Fates and Choices
Edited by Laurine Heerema
The Alchemical Marriage: the reunion of opposites through Goethe’s Faust
With the sun I rise, with its descent, I die. What am I?
Dissociated, we are many things and, put together, we are one, but chaotic and disordered, because we lack synthesis. A little over two years ago, I was very unrefined – or so I thought, but my thoughts held no relevance over my spiritual development, they were conformed. I have always been mutinous, so when I found myself sailing unfamiliar waters one summer, a desire to prove this was not true about myself ignited; that I was a thinker and had knowledge to engage in conversations that unveiled my substance. The entire ordeal was spiritually charging and freeing. Yet, my hunger for knowledge was never satiated, and I am still bitter-sweetly shackled by prospects of my lacking.
Now, reading Memories, Dreams and Reflections: an autobiography centering on the life of Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung, I was introduced to Goethe’s version of Faust - a drama split into two parts. Mentioning the deep impressions it had left on him, I was intrigued to uncover the charms Faust had compelled Jung with, and I had to challenge his perception of the alchemical Faust, because I wondered if my admiration for Jung produced our similarities of thought, or if our similarities produced such admiration. I now aim to embark on this theoretical piece, exploring the spiritual and alchemical journey of life through Goethe’s Faust and finally, the necessary reunion of opposites.
Alchemy is the coalesced, mediaeval practice of early science and philosophy. It uses the prima materia (first material required for the alchemical work) to produce the philosopher’s stone – the elixir for transmuting metals into gold – a simultaneous, esoteric metamorphosis of the soul (Holmyard, 2012). This is the ultimate goal of alchemy – the Magnum Opus, the great work.
A fundamental aspect of alchemy, as theorised by German Renaissance alchemist, Paracelsus, claims that matter is constituted from three principles: mercury, sulphur and salt (Mahdihassan, 1991). Each principle has its own properties and elements, both physical and spiritual, contributing to the Magnum Opus. Sulphur is the combustible fire and air, the ignited soul; mercury is the fluid air and water, the animated mind, and salt is the solid water and earth, the material body.
To achieve the hermetic Magnum Opus, an alchemist must follow these stages: nigredo, albedo, citrinitas and rubedo. Simply put, nigredo is the decomposition of alchemical ingredients, the blackening, albedo is the purification, the whitening, citrinitas is the awakening of solar light, the yellowing, and rubedo is the successful conversion of base metals into gold, the reddening. Once this is complete, the alchemist rejoices in a profound individuation of the soul. But declaring the transmutation of metals and the soul a simple task, is reducing the value of the Magnum Opus to nil - it is to deny knowledge and reject the reunion of opposites.
Figure 1. The personification of the three principles consummates the marriage between the masculine sun and feminine moon. The red liquid represents the secret fire – the initiator and transmuter of base metals (Novin, 2010).
But what even is the reunion of opposites? In Western thinking, alchemy contains feminine and masculine elements (Edinger & Blackmer, 1994). Sulphur represents the masculine, volatile energy, and can be allegorically depicted as the sun. Similarly, mercury is the feminine, passive energy depicted by the moon. Salt then acts as the material which is chemically separated, purified and refined, all guided by the interaction between the two former principles. Thus this reunion between sulphur and mercury is called the Alchemical marriage between the Red king and the White queen, respectively. It is a metaphorical courtship of polarities, birthing the rebis: the hermaphrodite offspring, the whole and perfect synthesis of opposite qualities.
Faust, Part One
Geothe’s drama begins when Mephisto - the devil - makes a wager with God, promising to lure Faust away from the path of the virtuous. Faust, who has already acquired mastery in theology, science and philosophy, is depressed that he cannot surpass human limitations. Through dubious circumstances, he encounters Mephisto who proposes a deal: if he can provide Faust metaphysical sublimity to the point where he says “Ah, still delay - thou art so fair!” (Geothe, 2017, p. 90), Mephisto will take his soul through death. Despite his scepticism, Faust enters into a blood-pact with the devil.
To begin their ventures, Mephisto aids Faust in the seduction of the naive virgin, Gretchen, using jewellery and the pretence of fateful meetings. Several obstacles hinder Faust and Gretchen’s intimate relationship: her mother - whom Faust indirectly kills by giving a sleeping potion for her to prevent her unapproving interference and her brother, who insults Gretchen’s now-corrupted integrity after learning she bears Faust’s child, and is beaten to death by Faust and Mephisto. Gretchen seeks solace in the church, but eventually loses herself in remorse. Ultimately, she drowns their child and is imprisoned. Unknowingly, Faust abandons her and attends a satanic festival, Walpurgis Night, with Mephisto. He remembers Gretchen through a vision and pleads with Mephisto to rescue her. Faust is plagued with grief when Gretchen rejects the salvation Faust offers, and instead seeks divine redemption.
