Marcel Duchamp’s Collaborative Alchemical Game with the Given

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I used to have this postcard portrait of Marcel Duchamp stuck on my car’s dashboard. This image is both ironic and a fitting sentiment of the artist. Perhaps whoever made it also was trying to reference Magritte’s The Treachery of Images:


Duchamp never wanted to be a role model. The art world filled him with ambivalence. After he failed by his own admission at “fine” painting, all he wanted to do was pose questions and experimentally answer those questions with punning riddles in the guise of paintings, sculptures, films, iconologies for existent and non-existent works, writings, and music. And play chess.

I’ve had very few art experiences in life where a transformation of my world occurred. Encountering Duchamp’s readymades was one of them, especially his criterion for choosing them: “visual (or aesthetic) indifference.” He chose them precisely because he’d never considered them in any aesthetic terms. An object you’ve lived with your whole life, ignored, invisible, suddenly announces its presence as a form. Nothing has changed. Everything has changed. You’ve just “enshrined” the object but just as it begins to glow with significance it fades once again into the background, inert. It’s lost, but you never possessed it in that way in the first place; you were indifferent. It’s free to reappear in its own time.[1]

With this oscillating “frame” of significance Duchamp anticipated (perhaps created?) the cultural world we now live in; the repurposing of objects has become known as appropriation or the mash-up.

At some point early on he discovered that the norms of the art world were more important than, and actually preceded, the physical objects which they instantiated. To make a game out of aesthetic choices, and art a realm of “possible worlds” an artist could by choice inhabit or change, was revealed. Duchamp just showed us that we play hide and seek with our own and society’s values, our artistic success depending on a host of occult and marginalized factors.

Duchamp couldn’t be a role model because he was a singularity. He was his own “factory” long before Warhol could envision a Factory to produce the “aura” (aurea=gold) of art. Duchamp tried via his readymades to break the barrier between the mundane and the sacred, the haute monde of art and the mass produced culture, decades before Warhol; Warhol is unthinkable without Duchamp—as well as hundreds of other famous artists. He’s arguably the most important artist of the 20th century.

Duchamp was attracted to alchemical texts and imagery because they were the product of symbolic codes between solitary practitioners. He could understand his own position vis a vis society and the art world through the lens of the consummate outsider/insider, an inhabitant of the liminal space—the trickster. Hermes-Mercury, the trickster-messenger figure, was also the patron of magic and alchemy. To the public, alchemical texts made no sense, just as they were designed to. Their arcane vocabularies, neologisms, and often-violent imagery were meant to protect the sacred truths against profane eyes (as well as confuse the authorities who might detect a whiff of necromancy).

Many of the Dadaists and Surrealists were interested in alchemical jargon and images, but only because it satisfied their taste for apparent irrationality; they understood them only as hallucinations or automatisms brought on by the alchemists’ chemical experiments or drug ingestion.

We have since learned much more about the history, methods, codes, and goals of alchemy. At its most basic you might say alchemy is the transformation, by natural yet hidden means, of elements that make up everything known in the universe. Traditional alchemy concerned obtaining the prima materia, the unchanging essence that underlies all elements, and using it to transform metals into “nobler” forms. All of the procedures had counterparts in the psyche of the practitioner, and, some say, originate and end there.

The Philosopher’s Stone is, of course, most associated in the popular mind with the turning of lesser metals into gold. We could easily interpret the concept and execution of a readymade as an attempt at inducing mental and emotional alchemy on the spectator—but only those who might already be primed to understand such a thing.[2] At some point in 1912-13 Duchamp claimed a retreat from the plastic arts and denigrated them as retinal art: “retinocentric,” we might now say. We could expand this criticism to include time and notation as superfluous in music, as John Cage eventually did, and typography of linear words and their significations, as e e cummings, say, did in poetry—and center art in the mind. The perception makes the thing intelligible and special to the viewer, who co-creates the art experience. Duchamp in a sense democratized the art experience to be whatever moved one to experience it as such.

Obviously this tremendously undermined the social values of the art world and its tendency (at the turn of the 20th century) towards increasing commodification.

Duchamp was an atheist, but did he hold any spiritual values? He certainly denigrated art’s power as a surrogate for religious sentiment…At some point, with material science replacing the qualitative values of religions into the quantitative values of the physicist and technocrat in society, the plastic arts came into their own as a source of spirituality. Eliphas Levi’s occult writings, the Spiritualist movement, and Blavatsky’s Theosophy inspired a counter-current to the quantitative mindset that was indoctrinating millions of minds. Along with these came waves of art movements: Neo-Classicism (Academic art), Impressionism, Symbolism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism, Die Brucke, and pure abstraction (the Blaue Reiter movement, with Theosophist Kandinsky as its proponent). The manifesto-mills were at full capacity.

