Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence

Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence

by Karen Pinkus


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804760324
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/09/2009
Pages: 229
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Karen Pinkus is Professor of Italian, French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Montesi Scandal: The Death of Wilma Mostesi and the Birth of the Paparazzi in Fellini's Rome (2003).

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A Theory of Ambivalence
By Karen Pinkus

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6032-4

Chapter One


Woe! Stuck within this dungeon yet? Curse this dank frowsty cabinet, Where even Heaven's dear ray can pass But murkily through tinted glass! -Goethe, Faust I, 398-401

Alchemy's relation to "visibilia" extends beyond the extremely rich field of images that appear in alchemical manuscripts to embrace vision, transmutation, and ambivalence. Consider the Belvedere vodka advertisement (Figure 1) with its prime signifier: alchemy. Isn't the introduction of such a "low" image already a form of reverse transmutation or debasing of the noble art? Any investigation of premodern iconology through a modern advertisement must refer itself in some measure to Aby Warburg. His unfinished project of a "universal pictorial Atlas" (his words-the geographic migrations of images seem crucial to maintain), Mnemosyne, would have brought modern advertisements into proximity with images archaic and antique. Warburg's project (regardless of whether or not we wish to interpret it as a symptom of his mental illness; as schizophrenic, bipolar, or ambivalent) opens itself up to forward- and backward-moving transmissions of ideasand affect. His concept of pathosformel, or emotive formula, can certainly be understood as duality. In its embrace of form and content, of rational idea and irrational emotion, of ethos (interiorized self-control) and pathos (unbridled self-loss) it is filled with a life force. The conflict between ancient and modern makes a vivid formal imprint (Formegepräge) on a viewer of an image.

The vodka advertisement is most certainly inspired-even if indirectly-by any number of early modern genre paintings, especially from the Lowlands of the seventeenth century, the most intense temporal and spatial confluence of alchemical visibilia. In particular, the two popular genres that the ad evokes are (a) a doctor (or, in some variants, a quack) analyzing a urine sample of a patient, and (b) the alchemist in his laboratory. In the first instance, a doctor may hold a clear vessel containing the urine of a female patient up to the light, as in the advertisement. Medical science of the seventeenth century (rightly) held that cloudy urine was an indicator of illness or pregnancy. Typically, the Dutch paintings in the uroscopy classification are said to contain a moral subtext. The woman patient may be pregnant by her lover, so the news delivered by the doctor is not exactly welcome. Or she may be suffering from lovesickness, and elements in the painting may highlight the vanity of impossible desire. Critics sometimes see these paintings as indictments of quack doctors with false credentials or of the gullibility of patients. The lover or husband is rarely present for the visit, so the "doctor visit" paintings normally portray an intimate interaction between a man and a woman who is not his wife. The scenes are usually highly dramatic, staging the moment at which visual proof of a yet-invisible truth is established. The mise-en-scène-and again, consider such paintings in general as a genre-does not develop in some abstract or theatricalized space, but rather, in the bedroom or sitting room of the woman; a room that is depicted in all of its bourgeois specificity with concentrated attention to the gleaming objects, paintings, furniture, and fabrics that belong to the woman, or better, to her husband or father. These are the real objects that surround her in daily life, and they form a mise-en-abîme, the inherited and accumulated wealth that will be passed on to her offspring, whose presence is perhaps signaled or negated in the liquid of the vessel itself.

