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Alchemical MercuryA Theory of Ambivalence$

Karen Pinkus

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780804760324

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804760324.001.0001

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Lead into Gold

(p.1) Introduction
Alchemical Mercury
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter begins by considering debates over the origins and the meaning of the word “alchemy,” and then discusses the history of alchemy; uses and abuses of “alchemy”; alchemy as a dual or ambivalent discourse; and alchemy, anomie, and potentiality.

Keywords:   history of alchemy, ambivalent discourse, anomie, potentiality

A brand of Polish vodka recently ran a full-page advertisement featuring a blurred figure holding up a clear bottle of clear liquid, lit from an indicated source, a window on the left-hand side of the composition (Figure 1).1 The text reads: “500 years ago, while others tried to turn lead into gold, Poland discovered a way to turn rye into vodka.” The ad is printed in sepia tones, evoking the early years of photography. The image has been doctored with stains and blotches, perhaps meant to evoke vodka spills or signs that the photograph has been exposed to the elements, passed around, aged. A magazine reader would not need to be aware of the multiple visual and rhetorical precedents behind this clever advertisement to be an effective recipient of the message. Indeed, it could be argued that for an average consumer target, the advertisement signifies in a general mode something like “a mysterious transformative process of obscure, ancient origin.” Inasmuch as a viewer may pass over an ad and only register its manifest form in an instant, an ad is most successful if it does call out the existence of some latent content (even if such content is not read explicitly). Of course the unstated signified in this advertisement is alchemy.

Alchemy is ubiquitous, multiple, and self-replicating. But what is alchemy? A practice? A theory? Some combination of both? A historical oddity or an atemporal spiritual mode? Is alchemy primarily about the production of gold from a base substance? If so, what does one do with the product? Display it like a trophy? Drink it in order to extend life infinitely? “Project it” in order to make more gold? And then what? Like a coin that is passed around so often it is clipped, sweated, and worn, “alchemy” has entered our rhetorical circulation, so that the original circumstances of its (p.2)

IntroductionLead into Gold

Figure 1. Belvedere vodka advertisement, ca. 2002.

(p.3) minting, or its potential to radically disrupt a system of exchange, are no longer knowable. In our day, alchemy is common coinage. It is conflated with astrology or necromancy; overused as a rhetorical figure for “magic” or “magical transformation of materials.” It has been conjured by contemporary critics and artists to describe work that involves material mutations or a certain disposition to experimenting with temporality.2 It bears a privileged relationship to painting but also to photography, cinema, and, earlier, to printmaking. Tied to the realm of aesthetics, alchemy is not the normal business of either philosophers or economic historians.

For as long as the West has known of alchemy, debates have raged concerning the word's origins. While the al prefix is certainly Arabic, the root of the word may come from the Greek Khem or Khamè, meaning “dark” or “black” and linking suspect forms of transmutation with Egypt, as is found in the Decree of Diocletian (ca. 300). Khemia may later have been confused with the similar Greek word khemeia or khumeia, used to describe the arts of making tinctures or juices. Perhaps this word migrated into Arabic and was diffused in Spain and the rest of Europe (Latin alchymia).3

An early eighteenth-century source argues that chemistry itself is a purely Arabic word, from chama or hama (meaning “he hid or covered up”), stressing the fact that the knowledge (of chemistry) is passed down in secret; or from kimya or kimyao (burning, furnace), to which was added the prefix al (Barchusen 3). The great Re nais sance alchemist-doctor, Paracelsus, claimed to have been taught the art by a Muslim in Turkey. This individual gave him the universal dissolvant or azoth—death, or that which putrefies; or the alcahest, the spirit, or sophic fire, which is key to “al-chemistry,” a science named from the Arabic chom, and Hebrew cham, meaning “heat” (Barrett 51). Perhaps the word derives from the proper name Cham or Ham, son of Noah. This opens up several interesting patri-lineages: The biblical Cain, once a tiller of the soil, fathers Enoch, who disseminates secret knowledge of the angels to men. Enoch begets Lamech, father of Tubal-Cain, forger of bronze and iron tools. This line is an ambivalent one, revered and feared in later readings. The movement from farming toward a darker art could be seen as punishment for Cain's fratricide. Yet Genesis also describes an alternative line from Adam to Enoch to Lamech to Noah, whose sons are allowed on the ark and are saved with their father so they may repopulate the earth. After the flood, Ham is punished for seeing his father's nakedness, or as some have interpreted the passage, for having a sexual encounter with his father; for (p.4) breaking proper father—son relations. His land—Canaan—is made subject to that of his brother Shem. If Ham is the “father” of alchemy, it is not because he moves from the land to metallurgy like Tubal-Cain, but perhaps because of his excessive curiosity or hubris. Tubal-Cain, taken up as an emblem by Freemasons, is, like Ham, a descendant of Enoch, an ambivalent figure standing at a moment of transition from agriculture to metallurgy. In any case, alchemy is generally believed older than Greek thought. It cannot be coincidental that almost all of the explanations displace alchemy's origins to an “other”—foreign, barbaric, exotic, sacred, or profane.

Scholars of alchemy tend to take up one of a number of possible positions toward their subject: Either alchemy is premodern chemistry; or it is a spiritual, ritualistic discourse or set of theories; or it is a practice that may or may not have succeeded in the remote past; it is a form of medico-pharmacological manipulation of elements; or it is some combination of the above. The problem of how to distinguish alchemy from (a prehistory of) chemistry is intimately bound up with the teleological view of the history of science as a progressive accretion of knowledge. As early as the seventeenth century, scientists who could not utterly dismiss the contributions of the alchemists favored adoption of the word chymistry to suggest a summation of both “old” and “new” ideas. Boyle specifically distinguished his work with the philosopher's stone (that is, with agents of metallic transmutation) as chrysopoeia. The term is derived from chrysos (gold) and argyropoeia, from argyros (silver) plus poiein (to make). Boyle also continued to use the word spagyria, from the Greek span (to draw forth or separate) and ageirein (to collect together). Spagyric chemistry referred to a particular process of separating a substance into its Essentials (that is, conventionally)—mercury, sulfur, and salt—and then purifying these ingredients and recombining them. Older terms, then, served in the “new science” to refer to embedded processes, coexisting with modern terms and methods. Over time, alchemy disappeared from the scientific realm, relegated to the (merely) aesthetic or to (mere) history. Yet nomenclature is not simply an awkward supplement to a grand problem (the Great Work). Rather, the persistent problem of terminology haunts alchemy, as it will haunt this book, always returning when it is least welcome or expected.

To take a stand on one side of the theory/practice debate, or even to attempt to say what alchemy was in a historical context, is already to be (p.5) caught up in a form of ideology that structures both alchemy and writing.4 Alchemy cannot be said to exist as a method or practice standing outside of or beyond writing. Like writing, or inasmuch as alchemy is writing, it is an admixture of opposites, dominated by the couple inside and outside, “the matrix of all possible opposition.”5 The question of what is “outside” of alchemy is fundamental. And ambivalence serves as a key concept to thinking alchemically.

Ambivalence, as Derrida notes in his famous essay “Plato's Pharmacy,” is always already present in writing, from the beginning. Derrida's usage of the term might seem to convey a generic sense of ambiguity or “mixed feelings.” But he employs “ambivalence” in the context of an essay that is profoundly structured by the relations of a series of binaries (poison/gift, inside/outside, son/father, sun/moon, and so on). Thus we are forced to recall that ambi-valence is not only a conscious sense of uncertainty, but also, more rigorously, the coexistence of two different and perhaps irreconcilable elements.6 For Derrida, ambivalence, writing, and alchemy are intertwined and expressed in the figure of the pharmakon, a (mercurial) substance that is simultaneously remedy and poison:

This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be—alternately or simultaneously—beneficent or maleficent. The pharmakon would be a substance—with all that that word can connote in terms of matter with occult virtues, cryptic depths refusing to submit their ambivalence to analysis, already paving the way for alchemy—if we didn't have eventually to come to recognize it as antisubstance itself: that which resists any philosopheme. (Derrida 70)

Ambivalence opens a way to undo the traditional “alchemical master narrative”—a narrative in which matter and man are finally redeemed and stabilized. Such a narrative is threatened by the specter of “reverse transmutation” that is normally disavowed or dismissed outright through the employment of logical or rhetorical strategies. Ambivalence, then, is not the same thing as dialectics, which might represent a forced and pacifying synthesis of (two) elements. In some alchemical traditions, to be fair, a third element—a glue or binder—is added to the solution. The title of Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens covers alchemy under the narrative of resistant Atalanta (mercury) and persistent Hippomenes (sulfur), who throws down the golden apples (salt) in order to trap and fix his bride so that they can morph into dual lions. Salt is necessary, and it could be argued (p.6)

IntroductionLead into Gold

Figure 2. Footless Man, from Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens, 1617. Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, CA.

