I never got round to Colin Wilson’s fiction. Or Arthur Koestler’s. I knew that Patrick Harpur, author of two of my favourite books (Daimonic Reality and The Philosopher’s Secret Fire) had also done “a novel”, but as ever my mysterious lack of interest in reading fiction seemed destined to leave it in the shade.
I call my lack of interest in fiction “mysterious”, because whenever I get round to a novel, I invariably love it. I guess my attention is just too occupied by rooting for “information” and inspiration in non-fiction. Well, imagine my delight in discovering that Harpur’s novel was not only a warmly absorbing read, a gripping narrative peppered with crisply evocative images and deeply engaging characters; it is also a masterful blend of fiction and non-fiction.
The premise is that an ex-lover of Harpur’s left a manuscript on his London doorstep while he was out. Having broken off their relationship suddenly, riven by spiritual dislocation, Eileen had fled to a run-down vicarage in a small West Country village. Here, it seems, she discovered the alchemical diary of the town’s vicar in the 1950s, a certain “John Smith”. Her hunger for gnostic insight leads her to start piecing together Smith’s experiments—including a debatably successful attempt at the Great Work—and his particular take on the alchemical quest. Echoes of disaster and nefarious intrigue haunt Smith’s legacy, still felt by some residents of the village, and suffused through the buildings and landscape of its rural locale. Eileen’s manuscript is a combination of Smith’s diary, together with her own. Both jump from philosophical and psychological speculation on the alchemical opus to their everyday relationship with the village and the local environment.
Harpur himself interjects only occasionally, with footnotes and occasional, more extensive endnotes, elucidating particular points. His usual hobby-horses, such as structuralist anthropology and Fortean phenomena, are much in evidence, as is his penetrating, common (and uncommon) sense mind.
It’s tempting, of course, the take the whole thing as a clever conceit; and certainly, it seems there is as much art as Art here. But such an easy categorization would, at best, miss the point. Whether Harpur has embroidered actual experiences, spinning out a yarn based on some truth, or merely added the occasional personal insight to a wholly fabricated tale, the tricksterish Mercurius, the representative figure of the alchemical process, should be allowed to fully inhabit one’s reading of the book. This flighty messenger of the gods, guardian of commerce and thievery, communication and deceit, asks us to push past the weighing up of fact and fiction, to see what both may be saying to us. Distilling one’s own reading of the book becomes, naturally, an alchemical process in itself: trying to separate the author’s own story from his ruse, and then seeing them combine into a transcendent inner significance.
The narrative parts of the diaries build up a vivid image of English village life, lacking any sickly tourism-tinged sentimentality, but glowing with the life of eccentric inhabitants, exquisitely delineated flora and fauna, and of course pervasive weather (tellingly, more varied in the 1950s). Without becoming too literal or rigidly symbolic, Harpur allows this human and other-than-human environment to interpenetrate with Smith’s Great Work and Eileen’s personal upheavals, making the characters’ lives no mere “backdrop” for their spiritual activity, but part of its very fabric.
Given the bizarre and frequently sexual imagery deployed by the alchemical imagination, it’s no surprise to find murky and sometimes disturbing erotic episodes at key junctures. C.G. Jung—whose psychological reflections on alchemy are considered here at length and with great insight—was often criticized by Freudians for losing sight of the carnal reality of sexuality by emphasizing its sublimations in spiritual symbolism. Harpur’s earthy and revealing narrative transcends this particular issue, the alternating of philosophical musings with personal confessions and painful events making the intimate relationship between Heaven and Earth lucid if not artificially “clear”.
Crucial to this and all of Harpur’s narrative and philosophical successes is his thorough and uncompromising assessment of alchemy itself. Elsewhere he has argued that the modern scientific revolution engendered a split in European consciousness, driving the life of the world inside, down into the “unconscious”—this concept being a result of science banishing psychic life from the manifest world. As this revolution unfolded, alchemy—besides becoming increasingly irrelevant to most people—began to split. Our perspective on it shunted between the literal quest for gold and the mystical or psychological quest for salvation. “Real” alchemy, the modern, Jung-informed occultist will say, is the process of realizing the Self, not that nonsense about cooking metals. That’s “just a metaphor”. Harpur insists that real alchemy only exists in a perspective that antedates the scientific breach; from our post-science perspective, it was a fusion of the “literal” and “metaphorical” aspects, in one. The alchemist cooks his metals, and transforms himself.
Harpur asserts that reflux distillation, the circular, repeated cooking of the alchemical substances, “provides a model—perhaps the only model—for the dynamic interrelationship of the elements within the human unity, and especially for the origins of self-consciousness.” Appreciating the significance of this can be approached via this thoroughly excellent, deeply illuminating and enjoyable book; but the message is that it can only be achieved by practising the Great Work itself, in body and soul.
Read our interview with Patrick Harpur.