|Alchemical Images, Implicit Communications, and Transitional States: The Splendor Solis in the Consulting Room|
|Congresses - 2004 Barcelona|
|Written by Dyane N. Sherwood|
Dyane N. Sherwood
1 Joseph L. Henderson, Shadow and Self, Wilmette, Illinois, Chiron Publications, 1990, 63.
I hope today to illustrate and develop these themes using images from an alchemical manuscript, the Splendor Solis (1582).
The San Francisco analyst Joseph Henderson, who will celebrate his 101st birthday tomorrow (August 31, 2004), analyzed with Jung and attended Jung’s English lectures in the 1930s. In 1937, while Joe was in medical school in London, he came across a beautiful alchemical treatise in the rare manuscript collection of the British Museum. The colors in its illuminated paintings – made from actual gold and silver, from stones such as lapis, and from plant extracts – spoke to dreams about color that he’d been having, and he became intrigued with them. As he got to know them better, he found that they spoke to him rather directly about the work of analysis. Joe has been contemplating these images ever since and has used them for teaching generations of analysts.
I have had the good fortune to consult with Joe for the past ten years, and together, we have written a book1 relating the illuminated paintings of the Splendor Solis to the process of depth transformation.
In the Splendor Solis, an alchemical process is shown in three different series of images. In our book, we address the symbolism in the paintings and relate it to analytic process and dream images. We’ve tried to remain true to the spirit of alchemy and analysis by presenting the material in way that invites the imagination of the reader rather than attempting definitive interpretations.
As you might be curious about its origins, I can tell you that the copy of the Splendor Solis in the British Library was probably painted in Southern Germany, and it is dated 1582. It has been speculated that the images in the Splendor Solis were copied by students of alchemy and handed down for many years, even generations. Certain features, such as a knight with a scimitar, suggest that they could have an Arabic origin or influence.
In the first series we see familiar alchemical symbols, such as the meeting of the Queen and King and the Philosophical Tree (Fig. 1), but in a much more expressive and sophisticated form than most of the alchemical images that have survived to this day. On the pedestal below are scenes, including ones from Greek myth, legends, and historical events. The second series of paintings also depicts a process of transformation (Fig. 2), but one that has more objective qualities and relates interior experience, shown in the vessel in the center of the painting, both to the planet ruler in the sky above and to the world of the senses in the surrounding scene.
1 Joseph L. Henderson and Dyane N. Sherwood, Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis, New York and London, Routledge, 2003.
A final series of four paintings represents the whole, and in a way that for me conveys the heart and soul of transformation in depth. I will discuss all four images in the last part of my lecture.
We can’t really know how the painter of the Splendor Solis images related to them, what was conscious and intentional. However, I am suggesting that we can read at least some aspects of the paintings across time and cultures because they rely on universal and basic modes of implicit communication, in addition to explicit references to mythological and biblical stories.
The importance of implicit communication, unconscious processing, and active imagination are so much a part of what we do as Jungian analysts that we seldom state it explicitly. I want to bring in another way of discovering their importance, which may help you to appreciate it in a fresh way.
I have been heartened to see that over the past two decades and especially in the past several years, psychoanalysts influenced by developmental psychology and neurobiology, have formulated views about the nature of the unconscious and the process of analysis which are converging with those of analytical psychology.
Allan Schore, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst, has been particularly active in studying and integrating the neurological literature in relation to attachment and trauma. His ideas have been stimulated in part by studies using imaging techniques which allow the observation of brain activity in real time. Schore is making a strong and carefully documented argument for a radical revision of psychoanalytic theory and technique. He has even suggested that the couch might need to be set aside in favor of working face-to-face!
Schore writes, “Instead of a repository of archaic untamed passions and destructive wishes, the unconscious is now seen as a cohesive, active mental structure that continuously appraises life’s experiences and responds according to its scheme of interpretation.”1
We might be inclined to say that it is not a choice between the two but rather that the unconscious contains both archaic passions and a structure or process that seeks cohesion and meaning. Schore continues, “And in contrast to a static, deeply buried storehouse of ancient memories silenced in ‘infantile amnesia, ’ contemporary intersubjective psychoanalysts now refer to a ‘relational unconscious, ’ whereby one unconscious mind communicates with another unconscious mind.”2
1 Alan Schore, Affect Regulation & the Repair of the Self, New York and London, W. W. Norton & Company, 2003, xvi.
2 Schore, xvi.
We might compare this statement to Jung’s “Psychology of the Transference,” first published in 1946, where he explored the unconscious- to-unconscious relationship between the analyst and the patient, referring to the alchemical images of the Rosarium. (Fig. 3) Here we see the image of the king and queen of the Rosarium, who join their left hands suggesting their unconscious union in the work.
