In the not too distant past I submitted a selection of my poems to a prominent Irish poetry publisher. I subsequently received a very courteous rejection which contained a critique of my work. A lot of what was said I found myself agreeing with. Amongst the feedback the editor included a damning phrase that has stayed with me, not because of hurt feelings or bruised ego but of its succinct power. The phrase consisted of two words: no transmutation. When I first saw it I did a little double-take as I simply didn’t know what it meant but with the word ‘mutation’ in it I felt it couldn’t be good. How to proceed? Look it up, dummy! Determine the extent of the insult.
And now a confession: I am a word nerd. I actually get a bit of a thrill when I encounter a word that conjures something new and magical. I love a word that combines intent and import, that has an almost electrical charge of meaning and is used honestly, for maximum effect. I am not talking about bombast or emphasis. I am certainly not talking about being florid or verbose. Especially repellent are words used to obfuscate and deflect. But a word or phrase that captures in the most exact sense what the conveyor means? Brilliant. So, back to no transmutation. What did it mean? What highbrow, literary slap in the face did I just receive? As ever, the definition was not as complicated as expected. The most straightforward definition amounted to ‘transformation – a change in form, nature or substance’. That didn’t fire the spark plugs of my imagination but an older, quasi-mystical explanation did: transmutation is another word for Alchemy or the process of turning base metal to gold. Okay, I thought, now we’re cooking!
Alchemy in fact refers to a much broader philosophy that incorporates the origins of science and medicine but also has at its core a belief in mythology, religion and spirituality. Alchemists were dedicated to mastering the aforementioned transmutation of things base and ordinary into something that was elemental perfection i.e. gold. They believed the power to do this would come from finding the Philosopher’s Stone, the search for which was central to the work of an alchemist. They also devoted themselves to the distillation of the Elixir of Life, designed to give immortality and therefore the ability to transcend human existence and become closer to the heavens and to God. The overarching objective was spiritual and metaphysical and sought the ennoblement of man (I could be very PC here and use ‘humanity’ or ‘humankind’ but I feel it’s contextual). The basic idea then was the pursuit of a higher state of existence and revelation through technological and scientific means but with constant reference to the cosmos in religious and mythological terms. Well, that’s a seriously highfalutin barometer to assess my meagre offerings.
But the bottom line was this – the editor thought my poems were dirt. Base. No lift-off. No flight. No elevation to a higher plane. And crucially, no transmutation. No gold. And that was that.
Until I found myself thinking about the experience recently and I do what I usually do and began a process of analysis and re-analysis which prompted a sequence of little flash bombs in my mind which in turn sparked a gradually unfolding extrapolation which finally gave birth to this post. No transmutation. I thought to myself “Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? Are we not all trying to turn our lives into gold?” Alchemists typically referred to the conversion of lead to gold as an analogy of the transmutation they hoped to achieve in themselves, a spiritual purifying, a personal perfection. I think on one level or another we are all engaged in this very same pursuit. We want gold.
It is fascinating to me that in an ever-changing, ever-accelerating world that gold has retained its power, its aura and its actual value. For something so old, so timeless I suppose, to still have such primacy. I recall a friend of mine who was doing well in dot-com boom time and was starting to look at where to invest his money. A broker friend of his assured him the idiot-proof move was to go with gold. So there we were at the start of the 21st century and gold was still very much at the heart of money, finance, wealth, economics and currency. And of course there is an accompanying power and energy that goes with that. As recently as last week I saw an image on TV of a serious news presenter gushing at the worth and weight of the gold ingot she held in her hands. It gives an extra resonance to the expression ‘to be worth your weight in gold’.
So we have cultivated and inherited a recognition of gold’s inherent worth and hence we talk of ‘gold standards’ and ‘going for gold’ and winning anything less is perceived as a form of failure. Permit me now to take you where you already know we’re going. Let’s not view gold literally but rather see it as a metaphor for happiness. We might refer to gold as priceless, radiant, powerful, something attractive and desirable. So too think of happiness. As with gold however, we are talking about the highest standard, the elevated plane. I think we often conceptualise our happiness in these or similar terms. This leads to a danger of unrealistic expectations. Winning anything less (than gold) is perceived as a form of failure. Staying with the gold/happiness analogy this means that if we are not permanently ecstatically happy and thrilled to bits at our amazing life, we are failing. Feeling the heat? Let’s look at how we might make things a little more temperate.
You can’t change what gold is or what it means. It is an element and by definition irreducible to anything less than itself. Happiness on the other hand, is personal, subjective and wide open to interpretation and therefore malleable, changeable, impermanent. So in our pursuit of metaphorical gold we should perhaps consider redefining the parameters of what exactly it is we’re after.
Why don’t we turn a negative into a positive and remove that little two-letter word that exerts such power over us.
To transform. To change. To elevate. To lift off. To turn a base metal (lead) into a noble one (gold). I want to add two words to this process: by degrees. Transmutation by degrees.
How else do we achieve change except gradually? Yes, we can make dramatic gestures, demonstrative efforts for wholesale change but ultimately the real, internal process is moving at a much different pace, so ingrained is our idea of who we are. But just to make that mental leap is a tangible beginning. You are your own element and perhaps the alchemical process is not one of conversion but of revelation. The act of revealing yourself, to yourself. Perhaps the pursuit of gold is the pursuit of self. Think of our transformation by increments as a step closer each day to a self we value more, a self we feel happier to be around. A tiny step closer each day to a self that is priceless, radiant, powerful, something attractive and desirable. And who ascribes these qualities? You.
It’s your laboratory. You decide what the gold standard is. You define the parameters of happiness. You have the power to turn the base into the noble. Is not that a transformation? Is not that alchemy?
I’ll keep working on my poems but if we really are alchemists maybe we all need to keep working on ourselves.