October 29, 2003

1. The Hermetic Tradition

I recently read an essay called “James Joyce and the Hermetic Tradition”. The essay is by W. Y. Tindall, who has written about Yeats, Joyce, etc. The essay deals with intellectual history, and it was published in the leading periodical of intellectual history, Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 1954).

The term “Hermetic” comes from Hermes Trismegistus, who was originally an Egyptian god (Thoth) and was later incorporated into Greek culture, and associated with Hermes. The God was called megistos (great), and he was addressed three times, hence tri-megistos, or Trismegistus; Milton calls him “thrice great Hermes”. The term “hermetic” can mean “pertaining to alchemy and magic”, but its more common meaning is “tightly sealed” (from a seal supposedly invented by Hermes Trismegistus).

About forty books are ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. These books were written between about 200 BC and 200 AD; it appears that they were written in (or near) Alexandria. They deal with alchemy and astrology, and also with philosophy. The “Hermetic Tradition” isn’t simply the Alchemical Tradition, it’s a literary-philosophical tradition in which alchemy, astrology, the occult, and the philosophy of Plato are all interwoven. All European alchemists may be said to be part of the Hermetic tradition, but philosophers and poets with no interest in alchemy may also be considered part of this tradition.

Before I read Tindall’s essay, I didn’t realize what a profound effect on Western culture the Hermetic tradition has had; the Hermetic tradition has influenced many schools of poetry and philosophy, reaching all the way up to Joyce’s time. I was shocked to realize that I was ignorant of a very important element in Western culture. I wasn’t completely ignorant, however; I recently read Panofsky on Neoplatonism, and this introduced me to Hermetic thinking. In an earlier issue of Phlit, I mentioned that the Renaissance Neoplatonists, based in Florence, studied and translated the works of Hermes Trismegistus. The Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno can also be considered a Hermetic; one thinks of Frances Yates’ book, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.1

One of the basic tenets of the Hermetics is that the world is one (unus mundus), the world is an organic whole, and every part of the world is connected to other parts. “Every human being, beast, plant or mineral is influenced... by one or more of the celestial bodies. It is the influence of Mars which distinguishes a wolf from a lion (the latter being a solar animal).”2 Earthly things are connected to heavenly things, have affinities with heavenly things; “as above, so below” said the Hermetics.

The Neoplatonics were indebted to the Hermetic tradition, and so were English poets of the 17th century — Marvell, Herbert, Donne, and the other “Metaphysical Poets”. These poets were known for their elaborate metaphors, which tried to find connections and affinities between things that seem far apart. Samuel Johnson complained that, in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together,” and Johnson noted that the Metaphysicals were fond of the “discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.”3 Johnson was writing in the mid-1700s, when the Hermetic tradition had fallen out of favor.

Let’s look at a sample of Metaphysical poetry, Hermetic poetry:

Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And to all the world besides.
Each part may call the farthest, brother;
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.

This is from a poem called “Man”, by George Herbert. I found this quote in Emerson’s essay, “Nature”; in Emerson’s time (the Romantic-Transcendentalist time) the Hermetic tradition had come back into favor.

In the 1700s (Johnson’s time), the mechanical world-view of Newton and Locke replaced the “organically interconnected world” of the Hermetics, and “Hermetic correspondence, both cosmic and literary, went underground for a hundred years.”4 The impact of the mechanical world-view on poetry is described by Marjorie Nicolson (Lovejoy’s student) in her book, The breaking of the circle; studies in the effect of the "new science" upon seventeenth-century poetry. While Frances Yates wrote several books on the Hermetic Tradition, Marjorie Nicolson wrote several books on the Anti-Hermetic Tradition, the scientific-mechanical world-view. (For more on the scientific-mechanical world-view, consider The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick.)

Though the Hermetic Tradition went underground in the eighteenth century, it didn’t disappear entirely; the eighteenth century witnessed “an edition of Boehme, and Emanuel Swedenborg.”5 Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) was a German mystic who, like most European mystics, had links to the Hermetic Tradition; Boehme was influenced by the Swiss physician and alchemist, Paracelsus (1493-1541). Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist and theologian, known for his interest in mysticism and the occult.

At the end of the 1700s, during the Romantic period, the Hermetic Tradition came back into favor, and again inspired poets. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley mentions the alchemists Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Albertus Magnus; the protagonist of Frankenstein says, “I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.”6 William Blake was influenced by Boehme, Swedenborg and other Hermetics. Coleridge was also influenced by Boehme, and Coleridge transmitted Hermetic ideas to other men-of-letters. Coleridge argued that analogy and symbol could be used to make the world whole again.

