DoseNation Podcast

Weekly news, talk, and interviews. More »


· Articles
· Gear
· Interviews
· News
· Reviews
Alchemy and a Little Anarchy with Dale Pendell

Malvolio Ruttelege

An interview with Dale Pendell

TRP: Why did you get involved in alchemy?

DP: Well, one of the things I'm trying to do is trace Gnostic wisdom tradition and higher spirituality through the western tradition. A lot of my practice and background has been through Buddhism, and more the vision quest, shamanistic religion, but I wanted to find a system of ideas and to ground it in the western tradition also going through Alexandria. A lot of those things came together to formulate the alchemical ideas. It's this hazy ground, this ground between science and magic...

A relation, near kin.

Yeah. From the time when natural philosophy included physics, that's what there was to physics. And the books were written in verse. So I've always had kind of a foot in both camps. I was trained in chemistry and physics and by doing my creative work in the arts. So alchemy seemed like the most fruitful way to straddle this chasm.

What do you think the future of alchemy is, and is it still relevant today?

First off, I'm not really an expert in alchemy. There is an alchemical tradition that is alive mostly in occult circles. Some of it came through a man called Frater Albertus, who had the Paracelsus Research Society in Salt Lake City. And the Spigaric herbal tradition, where they use alchemical ideas. They do some laboratory work. There's a note in the note section in Pharmako/poeia where I kind of dismissed that, and I was taken to task for it. Some people contacted me and said, "Hey we're still working in the lab!" There is an alchemical praxis. My interest is more as a methodology, a theoretical scheme. On the one hand you look at the Negritto process: the "prima materia" has to do with dissolving. The first step might be to forget everything you know about chemistry and atoms and molecules and look at the world as substance and quality. There's a wonderful outlining of that process in painting, how painters look at their colors. And that gives you a different way of experiencing the world — a more poetic way. So it's a poetic praxis also.

But then I think a further step beyond that is to meld chemistry, science, the scientific tradition, back into it. Which leaves one in a very uncomfortable, meta-stable state. Because they don't all go together. So who are the real alchemists at this point? We can see it in the arts in particular. That's one thrust. The other thrust was started by Jung, where he saw it as a metaphor: the psychological process of differentiation and integration and transformation. Transformation is a kind of basic trope. And then we have psychedelic chemistry, the work that Sasha Shulgin does. That's alchemical. He has this structural sense of molecules and their shapes and different qualities and can intuitively make jumps as to say, what if we replaced this hydroxyl group with a methyl group over here...

Have you been interested in alchemy your whole life?


Was use of entheogens a factor?

No. Long before that. Very early I read Jung's books, and the drawings in them, of course, are so magical. It pulled so many things together — work with metals, work with smith craft. I did a lot of work with precious metals. My first book was called The Gold Dust Wilderness and comes out of a Placer claim that I had in the Trinity Alps. And prospecting and geology led into assaying, which led to laboratory work with metals. So that flowed right into it. Working with crucibles...

Did you ever make any money gold prospecting?

I got a good book out of it.

Do you feel there's an alchemical aspect to computation now? Number theory?

We're stretching the metaphor here. I like that... An alchemical aspect to computers or number theory? Certainly there's more of a tradition to number theory which goes back to the Pythagoreans. Since computers have returned to digital work, to the discrete mathematics rather than continuous, there's some connection that way, to the Pythagorean approach. As is also true in contemporary physics, which has returned to the Pythagorean.

Contemporary physics has returned to number mysticism?

Numbers have become primary, small numbers. The different quantum numbers, charge, spin, these quantized states, which means they're discrete, their familial relationships, their symmetry groups are the core. That's what the theory comes out of. The theory at this point is more real in a sense than physical models. There are many physical interpretations saying, what does this "mean"? The core interpretation is that all the meanings are kinds of glosses and the core meaning is just the mathematical relationships themselves.

The relationships themselves? So it ties into alchemy?

Yeah, if we go to chromodynamics — wonderfully named, because of quarks and gluons exchanging "colors" — these are not physical colors, but Pythagorean colors. Those transformations are the core of the unified field theory.