(p.7) that this triadic variant (linked to the thought of Paracelsus) undoes ambivalence. A counterargument emphasizes that in Maier's text the Atalanta story disappears immediately after being invoked in the book's prefatory material. The mythogeme of Atalanta and the nonnarrative epigrams of the text exist together in the space of the Atalanta fugiens in a rather uncomfortable manner. Nor is ambivalence in alchemy reducible to formal “multiplicity” since even this term is vulnerable to totalizing. Bound to language as such, ambivalence serves throughout this book as a mode and a mood that continually reasserts itself.

Universalism and History

Alchemy is everywhere. Yet we might be surprised to find many texts that announce themselves as alchemical or are clearly recognized as such do not reference gold as a material object. Gold is not a universal equivalent in all of alchemy, in other words. Indeed, we could say that in its everyday circulation in the contemporary market, “alchemy” has been drained of gold—that is, of value. This implies that in some earlier, utopian moment, alchemy did indeed produce or at least have currency with gold. When could we locate this golden age? Is it a prehistorical moment, linked with tellurian gods, chthonic miners, hoarders, or proto-civilizations? Or is it a premodern moment, when men experimented on a small scale with the production of gold in interior spaces, making use of available technological means? Does alchemy have a history in which gold once reigned supreme, only to be gradually aestheticized, metaphorized? Has alchemy, over time, been dematerialized?

To be sure, alchemy's history is uneven. The popularity of alchemy in seventeenth-century Prague has been attributed, in part, to the patronage of humanist-sovereign Rudolph II. But alchemy is not necessarily tied to an absolute center of power, as it flourished in Northern Europe during the seventeenth century, an age of great expansion, mercantilism, and trade. And if post-Reformation Europe was alchemy's highest point, many of its tropes derive from the Christian Middle Ages. It enjoyed a revival in the age of Lavoisier, parallel to the so- called birth of modern chemistry. As late as 1782 the British Royal Society took the trouble to investigate a claim by James Price that he had transmuted metals into gold. Soon afterward Price committed suicide, suggesting that, at the very least, there was something ambiguous about his activities. Around Mannheim, during the formative (p.8) years of Goethe, alchemy was all the rage. Strindberg mingled with an active group of alchemists during his absinthe-bingeing days in Paris in the 1880s. Should the history of alchemy be terminated at this point, such that from here on alchemy will be a melancholic attachment to the past? Marx asks in a famous passage: “Is the view of nature and of social relations on which the Greek imagination and hence Greek [mythology] based possible with self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts & Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Crédit Mobilier?” (1857 110). Does alchemy end along with mythology with what Marx terms “the real mastery” over the “forces of nature”? Then why does alchemy bloom again in the early twentieth century, especially among the avant-garde and figures associated with radium and physics; or in the experimental dematerialized art of the late 1960s and early 1970s? Do these instances along the timeline bear anything in common?

Perhaps we could trace a (negative) history of alchemy based on juridical attempts to suppress it. For instance, by the end of the thirteenth century, Pope John XXII had issued a decree, Spondent quas non exhibent, declaring transmutation against nature. In 1404 a parliamentary act in Britain forbade the mutation of gold and silver. The law was repealed in 1689, and alchemy could be practiced legally, as long as the metals derived from it were deposited at the mint of the Tower of London, in exchange for their true value in “authenticated” gold and silver. The state thus tolerated some alchemy, as long the product was subject to regulation.7 Scholars like Vilar, Braudel, and Flandreau wrote “histories” of gold (in its relation to money) over a longue durée. In particular Braudel mapped the global movements of gold in spatiotemporal terms such that we can visualize the intense mobility of gold in two dimensions. We might even place such a template over a similar “map” of alchemy, to see where and when these two histories converge. But even if such a graphic exercise were possible, it might not be particularly useful precisely since all that glitters in alchemy is not gold.

The universalism of alchemy is a problem without a simple solution. Any invocation of universalism might risk being perceived as an alliance with Jung, who did extensive work on the figures of alchemy as archetypes.8 Even if some of Jung's disciples were, in fact, responsible for unearthing or translating some of the most interesting material on alchemy of the Middle Ages and early modern period, the Jungian archetype is (p.9) easily dismissed, especially when confronted with the incomprehensibility of language.9 Jung believed that the images of alchemy appear in dreams. He focused on the symbolic content of alchemical texts, but ignored their peculiar narrative logics and rhetoric. Barbara Obrist emphasizes that like Rudolf Steiner, Jung concentrated his scholarship on works from the seventeenth century—the apex of alchemical discourse. But both men tended to project the idea of alchemical practice as a religious quest back onto earlier texts where such a linkage would have been rare.

Almost every culture has some form of alchemy, from India to China to the West; and from antiquity to the present (or better, the future). Universalism sometimes serves as a legitimization for the very study of alchemy, as well as an underlying assumption grounding much of the scholarship on alchemy, even where this scholarship limits itself to the Western world. So, to cite Julius Evola (a philosopher, painter, mystic, and proto-fascist thinker; a character much more worthy of skepticism than Jung): “There is no question that alchemy is not simply a Western phenomenon. There are, for example, a Hindu alchemy and a Chinese alchemy. And anyone who is at all in touch with the theme can see that the symbols, the ‘matters,’ and the principle operations correspond inwardly and outwardly at the same time.”10 While Evola goes on to state that his work is not concerned with the implementation of these symbols within the culture of the East, it is impossible to ignore the powerful ideology that colors his specific investigations. So, when we speak of alchemy in general, are we speaking of it as a phenomenon that is spread through cultural transmission, or one that crops up in various geographical locales due to its fundamental coincidence with human nature in its essence? For an economic historian like Vilar, the essence is some form of exchange (although not necessarily money), as it is negotiated in relation to sexual reproduction. Saussure, revealing the inextricable ties that bind linguistic and economic values, would not disagree.

Alchemy should be distinguished from folkloric beliefs and from fields such as the apothecary mixing of tinctures and medicines that have been studied as early forms of (spagyric) chemistry. Peasants did indeed practice forms of mixing substances for all sorts of practical purposes. But alchemy was, and has remained, a theory/practice available to cultural elites that was not widespread enough among the populace to make it the object of a broad anthropological study. So are we left with no way out of the aporia surrounding the diachronic (long-standing transmission) and the synchronic (individual instances of usage)?

(p.10) Such a question, obviously, can only emerge from examining many different examples from within what could be called the canon of alchemical literature. Once alchemy is understood to persist over a longue durée, and not simply at one spatiotemporal coordinate, it is essential to understand something other than gold as constituting alchemy at its base. The question is not unlike that asked by chemists when they examine a substance in order to determine its “intensive properties,” those properties that will always be present in a sample of the substance, no matter its size, shape, form, state, or use. An intensive property might be thought as similar to the idea of a principal in seventeenth-century science. What is the intensive property of alchemy? By extending the idea of intensive property from chemistry to cultural production, we seek a least common denominator that may serve as a Law, providing a rigorous basis for alchemy that will help to transcend the Jungian notion of archetype.

