Alchemy and Psychoanalysis – The Synthesis of a Multitude of Truths

Ora penso invece che il mondo sia un enigma benigno, che las nostra follia rende terribile perché pretende di in interpretarlo secondo la propria verità.

-Umberto Eco, “Il Pendolo di Foucault”


There exists a book, rarely cited and even less often studied, originally published in German in 1914 as Probleme der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik by Viennese psychoanalyst Herbert Silberer. It was translated into English three years later by Smith Ely Jelliffe, a prominent neurologist, book collector, and early adopter of Freudian psychoanalysis who lived and practiced in New York City. Whether due to its author’s early death by suicide at age forty or the work’s unusual nature, it exists as either a footnote in history (as a major influence on Silberer’s famous colleague Carl Jung) or as an obscure volume of esoterica. Its relegation to such obscurity is unfortunate as the book attempts something highly unusual in an academically minded work. Silberer, in an elegant conference of content, form, and function, expresses his thesis not only in plain words but in the overall structure of the book in its entirety. Equal parts artistic expression, mystic work, and academic proposal, Silberer’s curious volume has faded under the shadow of the work it inspired and remains tantalizingly obscure in its academic context. I put forth my own analysis, which is in truth an analysis of an analysis, that I hope will enlighten readers to Silberer’s forgotten contributions and enthralling technique.

Psychoanalysis itself was a controversial field at the time Silberer was participating in it. Fighting for scientific and clinical recognition, its founder Freud considered any fanciful uses of the technique to endanger the practice as a whole. This, among other disagreements, led directly to Jung and Freud’s falling out and may have also driven Silberer to suicide (having received similar harsh criticism from Freud as Jung). Himself undeterred, Jung refused to give up his own mystic leanings and continued to develop and publish a vast array of works on alchemy, including his final book Mysterium Coniunctionis. In it, he directly credits Silberer: “Herbert Silberer has the merit of being the first to discover the secret threads that lead from alchemy to the psychology of the unconscious.” (555) Earlier in the Mysterium, Jung recognizes Silberer’s correct characterization of alchemy as “symbolical” (457). It is in its consistent use of symbols instead of explicit tenets throughout its long and complicated history that alchemy relates to the human mind. While at first Silberer’s application of the new psychoanalytic field to the archaic alchemical texts seems bizarre and incongruous, he frames it in such a way that his reader can’t help but follow him on such an unusual path.

          The central conceit of Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism (continuing to refer to it by its title in English for the sake of clarity) is applying psychoanalytic techniques to an alchemical parable. Silberer opens the book via a short introduction followed by the parable in full. The next section is a brief explanation of Freudian psychoanalysis as applied to dream and myth interpretation. This completes Part I. Part II, the most crucial in prefiguring Silberer’s rhetorical technique, is titled “Analytic Part” and consists of five sections: Psychoanalytic Interpretation of the Parable, Alchemy, The Hermetic Art, Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, and The Problem of Multiple Interpretation. Part III, the “Synthetic Part”, is three sections with the first divided into three subsections (to be detailed later). The overall structure is logically organized; the first part introduces the parable and the psychoanalytic technique that Silberer intends to apply to it, the second part analyzes the parable in three different ways (sections I-III) followed up with some historical context (section IV) before positing that the multiple perspectives can by synthesized (section V). The third Part follows through with that synthesis concluding with Silberer’s final goal. While not being a particularly long book, the English version ending at 443 pages including the bibliography, it is densely packed with information and analysis. In addition, despite its clear structure, Silberer often seems to get off topic and explore tangentially related ideas. The result is a difficult read for anyone unfamiliar with either psychology or hermetic philosophy, though Silberer provides enough context for the dedicated novice to follow along. An audience interested in clinical application will find the work lacking in any scientific rigor. The mystically inclined will likewise find it too intellectual and academically grounded. For who then is the work intended for? Despite failing to tailor the book to any one audience, it is crafted for anyone interested in Silberer’s goal, that of “The Royal Art”, and to encourage them to pursue it as he has.