What's the difference between alchemy and transformation?

Maybe alchemy is the art of transformation and the familial relationships. There are two main threads in natural philosophy. One is empirical, which would lead through taxonomy, collecting information, working from experiment. The other is this Pythagorean mode. And there are debates about the relative merits of the two approaches. Some have argued that Pythagoreanism held us back. Some say that the reason the Chinese excelled and were ahead of the west in every science excepting physics was because they didn't have a Pythagoras, they didn't have this number mysticism. What is the status of a number? It's not a physical thing and yet there are these relationships between them that seem immutable. They exist on some eternal and pure plain. And certainly that flowed directly into Plato and his ideal and eternal forms. It's all through western theology. There have been cycles through western history where one or the other of these traditions has been at the forefront.

Loosely related to that, the idea of a hidden dimension where numbers are and possibly other things....

Yeah, the question is: are mathematical theorems discovered or invented?

Yes. Now you wrote in Pharmako/poeia a chapter about the "seduction of angels". Do you think that those entities exist where the numbers are? It seems hard to say if they objectively exist or if they're subjectively created. Angels? Well, it's important to recognize them when they appear... My whole project is to subvert the way we think, the way we look at the world, and my two targets are, on the one hand scientism which has a reductionist/materialist approach and would "dis" this whole discussion, and on the other hand, the naively uncritical new age thought that is dismissive of the scientific tradition. My whole program in the weird way that Pharmako/poeia looks, this illegitimate mixture of science and magic, is kind of a wager that poetic logic is a truer description, a more complete description of the world than a purely scientific description. But at the same time, the scientific tradition has to be incorporated into it. Trying to pull these two currents in the western tradition back into each other. I think the culture needs that. It's kind of a disease we have.

It seems that on a certain level, they're indistinguishable after a certain point, as far as physics is going.

Perhaps. Certainly there's a lot of pop books on "quantum" this and that. The word "quantum" is very big. But even David Bohm's quantum theory, which can account for everything that the standard theory does, incorporates this extra quantum operator, which is not really defined but is present in the equations. There is still separation between subject and object. The self is not really a part of it. In mystical tradition the self is intimately involved in all of it. So I don't know if I would go that far.

But isn't that what quantum physics is about? The idea that you cannot calculate something without taking the position of the calculator into account?

Yes. Heisenberg's Principle has that application. Though again it was originally and primarily a theoretical construct which clearly had this physical analog in terms of measurement. But yes, the observer has become extremely important. Even to the point where the logical positivists would say if you can't measure it, it has no validity, no reality... I follow Eddington's ideas. Eddington, I think in 1927, the same year that Heisenberg published the Uncertainty Principle, had these wonderful lectures outlining the limits of what physics can do. And it was clear to him that starting with volition, there was this whole area, a non-quantifiable substrate — I think he called it the "world stuff" — that physics can never touch. It's a whole different plane. So he saw what physics can touch and describes as, I would say, a sub-dimension of what is. So where does solipsism come into that?

Is that what we call deconstruction? You get that in some strands of mystical traditions, in certain aspects of Mahyana philosophy, called Yogakara, the mind-only, that mind is the prime reality.

Do you feel that's true? Your mind is the prime reality?

That's small mind. Saying my mind or your mind is small mind. What we usually think of as mind is small mind. If we could speak of such a thing as the "great reality" or something, it would have to be some kind of mind that includes that bird singing.

It's really hard to cognize that concept.

Quite so. That's why the Zen tradition says you have to cut the mind road off. Their whole practice is to bring the reasoning process to a dead end, and kind of tie it off in a knot, through koan practice. So that there is a deeper mental process, not a reasoning process, more of a merging process, expanding intimacy to encompass all of it.

But reason is the fountainhead of our society. Or at least the pretense of it.

Yes. I don't see that much of it myself. I like that we give reason some lip-service. I think we ought to try it more often! I don't know, I think reasoning usually comes after we decide what we're going to do and then we think up reasons to try to explain why we're doing it.