Tindall argues, however, that the symbols of Romantic poets were entirely different from those of Metaphysical Poets, because the Metaphysical Poets believed that they knew about Heavenly Things, they knew about the upper half of the Chain of Being, whereas the Romantic Poets were in doubt about Heavenly Things, and no longer had a clear understanding of the entire Chain of Being. Thus, for the Romantics, metaphor was merely a literary method, and a vague hope for an organic world; for the Metaphysicals, on the other hand, metaphor was a way to reach reality itself, and expose the underlying unity of the world, a unity of which they were certain.

New England Transcendentalism was a younger brother of English Romanticism. Emerson was influenced by Coleridge and other Romantics, and Emerson liked to look for correspondences between nature and man. “Every appearance in nature,” wrote Emerson, “corresponds to some state of the mind.... Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.... And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason.... The world is emblematic.... The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”7

Permit me a brief digression, permit me to ask (as I’ve often asked before), “how does this compare with Zen? Is the Hermetic world-view akin to Zen, or opposed to Zen?” When I studied Thoreau, I was struck by the similarity between Thoreau and Zen. I tried to find the origin of Thoreau’s Zen; knowing that Thoreau was influenced by Emerson’s essay “Nature”, I turned to this essay. I found that Emerson had a keen appreciation of nature, but I also found that he didn’t look at nature in a simple, direct way, as Zen does. Rather, Emerson saw nature as a metaphor, a symbol, an emblem.8 Emerson is at variance with Zen, and the Hermetic tradition in general is at variance with Zen. Nonetheless, the Hermetic tradition is closer to Zen than the scientific-mechanical world-view.

Now let’s return to our account of the Hermetic tradition, and trace its influence in the nineteenth century. The Hermetic tradition didn’t die out with the Romantic movement; on the contrary, it flourished, and it merged with the Occult/Spiritualist movement. In 1855, a French writer named Éliphas Lévi published a comprehensive study of the Hermetic tradition, a study that had wide influence, especially in France. “Lévi ransacked the Cabala, The Chaldean Oracles, the works of Pythagoreans, Paracelsus, Agrippa, Boehme, Swedenborg, and, most of all, those of Hermes, whose name he gives to the whole tradition.”9

Lévi probably influenced Baudelaire, one of the prominent Hermetics of the time. Baudelaire spoke of “universal correspondence and symbolism, that repertory of all metaphor,” and Baudelaire wrote a poem called “Correspondances.”10 Lévi influenced Rimbaud; “the important part of [Rimbaud’s] Season in Hell is called ‘Alchemy of the Word.’”11 Lévi influenced Mallarmé, the leading Symbolist; the entire Symbolist movement can be considered Hermetic. By the late 1800s, many writers were exploring the Hermetic tradition; “societies of Rosicrucians, Cabalists, and Theosophists, flourishing in both France and England, enchanted many men of letters.”12

Perhaps the chief Hermetic of the late 1800s was Yeats, the Irish poet. Yeats joined various Hermetic societies, including the Theosophists, who were led by Mme. Blavatsky, and the Rosicrucians. Yeats “read all the occult literature he could put his hands on and there was a lot of it around.”13 Many of Yeats’ works deal with Hermetic subjects, such as his stories “Rosa Alchemica” and “The Adoration of the Magi.”

And now, finally, we come to the star of Tindall’s essay, James Joyce. Joyce memorized Baudelaire’s “Correspondances”, and in his early years, Joyce “modeled his life and work upon those of Rimbaud.”14 Joyce had a keen interest in Yeats, and Yeats surely deepened Joyce’s interest in the Hermetic tradition. Joyce was caught up in the Hermetic craze; “like many other Dubliners around the turn of the century, [Joyce] dabbled in Theosophy... and read occult literature.”15 But Joyce never took Hermetism as seriously as Yeats did; Joyce’s references to Mme. Blavatsky and other Hermetics are tongue-in-cheek.

