselves over time.

After reading Eliades work immediately prior, there was a canon that jumped out to me:

“Canon 15
Thus the Hermetic Bird once locked inside the Cave, which is the Oven, is to be roused gradually by the continuous heat of our vaporous fire, til it opens up and heals everything with it’s birth.”

This recalls the ideas that Eliade put forward around the gestational nature of alchemy. The Avis Hermetis is locked inside the womb of the earth where heat is applied as in a furnace (or forge). This speeds up time, transforming the bird into it’s new form. The bird then hatches, born anew.

The very interesting Basilian Aphorisms can be obtained from Rubedo Press.

The useful art of dealing with critique

A family member is studying design at present and is taking on the daunting task of being critiqued by her tutors and peers. It’s something we all go through if we are in the creative fields and while it may seem daunting, critique can be one of the most beneficial experiences for your practice.

I’ve had a lot of experience as both a designer and an artist; in school and out in the unforgiving ‘real world’. I can say with all sincerity that despite being quite a sensitive and anxious individual I have found a way to see critique as an entirely beneficial experience at least 90% of the time.

Design and art are a bit different in the way critique functions and how to approach it, as are the critiques received in school and those garnered out in the commercial world, but at their core, it’s the same.

At art/design school the sole function of critique is to help you improve your work.
Tutors and peers should be looking at your work, unpacking it, analysing it’s function and posing questions to you that challenge the choices you have made and push you to look further. It doesn’t matter how much they personally might like the work, how good they think it is, they aren’t there to praise you and give you warm fuzzies. They are there to challenge you for the benefit of your work. If they don’t do this you won’t progress and you may as well not be there.

In the design industry the function of critique is to make sure the design you are creating works for the client’s needs (even if the client is yourself!)
The critique you receive working in a design agency is likely to come from two different sources; from a creative director or other senior designer, or directly from the client. The experience of critique as a designer can be quite harsh, but what you need to remember is that the work is being done for the client, not for you. You are using your skills to create something that fulfils their requirements, whatever those may be. With that in mind you can see the critique as being whether the work you have created meets the required brief, not whether it is ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ design. Of course all designers would prefer to create beautiful design they can be proud of, but sometimes a brief will call for something that you personally find a bit ugly, and that is all part and parcel of the interesting challenges of being a commercial designer.

As an artist, critique allows you to understand how your work is perceived by others.
This is the trickiest one because it can be quite random and at times someone will come up with a critique that makes you think “How the hell did they see that??” The temptation is to pull out the old faithful “They just don’t understand it” but that’s not helpful to you as an artist. The more useful way to address critique of your art work is to try to analyse WHY they saw it that way – Is that interpretation ok with you? If you feel it’s a negative thing for the work, what are you going to change? Is there something that you’re missing that causes others to have this interpretation?
Of course you can always dismiss comments as not being very relevant, but they will all provide you with insight. It’s likely that the critique coming from people within the art world will be more useful to you than that from your family and friends, but take all of it as potentially valuable learning.

The most useful thing you can do is to separate yourself from the the work.
Even start referring to it as THE work rather than MY work. This will help you to make decisions and take critique for the benefit of the work rather than taking it upon yourself as an individual. Any critique you receive is not a critique of you as a person, it’s a critique of the work (unless in the unlikely event that the person giving it is a real dick who wants to hurt you, but in over 20 years I’ve never experienced this.)

Be accepting of the fact that not everyone will like the work you make and that this is a good thing.
There are going to be plenty of people who don’t like the art you produce or the design you come up with. So what. If everyone liked everything you create it’s going to have to be pretty bland and it’s certainly not going to break any new ground. This is far more important for art than design, as design is generally being created for someone else, still there are going to be plenty of people who hate any given design work.
With an art practice, I think it’s worth aiming to have some people who absolutely love your work, some who really hate it and at least get a nice big portion who think it’s interesting and of artistic value, even if it’s not their cup of tea. Well, that’s what I’m aiming for anyway.

Try to keep focus on the fact that critiques you receive are not personal, they are not attacks on you.
Unless someone is seriously aiming to be horrible (unlikely) the critiques are either
1) to enable you to improve the work
2) to help you make it fit it’s required use
3) to give you valuable information about the way others see the work
Or all three!

Image: “Friendly Critics” (1882) Charles Martin Hardie

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