As Jung wrote,
In addition to unconscious- to-unconscious or implicit communication, both Jung and Schore refer to improved self-regulation as an important parameter of analytic work.
We now have some clues about the location in the brain where higher order processing of self- regulation takes place. Our bodies and brains have a bilateral form, with representations of the left side of the body connecting to the right side of the brain. Thus the left hands of the king and queen in our alchemical picture connect to the right sides of their brains. Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1981 for showing that the right and left sides of the human cerebral cortex are not simple mirrors of one another but that areas of the right and left cortices are differentiated to perform specific tasks. The specialization of cortical functions continues to develop until at least puberty, and some regions retain their plasticity throughout life.
Allan Schore and others have focused on one particular region in the right hemisphere, the orbitofrontal cortex, which they suggest is the brain region responsible for higher order affect regulation. The orbitofrontal cortex – which, as it name implies, is at the front of the brain behind the orbit of the eyes – receives inputs from the limbic regions of the brain, meaning literally the part of the brain that is on the edge, where things meet. The limbic system integrates inputs from the autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamus, and other areas involved in physical and emotional self-regulation, with information from the five senses. The orbitofrontal cortex is thought to support a more differentiated non-reactive response to one’s affective circumstances, and it is a region that remains plastic – in other words, can change and develop – throughout the lifespan. This is important, because neuroscientists believed until fairly recently that the adult brain could lose nerve cells but not make new ones.
1 C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 16, §410.
Let’s now turn to one of the many ways that affect is communicated unconsciously and may be experienced unconsciously by both the sender and receiver of the information.
Before I became a psychotherapist, I was a student of ethology and neurobiology, and at that time, thirty years ago, I was very taken with Darwin’s book, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals,1 in which he explored species- specific emotional responses and communications through facial expression in much the same way as he compared morphology within and across species (Fig. 4). Here you see some dramatic photographs of basic facial expressions from his original edition of the book.
People in twenty-one countries were shown these pictures for 10-15 seconds. There was agreement upon the emotions expressed in each.
Using more sophisticated techniques (Fig. 6), Paul Ekman and others have confirmed and extended Darwin’s observations that certain basic emotions and their facial expression are recognizable across cultures. Among Jungians, Lou Stewart and Joan Chodorow have integrated this same work into their studies of affect and expression.2
1 The most recent edition: Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, (Introduction, Afterword and Commentaries by Paul Ekman), New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
2 Joan Chodorow, “Play, Imagination, and the Emotions,” North-South Conference of Jungian Analysts, March 1–4, 2001, np. (from a work-in -progress for the Carolyn and Ernest Fay Series in Analytical Psychology).
INTERPERSONAL AWARENESS & EMOTIONS
Our faces, if uncensored, reflect our emotional state, and in turn, we each have the potential to respond to and perhaps make meaning of the emotional states of others as communicated through facial expression. However, the development of this capacity is shaped by dispositional factors and by experience in relationships and culture.
Recent neurobiological research has shown that a very slight change in a human facial expression (Fig. 7) is detected and processed by an observer within a tenth of a second, 1 long before it reaches consciousness. Facially-expressed state changes are often mirrored within three- or four-tenths of a second (300 to 400 msec.).2 These reactions may or may not later come into conscious awareness.
1 S. R. Lehky, “Fine Discrimination of faces can be performed rapidly,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 2000, 848-855.
2 U. Dimberg, M. Thunberg, and K. Elmehed, “Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions,” Psychological Science 11, 2000, 86-89.
The role of face-to-face contact between mothers and infants has been of interest to developmental psychologists for many years, and it is known that human infants early on see most clearly at the distance from the mother’s breast to her face. Infants prefer to gaze at drawings of faces where the eyes, nose, and mouth are in the normal configuration in comparison to faces where the features are rearranged. They prefer eye-to-eye alignment, and both mothers and infants can be observed tilting their heads to achieve this arrangement. Of course, things don’t always go smoothly, and once a pattern is set in motion it may be self-reinforcing. When I worked with mothers and infants with attachment disorders, I saw infants who struggled to make eye contact with depressed mothers, as well as infants who looked away from their mothers’ faces, apparently overstimulated or distressed by the contact. This early patterning of psyche-soma is a fundamental problem that we address in analytic work, and we cannot underestimate the possibilities of maladaptive self-regulatory schemata which unconsciously cause a person to recreate a known but overwhelming or depriving state of being. In other words, the psyche-soma may be set to create a situation or field which matches a pathologic one, because that is the known thing around which self-regulation, struggles to function.
