Alchemy in “The Abyss”

Alchemy is a discipline collecting various practices and speculations relative to the transmutation of metals. One of alchemy’s goals is the Great Work, traditionally meant as the creation of a Philosopher’s Stone with the ability to transmute metals, especially “humble” ones such as lead, into “noble” metals such as silver and gold. Another classical goal of alchemy is the search for Panacea, the universal medicine, and the attainment of immortality through the Elixir of Life.

Alchemy is reflected in the mirror of our collective consciousness. It cannot be argued with, because superficiality is not synonymous with error. And even philosophers say that consciousness is a surface. On the surface, then, alchemy is an amalgamation of obscure, twisted symbols, tying Nicholas Flamel to the Philosopher’s Stone, combining mercury with transmuted gold. This is undeniable. And yet it can be applied to so much more than formulae or lab-made wonders. The word “Alchemy”, in its common meaning, equals to the mastery of balance, and its etymology, āl-kymyā, is related to the science of measurement. So does Marguerite of Yourcenar offer in her writings her very own definition of alchemy: a story of birth, existence and death, joined to form a singular vision of life.

Unum sum et multi in me, says Zeno the Philosopher. The extraordinary thing about the experience of art is that it allows us to compare an artist’s reality with our own, and the possible interpretations of a work are as many as there are people. Marguerite of Yourcenar’s The Abyss is remarkable for its several layers of meaning: scientific, historical, religious, philosophical, artistic, metaphysical, esoteric and mystical. The Abyss is dense, sublime and almost hermetic, in an alexandrine way. But the effort it takes to interpret it is different from that of a scientific or religious text: the hermeneutic process it implies is essentially introspective, not drawing on any dogma. Here is a first teaching: alchemical and hermeneutical research both begin with introspection.

Marguerite of Yourcenar forms more or less intimate relationships to her characters, which all point to her own introspective effort. “Alexis was the portrait of a voice” she said of her first character, obviously inspired by a faraway sounds. In this sense, Yourcenar insists on Alexis’s otherness. Inner otherness to be sure, but still otherness. “I know Hadrian’s story better than my father’s” she said of the man that brought her the glory of immortality. Hadrian was an object of her research as much as her own father, and the relationship between creature and creation worked along a vertical axis: father/daughter, past/present, truth/fiction. Her complicity with the Emperor was thus never absolute, as if constantly influenced by a hierarchical relationship. In spite of its similarity on some accounts, The Abyss escapes these boundaries. “Zeno is like a brother to me” she says of the man, almost-in-the-flesh, who inhabits her most carnal, most spiritual Work. Everything points to the writer and the alchemist-physician sharing a complicity not unlike that of friendly twins, if that can even be possible.

Winter landscape with bird trap, Oil on wood, Pieter Bruegel II (c.1564/1565 – 1636)
© Bart Huysmans e Michel Wuyts/Anvers, Mayer van den Bergh Museum.

The pages of The Abyss are wintery, cold and pale; they reflect the paleness of the age. Their glow is immediately different from that of the Memoirs of Hadrian, whose warm golden hues remind us of early fall. The demigod’s verses emerge from the ink-blue sea like copper pebbles, heralding the twilight of the world. The winter of the Middle Ages flash-freezes our retinas with its raw light and the cold eyes of Zeno clash with the obscurantism of his time. A thick fog keep bodies and minds immersed in a never-innocent halflight. In modern times, lucidity is a risk you need to take.

As often is the case for masterpieces (The Abyss has been classified by The World All Around news as the twenty-sixth greatest book of all times), the impact of reading on someone’s life is unforeseeable and I for one got into this novel without any expectations. Struck by the style of the Memoirs of Hadrian, whose sentences seemed to flow directly into my soul, I decided to learn more about Yourcenar’s work and I started Zeno’s story with quiet enthusiasm. I should however note that I was no stranger to the world of alchemy, which is perhaps a precious prerequisite. Along the entire novel, subtle hermetic allusions emerge and burst out here and there in apparently innocuous turns of phrase. There is no room for doubt, Marguerite of Yourcenar has delved deep into the alexandrine mysteries, although we are not privy to the completion of Zeno’s journey. Those who expect to solve the secret of eternal life with the words of The Abyss will be disappointed. Those who are seeking the Philosopher’s Stone can go back to their vials and alembics. Zeno never openly gives in to heresy under the writer’s direction, as if, in the end, his search was to remain a secret to us. Just as a writer hiding her clandestine work would do, Marguerite of Yourcenar tells us that this is not the point.

