The Modern Alchemists
The art of the Alchemist seems lost in the deep haze of history,
usually it is explained away as superstition or simply the forbearer
of modern chemistry, however, it is still alive in modern society;
although its methods, terminology and aims have adapted and evolved.
This is an attempt to trace some of the manifestations of the Alchemist's
Art in the modern world; through an examination of the origins of
the various disciplines contained within this
The Alchemist's Art is one of transformation, both
internal and external. In the ancient past, the Alchemist's external
work was to discover a process in which base metal could be transmuted
into Gold. The possibility of this external work has to a greater
extent been disproved by modern chemistry and science, which can
accept such miracles as the production of artificial diamonds but
not gold. Despite this, even as late as 1915, there was a witnessed
report of the Alchemical transmutation of Zinc into Gold, conducted
by Harvey Spencer Lewis; the founder of the American Rosicrucian
Order. Technology may have had a severe impact on the traditional
Alchemist's arts, but the internal work of the modern Alchemist
remains the same today as it always was.
The advance of technology has resulted in an increasingly diverse
and specialised field of subjects which would have been extremely
alien to the Alchemist, who believed that all branches of knowledge
were connected, and essentially aspects of the same ultimate force
which bound the universe together. The modern Alchemist, in common
with the ancient variety, has a strong belief in the connectedness
of the major fields of knowledge: Art, Magic, Technology and Religion.
To understand this belief we must examine the origins of each of
these recently separated fields of knowledge, and try to see, as
the Alchemist does, the similarities which underlie the superficial
differences. The origin of art is beyond doubt magickal. The first
recorded art were a series of cave paintings of wild animals, which,
anthropologists believe, were used to obtain 'power' over the object
of prey through a complex "psychological" process involving
identification of the real animal with the semi-abstract patterns
of paint on the cave wall surface. When the image of the animal
was manipulated, for example, a well aimed spear was painted intersecting
the prey, the power of identification was such that the real live
animal and the deadly spear would surely meet. The cave paintings
were executed with a specific purpose in mind; that of obtaining
fresh meat to ensure the continued survival of the cave dwellers.
In later years the cave wall has been replaced by the white wall
of the Art Gallery and the 'fresh meat' with the constant search
for new ideas and perspective on the human condition or, as cynics
would have us believe, the constant search for patrons and buyers
of the overly reproduced 'art products'. The specific aims may have
changed slightly but the method is the same: the changing of external
reality through the internal transmutations of the Artist. In the
same way, the techniques of modern advertising, which uses a complex
language comprising of advanced and (often overly) simple psychology
to influence the will of the viewer, can be seen in the same light
as the methods used by the cave painters. In the field of science;
Sir Isaac Newton, who developed the modern theories of gravity,
force, mass and velocity, was also a student of the Alchemical arts.
He was reported to have translated the Emerald Tablet of Hermes;
a highly complex Alchemical master work which is, nonetheless, compact
enough to be engraved on a tiny square of precious emerald. Newton
also studied theology, art, and, in common with Dr John Dee two
centuries earlier, a form of psychic divination known as angelic
conversations which involved staring into a dark mirror. Even since
then, the modern definition of the work of the scientist has become
increasingly limited to finally exclude the realms of art and magick.
The modern scientist must exclude the powers of imagination and
certainly not encroach on those areas dominated by other specialists
who, likewise, exist in increasingly narrowed fields. The spaces
that are to be found between these specialised fields, which resemble
a dried up river bed within the traffic of knowledge, is where the
realm of the modern Alchemist begins.
Because of the range of specialisations available in the modern world, the techniques of the modern Alchemist are, like wise, extremely varied.
The modern Alchemist is rarely concerned with the transformation of Gold from recycled lead; however, there is a strand of modern Alchemy which believes that the use of found objects, or 'objects found without conscious effort', contain a certain magickal energy, not found in new or unused items. This 'magickal energy' can transform the banal base-material into a work of art. There have been several of these Alchemists in the history of modern art, one of which is Kurt Schwitters, (1887-1948), who developed the technique of collage into an almost one-person art movement with his prolific production of 'Merz drawings' in which ready-made found objects, pieces of discarded rubbish and used tram tickets, which had been found in the streets, were composed into works of art. The power and ability to transform the everyday object into a work of high art is a major theme which runs beneath the collage technique; however, perhaps the words of the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp better sums up the irreverent attitude of the modern Alchemist, when Duchamp suggested the use of 'a Rembrandt as an ironing board' which in effect turned an object of high art into an everyday 'functional' device. The Modern Alchemist, in common with the ancient variety, keeps in pace with the advancements of society and technology. In the ancient age of Alchemy, many highly advanced chemical compounds and elements were discovered; however, the Alchemists were unconcerned with the material benefits gained by these discoveries, but instead continued on their path towards the seemingly unobtainable ultimate goal of inner transformation. In the same sense, the modern Alchemist is not concerned with the development of 'art product', but see the process of creation as being in itself the 'ultimate goal'. To this end computer programs which can be used as Divination Tools are currently being developed by people who see themselves as continuing a 'traditional' lineage of Alchemical Magic. The operator can ask the computer program for spiritual advice in much the same way as one would ask a Tarot reader or Rune thrower for answers to life's mysteries. The programs, which are described as 'Electronic Oracles', operate by chance selection of unconnected words from a databank of questions that previous operators have inputted into the mechanism. The selected words are arranged into phrases and sentences which are displayed on the oracle's screen. This process echoes the ancient Sufi saying; "there are no answers, only questions"
In order to truly understand the connections between
the techniques and aims of the ancient and modern Alchemists, it
is firstly necessary to look beyond the modern interpretation of
how knowledge is divided up into specialised categories and departments.
It is these narrow fields of definition which limit the manifestation
of the mystical universe in which the Alchemist dwells. The modern
Alchemist attempts to create connections between these isolated
branches of knowledge and, in the process, map the wasteland of
discarded and forgotten wisdom; some of which may be of use in the
ultimate goal of transforming the banality of modern existence into
an internal form of pure gold.