Alchemy approaches universality, as long as we understand it in its most ample terms: as the production of a noble substance (most often gold) from the transformation of baser substances (most often base metals). But the trick will be to discover what, precisely, about alchemy is universal. If it is not gold, then is it greed? Marx teaches us that when money has become fully abstracted in capitalism, it is

not only an object, but is the object of greed [Bereicherungssucht]. It is essentially auri sacra fames [the lust for gold]. Greed as such, as a particular form of the drive, i.e. as distinct from the craving for a particular kind of wealth, e.g. for clothes, weapons, jewels, women, wine, etc., is possible only when general wealth, wealth as such, has become individualized in a particular thing, i.e. as soon as money is posited in its third quality … greed itself is the product of a definite social development, not natural, as opposed to historical. (1857 222)

So greed develops alongside money in history, and it must, therefore, be considered in relation to alchemy to the degree that alchemy is a production (of gold) and gold is money. Greed is precisely what is disavowed by those more “spiritual” or philosophical forms of alchemy, and the typical early modern alchemical treatise includes disclaimers against the use of precious metals on the market. Even if the alchemist tried to exchange his product for commodities, he would not succeed. So greed must be considered crucial to alchemy, even when—or especially when—it is denied. Still, to posit greed as universal in alchemy would imply a facile materialism subject to being overturned by an equally facile mysticism.

(p.11) So what is at stake in the universal? Perhaps when we are talking about early modern variants, nothing much more than the scholarly satisfaction of working on an “important” topic, one that reappears with periodic regularity and has gained particular currency in recent years. For instance, the ubiquity of alchemy as a topos in the Middle Ages and Renaissance opens up the field to an elaborate history of transmission, a key methodological term in the works of Warburg, Panofsky, Gombrich, and the other great iconologists who founded the discipline of (Renaissance) art history as we know it.

This study differs from iconology in its emphasis on tradition as both a handing down and a betrayal of language. This is not to say that texts trump images in the alchemical tradition, but rather, images do not constitute a separate or parallel tradition that could be thought outside of language. In his essay “Warburg and the Nameless Science,” Giorgio Agamben underscores the importance of Warburg to “art history” in his withdrawal of the artwork from the “study of the artist's consciousness and unconscious structures.”

In Warburg, precisely what might have appeared as an unconscious structure par excellence—the image—instead showed itself to be a decisively historical element, the very place of human cognitive activity in its vital confrontation with the past. What thus came to light, however, was neither a kind of diachrony nor a kind of synchrony but, rather, the point at which a human subject was produced in the rupture of this opposition…. The greatest lesson of Warburg's teaching may well be that the image is the place in which the subject strips itself of the mythical, psychosomatic character given to it, in the presence of an equally mythical object, by a theory of knowledge that is in truth simply disguised metaphysics. (Agamben 1999, 102)

It is not a question of choosing between image and language, but of grasping “pure historical matter” (Agamben 1999, 103) that emerges from confronting transmission in history.

Uses and Abuses of “Alchemy”

Not surprisingly, in contemporary usage or common currency, the ambivalence of alchemy is generally suppressed. For instance, in a book on Rembrandt, the historian Simon Schama, discussing a self-portrait, writes: “Using a soft-bristled, precisely pointed squirrel-hair brush, the (p.12) kind favored by seventeenth-century miniaturists, Rembrandt has taken one set of earthly materials (the builder's) and translated it into another (the painter's). It seems like alchemy” (Schama 13). On the other hand, Todorov, in an essay on Dutch painting, elevates the transformative power of the artist above the mere craftsmanship of the alchemist: “When Steen and Ter Borch, De Hooch and Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals lead us to discover the beauty of [everyday] things in themselves, they are not acting as alchemists, capable of transforming any old mud into gold. They understood that a woman crossing a courtyard, a mother peeling a potato could be as beautiful as an Olympian goddess” (Todorov 180). In both of these examples, alchemy equals magical transformation, bearing some relationship to the work of the painter/artist, which is itself construed as ineffable and “outside” of writing.

Sometimes alchemy means “toxic chemistry,” linked to the evils of capitalism. For instance, in a highly ironic passage from The Jungle, Upton Sinclair writes:

They were regular alchemists at Durham's [a Chicago meatpacking plant]; they advertised a mushroom-catsup, and the men who made it did not know what a mushroom looked like. They advertised “potted chicken”—and it was the boarding-house soup of the comic papers, through which a chicken had walked with rubbers on. Perhaps they had a secret process for making chickens chemically—who knows? … “De-vyled” ham was made out of the waste ends of smoked beef that were too small to be sliced by the machines; and also tripe, dyed with chemicals so that it would not show white; and trimmings of hams and corned beef; and potatoes, skins and all; and finally hard cartilaginous gullets of beef, after the tongues had been cut out. All this ingenious mixture was ground up and flavored with spices to make it taste like something. (Sinclair 109)

Other critics extend the analogy of magical transformation into an economic sphere. In Virtual Money, Elinor Harris Solomon writes:

A modern alchemy succeeds where the old failed. The ancients of the Middle Ages [sic] were never able to change lead into gold, but the medium of electronics turns magnetized particles (bits) into money-like value. Money seems for a time to be conjured out of nothingness, to be returned to nothingness either quickly or at an indeterminate moment…. Nor do we know, at this time, whether people will even want to do—and pay in this manner for—much significant business on the Internet. We don't yet have a do-it-yourself (p.13) money form, although a lot of people are trying to create a demand for (Solomon 85)

The author takes the commonsense position that alchemy was indeed a practice, albeit one that failed, precisely because it was based on faulty, “ancient Medieval” science. In the modern period, thanks to new technologies, it appears that alchemy has finally succeeded, transforming a base element (bits of digital code) into something of value. Like the aesthetic or painterly analogies cited above, this one works at the most basic level: transformation of something of little or no value into something of greater or noble value. Solomon's main point is to stress that e-money could potentially, in some not-so-distant future, represent a new money form, a homemade, cottage industry form of exchange or barter, but in any case, one that is not based merely on reserves of actual, material cash. We have not yet reached this golden age, since e-commerce today is still based on plain old dollars and cents. Solomon's casual analogy reveals that we cannot yet think outside of the money system. Moreover, she suggests that her alchemical e-money could potentially originate in a dematerialized state and return to that state (“to be conjured out of nothingness, to be returned to nothingness either quickly or at an indeterminate moment”). Solomon's “real alchemy” of the ancients was far from such a practice. For many alchemists, the work involved intensive engagement with material (lead or other ores, for instance). Had it succeeded, it would have resulted in the creation of a very real material that could be, in theory, freely exchanged on a market in which it had already established itself as the supreme value. This holds true in spite of the fact that a great deal of the alchemical literature either dissimulates or fails to mention gold as a product altogether. In a treatise titled Introitus apertus ad occlusum regis palatium (The Open Entrance to a Closed Palace of the King, probably written by George Starkey under the pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes), for instance, we learn that the silver and gold the author produced were so pure that they could not be traded. By bringing them to the market, the author would risk being unveiled as an alchemist and being persecuted by greedy adepts and nonbelievers. The author regrets the fact that he must keep his product to himself, not because he would like to spend gold for the purchase of other goods, but because he cannot share his good spiritual fortune. In any case, the production of gold is a highly anxious moment in alchemical discourse.

(p.14) So gold is hypothesized in alchemy—gold that would be recognized as such (in modern chemical terms, that would have all of the intensive properties of gold, Au, such as good electrical conductivity, resistance to corrosion, the characteristic yellowish color, and a fixed density). This product should be understood as a mere potential exchange-value, but does not imply that any alchemists did, in fact, make their living by producing gold to exchange for subsistence or luxury. In such a (hypothetical) schema, alchemy would represent a subversion or shortcut around the usual ways that one acquires gold. But if we extend the analogy to the present, what would be the use value of Solomon's e-money if it had nothing to do with materiality? Isn't e-money, in theory, useful for the purchase of material goods over the Internet? Doesn't it ultimately result in the acquisition of some good or service for which a standard value is exchanged? Solomon's equation of alchemy to e-money adds a surplus value of “magic” to a transaction that, at least in the present, is simply a more high-tech or dazzling version of slogging through the mall in the money economy. Inasmuch as e-money is only a more apparently magical form of money, it is not at all revolutionary. Instead, it reinforces the established horizons of capitalism. Yet the alchemical analogy helps to blind us to the repetition inherent in the “new money,” which tries to pass itself off as a dematerialized and futuristic form. Alchemy has often been considered in this way, wrenched out of its context in the economy, asked to fulfill an ideological function that would transcend the materiality of everyday life.

