To "Stay Open-Eyed in the Terrible Place": Opening Remarks on the Art & Alchemy o
On Monday, August 21st the entirety of North America experienced a partial or total solar eclipse. With its direct path stretching across the contiguous United States, the eclipse cast its darkest shadow stretching from celebratory festivals in Oregon across the country to South Carolina, where some of the worst racially-motivated violence in recent U.S. history has occurred. The one unifying factor was Sol Niger – the Black Sun: Its cast shadow mirroring the eclipsed consciousness of a nation divided across lines cut deeply into the soil of this country’s geopolitical soul.
The poet May Sarton captures this “dark night” well in her “Invocation to Kali,” the dark and terrible South Asian goddess:
The kingdom of Kali is within us deep. The built-in destroyer, the savage goddess, Wakes in the dark and takes away our sleep. She moves through the blood to poison gentleness. She keeps us from being what we long to be; Tenderness withers under her iron laws. We may hold her like a lunatic, but it is she Held down, who bloodies with her claws. How then to set her free or come to terms With the volcano itself, the fierce power Erupting injuries, shrieking alarms? Kali among her skulls must have her hour. It is time for the invocation, to atone For what we fear most and have not dared to face: Kali, the destroyer, cannot be overthrown; We must stay, open-eyed, in the terrible place.
The Black Sun is one image representing what medieval European alchemists called the nigredo – “blackening.” These alchemists remind us that it is in, with, and through “the black” that we begin. Blackness here is both a psychological metaphor for that which is unknown, unseen, rejected and repressed – and also, in this country’s social and political climate, literally enacted, as witnessed in the devaluing of black bodies and the subsequent rise of the BlackLivesMatter Movement. Psychological renderings of alchemical imagery can no longer afford to be interpreted along lines strictly – or solely – “allegorical.” If alchemy is to be interpreted alongside the psyche, then the personal needs be political. It can be nothing less.
We know from alchemical symbolism and from the hard-earned inner work of analysis, that when one learns to lean into and bear the weight of one’s personal darkness, or do one’s part in dressing the wounds of cultural trauma, some “dark nights” begin to emit a “dark light”: affirming what the poet Theodore Roethke reminds us – that in a “dark time…the eye begins to see.”
Tantric texts mythologize the present age as the Kali Yuga – the darkest and most divisive epoch of human history. In this mythological worldview, our work then is to become like the peacock, who in its own mythological incarnation is the only creature able to transmute poison; to metabolize the trauma of everyday life; to convert the raw material of chaos and pain into coherence, meaningful narratives, and the potential vision of a soul not only restored, but made more beautiful by its markings.
This, to me, is the art and alchemy not only of darkness, but of transformation. This is what we gather here this weekend to hone, to “work through,” and to relate from; not with hearts bitter from division, but from a common core, a shared humanity, a world ensouled.
Opening Remarks, "Ars Alchemica: The Art & Alchemy of Transformation," Pacifica Graduate Institute, August 25th, 2017