Affective communications through facial expression can move us into a new state or field. It is a two-way process, at the very least. While the expression of basic emotions is universal, human facial expressions of more complex states can be quite difficult read, and may stimulate anxiety or curiosity in the viewer.
Now let’s turn to the very first painting of the twenty-two in the Splendor Solis (Fig. 7) It shows us the coat of arms of alchemy in the
So: this painting represents the beginning of the work, or someplace in the middle perhaps, when a shield or defense or adaptation begins to dis-integrate. The painting brings us into that emotional field through its implicit contents, including facial expression, as well as by its more explicit contents. The two men conversing provide a compensatory sense that it is possible to discuss and relate at the same time that one is falling apart.
Now let us go on to another image, the fourth in the series (Fig. 9), where, like the Rosarium image of the King and Queen, we see a meeting of these two symbolic figures. I sometimes like to imagine that they have been sitting on their thrones, facing the world, and that they are just now finding themselves outside the royal court, in nature, and facing each other.
What do their expressions and gestures tell us? The queen holds up her left palm and points with her forefinger, while the king opens his right palm. Do the expressions on the sun and moon echo their facial expressions or complement them? Can we look at this without some apprehension and curiosity as to what is going to happen in this highly charged meeting of the opposites? Might we see this painting as using implicit communication to tell us about the nature of affect and inner experience, or to put it another way, to induce a state change in the viewer that we can recognize as something we have experienced when containing rather than acting out a conflict?
Before we take this approach and apply it to help us contemplate the final four images of the Splendor Solis, I would like to show you a few drawings made by a patient I’ll call Ann. They are affective expressions from her psyche that help both of us to know things about her inner struggle that she cannot articulate. They are not intellectual musings about herself based on theories, and in fact she says she doesn’t know where they come from and finds them disturbing. I see them as rather powerful affective statements that paradoxically have a remarkable objectivity.
This is an image [drawings redacted] which I understand as the split between her fine discerning intellect and her emotional life, but which is here conveyed in a such a way that I feel her terror. Ann has frequent flashbacks in which she re-experiences the severe abuse that began when she was very young. While Ann never forgot the actual events, she dissociated from the physical and emotional pain. She draws tears but she does not cry. But when I am with her, I feel that my heart is broken. For now, I feel the pain that she does not. Ann says she feels hideous and filthy, demented, but my empathic resonance and state of being were affected much more deeply when she brought me a drawing expressing what the words could not convey. Her mind was not available to know the meaning of what was happening to her, something she depicted in another drawing, and which I feel corresponds to a description by Schore:
While we might find this distinction to be somewhat simplistic, it certainly applies in the most extreme cases.
As you know from your own experience, the nonverbal unconscious right brain does express itself. Jung went beyond the recognition of the unconscious-to-unconscious relationship to explore its phenomenology and therapeutic methods that support the expression of the unconscious psyche. While we attend to developmental aspects of the relationship, we remember that we are working with an adult whose brain has already developed and who may, within the holding space of the analytic relationship, have ways of expressing and healing that are not available to infants.
I now want to show you the final four paintings of the Splendor Solis.2 I believe that they speak to the process of suffering and transformation that I experience in my consulting room and in life. We might think of them as implicit communications which are listened to by the right side of our brains and through all of our being, not through words or narrative only, but affectively, imagistically, linking Self to image unconsciously even before a conscious process has time to occur. We might ask ourselves whether each of these paintings represents a liminal or transitional space.
1 Schore, 245.
2 Parts of the text are taken from Henderson and Sherwood, 2003.
In the first image (Plate III-1. Fig. 10), we see the sun with a human face. We also see a landscape without people but with the personified sun at the horizon and yet visible through earth and water. Its golden rays fill the sky and also seem to travel through the earth to appear in the landscape in the foreground. The sun is black above the horizon, and brilliant golden rays appear to emerge from the blackness. What might this mean? Has a dark sun, or sol niger, eclipsed the golden sun? Is the sun rising or setting? What does the human face of the sun, seen through earth and water, convey to you?