“Alchemy” appeared recently in a newspaper account of a complex experiment carried out by the Center for Human Reproduction in New York and Chicago. A group of American scientists created a hermaphrodite embryo by injecting cells from a male embryo into a three-day-old female embryo. The Y chromosome acts as a marker in the new embryo (XY XX), and this might provide an alternative to other gene therapies. Embryos that carry a defective gene could be cured by the injection of cells from another embryo with a good version of that gene (Bazzi). The combination of two different embryos in a test tube is explained for a general audience as “alchemical,” meant not in the aesthetic or economic sense, but to describe the breaking of a powerful taboo in the laboratory combination of two elements that are brought together in nature only in the most abnormal or monstrous cases. The transformation is planned, rather than magical, and for all that such an experiment might violate principles of certain religious groups, for all that it (p.15) may violate rights, it works, as science. It cannot be said to be a failure in the way that alchemy is perceived to be by modern science. We should keep this in mind, then, as we should also keep in mind the product of alchemy as hermaphroditic.

These various examples of the (mis) use of alchemy are important because they point to two powerful models that continually reemerge: (magical) transformation and the binary couple. The ambi-valence of transformation, and not, for instance, gold, emerges as a common denominator in alchemy over time. The dream of the (self-)production of gold or a noble substance from nothing, from shit, from whatever is readily at hand, is a powerful one, but “greed” cannot be the signified of all alchemical discourse. Or better, what we often find is a doubling back on greed—greed or accumulation, yes, but covered up with an alibi of (spiritual) transformation. This doubling back (greed/cover for greed) is another common signified of alchemy. It too is a couple.

What is at stake in establishing the couple as the foundation of alchemy? Julius Evola believed that alchemy was the ars regia, not merely sacerdotal or sentimental, but also metaphysical. He wrote:

If you have followed our explanations up to this point, we trust you will have no need for specific arguments to be convinced that alchemy cannot be reduced merely to chemistry in its infancy—unsystematic, superstitious, and overshadowed by modern chemistry…. Given the synthetic nature of this type of science, alchemy must of course include a chemical side, particularly as a basis for symbolic transpositions. In the same way that the art of construction, or masonry, could be used to express aspects of a spiritual, ritualistic, and initiatory process (an echo of this has been preserved in Freemasonry), so the physical understanding of the elements and certain operations involving the metals can be said to have a similar function. (196)

And he continues:

So if in this special sector the objective of the production of metallic gold is sometimes pursued and sometimes even attained, it is a question neither of a sensational phenomenon nor a scientific discovery. It is a question, on the contrary, of the production of a sign, that is, of something that Catholicism might probably call a miracle, particularly as opposed to a simple phenomenon…. The production of metallic gold was to alchemy a proof of transfiguration given by a power; the testimony of having realized the Gold in oneself. (197)

(p.16) But over time, Evola continues,

alchemy has deteriorated into pure greed, a purely material pursuit without spiritual dimension. It is necessary then to form “intermediate substances” or “androgynous” substances, both “spiritual and corporeal” (perception of the substance and perception of its “psychic” dimension, the one in function of the other): and thus has been established the first condition for the operations of physical alchemy. (202)


The study of alchemy is, first and foremost, a problem of variants. Scholars must contend with, among others, issues of broken continuity (alchemy is often allied with an oral traditio, from father to son, a patieralism, to use a term from Jean-Joseph Goux), and with elaborate ruses, Decknamen (cover-names), alibis, and retractions, all meant to cover up the (practical) secrets of the Great Work. In fact, the distinction between theory and practice in alchemy is of little value. Or better, the reciprocal covering up of practice with theory and vice versa is not incidental to the rhetoric of alchemy, but rather, fundamental. Decknamen can function as mere analogies; that is, they may at times correspond to a particular element or ingredient in the alchemical experiment. At other times, however, Decknamen exercise much more complex linguistic or logical functions. They are covers that actually generate their own content. And rather than covering up something in particular, they may stand in a given text as ciphers of confusion, or they may actually cover up the lack of any deep meaning whatsoever. In other words, they may exercise a performative function, covering through their theatrics what is not there. Their merely mechanical function in a text is, like the automaton, revelatory of a certain moribund quality of writing.

Agamben explains that “the content of revelation is not a truth that can be expressed in the form of linguistic propositions about a being (even about a supreme being) but is, instead, a truth that concerns language itself, the very fact that language (and therefore knowledge) exists” (Agamben 1999, 40). He continues: “Revelation does not mean this or that statement about the world, nor does it indicate something that could be said through language; it concerns the fact that the word, that language, exists” (41). Or, put another way, “Every reflection on tradition must begin with the assertion that before transmitting anything else, human beings (p.17) must frst of all transmit language to themselves” (104). Agamben's writing on tradition serves as a basis to consider the peculiar defensive rhetoric of many alchemical texts. The alchemical writer typically promises that he is bound not to reveal secrets to the vulgar herd. So why write? Writing (alchemically) is always already a revelation of the secret, but only to those who know how to read. Alchemical writers are always claiming they write on the verge of excessive revelation, and with the utmost clarity possible. In the middle of his treatise on antimony, Basil Valentine writes: “It would not be right for me to set down the whole of this Art so plainly and clearly that any one, even the most ignorant, might, on its perusal, become a perfect adept; just as it is not well for a country bumpkin to eat the finest baker's bread” (Valentine 141). A 1685 English edition includes a note by a Dutch physician (and translator of an earlier edition of the work into Latin), Theodore Kerckring, “Yet Valentine has revealed the secrets of the Art more clearly than his successors, who have been busily employed in obscuring his light…. But of course, Basilius cannot describe the Art so clearly that any one, on taking up the book in an idle moment, may at once become a master of our noble Magistery” (Valentine 141). This rhetoric is entirely familiar once one begins to delve into the texts of alchemy. For instance, after a long list of instruments and ingredients common to alchemy, Paracelsus admits that such elements are “mere incumbrances of work.”

Someone may ask, What, then, is this short and easy way, which involves no difficulty, and yet whereby Sol and Luna can be made? Our answer is, this has been fully and openly explained in the Seven Canons [allegorical passages that appear prior to the list of items]. It would be lost labour should one seek further to instruct one who does not understand these. It would be impossible to convince such a person that these matters could be so easily understood, but in an occult rather than in an open sense. (Paracelsus 13)

Similarly, the Introitus admits that not everyone will grasp the meaning of the author's words:

Yet because I did promise candor in this Treatise, something at the least is to be done, that I may not deceive the ingenious of their hope and pains: Know then, that our Regimen, from the beginning to the end, is only lineal, and that is to decoct and to digest, and yet this one Regimen in it self comprehends many others, which the envious have concealed, by giving them diverse names, and describing as so many several Operations: We, to perform the (p.18) candor we promised, will make a far more perspicacious manifestation. (Philalethes 90)

The implication here is that the virtuous reader, whom God has deemed worthy of the secret, will be able to read it in the text. Yet when I read the text, I do not come away knowing how to achieve the Great Work. So either I am the intended reader of this (that is, a reader who is not chosen), or I am not the intended reader of this text, and my failure is inscribed in the text itself. The text is impossible and infinite. Once again, Agamben's writings on language illuminate the paradox:

The thing itself is not a simple hypostasis of the name, something ineffable that must remain unsaid, and hence sheltered, as a name, in the language of men…. The thing itself is not a quid that might be sought as an extreme hypothesis beyond all hypotheses, as a final and absolute subject beyond all subjects, horribly or beautifully unreachable in its obscurity. We can, in truth, conceive of such a nonlinguistic thing only in language, through the idea of language without relation to things…. The thing itself is not a thing; it is the very sayability, the very openness at issue in language…. The presuppositional structure of language is the very structure of tradition; we presuppose, pass on, and thereby—according to the double sense of the word traditio—betray the thing itself in language, so that language may speak about something (kata tinos). The effacement of the thing in itself is the sole foundation on which it is possible for something like a tradition to be constituted. (Agamben 1999, 35)

What is really at stake in alchemy is not so much whether it was (is) written or oral, but that as a traditio (from father to son, although the gendered line of inheritance is something that Agamben does not discuss), it has to be a betrayal of and in language. What does this mean, practically speaking, for alchemy?

