Monday, 3 September 2012

Alchemy and the Undercurrents of History

This word Alchemy comes up all the time.  It is probably most associated, at least in literature and cultural understanding, with the historical pursuit to transform lead into gold, or to transform other base metals into precious ones.  But there is also a conception among the populace that alchemy has something to do with transformation in general, with the appearance of novelty, and with the enhancement of some system by ingenious means, whether that system be physical, chemical, biological, psychological, social, technological, or whatever.

Now, among scientists the word usually comes loaded as, "Oh, alchemy is just what people practiced before they understood the real laws of chemistry, before they knew about the periodic table and the whole number combinations of atoms into molecules.  Alchemy wasn't really science.  It was just sort of perverse experimentation."  In a sense that is very true.  Alchemy as practiced was always tied into extraordinary notions of the world, of the spirits that operated within it, and of the potential for the human agent to cooperate with the spirits in order to attain the Philosopher's Stone, say, or the Elixir of Life.  But because of that very fact, because of the very extraordinary nature in which Alchemy was conceived by those who practiced it, it actually ran much deeper into the fabric of human psychology and culture than 'perverse experimentation' might suggest.  In fact, I'd like to suggest that Alchemy has formed the very undercurrents that steer the course of history.

In quite general terms, let us take Alchemy to be the processes of transformation that occur at the boundary of what is known and what is unknown.  It is here, at the frontier of knowledge, that the alchemist frolics as he mixes and matches, ponders and pursues, experiments in extravagance and boldly strides forth to adventure in experience at the bubbling edge of human perception, cognition, and control.  It is here that the mythological hero of each and every culture, the Prometheus of Greece and the Indra of India, the human individual in his infinite potential for creative exploration; it is here that he first encounters what was until then unknown to himself, to his society; here that he integrates this novelty into his understanding of the world, for the first time.  It is here that the capacity for cultural and psychological evolution greets him, bearing the sly but genuine grin of eternal creativity.

Now, the essential point for the connection between alchemy and history is this.  An investigation which was once considered alchemy, or equivalently, which had once taken place at the boundaries of current knowledge, becomes common knowledge and thus no longer the domain of alchemy once it is introduced to and accepted by the masses.  That is, as the alchemist's discoveries are integrated into society, society is effectively upgraded, and the boundaries of knowledge encroach infinitesimally on the infinite unknown.  The alchemist is forced to move on, into novel territory, once again.

A determining factor in the adaptability and evolution of cultures, then, is the capacity by which they can accept and integrate the investigations of alchemists.  Cultures which foster alchemy and which have effective means for integrating novelty will thus naturally be more adaptable to changing geopolitical conditions and more successful in the pursuits of civilization.  Free, open exchange of ideas is absolutely essential for a robust civilization.  On the other hand, cultures which suppress such investigations, which foster fear instead of praise, which price ideas and restrict their flow, will find themselves immobilized and stagnant on the world stage in times of crisis or unprecedented change.  They wont be able to attain the proper upgrades, so to speak, to interface effectively with the world in changing times.  And times are always changing.

So if we look back at history, we find this perennial pursuit, this drive to derive, this obsession with progression, this overwhelming impulse bubbling beneath the surface of cutural normality, disguised as a quest to transform base metals into gold, altogether steering the infrastructure of human civilization through the torrents of history, leading us to here, right now.  Today.

So what does Alchemy look like today?  Well, it looks the same as it ever looked - it looks like people pursuing near impossible problems on the edge of what is acceptable, what is known.  And while the devices and equipment look like they may have changed, and while we have technically fulfilled the age old superficial objective of turning lead into gold (ala nuclear chemistry), we find ourselves still very much faced with the same predicament: of consistently updating our cultures in order to adapt to changing environmental and technological conditions.  And that is what Alchemy has always been. 

So let us march this grand tradition of alchemical exploration into the future with us.  Let us be weird and wild, crazy and like-child, investigative and inspired.  Let us play merrily on the brink of knowledge and acceptability.  After all, it is our creative exploration that updates our civilization, that expands our realities.

Merry beings, dear Alchemist.