James Hillman on Psychological Alchemy

Talking out chemically is a marvelous way to talk. It’s all metaphor,
you’re talking metaphors all the time, and yet the language is all
materialized, it’s material language. It’s about mercury, it’s about lead,
it’s about fire, it’s about eggs, it’s about glass vessels and so on.
So I mean, I know I’m not composed of sulfur and salt, or that I’m buried
in horse dung, or that I’m putrefying, or congealing or turning white or
gray. I know all this is metaphor, when they say I’m turning white or I’m
turning green or I’m turning…or I’m putrefying in horse dung, these are
metaphors, and yet these things are what is happening if you follow
alchemy. Where as when you read psychology you really believe there
are things called ego, and defense mechanism, and anxieties, attack
and so on.
You see the language of psychology is literalized, it doesn’t give you that
chance to imagine, it traps you in these things called whatever they’re
called, and the value of alchemy is that just the language itself is
therapeutic because it frees you from imagining yourself as all these
The job we have to do, we with our Western minds, is to realize that the
beginning is, can be every day, so that today I could begin with a fog
and tomorrow I could begin with a black mountain. And that… So it isn’t
percentages so much as that there’s not just one beginning. You’re
always beginning. That’s one thing. There’s always a new primary
material or there’s a new problem, as we say in analysis. One thing, and
if there isn’t one, your analyst will help you find one. “There’s a problem
here.” Then the 5% or 10%, I wouldn’t say that it’s that mixed.
Oh yeah, I should have mentioned the crucial one effect. That was the
first one. Great term, which will answer your question, is the ‘massa
confusa’. And I’m sorry I left that out, massa confusa. And very… That’s
also why, about the color at the beginning, you asked. That’s why one of
the reasons there are many colors, or there are no colors, or it’s mixed
colors, or it’s grey, or something like that, because it’s a confused mass,
a massa confusa. And that’s pretty much the starting point again and
again in our lives.
Now the problem with a massa confusa is that if you are confronted with
this massa confusa, it upsets another part of the psyche. The ego is
threatened by it. The heroic figure of the psyche is threatened by
This is a very famous alchemical saying from a woman called Mary the
prophet, Maria prophetessa, or Mary the Jewess. Now Mary the Jewess
is a legendary figure in Egypt who invented what you call in French
cooking, the Bain-Marie, the double boiler. And so you could say that the
whole business of alchemy goes back to a Jewish ladies cooking.
Because from that comes all kinds…So one of her great sentences was
if the two do not become one nothing will take place. If one does not
whiten and the two become three, nothing will take place. There’s other
film little things in there with white sulfur, which whitens. But when one
yellows, three becomes four, for one yellows with yellow sulfur. At the
end, climax when one tends into violet, all things combined into violet.
See now people sit down and they work that out. That would be a
formula for knowing how to do the whole work. Doesn’t make sense,
right. So hat’s what all the alchemists were doing. They had these kinds
of very famous sayings and then, they would try to work out the formula
for how to do it. But do you notice it has a do with color? That’s all, it has
to do with number, and it has a do with color.
So you’re increasing the heat as you move up from the water bath,
through the sand bath, to the ash bath, to the flame, to the direct flame.
That’s one description, and we will go into each of those. I’ll read
another description so that you get an idea how differentiated their
sense of fire was.
“The degree of heat: Many learned men have gone grievously astray, so
here’s the real dope,” says this…it’s a man named Norton. I’m thinking of
that other Norton. You know who I mean? Jackie Gleason’s Norton,
right. So this is Norton’s advice on how… “The degree of heat which is
employed for the scalding of pigs and geese,” that’s the first degree, “is
that which we require for our decoction of intermediate minerals and for
the purpose of covering the stone with sweat.” So you see that the
fantasy of… This is the first degree of heat, what you’d use for scalding
pigs and geese. And we could go into why you scald pigs and geese, in
order to remove the feathers and the bristles. You know, we can go into
a whole fantasy from that, which I’m sure they did. I mean, they would
go on. If your mind thinks metaphorically, the imagining doesn’t stop.

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