The Hermetic Process: Solve et Coagula
There is new interest, especially among quantum physicists, in some aspects of the Hermetic Philosophy. Perhaps that is not entirely novel since we now know that even the great Newton studied Hermeticism and practiced alchemy in secret. But the fact that he felt he had to study it “in secret” says something about the attitude of his times, and living this divided life may well have contributed to Newton’s noted irrascibility.
It has also been noted that while Einstein publicly denounced Henri Bergson’s views on time as erroneous, in private he confessed that he actually agreed with Bergson. This peculiar dividedness was recently explored by science historian Jimena Canales in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time (a video of her work is also available on YouTube).
A third example of this strange bifurcation of views is recorded in Arthur Miller’s Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung. Pauli, one of the pioneers of the quantum mechanical worldview, was a real Jekyll-and-Hyde figure — a Mr. Hyde by night and a Dr. Jekyll by day. And it was this extreme inner division that initially drew him into psychoanalysis with Carl Jung and a shared interest in the Hermetic Philosophy. Other pioneers of the quantum mechanical worldview subsequently, or coincidentally, began to confer with Jung — Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and even Einstein among them. Jean Gebser also mentions that Erwin Schrödinger also attended one or more of Gebser’s lectures on consciousness mutations, and participated in the post-lecture discussions on the matter. Jung, of course, is credited with the contemporary revival of interest in Hermeticism, and so the reasons for this new convergence of the psychological and the physical was pretty much owing to Einstein’s integration of the space and time in relativistics and subsequently to quantum synchronistics.
This renewed interest and respect (and breakthrough) for subject-object integration or complementarity, and the precedent that Jung and Pauli set for that, is also reflected in Stephon Alexander’s book The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. Alexander recounts how the Dean of Oxford Physics at the time would recommend that his students pause and read Carl Jung whenever they became obstructed or stumped by a problem in physics.
We should understand what this means. The enforced division of the self and the dichotomisation of being into rigidly segregated compartments or sectors of “subject and object” or “mind and matter” or “individual and the mass” or “private and the public”, enforced since at least Galileo and Descartes, has broken down, and with that, also, what Jean Gebser calls perspectivism or “the perspectival consciousness structure” (or “mental-rational consciousness structure”) in development since the Renaissance invention of perspective. For that was the new approach and attitude to reality, conceived as a three-dimensional spatial structure, that Galileo and Descartes formalised as a method of thinking. It was one which, to function effectively, required the radical segregation and separation of the subjective and the objective.
Many people now hold that this set the tone for the maladies of the Modern Age and the modern “Self” — the problem of “21st century schizoid man” who has become dichotomised creature divided against itself, but which is now become explosive and is coming to a head in the contemporary epidemic of what we call “cognitive dissonance” or “crisis of the individual”, or the breakdown of the personality and character structure of late modern man — ego dissolution.
What was actually enforced by this radical incision into the unity of lived life whereby it was divided between “subjects” and “objects” was the radical segregation and sectoralisation of what we call “quality” and what we call “quantity”. This vivisection of being, as it were, is formalised as dualism — as being an extreme antithesis or opposition of the spiritual and the physical, or the mind-body dichotomy. At root, it is consequence of a forcedd separation of the qualitative (and a devaluation of the qualitative or the immeasurable therewith) and the quantitative (the exaggerated valuation of quantity and the measurable). So too eternity and time (or the secular world) became radically separated and mutually estranged, even considered antitheses.
Please bear this in mind, then, for this discussion — it is the enforced segregation of the qualitative and the quantitative that is the essence of dualism and the problem of “21st century schizoid man” that has become now a crisis of the whole personality and of consciousness itself.
A few years ago, Robert Pirsig became famous for a very popular book entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig was, in those terms, our canary in a coal mine, and his book recounts his breakdown and recovery. The whole book deals with this crisis of the qualitative and the quantitative (as the title might suggest) which Pirsig frames as “romantic” and “classical” modes of consciousness. It was very much a landmark book, in some respects, because it was the autobiography of a mind become conscious of the dichotomisation and the struggle to re-integrate the qualitative and quantitative. In that sense, it is also a landmark book in the early history of what we now call “integral consciousness”, or at least an aspiration towards wholeness.
Blake’s own way of rendering the re-integration of the qualitative and quantitative aspects of being is the meaning of his “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. The marriage, as such, is a Hermetic symbol — the hieros gamos or sacred marriage — that is the final achievement of all Hermetic praxis — the Rebis. It’s symbolisation is the cosmic Androgyne as integral being. It reflects in its form the marriage of the qualitative and the quantitative.