Though Joyce may not have believed in the Hermetic philosophy, the Hermetic style of thinking left its mark on him, and his work abounds in analogies and correspondences. “Joyce used correspondences to show the connection between man and man, man and society, man and nature, and, as if to prove himself a romantic, between past and present.... Each chapter of Ulysses, except the first three, suggests an organ of the body.... Each chapter but the last suggests an intellectual or aesthetic discipline. The second chapter, for example, embodies history and the ninth literature.... Analogy is not only the method of Ulysses but its substance. Out of a maze of correspondences Joyce created a world.... That this world is an aesthetic rather than a cosmic structure is what we might expect; for poets today, seeking unity, find it in art alone.”16

In art alone? Is there no longer unity in the world itself? Are there no analogies, no correspondences in reality, only in literature? I believe that Tindall is wrong when he suggests that the Hermetic tradition is dead, or survives only in the literary world. The Hermetic tradition will live again — not only as an inspiration to novelists and poets, but as part of an attempt to grasp reality itself. The Hermetic tradition will be reinvigorated by Jung and by Chinese thinkers. Jung treats alchemy as a source of deep psychological wisdom, and Jung’s theory of synchronicity revives the Hermetic habit of finding occult connections, acausal connections. Chinese thought has always been akin to Hermetic thought. The I Ching and the yin-yang philosophy are both filled with correspondences and affinities. Instead of looking for cause-and-effect relationships, Chinese thinkers look for what sort of things “like” to occur together. Thrice-great Hermes is not dead yet.

2. Freud on the Occult

When I read Jung’s autobiography, I came across an intriguing passage in the first appendix. The passage occurs in a letter from Freud to Jung. Freud tells Jung that he has become more receptive to the occult; “in matters of occultism,” Freud writes, “I have become humble ever since the great lesson I received from Ferenczi’s experiences.” I wanted to know what Ferenczi’s experiences were. A footnote referred me to a biography of Freud — the 3-volume biography by Freud’s disciple, Ernest Jones. I found that the third volume of this massive biography contains a chapter called “Occultism”.

This chapter is perhaps the best source of information about Freud’s views on the occult, with the possible exception of a small book called Studies in Parapsychology, which is a collection of Freud’s own writings on the occult. This chapter is filled with references to Freud’s correspondence with his disciples; Freud and his disciples often discuss the occult — a medium in this city, an astrologer in that city, a horse with telepathic powers, etc. Ferenczi’s experiences, which Freud mentioned in his letter to Jung, concerned a homosexual patient who could apparently read Ferenczi’s thoughts.

On the subject of the occult, Freud’s disciples seem to have been divided between skeptics and believers. The chief skeptic was Ernest Jones, who had a rationalistic, positivistic bent. The chief believers were Jung and Ferenczi. Freud once wrote to Ferenczi thus: “Jung writes to me that we must conquer the field of occultism and asks for my agreeing to his leading a crusade into the field of mysticism. I can see that you two are not to be held back. At least go forward in collaboration with each other; it is a dangerous expedition and I cannot accompany you.”17 I quote this passage partly because I regard it as a good example of Freud’s style; Freud often expresses himself in a metaphorical way, drawing little word pictures to communicate his thoughts. Nothing is more characteristic of a great stylist, or of a great genius, than the power of metaphor.

Freud said that there were two subjects that always baffled him: the occult, and the identity of Shakespeare. Late in his life, he read about the Oxfordian view of Shakespeare, and became quite certain that Shakespeare was the pen name of the Earl of Oxford. But he never attained any certainty regarding the occult, though he did become more receptive to the occult in the latter part of his career. Ernest Jones describes Freud’s position on the occult as “an exquisite oscillation between skepticism and credulity so striking that it is possible to quote just as many pieces of evidence in support of his doubt concerning occult beliefs as of his adherence to them.”18

It is wrong to regard Freud as a rationalist who rejected the occult outright; Freud listened to the arguments in favor of the occult, and he believed in the occult, at least partly. It should be remembered that Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts, which looms large in his later work, is mystical rather than materialistic. Freud was a great thinker, a thinker willing to go beyond the visible world, and enter the realm of the invisible and the mysterious.