Duchamp, however, shared in the burgeoning technological fascination and the cult of automation. He was enamored with the machine’s anti-aesthetic, it’s pure functionality, and viewed them as allegories for social relations, sex, and certain modes of human consciousness, a multi-variant mirror that yet was not “reductionist” as we’ve come to know that term. His stance was more like a prefiguring of Marshall McLuhan’s view of technology as extensions of the human form, senses, and capabilities. For Duchamp high technology was more material to be worked with, to other ends than the pragmatic—to engage the “useless beauty” of the artistic gesture. Here was yet another reversal of values.

Then came the Great War. In the wake of this catastrophe, “civilized” values became suspect to the art world in the political oasis of Zurich. Freud’s ideas of the unconscious thanatos drive in the European/American psyche spread and found expression in the Dadaist’s shocking destruction/deconstruction/dismissal of “bourgeois” aesthetic standards, a social counterpart to the deaths of the war and1918 flu pandemic. The techniques associated with Spiritualism (trance states, automatism in writing/poetry-making and painting and drawing) and utilizing chance became working procedures for artists via the Dadaists.

Duchamp never formally associated himself with the Dada movement; he’s rather considered via the readymades their “patron saint” or an isolated inspiration. His conceptions of the rationale for the readymades changed over the decades; he was never certain, in retrospect, what impelled him to make such a move in the first place. But with the readymades, a transformation of consciousness perfectly in sync with the alchemists’ project was made possible. Collage had been used in Picasso’s and Braque’s Synthetic Cubist experiments, and by 1917 the Dadaists were cutting up all sorts of things into collage. But to hack the art world by recontexualizing an everyday object, unaltered, whether a coat rack or bottle rack or tilted urinal, was unthinkable until Duchamp did it. Puzzlement and derision followed Fountain (1917), now considered the most important work of 20th Century art.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

He did many variations of readymades. Some, like Pharmacie, were “rectifications:”


This is a simple store-bought painting, “completed” or “redeemed” by the addition of two dots, one red and one green—the colors associated with drug stores in France. What he did was reverse the arrow of signification in Walter Benjamin’s “age of mechanical reproduction”: he took a “pre-reproduced” object and exhibited it as a unique object. He reversed the value of the negligibly valueless. But only a small number; the majority of his readymades were “rectified” objects or altered to fit his idiosyncratic personal mythology. Other rectified readymades were deliberately provocative, like the goateed Mona Lisa, LHOOQ:


In French, this title phonetically sounds like the phrase “she’s got a hot ass.” Besides repurposing the trivial, Duchamp’s other long-time exploration was with gendered identity. His alter ego Rrose Selavy (eros, c’est la vie—a bad pun, indeed!) appears on several works. Here’s his Belle Haleine/Eau de Voilette (1921), a title, via the transposed letter V for T, apparently meaning “Beautiful Breath of the Veil Water”:


It’s unfortunate, but there seems to be a rule that both modern and (post)modern art’s meaning to the audience and art history, as measured in the amount of ink spilled in explaining it, is oft times in inverse proportion to the amount of “craft/skill/representational talent” the given work being explained actually displays. This thought occurred to me while reading Clement Greenberg’s and Harold Rosenberg’s defenses of Abstract Expressionism—and a similar thought formed the basis of Tom Wolfe’s notorious screed The Painted Word.


With Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, or The Large Glass, we have this tendency to explanation brought to its absurd extreme, and all the hermeneutics done by the artist himself in the subsequently published Green Box, a collection of all his notes, diagrams, and explanations of the iconology of the piece. So we have an artist imagining the context, history, function, and critique for his own piece in advance of and alongside its creation, a dialogue with his unconscious. He was thus ahead of his own posterity in creating his own mythology…The same occurred when the Philadelphia Museum of Art revealed Duchamp’s final work, Etant Donnes: la chute d’eau 2. La gaz d’eclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas) which he’d secretly spent decades on and seems at once a condemnation of the museum-goer/haute monde critic/collector as voyeur, and a literal wooden “façade” behind which a “truth” is to be discovered.


This is its “aesthetically indifferent” facade.

Get up close and personal, gaze into a certain crack in this mask, and hello!:




Many thousands of artists can claim Duchamp as a direct inspiration (or those inspired by him as a secondary muse). Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, and the other quasi-Pop artists of the late 1950s and 1960s incorporated found-object (readymade) elements in their work. Collaborations between Rauschenberg, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and John Cage resulted in multi-media events that prefigured the late 60s Happenings. Some of Warhol’s films elevated the mundaneness of the “retinal” to absurdity, yet they prefigured the video painting-installations of Bill Viola. Stripping art of its need for embodiment led to the jokes of Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein, the Arte Povera movement, the whimsical “experience recipes” of Yoko Ono and Fluxus, and the artist’s ego dissolution into actions like Joseph Beuys’s. Individuals from the “postmodern” dance world, influenced by Duchamp via Cunningham and Cage, came together with Robert Wilson’s unique theatrical visions to produce tremendous operas that almost defy rational explication. Out of the Sixties’ Happenings and theater such as Wilson’s came the performance art of the 1980s, embodied most successfully in the multimedia presence of Laurie Anderson.

