Tuesday, May 26, 2015

20 Books to get started in alchemical studies

Q: Is there like one book on alchemy I can read to get an overview of the subject?

A: Yes and no. There are a few great surveys and introductory books, but the field is too vast and the interpretations too varied to fit in just one.

Here are 20 important books that survey different aspects of the topic, from physical chemistry to armchair theory and practical esotericism.

I'm ranking these books roughly in order of how early in your course of study I'd recommend reading them.

1. Lawrence Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy. Magisterial survey from one of the leading scholars in the field. Check out his Teaching Company lectures on the History of Science, which include a few lectures focusing on alchemy in Islam, Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

2. William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions. This is a great introduction to some of the key themes of alchemy as it relates to key concerns in science. Fans of the homonculus will especially dig it. See also Newman's many articles, or watch him in various videos like the History Channel alchemy program and "Newton's Dark Secrets".

3. Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum. Fine production by the great artbook publisher Taschen of alchemical emblems and their influences in mysticism and art.

4. Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola, The Golden Game. The author, who if I've heard right is a Count of some kind, goes by the nickname "Stash" and had a special relationship with The Rolling Stones. Here he demonstrates his esoteric erudition, collecting black and white prints of the Seventeenth century, when a decidedly mystical and mythological dimension was added to the already complex symbolism of alchemical textmakers.

5. Bruce Moran, Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Great introduction to the philosophical issues that plaed out in debates over alchemy, chemistry, and medicine during the early history of the scientific revolution.

6. Stanton J. Linden, The Alchemy Reader. Introductory anthology of texts in translation, perfect for students in presenting a survey of short texts introduced with historical and literary contexts.

7. Pamela Smith, The Business of Alchemy. Pioneering exploration of the place of alchemists in society through social and economic modes of history. See also her gargantuan "Body of the Artisan."

8. Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Exciting demonstration of the use of historical sources like trial records and contracts as well as the usual alchemical texts, opens a lot of doors in the "history from below" of artisans and merchants as they interacted with alchemists.

9. Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. This was my first book on alchemy, lent to me by my Shakespeare professor Richard Levin. I'd like it better if there was more explicit citation of the traditions she's summarizing, but it's the best place to look for explanations of the basic themes, symbols, and ideas of alchemy.

10. Rafael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists. Deep survey of the roles that alchemy has played in Judaism, including the magical associations it had for a maverick kabbalist from the circle of Luria, and context on the enigmatic letter-number symbolism of the text Aesch Mezareph.

11. Peter Forshaw, Essays on Academia.edu. Forshaw's important essays are breaking a great deal of ground in the study of Khunrath, who is critical for the understanding of "Spiritual Alchemy" in that era. We look forward to his book, supposedly coming soon, but for now we have a book worth of essays illuminating various aspects and contexts of early modern alchemy.

12. C.G. Jung, Alchemy and Psychology. Classic study of the psychology of Christian esoteric or spiritual alchemy, although not so much as a guide to the history of science dimensions. He wrote some other books on Alchemy but I won't get into that rabbit hole here.

13. Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola, Alchemy: The Secret Art. Survey of alchemical imagery and spirituality imbued with the spirit of 60s occultism. Very suggestive and good introduction to the art.

14. Adam McLean, The Alchemical Mandala. Exploration of the emblems as meditation guides, this is an interesting interpretation of the visual art of alchemy, which has certainly been used by mystics to do visionary work for centuries, this is less reliable as a historical study but very suggestive especially if you're interested in the art side of alchemy. See also his Alchemy Website, a dynamite resource.

15. Arthurian Myths and Alchemy. Another angle on the history of alchemical imagery, an exploration of the role alchemy played in a royal court that looks at at royal propaganda and representation and the context of the alchemical interests of the king's advisors--including George Ripley!

16. Adam McLean, Splendor Solis. One of the most beautiful texts of alchemy, worth studying deeply and deserving of a more comprehensive study (but this is a nice start). See also his Commentary on the Mutus Liber.

17. William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton. Secrets of Nature: Alchemy and Astrology in Early Modern Europe. Vital essays on the links that Renaissance authors found between alchemy and astrology as legitimate modes of exploring natural philosophy, essential for understanding how early modern mentalities really worked--in order to clear up myths about the birth of science.

