Being Athanor

Related articles: Of Magic and Machine

The Alchemist as Cyborg

Abstract: Is an alchemist’s athanor part of her?

It was deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc
and then she clearly understood
if he was fire, oh, then she was wood.
// Leonard Cohen, “Joan of Arc”

The word cyborg first appeared in Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline’s 1960 article, “Cyborgs and Space,” as an abbreviation of cybernetic organism, referring to human-machine systems that could survive the hazards that space travel threatened the “natural” biology of humans [1]. Today, the cyborg of popular fiction re/sembles the vulgar dichotomy between mechanism and vitalism: cold metal and wires conjoined with warm flesh and blood. But cybernetics offers a theory of how mind “is not limited by the skin” [2], that is anything but monstrous or bleak, and I propose it has as much to do with the Great Work as with space travel or the body electric, and is as old as Thoth, the tongue and heart of Ra.

I don’t think this tendency towards cognitive hybridization is a modern development. Rather, it is an aspect of our humanity which is as basic and ancient as the use of speech, and which has been extending its territory ever since. [3]

As Norbert Wiener coined it in 1948, from the Greek kybernētēs for “steersman” (who pilots or navigates a vessel), cybernetics is “the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine” [4]. Control and communication because goal-oriented action (such as control of the path of a ship) requires information (where are we going, where are we now, what is the difference, and how do we close that gap; repeat until we arrive at our destination), and animal and machine because goal-oriented or purposive behavior is not limited to so-called living organisms. Wiener explains:

When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person. In other words, as far as my consciousness goes I am aware of the order that has gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come back. To me, personally, the fact that the signal in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case greatly change my relation to the signal. Thus the theory of control in engineering, whether human or animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of messages. [5]

It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback. [6]

The transmitter, signal, receiver, and especially response in Wiener’s explanation make up a feedback system. Cybernetics describes how feedback produces (brings forth) order from disorder (cf. chaos, entropy, noise). Notice the circularity in feedback, which is a recurring (!) theme in cybernetics as well as alchemy (e.g., Ouroboros), and is illustrated in Gregory Bateson’s consideration of where a blind man ends, which also speaks to the coniunctio of natural and artificial:

Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions. The stick is a pathway along which transforms of difference are being transmitted. The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable. If what you are trying to explain is a given piece of behavior, such as the locomotion of the blind man, then, for this purpose, you will need the street, the stick, the man; the street, the stick, and so on, round and round. [7]

In a sense (established by the observer who makes sense of what she observes; cf. the differentiation of forms from the First Matter), the blind man’s walking stick is part of him, and I shall now demonstrate two senses in which the alchemist’s athanor — as metaphor for her laboratory — is part of her.

Many alchemical processes require long gestation periods, and the athanor furnace was developed to maintain regular temperature and fuel supply while the alchemist attends to other matters. (Note that regulatory and autonomous behaviors are both cybernetic concepts, but I will not elaborate on them here; instead, I will focus on how the structure of the athanor is analogous to the purpose for which it was created, and how its operation informs the behavior of its operator.) The operations taking place within the belly of the machine no less than demonstrate the mysteries of alchemy. These demonstrations are the alchemist’s means for making sense of her world, for giving and finding order and integrity to it, with it, in it. She presents sulfur and mercury to the athanor, and the athanor tells her what happens when they come together. She re/cognizes allegory in the athanor’s tale, and extends the marriage of sulfur and mercury to objects that are not sulfur or mercury per se — including, perhaps, herself and the athanor.

This process of interactively discovering-inventing reality is treated explicitly in cybernetics and its epistemological constructivism [8]. Cybernetically speaking, the alchemist and athanor are structurally coupled and determined. Their inter-actions (cf. con-versations) involve changes in each which re/produce co-responding changes in the other (cf. the Hermetic Principle of Correspondence: “as above, so below”). The alchemist does something to the athanor, the athanor reacts to the alchemist’s action, the alchemist reacts to the athanor’s reaction, and so on. Each re/action occurs concurrently with structural changes in the re/actor, hence the import-ance (worth taking in) of the alchemist’s labor-atory (place of work).