          To reduce what Silberer means when he champions for “The Royal Art”, as he calls it, to a simple definition does little justice to what took an entire book to elucidate. Generally, Silberer’s intention when he discusses this final goal is in “the perfection of mankind” or the “freeing of the will” in a similar sense to what mystics and spiritualists mean when they talk of enlightenment (378). While others in early psychoanalytic circles, Freud chief among them, were quick to dismiss such goals and application of their intellectual endeavors, I propose that Silberer’s goal and technique are much more broadly applicable and significant than that of a purely religious or mystical interpretation. Choosing between reason and mysticism is a false dichotomy. Rejecting something outright because it isn’t purely logical or doesn’t fit with a particular worldview is anathema to genuine intellectual development. Silberer doesn’t ignore history, logic, reason, or science in his analysis of alchemy. He argues that each facet must be understood individually and then synthesized to reach true insight. While his own final conclusion has a noticeably mystical quality, it is not the conclusion that an individual reaches but the process in which they explore certain questions that is most valuable. Silberer expresses this exact point explicitly in the final pages of Problems of Mysticism and throughout the entire book as an active expression of the principle:

To each person symbols represent his own truth. To every one they speak a different language. No one exhaust them. Every one seeks his ideal chiefly in the unknown. It matters not so much what ideal he seeks, but only that he seeks one. Effort itself, not the object of the effort, forms the basis of development. No seeker begins his journey with full knowledge of the goal. (415)

Understanding the author’s intent urges the reader to return to the beginning of the text with a new perspective. In this recursive reframing, Silberer’s book resembles one of alchemy’s most prominent symbols, the ouroborus, the snake or dragon biting its own tail. Whether the allusion was intentional or not, this sort of interpretation is precisely what Silberer invites his reader to explore.

Two crucial topics remain to understand The Problems of Mysticism: synthesis and symbolism. Symbols and how they function within the human mind are what Silberer analyzes and synthesis is the process he uses to extract meaning from them. He discusses symbols at length, not only explaining those contained in the parable but also how symbolism in general functions within his “Royal Art”: “The symbols of all the lofty spiritual religious communities, for which the royal art presents itself as a paradigm or exemplar, put before us, as it were, types of truth. Single facts which the symbols may signify (or that could be read into the symbols) are not the most important, but rather the totality of all these meanings.” (414) This is related to the idea that the process is more valuable than a single answer produced. Each individual symbol lacks a complete meaning; combined they are more than the sum of their parts. In the same way, the exploration of the symbols is more important than the resulting interpretation. The synthesis of a collection of symbols is an even more complicated and fraught process. Silberer warns against false equivalencies and misguided conclusions: “…there will be distortions of the image; we shall frequently see projected upon each other, things that do not belong together, we shall perceive convergences at vanishing points which are to be ascribed only to perspective.” (252-3) Such pitfalls are inevitable as the individual is tasked with synthesizing symbols and their interpretations which may directly contradict one another. This is where the subject of alchemy proves to be a useful mental playground for practicing Silberer’s idea of synthesis.

          Alchemy is deep and rich with symbolism. Historian Rudolph Bernoulli, in a lecture he presented at one of the Eranos conferences, characterizes alchemy’s complicated nature and history:

Precisely because the pictures deal in ambiguous signs and symbols, rather than in clear concepts, the contemplation of them shows us the diversity of the alchemical principle of development and transmutation, now cosmological and all-embracing, now shrunken to metallurgical conceptions, now dealing in terms of physiology, now suggestive of psychology, and, finally, giving an intimation of the metaphysical in all its manifold relations. Is it any wonder that, with all its many faces, alchemy should have been misunderstood, abused, reviled as madness and despised as fraud? And yet those few who have understood its language have seen in it a valuable attempt to interpret the ultimate reality. (339-40)

