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Red mercury as scam and symbol

Friday, November 20th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — CJ Chivers, nuclear nonsense, faux chemistry, and the alchemical imagination, with hat-tip to Cheryl Rofer ]

CJ Chivers, conflict journalist extraordinaire and author of a book about the Kalashnikov assault rifle, The Gun, today posted a remarkable account of what he terms The Doomsday Scam, with the subtitle “For decades, aspiring bomb makers — including ISIS — have desperately tried to get their hands on a lethal substance called red mercury. There’s a reason that they never have.”

A taste:

The Islamic State, he said, was shopping for red mercury.

Abu Omar knew what this meant. Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.


To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist.

Indeed, there’s a sidebar in Chivers’ post which sums the topic up nicely:

The shadowy weaponeer’s little helper, red mercury was the unobtainium of the post-Soviet world.

There’s much more, of course — with red mercury rumored to be found in old Singer sewing machines, which briefly raised the price of such machines in Saudi Arabia a thousandfold to $50,000 — and the whole extraordinary piece is more than worthy of your attention. It is also about a concrete, if counter-factual, reading of the term “red mercury.”

Cinnabar, aka mercury sulphide, anyone?


A centuries-old debate concerning alchemy has concerned the literal and metaphorical interpretations of alchemical texts.

Scholars up to and including Isaac Newton theorized about and practiced alchemy in their aptly named lab-oratories, at a time when literal and metaphorical “readings” were much less easily considered separately than is the case today. Alchemy was then for a while widely ridiculed as proto- and indeed pseudo-science — a tendency still prevalent in many circles today. And more recently, alchemy has been explored by Carl Jung and followers (and his predecessor, Silberer) as a field of imaginative, metaphorical inquiry illuminating spirituality, psychology and literature.

  • BJT Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy
  • BJT Dobbs, The Janus Faces of Genius
  • Herbert Silberer, Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism
  • CG Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
  • CG Jung, Alchemical Studies
  • CG Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis
  • Marie-Louise von Franz, Aurora Consurgens
  • Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy
  • Jung’s reading of alchemical texts is a symbolic reading — in accordance with the principle “the stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone” (Psalm 118.22, cf Acts 411), he has taken precisely those materials in the alchemical tradition which modern chemistry rejected as ridiculous, and reclaimed them as symbolic, richly metaphorical expressions of psychological truth.


    It is in that spirit that I turned from Chivers’ fascinating treatment of “red mercury” as an allegedly physical, albeit spurious, substance, with its intriguing narratives of scams from the Cold War to the present day and IS, to take a look at what I might find via a brief search in the Jungian literature. I say “quick” because I have neither the appropriate library nor the time for a more intensive search, but here’s what little I found:

    There’s a “red mercury” reference in Stanton Marlan, The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness, on p. 22:

    The idea is that the raw solar energy must darken and undergo a mortificatio process that reduces it to its prime matter. Only then can the creative energies produce a purified product. In this image the sperm of gold refers not to the ordinary seminal fluid of man but rather to “a semi-material principle,” or aura seminales, the fertile potentiality that prepares the Sun for the sacred marriage with his counterpart, darkness, which is thought to produce a philosophical child or stone and is nourished by the mercurial blood that flows from the wounding encounter of the Lion and the Sun. The blood — called red mercury — is considered a great solvent.

    Marlan then gives us what is effectively a translation of the paragraph above into contemporary therapeutic language:

    Psychologically, there is nourishment in wounding. When psychological blood flows, it can dissolve hardened defenses. This then can be the beginning of true productivity. In dreams the imagery of blood often connotes moments when real feeling and change are possible. The theme of the wound can also suggest a hidden innocence, which is also a subject of mortification. The green color of the lion, which is referred to as “green gold,” suggests something that is immature, unripe, or innocent, as well as growth and fertility. The alchemist imagined this innocence, sometimes called virgin’s milk, as a primary condition, something without Earth and not yet blackened. Typical virgin-milk fantasies are often maintained emotionally in otherwise intellectually sophisticated and developed people.


    And then there’s what Jung would term synchronicity..

  • CG Jung & Wolfgang Pauli, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche
  • In my twitter stream within 3 minutes of my posting my first tweet re Chivers’ piece, & before I’d tweeted my follow up, I ran across this tweet containing the phrase “Drawing Blood will eat the sun”:

    Drawing Blood will eat the sun — just how synchronistically alchemical can Molly Crabapple and Twitter get?

    Two alchemical substance-scapes

    Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — the material world meets the immaterial in our humanity — cognition & language ]

    I came across two views of what you might call “alchemical substances” today — one mixed and one unmixed — and in each case the wording of the description fascinated me.

    SPEC scapes

    The upper panel is taken from the late Oliver Sacks‘ description of the elements as he found them in his childhood, displayed in London’s Science Museum. There’s alchemy in that description, in the fusion Sacks achieves between scientific observation and poetic insight.

    In the lower panel, we have an overtly alchemical fusion, this time achieved by the interweaving of words from the language of the material (tobacco, leather, oak) and the immaterial (mystery, wisdom, knowledge) — both under the rubric “materials” — the work of Marcus McCoy.



  • Oliver Sacks, Mendeleev’s Garden
  • House of Orpheus, Cunning Man sample vial
  • **

    Any self-respecting legal desk will contain both pigeon-holes and loop-holes.