But this latter movement produced very few memorably shocking events (comparable to Fountain) that erased further the boundaries Duchamp had begun to; those had been rehearsed and “perfected” in performances during the free-for-all 1960s and 70s, like Chris Burden’s Shoot, Ono’s Cut Piece, Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting, or the multimedia conceptual works of Sophie Calle and Genesis P-Orridge.

When we talk about contemporary international art, which names come up? Tracey Emin? Banksy? Jeff Koons? Damien Hirst? Christo? These persons are more like rock stars. Damien Hirst gets pounded all around for his faux-whimsy and creative bankruptcy and is perennially sued for plagiarism. Emin has coasted on the notoriety of one Biennale piece for quite a while. At a more “normal” level of “craft” we have Gerhard Richter, Matthew Barney, Anish Kapoor, Andy Goldsworthy,



[1] This recalls a story the composer John Cage, a Duchamp disciple and friend, once told about visiting a woman friend and having a few drinks while some strange music played from her stereo speakers. He enquired what it was and she replied, “you can’t be serious?!” It was a recording of his music, probably one of his star-map derived scores that were meant to mutate with each performance; the scores had come from transparencies laid across star clusters that Cage used the I Ching to determine which would be notes and which would be tone-clusters. The pianist-interpreter would read these as notes. Cage wanted to create pieces that were free from human ego as possible, for them to become a part of the world of sounds as sounds spontaneously appear to us. For him to unexpectedly encounter in the world the product of a “recipe” he’d devised must have delighted him.

[2] A person’s opinion of Duchamp’s readymades—whether they are brilliant ideas that expand one’s conception of art, or a bad (and poorly executed) joke—largely determines how one views many of the 20th century’s art movements (such as Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, art brut, arte povera, Fluxus, etc.). The irony is, Duchamp would probably disavow the former and mildly agree with the latter!

Two Abuses of the Renaissance Sage’s Eros-Magic: Part 1. Hermes T. vs. Aristotle: What is the Origin of Transhumanism?


Two Abuses of the Renaissance Sage: 1. Hermes vs. Aristotle: What is the Origin of Transhumanism?

       Many conspiriologists, following writer Michael A. Hoffman, like to kick around the phrase “the alchemical processing of the masses,” and claim to see the claw-prints of ancient secret societies on all contemporary pop culture and political events. Hoffman and others like Alex Jones rant about the Masonic/Illuminati programming that readies us for the “it shall be” and “it must be” of transhumanism, which is the ultimate goal of the secret scheme: to make humans into gods (and others apparently into food for those gods).

The use of alchemy and magic as descriptors is not metaphor to these people. Although it’s easy to draw a parallel between the CIA-Pentagon’s secret body augmentation/mind control/propaganda labs and that of the alchemist or magician, many like Hoffman go further and posit that events such as the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 are “alchemical psychodramas” meant to traumatize and imprint mind control schemas upon the American soul.

Judging by what passes for “the truth,” what once were genuinely “fringe” beliefs 25 years ago has become a paranoid worldview for perhaps millions of Americans.

The origination for these ideas goes back millennia. We could speak of the anti-Mason movements of the mid-19th century, or Adam Weishaupt’s Bavarian Illuminati conspiracies of the 1760s-90s, but the genesis of psychological imprinting/priming of which Hoffman and others speak is supposedly ancient, and originates in the Mysteries that emerged from the Neolithic.



Its modern incarnation encompasses the past six centuries. As the story goes, the humanism of the Italian Renaissance originated in rediscovered ancient texts that spurred a revival in “natural philosophy”—a concept which grew to encompass a double meaning, science and magic.

This new learning eventually superseded the Scholastic model of the universe used in the Roman Catholic monasteries. In the 1460-80s, the Florentine Medici family bought and translated the ancient Greek texts obtained from scholars fleeing the sacked Byzantine capital, Constantinople. This influx had a double effect: some of the texts bolstered belief in the existence of angels, that had already been codified for the Catholic masses by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and his study of Pseudo-Dionysius’s The Celestial Hierarchy.

But some of the new texts also laid the foundation for undermining ten centuries of Nicaean doctrines. The Aristotelian-Dionysian classifications that informed the medieval “Great Chain of Being” doctrine—that a naturally hierarchical cosmos had been created only once, ex nihilo, by God—were especially affected by these textual discoveries.[1]


       In opposition to the Aristotelian scheme, Plato’s mysticism was strengthened by new, independent sources via the Egyptian/Hellenistic Hermetica that the Medici purchased. The texts raised Plato’s Egyptian-Pythagorean theogony to a near-unimpeachable status in intellectual circles. Scholars had found the Catena Aurea (Golden Chain).[2] This was the esoteric lore concerning self-transformation and transcendence that had been passed down from adepts from the time of ancient Egypt.

