The elements in the crucible of the classroom combine in a specific way to transform my base comprehension of alchemy into something precious, something new; new interpretations for alchemy. The transmutation of knowledge was as deliberate as any alchemist in a lab mixing elements to transform metals with both students and teacher as alchemists attempting to create something of value. The purpose of this paper is two part. First, to introduce and validate organic and intellectual alchemy by showing the similarities with traditional alchemy. Next, I will attempt to demonstrate that while the similarities within these interpretations are how I relate to alchemy, the differences in value, personal cost, and availability of both creation and elements is what defines that value and ultimately, these versions of alchemy as transmutations, not replications of alchemy.
At first, I had a great aversion to the study of alchemy. It was very foreign to me and the idea of taking something and attempting to change it into something better bothered me. Also, I am a lover of nature and I mistakenly thought that to accept alchemy was to betray nature. I had the idea that to embrace alchemy, one had to concede that synthetic could equal or transcend nature. So, while I acknowledged that great things had been accomplished through the alchemist’s attempts to recreate or improve nature, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to transcend nature. Not to mention the idea of individuals spending all of their time and wealth trying to find a way to get more time and wealth seemed ridiculous to me. Alchemy seemed so remote and slightly ridiculous to me until our third class session when we listened to Judy Collins sing William Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aegeus,” talked about James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Way,” and Dr. Evans Smith discussed the idea of the artist as an alchemist. All of a sudden, this topic which seemed so foreign took on a whole new meaning and became relatable. Alchemy isn’t just a quest for everlasting life or how to make gold, it can be about change and creation.
Suddenly, I could relate to alchemy. I enjoy art and while I am not by any means an artist, the idea of transforming colors or raw materials into something better, something beautiful is familiar to me unlike the mixing of metals. The attempt of art is to take raw materials and create something of value is like the alchemist taking base metals and mixing them in different combinations to solve the mystery of the puzzle to make gold. Affecting change on the canvas or on a lump of clay and creating something of value can be argued to be a form of alchemy. To differentiate this form of alchemy, I will call it organic alchemy because even though it is deliberate; it is not the traditional alchemy of crucibles and laboratories. To take the idea of organic alchemy a step further, I found I could relate to organic alchemy through my role as a parent.
The alchemical process didn’t stop there with my understanding of and relating to alchemy. From traditional alchemy to organic alchemy, I thought I should also include what I will call intellectual alchemy. While an artist affects physical change on raw materials, so too does an author take mere words and create whole new worlds. This change happens within the mind, it is not a physical creation like with traditional and organic alchemy but it is a conscious attempt to change and create. Authors aren’t the only people to practice intellectual alchemy, I will show that teachers are intellectual alchemists, and we use selected materials to create knowledge and understanding within a specific topic.
The concept of organic alchemy became relatable through my misinterpretation of the William Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and because of the name of the character from “Finnegan’s Way.” I like to call it a miss-interpretation because I saw the poem through the female lens, specifically through the lens of motherhood. It may have been because it was sung by a female or because I have recently become a mother to a little girl or most likely, both of these elements come into play. While the poem is a love poem of a man to a woman, I read it as a poem from mother to daughter. In this reading, the mother is the organic alchemist and her precious creation is her child. Like an alchemist, so engrossed in their pursuit for gold, this misinterpretation was so powerful and resonating with me, I did not even stop to think of any other interpretation until I started to do research. I do know this was not Yeats’ meaning when writing this poem but the alchemical process from adding this poem, having it sung so beautifully by Judy Collins and heating it in the crucible of my mind made this interpretation of the poem and alchemy. Here is my miss-interpretation of the poem as it relates to organic alchemy and parenting:
“I WENT out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,”
Here we have a deliberate capitalization of the word WENT, the act is deliberate, it is the authors decision to actively make a change. To start the change, “she” goes out into the hazel woods, hazel is associated with creativity. The author wants to make a change through creation and the fire in the head is how the crucible gets heated. Here it is like parenting since it is with the deliberate act of trying to have a child, the parent thinks they will create something more precious than gold and better than themselves.
“And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;”
Here the interpretation is purely personal. Fishing and especially by using a stick and berry makes me think of fishing with my grandfather as a child and fishing with my son now. He taught me to value simple things, like a homemade fishing pole and we always fished with salmon eggs which are small, red and round and look like little berries. He instilled in me a love of fishing and an appreciation of nature as a small child and I hope to do that for my children and grandchildren. It makes me think of so many generations constantly trying to create something better than themselves.
