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James Hillman / Alchemical Blue

For study only / no reproduction or quote without permission

James Hillman

Alchemical Blue and the Unio Mentalis
the soul


the soul. vanishes, into the

shape of things

—ROBERT KELLY, “The Blue”.

TRANSITIONS FROM BLACK TO WHITE sometimes go through a series of other colors,1 notably darker blues, the blues of bruises, sobriety, puritan self-examination; the blues of slow jazz2. Silver’s col­or was not only white but also blue. Ruland lists 27 kinds of blue-colored silver. Norton writes (HM II:45): “Silver may easily be con­verted into the colour of the lazulite, because… silver, produced by air, has a tendency to become assimilated to the color of the sky.”3 So strong is the association of blue with silver and whitening, that even when modern chemistry disputes alchemical testimony (deriving a

A chapter from a long study “Silver and the White Earth,” the first part of which ap­peared in Spring 1980 and the second in Spring 1981: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought. A further piece and relevant to this is “Salt: An Essay in Alchemical Psychology” in The Virgin in Myth, Literature and Society (Joanne Stroud and Gail Thomas, eds.), forthcoming, Spring Publications, Summer 1981. Abbreviations are: CW” : Collected Works of C. G. Jung, 20 volumes, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press; Paracelsus: The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, 2 volumes, New Hyde Park: University Books, 1967; HM: The Hermetic Museum . . . containing Twenty-two most celebrated Chemical Tracts (1678), 2 volumes, London: Watkins, 1953.

blue pigment from silver treated with salt, vinegar, etc.), it assumes the alchemists had some to-us-unknown physical justification for their claim.4 Is not the claim based rather on fantasy, a sophic silver of a whitened imagination which knows that blue belongs to silvering, and therefore sees it?

The blue transit between black and white is like that.-sadness which emerges from despair as it proceeds towards reflection. Reflec­tion here comes from or takes one into a blue distance, less a concen­trated act that we do than something insinuating itself upon us as a cold, isolating inhibition. This vertical withdrawal is also like an emp­tying out, the creation of a negative capability, or a profound listen­ing — already an intimation of silver (Spr. ‘80, pp. 41-44, silver and sound).

These very experiences Goethe associates with blue5:

…blue still brings a principle of darkness with it... As a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. . . a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.
As the upper sky and mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems
to recede from us.
… it draws us after it.
Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade. We have before spoken of its affinity with black.

Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.

…objects seen through a blue glass [are] gloomy and melancholy.
Sadness is not the whole of it. A turbulent dissolution of the nigredo can also show as blue movies, blue language, l’amour bleu, blue-beard, blue murder, and cyanotic body. When these sorts of por­nographic, perverse, ghastly, or vicious animus/anima fantasies start up,6 we can place them within the blue transition toward the albedo. Then we will look for bits of silver in the violence. There are patterns

of self-recognition forming by means of horror and obscenity. The soul’s putrefactio is generating a new anima consciousness, a new psychic grounding that must include underworld experiences of the anima itself: her deathly and perverse affinities. The dark blue of the Madonna’s robe bears many shadows, and these give her depths of understanding, just as the mind made on the moon has lived with Lilith so that its thought can never be naive, never cease to strike deep toward shadows.7 Blue protects white from innocence.

The vertical direction, as Jung reaffirms (CJV 12, para.320), is tra­ditionally associated with blue.8 Ancient Greek words for blue signified the sea.9 In Tertullian and Isadore of Seville, blue referred to both the sea and the sky,10 much as the Greek word (bathun) and the Latin (altus) connoted high and deep by one word. The vertical dimension as hierarchy continues in our speech as blue blood for nobility, blue ribbons, and the many mythological images of ‘blue Gods’: Kneph in Egypt and Odin’s blue wrappings,11 Jupiter and Juno,12 Krishna and Vishnu, Christ in his earthly ministry like that blue Christ-man seen by Hildegard of Binge.13

