by Carla Henkel
Looking out from the first floor reading room of the Ritman Library, you’ll spot a pelican perched on the facade of the building across the street. The image of a pelican nourishing its young from the blood of its breast can be used by alchemists to illustrate ideas related to sacrifice and the multiplication of their labours. This bird I could not indeed hope to obtain entire; but I was seized with an irresistible longing to become possessed of at least one of its smallest feathers; and for this unspeakable privilege I was prepared to spend all my substance, to travel far and wide…
My interest in Hermeticism began four years ago, when a search to rediscover my religion lit up the back alleys of Gnosticism, Esotericism, and ultimately, thanks to a chance find on a friend’s bookshelf, the mysterious emblems of European alchemy. There was something in those parables, images, and allegories far too synchronous to put aside. My spare time has been compromised ever since.
Recently, I gave up my job and apartment in Canada’s capital city and moved north to the forest. In October, hunters’ shotgun blasts signalled that tent season was officially over. I could think of no better quest than to travel indoors to some of the world’s libraries and museums. A visit to the Ritman Library was at the top of my list.
Online resources, alma mater shelves, morning coffees, berry patches, compost piles, churches, friends and family can all house an alchemist’s compulsory lessons. So why jet half way around the world? Well, for starters, it’s fun. It’s hard to think of a reason why someone wouldn’t want to run off to Amsterdam. That aside, the Ritman Library’s Hermetically Open initiative offers a truly unique experience not just for scholars, but also for non-academics like me who are eager to gain information from trusted voices.
On my way there, I spent some time at the Wellcome Library in London. They too have an amazing selection of Hermetic books and an open door policy that could keep me in reading for years. I giggled when I saw that the person who’d arrived before me had typed “alchemy” into their card catalogue. I was on the right trail. I can find the books; the people were what I was searching for.
Hitting the road, I met Lydia in a cheap Dublin hostel room. She was the first person to start a real conversation with me in an entire month. She was warm, engaging, open, friendly. Later came Tim who talked my ear off while we shared a pew and Father David who beckoned me back for coffee and all the Sundays mornings I could muster. These folks offered a certain snug somethin’ that made all the difference as I bounced from city to city.
I made it to the Ritman on a December morning with a heavy wet backpack. Although the Library hadn’t opened for the day, they welcomed me in out of the rain and treated me as though I was an expected guest. The Ritman family and their hospitality on that first morning sparked a feeling of warmth that stayed with me for the week-and-a-half that I haunted their reading room. They invited me to join private tours, enjoy exhibits, access a wealth of books, and even to touch some rare treasures. “The Lydias of the world are here,” I thought, “and they’re into alchemy.”
Never before had I been able to sit down in a physical space where others were working on the same page — or at least the same tome as I was. Never before had I been able to engage in real world conversations about favourite images, ideas tested, Hermetic philosophies, and alchemical yearnings. Without having physically traveled to the Ritman, I would never have had those unique face-to-face experiences. To look into another human being’s eyes as they talk about alchemy is something rare and special for many of us. To experience the validating tone in someone’s words as they express similar sentiments to your own, especially when that someone is a member of the Ritman family, is a resource in itself.
Learning as an alchemist
Current academic thought embraces the totality of alchemical permutations that have evolved over the centuries. Someone might find themselves studying alchemy from foundations of psychology, medicine, philosophy, art history, physics, esotericism, or natural science. But dusty instructions point to an alternate route when we’re studying alchemy for alchemy’s sake. Each author warns us against the works of others, ripe with sophistries and errors. Each alchemist directs us toward what they believe to be the true and noble way. Regardless of how they define the correct path, these texts impress on us that although there are many sorts of alchemy, and perhaps they are all worthy of academic investigation, the task of the alchemist is different. Instead of cataloging the multitude of grains, or the evolution of a particular breed, he’s instead more interested in finding the very best wheat — the sort he finds most nourishing.
I’ve long thought that the alchemists kept their mystery not out of any sort of malice or obligation, but because the crux of their secret lies in something that evades language, never fully effable or comprehensible, necessitating the use of pictures, allegory and poetry. We’re forced to learn ex-per-iri, with our hands and hearts every bit as much as our brains.
The difficulties in this alchemic education are perhaps as present now as when Petrus Bonus wrote on the topic nearly seven hundred years ago, or when Khunrath illuminated twenty false entrances to his Hermetic citadel. Words put to paper by the antique or scholarly are valuable when you’re trying to dodge the exhaustion brought on by alchemical red herrings. We’re to read the “best books” and to submit to the exercise of finding the places where they agree and disagree, to finally see that the best writings, though superficially different, are in perfect agreement and that we should finally “tear up our books” so that the diversity of allegory doesn’t send us down superfluous crazytown rabbit holes.
So maybe you’re not necessarily embracing the breadth of alchemical thought or highlighting its intersections with other disciplines. You’re studying what you’ve imagined to be the highest intent of the art, your partisan opinion on its most noble application, and doing so for your own unlettered reasons. You’re studying alchemy in order to be a better alchemist. The library lends itself to this task just as well. Its academic foundations lend an authenticity to the material you’ll find inside. All the “best books” are found here. (I hope they’re never torn up.)
There are certain things that are hard to learn from books. Alchemists have been instead learning from example, looking to nature and their vessels for hints of universal truths.
The beauty of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is not just that the building and its literary treasures are Hermetically open. The true beauty of the place lies in the hearts of the people you’ll find inside. Hearts that are Hermetically open, flowing with an infinite fire and our universal water — contagious, unbound elements, nourishing us from wounded breast. The pelican lies at the centre of the Ritman Library’s logo. Maybe the greatest alchemical lesson the books of the Ritman have to offer is found in this symbol that you’ll see on their bookplates, just inside each front cover.
Thee Blessed Bird, I would rather have than all the wealth of the world, and the knowledge of thee was a delight which I sought for many years.
by Carla Henkel, January 4th 2013