Sad as it is to say, you never understand anything by merely reading a book about it. That’s why every science course includes laboratory experiments, and why every consciousness-liberation movement demands practice of yogas, meditations, confrontation techniques, etc. in which the ideas are tested in the laboratory of your own nervous system. [9]

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. [10]

The outer and the inner are one thing, one constellation, one influence, one concordance, one duration, one fruit. [11]

Now I would like to turn your attention from how the athanor is like the alchemist, to how the alchemist is like the athanor.

When the masters in alchemy say that little time and money are required to accomplish the works of science, above all when they affirm that one vessel alone is needed, when they speak of the great and unique Athanor which all can use, which is ready to each man’s hand, which all possess without knowing it, they allude to philosophical and moral alchemy. As a fact, the strong and resolute will can arrive in a short time at absolute independence, and we are all in possession of the chemical instrument, the great and sole Athanor which answers for the separation of the subtle from the gross and the fixed from the volatile. This instrument, complete as the world and precise as mathematics, is represented under the emblem of the Pentagram or five-pointed star, which is the absolute sign of human intelligence. I will follow the example of the wise by forbearing to name it: it is too easy to divine. [12]

The athanor is defined as a “self-feeding, digesting furnace, in which an equable heat is maintained.” Is not this a fairly good description of the human body? [13]

Commenting on organization (of the body) as message (cf. Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message” [14]), Wiener said, “the individuality of the body is that of a flame rather than that of a stone, of a form rather than that of a bit of substance” [15]. Paul Foster Case said, “It is the essence of fire, manifested as the human organism, which provides us with the instrument for the Great Work” [16]. What is the Great Work? “[It] is, before all things, the creation of man by himself [17], that is to say, the full and entire conquest of his faculties and his future” [18].

The ‘conquest of his faculties and future’ evokes cybernetics in the sense of Clynes and Kline and our purpose-ful use of technology to improve and extend our lives and our selves. In our “inner” laboratory, we re/combine (solve et coagula) our experiences to inform novel experiments, increasing the variety of re/actions we are capable of and wisdom to know which re/actions are appropriate to various circumstances. It suggests taking response-ability for our participation in the con-struction (building with) of the world, the “outer” laboratory. “In a piece of wood there lie concealed the forms of all animals, the forms of plants of every description, the forms of all instruments; and he [and she] who can carve them finds them” [19].

The ‘creation of man by himself’ suggests self-organization, autonomy, and autopoiesis (“self-creation”) [20], and the idea that any living organism maintains itself through operational closure (cf. hermetically sealed), feedback, and dynamic equilibrium. “Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest (let no one belong to another, who can belong to herself).” The “internal” athanor is the womb through which we are born again, of our immaculate conception (cf. incorruptible gold), not violated by “external” in-fluence (flowing in). “For it is not on paper that you will find the words to understand, but in Him [and Her] who put the words on paper” [21].

Books and newspapers, audio and videotapes, street signs and so forth do not contain information, but rather they transport potential information, and that is an important difference. If you don’t understand Chinese, the characters of the I Ching will just look like a bunch of chicken scratches on white paper. The world contains no information. The world is as it is. […] [Informed behavior] takes place in a person who has transformed a signal into a piece of information. (emphasis in original) [22] [23]

What is necessary is to recognize the nervous system as a unity defined by its internal relations in which interactions come into play only by modulating its structural dynamics, i.e., as a unity with operational closure. In other words, the nervous system does not “pick up information” from the environment, as we often hear. On the contrary, it brings forth a world by specifying what patterns of the environment are perturbations and what changes trigger them in the organism. The popular metaphor of calling the brain an “information-processing device” is not only ambiguous but patently wrong. [24]

