In this meditation on Hermes, I continually find myself returning to the concept of the shadow. By definition, the shadow is aligned with the dark and all those attendant associations that spring to mind when we use the word-dark.
In alchemical terms, dark and black relate to the nigredo, “the initial, black stage of the opus alchymicum in which the body of the impure metal, the matter of the Stone, or the old outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima material, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form."(Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, Cambridge 2005). Interaction with the shadow is a form of or interaction with darkness and the unconscious.
Artists, especially poets, seem to be attuned to the alchemical process. Perhaps, they do not know about the nigredo or Sol Niger but they do know about the poetic qualities of the word “night.”
One of my favorite poets is Paul Celan and I suspect, although I do not know, he was familiar with alchemical imagery. He wrote a poem entitled Alchemical in which he used alchemical imagery to describe events of the Holocaust and his poetry is filled with terms from metallurgy and geography, the building blocks of alchemy.
Mircea Eliade in The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, The University of Chicago Press, 1962, points out that “the alchemist, like the smith, and like the potter before him, is a master of fire.” (Eliade, p.79). The purpose of the fire is to transform the metal and magically discover the tool or weapon within the stone or clay.
Paul Celan killed himself in 1970. Before that, in 1967, he stabbed himself, damaged his lungs, and received treatment at Saint-Anne psychiatrist hospital in Paris. Upon his release, he and his wife separated and he composed the poems that ultimately made up the collection that became Lichtzwang, translated as Lightduress.
There are poems in this work, which I believe indicate that Celan was undergoing a psychological transformation, similar to the alchemical nigredo. Many examples illustrate his use of the images of darkness to show a force of change and transformation. I will provide only one. The translation is mine.
Ihn ritt die Nacht
By Paul Celan
Ihr ritt die Nacht, er war zu sich gekommen,
der Waisenkittel war die Fahn,
kein Irrlauf mehr,
es ritt ihn grad
Es ist, es ist, als stünden in Liguster die Orangen,
als hätt der so Gerittene nichts an
The night rode him, he came to himself,
the orphan’s overall was the flag,
no more detours
it rode him straight-
It is, it is, as if the oranges hung in the hedge,
as if, so ridden, he wore nothing