Eros, Telos, and the Chymical Wedding
What follows is an excerpt from the concluding essay from my recently published edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, entitled “Marriage and the Chymical Wedding: A Consideration.”
Charles Williams argues that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman “is, or at least is capable of being, in a remote but real sense, a symbol of the Crucifixion. There is no other human experience, except Death, which so enters into the life of the body; there is no other human experience which so binds the body to another human being.”1 As Pope Francis has instructed, “the sacrament of marriage flows from the incarnation and the paschal mystery.”2 Marriage, moreover, as the Book of Revelation and even the Greek mysteries witness, is a telos but without its elevation to mysticism it inhabits a realm that is neither mysterious nor sacred and becomes a fraud, a sham, a carcass: something in need of regeneration. “Marriage as a sacrament, mystical marriage,” writes Nicolas Berdyaev, “is by its very meaning eternal and indissoluble. This is an absolute truth. But most marriages have no mystical meaning and have nothing to do with eternity. The Christian consciousness must recognize this.”3 This is a hard saying.
In the alchemical literature, the coniunctio oppositorum (conjunction of opposites) emblematizes an important paradigm of human flourishing: it is only by uniting opposites that the miracle can occur and the work be accomplished. As The Golden Tract has it:
“Know that the secret of the work consists in male and female, i.e., an active and a passive principle. In lead is found the male, in orpiment the female. The male rejoices when the female is brought to it, and the female receives from the male a tinging seed, and is coloured thereby.”4
This telos, indeed, reaches beyond the grave and realizes its promise in the glorified body, which the alchemists were so bold as to assay with their materia this side of the Parousia. It is no surprise then that the marriages of alchemical practitioners Kenelm Digby and Thomas Vaughan figure so strongly in their own work. Digby, whose wife Venetia predeceased him by over thirty years, considers her glorification with scientific candor: “I can not place the resurrection of our bodies among miracles, but do reckon it the last worke and periode of nature; to the comprehension of which, examples and reason may carry us a great way.”5 Vaughan’s wife Rebecca (whom he referred to as “Thalia” in much of his writing)6 served not only as his life partner, but also as his partner in alchemical experimentation; and she continued to inspire him and his work through his dream-life following her untimely death at the age of twenty-seven in 1658. As Donald R. Dickson describes it, for Thomas, even after her death Rebecca served as “tutelary spirit through the medium of his dreams, as spiritual lover who teaches him the sublime mysteries of eternal versus earthly love…and as idealized muse.”7 The idea of a “chymical wedding” certainly had other than materialistic applications for Digby and Vaughan.8
The mystical understanding of marriage, albeit now compromised by legalistic and absolutely un-erotic determinations conditioned by a ghastly parody of the chymical wedding joining neoliberalism, socialism, and capitalism, persists in some quarters of contemporary culture not under obligation to religious or political ideology. In Lindsay Clarke’s novel The Chymical Wedding (inspired by the life and work of Maryann Atwood),9 for example, the narrator Alex Darken explains the importance of such a gendered typology: “many alchemists had worked with a female assistant—a soror mystica—for the Art required that both aspects of human nature, the male and female, the solar and lunar, be reconciled in harmonious union if the chymical wedding was to be celebrated.”10 Likewise, in the climax (note the apt metaphor) of Wim Wenders’s film Der Himmel über Berlin (known to English-speaking audiences as Wings of Desire), the trapeze artist Marion instructs her beloved, the newly incarnated in the flesh angel Damiel, regarding the significance of such a union:
“You and I are now time itself. Not only the whole city—the whole world is taking part in our decision. We’re more than just the two of us now. We embody something. We’re sitting in Das Platz des Volkes. And the whole place is full of people with the same dream as ours. We are defining the game for everyone. I’m ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand. It’s now…or never. You need me. You will need me. There is no greater story than ours, that of man and woman. It will be a story of giants... invisible... transposable... a story of new ancestors. Look…my eyes. They are the image of necessity, of the future of everyone in the place. Last night…I dreamed of a stranger... of my man. Only with him could I be alone, open up to him, wholly open, wholly for him… welcome him wholly into me. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know... it’s you.”
Indeed, the union of the mortal Marion and the incarnated angel Damiel, marriage of matter and spirit, is nothing if not an image from the pages of alchemical tracts of the seventeenth century, only translated into a postmodern idiom filtered through the language of Rilke. And I have nothing but admiration for Wenders when we hear the applause (ostensibly for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) at precisely the moment when Marion and Damiel kiss.
