In the ancient world, the magic of turning lead into gold was thought to be achieved through alchemy. What are writers trying to do but work toward some kind of alchemy through words? Strong writing and great storytelling – not always concurrent expressions – are something exquisite wrought from the ordinary.
The Prima Materia of Great Storytelling
Water. Wind. Fire. Earth. Original elements – Prima Materia – in a particular combination, in particular quantities, combined with a mystical unknown element called quintessence by some, the Philosopher’s Stone by others, were thought to turn sundry earth-bits into precious metal.
So how do writers turn word-bits into that rare, lustrous, ductile narrative commodity? Is there a secret buried beneath great storytelling and strong writing (even if not exclusively great literature) that can be made more understandable through the old ideas of alchemy?
The classical elements recur in psychological theory, Jungian in particular, where alchemy corresponds to the process of individuation.
All this translates aptly into the literary realm, and has been woven through narrative in other guises. For some authors the classical elements relate to the seasons. The weight or focus upon a given season gives birth to genre. Winter/water is satire; spring/wind is comedy; summer/fire is romance; autumn/earth is tragedy.
It is the life cycle of conception, birth, growth, and death. In maturation it’s the stages that take us from dependency to initiation to mating to mortality.
In storytelling, just as it is in the specific process – the Magnum Opus or Great Work – that creates the Philosopher’s Stone or unknown element, precedence of order matters. In every great narrative, the crux of strong writing depends upon beginning in the right place. And if alchemy is really an expression of the universal and the primal, a structural truth springing organically from something that has existed in us since first consciousness – then the beginning, it seems, is really an end.
The Process of Great Storytelling
The generative phase of the Great Work is that of Nigredo. In the realm of classical elements, this is the earth constituent, represented by the Hippocratic humour of black bile – melancholy. Necessarily, this aspect of the mystical alchemic process is the decomposition of the ordinary and the known, the lead. It is the chaos before creation. It is autumnal, the cyclical space wherein the past is in ruin but the future remains beyond reach. It is tragedy. It’s the spiritual death without which there can be no rebirth. For Jung, this was a confrontation with Shadow, the concealed subconscious aspect of Self. For Freud: Apocalypse, the breaking up and breaking down of the known.
It’s possible that this beginning place seems so natural in literature because it corresponds with the origins of our very existence: the beginning is the void. It’s what precedes the Big Bang, and the nothingness before creation and before birth; it is the nothingness without which the eventuation of human existence would have been impossible.
From the the Book of Genesis to The Satanic Verses, great narratives begin with void – of the soul, the psyche, the city, society, civilization, the personal life, the political and ideological life.
This is more than just a character who wants something, as writing advice often suggests. Writers who want a shot at something greater than invisible-making work must dig into the profundity of the void, what it looks like (deeply, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, existentially), how we share it, and how it translates into narrative. Jung’s Shadow occupies this space: it is the face of identity turned as much away from the self as the public, and its awakening triggers the ruin of the known self. Pull a scratch-n-sniff level excavation, or go full-bore into the bowels of human experience; how far depends on the writer’s capabilities and will. The richness and value to the reader(s) will be a matter of what’s been tapped, and how.
In Crime and Punishment, the void is ever-present in the bleakness of pre-Bolshevist Russian society, but the void is also – simultaneously – the looming presence of radicalism that forms in answer to Raskolnikov’s social reality. In every description is a suggestion that Raskolnikov is a product of a gaping social and ideological blackness. It is already in him, psychically formed of the Intelligentsia ideal like a pustule. It’s in the physical filth and greyness. It’s in the man who beats his horse to death as much as it is in the reactions of those who witness it. From the outset Raskolnikov is the embodiment of spiritual, intellectual, and social putrefaction. His choices are society’s choices. His actions are those of a man who has broken open the breach of false selfhood and recognized his own Shadow. He murders because his intellectual superiority makes him fit to judge the moral worth of another human being. So says the mask-self. But as Raskolnikov comes to understand his Shadow self he accepts what truly underlies his murderous side.