Do you think rationalism has led us like lemmings off the hill?

Yes, which puts Pythagoreanism in this weird state. Because it is certainly rationalism. Though the rationalist tradition in the west came through Aquinas I think.

But this house could not have been made without rationalism. Rational measurements.

Now wait a minute. There are different ways to build. People all through history have used mind and ingenuity and cleverness and reasoning to build things. That's different from rationalism, which is giving the logos, giving word and definition and logic between symbols, symbolic logic, a primacy, and saying only things that come out of this logical system are true. I think that's clearly in error. That's one of the diseases that I would like to poison. The best poisons are mind poisons and logic poisons. I love something that Vico said once: poetic truth is metaphysical truth and actual facts not in conformance with it should be considered false. Now there's a little drop of brain poison. Just kind of hold that in your mind and it starts dissolving everything you can think to be true or reasonable.

But I'm not against reason or investigation or science. I think it's very important. We need better analysis. The error I think is mixing up symbols and words for what is. It's a perspective, a tendency to say, oh, because these things work, because they have such dramatic effects, like we can make hydrogen bombs, that is the path to ultimate truth, or to higher truth, that it explains everything. That other things are nothing but metaphor, or nothing but superstition. That term comes from Gurdjieff. The "nothing-butism" that is the problem. A reductionism that really is against the scientific dream, of clearing oneself of preconceptions. To find what is. Science creates its own preconceptions and all the theoretical constructs have great resistance to things that don't fit inside of them. I think the history of medicine is a real good place to find some of that perspective. Because you don't have to go back very far to come to medical practices that already to us seem barbarous. The theory of germs....

What is your opinion of causality then? Do you think it's fraudulent, do you think that it's an illusion? That seems to be the fundamental question here.

Well, volition comes into that, and the philosophical question of free will, biggest in the sciences. Most of that action now is happening in biology. Molecular biology, neural biology. The shift now is into genetics. DNA has moved into this position of the logos. It's the code and all things are determined by the code. What this logo-centrism neglects or negates is environment. The environment is also a great carrier of information. DNA does not have all the information that it needs, a whole world and culture.

But I don't think most geneticists would say that environment doesn't play a part.

Well, it's on the downside right now, and Francis Crick has wondered if he has found the seat of the soul in some material part of the brain. The image of man or mind as a super computer — a super machine. In literary theory, Donna Haraway is talking about the cyborg as her hope for a new image or metaphor that will solve some problems. I'm kind of skeptical that way, I'm more inclined to look to old ways, the older traditions, natural societies, more anarchistically based cultures and looking back to pre-civilized models of society, less hierarchical things. We could say that civilization has come to mean an advanced developed state, but traditional societies were just as intricate and advanced in their way. Another way to look at civilization is that it's an anomalous condition that humans have been in for the last four thousand years, which does not represent most of our lives — that of having a centralized state, of having standing armies, hierarchical social structures.

That seems more like the "noble savage" myth. It seems to me that there has never been a time in human history when there hasn't been some form of hierarchical social structure.

Of course, but there's a difference between when it's instituted and so there are structures that have their own force. I'm not too concerned with the so-called or presumed violence in human nature, if there is such a thing; that's something we can deal with and we've learned to deal with it. But it's institutionalized violence that brings it on a scale. It's a matter of scale. There's no comparison between skirmishes, where the young men go out and have skirmishes with the next tribe and you dodge arrows, then you stop when somebody gets hurt, to the genocide that comes out of nation states: institutionalized, mechanized.

That's why we need the alchemical process of the cycle of returning to the Saturn phase, the Negritto phase, and again dissolving those boundaries. We need boundaries. We create them all the time. We use them all the time and they are joyful. It's a wonderful thing, all the particularities and how they dance. But it's a flow. I think the problems are when it freezes into ice cubes and they glom together... it's a process. And that's the alchemical circulation in the alembic, a continuing dissolving, re-distilling. You get it out and then you bring it back. It's like the dialectical process.

What do you think the future is going to look like as far as human societies go?

Hard times for large mammals.

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2002-10-25 00:00:00