BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2015): A. Roob’s (1997) Alchemy & Mysticism

30 January 2015

Summary (TLDR Version)

Less a history and more a compendium of images from alchemical texts, this book warrants a look for the way that its imagery can activate the imagination.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: A. Roob’s (1997)[2] Alchemy & Mysticism

This curious text on (the history of) alchemy has an even more curious blurb on the back of the book: “… a fast-food, high-energy fix on the topic at hand” (from the New York Times Book Review).

Whether apt or not, this hardly seems something you’d brag about on the back of your book. Meanwhile, Roob’s footprint in the book appears more as an editor and commentator. Supplying a brief introduction to summarise the 1,700 year history of European alchemy, with nods to Egyptian and Arabic moments, the book consists mostly of images from alchemical texts accompanied (presumably) by Roob’s remarks or quotations from (usually) unrelated alchemical texts. In several places, he “decodes” the alchemist’s deliberate obscurities: a reference to the application of “boy’s urine,” for instance (Roob tells us) “is a well-known code name for the mercurial water” (150).

But the main interest of the book consists simply in the visuals supplied on each page, which sometimes include images from Hindu, Jainist, and Tibetan traditions. Images include detailed sketches and full-on paintings, ranging over the whole history (sometimes anachronistically).

In an accidental way—since the material seems arranged thematically rather than in any order that the alchemists might have attempted to accomplish their Work—a basic sense of an “alchemical process” does manage come through; something that often remains thoroughly obscure, especially in books by alchemists themselves. Roob elects to include quotations that squarely centre this Work of alchemy on the development of inward, psychological processes, rather than any vulgar quest for literal gold. Having ploughed through Jung’s alchemical works, including his dense and appropriately mysterious (1956)[3] Mysterium Coniuntionis (see here), the inclusion of images from the texts Jung often referred to lends even more credence to his ground-breaking defence of the alchemical process as the process of psychological individuation. In particular, a series of images from a book by Robert Fludd in its circles and darknesses and emergences seems a virtually literal representation of the manifestation of material out of the Unconscious to the conscious mind.

But whatever support for Jung’s interpretation of alchemical texts these images entail, the main thing involves the way they themselves activate the imagination. Like mandalas, which Roob alludes to and which Jung stressed repeatedly, these images have the potential to elicit responses (or replies) from the Unconscious, to call up alien material.

In its own way, this may prove more valuable than reading the original alchemical texts, which made a fetish of obscurum per obscurius (“explaining the obscure with the more obscure”), or as Roob quotes, “Wherever we have spoken openly we have (actually) said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth” (9).

If the goal of the alchemical process involves the transmutation of consciousness, the integration of “dross” thrown up (intentionally or accidentally) by the Unconscious, then the specific coded record of that by the alchemists, as a history of their individual experiences, may disclose less than to actually “plunge” into the process itself, but witnessing the “truth” of the images they have generated.


[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Roob, A. (2005). Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Cabinet: Taschen, pp. 1–192.

[3] Jung, CG (1970). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (Vol. 14, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press


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