Let the important part be in your gaze, not in the thing gazed, says André of Gide. Or beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or Things are not seen because they are visible, they are visible because they are seen, as ancient wisdom goes. The idea is not new and Zeno’s gaze tells us more about alchemy than his own discoveries. And his gaze is above all his life.

Essentially, Zeno leads a three-fold existence: alchemist, physician and philosopher. Marguerite of Yourcenar chooses this tryptich to sum up his life, and does so in exactly this order. This sentence might echo something from her previous work, where she evoked the three-fold dimension of a life. I found it by chance in the Memoirs of Hadrian, and this is what the writer says:

«The chart of a human life, whatever people say, does not consist of a horizontal line and two perpendicular lines, but rather of three sinuous lines, stretching to infinity, constantly approaching and getting further from each other: what a man believed he was, what he wanted to be, and what he actually was.».

Is it possible that Zeno believed himself to be an alchemist, wanted to be a physician, and was actually a philosopher?

If we take the term “believe” not as a misunderstanding, but as an act of faith, we can conclude that Zeno made alchemy into a quest he always believed in. And the syncretism of this conviction with his daily will as a physician gave birth to a philosopher. This singular sort of ideal faith, coupled with an almost morbid sense of realism, is the source of the wise philosophy he has made his own. Zeno is characterized by both his angry idealism and his violent realism.

And so, what is this belief? What is this singular faith?fede?

Zeno’s ideas seem perfectly contradictory and perfectly balanced. Following the example of his contemporary models, his approach reveals itself to be deeply transdisciplinary. On the one hand, he betrays his inclination for dynamism, for perpetual motion, the vitality that was considered so subversive in his time. At the same time, as revealed by his sketches of turbines and flying machines, he gave himself over to a mechanistic philosophy which, in Yourcenar’s own words, needed to have an immediate future. He was also interested in alexandrine hermetism, meaning the study of Hermes Trismegistus and the Emerald Tablet. This science presupposes a latent God in all things. The immanence of matter is the ground upon which alchemy is built; it requires faith in a spirit that inhabits all things. It is itself an act of faith. But on the other hand, Zeno appears to be deeply atheistic. An atheism that dare not speak its name says Yourcenar. And the contradictions do not stop here. His work as a physician forces him into materialistic empirism, pushing him to participate in dissections, in the study of boiled, steaming feces, in the daily tending to the sick and dying, but at the same time he lets himself be carried away by the almost-visionary imagination of cabalists looking for the sacred numbers that will reduce the impact of chance upon the world.

In summation, Zeno sought balance between body and soul, matter and ideal, solid and liquid. He had realized that the border between these measures is where all mysteries lie, as well as that which some call the soul.

In a sublime speech, given during his trial, the philosopher bestows us with his own vision of alchemy, or at least Marguerite of Yourcenar’s vision spoken through his lips:

In a sense, everything is magic: magic is the science of herbs and metals that allow the physician to influence the disease and the diseased; magic is the disease itself, imposing itself upon the body like a possession from which the body does not always want to heal; magic is the power of high or low sound, agitating the soul or calming it down; magic is above all the virulent power of words, which are almost always mightier than things. The prestige surrounding princes and emanating from church ceremonies is magic, and so are the black gallows and grim drums of executions, fascinating and frightening their spectators even more than their victims. Finally, there is the magic of love and hate, which impresses in our brain the image of a being who we allow to torment us.

Zeno’s entire existence is summed up in this passage. It is no use to speak further of this singular belief. Zeno simply had faith in life, with everything it contains: contradiction, mystery and magic, balance and measure. Perhaps this is the true meaning of the word “alchemy”.

Freely adapted from the article published by Maxim M Blondovski on the blog Profondeur de Champs on March 2, 2013, under the title “L’alchimie dans l’Oeuvre au Noir de Marguerite Yourcenar, une interprétation”.