The older point of view saw, say, an ovum grow into a rabbit and asked “why does it do this” — why does it not just stay an ovum?” The attempts to answer this question led to the study of energetics and to the discovery of many reasons why the ovum should change […] Quite different, though equally valid, is the point of view of cybernetics. It takes for granted that the ovum has abundant free energy, and that it is so delicately poised metabolically as to be, in a sense, explosive. Growth of some form there will be; cybernetics asks “why should the changes be to the rabbit-form, and not to a dog-form, a fish-form, or even to a teratoma-form?” […] Even whether the system is closed to energy or open is often irrelevant; what is important is the extent to which the system is subject to determining and controlling factors. So no information or signal or determining factor may pass from part to part without its being recorded as a significant event. Cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control — systems that are “information-tight” [cf. autonomy — J.M.]. (emphasis in original) [25]

The “outer” and “inner” athanor correspond to practical and spiritual alchemy. “There are two Hermetic operations, the one spiritual, the other material, and they are mutually dependent” [26]. Cf., “Some events have the appearance of proceeding from the outside into us, and others appear to originate within us and proceed outward. The lesson of all higher ecstasies is that this difference is arbitrary and unreal” [27].

Notes & References

  1. Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics, September 1960.
  2. Gregory Bateson, Step to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballentine Books, 1972) 454. Cf. Paracelsus: “[Man] is enclosed in a skin, to the end that his blood, his flesh, and everything that he is as a man [i.e., a Little World or microcosm] may not become mixed with the Great World [macrososm].” This agrees with the operational closure of autopoietic systems.
  3. Andy Clark, “Natural-Born Cyborgs?” Science at the Edge: Conversations with the Leading Scientific Thinkers Today (New York: Union Square Press, 2008) 73.
  4. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (New York: Wiley, 1948) 19.
  5. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (New York: Avon, 1967) 25.
  6. Ibid., p. 38.
  7. Bateson, op. cit., 459.
  8. For more about constructivism in this context, see Lynn Segal’s The Dream of Reality: Heinz von Foerster’s Constructivism, 2nd Ed. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2001).
  9. Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising (Tempe: New Falcon, 1983) 28.
  10. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (New York: Bantam, 1984) 293.
  11. Paracelsus and Jolande Székács Jacobi (Ed.), Paracelsus: Selected Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  12. Éliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual (York Beach: Weiser Books, 2001) 115.
  13. Paul Foster Case, Esoteric Keys of Alchemy (Vancouver, BC: Ishtar Publishing, 2006) 11.
  14. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Mentor, 1964) 23. Cf. Paracelsus: “the shape of man is formed in accordance with the manner of his heart.”
  15. Wiener, op. cit., p. 139. Cf. p. 130: “It is the pattern maintained by homeostasis which is the touchstone of our personal identity. Our tissues change as we live: the food we eat and the air we breathe become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and the momentary elements of our flesh and bone pass out of our body every day with our excreta. We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides but patterns that endure.” Cf. also, “Pythagoras stood for inquiry into pattern rather than inquiry into substance,” in Bateson, op. cit., p. 449.
  16. Case, op. cit.
  17. Cf. the Tetragrammaton and Exodus 3:14: “I am that I am.”
  18. Lévi, op cit., p. 113.
  19. Paracelsus, op. cit.
  20. For more about autopoiesis, see Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowlegde: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Revised Ed. (Boston: Shambhala, 1987).
  21. Paracelsus, op. cit.
  22. Heinz von Foerster and Bernhard Poerksen, Understanding Systems: Conversations on Epistemology and Ethics (New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 2002) 96.
  23. Cf. Von Foerster’s Hermeneutic Principle: “The hearer, not the speaker determines the meaning of an utterance,” in Sara B. Jutoran, “The Process from Observed Systems to Observing Systems,” Nova Southeastern University School of Humanities and Social Sciences 26 Nov. 2008.
  24. Maturana and Varela, op. cit., p. 169.
  25. W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1957) 4.
  26. Lévi, op cit.
  27. Peter J. Carroll (talking about the magical wand and cup as will and perception), Liber Null and Psychonaut (Boston: Weiser, 1987) 188.

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