The transit from black to white via blue14 implies that blue always brings black with it. (Among African peoples, for instance, black in­cludes blue;15 whereas in the Jewish-Christian tradition blue belongs rather than white).16 Blue bears traces of the mortificatio into the whitening. What before was the stickiness of the black, like pitch or tar, unable to be rid of, turns into the traditionally blue virtues of constancy and fidelity. The same dark events feel different. The tor­tured and symptomatic aspect of mortification—flaying oneself, pulverizing old structures, decapitation of the headstrong will, the rat and rot in one’s personal cellar—give way to depression. As even the darkest blue is not black, so even the deepest depression is not the mortificatio which means death of soul. The mortificatio is more driven, images locked compulsively in behavior, visibility zero, psyche trapped in the inertia and extension of matter. A mortificatio is a time of symptoms. These inexplicable, utterly materialized tortures of psyche in physis are relieved, according to the procession of

colors, by a movement toward depression, which can commence as a mournful regret even over the lost symptom: “It was better when it hurt physically—now I only cry.” Blue misery. So, with the ap­pearance of blue, feeling becomes more paramount and the para­mount feeling is the mournful plaint (Rimbaud17 equates blue with vowel “0”; Kandinsky18 with the sounds of the flute, cello, double bass and organ). These laments hint of soul, of reflecting and distanc­ing by imaginational expression. Here we can see more why ar­chetypal psychology has stressed depression as the via regia in soul­making.19 The ascetic exercises that we call “symptoms” (and their “treatments”), the guilty despairs and remorse as the nigredo decays, reduce the old ego-personality, but this necessary reduction is only preparatory to the sense of soul which appears first in the blued im­agination of depression.

Let us say, blue is produced by a collaboration between Saturn and Venus. According to Giacento Gimma,20 an eighteenth-century gemmologist, blue represents Venus, while the Goat, the Saturnian emblem of Capricorn, is blue’s animal. Capricorn, you will recall, ex­tends slowly from the depths to the heights; immense range and im­mense patience. Where blue brings to Venus a deeper melancholy, and to Saturn a magnanimity (another virtue of blue according to Gemma), it also slows the motion of whiteness, for it is the color of repose (Kandinsky). Thus blue is the retarding factor in the whiten­ing. It is the element of depression, that raises deep doubts and high principles, wanting to settle things fundamentally and get them right in order to clarify them. This effect of blue on white can appear as feelings of service, labor, and disciplined observance of the rules, civil conformities like the blue cross, blue collar and blue uniforms, which figures of these feelings might carry. The effect can also appear in feelings of guilt and conscience.

There is indeed a “moral aspect of the whitening”21 — and I think this is precisely the effect of blue. The whitening implies neither a lessening of shadow nor awareness about it. Rather, it means to me more space to carry its heights and depths, its full stature - The soul is

whiter because the shadow is out of the repressed and aired in de­tailed conscious ways, the way blues give shadow-depth and precision of body in oil paintings, the way one drop of bluing makes the laun­dry whiter. The specific shading depends on the white-black propor­tion: “If the black exceeds the white by one degree, it exhibits a sky-blue color.”22 The more black, the darker the blue; but even those celestial aspirations that race like a blue streak into the wild-blue yonder carry a modicum of darkness, a drop of putrefaction, a saving grace of depression in their hope. In fact, the saving grace of Mary’s light blue may lie just in that ‘one degree of blackness.’

I have myself understood the Jungian notion of blue as “the thinking function” to refer to blue’s ancient association with the im­personal depths of sky and sea, the wisdom of Sophia, moral philosophy and truth. Images painted blue, says the pseudo­Dionysius, “show the hidden depth of their nature.”23 Blue is “darkness made visible.”24 This depth is a quality of mind, an invisi­ble power that permeates all things, like air—and blue, said Alberti, in his great Renaissance work On Painting25 is the color of the element of air. When the darker blues appear in analysis, I gird myself, ex­pecting that we are now in for the highs and deeps of animus and anima, or what Jungians sometimes call “the animus of the anima.” (Did you know that a “blue-stocking” meant a learned lady, that “blueism” meant “the possession or affectation of learning in a woman,” and that just plain “blue” once meant “fond of literature”?)26 These deep blues are inflations with the impersonal, the hid­den. They do not feel high, but come across rather as ponderous philosophical thought, judgments about right and wrong, and the place of truth in analysis. What seems, and even is, so deep, however, is actually far off and away from matters at hand. What we are talking about “seems to recede from us” and “draws us after it” (Goethe) in

the seductive manner of the anima.

