The One True Alchemy
Religions, both mainstream and cultish. Politics, both mass-mediated and underground. The Secret and scads of other poorly copyedited loaves of self-help twaddle, along with their attendant TV specials, CDs, DVDs, workbooks and decoder rings. Miracle diets, pills, soaps and herbal suppositories.
What do all these phenomena of human hype share? They all purport to offer some sort of transformative formula for human experience.
They'll show you six practical steps to change your life for the better. They'll stretch your sagging flesh into a burning canvas of desirability. They'll save your soul and unite the world. They're gonna take ya higher, baby. They've got a deal on two tickets to paradise.
Is every single one a shallow, disappointing scam when it comes to delivering the goods? Far be it for us to say yes. But yes.As Sera has carefully elucidated in a previous post, The Secret is all box and no cereal. Religious ritual is all well and good, but it's had quite a few millennia to turn us from our brute nature, and how's that coming along?
And politics? As the TelePrompTers say, pause for laughter. Meanwhile, if you think you can shop your way to a better you, lotsa luck.
These are all fascinating chapters in humanity's search for the philosopher's stone, that alchemical holy grail that will change base metal into gold, and perhaps give its possessor eternal youth in the bargain. If you only know it from the title of the first Harry Potter movie, you should know that the stone preoccupied scientists and mystics alike for many, many moons.
In a way, it's the ultimate intersection of faith and knowledge — and what better illustration of that concept than the Mutus Liber, a "silent book" consisting only of illustrations that purports to be an instruction manual for creating the stone?
So they searched and searched. They filled their vials and beakers with every substance, fastidiously tracked a virtually infinite series of chemical interactions and mapped the zones between air, water, fire and earth. But no dice. To put it another way:
Not one gold nugget
Was made from lead
Not one grey hair
Turned black on a head
The fabled stone
Did not exist
Was the alchemist.
We call that denial up in my neighborhood. But brothers and sisters, I have good news. There is true alchemy in this world. There is a way to transform dross into gold. But it isn't through some elixir of mysticism and science. It's through art.
Art is the one true transformative magic we humans possess. It enables us to take pain and turn it into joy. Its miraculous process dissolves misery into laughter and discovery and illumination.
We can suffer and, in the telling of our suffering, be redeemed. We can narrate our awful stumbles and they emerge as slapstick. We can turn dread uncertainty into delicious suspense. In the crucible of creativity, it's all possible.
We say this not to offer some treacly, up-with-people empowerment product (buy our life-changing 10-DVD course! ) but as a reminder, in these dreadful times, that you've got better stuff inside you than about 99.9997 % of the ideas, beliefs, platforms and antioxidant lotions being launched at you by the giant marketing slingshot that is commercial culture.
Here's where we get all controversial on your ass: We think the key to the survival of vibrant Jewishness in very hot times is not JHVH. Nor is it arming ourselves to the teeth and dropping bombs on whomever The New Republic tells us is an "existential threat." The key to our survival, through diasporas and donnybrooks, through pogroms and pilot seasons, through Torquemadas and Theocons, has been our ability to turn death and despair into deidel-deidel-deidel. You dig?
So nu, if you're full to bursting with feelings you don't know what to do with, blog! Draw! Sing! Squirt mustard onto an old math textbook! Not because it'll make you famous. Not because it'll let you look into the iris of the Divine. But because it will transform your terrible, unfathomable feelings into something beautiful or funny or scary or odd or in any case fathomable.
They didn't call the philosopher's stone a holy grail for nothin'. And as with other grails we could mention, it's right there. Right next to you.