The figure of the sage Hermes Trismegistus symbolized this tradition. The Greek/Arabic Hermetic writings purchased by the Medici family book-buyers were, over the next century, translated and elucidated by Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, and Tommaso Campanella.

Opposing the dominant Roman Catholic-Aristotelian view of creation, these scholars came to view humanity as unfinished as opposed to fallen from a paradise (Pico entirely abandoned this view and recanted, but was put to death nevertheless for heresy).

The Hermetic tracts Poimandres and Asclepius that had been discovered proclaim that it is possible that humanity may become “whole beings” and possess powers co-equal with God. Pico wrote his Oration on the Dignity of Man in 1486 using this idea; the tract is a blueprint for secular humanism, albeit through a mix of Neoplatonism and a proto-existentialism.[3] Humanity’s Golden Age existed in the remote past, yet processes for achieving apotheosis were still available by using theurgic ritual to channel the stars’ and planets’ energies and evoke daimonic assistance in the task.


       Ficino developed a Christianized Hermeticism, while Pico chose a Jewish-Christian Kabbalistic method for humanity’s return to Godhood. Giordano Bruno entirely rejected the Christian worldview in favor of Egyptian alchemical/astrological religion. In 1600 the Inquisition torched him believing in an endless universe populated by innumerable worlds—or at least consensus history views it so.

There is much more to the reasons for his execution.

Essential to Ficino and Bruno’s view were the ideas of imbuing images in one’s imagination with vast emotional and psychic force, binding them to the unconscious and one’s anima (soul). Ficino viewed Eros as the prima materia or ever-present element behind all phenomena; this belief became near-dogma for the Florentine Academy of 15th and 16th century.

Eros may be characterized as the resting state of ensoulled beings; all living things possess an unconscious “self-love” that causes them to act in self-preservation in myriad ways and through sexual passion both heighten one’s sense of being and “reproduce” the self.

But for humans, sexual Eros can be very dangerous. The ancients’ conception of spirit (pneuma, “breath”) was axiomatic to Ficino’s magic; pneuma was the medium through which visual impressions passed. Drawing upon the Greek Stoics’s idea that the cosmos was all pneuma in varying degrees of tension, the individual’s hegemonikon (heart/governing principle) vibrated a pneumatic beam to its object(s) and “bound” itself with it/them. This created an impression upon the hegemonikon/heart that at times could be an eidetic image (phantasia kataleptike) of the object. These images could then be imbued, according to Ficino, with very strong mental and emotional “chains of association,” increasing the images’ (phantasia) power within the soul. Eros is normally conceived as the life-force/drive, and acts in everything from sexual vigor to sublimated forms of energy that lead to the creation of art and society’s structures.

The very effortlessness of sexual attraction is a signature that it is primordial Eros magic. The visual impressions of the beloved remain, unbidden but active, in the mind. Here they can be transformed into a higher Eros or fester into complete obsession. A very dangerous situation indeed; we think of “crimes of passion” and the extreme phenomenon of narcissism, a hegemonic-image that has unconsciously made of the world an extension of its damaged self and demands constant recognition of that self. This “black magic” is done by individuals who are spiritually lost and cannot recognize how their own hegemonikon has been captured by images of its own feeding/making. As scholar Ioan Couliano points out,

Circulating through the same pneumatic passage in which contagion of the blood is spread are images that, in the mirror of common sense, are changed into phantasms. When Eros is at work, the phantasm of the loved object leads its own existence, all the more disquieting because it exerts a kind of vampirism on the subject’s other phantasms and thoughts. It is a morbid distention of its activity which, in its results, can be called both concentration and possession: concentration, because the subject’s entire inner life is reduced to contemplation of one phantasm only; possession, because this phantasmic monopoly is involuntary and its collateral influence over the subject’s psychosomatic condition is highly deleterious.

       Interestingly, the love object plays a secondary role in the process of establishing the phantasm: it is only a pretext, not a real presence. The true object, omnipresent, of Eros is the phantasm, which has taken permanent possession of the spiritual mirror. Now, this phantasm represents a perceived image that has gone beyond the threshold of consciousness, but the reason it has assumed such obsessional dimensions lies in the deepest part of the individual unconscious. We do not love another object, a stranger to ourselves, Ficino thinks (Amore, VI, 6), thus anticipating the analytic psychology of Carl Jung. We are enamored of an unconscious image.[4]


       But Eros is a malleable force as well and can be channeled to many uses. We can all understand these dynamics, how the beloved “infects” the imagination of the lover. As Couliano points out, the beloved can become far more than is “presented” by the simple reality of their presence. Active imagination is always at work, whether conscious or not. The unconscious may take over, leading to obsession that may entirely swallow the personality and lead to madness, the heroic fury of heightened existence:

“(Ficino writes) The lover carves into his soul the model of the beloved. In that way, the soul of the lover becomes the mirror in which the image of the loved one is reflected”….That entails rather a complicated dialectic of love, in which the object is changed into the subject, ousting the subject who, tormented by the anxiety of prospective annihilation due to being deprived of his state as subject, desperately claims the right to a form of existence.