Similarly, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables enters a time and place already in the process of destruction. But more importantly, he is France’s benumbed conscience, the nowhere place out of which the future of France will be born. He is a grown-up construct of the society that gave birth to him, that made it possible for him to become a hardened criminal to begin with. On a dark and solitary road he begins to awaken to his Shadow self.
The Magnus Opus’ Albedo (white) phase is a purification of lead into silver. Water is the element. It is winter, and satire. The decomposed remains from the generative phase are washed through into two predominant opposing principles. Of the humours, Albedo corresponds with a phlegmatic temperament – unemotional, stolid, calm. For Jung the splitting is between the psychological Anima and Animus – unacknowledged femaleness and unacknowledged maleness that must finally communicate to achieve wholeness and eventually a fully individuated Self. It is Freud’s Deluge among the archetypal motifs.
No better literary exemplar for this idea of splitting and opposing principles can be found than A Tale of Two Cities. The famous opening lines foreshadow the ways in which England and France, London and Paris, and Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay come to represent social, ideological, and political cleansing, and the distillation of self and identity – all in opposition. They query the provenance of human and cultural development. They are at once forces that both compete and complete.
Nothing as common or predictable as a simple ablution will metamorphose the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even with strong writing and strong storytelling this holds true, and it’s what divides good from great.
In narrative, to misunderstand the core of this transcendent movement is to derail storytelling and character development. It’s to continue the trajectory of the ordinary, or to make an auspicious beginning only to lose narrative footing by attenuating its potential right back to ordinary.
Exactly where this moment occurs in a narrative is part of storytelling’s quintessence.
Citrinitas represents the yellow bile of the humours – elemental fire. Yellow bile is choleric, aggressive. In this phase an alchemic transmutation by fire occurs, where silver transforms into gold. Of the Jungian archetypes, fire is the Wise Elder or Senex. For Freud it’s Creation.
In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz, both obliquely through the idea of him and directly with the eerily brilliant but dying Kurtz, changes Marlow. Most would argue that Kurtz is the evil genius archetype but the transformation of gold in this alchemic phase does not necessitate a gentle, coddling Wise Elder. It demands a catalyst for a trial by fire. That Kurtz is the evil genius is only one aspect of his own evolution into demigod and chieftain, a self-styled and perverse redaction of the Senex, but his role in the narrative is no less that of the Wise Elder for his depraved contribution to Marlow’s development. In fact, it might be argued that only Kurtz’ personal and projected dissonance with his own embodiment of “horror” could hold the power to purify Marlow’s Self.
Finally, signifying success in the alchemic process is the unity of the quintessence with the newly rarefied gold. This phase is called Rubedo. The element is air, and the Hippocratic humor is that of blood or sanguinity. It’s Jung’s archetypal Self. The importance of this coalescence lies in the representation of red in both components of this final stage – gold and quintessence – and thus the unity of opposites; it’s material with immaterial, body with spirit, effable with ineffable; it’s a signal completion of the Magnum Opus and the fully individuated or actualized Self. As a Freudian archetypal motif: Unity.
Not all alchemic endings are happy, but they must ring true to the process that generates them. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the moment when Dorian stabs his own portrait symbolizes a confrontation between what he has learned of himself and what he has become. Only death can provide true unity. The metaphoric and symbolic synthesis is not just concluded through the redness of blood, it is made choate.
Raskolnikov and Sidney Carton choose self-sacrifice – that of freedom and that of life, respectively, to substantiate the unity between the past self and the discovered Self.
To some extent, all great stories contain elements of the alchemic. As humans, our very existence – our lives – play out that paradigm. Throughout literary history it seems to have always cohered with readers, and likely always will.
Perhaps this sheds some light on the qualities that make stories relatable and memorable. For writers, that is the eternal mystery. Its revelation lies both in the cosmic and quantum matter of human experience, that existential site either too big or too small to understand except in pieces, where we and our stories become one.
Writers must find that place, interpret its alchemic Prima Materia, then assimilate them in just the right way, in the right quantities, in the right order, weighted precisely, then – gold.
Other posts by Sandra Chmara: