Monday, January 28, 2013

Mercury: Queer Objects & Objecting Forms (P3)


"[Mercury] is all things, who was but one; 
He is nothing, and his number is entire...
He is a spirit, and yet hath a body; 
He is a man, yet as the part of a woman... 
He is a poison, yet cureth the leprosie; 
He is life, yet he kills all things"

A Dialogue Between Mercury, 
the Alchymist & Nature
Michael Sendivogius


III. Objecting Forms


i. Mercury: A Philosopher's Stone

"Of a thousand drops I shall be one, 
out of one I give many thousand drops"

Mercury, Michael Sendivogius

In "Alchemetical" texts, including those written and referenced by Michael Sendivogius, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Issac Newton, Mercury is generally considered a substance of special quality and virtue. Simultaneously a "spirit" and a "body" [a.k.a. a metal], quicksilver was regarded not as an element, but as a relic of the first oceans in creation, from which the gods divided all beings into discrete forms. It is, without exaggeration, an embodiment of chaos. As such, mercury promised to contain that resonance which could shake free the deterministic material universe back into a caustic, transformative fluid.

Alchemists, we are told, were chiefly interested into transforming "lesser metals" into "gold" and "silver." Certainly this was one potential profit by which they could sell their arts. But what if we regarded mad endevour as more candidly as a response at once to the stifling chains of being and class hierarchy and a desire to break free into a more dynamic and queer state-of-being? What if they regarded the Alchemist's object as queer? How might a queer relationship to materiality transfigure how we regard the intercourse between Alchemist and Mercury?

Turning to 14th century Alchemist, Michael Sendivogius's Dialog Between Mercury, the Alchymist and Nature, we are at once disturbed by the very framing of the text. Sendivogius does not simply imbue Mercury with a sense of agency, an alien way of knowing, and a voice, but becomes shaken by the quick-silver's persona, so that he become directed & altered by what Jane Bennett calls "vibrant materiality." 

After a prolonged period of mixing, cooking, and losing his mercury, the Alchemist at last surrenders his scientific objectivity to Mercury's "objections", his critical distance from the object, and sits down beside it and begins to speak. To his surprise, the Mercury answers back.

"Thou seest my shape," says the Mercury, admitting "and of this thou needst to know further." In a critical sense the Mercury's form and shape of non-human communication is simultaneously too subtle and too overt for the Alchemist to understand. What he is learning, by this condescension of the mercury, is to learn how to slow down and listen.

"Because thou askest me of my center,"continues Mercury,"my center is the most fixed heart of all things,immortal and penetrating."Alchemist in this way suggest that Mercury and all particular things have implications for ontology writ large. As a Mad Scientist, we see these "centers" or Foundations coinciding with foundations in a historicized and particular fashion through which many things pass.

"In that [center] my Master rests,"continues Mercury, "but I am a stranger and yet I live at home." Invoking diverse theological arguments on the time regarding the relationship between the particular and the universal, a being and God, the Mercury has just declared that it (and by extension all things) are ensouled and in some respect find their origin in God, however far they wander and transform.

There a paradox central to Mercury then, with an ability to be located in multiple places, be contained in many drops yet remain collected together, and to exist in many different forms. "I am most faithful to all my companions, I leave not those that accompany mee" speaks the Mercury, "I abide with them, I perish with them." Each form participates in Being as a particular being which is in fact tied to temporal, historical, change and mortality. However, it is not tied down absolutely to them and flow between times, places, and particulars. 

"I am an immortal body" admits Mercury "I die indeed when I am slaine, but I rise again in judgement before a wise Judge." This phrasing is itself indefinite, as it may suggest that Mercury too will stand before God in some sort of after-life or New Jerusalem, but also, looking back at the references to a good alchemist as a true Master, a wise Judge might be any one able to see this paradoxical state of being simultaneously present and absent in any given form.


ii. Objections: A Queer-Material Turn

"Dost thou come back again sometimes?"
"I doe, but in another forme"

the Alchymist & Mercury, Michael Sendivogius

As Lynne Huffer suggests in Mad for Foucault: queerness is a kind of (re)turn. Thus, I do not fear the presumption of including the promise of a conclusion in a meditation on queer objects, however indefinite, however infinite. For what is a queer life journey without its objects? 

The wonder of such objects is that they are particular and precarious: a disturbing telos that is dangerous because its essentiality threatens form. We have attacked essentialism and formalism as though they are inherent allies - Mercury demonstrates it is not.

Our alchemists, our "mad scientists" we have said are not aimed exclusively at producing gold but at producing change - if to dangerously seeking to master change itself. 

Chaucer suggests in his Canon Yeoman's Tale, wherein the alchemist promises that with "This [crucible] ... which that thou seest,/taak in thyn hand, and put thyself therinne/ of this quicksilver an ounce, and heer bigynne ... For ye shul seen heer, by experience, / that this quyksilver I will mortifye / right in youre sighte anon, withouten lye, / and make it as good silver and as fyn / as ther is any in youre purs and myn, / or elleswhere, and make it malliable" 

The gold is in fact not the conclusion, but certain an object, a place to go and dwell but is not final. The power of Mercury and the mad science of Alchemy is that it puts change into your hands. You can feel it, see it and perhaps problematically command and undo it.

Before the promises of gold and power, what the Alchemist in the tale offers is that "faste shal ye see a wonder thyng, which ye saugh nevere er this." Is not part of the direction / goal of a queer object not an investment in a material ally and orientation towards surprise? In not the explosive and mercurial veers of a queer object the result of first a dangerous love and attachment to it as a travel-mate?

