The Alchemical Chiasmus

Creativity, Counter-Stretched Harmony, and Divine Self-Perception

Aaron Cheak, PhD and
Sabrina Dalla Valle, MFA

From Diaphany: A Journal Nocturne (available now).

Bosch-RP

Tu ne me chercherais pas, si tu ne m’avais trouvé.
“You would not have sought me, if you had not found me”.
—Pascal—

THE WORD CHIASMUS comes from the Greek word chiazō, ‘to shape like the letter x’. [1] A chiasmus usually describes rhetorical forms involving inversion and reciprocity, and perhaps the oldest and most immediate chiasmic structures are those found in the fragments of Heraclitus:

ἀθάνατοι θνητοί,
θνητοὶ ἀθάντατοι,
ζῶντες τὸν ἐκείνων θάνατον,
τὸν δὲ ἐκείνων βίον τεθνεῶτες

Mortals are immortals,
and immortals are mortals,
living the others’ death,
and dying the others’ life. [2]

At the heart of the chiasmus is thus a paradox—two opposite conditions are placed in seeming contradiction—yet both are integral to each other’s truth.

Mortals2

The x, of course, is but a symbol. In reality, the chiasmus must be perceived as a continuous process, much like the mathematical symbol for infinity or endlessness embodied in the figure eight—∞—or the simple but deceptive ‘twist in reality’ that gives rise to the Möbius strip. The circulation of inversion and reciprocity thus describes a perfect dialectic of opposites. [3]

According to Miller, the chiasmus ‘threatens to violate the principle of non-contradiction whenever its components are conjoined and opposed, whether as contraries or contradictories’:

This happens often in the Heraclitean aphorisms, but nowhere more flagrantly than in the following, which we shall eventually call the principle of the chiasmus: ‘wholes and not-wholes, convergent divergent, consonant dissonant, from all things one and from one all things’. [4]

What is more, every living thing, in its comportment to all other things, naturally embodies such a relationship. Every living presence implies a counter-presence, a counter-weaving, of affinities and aversions, a simultaneous attraction and repulsion that, like the string of a lyre stretched between two poles, creates an inherent, yet vital, tonos (tone, tension). This tonification, harnessed and focused like a bow and arrow, stimulates attention and intention; awareness and will. It is both the seed and fruit of creative expression, evoking a vivifying harmony that engenders a corresponding mode of perception and consciousness.

For Heraclitus, this tonos or tension is inherent to the constitution of reality. To illustrate the unity of harmony and death generated by this tension, he used the twin instruments of Apollo and Artemis—the bow and lyre:

οὐ ξυνιασιν ὁκως διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῷ ξυμφέρεται;
παλίντονος ἁρμονίη ὁκωσπερ τόξου και λύρης.

They do not apprehend how being brought apart it is brought together with itself:
there is a counterstretched harmony, like the bow and the lyre. [5]

For here reality is a process rather than a fixed form, and inherent to this process is the principle of ‘return by departure’ (being brought together by being brought apart). What seems, paradoxically, to be a process of becoming distant from the ‘centre’ or ‘principle’ (origin, divinity, ground of being) is in fact an activity of this centre that fulfils its potential, and by doing so, ultimately leads back to itself. Like the bow, it has to be stretched away from itself in order to fulfil itself; that is to say, in order to harness the higher state of tensility that lies latent in the wood, the wood must be bent back against itself. Like the lyre, the potential harmony cannot exist without the tensility of string and wood creating tone (tonos), for there is no tone without stretching or tension (tonos comes from tenein, ‘to stretch’). A true chiasmus, therefore, is always a vital, tensile interweaving. It is both the warp and weft of reality, as well as its animating puissance.

The Anima Mundi

Content mirrors form. The chiasmic connection between immortality and mortality that we meet in Heraclitus is not merely coincidental. What we find here is more explicitly mirrored in perhaps the most difficult passage in Plato—Timaeus 35a–37b—in which the formation of the World Soul (psychē kosmou, anima mundi) is described as the very link between the eternal and the transient. [6] In this most alchemical of Plato’s dialogues, the indivisible (the ‘circle of the same’) is linked to the divisible (‘the circle of difference’) via what he calls ‘the best of possible bonds’ (desmōn de kallistos). [7] When the two circles, which do not want to join, are united, their point of union forms an x or cross (chi). This chiasmus defines the paradoxical juncture of spirit and matter, fire and earth. It is the spiritual point in the material world and the material point in the spiritual world.

In Platonic cosmology, the demiurge or divine artisan brings the infinite and the finite together to form a single point, and the result is the World Soul. In other words, this absolute chiasmic juncture is the very thing that animates the world (anima mundi). The world soul, moreover, is mirrored in the Platonic conception of the embodied soul, which is precisely conceived as a mean term between the divine and the human. It puts human perception in a privileged but also torn condition, enabling perspective on both the metaphysical and the physical worlds.

