Alchemy — the All-Purpose Metaphor

I’m reading a book with the rather lumpy title The Chemistry of Alchemy : from dragon’s blood to donkey dung, how chemistry was forged. The authors (Cathy Cobb, Monty L. Fetterolf and Harold Goldwhite) are chemistry professors, which accounts for the tone of amused skepticism toward their subject. They have given the history of alchemy its due attention, though, and explain the links between alchemical and chemical processes. The included “experiments” that readers may carry out at home mostly look worthwhile too (although I haven’t tried any of them myself — too lazy).

The thing that strikes me is the contrast between this approach and that of C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, both of whom wrote about the symbolic aspects of alchemy. Their writings were my introduction to the subject, so the mysticism and symbolism are what I find most fascinating, And the colours! Colour changes in the materials subjected to various processes would naturally signal transformation, which was the whole point of the exercise. The progression from black to white to yellow to red was fundamental. The successful conclusion to the long and torturous process was called by some the “red dawn,” represented by the phoenix. The magical substance which turned base metals to gold was often described as a red powder. Other colours are associated with intermediate phases — the green lion (vitriol) and the peacock’s tail, which is a flush of purples and blues that comes over certain metals when heated. The lion and peacock are only two of the alchemical animals; a full description may be found here.

With its colourful phases as a progression of transformations toward an ultimate perfection, it’s not surprising that alchemy serves as a perfect metaphor for almost anything. Gardening, for example, or writing, or spiritual self-improvement — anything that involves metaphorically breaking something down, burning it, washing and cleansing, joining and renewal, by prolonged effort bringing excellence from imperfect beginnings. When I started to write my first novel, the main character, Herbert West, was a dubious type in great need of improvement. I suppose it was inevitable that I should turn this into an alchemical process; alchemy thus became an explicit part of the book. It reappeared very explicitly in the final book of the series, Hunting the Phoenix.

B4 HtP

Here is a quotation from Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (poached from Wikipedia):

“When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver (mercury), but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter. The dragon is probably the oldest pictoral symbol in alchemy of which we have documentary evidence. It appears as the Ouroboros, the tail-eater, in the Codex Marcianus, which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, together with the legend ‘the One, the All’. Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one, that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail. For this reason the opus was often called circulare (circular) or else rota (the wheel). Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again in the lapis. He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into the four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught – a symbol uniting all the opposites.” (Part 3, Chapter 3.1).

The whole thing bristles with vivid symbols and images and is surrounded with an aura of mystery and ancient secrets. No wonder artists and writers pounce on it with glee.

Here is an excerpt from Apology for Bad Dreams, a poem by Robinson Jeffers (whose work I discovered at the impressionable age of 18):

He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor

From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God,

He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,

Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,

He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it

Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.

I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me

In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,

Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,

And here am I moving the stars that are me.”

 

Another Fall in the Garden– and a “Change Agent”

I love autumn for its colours — some subtle, others spectacular, always fleeting.

Two kinds of purple asters (names unknown to me) in the front garden

Two kinds of purple asters (names unknown to me) in the front garden

 

A favourite scene in the back garden

A favourite scene in the back garden

 

Cotinus "Royal Purple" in fall colours -- much better than its summer purple!

Cotinus “Royal Purple” in fall colours — much better than its summer purple!

Cotinus leaves often develop these artistic-looking patterns as they change colour

Cotinus leaves often develop these artistic-looking patterns as they change colour

 

A lone bloom on Gentian acaulis -- rare blue colour in the autumn garden

A lone bloom on Gentian acaulis — rare blue colour in the autumn garden

A windstorm last week blew most of the leaves off the maples. Raking awaits!

And the Change Agent?

Nelly by the pond

Nelly by the pond

Nelly the Newfoundland puppy (4 months old)

Nelly the Newfoundland puppy (4 months old)

The garden won’t be the same…

Imminent Danger Cover Reveal!

Michelle Proulx is reissuing her novel Imminent Danger and How to Fly Straight into It with a gorgeous new cover. Which is being revealed — right here and now!

First, the story behind the new cover:

In the far-gone year of two thousand and twelve, a naive young authoress with a trusting heart gave unto a company called iUniverse thousands of dollars with which to publish her novel. But alas! For this foolish young authoress did not realize the assisted-publishing path was fraught with peril, and the thousands paid were not in value received. Control was relinquished, prices did skyrocket, and the young authoress cried out to the heavens, “Woe is me! Would that I had done this publishing business myself!” And the young authoress did take it upon herself to publish the novel, commissioning a talented artist to provide her with a new cover that doth more accurately capture the spirit of her novel. And lo! The new cover is revealed!

Imminent Danger Cover Reveal

Now that you’ve seen the cover, here’s something about the book:

High school junior Eris Miller thinks she’s having a bad day when her roommate’s boyfriend catches her stepping out of the shower wearing nothing but a towel. Then she gets abducted by scaly six-armed aliens with a strange fondness for the color blue, and her day suddenly gets a whole lot worse.
 
