Saturday, September 24, 2005


JH: I think I get what you mean. I've read some philosophy, not a ton. I've read the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and Nietzsche the most. I consider Poe's Eureka to be philosophy. Philosophers as found in a philosophy textbook have yet to make a big influence on me and my writing. Alchemy to me is another face of literature, I infer a common interest in the Great Work and the perhaps necessarily futile search for a result. The Process as process (or is that vice-versa?). I like the language and narrative of alchemical texts. Astrology is a brilliant invention - looking up at constellations and claiming them analogous to human endeavor. The physical symbols in astrology rather than the language of the texts attract me (unless astrology is mentioned in passing by an author such as Robert Burton). To relate astrology and alchemy to philosophy is beyond my reach, yet a good subject for a book that's probably been written many times over. I am interested in how ancient philosophy combines many disciplines and includes popular beliefs. A lot of the thought in ancient philosophy is so foreign to modern thought (thought as in procedures of the brain) as to provide a reading experience I don't find anyway else, an instance of text removed from neat context. Alchemical writing seems a deliberate imitation of these and related (religious/cult/magic) texts.
Perhaps Alchemical texts and poetry of any time has this in common, ultimately, in that they are reaching towards a magic, a barely-reconstructable ritual / procedure that was once thought essential. Speaking of history, you often use historical figures in your poetry. Do you try to stay aligned with the biographical data of these persons, and if so, to what degree? If, or assuming a mix, when, you use them as markers, could you explain the thinking behind this?

AHB: Yes, “Eureka”'s a terrific piece. Poe's an interesting character, being essentially an autodidact (did poorly in school, as I recall). He likes to throw his homemade erudition at you, especially in his reviews. Which reminds me of Olson, who had a complete education, but took his learning into idiosyncratic, interdisciplinary places. I'm not much influenced by philosophers as philosophers, but as writers. Nietzsche obviously is a wild writer. Hegel is not in that sense, but I find it such a wonder to attempt to pierce the Penetralia with such language. I think you are right about how ancient philosophy combines many disciplines and popular beliefs. My wife Beth got into homeopathics when western medicine could think of nothing better for her autistic son than ritalin and special ed. Homeopathics and nutritional aids, along with physical therapy brought a boy who didn't speak till he was seven fully into 'this world'. Which is not meant as an advertisement for homeopathy but a recognition of potential. As fascinated as I am by Olson, I know he was also a nut. He invited Carl Sauer to join an imagined community of great minds, a utopian vision if ever. Sauer politely declined. The point is, as you write, a “reaching towards a magic, a barely-reconstructable ritual / procedure that was once thought essential.” In the 70s I nicely avoided disco by developing an interest in British and Celtic folk music, 1st thru Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, then into more traditional musics. I think I felt that we should have the magic back. Not that I went druidic (and I need only reference the Stonehenge scene in “This Is Spinal Tap” to recover balance in my view), but I did develop a taste for the border ballads as collected by Child and Sharp. Those are powerful documents, harkening to an age of far less simplicity and more magic. But to mosey back to your questions, if I understand them aright. I'm not sure what you mean by staying aligned with the biographical data. I want to refer to these figures as complexities. I don't want them to be heroic, like baseball players, tho the temptation is strong to pump them up. Olson may have been a Big Fire Source but he could be screwy, like when he scolded Ted Enslin for using a kingfisher in a poem. Olson thought kingfishers were his. By the way, I planted tansy here some years ago because of Olson's mention of it. Little did I realize its rampant vigour. I also planted lupine, in honour of a Monty Python skit...'ve mentioned an interest in surrealism. Sooth to say, I know little of that. I believe you've related surrealism in some degree to alchemy. Philip Lamantia, you've said. Rimbaud strikes me as an alchemical player, whether or not he was up on the texts. Can you comment on this?


At 6:28 PM, Blogger phaneronoemikon said...

Breton was very interested in alchemy for a time and you can see direct references in Max Ernst's collage novel Une Semaine De Bonte
to the various stages of alchemy if not outright oppropriation from etchings.. (its been awhile)..
There's something in my mind saying that Saint Pol-Roux might be another place to look. I have never been able to find much of anything by him though. I don;t know how good any ofthese texts are
but it appears several studies have been done:

Surrealism and the Occult : Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Birth of an Artistic Movement
by Nadia Choucha.

Max Ernst and Alchemy : A Magician in Search of Myth (Surrealist (Paperback)
by M. E. Warlick

Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy And Art (Hardcover)
by Susan Aberth, Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington

I think for the Surrealists Alchemy represented a kindred method of the spirit which was subsumed in the physical yet worked toward some form of transcendence which was both material and spiritual (both in the sense of mind, and espirit).. the were interested of course in the unconscious and the ideas of freud and communism as well.. one might say that alchemy was a kind of metaphor of praxis in surrealism..
so there's a kind of complicated manifold at work there..

Breton had also tried to assign alchemical symbolisms to both Lautreamont and Roussel both of which are pretty incorrect.. This was long before Roussel published his famous _How I wrote certain of my Texts_ and there's really nothing by Lautreamont discussing his own work, but Bachelard's study is pretty interesting.

For myself, I enjoy Francis Yates book in and around the subject especially when she discusses what in the renaissance was called 'real material magic' which is essentially technology.

Late Classical Alchemy which is the most underrepresentated textually has many more ties to the greek and egyptian forms than the later european models which came through the levant via india
which was intimately connected to a form of taoist alchemy which culminated in the midieval period of india with tantric alchemy..
the very best text on this subject
i've found is

The Alchemical Body : Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Paperback)
by David Gordon White

one of the most fascinating reads about alchemy ever researched to my mind..

Jung of course goes into quite a stew about it..

at any rate I think at this vantage point the Surrealist interest in Alchemy was part of a program of historical combing
for anything which represented the kind of chimaera's and freudian condensations they were interested in identifiying and understanding.

you can find a similiar interest in myth within surrealism in works like
Mirror of the Marvelous : The Classic Surrealist Work on Myth (Hardcover)
by Pierre Mabille

i'll stop.. sorry.. one of my pet subjects..

and don't forget The Alchemy Website:

Adam McLean may be the world's leading authority on the subject
at least he's got one of the most comprehensive websites one's likely to ever see..

i'm sure Jeff's been there.

me shush now.. sorry.

At 2:50 AM, Blogger Allen said...

thanks for the sources. big hole in my knowledge base.


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