The name “Rebis” means “It is finished” or “it is complete”, referring to the success of the Hermetic Great Work and transmutation. It is likewise this path of the “Great Work” of integration that Gebser follows in his cultural philosophy, and which he highlights as “unsere Aufgabe” — our task or our purpose. In fact, Gebser holds that the entire history of consciousness from its origins in the archaic until the present day, this “Great Work” itself — our slow, and often painful, emergence from “the cave”.
Today, this “cave” or cavern has become particularly concrete and visible as the claustrophobia of what we call “the Anthropocene”. It is that described by Blake — narcissistic mind — now made objectively real, even if as Morton’s “hyperobject”, but also described by Blake as “the Mundane Shell” or as “Ulro” or as “dark Satanic Mill”.
“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”
This is quite ironic, and quite significant, that even as we discover man’s earliest origins in the cave, we discover ourselves now in what is its global and planetary equivalent — the Anthropocene. This means, we are now ready to leave the cave for the boundlessness — that which Blake calls “infinity” or “eternity” — if we will. This is essentially what Gebser means by “accepting our fate” (Schicksal) or what Nietzsche also described as “amor fati“.
This brings us to what Gebser describes as “the double-movement” of our transitional age — one dynamic of disintegration and another countervailing dynamic of a new integration emerging from the ruins of the old structure. This paradoxical double process is essentially what is described in Hermetic Philosophy by the phrase “solve et coagula” — dissolution (or disintegration) and coagulation (Gebser’s “concretion of the spiritual”). This process describes the transmutation of the base element into the noble element with the “crucible”, very much parallel to what happens in the chrysalis stage of the larva as it mutates into the butterfly (in fact the very word “chrysalis” is related to “gold” or “golden”).
That is one way of describing the process of solve et coagula. Another way which might even be more suggestive is what happens when you shake up a kaleidoscope. Chaotic transition might well be described as being analogous to the shaking of the kaleidoscope — the fragments that cohered in an old pattern are loosened from their form by the turbulence, and yet congeal into a new mosaic pattern once the shaking stops. If you could be one of those fragments, you would think during the shake-up your whole world was disintegrating and coming to a conclusive and definitive end, but its really just the process of solve et coagula, like what occurs in the Hermeticist’s crucible — the transmutation.
The really interesting question is, if we use the metaphor of the kaleidoscope being shaken up for our present “Great Interregnum” or chaotic transition, who or what is doing the shaking? Gebser answers “it is time” — it is the “irruption of time” into our spatially-biased consciousness and perception. But since Gebser holds that time is the energy of the psyche or soul, it becomes pretty evident what he means — we ourselves, or rather our “oversoul” to borrow Emerson’s phrase, is doing the shaking. Since time is, essentially, the energy of the soul in the process of making itself manifest in order to “take place”, it is the instigator of the irruption.
So, this is what Gebser means by accepting our fate (Schicksal) since it is we ourselves who are the drivers of this fate, and the ego-consciousness (McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of attention) needs to harmonise and align itself with this intentionality of the soul to emerge, and to serve as a conduit for its emergence rather than as obstacle and hindrance. It is we ourselves who are executing this maneouvre, and this is precisely what Gebser means in saying that the fate of the Earth and humankind pivots crucially (the “crucible” again!) on our “knowing when to let happen and knowing when to make happen”. These are powerful ancient forces arising within us with “the return of the repressed”, and we either harmonise and align ourselves with them or they will roll over the ego and swallow it or crush it, resulting in what Lewis Mumford feared as “total disintegration”. The paradox is that the very same powers and forces arising within us that could prove our salvation are also the very same powers that could overwhelm and crush us. This paradoxical character of the powers is what is rendered in the Rebis symbol by the dragon upon which the Androgyne rises.
Our fate is not something external to what we ultimately are. Gebser (and Nietzsche) fully accept Heraclitus’s formula that “ethos is fate”, this inner core of what we are or what is called “the You of you”. Regardless of who or what we conclude is shaking up the kaleidoscope — God, Earth, Nature, Technology — we ourselves are the instigators and we ourselves rise or fall from the quality and character of our responses. We either rise to meet these new challenges or they will bury us.
Rosenstock-Huessy finds that the whole question of our existence and of our adequacy for existence resides in an old Biblical question that God puts to man: “Who art thou Man that I should care for thee?” And it is the appropriateness of our responses to this question and this imperative that prove the test of our fitness — our worthiness to be written into the Book of Life. The very question forces us to become conscious of ourselves — Gebser’s three questions — “who am I? where do I come from? Where am I going?”
And I am also very impressed with some today who have risen to the challenges of this primary existential question, and who, by becoming conscious in this way, are proving themselves, painfully as the case may be, of being worthy of being written into the Book of Life.
May they flourish and emerge victorious.