Trapped on a spaceship bound for the slave markets of Sirius B, Eris fears she’ll never see her home again. But then fate whisks her away from her reptilian captors and into the arms of Varrin, a fast-talking space pirate who promises to deliver her safely back to Earth. He claims to have her best interests at heart, but Eris soon discovers that her charming rescuer has a hidden agenda.
 
As they race across the galaxy, outrunning a villainous figure from Varrin’s past, Eris begins to realize that their relationship is putting her planet, her life, and her heart in imminent danger. She knows that trusting Varrin could prove deadly … but what other choice does she have?
And here’s something about Michelle. See if you can guess which parts are true…
 Michelle Proulx was born on the market moon of Vega Minor where she spent her formative years reading, writing, and gambling at illegal underground jsgarn fighting rings. While en route to Alpha Centauri, Michelle crash-landed her space yacht on the planet Earth. She now lives in Canada and divides her time between observing the local fauna and repairing her star ship.
MP Author Photo
It’s absolutely true that Michelle will be doing a giveaway on her blog, so crank yourself up to warp speed and go check it out!

Prizeworthy : Literary Fiction Awards

Here we are in the middle of literary awards season. The Nobel, the Booker, the Pulitzer, and here in Canada the Giller, the Governor General’s Awards and many more. (Just in time for Christmas.)

Why are there so many of these awards? And why are most of them for so-called “literary” fiction? There are a few awards for genre fiction, such as the Nebula Award for science fiction and the Golden Dagger Award for crime fiction, but they don’t have the profile of the literary prizes.

I think the answer has to do with a fundamental difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. Genre fiction is self-serve. Everyone knows what to expect from a book labelled “mystery” or “romance” or “science fiction,” but literary fiction is random. It can be about anything or nothing. It’s idiosyncratic and nuanced, full of symbols and allusions, and often ends ambiguously. A degree in creative writing may be useful for reading as well as writing it. Lit-fic is popular among book clubs whose discussions use words like Zeitgeist and oeuvre.

However intimidating, literary fiction has the allure (for some) of the Higher Arts. One cannot swim in this rarefied sea unaided. Readers need expert guidance in the pathless country of lit-fic. Newspapers and mainstream magazines such as Time or Maclean’s used to have book sections, but they are becoming scarce.  More and more, the critics’ seal of approval takes the form of the literary award. Once the annual crop of awards is out, those who wish to be known as “well-read” know exactly which books to buy and read (or at least skim). A recent clever development is the announcement of long-lists and shortlists in the run-up to an award, so the benefits of the awards may be spread among more authors (and their publishers).

But what about self-published literary fiction? Most successful indie authors write and publish genre fiction. Is being “literary” the kiss of death to a self-published book? In the world of indie authors, there are no high-profile awards, backed by financial institutions and bestowed by panels of Eminent Writers. No one is telling the reading public, “This is the indie book everyone should read,” condemning to eternal obscurity many an artfully-written work expressing the anomie of a disaffected protagonist in an indifferent world.

 

4 activities to avoid as a newly published indie author

Audrey Driscoll:

Yes, I’ve done all five of those things. Good to know I’m not alone. And I have every intention to start on my next book, any day now.

Originally posted on Suffolk Scribblings:

11.07.15-ast_ft_decision-signs-421913814_582_387 Congratulations, you’ve made it. You’ve uploaded your ebook and cover, entered a sales blurb and selected your product categories. You’ve decided on a price, agreed to the terms & conditions and finally, with no small amount of trepidation, pressed publish. Within a few hours an email arrived to confirm your book is live. You are now a published author. The next thing to do, of course, is let everybody know. So you spend a few hours promoting your launch on your social media of choice, phoning friends and family, sending emails and mentioning it to everybody you meet. This is great. Enjoy the moment. But then what? What should you do next? Well here are five things I recommend you don’t do.

Constantly check your sales stats

While the sensible advice is to write the book you want to read, in reality most of us write books we hope others will read. When you publish your…

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Meet Guest Author Audrey Driscoll

Originally posted on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog..... An Author Promotions Enterprise!:

Audrey Aug 31 2014

I guess I always knew I would end up writing a book. As a child I loved reading books, and realize now that I was interested in how stories were constructed as well as how they turned out. I dimly recall working out scenes and bits of dialogue in my head, before I ever had any intention of writing anything down. I made my friends act out little dramas based on my favourite book at the time – Kipling’s Jungle Book. In high school I wrote my first “novel” – some sort of ancient Egyptian adventure inspired by the novels of Joan Grant, who claimed that they were records of her past lives.

This habit of seizing on works by other people and making them my own was responsible for my “real” novels. As a years-long fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I was curious about his story “Herbert West, Reanimator,”…

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Acceptance and Anxiety: garden blogs vs. writers’ blogs

I’m both a gardener and a writer. My blog posts are split between these two interests, which may not be the best idea for finding a readership, but it means I can usually come up with something to post about.