       The phantasm that monopolizes the soul is the image of an object. Now, since man is soul, and since soul is totally occupied by a phantasm, the phantasm is henceforth the soul. It follows that the subject, bereft of his soul, is no longer a subject: the phantasmic vampire has devoured it internally. But it also follows that the subject has now grafted itself onto the phantasm which is the image of the other, of the beloved. Metaphorically, therefore, it can be said that the subject has been changed into the object of his love.[5]

What results is obsession with an internalized, living image of the anima or animus that is always existent within the soul but now finitized, active, and intensified.

At a deeper level, there is a dialectic to this narcissism. The self’s inner image of itself is incomplete, because it does not “possess” that love object (that non-self or other) for which it yearns.[6] But in Couliano’s sense the “Western” ego/self unconsciously senses it must not ever possess it, for that would be utter self-destruction, given that the other must have autonomy in order to embody its numinous nature. This autonomy would be denied it were it assimilated or fully possessed by the ego. On the other hand, the other is apotheosized, elevated precisely because of its numinous nature. So instead of attaining it directly, the ego/self must be transformed to become worthy of this “object” infecting its inner landscape; the self must become more than it presently is in order even to meet it. This requires a synthesis, and that synthesis may be achieved through theurgy and magic. This internal ideal is, in both alchemy and magic, an asexual being because it is beyond the mundane embodiment in “given,” incomplete creation. By means of a sort of secular via negativa, we could say the human ideal is not mortal, not intellectually limited, not prone to disease, not prone to sin, not gendered, not sexed, not limited by 5 senses, etc.—all the qualities of the human, all-too-human. With this erasure comes the birth of a new being with unimagined (and perhaps unimaginable) qualities. It follows in a positive sense from that it would exist beyond the laws of physics, including perhaps time’s arrow and the entropy the arrow signifies, etc.

The problem is, as always, the supposed mind-body or spirit-matter split and how one aspect of our being affects the other one. The Renaissance sages, following their Neoplatonic forebears, found a way around this apparent contradiction.

As Ficino and Bruno learned by studying the ancient texts, a magician could use this natural procedure of Erotic fixation, amplify it with intense concentrated meditations, then reverse it and imbue physical objects such as talismans, amulets, candles, shields, pens, or paintings with this emotional/psychic power.

By these means Ficino and Bruno revived the ancient tradition of statue-animation. This, too, used angelic/astrological/planet-invoking processes, most of which date back to Sumeria, Akkadia, Babylon, and Egypt—and probably long before.[7] A transmission route can be traced from Egyptian funerary and resurrection practices on through Hebraic merkavah and hekhalot (“throne” and “chariot”) meditations to Iamblichus’s Neoplatonist theurgy and into the magic revived by Ficino; at least they all share a very strong family resemblance. All involved invoking angels/daimons, ethereal beings that inhabited both the physical world and the liminal space between the physical and the incorporeal. Eros binds them all together, and becomes the clay in the magician’s hands. The sages exploited the liminal realm, the third term, the penumbral that resists Aristotle’s excluded middle and rigid classificatory systems. Humanity’s finite nature and incompleteness becomes something amenable to transformation.

For the most part, the Florentine Academy’s “Christianized” hermetics was entirely in line with the goals of Iamblichean, Platonic, Hebraic, and Pythagorean practice: to contact the higher worlds via the daimons/angels, uplift the human practitioner of magic, and gain a vision of or even henosis (subsumption) with God. To imbue a statue with celestial/stellar energies was to create both an object of contemplation and, more importantly, a launching point for absorption to the higher spheres.

These procedures, along with those outlined in the Arabic grimoire Picatrix and remnants of the 5th-Century Greek Magical Papyri, were gathered in Cornelis Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1531), which remains the largest compendium of Neoplatonic magic ever written.

And of course, statue-animation (i.e., idolatry) and binding spells that involve daimons are the foundation from which the Abrahamic religions censure all forms of magic (except that of the miracles inspired by Jesus and Mary in Catholic Christianity’s case, and those of the Talmudic sages in mystical Kabbalism). The ancient Hebrews censured depictions of YHVH and speaking the name of God; Muhammad went further and condemned even depictions of human beings as sacrilegious. But in Judaism we find the mystical traditions of Kabbalah and a representation of the All as the Tree of Life, and in the latter we discover many Platonically-inspired geometric designs on mosques and illuminated Quran/hadith texts, as well as the Arabic script itself as being divinely imbued.