We can see signs of death in the blackened stumps of trees but also new growth in the form of delicate plants highlighted with gold. Rivers undulate toward the horizon, where larger trees and a city lit by the sun can be seen. The golden frame holding this scene is filled with flowers and animals, including snails, caterpillars, butterflies, birds, and a frog – reminding us that this process takes place within the multiplicity and vigor of the life force.
The darkened trees in the foreground suggest that the landscape had become desiccated, perhaps by too much heat and too little water, or by a fire. This might correspond to feelings of being depressed, dried up, flat, or empty. We are also reminded of the destructive potential of too much analysis, particularly in its reductionistic or overly intellectualized forms. In “Psychology of the Transference,” Jung related the phenomenon of soul loss to the loss of libido, as well as a turning-inward that may precede a new conscious attitude.
The light of the sun has disappeared into the earth, into matter, and a kind of consciousness or intelligence is at work underground, in the watery depths of the unconscious. Or we might say that the light of consciousness has turned its energies away from the activities of life to illuminate what is buried in the unconscious ground of existence.
In this scene we also can see signs of life and hope in the young plants, with green and golden foliage, growing from the roots of a dead tree.
This image symbolizes the fundamental inseparability of death and rebirth. The very landscape, as well as the human expression on the face of the sun, suggest a simultaneous death and renewal in nature.
We might also think of this image as representing a state of being where healing has begun to take place at a very basic (plant) level. This brings to mind the so-called “vegetative” or autonomic nervous system, where our psychosomatic responses can occur completely unconsciously. The absence of humans and other animals suggests that instinctual and intellectual activities have not fully revitalized in terms of action and will.
Mary Jo Spencer, a San Francisco analyst,1 has noted that there is something very compelling about the actual image of the dark sun looking out over a natural landscape without any human presence. She has suggested that this conveys a feeling that is more like a presence behind the human condition, or even behind the elements. It is perhaps a sense of that presence that informs the capacity of a person in analysis to refrain from unconsciously pursuing familiar activities and from willful problem-solving.
You might be surprised by what follows (Plate III-2, Fig. 11), unless you reflect on your own experiences where a dark and nearly unbearable time seems to release energy for humor and play. Perhaps you will recall how meaningful it is when a patient reaches a point where she or he is able to be genuinely playful.
1 Comments made at a videotaped lecture by Dr. Henderson for the Archives for Research in Archetypal Symbolism in San Francisco on the Splendor Solis, San Francisco, 1987.
The text which corresponds to this image was used in the announcement our this conference: “Wherefore is this Art compared to the play of children, who when they play, turn undermost that which before was uppermost.”1
Here we see the only image of an interior in the Splendor Solis, and it brings to mind what goes on in our consulting rooms symbolically, as well as words like potential space, transitional space, and reverie. The room in the painting is warmed by a tile stove and by the presence of a maternal figure. She holds an infant who may be self-comforting by sucking his hand while looking out at the older children, who are mobile and playing. A toddler touches the woman’s skirt and elicits eye contact, in what Margaret Mahler called “refueling” before returning to play.
Other children engage in solitary, parallel, and interactive play, exploring with delight the effect of moving air on windmills and imaginatively using materials at hand for imagination and bodily experience.
The perspective of the picture leads the eye toward a doorway. Above the doorway rest two vessels containing a yellow liquid. For the alchemists, yellow or citrinatis represented a transitional stage. Why are there two vessels? We might think of the number two as denoting something that is just coming into consciousness, or we might think of the two people necessary for human relationship, and of unconscious-to-unconscious communication, since in the previous series the alchemical vessels contained the symbols of the interior and perhaps unconscious process. The doorway opens to a dark space, where a girl is carrying something, perhaps a basin, with both hands. What might this mean? What is the link between the room and the dark space, separated by the doorway? Does this girl represent the anima? Does her presence, perhaps carrying water, imply that there is work going on in the darkness, in the unconscious which is accessed in this secure setting full of affectively positive human connections and imaginative play? Could it be an intimation of what is to come, the next enantiodromia, – or for those of you who know the I Ching – an old yang turning into a young yin?
1 Henderson and Sherwood, Appendix: English Tranlation of the Harley text of the Splendor Solis, 180.
This painting (Fig. 12, Plate III-3) shows a well-known alchemical symbol, women washing. The women work with nature and with the elements: there is no implication that they have special abilities. The process is represented as the ordinary work of women receiving no special recognition or rewards.