By remembering that the animus of the anima is a psychic spirit attempting to enlighten the soul by deepening or raising it into im­personal truths, I am better able to get through these analytical ses­sions. I realize, thanks to Goethe, that these deep blue conversations of “stimulating negation” (negative animus thoughts, negative anima judgments) have soul-searching intentions. A work of distancing and detaching (Goethe) is going on, an attempt at reflection that is still stained with the nigredo because it burrows too deep, pushes too hard, neglecting the immediate surfaces from which silver catches its light, Nonetheless, the “negatives” that so obsess reflection with dark intuitions and depressive ruminations are enlarging psychic space by emptying out the room (Goethe) of its former fixtures. As the soul tries to work its way out of darkness by means of philosophical effort, the whitening is taking place; the animus is in service of the anima. Even the negative mood and critique, my own withdrawal, that I feel during these exercises belong also to this blue way toward whitening. The nigredo ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but passes im­perceptibly into breath-soul (anima) with a sigh. It helps to remember an image from Rabbi ben Jochai told by Scholem.27 The ascending flame is white, but right below as its very throne is a blue-black light whose nature is destructive. The blue-black flame draws stuff to it and consumes it as the whiteness flames steadily on. The destructive blue and the white belong in the same fire. As Scholem comments, by virtue of its very inhesion in the nigredo, the blue flame is able to consume the darkness it feeds upon..

The connotations that we have uncovered in this amplification in­dicate the importance of blue in the alchemical process. Were the white to come merely as a clearing off, something essential would be missed. Something must incorporate into the albedo a resonance of, a fidelity to, what has happened and transmit the suffering with another shading: not as grinding pain, decay, and the memory of depression, but as value. Value, we recall, (Spr. ‘80, pp. 35-37) belongs to the phenomenology of silver. The sense of the value of

psychic realities is not born merely from relief of black distress. The blue qualifies the white with worth in the ways we have mentioned and especially by its introduction of moral, intellectual and divine concerns, thereby bringing to the whitened mind a capacity for evaluating images, devotion to them, and a sense of their truth, rather than only reflection upon their play as fantasies. It is the blue which deepens the idea of reflection beyond the single notion of mir­roring, to the further notions of pondering, considering, meditating.

The colors which herald white are spoken of as Iris and the rain­bow, as many flowers, and mainly as the brilliance of the peacock’s tail with its multiple eyes.28 According to Paracelsus,29 the colors result from dryness acting on moisture. Believe it or not, there is more color in the alchemical desert than in the flood, in less emotion than in more. Drying releases the soul from personal subjectivism, and as the moisture recedes that vivacity once possessed by feeling can now pass over into imagination. Blue is singularly important here because it is the color of imagination tout court. I base this apodicticus not only on all we have been exploring: the blue mood which sponsors reverie, the blue sky which calls the mythic imagination to its farthest reaches, the blue of Mary who is the Western epitome of anima and her in­stigation of image-making, the blue rose of romance, a pathos which pines for the impossible contra naturam (and pathos, the flower, was a blue larkspur or delphinium placed on graves); I call also on Wallace Stevens’ blue and Cezanne’s blue as testimonies.

Blue “represents in [Stevens’] work the imagination . . . such as the romantic or the imaginative in contradistinction to the realistic.”30 And it was as well for Stevens the color of intellectual stability and “reason.” “Both the intellect and imagination are blue,”31 just as Stevens’ poetry presents that combination of thought and image so successfully.32 The appearance of blue in the coloration process in­dicates that span of the spectrum where thought and image begin to coalesce, images provide the medium for thoughts while reflections take an imaginative turn away from the dark and confined frustration of the nigredo and toward the wider horizon of mind. The blue in-

strument moves soul from sounding its small lament to the great breath of Kandinsky’s organ, its largo, the spacious march of philosophizing that can incorporate the hurts of one’s history into a tragic sense of life.