Gerard ter Borch's Consultation (Figure 3) is both typical and atypical of the urine-analysis genre. The pose of the doctor who holds the glass up to the light constitutes the signature element. The office overflows with things-an overturned broken jug, a skull, mirror, dog-eared tomes, an hourglass-that reappear so often in alchemist paintings. Tiny white flowers are scattered on the floor, symbols, perhaps, of chastity undone. Where do they come from? They are fresh, as if they have just fallen from a plant, but the room is barren and dark. And what is written on the white piece of paper that lies next to the doctor's foot? Is it a name linked to the urine? A diagnosis? In some sense, the presence of vanitas objects on the messy desk cast suspicion on the doctor's capabilities. The suggestion that the doctor may be a quack is certainly not unprecedented in the larger classification of doctor-visit works from the period. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find a maid delivering the urine for her mistress, perhaps because the visit is to be kept secret from the husband. So far, then, ter Borch has drawn on available conventions. But there are two rather atypical elements in this painting. First, the maid carries urine in an earthenware bowl rather than a clear glass vessel. The doctor is busy with another patient's urine when the maid enters the room. Ter Borch has introduced narrative and serialization into what might otherwise be a fairly theatrical and static pose. Perhaps the doctor will have to pour the urine from the maid's bowl into a clear vessel in order to make his diagnosis. Various possibilities present themselves in what appears to be a rather mysterious interaction. The maid, we should note, is reflected in the urine glass, along with the window itself-as a white dollop-which provides the light for the doctor. Indeed, there are a number of reflective surfaces, including another glass vessel in a niche, the mirror (reflecting the white papers of the doctor's books), and the hourglass. The room, however, is extremely dark. In the left-hand corner-and this is the second surprising element-sits a figure wrapped in red cloth with his or her back to the viewer. This ghostly presence is literally marginal to the central interaction between the doctor and maid. Yet inasmuch as no detail is insignificant in a work of this nature, the fact that this figure is sketched in, but not filled out, the fact that his or her body occupies space without any particularity, seems noteworthy. Perhaps this bodily mass in the corner is a gesture toward everyday life (the individual just happened to be there when ter Borch came across the scene), yet simultaneously, it hints at the shadowy nature of the doctor's work.

Another variant of the urine-analysis genre, the "diagnosis of lovesickness," popular with middle-class Dutch patrons, links the domestic scene to a long emblematic tradition: Only Love can cure Love. In Amans amanti medicus from Otto van Veen's Amorum emblemata, Love stands in the center of the composition, holding a "clear" vial-indicated precisely by pictorial conventions of clarity-filled with urine. On the bed, a victim of lovesickness languishes. This emblem-type, then, while compositionally similar to the diagnosis of pregnancy, engages immediately with a unique symbolic register. Art historians have helped to refine the very notion of genre paintings, and sometimes to account for their popularity, on the basis that they reflect the real conditions of bourgeois life, serving as visual catalogues for the possessions of the very consumers of the paintings themselves, while they are simultaneously didactic, morally uplifting. As Hal Foster writes in an essay on fetishism, "Even today, positioned reverently before these gold chalices, fine porcelain pieces, and exquisite glasses like so many worshippers before the Golden Calf, we might believe, as perhaps did the Dutch, that these things have a mana or power of their own-a mana, moreover, that redounds to the mana or value of painting" (Foster 255). Foster goes on to cite Goethe who praised a (copy of) Dutch still life depicting gold and silver vases with great skill. "One must see this painting in order to understand in what respect art is superior to nature and what the spirit of man lends to these objects when he observes them with a creative eye. For me there is no question: If I would have to choose between the golden vases or the painting, I would choose the painting" (cited in Foster 256).

Recent art-historical work has brought to the fore a debate about Northern painting as descriptive, as opposed to (Italian) narrative. Mieke Bal, among others, has explored how these two modes work together. The dual "purpose" to genre paintings is based on an assumption, widely shared by art historians of the Northern Renaissance and Baroque, that the consumption of paintings is pleasurable in and of itself, but that consumption has to be tempered by an underlying alibi, a justification, provided precisely by the moral emblems or traditions evoked as subtext. This leads us, however, to a more troubling query that cannot be fully addressed here: Should we assume that the desire to consume, the pleasure of seeing one's possessions reflected in the painting-as-object is primary, and the moral subtext merely adjunct? Or is the moral subject primary, and the faithful representation of daily life an added "bonus" to soften a hard lesson, the carrot before the stick, the sweet honey on the cup, like eloquence for rhetoric? This question may seem to be a digression, but it is actually essential to pose it, if only to trouble the apparently seamless account of Dutch genre painting that is offered by a certain scholarly trend. For why should we assume that the Dutch needed morality to justify their "base" greed? And why should we assume a collective desire for having that dominates over, say, a collective pleasure in economizing?

