In honour of tradition: “Lords and Ladies, learned and lewed, and all those who reject or object to those stated binaries!”
“Stated binaries,” in fact, will be the focus of this blog post. This week’s readings, including the tough discussions circulating lately on the blog, has got me thinking about the nature of boundaries, subjectivity and anthropomorphism, and our notions of change and becoming, all of which seem to be predominant themes developing across our readings in this class.
I’m interested in the ways that alchemy simultaneously constructs and dismantles binaries. Alchemical experiments seem to rely on the dissolution of opposites in order to work towards a unity in the philosopher’s stone. The Canon’s Yeoman gleefully lists all the various, and sometimes absurd, ingredients he gathers and attempts to combines in order to achieve his purpose; the ingredients of “asshes, donge, pisse, and cley” (807) and “cley maad with hors or mannes heer” seem unrelated, yet combining them in a laboratory suggests that they have at least enough of a sameness in order to produce the philosopher’s stone (what, after all, would seem remarkable about humans alongside ashes and dung?). This idea of sameness—that no ingredient is too unlike the other—reflects the premise of the philosopher’s stone, which relies on the theory that base metals can be transformed into gold because all metals fundamentally share the same material. Although binaries normally suggest some kind of imposed hierarchy, alchemy seems to undermine these very hierarchies by suggesting that differences can be dissolved into a single, perfected unity. Indeed, the alchemist, who himself is the “God” of the laboratory, is both distinct from and yet dangerously entangled with the natural processes that he recreates in his experiments. If alchemy fails in its ultimate purpose of creating the philosopher’s stone or elixir, it does seem to achieve another kind of transmutation—that of the human self. For instance, the Yeoman’s face is deprived of natural colour, the Canon grows secretive and paranoid, and the Yeoman’s audience is captivated by the cryptic language of alchemical literature. The failure to produce the philosopher’s stone is enough to drive alchemists mad and to the state of poverty, and even the laboratory conditions within which alchemists work are extremely volatile and, as related by the Yeoman, often beyond the alchemist’s own control.
Ingold’s chapter seems to reflect the alchemist’s own intuition that the world is in flux and in a constant state of becoming. While anthropomorphism tends to assert these kinds of boundaries between the self and the natural world, these comparisons also suggest the reverse possibility that humans are just as changeable as stones and metals and, indeed, powerless to these transmutations. I’m not sure if medieval alchemy quite embodies the animistic worldview that Ingold outlines, but I think that it does helpfully open up a way to begin considering it. Perhaps the practices and literature surrounding alchemy has animism’s imaginative capacity to dissolve binaries and draw unlikely comparisons. It’s interesting, then, to consider that while alchemy offered the alluring fantasy of hierarchy, control, and insight into “Godis preuite” (“Verses Upon the Elixir” 93), it also enabled another kind of escapist fantasy of human transformation and participation in the “lives” of minerals and metals. This kind of fantasy, to my mind, seems to be a loss of control, if anything.
The following link has a helpful visual depiction of the transmutation of metals into the philosopher’s stone (not strictly the processes occurring in “Versus Upon the Elixir,” but similar). Notice how they are all visualized anthropomorphically: http://www.alchemywebsite.com/Emblems_MS_Cabala_Mineralis01.html
And, perhaps to think about the allure of alchemy and its obsessive desire to combine and create, I’ll leave you with a rather addicting game: https://littlealchemy.com/