Faust, Part Two
Waking up surrounded by fairies, Faust returns as a spiritually cleansed man and decides to halt the pursuit of sensual pleasures. Now, in the emperor's court, Mephisto suggests printing paper money to resolve economic matters which appears to be a success. Festivities ensue with Faust travelling to the Realm of the Mothers to summon Helen and Paris of Troy from Greek mythology upon the emperor’s request. Faust becomes infatuated with Helen of Troy and fails to seize her.
Back in Faust's old chambers, Mephisto finds that Faust's old pupil, Wagner, has succeeded him, and has created a miniature human: Homunculus. Mephisto, Faust and Homunculus travel to the 'classic' Walpurgis night in Greece shrouded with mythology and antiquity. Faust chases after Helen of Troy, drawn by her idealism. Homunculus, with desires to become wholly human, jumps into the ocean after realising water houses the source of life, and Mephisto mingles with repulsive spirits, satiating sensual desires.
Disguised as a hag, Mephisto takes Helen of Troy and her chorus to a powerful northern lord (Faust) for protection against those who, as Mephisto warns, plot to kill them. Transcending time and space, Faust romances Helen and both flee to the utopian arcadia where they birth a boy child: Euphorion. With great ambition, Euphorion desires to break free from the shackles of human limitation and jumps off a tall cliff. Helen laments and joins her son in death to which yet another venture of Faust's ends in tragedy.
Initiating a new cycle, Mephisto convinces Faust to demand reclamation of some land as a reward for supporting the emperor in war. Victorious, the emperor rewards Faust with land. Now old, Faust orders Mephisto to remove an eldery couple and their chapel from his land, but he murders them. A guilty Faust is visited by the physical embodiment of Care who blinds him to deter him from his land building project. Outside, Mephisto orders his fiendish servants to dig a grave for Faust but blind, he mistakes this for sounds of construction. Wallowing in pride, Faust lays out his altruistic vision for the future of mankind and says "Ah, still delay - thou art so fair!". Mephisto claims his soul but heavenly beings intervene, taking Faust up to heaven. Gretchen, who has been purged of sin, is given permission by the eternal female, Mater Gloriosa, to guide Faust's soul on a path for purification and redemption.
Faust’s Alchemical journey
Goethe summons and investigates metaphysical motifs from human history, permitting Faust to cultivate his own strivings in a hermetic image which is both his own and a collective contribution to mankind. This is relayed in part one and two: the microcosm and macrocosm of man, respectively. Nevertheless, it is imperative to see beyond Faust’s character, he is the central figure in a net of polarities. After all, no man’s soul contains a singular facet - we are dissociable, both masculine and feminine, both light and dark, though at first, there is androgyny, an emulsion of opposites. But, the soul must be blackened, the parts must be brought to consciousness and purified to marry them for the Magnum Opus.
The characters in Faust each represent a facet of his soul. Gretchen and Helen of Troy encompass his feminine qualities. For example, the former is the unadulterated female and the latter, an idealism of beauty and womanhood. The hermaphrodite Homunculus is his faucet for spiritual learning; devoid of human emotion, he cannot deviate from the alchemical journey of life, despite accepting the limitation of man - something Faust could not do. Mephisto is the patriarchal, masculine trickster, who exploits Faust's ignorance, refusing to let him internalise the feminine aspects of his soul and consequently, from dominating his spiritual journey.
At the centre of it all, Faust is the archetypal everyman seeking enlightenment. Yet Mephisto appears and only does so when Faust hits a spiritual cul-de-sac. Offering an idiosyncratic exit from his dilemma, and simultaneously trying to prove his cynicism of man remains just, he blinds Faust by putting Gretchen into the centre of his sexual desires. Throughout the drama, Faust remains in close proximity with Mephisto and is unable to break free from his whispers, obeying his commands, because before his manifestation, Faust experiences an insufficiency. Regardless, this shadow guides Faust to manipulate Gretchen on a path to self-destruction. He returns to his masculine primal instincts, preying on her, rather than creating an equal union; thus, the material product of their union is drowned, returned to the feminine water element. I wonder whether his treatment of Gretchen is a result of misogynistic values that prevent him from seeing her as something other than a medium to explore his sexual needs. Alchemically, he has failed to recognise his White queen, or mercury, as an ingredient to spiritual transcendence. Prematurely, Faust fails to successfully reconcile her earthly feminine qualities with his masculine qualities. Blindsighted, he is stuck in a narrow reality where self-attainment is driven by rudimentary interpretations of life: to Faust, Gretchen is just a manifestation of his sexual desire – singular attachments like this objectify and dampen one’s chance at spiritual liberation.
