On Alchemy and Meaning

Bob Rectenwald
May 10 · 7 min read

Symbolic meaning is all about the interplay of values. Symbols are a way to account for and to give an account of the phenomena of experience. They are a way to transmit an encoded version of an affective or perceptual moment that a subject encounters. Symbols transmute the stuff of experience, take the base matter of the world, refine it and turn it into something that can live on in the experience of others, potentially forever in the life of the community.

When I use the term “value”, I mean something like a color value. I mean the intensity of the impression that a given phenomena makes. A sense of dread or elation, the shock of surprise or the torture of boredom, brightness of light or darkness, smells, sensation, numbers and magnitude — the values of experience can be anything.

In the medieval world, the way that this network of values was conceptualized in Alchemy revolved around the combination, dissolution and re-combination of substances referred to using metaphorical and mythological symbols. As symbols, i.e. representations of value, i.e. an account of the ratio of the various phenomena encountered or encounterable in experience, mythological symbols are on par with any other symbolic notation system. Where Alchemists used figurative, dramatic, allegorical or mythological imagery to convey the ratios they encountered, we in the post-Scientific era would be more inclined to use ratios of numeric values or technical terms for scientifically established “facts.”

Red King and White Queen, Rosarium Philosophorum

For instance, in the Rosarium Philosophorum, the combination of sulphur and mercury is symbolically conveyed as the marriage of the Red King and the White Queen. In a post-Enlightenment, technical society, this type of metaphorical transmission of symbols has become increasingly foreign and frankly off-putting in the workaday world. Why not use numbers and abbreviations to convey ratios of material substances? After all, that’s what we’re used to. It’s efficient and clear, not esoteric and subject to interpretation. Water is H2O, and we all know what that means (once we’ve been initiated into the rites of the Periodic Table). It is not “the wedding of Neptune’s Twins and the Zephyr” or some other mythological construct. Yet, this sort of privileged, dare I say prejudiced approach to the meaning of foreign cultures is precisely what ought to be avoided whenever we’re attempting to understand and gain insight. This hermeneutical prejudice is similar to an uncultured English speaker who would scoff at a German for calling a “tree” a “Baum.” “That’s not a Baum, that’s obviously a tree.” But, of course, a tree is not a tree — the word “tree” like all symbols, all symbology, all signs and the method of accounting of phenomena that they represent — is arbitrary. What is important is the interplay of the signs and their values — the ratio that operates between the phenomena, its apprehension, the affect it produces, and the ability to convey that affect to another — therein lies Meaning.

The ratio of symbols to other symbols is how humans process their experience of the world. Humans in the medieval period were well on their way to systematizing and symbolizing their experience of the changes in matter that occur when various extremes and processes were applied. They just hadn’t yet adopted the method of pure abstraction via mathematization and the methodological skepticism of modern science. Which is to say, they built the foundation and left other generations to build the steeples.

Alchemical symbols in ’s 1775 Dissertation on Elective Affinities

The sheer foreignness of the mythologizing mind, while so off-putting to the world of science and routine, is precisely what is so seductive about the world of fantasy. We long for a world where matter is alive and gives birth, where materials contain magic and where all things and persons have a destiny. We do not just want to count atoms — we want an account of an epic, replete with heroes and heroines, gods and monsters, chosen ones and Dark Lords. We want the ratio of phenomena to be accounted for on a grand scale. While we may have banished them from our science, we cannot banish them from our conscience — We always have and likely always will want stories.

By this point I hope that my dear reader has taken note of my peculiar mode of describing these phenomena. For one, I intentionally began this article by defining symbols using language that could just as well have been used to describe Alchemy itself. Second, I find a nearly inexhaustible store of meaning in the English root “-count-” as in, to give an account of, or to count, and its connections to the Latin and Greek words that preceded it, ratio and λόγος respectively. The semantic range of these terms and their interplay with each other and with similar terms demonstrates the fundamental nature of the operations involved in perception, cognition, representation and meaning-making. In fact, the word meaning itself is synonymous — when we make or discover meaning, what we are doing is performing an operation (counting) and situating our findings in a network of similar operations (ratio). What we derive from the ratio of this counting is the mean — the emergent phenomena that results from the ratio of prior phenomena held in relation to each other. This is so because the world itself is Meaning. The world is a network of relations, of ratios. At every conceivable level of analysis, the world itself is comprised of ratios — of atoms, of forces, of space and time, of biochemical combinations and networks that fire and wire together. To beings that are able to recursively process these ratios in a self-conscious way, it is natural that we would evolve terms and symbols that would seek to convey this meta-processing of ratios and ratios of ratios, relations to relations.

All of intellectual history consists of the interplay of these ratios — the One to the All, the Particular to the Universal, the individual to the community and so on. Wherever there is thinking, thinking is performing the operations of Meaning.

To return to the example of Alchemy, what I mean is that Alchemy was something similar to Hegelian philosophy or to Deconstruction. It is the analysis of identity, difference and the span between them. Whether you prefer Alchemical terms (Dissolutio, combinatio, sublimatio) or philosophical (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) and whether you choose to work with the stuff of metals or of mind, the operations are the same. Obviously, Alchemists themselves realized this and called themselves Philosophers and pursued the Philosopher’s Stone. From our privileged vantage point, we’re able to look with disdain on the pursuits of men and women who did not complete the work. It seems ludicrous to us to attempt to transmute lead into gold. Can we really claim, however, that the Alchemists failed? They were the last of the pre-scientific age, and it was their “shoulders” that Newton (the last Alchemist and first Scientist) stood astride as he gave birth to the modern, materialist, mechanistic world.

The legacy of the Alchemists bifurcated in two directions, one is the purely material and methodical rigor of scientific experimentation and the other is the fantastical exploration of the potency of mythological symbolism. For the Alchemist, these are one and the same. For us they are the stuff of science or fiction or of science fiction. There were no such clear distinctions before we imposed our prejudiced categories on the world. Who is to say what the authors of alchemical texts really believed? Who is to say what the authors of the great spiritual and mythological texts really believed? Not to mention, look at the results of their efforts. Consider how much of this world is the product of rigorous experimentation, how much wealth has been derived from science’s pursuit of methods that were born in the alchemist’s fire. Can we really say we have not found the Philosopher’s Stone? Consider also the stores of fantasy literature with alchemical origins and themes like Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. How much gold have we produced from the base metals of symbolism? Why and how does it even work to take far-fetched origin stories and plots and immerse an audience in a process of separation, combination and exaltation?

Anything that can be communicated is Meaning — ratio or λόγος. This is because anything that can be experienced is also Meaning. This includes temperature or color or light or dark or sound or picture or idea. Alchemy is one way of exploring that. The ratio of sulfur to mercury can be communicated as the wedding of the king and queen. The transmutation and transmission of this experience of being can activate the network of meaning from image to concept all the way down to the ratio of biochemical reactions that take place in our emotions when we hear a story.

If indeed Being is Meaning, if all reality is rational/ratio/λόγος — then in a sense everything is alive (just as the alchemists supposed). Whatever life is, everything is that. There is no distinction. All is life. Living. Ratio. Meaning. And it is fascinating, and just a little creepy, that the timbers and bricks in your house breathe and live and have Being just like you. If you are a materialist, you must admit that whatever you are, so is the hunk of metal which you consider to be lifeless. In the modern world, we need science fiction to remind us of just how creepy and alive the world is around us. We need the alchemical operation of the accounts of others in stories to separate us from ourselves, so that we can see again as if for the first time, only to return to ourselves in a purified form.