“And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,”
The moths are out so it is still dark outside and they are white, pure and new. The next line with moth-like stars flickering out actually indicates that it is during a time of transition from night to early morning, the beginning of a new day. This relates to the beginning of the alchemical process of creation.
“I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.”
Since the berry makes me think of fishing with salmon eggs it makes sense that these lines relates to biology of creating a child. The egg that the author drops into the stream is her own and the stream which represents the father’s contribution also represents change because it is always moving. It isn’t just putting these two elements together that creates the new precious material it is putting them with something that combines and changes. The trout is the child and like a little silver trout, a small baby is slippery and wriggly when it is pulled from the stream, the place where the elements combined and transformed or born.
“When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,”
Here it the author lays the creation on the floor and goes to the work of getting the fire started. I live in the mountains and our primary source of heat is a wood stove so I often set my daughter on the floor with some toys and make a fire for us. To me, these lines represent how quickly the time goes by as a parent, people often say it’s like they blinked and the child had grown. Which is represented in the next six heartbreaking lines, the moment you turn your back the child is grown and speaking your name. Then she is a glimmering girl who calls your name, she is has a blossom in her hair so she is already a child. Next she calls your name and runs and fades away through the brightening air. Children as they grow naturally pull away from their parents and eventually move away and create their own life and family and into the brightness of the future.
“But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.”
I could not accept the interpretation of the author’s daughter growing to the point that she fades away into the future but that was reconciled through the next six lines:
“Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done”
The author says if this separation from her daughter were to occur to she would wander the earth to find her and kiss her lips and take her hands and walk with her until time and times are done – how breathtaking is that? I see no comment is needed on these lines, they stand so beautifully on their own.
‘The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.”
The last two lines I interpreted as showing that this poem is both personal and universal. An apple is literally a fruit, the product of the parent. It is also round and contains the seeds for the future, a continuation of life through the generations, an attempt to have a part live on forever. Silver and moon represent the female and the golden and sun represent the male. I saw two possible interpretations for the male and female. The surface interpretation that they represent the parents that created the child but it could also be showing that this poem and its sentiments are universal. Since the apples are the fruit that will transform and holds the future then they are the children so this poem relates to how mothers feel to all their children, their silver daughters and golden sons, precious metals and precious creations. This is organic alchemy, a deliberate transformation of two base elements to create something precious.
Sometimes as with alchemy when the elements mix, they do not make a better creation. There are sometimes problems like mental illness which was the case for James Joyce and his daughter, the writer of “Finnegan’s Way.” As pointed out in the lecture in class, Joyce may have intentionally named his character Nuvoluccia to try to transform his daughter through a different kind of alchemy. Intellectual alchemy, changing something through the mind, he remade his daughter Luccia without the schizophrenia as the New Luccia. The artist as an alchemist. Parenting is also so much more than the organic alchemy of creating through the combining of elements, it is also very much a long process of intellectual alchemy. The parent is like an alchemist toiling away for endless hours, often into the middle of the night to effect the transformation from themselves into something better. They try many different elements to effect change in order for the child to transform and improve. This is also like teaching.
The teacher is an intellectual alchemist. They take a selection of elements and combine them into something new and valuable. Had Dr. Smith not combined the exact elements of the poem, the song, and the interpretation of the artist as alchemist, I would not have made such a lasting personal connection to alchemy, which to me is gold. A transformation occurred intellectually that was purely intellectual but it was a combination of elements that created something new and better. The thing that is beautiful about intellectual alchemy is the ability for it to be shared with many people at once. For each student, there is a different creation based on what they bring to the crucible classroom. Each element is necessary for that exact transformation because they each add something to the mix so it is like a recipe in alchemy, attempting to mix the elements for something precious. The teacher like the alchemist toils away night and day over the betterment of their recipes and creations, always striving to improve their lessons and products they create. They also have to choose between the many elements of texts to assign and materials to be included and left out. The teacher, like the alchemist, has an endless combination of elements to experiment and attempt to make a precious creation. The creation of something precious, gold and silver apples.
This leads us to value, how do we determine what is precious and how does availability of creation and elements transform value within the three methods of alchemy, traditional, organic, and intellectual. First to look at what is valued, what is the precious creation the alchemist is pursuing and what elements does the alchemist implement in that pursuit. Next by looking at the availability of the elements and products and how this defines value within each form and inevitably separates each practice of alchemy.