Through its ‘counter-stretched harmony’, the taut and tensile human psychē mirrors the macrocosmic chiasmus. Herein, the tension that mitigates against unity is secretly vital to its greater integrity. Like the dissonant seventh in musical harmony, tension anticipates the resolution of the fundamental tonos in the octave, while simultaneously maintaining perfect distance and equilibrium. Like the divine artisan, the human soul must not only wed the eternal to the transient, it must comprehend life’s grandest structures through its most contradictory details. Like the artisan, the artist embraces contradiction to encompass the feeling of infinity.

The counter-stretched nature of creation was sensed very keenly in modern times by Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker who likened film to ‘sculpting in time’, and directing to literally being able to ‘separate light from darkness’ and ‘dry land from the waters’ (Genesis 1: 9–18). [8] ‘The work of art’, remarks Tarkovsky, ‘lives and develops, like any other natural organism, through the conflict of opposing principles’. [9]

Hideousness and beauty are contained within each other. This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in art makes that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified. The image makes palpable a unity in which manifold different elements are contiguous and reach over into each other. […] The idea of infinity cannot be expressed in words or even described, but it can be apprehended through art, which makes infinity tangible. The absolute is only attainable through faith and in the creative act. [10]

Proceeding through opposition, art makes infinity tangible. All authentic ars, all traditional technē, seek to render the universal creative act present through finite creation. Here, we take ars and technē in their archaic senses, in which both ‘art’ and ‘craft/technology’ were not dualised, but were each seen to participate in the divine intelligence (nous, epistemē, scientia), and by virtue of this were distinguished from artless labour (atechnos tribē). [11] According to the medieval dictum ars sine scientia nihil (art is nothing without knowledge), no separation was made between a work of art per se and ordinary, ‘utilitarian’ objects, as is the case in the modern world; rather, handcrafted objects were not soullessly manufactured, but transformed into works of art through the very act of poēsis (creation). They were vivified, hence life-giving. The false dichotomy between high art and low technology has come about precisely because manufactured objects (cheirotechnē) are no longer made by hand: they have lost their soul, their animating connection to the human and transcendent. As the Alsatian Hermetic philosopher, René Schwaller de Lubicz, once remarked:

If someone were to tell you that mechanised civilisation clouds the soul, this would be an affirmation without practical impact. On the other hand, if I say to you that mechanised civilisation clouds and even kills consciousness, you will comprehend this warning: if between yourself and the object of your labour you interpose an automatic tool which eliminates your will and above all your sensibility, all living contact between you and the fashioned material is cut off. The artisan no longer ‘feels’ (sent) and no longer comprehends the wood, the leather, the metal, his work is inanimate; it cannot emanate nor radiate any life for it has not received any. You must then resort to analyses, to statistical studies of the qualities of the material relinquished to the automatism of the machine, for you have stretched a veil between yourself and the thing; and although the thing subsists, you—the conscious living being—lose your life by suffocating your consciousness. It is the same with the doctor, who must sympathetically feel (éprouver) his patient’s illness, or otherwise become a mechanic. Observe the phases of history: the most fruitful, the most genial and the most ‘living’ epochs have always had a flourishing community of artisans. The Consciousness of a people can only be renewed through the crafts and not through doctrines. Mechanised civilisation is the agony of the world. [12]

Plato, as Coomaraswamy reminds us, ‘knows nothing of our distinction of fine from applied arts. For him painting and agriculture, music and carpentry and pottery are all equally kinds of poetry or making’ (poēsis). [13]

Ars and technē thus conceived are not merely mirrors or simulacra, but instruments and instances of creation, of making infinity tangible. Creation, in this sense, is regarded as continuous and ever-present, and all true creativity is thus participation in the ever-presence of origin. The artist creates an image of the absolute, according to Tarkovsky, and ‘through the image is sustained an awareness of the infinite: the eternal within the finite, the spiritual within matter, the limitless given form’. [14] The animating paradox at the heart of life is thus the hidden ferment through which harmony and tension are unified.

The Reciprocal Perception of Reality

At the heart of the chiasmic idea is a ‘metaphysics of perception’ in which human perception becomes an instrument of divine self-perception. ‘The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me’, Eckhart famously remarked. [15] ‘I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known, so I created creatures, in order to become in them the object of my knowledge’, runs an Islamic hadith central to the cosmogony of Ibn al-Arabī. [16] What we have here is not a matter of turning away from the senses in order to attain transcendence, but of engaging and using the senses properly in order to attain a perceptually ‘grounded’ transcendence; an embodied liberation (jivanmukti) in which we both embrace and supersede our finite individuality. [17] Here, reality perceives itself through the vehicle of human consciousness, and reciprocally, human consciousness participates in the self-perception of unrestricted reality.