Then there was the alchemical tradition. When these tracts were disseminated in Latin it gave emotional impetus and new material for the lone magicians and alchemists to practice “hidden arts.” Although it is an ancient global project, the Westernized varieties of alchemy are concerned with attaining the “Philosopher’s Stone.” The consensus view is that this amounted to achieving the elixir vitae, or immortality for the human soul/spirit of the practitioner through chemical/pharmacological means, or through the production of a kind of spiritual substance within the alchemist’s body that preserved itself. Central to the alchemist’s view also is the idea of a prima materia; what we see around us are merely emanations, mixtures, or “masks” of this singular substance.[8] The four elements Earth, Water, Air, and Fire and the base metals/materials of which they are comprised in varying degrees could be wedded together to produce quintessence, a fifth element that possessed the desired emergent properties, one quality of which is indestructibility because it “shares more closely in the nature of the prima materia” of which everything is ultimately made. Metals were considered double-natured, because they could be melted to liquid and fused together. Mercury was “king of the metals” because it naturally possessed both solid and liquid properties and an inherent coherence even when separated into drops of any size. No other element had this quality, so mercury was of central importance in transmutations.

Alchemy means controlling the processes of change, whether it’s transforming elements through a hierarchy of levels by manipulating spiritual essences, or changing the consciousness of the practitioner’s biological processes and ultimately their aging process.[9] The most elaborate alchemical procedures involved the practitioner observing astrological strictures and undergoing ritual purification before the Great Work proceeded. As with Ficino’s and Bruno’s image-magic, specific planets’ and stars’ powers were invoked for specific operations. The goal was not only to affect bio/chemical change but alter the spiritual essence of the elements by way of the alchemists’ will and the “gods” of the elements they used—putting them in service to the alchemist.

Secrecy was always imperative to ancient, medieval, and Renaissance sage alike. The rabble was not only considered unworthy of such knowledge, it was feared that the secular use of such techniques could be disastrous (and for the same reason, the secular authorities feared and condemned the alchemist, who theoretically could mint as many gold coins as desired, debasing the currency). So purity is a quality consistently stressed throughout the tradition, which is achieved through prayer, fasting, chastity, and cleanliness. The magician-alchemist dealt with angels and demons, spirits and elementals, demigods and gods. Opening portals to the higher or lower worlds was serious business.[10]

This did not prevent adepts from organizing themselves into secret societies and using particular rituals to psychologically affect individuals (which was the goal of most of the rituals of the Greek Magical Papyri and many Solomonic magical texts). It was a small step to believe the same processes could also be used to transform humanityif not in its material bodies, then in its emotions, thinking, opinions, and social relations. This is the central tenet to conspiracists’ views on the matter.

It is certain that Giordano Bruno and the Rosicrucian tracts of 1614 boosted this societal prospect. As Couliano points out, Bruno’s essay “On Binding in General” (or “On the Chaining of Chains”) describes how the magician can manipulate the pneuma-images absorbed by both individuals and groups to do their bidding through sympathies and the prima materia of Eros.[11] Carl Jung believed transformation of the practitioner’s soul via individuation (the conscious incorporation of its repressed complexes) was alchemy’s ultimate goal, if only unconsciously for the alchemist, through the materials and rituals.[12]

What is the difference between a magician bending a single person’s will to theirs, and the Erotic channeling of a crowd or a nation’s collective will to the ends of a mad Elite? Or the creation of a manikin through astral influence and charging? These practices are only a few steps away from robotics, artificial intelligence, or the creation of MKULTRA “zombies” after all—right? It only requires the adjustment of outlook from magic’s spiritual power to a hardcore physicalist stance. The same ends by other means. Or does it?

Perhaps we should ask the wizards of Madison Avenue, and the AI gurus of MIT, DARPA, and Alphabet?


       When we combine the ideas of Ficino and Bruno’s Eros magic with the alchemical program, plus a scientific-humanist Elite bent on transforming our concept of the “human,” we get the paranoid belief-system to which millions subscribe today. Couliano alluded to this in his book in a very oblique manner (and some say that was why he was mysteriously murdered).

Although many conspiriologists see alchemy and its life-extension goals as the philosophical and practical beginning of transhumanism—and we can see how this is at least a possible rationalization—it is only plausible because of the physical aspects to its program, i.e. transmuting the elements, and by analogy transmutation (or perhaps just mutation) of the alchemist’s body, whether it be for longevity or the gaining of “superhuman” powers…By extension, according to the conspiracists’ thinking, the process implies a long-term project to transform humanity as a whole into another kind of being, as imagined spiritually in the writings of the 15th-16th century Florentine Academy and implied in the Rosicrucian tracts of 1614-18.

