Alchemy is a popular metaphor for a deft or mysterious transformation. It is the type of term that might be co-opted as a trendy brand name or be used to give a pop group esoteric cred, politicians might use it to obfuscate, new age soothsayers to impress but in spite of its diverse applications it is usually meant as little more than a synonym for a seemingly magical change.
In popular discourse alchemy is only tangentially related to the complexities of the mystic precursor of modern chemistry. In its ancient form, alchemy was not just based around crude attempts to transform lead into gold but was a well developed esoteric philosophical system.
Modernist poets, (Materer 1995) saw in the ancient art of philosophical alchemy a metaphor for the creative process. Carl Jung and his followers also mined alchemical texts discerning in them a rich set of symbols for the process of “individuation” or transformative self-making (Jung 1995).
The key points that come out of these literary and psychological approaches are:
Robert Romanyshyn, a literary critic and phenomenologist, puts it this way:
Alchemy’s opus – the transformation of lead into gold – is metaphor’s work of releasing the spirit of things from their leaden literalism. In this regard the alchemist is like the poet, who is a maker and master of metaphor. Both alchemist and poet are metaphoricians, one of nature the other of the word. The alchemist and the maker of metaphor practice a poetic science of the natural world, not an empirical one. For alchemist and poet the imaginal reveals itself to an oblique vision which alludes, like a metaphor does, to something which always remains elusive…The subtle body of alchemy, like the subtle body of metaphor, is the stuff of mood, an ambience which pervades and penetrates the field. The imaginal is neither in us nor in the world. It surrounds us like light or wind. (Romanyshyn 2000:36-7)
Understood broadly in these terms the Alchemist can be seen as an archetype of creativity and the creative individual that is often mobalised in contemporary journalistic features. Many of the artists, writers and filmmakers that are profiled are portrayed as initiates to a privileged form of knowing that allows them leaps of insight not open to the ordinary individual.