Figure 2. Two lions come together to join soul and mind into one body (Delphinas, 2011). Mephisto, Faust’s present masculine and untamed flame, merges with the fragile emotions evoked from Gretchen’s demise.
Persisting, he struggles once more with Helen of Troy, approaching her with a learned maturity, as seen in the above alchemical depiction, demonstrating Faust’s capability to experience subjective admiration. Nevertheless, a glimpse of haste is still seen where he attempts to seize her and I can only interpret this as stubborn ignorance towards the females he encounters. Anyhow, only through entering the realm of the Mothers is he able to access the feminine realm of his alchemical work. He possesses the element of fire and air, alluding to his volatility, but has so far been unable to capture the passive water. There is now a chance for him to recognise the opposite in his soul through Helen, but she is an idealistic projection, existing beyond a realm he can practically access. Though his failure to reconcile opposites is once more evident, he is again able to consummate his physical union with Helen and births a boy child. Initially, Faust’s first child was compromised to Water but his second, to Air, which is present in both the masculine and feminine alchemical principles; Faust is closer than before. But as a result of alchemical immaturity, Euphorion dies.
Figure 3. The father devours his son (Delphinas, 2011). The latent power dynamic between Mephisto and Faust threatens the plot. Until the end, Faust refuses to acknowledge Mephisto as his unconscious.
Through each conquest, Faust becomes more malleable, closer to decomposition. His flame is relatively controlled and begins to respond less overtly to Mephisto’s commands. By the end, the guilt of all selfish acts committed to satisfy Faust’s insufficiency is overcome by a euphoric reflection of continuous striving. However, I constantly feel that Faust manipulates Mephisto’s vice in carrying out his great work, and in the process undermines the power the latter retains over him. Even though Faust’s consequent death is interpreted by Mephisto as his victory, in the eyes of God, who in the drama retains all power, it is his loss. Ironically, the father God condones Faust’s struggles, but the eternal, divine mother figure promises spiritual cleansing instead. Gretchen, who rejected Faust’s salvation (and through this, was able to accept her masculine qualities) guides Faust to his renewal. This ending is underwhelming because it feels like Faust has to start all over again – his worldly efforts are invalidated. Similarly, I find Gretchen’s transition rather unworthy because rather than redefining her psyche, she simply reverted to her old ways by rejecting Faust’s salvation – almost as if the two were just ships passing by in the night. It seems Goethe’s alchemical message put a literal meaning on the nigredo stage, that one’s body must also decompose to fully integrate all three principles and birth the rebis.
The alchemical journey creates emulsions in haste or precarious dealings. If you hadn’t yet figured it out, the answer to the riddle at the very beginning is “shadow”. I do not agree with Jung when he claimed Goethe had “fallen for the cunning devices by which evil is rendered innocuous” (Jung, 1995, p. 80), for I believe Mephisto was not all evil - he was Faust’s shadow, a necessity to neutralise his soul and initiate the alchemical journey. In analytical psychology, the shadow of man is the hidden unconscious and one must dissociate all facets of the soul to marry the Red king with the White queen. The rebis is the balanced integration of polarities so to deny the shadow is to deny the alchemical process. Unsurprisingly, Faust never achieved the spiritual enlightenment he sought in the material world, yet his example is a lesson to accept that man can do so little if he does not recognise the polarities within his soul. Outside time and space, a universe governed by constellations of malleable anarchy exists. It can defy logic and appear hypnotic to beguile our senses. But ultimately, it is an abstraction of our private psyche…each new piece of knowledge furnishes the universe, and for all the knowledge there is to be gained, it lingers like the nostalgia from an old perfume.
Delphinas, N.B., 2011. The book of Lambspring. Theophania Publishing.
Edinger, E.F. and Blackmer, J.D., 1994. Mystery of the Coniunctio: Alchemical.
Goethe, V. (2017). Faust, Part One (Amazonclassics Edition). Amazon Publishing.
Holmyard, E.J., 2012. Alchemy. Courier Corporation.
Jung, C.G. (1995). Memories, Dreams, Reflections: An Autobiography. 33rd ed. Fontana Press.
Mahdihassan, S., 1991. The term tria prima of Paracelsus explained and justified. Bulletin of the Indian Institute of History of Medicine (Hyderabad), 21(1), pp.61-64.
Novin, G., 2010. A History of Graphic Design: Chapter 87: Art in Alchemy: Visual Communication of Symbols. Available at: https://www.guity-novin.blogspot.com (Accessed 8 October 2022)