Alchemical Cycle Logo Master's Thesis:
The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

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Chapter 7: Review and Summary Example: The Alchemy of the Image

Image and Reversal: Air

Going still further, we come to another level beyond that of the flow of meaning between signs.  This level of the image can be the most subtle and difficult to understand at first.  The primary quality at this level can be experienced as a reversal, often occurring in a moment of insight.  While swimming through the river of facts, a moment will come where concepts get stretched so far that suddenly something snaps and the direction of the energy flow shifts and reverses.  A wonderful word used by Jung, enantiodromia, expresses precisely this aspect, where something is taken so far to one extreme that it suddenly flips, in a kind of singularity, into its opposite.  An example of this principle of Air in action will help.

Water SymbolIf we examine the alchemical symbol for Water, we see a downward pointing equilateral triangle with a bisecting horizontal line.  This is just the sign for Earth with the added horizontal component; therefore we can see how the element of Water still bears some of the qualities of Earth, but in a slightly transformed way.  Something has arisen from within the Earth, and is now permeating the lower half of the sign.  The Water forms a kind of lake in the lower half of the triangle, within and bounded by the Earth below, which acts as its container.  But rather than fill the entire sign, the Water reaches a self-made boundary (the horizontal line).  This is an analog to the physical property of water: it takes on the shape of its vessel, and spontaneously forms a coherent, flowing barrier when no vessel wall presents itself.  This horizontal surface acts to connect the whole periphery of the shoreline, allowing waves in any one part of the surface to reach all other parts of the surface.  A moving balancing lacking in Earth is now present, as if the horizontal bar is that of a tightrope walker.  This type of Water-thinking, a thinking that takes place in the space between the facts, now leads us to an Air moment, when we realize that this new horizontal line, a boundary, is not simply a connector of facts, but must be a boundary between the water and something that is not actually represented in the sign: the air.  It is just at this place, where the Water has become liberated from the Earth, that it meets not just itself, but something beyond itself, the Air – a new context in which it finds itself embedded, exactly opposite in quality to its previous environment.  These considerations lead us naturally to the sign for the element of Air: an inverted sign for Water. 

Air SymbolThe triangle now points upward, but this shift is not simply a geometric, it is also symbolic.  The dividing line of the Water sign is maintained, but symbolizes now the Air experience of polarity in general, of the formation of opposites, complements, reciprocals, and enantiodromias.  Whereas in the water sign the horizontal bar symbolizes the lateral connection made between various points on a surface, in Air it represents a vertical division of one volume from another; completely polar domains are established which dominate the activity of Air thinking.

This example points more generally to the Air level of the image, which we can call the symbol.  What at first appeared to be a sign for some bit of knowledge ‘out there’, which was then linked to other external facts to embed it in a stream of meaning, now is recognized to be something even more subtle.  Rather than simply being a string of related facts, a moment occurs where the external image takes on a whole inner dimension.  Our consciousness may suddenly shift into a strange type of experience, which may be called a dual polarity. 

In such an experience, we have two complementary polarities arising essentially simultaneously.  The first polarity is an awakening in consciousness to the differential recognition of two things: the fact that the sign is experienced as a fact outside oneself, and the necessary complement to this recognition – that in order to have such an experience, one must also have a whole inner realm in which the fact is placed in order to be experienced.  The first polarity, which we can call recognition of the outer sign, simply sets up in consciousness a complementarity between the inner and the outer.  The reader should be able to see how this first polarity is expressive of the Earth element.

The second polarity is expressive of Water.  In the second polarity, simultaneous to the first polarity, we can experience that the pattern of flow between external bits of information in the sign out there sets up complementary patterns of meaning within.  Thus we can speak of an inner sign as well as an outer one.  In the second polarity we recognize that in addition to the ‘fact’ out there, a correlate, a mirror image of the sign, exists inside of us as well, and that its flowing relationships are analogs to our own inner states.

Thus a symbol is precisely that which acts as a bridge between our inner world and the outer world.  Looking at the image at the level of the symbol literally puts us into a polarity: we are taken simultaneously out of ourselves into the wider context in which the flowing patterns of meaning in the facts find themselves while having a direct experience of our own inner relationship to those same patterns.  The symbol takes us beyond ourselves by taking us into ourselves.

Thus, the modern alchemical scholar Stanislas Klossowski de Rola can point out that the alchemist’s pictorial language,

in which not a single detail is ever meaningless, exerts a deep fascination on the sensitive beholder.  This fascination does not even necessarily depend upon understanding.  If the reader will contemplate these images, that is to say go beyond their surface, he will often perceive that they correspond to another timeless dimension which we all may find deep within ourselves.  These profoundly haunting pictures have a polyvalent symbolism, and lend themselves therefore to various interpretations. 37 (Klossowski de Rola, 1973)

This forming of connections beyond oneself is an essential element of alchemy.  Rudolf Steiner, who could be seen as a modern Rosicrucian alchemist, states that “true alchemy makes itself independent of sense-perception in order to behold the spiritual nature of the world that is external to man, but is concealed by sense-perception.” (Allen & Pietzner, 1981)  This ‘independence’ from sense-perception is a capacity that is trained by rhythmically going into the Air element – a capacity that is most easily exercised though alchemical work with lawful images.  By working with an image from Earth, through Water, into Air, one builds a capacity in which, despite the polyvalence noted by de Rosa, one’s thinking capacity becomes strong enough (Earth) to not dissipate in the face of multiplicities and paradoxes (Air) while simultaneously remaining flexible enough (Water) to keep from fixing a multiplicity into a single, dead answer.  This helps to maximize the potential for a greater meaning (Fire) to present itself.

One sees from the preceding type of discussion that the Air element is complicated, having to do with polarities, reversals, complements, opposites, reciprocals, and multiple simultaneous levels.  One simply has to look to the movements of warm and cool masses of air in the atmosphere to notice that it is precisely these qualities that permeate and rule climate and weather.  Yet the whole system of weather is driven by a principle beyond the atmosphere itself: the sun.


37: Back A further level of analysis shows the Air quality of the thinking present in this passage.  Sensitivity is precisely the capacity developed and expressed in Air.  Contemplation can be examined as an exercise in which one proceeds from Earth to Water, to sit at the gates of silence in the Air, where without understanding (having given away the facts and relations into the silence), and beyond the surface, a timeless correlation between the inner and outer appears as if solidifying out of the nothingness.  Additionally, the “polyvalent symbolism” and “various interpretations” that can be made only occur when meanings are not fixed in a static way to the image or to each other, but have the quality of Air to form all potential combinations.  It is only in the next level of Fire that the polyvalence becomes resolved – we could say coagulated – in the larger context of the whole.  This digression serves to point out that de Rola, in speaking about the symbolic level of images, is actually led (consciously or unconsciously) into an Air state of thinking, and both the content and manner of his words express this unequivocally to an alchemically sensitive understanding.

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