18. Barbara Obrist, Les debuts de l'imagerie alchimique: XIVe-XVe siecles. Pioneering work on alchemical imagery by a leading scholar. If you can't read French there is an essay in English by Obrist available online.

19. The Quest for the Phoenix: Spiritual Alchemy and Rosicrucianism in the Work of Michael Maier. Valuable historical researches into the biography and thinking of Michael Maier that is unfortunately marred by some historiographical polemic that misunderstand the positions of scholars like Newman and Principe, this book is still very useful for students of spiritual alchemy and its 17th century emblems.

20. Allen Debus, The Chemical Philosophy: Paraclesian Science and Medicine. Pioneering and magisterial study of the role that alchemy played in the history of medicine, by the late dean of alchemical studies. Debus is a towering figure who has opened up the field of Paracelsianism to English-language scholars. See also his Man and Nature in the Renaissance, a fantastic survey of Renaissance history of science topics for students.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Call for Papers - alchemy and magic

Call for Papers

Twice Upon a Time: Magic, Alchemy and the Transubstantiation of the Senses’
26 – 27 June, 2014
To be held at CFAR, The School of Art, Margaret Street, Birmingham

Under the illusive cloak of magic, the curiosity of alchemists introduced a means for experimentation into the innate properties of materials.  The transformation of raw matter into precious metals, the combination of hot sulphur and wet cold mercury to birth the philosophers stone; to bring the inanimate to life, to miraculously vanish and conjure the body as well as providing a basis for the laws of substance based on sensory interaction and its potentiality. The scientific practices of today echo this inherent desire for material transformation, yet Western tradition remains cautious of unreasoned sensorial data, treating it with illusory trepidation. While this paradigm has proven an efficient methodology, it has installed a discriminatory partition between that which can be rationalised or mathematized and that which is ‘only’ sensory. These energised and sensate transformations mark the beginning of a new challenge against tradition, returning to curiosity, experimentation and the intensity of the senses away from conventional modes of thought.

The Centre for Fine Art Research (CFAR) and the Research Centre for Creative Making (S.T.U.F.F.) based at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), have joined forces to welcome papers/performances/exhibition installations that respond to magical and alchemical practices, in all their forms; including but not limited to the origins of alchemy and its contemporary relevance in science, magical performance, illusion, automata, the sensory in artificial intelligence and radical thinking in relation to concepts of time. We invite artists, scientists and philosophers to explore again the threshold between these paradigms, dwelling on curiosity and the tradition of scientific questing. By re-visiting the alchemist’s vision, we are looking for a renegotiation of the very boundary that separates the shifting representational referents in the traditional image of magic; seeking a way to extend the concept of transformation of the same (metamorphosis), rather than re-defining a realm that is allegedly beyond rationality and linguistic articulation.

Please send abstracts of no longer than 500 words to Grace.Williams@bcu.ac.uk along with a short bio.

Abstract Deadline: 25th April 2014

Speakers will be invited to have their papers peer-reviewed/ published in the forthcoming issue of the research journal Z?t?sis, due out in September 2014.

Grace Alexandra Williams
Practice-led PHD Candidate, Fine Art
Centre for Fine Art Research, CFAR
Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, BIAD

T: @GraceAWills

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A new interview with me about my work on Philip K. Dick

Occult Sentinel - Ted Hand - PKD and the Western Esoteric Tradition

Podcast Outline

Here are some tentative titles I brainstormed for a podcast miniseries to review my research.

Spiritual Alchemy and Science Podcast (main theme[s] in parentheses)

#1 historiographical problem (hard truth: not an esoteric meditation)

#2 spiritual alchemy or spiritual alchemies (good news: many ways to learn from religious aspects)

#3 do secular alchemy studies downplay religious aspects? (scope choices don't necessarily mean marginalizing)

#4 intro 16th-17th century flowering of spiritual alchemy (armchair metaphor vs. lab practice as meditation)

#5 Khunrath, Maier, and Fludd (visual treatments turning alchemy into a religion?)

#6 Alchemical Transmutations of Christian Cabala (when Alchemy met Renaissance magic...)