All Rubbish

The so-called moralizing subtext is not buried, but rather, quite evident in many depictions of the alchemist. Like the urine-analysis genre, the alchemist in his laboratory is a popular theme in Dutch seventeenth-century art. In general, various elements of this type engage in "the art of describing [the everyday]," in Svetlana Alpers's influential terms, and yet symbolic elements are also often present. A well-known example of this generic type is an etching by Philippe Gallé (after a 1558 drawing by Brueghel) (Figure 4). The scene takes place in an extremely disorderly room populated by an extended family and a scholar. First, we should note that the engraving is based on a drawing, hence the original was reversed. It is specious, therefore, to make any arguments based on the lateral disposition of objects in the scene. On the right a scholar sits at his desk and points with one hand to an alchemist (presumably the father) and with his other hand to a volume open to the chapter heading Alghe Mist (All Rubbish). Indeed, the scholar consults several different books at once: there is no single authority for the intellectual trash that is alchemy. Various implements are scattered around the floor, including scales for weighing gold (does this imply that real gold was/is produced, or is it simply a sign of greed?), bellows (the implement of the puffers or souffleurs), a sack marked "drogery," various pots and pans, an hourglass, and so on. In the midground, two witchlike women (presumably mother and grandmother) work. The father-the alchemist-tries to work at his desk, while one can vaguely make out the word misero on the paper pinned precariously above his head. The parents ignore their children, who climb inside a cupboard. One of the children has a pot lodged on his head. He wears it into the "next" scene, viewed through the window: the family is being led off to the poorhouse. The foreground scene, then, depicts a miserable family at work under the spurious supervision of a scholar. The composition is overcrowded, entirely antithetical to the moral ideal of the ordered Dutch (Calvinist) interior. All of the characters are completely absorbed in their respective activities, so they do not see the potentially ruinous consequences of their actions.

The moralizing text in this image can be said to emerge from the certain emblematic elements (the chapter heading in the book, for instance, or the overturned vessels, or the children at play), but, more significantly, by the coexistence in the same pictorial space of two temporally different events. Engravers (like painters) borrowed the use of a window or doorframe from emblematics to delimit a secondary space where a "moral" unfolds itself, cordoned off from the rest of the composition. In this regard, the Gallé engraving is quite typical for the period in question. We normally consider the insertion of emblematic codes in paintings of everyday life or genre scenes as nonnarrative. But perhaps it is already incorrect to speak of "insertion" as if the scene existed in some real spatiotemporal dimension, onto which the emblems are merely stuck (or better, etched) like so many appliqués. Could one say that the moral content associated with emblematics is always already inherent in the very conception of the everyday? The assumption that the foreground scene represents "life" and the framed background scene represents a static, lifeless moral, may indeed appear obvious given what we know of generic conventions surrounding depictions of alchemy; that is, it is an assumption that could achieve wide consensus among interpreters. But the real question is not just what we think is happening, but how we seem to know what is happening.

In his Groot schilderboek, first published in 1704 (thus appearing considerably later than the Brueghel drawing and the Gallé engraving), Gerard de Lairesse specifically details how secondary spaces should be used in narrative development: "The outcome or ending of a story must always be set in the principal place in the composition, and the beginning of it in the background. Just as a cannonball, shot from a distance, hits a nearby bulwark and scatters everything in its path, by this means the gist of the matter will appear at first glance" (cited in Hollander 46). Based on his accounting of actual painterly practices, Lairesse noted that background or secondary scenes, which generally depict an earlier moment in narrative development, tend to clarify or explain foreground scenes. They may also provide irony, parallels, or resolution to the principal scene. Indeed, the frontispiece to Lairesse's treatise (Figure 5) can be considered exemplary in that it includes a number of discrete spaces: In the foreground the (blind) painter, Lairesse himself, works, guided by the muse. A secondary space is revealed behind a curtain (lifted by Fame), where a painter (possibly Apelles) works diligently by candlelight. Lairesse probably adapted this detail from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (Gaskell 16). In a third arena, an emblematic crowning of painting occurs in a roundel, surrounded by palettes, brushes, and other attributes. Convention teaches us that whatever appears front and center is most important, most "present" in a temporal sense. Hollander explains: "Lairesse's concept of the bywerk is clearly exemplified by the ancillary views in seventeenth-century paintings. The associative, explanatory function of the ancillary view reflects its heritage in medieval and Renaissance narrative expansion" (46).


Excerpted from ALCHEMICAL MERCURY by Karen Pinkus Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................vii
Introduction: Lead into Gold....................1
1 Visibilia....................31
Excursus: Ambivalence....................55
2 Chemical Nuptials....................66
Excursus: Mercury....................84
3 A Chemical Couple....................90
4 Rumpelstiltskin....................104
5 The Sandman....................115
Excursus: Counterfeiting....................137
6 Reading Capital I Alchemically....................141
7 Digital Gold....................158

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