Dating back to ancient Egypt, alchemy has been so variously treated in large part due to its multitude of evolutions and reinterpretations. As much magic as science in its earliest incarnations, it developed a distinctly hermetic character in the Renaissance. The hermetic style is the one that Silberer largely references as it was adopted by the Rosicrucians who produced the parable at the center of Problems of Mysticism. During the time that Silberer was writing, the term “alchemy” would have had the connotations associated with it during its split from chemistry in the late 17th to early 18th century. Before the enlightenment, the magical and spiritual aspects of alchemy were interpolated with the physical chemistry also practiced in the art. With the Age of Enlightenment came the desire to separate the rational from the magical and so the esoteric alchemy was divorced from the burgeoning new science of chemistry. (Principe 86-9) Silberer in many ways rejoins the two in his act of synthesis, once again paying respect to each aspect in equal estimation. The reason, he says, is “In spite of everything, the treatment of symbolism from two points of view must be superior to the onesided treatment; in order to approximate a fundamental comprehension, which to be sure remains an ideal, the different aspects must be combined…” (253) Silberer’s approach to the alchemical parable consists of not just two, but three perspectives: “The interpretations are really three; the psychoanalytic, which leads us to the depths of the impulsive life; then the vividly contrasting hermetic religious one, which, as it were, leads us up to high ideals and which I shall call shortly the anagogic; and third, the chemical (natural philosophical), which so to speak, lies midway, and in contrast to the two others, appears ethically indifferent.” (216) The parable at the start of the book is a locus or focal point in which he can direct his reader to specific examples and employ each interpretation in turn. The three lenses he uses, corresponding to the first three sections in the second part of the book, are effectively psychoanalysis (Mind), literal (Body), and hermetic or anagogic (Soul). I have labeled them as such, Mind, Body, and Soul, in a symbolic representation of each of their individual characters. Assessing the parable using only one of these methods fails to reveal all facets of its symbolism. Psychoanalysis, for example, can only elucidate matters of the subconscious mind. Silberer acknowledges the limits of psychology, saying:

Since psychoanalysis has found acceptation, many of its followers believe they are able to solve, with their wok of analysis alone, all the psychological, esthetic and mythological problems that come up. We understand only half of the psychic impulses, as indeed we do all spiritual development, if we look merely at the root. We have to regard not merely whence we come but also whither we go. Then only can the course of the psyche be comprehended, ontogenetically as well as phylogenetically, according to a dynamic scheme as it were. (251)

Likewise, equating each alchemical symbol to its literal, chemical component ignores the spiritual allegory in which the unrefined lead soul is transmutated into enlightened gold. In doing so, the reader of the parable would be confused as to why the author would bother with allegorical language at all and not spell out the recipe plainly. Treating the parable as an allegory itself, relating it to a well rounded human being, its Mind, Body, and Soul must all be understood in order to appreciate its full nature. Focusing on only a single aspect reveals only part of the whole picture.

Now that the reader is convinced of the value in each individual type of analysis, the task of synthesizing them remains. Part III has three sections: Introversion and Regeneration, The Goal of the Work, and The Royal Art. I have already discussed the last two, where Silberer outlines his overall goal. I have refrained from discussing this first section until now because it is the most complicated and involved. It is best approached with the other sections already dissected and with the author’s ultimate goal preemptively in mind. In anticipation of its complexity, this section itself is divided into three subsections: Introversion and Intro- determination, Effects of Introversion, and Regeneration. The terms refer to specific psychoanalytic concepts which Silberer briefly explains (though to truly understand and apply them the reader may very well need further resources as cursory definitions leave much to be desired for the uninitiated). Silberer sought to harmonize the Mind with the Soul, to synthesize them, using psychoanalytic techniques that he and his colleagues had been developing. The “Body” aspect of his analysis receives little to no attention here because it is the least complicated (i.e. simply reading the parable as a direct chemical process). The physical world is easier to understand compared with the machinations of the Mind or metaphysical theories of the Soul. While the Body thereby receives less attention, it remains present to ground the overall synthesis in the material world and should be kept in mind alongside the rest of the analysis. For example, the lion of the parable presents a dangerous challenge that the wanderer must overcome. Interpreting it as a fear in the mind or a danger to the moral character of the soul are more subtle. Recognizing a physical danger, in this case a deadly chemical, is no less important for anyone actively practicing alchemy. Mental and moral improvement are well and good but avoiding death or disfigurement need not fall by the wayside.

