“Our semantic anxiety has made us forget that words, too, burn and become flesh as we speak.” James Hillman


In the Homeric Hymn we are told that Dionysus’ hair is blue, and that his eyes are blue – Dionysus, dismembered and in Hades; Dionysus, who (Heraclitus assures us) is Hades – but what we to make of the blue of his hair? An image such as this may be labyrinthine, may harbour rich depths, but these are not easily entered into. The surface of the image is not easily penetrated. If we are to plumb the depths of the image then a fault-line must be opened within the language of the image; this fault-line may only be traversed with the help of a guide. We will take the word as our guide. Taking the word as guide in its many guises is the craft of the writer; as reporter, as raconteur, as balladist, as bard, as poet, the writer’s craft is as chameleonic as the word is polymorphous. For the word is pagan; it admits no single authority. Each word holds a pantheon of associations. Each word conceals a unique genealogy, history and presence. The writer must be prepared to work upon the word if it is to guide him through the fault-line; to mine, smelt, grind and distil the word. And the writer must be prepared to be ground, dissolved and tinctured in return. Only then will the image surrender its riches. What then of the blue of Dionysus’ hair? Our answer shall rise from our method: the writer as alchemist.

The alchemists were masters of obscurity. Madmen, locked away in solitude in their laboratories, working with fire and stove, with charcoal and acid, with lead and mercury. Madmen, working upon their madness. Each practitioner sought the physical transformation of a base material, known as the prima materia, into a precious substance or jewel, conceived of as gold or pearls, elixirs or stones of wisdom. This transmutation of one substance into another was the goal of the bizarre opus recorded in the texts they left behind. These texts were designed to be instructive of their method, but are so entangled with layers of impenetrable imagery and obtuse analogy as to be almost incomprehensible, and approaching them from a strictly scientific perspective is a fruitless and bewildering task. This obtuseness is not easily explained. It certainly cannot be dismissed as incidental, or accidental, for it is characteristic of tracts from as far afield as ancient Egypt and China, as well as those of the European Renaissance; it is apparently deliberate. Perplexingly, the authors of these texts are frequently critical of those who would be deliberately esoteric. “What is the use of concealed diamonds, or a hidden treasure, to the world?” writes Bonus. “It is the innate selfishness of the human heart which makes these persons seek a pious pretext for keeping this knowledge from mankind.” The alchemist communicated his method within a web of deliberately impenetrable imagery and simultaneously decried those that would keep their knowledge from the world.

The impenetrability of the imagery must therefore communicate the method. But what method can be communicated in an unreadable text? The answer to this brings us back to the blue hair of Dionysus. An image may be fertile, may be of labyrinthine complexity, but it remains vulnerable to a shallow and singular interpretation if the surface of the image is taken to constitute its depth. Rich images are drained of vitality by poor reading. Obtuseness therefore protects the fecund depths of an image. The image, baffling comprehension, then demands time and attention. The image refuses to let the reader carelessly pass over its surface; it demands to be worked upon. The reader is tasked with searching for a fault-line, for a way in, and must identify a guide to accompany him to the threshold. The reader must mine, grind, and distil the image, just as the alchemist, in patient solitude in his laboratory, works upon his material. Subjected to such attention, the image gradually begins to surrender its secrets; the image begins to “reverberate in the imagination with meanings,” a process of echoing and association that does not give predominance to any single interpretation, but ultimately enables the image to “reveal as many depths of meaning as possible.” The image thus discloses its deepest riches in an organic manner according to its own unique nature, and the leaden opacity that initially shrouded the understanding is transmutated into a wealth of insight. This was the manner in which the alchemist communicated his method: by inviting the reader to participate in it. We will participate in it. As the alchemist worked upon the metal, so we will work upon the word. In the beginning was the Word. The prima materia shall be the word, and the word shall be blue.

Caelum: click to view the abridged version

Caelum: click to view the extended version

[Ernst Fuchs, The Anti-Laocoon]


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