The Rosicrucian writings describe their members as “invisible healers.” In addition to healing diseases in the manner of shaman-physicians (by accessing the “otherworld” for help), these mystic physicians could be said to be performing theurgistic feats to convert their patients into adherents to their “new religion,” and set them on the path to spiritual perfection. This is called “perfectibility,” and its practitioners Perfectibilists.[13]


       The principles and structure of the first Freemasonic Grand Lodge of England chartered in 1717 would expand outward throughout Europe and America. The organization preserved both the esoterica of the Renaissance/Rosicrucian alchemists such as Heinrich Khunrath, Michael Maier, Robert Fludd, and John Dee, but also material from “Solomonic” grimoires; the latters’ contents can be traced back to the Egyptian-Greek magic papyri of the 2nd century CE via the Hygromanteia.[14] Many groups split off from this Grand Lodge and there’s evidence that Masonic fraternities far predated its 1717 public establishment. The fraternity’s secrecy spawned rumors of concealed atheism and political machinations. The former charge is entirely spurious, but the latter is true to an extent (as far as the German chapters go). As the empirical sciences spread, the “science of the spirit” was taught by degrees in the Lodges; a man could thus be a scientist by day and a mystical epopt by night.

This double-face is what brought the Lodges under public censure, despite the fact that freedom of worship was a core Freemasonic tenet and the dignity of humanity as free beings, first expounded by Pico della Mirandola in Florence, was the underlying ethos of the American and French Revolutions. The connection between the Florentine “free thinkers” and the Masons’s beliefs vis a vis the struggles against monarchy and arbitrary tyranny cannot be under-stressed.

Although Masonry’s goal is to spiritually transform its members, primarily in the death/rebirth rituals of the first three grades of Master Apprentice, many scholars see Freemasonry as an extension of Rosicrucianism, or as Rosicrucianism’s evolved form, or an alternate public front for a very secret society. The great financial wealth of many of its members and their philanthropic activities, which include the underwriting/endowing of think-tanks and medical programs (some with an openly transhumanist bent) is seen by conspiriologists as proof of the long-term project to transform certain members of society into what amounts to demigods; all the transhuman research is done “under cover” of extending existing medical techniques to relieve existing diseases.

What can actually be accomplished with secret medicine goes much further, these conspiricists say, pointing to NIH, DARPA, the Rockefeller Foundation, the thousands of subcontracted medical research facilities across the globe.

But we have a problem here with distinguishing between a) the existence of a secret program, which undoubtedly openly exists as “normal science” looking to cure disease and slow the aging process, b) the technological means to carry it out, which is equally probable, c) the psychological motivation of its technical practitioners, i.e., are they covertly bound to certain institutions and expected to deliver certain results for select clients? d) and most importantly, the end-purpose of such a program.

As the techniques of nanotechnology and genetic manipulation mature, they may move from quantitative organic changes to qualitative changes, as explored in my previous essays. When humans begin toying with the molecule and the chromosome and the gene we are dealing with very unpredictable results and a range of unintended consequences—just like our toying with the atom did. Market forces supposedly ensure that delivery of new medical miracles to the public be swift and uncluttered by moral subtleties…But of course it never happens that way, does it: recouping R & D costs is always given as the reason for astronomical prices for new treatments, despite the fact that in most cases taxpayer dollars were used to fund such studies through government NIH subcontracting.[15] Only the super-rich can afford the most avant-garde treatments that cost millions a year to deliver. Religious-conservative members of the American Congress are rhetorically outraged over the use of embryonic stem cells in disease research, etc., but the secular humanist/transhumanist subtext is that we must have no illusions that other countries, namely China[16] possess no such scruples as we do, and they will be the ones to push ahead in the biological race to immortality. If you doubt, consider this:

But to give the conspiracists some weak credit: Excluding the popularity of Shelley’s Frankenstein, what by the early 20th century was a marginal literary genre called science/speculative fiction has now become a 360-degree cultural bestiary. In other words, at this point transhumanist propaganda of all degrees of acceptance or critique is ubiquitous, and has almost “normalized” visions of a future humanity that just five decades ago would have been considered horror shows.

No doubt humans are intrinsically fascinated with our abilities to magically change our selves, our destinies, our capabilities—and equally fascinated with our penchant to fuck up everything we touch. Culture has reflected this from the beginning of recorded history in myth and history. So, according to the conspiriologists, the body-augmentation work goes on in secret military and private sector labs whose fingerprints are seen in published papers that do get mainstream coverage: DARPA works on “supersoldiers” who possess pharma (and possibly genetic) alterations for enhanced hearing and vision and drugs that can keep them awake for days without deleterious effects.[17] Since World War Two, arms races both real and ginned-up have been the norm between the US military industrial complex and other countries. The armed forces are always the beneficiary of breakthroughs because “national security” ensures the Pentagon and its vast network of subcontracted labs and university research receives billions to further their secretive aims.

In any case, this split between viewpoints on the original source of transhumanism seems to depend on how one views humanity: as a finished product, set for all time (as the Abrahamic religions and Aristotle’s Lyceum academy saw it) or unfinished/able to transcend by its own efforts the physical, mental, and spiritual bonds entailed by our “thrownness” into the world, as Plato, the Neoplatonists, and Florentine Academy saw it. One professing creation ex nihilo by God will see humanity as the property of God; one seeing emanation as the human matrix will see us as properties of God, blinded and unable to change our state of existence without special and hidden knowledge and techniques.


