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Monday, November 22, 2004

Vain Puffers

I can't remember the name of the tract - nor even the name of its author - where I read the term "vain puffers", but for some inexplicable reason it has stuck with me down the years: one tiny part in a miasma of formless trivia. I do recall that I read it within a novel, an alchemical novel long out of print, titled Mercurius, by Patrick Harpur. At least, I think it was Mercurius - who can be sure without reading? It may instead have been Aegypt, by John Crowley, but I doubt it? Aegypt, I vaguely recall, gave the real reason why Moses has horns, which had nothing to do with mistakes in translation?

<aside>
Sorry - you will find no certainty here, nor coherence if such you seek? I am simply unequipped for it.
</aside>

Mercurius the book has proven to be as beguiling and elusive to me as the substance it portrays was to those vain puffers of old: to those who labored long and hard and fruitlessly in fevered kilns, dabbling in The Art, who sought the secret of The Work, the Magnum Opus: by which the lowly, filthy, everyday-common prima materia, the first matter, the fifth element, may be transformed into the Stone of the Philosophers', the universal panacea, the elixir of life. True adepts looked upon these with contempt: they puffed at their bellows in vain, seeking only to enrich themselves by transmuting base metal into gold. Such base motives could never hope to yield The Stone, they scoffed, whose powers of transmutation were merely a test.

The book, the novel, fetched itself into my hands at a public lending library, back in a time when I could rarely afford to buy books for myself; yet, ever since I have sought it in bookstores here, there, everywhere and anywhere, always in vain. There is a second-hand copy to be found on Amazon, right now, but that would be cheating, and demeaning. When I do find it, I want it to be in some out-of-the-way tumble-shelved bookery, ran for an hundred years by some elderly, learned, but sprightly gentleman rather like that kindly old cove in New Orleans, who sold me The Mysteries of New Orleans on the basis he'd known the author, from before the Civil War.

As Above, So Below...

Recipes, instructions for The Work abound in the literature: hundreds have been written down the ages, all of them presenting "Ane True Accompte Of The Secret Of The Great Worke Of The Philosophick Magistery", all of them - all of them - riddled in coded obscurity. For it is a simple fact that the First Principle of Alchemy is not, as the great Hermes Tresmegistus would have it, that "As Above, So Below," but rather, "be ye hidden in plain sight." This great Work is of such importance that it must be written down that later adepts may acquire it, but is of such terrible proportion that it must never be writ plainly, that any TomDick may stumble into it unwisely?

Any cursory investigation of the Alchemical Arts - and, belive me, that is the stretch of my particular abilities - would quickly reveal that to embark upon the Great Work is not simply a physical exercise, but a spiritual one: it is as much a transformation of the spirit as it is of vulgar matter. There is a mythical dimension too - which is to say that the tale, the essence, of alchemy offers an allegorical lens through which we may glimpse Man and His Pursuit of Power? There is something about it, its methods, its secrecy, its price, that resonates internally?

All of which rambled train of thought was released, unbidden, when I read today of machinations in government - of the sly attachment of a tiny-but-powerful proviso tucked quietly into a huge Appropriations Bill - a 3000-page blunderbuss Bill that passed through Congress and Senate on Friday. The Bill was so big that nobody who voted for it could afford the time to read it; at least, not all of it, and certainly not closely? There it sits, hidden in plain sight by Rep. Istook of Oklahoma, a provision that allows the Chairman of the House or Senate Committee or their appointed agents access to any tax returns or return information held by IRS, privacy be utterly damned. Not the point: fact is, though it may seem underhanded and sleekit, it is nevertheless an entirely legitimate manouvre. And I'm not going to embarass you with ill-thought rants about it here. No, my point, such as I might have one, is that the rules by which we are governed are there for all to see, openly, but are nevertheless written with a subtlety that one must be adept to comprehend fully. It struck me, too, that the ordinary everyday business of Congress - its resolutions, bills, committees - has to be mind-numbingly dull, often to the point of torportude, to its participants? Who could blame Sen. John McCain, for example, for not reading a 3000-page budgetary monster all the way through? Have you ever read a Bill? House and Senate Bills - take one at random as I did, say H.R.5349, G.I. Bill enhancement Act of 2004, a small one-pager even - you will find it dreadfully dull and obscure? The language is dense, and its content often indirect - which is to say, like the snippet below, it may explain how to ammend the language of some other statute, but will not show what the ammended statute looks like afterwards:

Section 3018 of title 38, United States Code, is amended--

(1) by redesignating subsections (c) and (d) as subsection (d) and (e), respectively;

(2) by inserting after subsection (b) the following new subsection (c):

`(c)(1) Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, during the one-year period beginning on the date of the enactment of this subsection, an individual who--

`(A) serves on active duty as a member of the Armed Forces during the period beginning on November 16, 2001, and ending on the termination date of Executive Order 13235, relating to National Emergency Construction Authority; and

`(B) has served continuously on active duty without a break in service following the date the individual first becomes a member or first enters on active duty as a member of the Armed Forces,

shall have the opportunity, on such form as the Secretary of Defense shall prescribe, to withdraw an election under section 3011(c)(1) or 3012(d)(1) of this title not to receive education assistance under this chapter.
Yet for all that, bills such as this - tortured and obscure to the likes of me - are the implements of power within our land. It is for these, for the authority to create and manipulate them, that our politicians campaign so bitterly. And not just in Congress or Parliament, or whatever national forum but, as above, so below,the same holds true at the micro level: in local councils, school boards, parks and recreation committees? Where I live we have a local cable channel, an homunculus CSPAN, that televises city council sessions. Five minutes on any given evening is about as much as I can stand to watch. You begin to realize that it must require considerable dedication to drudgery and to the study of the subtle arts to become even an initiate, let alone a master, of the form?

A tentative connection, an unexpected association, slowly congeals within: congressional bills and statutes, local by-laws - these are, if you like, the physical realm of Power, cooked in chambers through a lengthy, difficult, chymikal transformation of base goal into shining statute? An alchemical vision of Government. One can imagine a congress, or a city council, filled with vain puffers who labor long and dull at this humdrum art, who find themselves stuck, out of their depth, trapped within its coils? That would surely be me, if ever I were to tred that path: or any well-intentioned naïf who may be motivated by visions of bringing plain-honest Mr Smith dealings to Washington, or Westminster? One can also envision its true adepts, those others who are by necessity master chemists, but who know that this be the lesser part of it? Those who would move beyond, to walk the spiritual dimension of Power, the superior realm of High Power? These are the mages, the magicians, the dangerous ones. A bill, a resolution, a statute - these are but projections of a Greater Work, a shadow cast from a fuller world onto a lesser, like a cube drawn on paper, like a television image. Much will be hidden in translation - projections are like that - and it can be no small feat to work backwards, to infer from what we see on paper before us, the broader intent that cast it? Magicians are rare, but they do exist: most, I expect, are fully aware that knowledge and power carry with them the responsibility to wield them wisely. Some of them - perhaps most - do. Others do not. And I, Bearded, who is wholly incapable of tracking their spoor, though I may sometimes smell it, am condemned to offer nothing more intelligible than hasty uninformed rants before flittering, in mental retreat, down some useless, trivial, associative rabbit hole. I may loathe them, some of them, but they still command my grudging respect.

Now, Paracelsus - he was a character...


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