Both ‘poles’ give something to the greater integrity of the whole. As Rudolf Steiner points out in two remarkably chiasmic poems, the earthly or material pole of reality provides the seed of the spiritual pole, while the spiritual pole provides the seed of the earthly. The first line of each poem begins:

Im Geiste lag der Keim meines Leibes […]
In meinem Leibe liegt des Geistes Keim.
In the spirit lay the germ of my body […]
In my body lies the germ of the spirit. [18]

For Steiner, a deeper world existed behind both the world of the senses and the realm of the soul. Both the life of the soul—the intensity of our emotions, impulses, and desires—and the boundaries of the senses proper, confine us. ‘One must give up one’s [ordinary] existence in order to [truly] exist’, remarks Steiner. [19] Following Goethe, he advocated the refinement, indeed distillation, of emotion and sense, dream and waking, in order to free one’s being from its internal and external boundaries, thus liberating it into a deeper, more authentic experience of reality. [20]

In Heideggerian terms, one must allow pure authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) to arise between the godly and the counter-godly. Authenticity, for Heidegger, unconceals the concealed, rendering the eternal godhead in us diaphanous. This diaphanous juncture of the godly and the counter-godly, the eternal and the transient, is described by Heidegger as a ‘ripped open cleft’, which is bound together by the intimacy of their difference. [21] Rather than seeking a middle ground, each opposite evokes its counterpole: a feeling for contiguity formed from their reciprocal appropriations from one another. And it is precisely through this contiguity and counter-polarity that they find their completion. Paradoxically, each finds their individual freedom only when they let go of themselves and abandon their particularity.

To become an instrument of the chiasmic demiurge, the artisan must have the courage to open themselves up to the unknown, to become a servant to a process that is beyond them, and to embody thereby the method of nondual conjunction through a deep sense of primordial trust. Germane to this process is a mysterious element that one can never quite grasp: a quidam, as Samuel Beckett called it (a certain ‘someone’ or ‘something’, a je ne sais quoi). [22] This mysterious quidam lives not in ordinary feeling, but in a sensitivity for what is simultaneously present but missing: what is both ever-present yet ever-absent to the deeper constitution of reality. To sense this ever-presence and ever-absence requires a certain temperament, or conjunction of temperaments—what Ezra Pound referred to as an ‘aristocracy of emotion’. It is precisely through this aristocracy of emotion, this refined sensitivity, that one intuits the shifting mystery behind the chiasmus: the quidam that conceals through revelation and reveals through concealment.

For ultimately, this dialectic of revelation and concealment is precisely a crossing, a concretisation of the spirit, a salt in the alchemical sense (a neutralisation reaction between sulphur and mercury, ‘acid’ and a ‘base’). It locks and unlocks, binds and unbinds, dissolves and coagulates. The cross of human incarnation both ‘crucifies’ us to earth and provides a vehicle of transcendence. This leads to the realisation that liberation is achieved in life (rather than beyond life). And yet, what is being distilled in the crucible of existence has already been achieved beyond life. It is already eternal. As such, we are fertile earth for living impulses that are at once our own unique creations as they are conduits for something that precedes, animates, and transcends us. As the Prussian poet and phenomenologist, Jean Gebser, points out, this conduit is no less than integral consciousness itself: the crystalline Diaphainon (transparency, Durchsichtigkeit) through which both darkness and light, origin and telos, are rendered ‘ever-present’. [23] By rendering origin present through the mirror of the anima mundi, human consciousness itself becomes an active chiasmus and thus participates in the empsychosis—the ensouling—of the world. All embodiment, all creation, thus becomes a vehicle for the catalytic vivification of the cosmos.

In contrast to positivist epistemology, which focuses only on the one-sided, empirical particulars (asserting an epistemology in which only what is measurable is real), the chiasmic apperception is holarchical, originating from and culminating in an immediate gnosis of the whole: ‘It appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively and at a stroke all the laws of this world—its beauty and ugliness, its compassion and cruelty, its infinity and limitations’, remarks Tarkovsky. [24] There is still an empiricism at play here, but it is a ‘delicate empiricism’—a zarte Empirie, as Goethe called it—which is too rigorous for poets and artists, but too subtle for physicists and scientists, and thus liable to be overlooked by both. But it is precisely this subtle yet tensile chiasmus of the two temperaments that is required. And here we must remember that the original idea behind an ‘experiment’ was precisely this: a juncture of both subjectivity and objectivity—the desire to experience the reality for oneself—and this juncture of the objective and subjective poles of experience is germane to the Latin word experimentum itself, which means both ‘experiment’ and ‘experience’. It is for this reason that Goethe described the experiment as a mediator (Vermittlung) between subject and object.