The blogs I follow are similarly divided, although there are more on writing than gardening. Going through the daily accumulation of posts in my reader, I’ve noticed something interesting. Garden blogs are way more relaxed than writers’ blogs. Even when reporting winter losses or projects that didn’t work out, gardeners display acceptance. They celebrate what is, even while aspiring toward new challenges (getting blue poppies to stay alive and bloom again, for example).

Writers’ blogs, on the other hand, seethe with frantic anxiety, always concerned with the right way to do this and the wrong way to do that. How to get motivated. The right way to start a novel. Ten words you should never use. Why you must hire a professional editor. The best ways to market, make sales and self-promote. Stern admonitions that Writing is a Business. There’s so much at stake for writers! They’re running as hard as they can, looking behind at the competition snapping at their heels. I see so many pleas for honest reviews and for advice on using social media. So many shoals of blue links to books, websites and blogs. Look! Buy! Read! Review!

Just writing that paragraph has made me a bit weary and discouraged. If writing is such a creative joy (and I know it is), it’s sad that bringing the fruits of one’s efforts to the attention of those who might appreciate them should be such a painful struggle. If no one buys your books, you’re a failure.

Gardening can be a struggle too, but usually it’s a physical one — moving yards of soil or compost, chopping roots, spending hours doubled over pulling up weeds, getting dirty, hot and sweaty. The rewards of these efforts, though, are immediate and unequivocal. But there’s another difference, a more subtle one: gardeners live in the hand of Nature, which is eternal. There’s always another year, another plant, another reason to hope.

September 26, 2014

MetalMonth – author feature: Audrey Driscoll

Thanks to The Opening Sentence for featuring the Herbert West Series as part of Metal Month!

A Fall/Winter Reading Challenge!

To celebrate fall and anticipate winter — great seasons for reading — I am issuing a friendly challenge to readers who are up for a “big read.”

You can acquire all four books of the Herbert West Series for free in exchange for thoughtful comments about the series.

Accept the challenge with a comment to this post, and then follow this link and enter the secret codes at checkout. They will cease to work at midnight on October 1st, so act now!

Book 1, The Friendship of Mortals  QP85L

Book 2, Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey  CA25C

Book 3, Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure  ZY56H

Book 4, Hunting the Phoenix  BQ87N

You will be undertaking to read upward of half a million words, which will take time, but I hope to see comments on Goodreads, Smashwords or your blogs by the vernal equinox — Friday, March 20th, 2015.

 

The Herbert West Series_final.

 

Winding Down and Gearing Up

The garden is definitely in an end-of-summer state. Yesterday I picked almost all the tomatoes and “decomissioned” all but two of the ten plants. This was a stellar summer for tomatoes — nice and warm — and I somehow got the soil mix for their pots just right. I used mushroom manure instead of steer manure. I seem to recall that mushroom manure (“I didn’t know mushrooms did that”) has a higher pH. Maybe that was it, or maybe mixing in the stuff quite generously did the trick.

Perfect Tomatoes!

Perfect Tomatoes!

 

Despite 22 mm. (nearly an inch) of rain a couple of weeks ago, the soil is really dry. The wretched Norway maples are dropping leaves by the bushel — ugly, khaki-coloured leaves that give the garden a slovenly air. Raking them up perked things up instantly.

The dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ continues to put forth blooms and buds. I top-dressed it with the mushroom manure soil mix and slow-release fertilizer back in June. And the potted delphiniums are starting their second flush of bloom — much better than the first one. Together they add some freshness to the tired scene.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

Delphinium and Dahlia

Delphinium and Dahlia

Gardening is never done. I always have a list of Things to Do and little projects to work on. This fall I’ll be starting on something I think of as the Boulevard Project. There is a 12-foot wide stretch of scruffy lawn between the front part of my place and the sidewalk. Technically, this belongs to the municipality, and nothing must be planted on it except grass and municipal trees (flowering cherries on our street). But of course weeds creep in. A stretch of boulevard next to mine boasts a huge crop of what I think of as “leathery dandelions” although they are really something called hairy cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata). “Weed” is definitely the word for them. They send puffballs of seeds all over the place, and it’s becoming a struggle to hoick out plants that have come up in my scruffy grass.

I’ve decided there is nothing particularly attractive about stretch of scruffy grass and ugly weeds, so I’m going to introduce some tough (and yes, weedy) plants to provide something besides yellow and puffballs to the scene. I have grown from seed a couple of plants of chicory (Cichorium intybus), which has gorgeous sky-blue dandelion-shaped flowers. Once established, the plants can be cut short to encourage them to bloom close to the ground. Blue dandelions! I’ll pair them up with beach peas (Lathyrus japonicus), which look like sweet peas in shades of pink (and some whites), but are a lot tougher. Sadly, they are scentless, but look good with the blue chicory flowers.

All of this may come to naught, like many garden plans. Weeds, when grown on purpose, sometimes become temperamental and die, as if to prove that they will not be manipulated.

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