          The mental landscape presents its own dangerous challenges, however. In discussing the use of “introversion” in the first subsection of the “Synthetic Part”, Silberer ascribes the term to Jung. He defines it as: “sinking into one’s own soul; the withdrawal of interest from the outer world; the seeking for joys that can be afforded by the inner world.” (243) It is a process that can be taken actively by the Mind in an attempt to cultivate the Soul. In the following subsection, Silberer warns of the danger in this process: “Introversion accordingly presents two possibilities, either to gain what the mystic work seeks, or to lose oneself.” (269) It is a high price to pay for the intended result, that of regeneration. Here again the alchemical symbology is useful as a parallel to the mental and spiritual process. In the final subsection of the same title, Silberer reveals that regeneration is in itself a process that destroys in order to facilitate rebirth (320). Returning to the lion in the parable, the wanderer regrets having to kill the lion but the creature’s blood and bones are necessary for the regeneration process. In alchemy, nothing can be gained without sacrificing something else first. Out of this sacrifice, however, the lion is reborn “more powerful and mighty than before” (8). The psychoanalyst’s patient must suffer through fear, regret, and shame in the process of seeking psychological help but in doing so regenerate their mind into a healthier state. A common spiritual archetype is the death and rebirth of a god (Jesus, Dionysius, Osiris, etc.) in which they return more powerful than before, their divinity solidified. Here we return to symbols, the vehicle by which Silberer synthesizes each disparate part. That same patient may balk at facing such daunting challenges but when reminded of a god or hero who overcame death itself they find strength in that cultural touchstone. The symbol, or archetype as later developed by Jung, is a fluid language in which the mind finds its own relative meaning out of a pool of culturally and historically developed possibilities.

          The reader need not take the idea of the Soul in a metaphysical sense to appreciate Silberer’s technique and insight. Regardless of personal belief or religion, the fact that each individual has a personality and emotions that could equate to a “soul” in this paradigm is enough. Silberer’s recognition of how each aspect connects, Mind, Body, and Soul, through the framework of an alchemical parable, is unique and thought provoking. It is also infinitely generative as Silberer reinforces: “This series of symbols is quite as useful to the neophyte as to the one who is near to perfection; every one will find in the symbols something that touches him closely; and what must be particularly emphasized is that the individual at every spiritual advance that he makes, will always find something new in the symbols already familiar to him, and therefore something to learn.” (374) Readers can return to the same parable, or Silberer’s own analysis of it, and find new and engaging interpretations or insights time and time again in the process that the author advocated for. Jung picked up this thread, inspired by Silberer, and wove it into a vast tapestry of his own. The source, however, Silberer’s initial thread, still invites others to weave their own pictures. This analysis itself is only one interpretation of a small part of Problems of Mysticism. As with all the best books, treatises, and literature, the material is far from being exhausted. With the scant attention that this book has thus far received, the well of possibilities is especially deep. Each new reader will find their own unique, elusive truth.



Works Cited

Bernoulli, Rudolph. “Spiritual Development as Reflected in Alchemy and Related Disciplines [1935].” Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Eranos 4: Spiritual Disciplines, edited by Joseph Campbell, Princeton University Press, 1960, pp. 305–340.

Eco, Umberto. Il Pendolo di Foucault. Bompiani, 1997.

Jung, C. G. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis. Edited by Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull, Princeton University Press, 1970.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Silberer, Herbert. Alchemy and Psychoanalysis [Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism]. Translated by Smith Ely Jelliffe, The Lost Library, 2016.