I am currently writing an article on beauty and alchemy, and in the meeting of these two subjects I keep encountering the idea of transformation. In particular, transformation of the self. Alchemy, which has been around as an art, a science and a philosophy since at least the second century B.C., was not just about turning base metals into gold. The serious alchemists, who were not just trying to get rich, were more concerned with transforming their own souls, and even the outside world, into a metaphorical ‘gold’ – i.e. beautiful perfection.
This desire for perfecting oneself is still very much around today, and amusingly enough the alchemical idea of transformation produces some serious gold – for the cosmetics companies.
It seems that the gold we’re seeking to make out of ordinary materials is now beauty, a process we can see on countless makeover programmes. But beauty represents a more general transformation: as Cinderella shows us, becoming beautiful entails a further transformation into prosperity, happiness and love. Happy ever after. This is precisely what most of the adverts that bombard us every day are trading on.
The difference in alchemy is that beauty is not the ultimate transformation. It is a subordinate metaphor, that represents the ultimate transformation of the soul. However, that is a life’s work – I mean, how much easier is it to find a ‘new you’ just by losing ten pounds and buying a new lipstick?
I think this is partly why alchemy has had a bit of a revival in the last few decades. Self-help books by Jay Ramsay (Alchemy: The Art of Transformation), self-help novels by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) and novels like Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding, Patrick Harpur’s Mercurius: The Marriage of Heaven and Earth and Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee – these all use alchemy as a framework for freeing the soul (or perhaps the mind, nowadays) from the pettiness and corruption of Western capitalist culture. Fiction recently has started to explore and advocate a return to the more serious work of self-transformation, involving a fuller understanding of human beauty – our desire for it and its effect on us. And although I’m not sure about combining sulphur and mercury in a hermetically sealed vessel, I still think these reworkings of alchemy have more to offer than lipstick.