Gower in the Confessio Amantis, on the other hand, demonstrates how this power over change threatens to slay mutability in the name of eternal life. Mercury, he writes, may be so treated so as to make a "Philosopher's Stone" which he amends into three different types. 

1. "Lapis vegetablis [Stone of the Vegetable-Soul]of which the propre vertu is to mannes hele for to serve, / as for to kepe and to preserve/ the bodi fro sicknesses alle, / til deth of kinde upon him falle." 

2. "Lapis animalis [Stone of the Animal-Soul]... whereof a man mai hiere and see / and smelle and taste in his degre / and for to fiele and for to go / it helpeth man of bothe tuo. / The wittes fyve he underfongeth/ ti kepe, as it to him belongeth."

3. "Ston mineral [Stone of the Mineral-Soul] ...transformeth all the ferste kynde /and makth hem able to conceive /thurgh his vertu, and to receive /bothe in substance and in figure / of gold and selver the nature."

While the third stone, listed in the place usually housed by the rational soul (a replacement or conflation between the material and the mental), the Stone of the Mineral-Soul seem to promise the classic object of alchemist as moving teleologically towards gold and silver, but again, the meditation does not stay there but thinks more on the wider implications of this power.

"For thei tuo ben th'extremetes,/ to whiche after the propertes/ hath every metal his desi [i.e. desire],/ with help and confort of the fyr/ forth with this stone, as it is seid/ which to the sonne and mone is leid;/ for to the rede and to the whyte/ this ston hath pouer to profite."

Not only do minerals then have souls, but desires as well as virtues. Their relationship (we might say filial or erotic) with fire then propels this transformation, which we may describe as a "disturbance" in their ontology and an "objection" to set forms. Might it be then, that objects desire transformation and that this turning is significantly a virtual queerness in all objects, potentially actualized by our mercury-mineral-stone and fire.

Where are we going if each thing has different desires, and this too is perpetually disturbed or turned? This is why certain "queer objects" can capture others in their gravitational force, taking them on with a critical mass, but also why a sudden turn can disentangle these alliances and undermining this unifying quality. A single breaking point can "turn" the whole structure in across itself.


iii. Alchemy: A Mad Science

"Doest thou say I am inconstant, I resolve thee thus: 
I am constant unto a constant Artificer; 
fixed to him that is fixed in mind, 
but thou, and such as thou are inconstant, 
running from one thing unto another, 
from one matter onto another"

Mercury, Michael Sendivogius

We have called the gods down upon us; our games among the intelligences shook them from their spheres, inciting them into discourse. Truth walks among as an effect, in lower-case, as truth, a historicized pageant of powers big & small. Mercury in this way has become what Foucault calls "the obstinate murmur of language talking to itself - without any speaking subject and without an interlocutor, wrapped up in itself... collapsing before it ever reaches any formulation and returning without a fuss to the silence that it never shook off." It's become mutable and mad.

Why should we be surprised that when we meet meaning and language in the flesh that it should be like us, an assemblage of tiny particles, tumbling, flying, intersecting, through time-space? Mercury was relatively benign, at least in regards to us, so long as he kept his distance, running rings around the Sun. Now it flows among us, defining and refining our very mode of relating to the world. Meaning and madness, matter and anti-matter, god and element, they are not antithetical beings ever at war, but the queer motions of a particular disturbing essence.

Queer bodies are Mad, claims Huffer, come into being like Mercury, "as a fragment of night formed by a flash of lightning" (H 15). Bringing together matter & meaning, Huffer locates queer theory not in Foucault's History of Sexuality, but the History of Madness, wherein a thing becomes Sane by throwing Madness into the world by a "self-splitting." What does this mean? To be a queer object is to be/exist turned inside-out:

"From the Middle High German quer, queer means oblique... from the Latin obliquus, slanting...'Tell all truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies" a queer Emily Dickenson remiands us. Queer also means adverse --- from the Latin versus, a turning, the root that gives us perverse, perverted, pervert. The danger of the queer is that it can easily be re-turned against us: we can be recaptured and pinned down again in our perversions and our genders" (H 2).

By making the gods into men and women; we proceed to slay them & distribute their parts across the known universe. These wholes as fully present in their parts: Anywhere you find Sanity (Sentence) you find Madness (Solace). Mercury speaks both languages, so must we. We need to become Mad Scientists. To pursue Mercury, we much become Alchemists.

Thus we come to our queer object in Mercury: not a lack of direction, but a splintered direction. Where once we looked for a road, or no road, we have instead found an intersection --- a road of many faces and many seasons.

To think with a queer object and a mind of mercury is to speak in many languages, hold many things, turn and return, split and change --- Mercury embodies chorus & conversation.

Contemporary Jungian psycho-analysis such as Deldon Anne McNeely describes Mercury's behavior as a kind of trickster who emphasizes relationality but does not necessarily diminish the significance of a specific object or location. Rather, the mad science, led by Mercury intensifies that ontological position by placing it in conversation with all other bodies it is displacing, turning, and shaping in the process of being. "While [Mercury] dismisses hierarchy," writes McNeely, "it does demand differentiation so there can be rich disagreement" (M 187). Truth becomes dispersed across particular objects and truths, which require interaction and difference to produce their truth-effects.

In a critical sense, all objects desire to converse, but such interplay requires a flexibility in speed (space over time) for different things functioning in different modalities to be able to listen and translate. With a ecological fervor, Mercury tells us, "Wait, don't rush into heroic solutions. What seemed true may not be the whole truth. Let's get another perspective and reflect on the big picture" (M 157). In our convers(at)ions with Mercury we have come to a renewed appreciation of our filial bond with queer objects in order that we might come into contact with something disturbingly different, which perpetually turns us towards new possibilities of knowing, being & objecting.

No comments:

Post a Comment