Jung, in searching for a model for psychic well-being, looked to the integration of male and female (animus and anima) as the goal of psychology. He called this “a higher union….an indispensable prerequisite for wholeness,”11 and his long fascination with alchemy certainly bears witness to this insight. Of this union—which is a true communion—he writes:
“They therefore represent a supreme pair of opposites, not hopelessly divided by logical contradiction but, because of the mutual attraction between them, giving promise of union and actually making it possible. The coniunctio oppositorum engaged the speculations of the alchemists in the form of the ‘Chymical Wedding,’ and those of the cabalists in the form of Tifereth and Malchuth or God and the Shekinah, not to speak of the marriage of the Lamb.”12
Adding to Jung’s examples we might point to the creative participation of Sophia with God depicted in the biblical literature: unfortunately, most of the Fathers and the greater part of the theologians to follow have preferred to keep her in the exile of personification—perhaps the source of the psychic unrest that pervades western civilization at our own cultural moment. As Margaret Barker has argued, it was not always thus.13 But, as we all know only too well, gendered typology has not had an easy go of it of late.
Alchemical literature often includes hermaphroditic images, which some might wish to hold up as more fitting emblems of our times than the chymical wedding and the coniunctio oppositorum. But this would be a mistake. The hermaphrodite, the Rebis or Lapis Philosophorum in other imaginative constellations, represents, as Jung rightly asserts, not only the achieved union of opposites but “a symbol of the self…a union of conscious (masculine) and unconscious (feminine).”14 There are no hermaphrodites in Andreae’s tale. The hermaphrodite is an interior reality, an interior integration. Sans integration, it is pathology, a pathology projected onto and manifesting in the tableau of culture. It has nowhere else to go.
Every marriage, therefore, needs to be a chymical marriage, a mystical marriage. For it is the case that, as Berdyaev argues, “the eternity and indissolubility of marriage is an ontological and not a social truth.”15 Otherwise, we have nothing but pathology: a caricature of marriage and not a metaphysical truth. Only a marriage between a man and a woman can embody this. A marriage that does not realize the union of a man and a woman, the coniunctio oppositorum, cannot properly be construed a marriage despite the presence of its political or ideological justification, for the political and the ideological are simply pathology writ large—and this can be true as well of heterosexual arrangements that do not manifest their union to this degree. Indeed, the existence of bad heterosexual marriages in no way delegitimizes the ontological reality of what marriage is. This too is a hard saying.
Marriage, that is, is an ontological and metaphysical reality; in the language of the Schoolmen, a universal. Nominalism, the tutelary philosophy of our age, cannot alter this reality, though it tries to avoid its truth by dismissing it as “culturally constructed” or as simply a reflection of a society’s norms. Disturbingly, such malaise indicates all too well that we are party to an “implicit teleology of the gradual exclusion of all otherness.”16 Laws and customs may change, dictionaries may change: ontology and metaphysics do not. As Paul Evdokimov argued, “Without a metaphysic, without a return to the beginning, the human being can never be grasped; there will always remain a residue that is irreducible to history and pure phenomenology. Only then will we be able to deal with the archetypal constitution of man and the distinction between the charismatic conditions of man and woman.”17 To understand marriage—between the Bridegroom and the Bride, between God and Sophia, between man and woman—as the archetypal constitution underpinning all biological, somatic, psychic, pneumatic, and supernatural existence is imperative to human flourishing. For the world is, indeed, a wedding;18 and each wedding has the potential to become the world. We must return to the beginning that is always already happening, the kairotic moment that acknowledges “the birth of the simple light / In the first, spinning place” when “it was all / Shining” when “it was Adam and maiden.”19
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1 Charles Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology with which is reprinted “Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love,” ed. Alice Mary Hadfield (Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2005), 24.
2 Pope Francis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation: Amoris Lætitia, 74
3 Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, trans. Natalie Duddington (New York: Harper Torchbooks/The Cloister Library, 1960), 234.
4 In Hermetic Museum, 1:14.
5 Vittorio Gabrieli, ed., “A New Digby Letter-Book: ‘In Praise of Venetia,’” National Library of Wales Journal 9, no. 2 (1955): 455.
6 After the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. Her name means “the flourishing.”
7 Donald R. Dickson, Introduction to Thomas and Rebecca Vaughan’s Aqua Vitæ: Non Vitis (British Library MS, Sloane 1741), ed. and trans. Donald R. Dickson (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001), xxxi.
8 The notion also persists in the legend of the alchemical undertakings of Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel.
9 Atwood (1817–1910) was the author of one of the most curious works on alchemy written since the seventeenth century: A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery, with a Dissertation on the more Celebrated Alchemical Philosophers, being an Attempt towards the Recovery of the Ancient Experiment of Nature (Belfast: William Tait, 1918).
10 Lindsay Clarke, The Chymical Wedding (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 162.
11 C.G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R.F.C. Hull, 2nd ed., Bollingen Series XX (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 32.
12 C.G. Jung, Aion, 268.
13 Margaret Barker, The Mother of the Lord, Volume I: The Lady in the Temple (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).
15 Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, 235.
16 Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 32.
17 Paul Evdokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World: A Christian Anthropology on the Charisms of Women, trans Anthony P. Gythiel (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 16.
18 See A.M. Allchin, The World is a Wedding: Explorations in Christian Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
19 Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill,” lines 33–34, 29–30.