Consider a rather typical example of alchemical rhetoric:

In the green lions' bed the sun and moon are born; they are married and beget a king. The king feeds on the lions' blood, which is the king's father and mother, who are at the same time his brother and sister. I fear I betray the secrete, which I promised my master to conceal in dark speech, from every one that does not know how to rule the philosophers fire. When you have fed your lion with sol and luna lay them in an easy heat, enclose them like an egg; a long time will elapse before the king dies, after having eaten all the lion's blood; and at length he grows dark and dry like lamp-black…. But the secret (p.19) is to take the thing that began the work; join luna and the blood of the green lion as at first, and with it ferment the white or red, one to four, without cooling the matters, and seal the glass again until you see the black, white, and red. There is no better multiplication than to repeat the work of the ferment. (Abraham Andrews, cited in Barrett 300)

Buried, like treasure, in a passage on the green lion, the author has promised his master (father) to conceal the secret in “dark speech.” So it would seem that the writing in this passage could be classified as twilight speech since it totters on the brink of comprehensibility. Dark speech, then, is the rhetorical mode of alchemy. This idea is echoed, to give just one example from among many, by the Polish alchemist Michael Sendovogius (Michał Sędziwój): “I wanted you to discover everything here and if at times you understand my meaning but not my words or syllables, I have revealed everything to you, principally in the first and second work” (48). The scholar who claims to know what is meant by the green lion and the philosophical fire, to translate these figures into “light speech,” fails to see how his very translation is bound up with the tradition. The same goes for the female reader who expresses a certain righteous indignation at her exclusion from the tradition but then proceeds to rectify the injustice of history by demonstrating that she has seen the light. All readers should take Sendovogius at his word when he says, “I wanted you to discover everything here.” And, we might add, in not revealing anything, he did in fact reveal everything: “What must be transmitted is not a thing, however eminent it may be; nor is it a truth that could be formulated in propositions or articles of faith. It is, instead, the very unconcealment (a-letheia), the very opening in which something like a tradition is possible” (Agamben 1999, 105). Is it possible that once we penetrate the dark speech, we will find precisely that dark speech was the thing itself, rather than a kernel of light matter enveloped in it?

Alchemy as a Dual or Ambi-valent Discourse

A typical alchemical treatise (this one from the early eighteenth century, but a revised version of a work from 1698) by a Dutch pharmacist and physician notes that iatrochemistry (medical alchemy) is divided into theory and praxis. The author acknowledges that Theory holds a higher place in his own writing. Yet Theory alone is useless unless married with Praxis. (p.20) (“As things stand, some have argued that Theory in chemistry is of no use. Certainly, this is true for Theory alone, but when married to Praxis, it is of the greatest use in chemistry” [Barchusen 5, my translation].)

Perhaps one reason the author decided to revise his earlier Pyrosophia (Leyden, 1698) is that in the intervening years he witnessed Helvetius's gold ingots and crucibles and believed that alchemy was (practically) possible. Yet following upon the statement cited above, he does not offer any more “theory” in the sense that the modern reader might understand it. Instead, what he calls theory is a series of directives for the kinds of vessels to use in the process and a list of the medical uses of gold. His “theory” is speculative inasmuch as he does not tell the reader exactly what to do, step by step, to make gold. Yet he offers what we might call extremely practical advice. At no time does the author announce that he is moving from a discussion of theory to practice. Theory is what is written down so that practice may be accomplished, outside of the text. So theory and practice emerge in a relation to that exemplary couple “inside/outside.” Basil Valentine writes:

Contemplation is two-fold: one is called impossible, the other possible. The former consists in endless meditations, which can have no result because their object is intangible. Such problems are the Eternity of God, the Sin against the Holy Ghost, the infinite nature of the Godhead. They are incomprehensible, and necessarily baffle the finite enquirer. The other part of Contemplation, which is possible, is called Theoria. It deals with the tangible and visible which has a temporal form—shewing how it can be dissolved and thereby perfected into any given body; now every body can impart the good or evil, medicine or poison, which is latent in it; how the wholesome is separated from the unwholesome; how to set about destruction and demolition for the purpose of really and truly severing the pure from the impure without sophistic guile. (18)

He goes on to explain that the “practical experimentalist” will come to learn the meaning of the stages of alchemy, but if the process does not work: “Retrace your steps, learn the theory more perfectly, and enquire more accurately into the method of operation” (19).

Robert Boyle's writings suggest that the common denominator of alchemy is perhaps not one thing—not the English hermetic philosopher John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica, for instance—but indeed a certain duality or a series of couples; ambivalence, as in the dual symbolic–real value of gold.11 One of the couples in the alchemical—perhaps the dominant (p.21) one—is the binary of male and female, but their ritual conjoining in a wide variety of different forms (wedding, bathing together, roasting in an oven) cannot itself be the common denominator of alchemy.

According to Jean-Joseph Goux, gold—as product or object—is univalent. A standard. In the modern era, this is where gold ends up. But before it does so, it undergoes a process of historical change that witnesses its excision (its castration, in the case of the phallus that Goux posits as analogous to gold in the realm of the symbolic) from a larger group as general equivalent. It is possible, perhaps even necessary, to assume that for gold to finally achieve its sovereign status, it must shed its hermaphroditic and ambivalent qualities, those very qualities that define alchemy. Goux's Symbolic Economies is not about alchemy per se, but we cannot simply say that the difference between gold in Goux's vision and in alchemy lies in the fact that he is emphasizing product rather than (alchemical) process, since embedded in the very fabric of alchemical transmutation is ambivalence about product. The product—gold—must be produced in order for the (alchemical) process to have validity (otherwise, it amounts to so many stabs in the dark). But in the very rhetoric of spiritual transformation that characterizes so much of the literature that we call alchemical, the product is simultaneously negated (it isn't gold we're after, it's enlightenment). Thus, at its very core, alchemy is intractably ambivalent.

Gold is not only an object of extreme value (perhaps equaled only by woman in its dual capacity for real and symbolic exchange); it was, and in some sense still is, a standard. For if gold is now traded on a market that is parallel to but not sovereign over other markets, it is referenced in economic culture as a fallback, a stalwart, always present in the background of newer and more volatile markets.12 In contemporary culture, ads for gold bullion tend to feature spokespeople who look into the camera, dressed in highly conservative clothing, urging an investment in something that never loses its value. From a broader historical perspective, a standard is something that is held to be invariable. Thus, inasmuch as alchemy has been about the production of gold, it has been about the production of a kind of stability following a great deal of turmoil. The same cannot be said of woman.

In their essential book on the gold standard, Maria Cristina Marcuzzo and Annalisa Rosselli show that David Ricardo's contribution to economic theory was distinguishing between variation in the value of money and variation in price. In Ricardo's time, the Bank of En gland issued handwritten (p.22) notes of credit. Merchants and bankers asked: Is gold increasing in value, or is paper money's value falling? Ricardo, an extremely wealthy man, suggested that any means of payment is money. International prices are expressed through the different purchasing powers of every national currency. Equilibrium is established through the exchange of bullion or coins. Metal = stability. There is, then, no danger of token money being multiplied. Rising prices and the premium of gold over other circulating currency were due to an excess of Bank of England notes.