In traditional alchemy there are two primary pursuits, gold and endless life. Both of these are limited which gives them high value. They also both have attractive qualities that give them obvious desirability. Gold equaled wealth and to possess gold was to have wealth which represented comfort, stability, protection, and power. Who doesn’t want all of that? The problem is that if gold could be created, it would no longer be limited. In this case, success in the creation of the precious metal would devalue the gold because it would no longer be limited. The same applies to the other quest in traditional alchemy, life. Part of what makes life so valued is that it is limited. We cherish the time we have specifically because we don’t know how much we have but we do know it is limited.
The elements used to pursue these precious creations are unlimited. Alchemists used combinations of metals, in different amounts, using different shaped crucibles with various heats to attempt to create gold. They used elements from nature and basically any combination they suspected could lead to the universal elixir. The elements for creating the precious goal had an unlimited supply because there were endless combinations. Compared to the goal, the elements have little value but many alchemists spent fortunes chasing the precious outcomes. The personal cost was high even if the elements are unlimited, the acquirement of the elements and the necessary equipment came at a large cost. The cost was not important to the alchemist because the goal was so valuable and to achieve it was worth the great cost. To give an example of personal cost and value, I will relate my current situation.
As I write this, I have my six-month-old daughter sleeping on my lap. It isn’t ideal but it is limited. While it would be easier if I could put her in her bed and type more comfortably, her desire to be with me is endearing. Part of me enjoys holding her as I write. I know that it won’t be forever that she will be sleeping on my lap. Too soon she will be the small girl with an apple blossom in her hair. Because it is limited, I embrace it and enjoy what I can but if it was endless it would lose value. As pretty as it may sound in poetry, if I were actually to hold her all the time until the end of time, it would lose the endearing quality. The ability to endure through the personal costs like back pain and difficulty doing most any task is due to the fact that it will not last forever. It is for only a short time so while it can at times be difficult, it is something of high value. If it was to be endless, it would lose value. Time with children is especially limited, they are growing and becoming more independent progressively through time. This gives childhood and children value because it has defined limits that can only be kept by transforming them into intellectual creations through memory.
For organic alchemy, specifically parenting, the elements are limited and as a consequence, so is the creation. For women, the limitations and personal cost are much higher so motherhood often has higher value in many societies. In American society, parenthood and the creation of a family is the highly sought after quest of many unsuspecting organic alchemists. They desire to create something new and better by using the elements of self and partner which makes them organic alchemists. Art is organic alchemy and parenting is part organic, part intellectual alchemy.
Intellectual alchemy differs from the first two interpretations of alchemy because it does not produce a tangible product. An author may write their words on a page, transmuting them into something that exists within the world but the actual process of creation in writing is purely intellectual. Teaching can also be a form of intellectual alchemy with the goal of transmutation of knowledge. Besides not having a tangible precious creation, intellectual alchemy has the added distinction of multiple alchemists. I would argue that both the teachers and the students are the alchemists and the elements. The teacher is the head alchemist, the one that chooses the elements to include in the lesson but the students are also working toward the goal of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Intellectual alchemy is unique since it requires at least two alchemists and the transmutation which occurs in the minds of the alchemists.
Knowledge while not tangible, is highly valued. The elements used to create it are endless but at the same time, limited. The teacher as an alchemist has a wide assortment of materials for the procurement of knowledge but it is also limited by circumstance. Teachers can only assign so much reading which means with each element they are choosing to add, they are choosing to leave something else behind. Also, each individual brings their own set of elements with experience and interpretation to the material. For each person in the room, knowledge is usually acquired but it is different for eachc individual. Intellectual alchemy is the easiest to successfully practice but the results are never the same. The precious goal in this alchemy is attained and still valued.
This is a major break from the other interpretations of alchemy. Intellectual alchemy increases in value as it is shared. The knowledge created does not lose value from multiplication because it is still precious and unique to each individual. The personal cost of knowledge leads us back to traditional alchemy, time. All of these things cost us time. While science has managed to extend the time we have on this earth, it is still limited and that limitation is unknown to us. Time, our most precious resource which has yet to be produced by the alchemists will remain the common thread to all that is precious because it is the only thing that truly can’t be replaced. It can be transformed into memory and story telling but not duplicated.
Smith, Evans Lansing. “The Romanticism to Postmodernism.” Third Session: Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpenteria. 8 Nov. 2014. Lecture.
Yeats, William. “Poetry Archive | Poems.” Poetry Archive | Poems. 1 Jan. 1899. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <http://www.poetry-archive.com>.
Collins, Judy, and William Yeats. “Judy Collins – Golden Apples of the Sun.” YouTube. 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alIUW_JY03I>.