    Seen through the fog of war..

    Thursday, August 20th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — truth is always the first causality casualty ]

    SPEC dolphin robot


    The big question these days is no longer Nature or Nurture, it’s Nature and Nurture — or Tech?

    Great photography? Nah, and then Yah

    Sunday, August 9th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — captivated by, capturing the light of the moon — a meditattion on art, science ]



    According to The Smithsonian:

    Great photography often comes down to snapping the right subject from the right vantage point at the right time. This image from NASA is just that. It was taken by the camera onboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, one million miles away from Earth — the perfect spot to capture the Moon passing across the sunlit face of our planet.

    Nah, not really. As I said in an earlier post, Don’t you mess with my mother the moon, the great moon photo is Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico<:



    Yes, Adams’ photo captures “the right subject from the right vantage point at the right time” but it does so with a great eye — the eye, experience, vision of an Ansel Adams. The NASA photo of the moon transiting the earth, by contast, is brilliant, stunning, extraordinary — but offers sight, not insight. Once again, I think of Blake:

    I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative eye any more than I would Question a window concerning a Sight. I look thro’ it & not with it.

    That’s from his A Vision of the Last Judgment — apocalypticx, again — and famnously reads in context:

    “What,” it will be Questioned, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it.


    Ah, but how easy to quote the Ansel Adams imager — it has long been famous for being a great photograph.

    And yet the greatness was in Adams, in the moment, not in popular opinion:

    I had been photographing in the Chama Valley, north of Santa Fe. I made a few passable negatives that day and had several exasperating trials with subjects that would not bend to visualization. The most discouraging effort was a rather handsome cottonwood stump near the Chama River. I saw my desired image quite clearly, but due to unmanageable intrusions and mergers of forms in the subject my efforts finally foundered, and I decided it was time to return to Santa Fe. It is hard to accept defeat, especially when a possible fine image is concerned. But defeat comes occasionally to all photographers, as to all politicians, and there is no use moaning about it.

    We were sailing southward along the highway not far from Espanola when I glanced to the left and saw an extraordinary situation – an inevitable photograph! I almost ditched the car and russed to set up my 8×10 camera. I was yelling to my companions to bring me things from the car as I struggled to change components on my Cooke Triple-Convertible lens. I had a clear visualization of the image I wanted, but when the Wratten No. 15 (G) filter and the film holder were in place, I could not find my Weston exposure meter! The situation was desperate: the low sun was trailing the edge of the clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses.

    I was at a loss with the subject luminance values, and I confess I was thinking about bracketing several exposures, when I suddenly realized that I knew the luminance of the moon – 250 c/ft2. Using the Exposure Formula, I placed this luminance on Zone VII; 60 c/ft2 therefore fell on Zone V, and the exposure with the filter factor o 3x was about 1 second at f/32 with ASA 64 film. I had no idea what the value of the foreground was, but I hoped it barely fell within the exposure scale. Not wanting to take chances, I indicated a water-bath development for the negative.

    Realizing as I released the shutter that I had an unusual photograph which deserved a duplicate negative, I swiftly reversed the film holder, but as I pulled the darkslide the sunlight passed from the white crosses; I was a few seconds too late


    See: science.

    Back in the day artists were alchemists — grinding their own colors from exotic shrubs (dragonsblood), insects (crimson lake), stones (lapis lazuli) and so forth — and remain so to this day, as in the case of Jan Valentin Saether:

    saether epiphany

    Those shadows! The light..


    Is Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, science, then — or art?

    Is “art or science” even a real question?

    And that “desired image” of a “cottonwood stump near the Chama River” — isn’t that in some way the negative of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico? The drawn bow that propelled Adams’ arrow to its mark?

    Agreeable disagreement, disagreeable agreement

    Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

    [jotted down quickly by Lynn C. Rees]

    1. Politics is the division of power.
    2. The power divided is a variable mix of violence and influence.
    3. The division of power tends to favors those who best wield violent power.
    4. The reason of man exists for victory, not truth.
    5. Victory is measured in agreement, the number of minds who fuel a division of power.
    6. Agreement is peace, a thinning in politics.
    7. Disagreement is conflict, an escalation in politics.
    8. Agreement, once agreed, tends to stay agreed.
    9. Agreement that stays agreed is the most effective way to convert agreement into violence.
    10. The ultimate measure of victory is how well it converts agreement into violence.
    11. Man tends to stay agreed with what he already agrees with:
      • it is the most powerful fuel for the politics of others he agrees with.
      • it reduces power lost by making new agreements.
    12. Man tends to agree with whatever agrees with increases in his own division of power.
    13. Maintenance of the objective, concentration of power, and keeping the initiative are powerful contributors to victory.
    14. Refusal to disagree with what he already agrees with tends to keep:
      • man’s eye single to the glory of his objective
      • man’s power concentrated
      • man from losing the initiative
    15. Yet politics divides power by converting disagreement into agreement.
    16. The intensity and mix of disagreement dictates the intensity and mix of violence and influence needed to convert it into agreement.
    17. Influence is the refinement of argument.
    18. The reason of man exists to refine less effective argument into more effective argument.
    19. Where the argument of influence fails, the argument of violence might succeed.

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