3. Freud on Transference

Transference might be described as “latching on” to another person — latching on emotionally. Or it might be described as setting someone up inside your own soul, and making that person the focus of positive or negative emotions; often these emotions are erotic or sadistic. Freud noted that transference could be found in mental hospitals, which “provide instances of transference in its most excessive and unworthy forms, extending even to complete subjection, which also show its erotic character unmistakably.”19

Transference can throw light on human nature, and it can also throw light on the process of psychotherapy. Freud and Jung agreed that transference was at the heart of psychotherapy. When Freud began practicing psychotherapy, he didn’t know how to handle transference; Freud later said, “[the] transference situation at first retarded the development of psychoanalytic therapy for ten years.”20 Jung viewed alchemy as a kind of psychotherapy, and he looked for an analogue to transference in the field of alchemy. He found it in the coniunctio, which he regarded as the core of alchemy, as it was of psychotherapy. Jung’s last major book, the crowning achievement of his career, was called Mysterium Coniunctionis, and dealt with the coniunctio.

The transference of positive feeling onto a therapist or teacher can be a means of spiritual growth. Freud regarded this positive transference as the key to successful psychoanalysis: “The results of psychoanalysis rest upon a basis of suggestion [that is,] influence on a person through and by means of the transference-manifestations of which he is capable.” Positive transference, according to Freud, “brings about the successful result in psychoanalysis as in all other remedial methods.”

But if the positive transference is of a sexual kind, it obstructs therapy. Hence Freud tried to purge the doctor-patient relationship of “repressed erotic elements of positive feeling”; he purged these erotic elements by making them conscious. Once these erotic elements were purged from the positive transference, what remained was the “conscious and unobjectionable component.”21

While the transference of positive feeling can be a means of spiritual growth, the transference of negative feeling makes it difficult, if not impossible, to learn from the object of that transference. As Freud said, “where the capacity to transfer feeling has come to be of an essentially negative order, as with paranoids, the possibility of influence or cure ceases.”22 Negative transference often leads to the termination of therapy. “The outbreak of negative transference,” Freud wrote, “is a very common occurrence in institutions; as soon as he is seized by it the patient leaves, uncured or worse.”23

Transference can be simultaneously positive and negative; Freud said that the two kinds of transference are “often both directed on to the same person at the same time, a condition for which Bleuler has coined the useful term ambivalence.”24

Transference emotions are felt not only by the patient, but also by the doctor; there is not only transference, but also counter-transference. If a patient has a positive transference to his doctor, how should the doctor react? How should the doctor deal with his own counter-transference? Freud says that the doctor should keep the counter-transference in check, the doctor should be indifferent to the patient’s amorous feelings: “The more plainly the analyst lets it be seen that he is proof against every temptation, the sooner will the advantage from the situation accrue to the analysis.”25

Phlit deals with philosophy and literature — that is, it deals with man, with the soul of man. And nothing moves the soul more than the emotions associated with transference; transference emotions are among the most positive of emotions, and also among the most negative.

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. Yates’ book contains the following remark on Aristotle: “For Bruno, Aristotle is the type of the pedant, the literal-minded person who cannot or will not see occult truths.”(ch. 13, p. 251) I refer to this literal-minded worldview as “blockhead rationalism.” I checked the index of Yates’ book for the name “Jung” but I didn’t find it. Is it possible that Yates was unaware of Jung’s work on alchemists and Hermetists? Did she think that Jung would have a bias, and it was better to go “straight to the source”? back
2. see Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, ch. 5, Harper Torchbooks, p. 133 back
3. The Lives of the Poets, “The Life of Cowley” back
4. “James Joyce and the Hermetic Tradition” back
5. ibid back
6. ch. 2 back
7. Nature, ch. 4, “Language” back
8. James Russell Lowell referred to Emerson as a “Plotinus-Montaigne.” Plotinus was a prominent neo-Platonist. back
9. “James Joyce and the Hermetic Tradition” back
10. ibid back
11. ibid back
12. ibid back
13. ibid back
14. ibid back
15. ibid back
16. ibid back
17. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, vol. 3, ch. 14, p. 387 back
18. ibid, p. 375 back
19. “The Dynamics of the Transference”, 1912. I mentioned transference in an earlier issue of Phlit: “We kill the thing we love in order to achieve freedom, independence, a strong character, in order to learn what Nietzsche called the ultimate art: the art of self love. One might compare this process to the process of psychotherapy, which often begins with ‘transference’ — that is, strong feelings for the therapist himself — and ends with the patient drawing these strong feelings back into himself, and thereby strengthening his ego, his character.” back
20. “Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: Observations on Transference-Love” (1915) back
21. The quotes in this paragraph and the last paragraph are from Freud’s essay, “The Dynamics of the Transference”, 1912 back
22. ibid back
23. ibid back
24. ibid back
25. “Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: Observations on Transference-Love” (1915) back