Here we are in the presence of what German Romantics such as Franz von Baader called a ‘reciprocal engendering’ of reality. [25] When the counterstretched chiasmus is struck between human perception and divine perception, a synergistic rapport is achieved. In such moments of exchange—when perception and presence permeate each other—the harmonies of the world soul and the human soul are awakened, both despite and because of their inherent tensilities. ‘The principle of the chiasmus’, remarks Miller, ‘thus reveals itself as the logos not only of understanding, but ultimately of divine self-knowledge’. [26] Consciousness is intensified into a diaphanous integrum, and the body that bears this awareness is fundamentally transfigured.

Notes

  1. This is a revised version of a chapter originally appearing in Aaron Cheak, ed., Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Melbourne: Numen Books, 2013). The key concepts and substantial content of the present essay were fleshed out by Sabrina Dalla Valle and myself in August 2011 and were consolidated over the following year. Thanks are due to Rod Blackhirst, Dan Mellamphy, and Patrick Lee Miller, whose ideas and works proved particularly influential at the time. —A.C. In Greek, the ‘x’ is represented by the letter chi (χ or X), which can be transliterated as kh– or ch– and has the phonetic value of an uvular fricative (as in German Bach, Scottish loch, ) The character gives rise to the Roman and thus English letter ‘x’, which, while using the same character, has a different phonetic value (-ks, in Greek, ξ).
  2. Heraclitus, fragment 62 (Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, ix, 10, 6).
  3. Here we see immediately that the chiasmic structure indicates a reciprocal relationship, following the form A:B:B:A, as in Plato’s Timaeus. See also Patrick Lee Miller, Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (New York: Continuum, 2011), 7 ff.
  4. Miller, Becoming God, 8.
  5. Heraclitus, fragment 51 (Hyppolytus, Ref. ix, 9, 1). Cf. fragment 65: Το όνομα του τόξου είναι η ζωή, αλλά το έργο του είναι ο θάνατος (The name of the bow is life, but its work is death).
  6. For a history of the idea of the World Soul and its continued significance, see David Fideler’s contribution to the present volume, and his recent book, Restoring the Soul of the World: Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2015).
  7. Plato, Timaeus, 31b–c: ‘Now that which comes to be must have bodily form, and be both visible and tangible, but nothing could ever become visible apart from fire, nor tangible without something solid, nor solid without earth. That is why, as he came to put the body of the universe together, the Demiurge came to make it out of fire and earth. But it isn’t possible to combine two things well all by themselves, without a third; there has to be some bond between the two that unites them. Now the best bond is the one that really and truly makes a unity of itself together with the things bonded by it, and this in the nature of things is best accomplished by proportion’ (trans. modified after Zeyl).
  8. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1987), 47, 177: ‘The director’s power is such that it can create the illusion of him being a kind of demiurge; hence the grave temptations of his profession, which can lead him very far in the wrong direction’.
  9. Ibid., 39.
  10. Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 38–39.
  11. Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘Athena and Hephaistos’, in What is Civilisation? And Other Essays (Great Barrington: Lindisfarne Press, 1989), 184.
  12. René Schwaller de Lubicz, Verbe Nature, § (trans. modified after Lawlor).
  13. Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘Why Exhibit Works of Art?’, in Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover, 1990),
  14. Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 37.
  15. Meister Eckhart, Deutsche Predigten und Traktate, ed., trans., Josef Quint, (München: Hanser, 1995), 216 (Predigt 13, Qui audit me): ‘Das Auge, in dem ich Gott sehe, das ist dasselbe Auge, darin mich Gott sieht’.
  16. Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 114 ff.
  17. See especially Christopher Bamford, ‘Common Sense: An Interview with Peter Kingsley’, in Parabola 1 (Spring, 2006): 24-30.
  18. Rudolf Steiner, Guidance in Esoteric Training (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1998), 70.
  19. Ibid., 62.
  20. Rudolf Steiner, The Science of Knowing: Outline of the Epistemology Implicit in the Goethean World View (Spring Valley, New York: Mercury Press, 1988), 53.
  21. Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 63.
  22. On Samuel Beckett and the chiasmus, see Dan Mellamphy’s magisterial ‘Alchemical Endgame: “Checkmate” in Beckett and Eliot’, in Cheak, ed., Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Melbourne: Numen, 2013), 548–638.
  23. Origin, synonymous for Gebser with the wellsprings of all consciousness (Ur-sprung, the ‘primordial leap’), is not an event fixed in the past, but an ever-present spiritual process continually available to an intensified (tonified) awareness.
  24. Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 37.
  25. See Antoine Faivre, Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism, Christine Rhone (Albany: suny, 2000), 143 ff., 158 ff.
  26. Miller, Becoming God, 38.