In order to avoid dramatic fluctuations in the value of money, Ricardo believed, a political regime needed to tie the currency to the standard that tended to vary least of all. That standard, he reasoned, was gold. This theory would protect citizens from the random politics of institutions issuing paper money or notes, or the capricious will of individuals, and it would lend stability to England in the early nineteenth century. Within England, the level of prices depended on the amount of money (that is, paper money) in circulation. On the other hand, international prices were expressed by the purchasing power of given national currencies, and the exchange rate was established by the exchange of bullion or coins. It is in this sense that metal (gold, but not exclusively) equaled stability. In order to achieve stability within England, Ricardo argued, the bank should reduce the number of notes issued until it equaled the amount of gold in the vaults, thus restoring parity between domestic currency and internationally recognized metals. This was Ricardo's “currency principle” and it was opposed by Tooke, who espoused the “banking principle.” Tooke's position was that banks were only issuing notes to meet demand, and as long as that demand existed, the bank had no obligation to curtail its work. Thus, Ricardo argued that by adopting the gold standard, En gland would return the pound to its “natural level”—that is, the value of money in terms of gold would remain constant. On the other hand, “in an unstable monetary regime, where the price of the standard is not bound, the task of holding the quantity of money at a set level is borne entirely by the monetary authorities” (Marcuzzo and Rosselli 5).

In his High Price of Bullion, Ricardo wrote, “Gold and silver, like other commodities, have an intrinsic value, which is not arbitrary, but is dependent on their scarcity, the quantity of labor bestowed in procuring them, and the value of the capital employed in the mines which produce them” (cited in Marcuzzo and Rosselli 42). This is somewhat different from the (p.23) position taken by reason-of-state theorists of the early seventeenth century such as Gerard de Malynes. He argued that the value of gold was fixed by the mint and ratified by the king, who, by virtue of his godliness, was able to authenticate intrinsic value. But this position became increasingly difficult to sustain, as the king was thought to be apt to manipulate the relationship between the intrinsic value and the face value of coins that circulated in the realm (Poovey 73). Perhaps it is not unfair to see Ricardo in a logical progression from the reason-of-state idea. For him, gold and silver are comparable to other commodities, but they differ in the diminished degree of their variability; they are “tolerably fixed” with regard to their value over short periods of time. Value is the order of business of monetary experts, goldsmiths. This is what makes gold the standard rather than anything magical or vital in its nature as a metal. “As Ricardo once stated in parliament, if corn were the commodity with the least variable value, then banknotes should be convertible into corn” (Marcuzzo and Rosselli 43). In this, Ricardo differs from Adam Smith, who acknowledged qualities of “utility, beauty and scarcity” as the “original foundation of the high price of those metals” and hence their universal value. “This value was antecedent to, and independent of their being employed as coin, and was the quality which fitted them for that employment” (Marcuzzo and Rosselli 44). However, Ricardo was in a sense always looking for something even more stable than gold, and had he found it, he would have quickly discarded gold.

If we were to engage in an imaginative exercise and extend this logic further—and such an extension is certainly not indicated by Ricardo's writings—although alchemy (like gold-as-standard) may be tied to the production of gold, it may also, at some other moment in history, find itself allied with another product. In such a scenario, the hypothetical replacement for gold could be any product or raw material that is not only rare, but also difficult to extract from nature and therefore subject to relatively minor variations with regard to quantity.

Moreover, it might also be possible to hypothesize a form of alchemical practice related to a family-run business, not as profit-making, but perhaps as a form of resistance to primitive accumulation, understood as the (ruthless) movement to force workers into factories and wage-earning trades, leaving behind barter systems, cottage industries, or subsistence farming. Alchemy could, in this utopian fiction, be carried out in the commons, as (p.24) opposed to private property. In this sense, we could consider alchemy as linked with rural life, as opposed to life in the city, as in the following description of expropriation:

Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient condition to harness rural people to the labor market. Even after the enclosures [in England], laborers retained privileges in “the shrubs, woods, undergrowth, stone quarries and gravel pits, thereby obtaining fuel for cooking and wood for animal life, crab apples and cob nuts from the hedgerows, brambles, tansy and other wild herbs from any other little patch of waste…. Almost every living thing in the parish however insignificant could be turned to some good use by the frugal peasant-laborer or his wife.” (Alan Everitt cited in Perelman 14)

Naturally, there is nothing in this passage that explicitly refers to alchemy. Rather, the idea of a self-sustaining, forest-dwelling community is an interesting hypothesis to keep in mind, for whatever it is worth.13

The classical economists explained the prestige and movements of gold, not in relation to the general wealth of the country, but to the profit motives of individuals. They saw gold as any other commodity, and as long as it was profitable, it retained its value. However, Ricardo believed that export of gold from a country was always tied to overissue of (paper) money, whatever the cause; that an unfavorable exchange rate could be corrected by limiting the money supply (eliminating currency redundancy); that export of gold was not a necessary evil to help out in an emergency situation such as war or bad harvest, but rather, was the most economic means of making a payment. In short, gold was part of everyday life precisely because it transcended its materiality and because it was tied exclusively to money and to markets. Of course, the international exchangeability of gold remains a potentiality, a figure that looms over alchemy, since, as noted, the alchemist tends to hoard rather than exchange.

Hoarding, as Goux suggests, represents a solution, however temporary, awkward, and “unresolved” in a psychoanalytic sense, between this qualitative boundlessness of gold and its quantitative limits. The hoarder is one who refuses to allow gold to circulate. Before the stabilization of the gold standard, when coins were minted in gold, their exchange would cause them to become abraded, and their value would be literally worn away by fingers. Since gold became a standard, it has been flowing through the world in the form of bullion. It is also made into certain luxury goods or (p.25) used in fillings or filaments (luxury accessories for the body), or it petrifies in the form of hoards. Mostly it flows between kings and nations. Bourgeois states actually try to limit hoards to a bare minimum, because they are dynamic and thrive on even flows and speeded-up circulation. Hoarding undercuts Keynesian dynamic national growth. Modern economies cannot tolerate the slow time of coffers and treasuries. If, in the time of a gold standard, everything is potentially convertible into gold, then the motive for hoarding comes from the fact that while gold (or money) is theoretically limitless in its power, we can only speak about gold or know gold in some finite quantity. At some point, for it to be actualized, spent, exchanged, it has to be weighed and measured.

Alchemy, Anomie, and Potentiality

Alchemists don't spend their gold. But this does not mean there is nothing to be said about consumption inasmuch as it is potential consumption. As Goux writes of the sovereign:

In the very act of considering the labor of other men, the blood that is sweat by slaves or serfs, as the prey of his desire, he knows the men themselves as sacrificed, nullified beings and thus knows himself as one…. In contrast with this seigneurial existence, based on expenditure and maintenance according to social position, is the industrious entrepreneur or merchant of the rising bourgeoisie—sober, thrifty, prosaic, subordinating jouissance to production and finding it only through calculation in the economy of savings and earnings, of credit and debit, accompanied by an exact accountability of goods and a rational use of time. Thus, in opposition to the feudal nobility, which avidly devours more than it possesses, flaunting its luxury as the obligatory sign of rank, the bourgeois political economy must preach (with mounting hypocrisy, besides) postponement, the deferral of jouissance, patient retention with a view to the supplementary jouissance that is calculated. (204)

Gold, as Marx writes in the Grundrisse, “possesses all pleasures in potentiality” (222).

Some would undoubtedly argue that alchemy has nothing to do with production, at least if we agree with Marx that production is always consumption. Can we speak of alchemical gold as a product if “the production only obtains its ‘last finish’ in consumption”? (1857 91, “last finish” in English in original). If the gold produced by alchemy is not used (up), (p.26) spent, passed around, or molded into objects or statues, then can it really be a product? An early modern courtier like J.J. Becher will argue that alchemy should (and indeed, does) serve to produce a product for consumption. Similarly, an alchemist explains:

Even so it is with Gold, as long as it is in the form of a ring, a vessel or Money, 'tis the vulgar Gold, as concerning its being cast in our water,’tis Philosophical; In the former respect it is called Dead, because it would remain unchanged even to the Worlds end; in the latter respect it is said to be living, because it is so potentially; which power is capable of being brought into Art in a few daies, but then Gold will no longer be Gold, but the Chaos of the Sophi; therefore well may Philosophers say, That their philosophical Gold differeth from the vulgar Gold, Which difference consisteth in the Composition. (Philalethes 42–43)

Real gold, having used up its potentiality, is dead. The alchemist is responsible for reviving gold (a process which means the death of alchemical mercury), but as long as gold is “philosophical”—that is, not yet material—it is alive.