As with Stevens, so with Cezanne,33 “When he was composing… only a visionary’s or a poet’s imaginative conception… could be of help to him. It was impossible for him to start out from an isolated real thing seen.”34 He based his painting on “shadow paths and con­tours”35 out of which ‘real things’ emerged as local high points. The imaginative conception, the visionary shadow, originates and supports the real thing seen in nature. “The deepest shadow colour in Cezanne’s paintings, the one which supports the composition and is most appropriate for shadows, is blue.”36 “Cezanne gave blue a new depth of meaning... by making it the foundation of his world of ob­jects ‘existing together.’ For, when he used blue in this way, he transcended any special connotation which had attached to its former uses. Blue was now recognized as belonging to a deeper level of ex­istence. It expressed the essence of things and their abiding, inherent permanence and placed them in a position of unattainable remoteness.”37

The blue foundation is the imaginal ground which allows the eye to see imaginatively, the event as image, creating at the same time a remoteness from real things (Cezanne), from the green of the actual world (Stevens), a remoteness felt in the nostalgia which blue brings. With blue comes both the longing toward white and a sad acknowl­edgement that as whitening proceeds one both comes home and can’t go home again.

Once the black turns blue, darkness can be penetrated (unlike the nigredo which absorbs all insights back into itself, compounding the darkness with negative introspections). The shift to blue allows air so that the nigredo can meditate itself, imagine itself, recognize that this very shadow state expresses “the essence of things and their abiding, inherent permanence.” Here is imaginal consciousness af­firming its ground.

Cezanne wrote: “Blue gives other colours their vibration, so one must bring a certain amount of blue into a painting.”38 From his perspective, blue would be the crucial color in the palette of the peacock because it transforms the other colors into possibilities of im­agination, into psychological events, that come to life because of blue. Boehme writes, “Imagination of the great Mystery, where a wondrous essential Life is born” results from the colors.39 The full flowering of imagination shows itself as the qualitative spread of col­ors so that imagining is a coloring process, and if not in literal colors, then as the qualitative differentiation of intensities and hues which is essential to the act of imagination.

When the colors shine in the peacock’s tail so too do the eyes whereby they can be seen. Imaginative vision precedes the whiteness itself, otherwise the white earth cannot be perceived as the transfiguration of nature by imagination. For this new perception, the perception of colors too goes through transubstantiation into a mystical or painterly sense of them as substances, as the complexions on the faces of light which reveal the true quality of nature, its endlessly subtle and multiple intensities. Colors shift from being phenomena of light to phenomena themselves; or, light shifts to be­ing the presentation of color and secondary to it so that the white earth is not sheer white in the literal sense but a field of flowers,40 a peacock’s tail, a coat of many colors.

The transubstantiation announced by the peacock reverses the history of philosophy. The color visions of Newton and Locke, of Berkeley and Hume belong to the subjectivism of the nigredo and the mortification of nature. Color can now become a primary quality again, the thing itself as phainoumenon on display, the heart in the matter, prior to such abstractions as bulk, number, figure and mo­tion. When color is, the world is as we see it—not merely green as naturalistic sense-perception believes, but green because of its blue shadow.41 The world is as we see it in our dreams and poems, visions and paintings, a world that is truly a cosmos, cosmetically adorned, an aesthetic event for the senses because they have become in­-

struments of imagining.

The multi flores, the myriad eyes in the tail, suggest that the col­ored vision is multiple vision. One must be able to see polychro­matically, polymorphously, polytheistically before the terra alba ap­pears. The movement from a monocentric universe to a cosmos of complex perspectives begins with blue since it “gives the other col­ours,” as Cezanne says, “their vibration.” Then the alchemical colors vanish and are replaced by a brilliant white lustre. Here one might be so dazzled by the new brilliance of mind as to take white literally, as if white meant only and literally one thing — whiteness — thereby forgetting the multiplicity which made the whiteness possible42 The multiplicity must already have been built into the mind as the vibra­tions, shadings and subtleties that are not only there in things but are there in the eyes of the mind by which things are seen as images. It is as if we enter the world without preconceptions, startled by the phenomena where everything is given and nothing taken for granted.

To experience in this manner is to recover innocence — hence the brilliant white lustre. Ruskin called it “the innocence of the eye,” “a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify.”43 Attention shifts from the signification of perception to perception itself. We ask about qualities — What is there? in what way is

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