Generally, humanism came to mean the belief that humanity can be studied, and through that study, its behavior altered to conform to a “higher ideal” of its own choosing.

       Who does this choosing for the masses is another matter.

Secularism became synonymous with a rejection of any power perceived as higher than humanity’s intellect and aspirations, as seen in the Enlightenment’s philosophes and science’s embargo on morality in favor of “value-free” research. It is in this wider sense that transhumanism is defined—but we must never lose sight of the source of this vision of improvement or perfectibility in the alchemists’ visions.

The alchemists’ quest to “return to the cosmic origin” is a noble one. The creative, eternal force of God/Tao/Ungrund still exists, shattered by embodied nature into the “ten thousand things” of Lao Tse, or Jewish alchemist Maria the Prophetess’s axiom “from the one comes two, from the two the three, and from the three, the all (completion).”

The alchemist and Neoplatonist seek reunion with the One by various reversal and reuniting procedures for vision, guidance, and elevation, an intensification of being, a heightened sense of interdependence and connection with the Creator and Creation. In this, alchemy is ultimately a spiritual program in which salvation from the bonds of materiality may be said to be the goal—and not particularly the augmentation of the body’s existence.

No such lofty program exists for the transhumanist, it seems, except more—more of everything, pleasurable experience, edification, learning! Perhaps in their extended longevity and enhanced mind they will stumble across the reality of the eternal, a preexisting condition that operates always and everywhere, encoded into the cosmos’ very fabric. One can only hope.



[1] The ethical concerns of the resurrected “pagan” philosophers allowed morality to be purged of supernatural origin. Instead, with the “new instruments” of skepticism and Socrates/Plato’s elenchus, nature’s workings could be revealed through observation, experimentation, and logic. By the 18th century, the French philosophes promoted the idea that humanity alone possessed the means and methods to determine its behavior and morality and the scope of its knowledge.

[2] Strictly, this name refers to St. Thomas’s exegesis on the four gospels; but Thomas was himself an adept and alchemist, and it has come to mean an occult tradition passed down though time.

[3] Three centuries later, G.F.W. Hegel would extract a “dialectical movement” from natural and human history that would supposedly end in self-transparent Spirit—and the Prussian democratic state. His student Feuerbach would strip theology from the Hegelian equations, creating the philosophical bridge that allowed Marx to build his materialist story of human cultural evolution. In all three eschatologies, the emancipation of humanity from nature was destined to occur, whether by Spirit coming to itself or the dawning consciousness of the workers’ conditions and their rectification (in Marx’s case). All of these end scenarios are dark reflections of the popular but theologically irregular monk Joachim de Fiore’s vision of an Earthly Paradise under divine love (the Age of the Holy Spirit) that he espoused in the 13th century.

[4] Couliano, Ioan. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, University of Chicago Press, 1987, pgs. 30-31.

[5] ibid, pg. 31.

[6] You might say human history is the story of how we fill this lack, over and above the meeting of material needs; the monk and nun seek communion with the transcendent by any name, the shaman fulfills the spiritual needs of the community by the results of their astral journeys,

[7] These formalized procedures most likely originated with prehistoric shamanistic animation of dolls constructed for healing or harming purposes.

[8] This brings us to the Neoplatonists’s many formulations of reality, which is why alchemy is tied up with ancient Egypt by way of Plato’s supposed initiation there, and the Neoplatonist’s obsession with a “ladder” of being one could ascend to achieve the One.

[9] The most ancient forms of alchemy were Chinese and were concerned with exiles for longevity sought by emperors. See Levenda, Peter, Stairway to Heaven: Chinese Alchemists, Jewish Kabbalists, and the Art of Spiritual Transformation.

[10] I suppose they viewed their secret knowledge as akin to the blueprints for a hydrogen bomb circa 1930, as if Leo Szilard, Teller, Einstein, and Fermi had concealed from governments through (seeming) absurd symbolic codes the method for building the heinous device.

[11] Couliano, (1987), pgs. 87-143

[12] It is also possible that the chemical fumes that were produced as a byproduct (barring those that would damage or kill of course) induced altered states of consciousness in the alchemist and, by way of the psychokinetic powers unleashed, assisted in the physical transformations of the prima materia.

[13] This was the name used by the 18th-century Bavarian Illuminati sect under the Jesuit Mason Adam Weishaupt, but it has gained traction as a term for anyone sporting the attitude of limitless change for humanity through technology, whether physical or spiritual.

[14] See the works of Stephen Skinner on the history of the Solomonic tradition.

[15] See Dr. Marcia Angell’s The Truth About the Drug Companies: How they Deceive Us and What to Do About It for the full story of medical-industrial complex chicanery.

[16] The very land where alchemy is said to have originated during the unification of the first Chinese state by Tai Yu the Great in the 20th century BCE.