In thinking, finally, about the slow temporality of alchemy, and about potentiality, it may be useful to invoke the idea of the “state of exception.” One of Giorgio Agamben's concrete examples to define the state of exception in the temporal realm is the period called iustitium, which is derived from Roman law. Acts performed during this period of juridical tempus mortuum are characterized by anomie. He who acts during the iustitium “neither executes nor transgresses the law but inexecutes [inesegue] it. His actions, in this sense, are mere facts, the appraisal of which, once the iustitium is expired, will depend on the circumstances. But as long as the iustitium lasts, they will be absolutely undecidable … beyond the sphere of law” (2005, 50). The iustitium is a period of mourning, as for a dead king or pope—the nine days prior to the conclave to elect a new pope, for instance. During this time, in theory, nothing happens. But this very idea—nothing happens—is as paradoxical as it is impossible. Anomie, a term that is rarely used in English nowadays, comes from the Greek anomia, meaning “lawlessness, without a ruler, a-nomos.” But anomie is not simply anarchy, it is also boredom and sloth in common usage. Durkheim suggested anomie as social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; personal unrest, alienation, lack of purpose or ideals. Indeed, Durkheim is often credited with inventing the (p.27) term, but this is, of course, a convenient fiction that might allow us to understand the social order resulting from the industrial revolution as something particular destined to disappear with new forms of production or new markets. Durkheim's anomie is interesting inasmuch as it results from a lack of order, but also an overdetermination of order. As social restraints are weakened, humans no longer have limits on their desires and aspirations. Whereas their goals were previously limited by morality, desire now becomes infinite in scope. What is needed is just the right amount of order.

In reality anomie is an older word, used in a variety of contexts prior to the “invention of modern ethnography.” We could invoke what is a forgotten (and frankly, rather pedantic) text in the history of political economy, the Elementi di economia pubblica of Cesare Beccaria, an Italian illuminista best known for his influential Dei delitti e delle pene. Published posthumously in 1804, the Elementi, based on the author's lectures at the University of Pavia, outlines in great detail the relationship between precious metals and national and international trade. Writing about gold, Beccaria notes with some envy that a nation that produces precious metals is fortunate indeed, and such nations have always been “conquerors of the universe.” But Beccaria consoles himself that the real politicians have always looked more favorably upon acquiring gold than upon possessing it as a natural resource; acquisition requires motion, action, and labor, which are the beating heart of any political body. Nations that possess gold as a natural resource can also be said to possess a drug that numbs all industry or productivity (175). Moreover, preferable to gold and silver is iron, “the metal of defense and conquest,” which “serves to perfect all pleasures of life” (175).

On one hand this sounds like an elaborate apology for colonialism or a form of racist anthropology that supposes that those nations possessing mines will tend to be lazy, unproductive, or anomic, and require only a productive nation to stir up the native labor force from its torpor. Conversely, in Europe the political economists feared the withering away of desire as the market became flooded with goods, resulting in a listless population surrounded by valueless commodities. If agriculture is the foundation of all civilized life, for thinkers like Montesquieu developing “a certain idea of Europe,” this does not mean that the most fertile areas are the most civilized: “The barrenness of the earth renders men industrious, sober, inured to hardship, courageous, and fit for war; they are obliged to procure by (p.28) labor what the earth refuses to bestow spontaneously. The fertility of a country gives ease, effeminacy and a certain fondness for the preservation of life” (Montesquieu 273).

Following a similar logic, Montesquieu argued that the discovery of (colonial) mines could diminish the value of gold and silver in the countries of the colonizers: “The Spaniards raked into the mines, scooped out mountains, invented machines to draw out water, to break the ore, and separate it; and as they sported with the lives of the Indians, they forced them to labor without mercy. The specie of Europe soon doubled, and the profit of Spain diminished in the same proportion” (Montesquieu 370). In its greed, “Spain has behaved like the foolish king who desired that everything he touched might be converted into gold, and who was obliged to beg of the gods to put an end to his misery” (Montesquieu 372). However, in keeping with his broader ideas about the climate and law of Europe, he qualifies his general distrust of mines:

My reasoning does not hold good against all mines; those of Germany and Hungary, which produce little more than the expense of working them, are extremely useful. They are found in the principal state; they employ many thousand men, who there consume their superfluous commodities, and they are properly a manufacture of the country. The mines of Germany and Hungary promote the culture of the land; the working of those of Mexico and Peru destroys it. (372)

In other words, mining did not necessarily in itself yield a great profit, but employment increased the wealth of nations. We see a similar idea in J. J. Becher's justification of alchemy in the Physica subterranea. In the hands of an honest prince, alchemy (like mining) is virtuous exploitation of one's own national natural resources. Becher asks: Why go abroad when you have what you need at home? “If Solomon could have made gold at home in Jerusalem he would not have had to cross the sea” (Becher 697).

The operative word for Becher's ideal prince is honest. The sovereign decides on the proportion of gold and silver in any monetary system, just as he guarantees the value of coins. Similarly, it is the sovereign who must take charge of overseeing mining. He declares the productive value of mining, making it his other, since “he decides on the state of exception.” The sovereign is outside of the law (he can declare the value of currency only as he does not engage with it in exchange), but he is also inside the law, lawful. The picture of the sovereign is often inscribed on coins to (p.29) signify that he guarantees value and takes on the fiduciary responsibility of coinage. He even grants his name to certain coins, such as the sovereign or the crown. The very word crown, as Ernst Kantorowicz outlines in The King's Two Bodies, a work that is of crucial importance to understanding the relation of money to the state of exception, refers to the royal demesne, the inalienable fisc that does not die with the death of the king. In modern, abstract terms the sovereign would seem to be he who protects us from the crash of the market by upholding the standards of monetary value by his very exceptionality.

But wait. As Marx outlines with great care in Grundrisse, money as a medium of circulation—that is, as coin—has lost its value as such. In order to be money, it has to be melted down, or demonetized—it has to shed its merely symbolic value. Coins have national or local characters, but not universal ones. In Marx's terms, “a coin acquires a political title, and talks, as it were, a different language in different countries” (1857, 226). If melted down, gold and silver are no longer symbols, but quantities, universal commodities. Money is the negation of the medium of circulation as such—that is, of the coin; but it holds the potential to be turned into coin. Money, as coin, inhabits a realm of anomie. As money, it has value only as gold and silver, but the face that the state impresses on it has no importance. In Marx's scheme of the coming to be of commodities, gold is the exception. It is placed outside of the circuit of commodities, yet it once was just one of the other commodities, so it is also inside. It plays the role of sovereign.

For the sake of an analogy with the monetary state of exception, we can say that alchemy involves production (of gold), but it is anomic production because little or no motion, action, or labor is expended in the process of its acquisition. Alchemy speeds up the natural processes of maturation of ores in the earth, and in that, it seems analogous to the stupefying narcotic that Beccaria writes about in his Elementi.

Not all thinkers of the early modern found alchemy to be morally suspect or anomic in this sense. A story circulated that Raymond Lull promised King Edward to supply funds to help convert infidels in 1307. He was given an apartment in the Tower of London and managed to transmute base metals into “nobles” of gold. J. J. Becher, who endeared himself to various courts of Europe, believed that good government depends, in part, on the ability of the sovereign to sustain the population and expand trade. Some say alchemy is a bad word, Becher notes, but worse are the following: (p.30) “contributions, taxes, seizures, interest, tolls, usury, the state treasury” (Becher 694). Alchemy is both natural and virtuous because it can improve the salus publici. As long as the prince is pure in his intentions, alchemy is good for society. It relieves Christian subjects from heavy head and ground taxes as it provides a potential new source of movable wealth. Naturally, the prince must regulate alchemy, because otherwise everyone would do it and there would be no one left for trades and other forms of production.

Many have written about alchemy, but few have balanced alchemy as a discourse about production (whether the product is gold or spiritual renewal) with the facts of real conditions of production in the world. Yet, we recall that (the young) Marx did not hesitate to define man as homo faber.