As in the previous two images, we see all the elements: earth, air, fire, and water.
A river runs through a verdant countryside. Neither its source nor its direction is visible. Could this represent the mysterious source and destination of the Self?
Washing clothes and putting them out in the sun to dry is concretely and symbolically a combination of the solutio and the solificatio, a purification. The laying of the cloth on the ground refers to the processes of distillation and sublimation. Water on the earth evaporates into the air during the heat of the day and then in the coolness of the night, it condenses back onto the surface of the earth as dew. An alchemical text advised, “Gather Dew in the Month of May, with a clean white Linnen Cloth spread upon the Grass.”1 In her commentary on Aurora Consurgens, Marie-Louise von Franz referred to alchemical texts which advised that dew must be gathered before sunrise, before “the sun robs it [the earth] of its dew in order to nourish itself, and then the earth is ‘a widow and without husband’”2 She concluded that, “… the east or dawn was correlated not only with the rubedo (blood and life) but also with the feminine, white, ‘dewy’ substance fertilized by the spirit.”3 However, dew was also associated with the mercurial fiery- water, or spirit, and so can be seen to correspond to the masculine spiritual substance which fertilizes the earth.4
The alchemy is no longer in the laboratory. It is found in the humble, daily, repetitive work of life, such as the work we do as analysts. We might note in this context that many spiritual disciplines also use a method of mindful repetition, as in the Zen precept, “Chop wood, carry water.”
1 Quoted in John Read, Prelude to Chemistry, London, G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1936, 157.
2 Marie-Louise von Franz (ed.) Aurora Consurgens, New York, Bollingen Foundation, 1966, 206.
3 von Franz, 206.
4 See Alexander Roob, Alchemy & Mysticism, New York and London, Taschen, 1997, 47.
The final plate of the series (Fig. 13, Plate III-4), and of the Splendor Solis, is of the sun above a gray landscape. As in the first plate of this final series, the foreground contains blackened tree stumps and delicate foliage. The new growth appears to be a different kind of plant.
Patricia Damery, a San Francisco analyst whom I consulted about plant identification, suggested that the newly growing plants might be ones that are better adapted to the bright sunlight of higher altitudes, again pointing to life on a new basis.
A path or stream meanders from the foreground toward a large walled city, with many-spired buildings. A large, gated bridge traverses a river separating the viewer from the city. In the near-ground, to the left, a humble house is nestled among trees. Might this suggest a life closer to nature, with access to collective life but not immersion within it?
The sun’s rays do not seem to light the city which it is so near, and its lower rays cannot be seen beneath the horizon, as in the first picture in this series (Fig. 10, Plate III-1). The city is in shadow, which doesn’t make rational sense as the sun is high in the sky. What is happening here? Even high in the mountains, we see glimmers at sunrise and sunset. Could it be that the sun is not lighting up the world?
How do you read the expression on the human face of the sun? It reminds me of Wolter’s description of images of the Greek god Asklepios, as quoted by Kerenyi:
Applied to the process of analysis, the final plate could suggest that the initial loss of soul has lifted – but not into an inflation. The individual is not identified with the archetypal image of the sun in its splendor. Paradoxically, this particular image of the sun, as a symbol of conscious awareness, tells us that becoming more conscious does not mean a state of elation but rather a fuller awareness of the human condition. It also reminds me of something Jung wrote in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:
These images were painted during the Renaissance in the sixteenth century, when kingship was still very much alive and the domination of countries by kings, by the principle of kingship, was still very much in place. However, in the final series of four, all the royal symbols are absent – no kings, no queens, no princes – no symbols of power or prestige. Alchemy was often regarded as heretical to Christianity and dangerous to the principle of invested power. Alchemy kept bringing in the Feminine Principle and the earth, talking about things that did not at all fit in with the outward forms of culture.
In fact, this final painting contains no symbolism in the sense that we usually use the term symbol. Rather, we see a world of quietly evocative imagery. It is as though the reality of the individual and the imagery come together, and ordinary life now exists in liminal states, imbued with depth and meaning.
1 Wolter, as quoted in: Kerényi, K. Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence (trans. Ralph Manheim), New York (Bollingen Series LXV. 3) and London, 1959. (Originally published in German as Der Göttliche Arzt, 1947), 22-3.
2 C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 7, §275: