Physicalchemy : On Jung and red symbols / Philippe Charlier

What is the right time to initiate a process of spiritual (and moral) elevation?

Carl Jung, one of the historic founders of psychoanalytic current attempts to answer this using the metaphor of alchemy. Metaphor as a tool, too. Working the material combines the work of one who handles the material and its determining factors: knowing the constituents of nature (force, assimilation capacity, evolutionary power, biological correspondence, etc.), science of mixtures and separations, and, perhaps most important of all : learning to wait. Time is the main tool of the alchemist, in that it allows the slow and gradual maturation of all things, not spontaneously but under the influence of forces beyond human understanding.

So when should this work be started? It is in the light of bulimics readings, systematic analysis of allegorical figures, bridges between cultures that seem to oppose each other, that Jung offers this vision: the time to find alchemy’s place in the human journey, to get into it is the same as the time to get into psychoanalysis:

  • After receiving good advice.
  • After a confession, even if incomplete.
  • After the recognition and acceptance of a previously unconscious psychic event,  and then that awareness gives new impetus to the activity and life of the subject.
  • After a detachment, achieved through a prolonged mental work.
  • After the completion of a new rational adaptation to living     conditions that may be difficult or unusual.
  • After the disappearance of painful symptoms.
  • After a positive turn of fate (engagement, marriage, divorce, change of profession, etc.).
  • After the rediscovery of belonging to a religious denomination, or after conversion.
  • After that was sketched building a practical philosophy of life (“philosophy” in the ancient sense).

Alchemy opens to the layman – a master of power – an astronomical amount of allegorical tools, but it also poses a serious risk of disorientation… How to not get lost between the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, the Mutus liber, the Epigram of the Hermaphrodite, the Liber de Arte Chemica incerti authoris, the Septem Tractatus Hermetis, the Atalanta fugiens, the Codex Brucianus, the Figurarum Aegyptiorum, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphyli, the Aurora consurgens, etc. These titles are worlds in themselves, to be travelled into (travel, initiation).

Red is a fire comparable to Phoenix, but also comparable with vinegar, or comparable with cyclical time, and even mercury (quicksilver). Too many symbols kill symbolism and annihilate the intellectual power of images. Many have burned their own wings to collapse on the ground: few understood the strength, intelligence, the power of the alchemist in this maxim recalled by my great-grand-father (if so?) at the very end of his Mysteries of the cathedrals: “Know. Power. Dare. Shut”.

Canis Canem somniat, piscator pisces.

The Latin proverb says that dogs dream of dogs, and fishermen dream of fish. What about alchemists? Do they dream that the secrets of the Great Work have proven their dreams?


Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.

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