Labor—the faculty of producing—is what makes him man, and the consciousness he has of it is the import of his humanity. It transforms the simple biological belonging to the human species into consciousness of participating in humankind, and thus makes of all products of labor the privileged place of collective living. This is why the social relation is the essence of the individual as Gattungswesen (species-being), and why as well, in turn, all social relations are, in the last instance, reduced to relation of production. (De Duve 52)

Man brings his labor power to the market, and he is alienated inasmuch as the factory owner extracts his surplus labor from him. This is what makes man a social being. And this is precisely what most scholarship on alchemy suppresses. Perhaps the dream of alchemy is not so much about infinite riches or spiritual renewal, but autonomy from the labor market.


(1.) The clear bottle and window on the left create a crucial link between this advertisement and Dutch painting of the seventeenth century, which is fundamental to my thinking about alchemy in the broadest terms. For the window composition see Cole and Pardo 1.

(2.) Such alchemical-temporal experimentation is especially characteristic of the Italian art movement known as arte povera discussed in more detail in Chapter 7.

(3.) It has even been suggested that kimiya came to Arabic from Chinese, where it signified a liquid extracted from gold (Zinguer 171). Newman follows the historian A. J. Festugière in distinguishing a number of phases in early alchemy: (a) alchemy as a form of technology—gems, stones, dyes, and so on (from Egyptian antiquity to ca. 200 B.C.E.); (b) technical recipes with an interest in “sympathies” and “antipathies” of material elements (ca. 200 B.C.E.–100 C.E.); (c) the joining of philosophy and chemistry, exemplified by the figure of Zosimos (ca. 300 C.E.).

(4.) Many alchemical texts list the (often seven, but sometimes as few as three or four) stages of the process. Yet there are nearly as many variations in these stages as there are alchemical treatises. For instance, a fairly common list might include: calcinatio, sublimatio, solutio, putrefactio, distillatio, coagulatio, and tinctura (Calvesi 1993, 136). The Rosarium Philosophorum (almost certainly a medieval text, but printed in 1550) instead offers: solution, conjunction/fermentation, conception/ putrefaction, mortification, extraction/impregnation, purification/ablution, jubilation/sublimation, regeneration. And so on. The question of which series to accept as dominant is tied, obviously, to the difficult question of an alchemical canon.

(5.) Although the progressive stages as mentioned above do not constitute oppositions, what Derrida writes in this context is still important to keep in mind. That is, a list is only useful when there is a guiding principle or matrix within which the single elements can be measured. In alchemy, if the stages themselves may vary, what remains invariable is the declaration that the stages must be followed in their particular order (what ever it might be), so that no stage is skipped, and each one is allowed to reach its fulfillment before the alchemist moves on to the next stage. Failure to proceed in this manner interrupts the Great Work and constitutes a “falling back” to the beginning (often represented with an image of the alchemist literally losing his footing, stumbling, or tumbling from a ladder). In other words, the “matrix” of the alchemical list of stages is linear and teleological. Any deviation from the trajectory means failure (or provides a post-factum alibi for failure). See the epigram of the footless alchemist locked out of the garden from Maier's Atalanta fugiens (Figure 2) for a visual example of this trope.

(6.) The prefix ambi (or ambo) might be thought to signify “both” of any two (and only two) objects, as when we refer to ambidexterity. The question of whether we can extend ambivalence to a situation in which more than two objects are in play is complex, and it certainly has implications for the discussion of the theme of a choice of three (caskets, women). Sarah Kofman notes that while ambiguity may refer to one sense or another, ambivalence is simultaneously two opposing senses: “Le sens et le non-sens; non pas l'amour ou la mort mais l'amour et la mort” (28).

(7.) “An Act to Repeal the Statute Made in the Fifth Year of King Henry the Fourth, Against the Multiplying Gold and Silver,” Anno Regni Gulielmi et Mariae, Regis & Reginae Angliae, Franciae & Hibernia (London: Charles Bill and Thomas Newcomb, 1688). For centuries, transmutation had been a felony. Now,

whereas since the making of the said statute, divers persons have by their study, industry and learning, arrived to great skill and perfection in the art of melting and refining of metals, and otherwise improbing them and their dies (which very much abound within this realm) and extracting Gold and Silver out of same; but dare not exercise their said skill within this realm, for fear of falling under the Penalty of said statute, but exercise the said art in foreign parts, to the great loss and detriment of this realm: Let it be therefore enacted by the King and Queens most excellent majesties, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons in this present parliament assembled, that from henceforth the aforesaid branch, article or sentence contained in the said Act … shall be repealed…. Provided always, and be it Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all the Gold and Silver that shall be Extracted by the aforesaid Art of Melting and Refining of Metals, and otherwise Improving of them and their Dies as before set forth, be from henceforth Employed for no other Use or Uses whatsoever, but for the Increase of Moneys: And that the place hereby appointed for the Disposal thereof, shall be Their Majesties Mint within the (p.177) Tower of London; At which place they are to receive the full and true value for their Gold and Silver so extracted from time to time, according to the Assay and Fineness thereof; and so for any greater or lesser weight: And that none of that Metal of Gold and Silver so refined and extracted, be permitted to be used or disposed in any other place or places within Their Majesties Kingdoms and Dominions. Provided also, and be it further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no Mine of Copper, Tin, Iron, or Lead, shall hereafter be adjudged, reputed or taken to be a Royal Mine, although Gold or Silver may be Extracted out of the same. (443–45)

A letter from Newton to Locke dated 1672 credits this repeal to the efforts of no less a personage than Robert Boyle (Alchemy 283).

(8.) For an overview of Jung's intellectual development and engagement with alchemy, see Jaffé.

(9.) Maurizio Calvesi addresses this conundrum. He was accused of being a Jungian, but he claims that he was simply interested in the visual images he found in Jung's Psychology and Alchemy (Calvesi 1993, xxi).

(10.) Evola, xviii. On Evola and his political ideology, see Cassata and Schnapp. In addition to his writing, Evola also produced a number of Dadaisttype paintings. His Paesaggio interiore, illuminazione (1918–20, now in the Kunsthaus of Zurich) includes a number of geometrical blocks. On one of them, the artist wrote “Hg” (the chemical symbol for mercury) in red ink. This is a very interesting gesture, especially as the inscription seems entirely disjoined from the composition itself, as if it had been an afterthought, and a reflection of the troubled relationship between modern chemistry as abstraction and alchemical materiality.

(11.) Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica (1564) was an attempt to retrieve divine language and unify various branches of natural philosophy in a single cipher or universal emblem. The Monas contained traditional astrological symbols that could be translated into any language and generate all possible letters. In the preface to the work, Dee defined the word monas as “unit”—perhaps the first time this word is found in English: “Note the worde, Unit, to expresse the Greke Monas, & not Unitie; as we have all, commonly, till now, used.” He goes on to explain: “And, an Unit, is that thing Mathematicall, Indivisuble, by participation of some likenes of whose property, any thing, which is in deede, or is counted One, may reasonably be called One. We account an Unit, a thing Mathematicall, though it be no Number, and also indivisible because of it, materially, Number doth consist: which, principally, is a thing Mathemeticall” (cited in Josten 91–92). Naturally, I would not exclude Dee from the alchemical realm simply because he was obsessed with this figure of unity. On the contrary, we might see his Monas as defending, precisely, against ambivalence.

(12.) One need only think of the television commercials for the Monex Corporation. A woman, using the grave tone usually reserved for prepaid cemetery (p.178) plots, warns viewers that gold is the only stalwart in the present chaotic world. Also see the company's Web site: www.monex.com. Today it is indeed possible to trade in gold through a mutual fund (ticker symbol “GOLD,” no less). The investor will have no actual contact with gold ingots. More important, the mutual fund places gold at an ever further degree of removal from material presence since the fund does not directly follow the price of gold, but rather, hedges the “generality” of gold as an idea.

(13.) As Marc Shell notes, however, hypothesis is inherently bound up with money. To make a hypothesis is to ask for credit that may be called in later, when a conclusion is reached and meaning exhausted. When Plato criticized the sophists, he simultaneously expressed anxiety about coinage—that is, as a division between symbolic and material value: “Was not even Socratic dialectic … pervaded by the monetary form of exchange? Was not dialectical division a kind of money changing, and dialectical hypothesizing a kind of hypothecation, or mortgaging?” (Shell 2).