An Analysis Of The Alchemical Tradition Behind BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Part I: Urth, Ushas, And Unus Mundus
Hello, readers! We’re one week away from the release of The Lightning Stenography Device, so be sure to get your copy on Amazon! Without further ado, please enjoy Part I of a whopping 6 part (!!!) essay that I’ve wanted to do since last year.
Although it is my (increasingly validated) hypothesis that all works of art follow the patterns identified in hermeticism and alchemy, some works of art draw on these symbols more clearly than others. As I finished The Lightning Stenography Device and turned my attention almost immediately to The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy, (March/April of 2017, after finishing The LSD in January of that year), a series which was at the time intended to be only one book but blossomed instead into three, I became cognizant of just how alchemical this work was; and, as The DMT began to outgrow its original boundaries and take the shape of multiple books, I realized it was time for me to look to the literary advice of someone who had been in a similar situation, and somebody whose works I’ve wanted to read for years: Gene Wolfe, author of The Book of The New Sun, and a great many other incredible stories.
An industrial engineer and veteran of the Korean War, Wolfe wrote the first four books in the series known as The Solar Cycle in secret, while working as the editor of a journal. The fifth, Urth, was written later and is generally considered a sort of accessory to the first four; however, I personally feel that reading it is vital to one’s understanding of Severian’s journey. Therefore, this essay will be covering Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator, Sword of the Lictor, Citadel of the Autarch, and The Urth of the New Sun with the assumption that the reader will either know a little of what we’re talking about because they’ve read the books themselves and are familiar with alchemical concepts, or that the reader is willing to accept spoilers and maybe a little bit of confusion. I will also say that I have not yet had the privilege of reading the next steps in the Cycle, The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of The Short Sun. These, I hope to read soon, but I am taking a little bit of a break to read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which, remarkably, seems rather light fair compared to the dense journey of Severian the Torturer.
That said, reading the entirety of the Solar Cycle is not necessary to see a complete alchemical operation represented in Wolfe’s work. The very title, “The Book of the New Sun”, is alchemical in theme: renewal of consciousness in the form of restoring the sun is, frankly, one of the most ubiquitous motifs found in alchemy, right up there with renewing kings and burning wolves. The first five books are full of luscious symbolism, and leave many unanswered questions which other bloggers and essayists have tried to answer. I am not here to dissect the plot, so much as what the plot means, alchemically; therefore, we will be glossing over the story in a light way, hopefully both reducing spoilers, avoiding redundancies and neglecting useless speculation. Anybody who has ever read BOTNS knows it is full of unanswered questions; and anybody who has Googled around in an attempt to find the answers to those questions have surely been sucked into the Internet wormhole of BOTNS theories, some of which are disorganized and crazy enough to shame a conspiracy theorist. This essay, again, is not an attempt to ‘solve’ anything, from the nature Severian’s parentage to the cause of the human race’s indolence when once they were space-fairing people. But I will say, as a little aside:
If somebody has to remind you every 25 pages that they have a perfect memory, they are probably bullshitting you.
I think readers take Severian’s opinions at face value from time to time, particularly when it comes to details. And I think, too, that readers often get busy doing elaborate backflips to explain stuff which is, if not made clear, then heavily implied in the story’s text. The true richness of this text comes from not trying to discern its plot, but from integrating the richness of its symbolism into one’s conscious understanding of the self. Severian’s journey is the renewal, not just of Urth, but of Gene Wolfe, and the reader. A short, short summary: BOTNS is the story of a man named Severian, who, a member of the guild of torturers, is nonetheless destined to bring the New Sun and restore a dying, do-nothing future which is so distant and hopeless it had might as well seem our far past. The series is much longer and more complex than that, and longer, even, than the scope of these essays. If you haven’t read the books, I suggest you have; you may well have time during the course of this essay’s publication, however, because it is a long one. We may be looking at about five to six parts. So hop on down to your local library, drop a little acid, and strap in: before we can even begin our journey, we have to establish a little context, and explain Severian and the world of Urth.
- URTH, USHAS, AND THE UNUS MUNDUS
To understand any alchemical operation, first identify the vessel. If you are not sure how to do that, it is generally the primary setting: a house, a theater, etc. In this case, in the case of The DMT and in the case of a great many other novels of active imagination applied to grand scope (J. R. R. Tolkien, for instance), the vessel is the world, itself. Urth is dying because the sun is dying, and both are in need of renewal; the self and its relevance are, in other words, faded by an outmoded or damaged state of consciousness/connection to the Higher Self, and in need of replenishing. On this sickened world, Urth, man lives much as it always has, although the ores have been mined from the earth and so must be scavenged from the ruins of ancient civilizations. A great many of its greatest fortresses are actually grounded spaceships, although this knowledge has been lost; language has been altered and great beasts roam the landscape from the seeming dawn of time, saber-toothed tigers and demonic aliens like the Alzabo or the Notules equal threats to humanity’s peace of mind. The landscape has cooled and the fields yield sadder crops each year; to the north, the people are at war; and in the vast city of Nessus, one of the most prominent and despised guilds is that of the torturers, of which the journeyman, Severian, is one when his story begins. Severian is not just the shadow which forms Gene Wolfe’s (and our own) doorway into the world of BOTNS: he is the transformative substance, the Spirit Mercurius, who will ultimately prove to be its savior. The nuances of Severian and his journey are vast, and proper exploration of these themes will be a long effort. To aid us, and to aid those fans of BOTNS who have no understanding of alchemy, our first focus will be on understanding the figures of Urth/Ushas and Severian in relation to alchemy.
The symbol of the world as the vessel, called in alchemy the unus mundus, has great historic tradition within alchemical literature. Jung, in his Mysterium Coniunctionis (as always, I recommend you get a copy and read it, as it is a great leaping-in point for alchemical texts and their analysis), references a text called “Tractatus Aristotelis ad Alexandrum Magnum” for purposes of its use of the Red Sea. For our purposes, however, it gives a fine example of a standard alchemical recipe utilizing the whole of the earth, rather than a glass alembic.
Take the serpent, and place it in the chariot with four wheels, and let it be turned about on the earth until it is immersed in the depths of the sea, and nothing more is visible but the blackest dead sea. And there let the chariot with the wheels remain, until so many fumes rise up from the serpent and the whole surface [planities] becomes dry, and by desiccation sandy and black. All that is the earth which is no earth, but a stone lacking all weight…[And when the fumes are precipitated in the form of rain,] you should bring the chariot from the water to dry land, and then you have placed the four wheels upon the chariot, and will obtain the result if you will advance further to the Red Sea, running without running, moving without motion [currens sine cursu, movens sien motu].
-Jung’s Mysterium, page 202
Readers of the BOTNS will see immediately the parallels to the events which herald the dawning of the first day of Ushas, the world which eventually rises from the shadow of Urth. More specifically, the term unus mundus is utilized by the alchemist Gerhard Dorn, who explains why the alchemical process, when it is being applied to one’s soul and inner substance, is actually a three (probably actually four) step process:
We conclude that meditative philosophy consists in the overcoming of the body by mental union [unio mentalis]. This first union does not as yet make the wise man, but only the mental discipline of wisdom. The second union of the mind with the body shows forth the wise man, hoping for and expecting that blessed third union with the first unity [i.e., the unus mundus, the latent unity of the world]. May Almighty God grant that all men be made such, and may He be one in All.
* * *
It is significant for the whole of alchemy that in Dorn’s view a mental union was not the culminating point but merely the first stage of the procedure. The second stage is reached when the mental union, that is, the unity of spirit and soul, is conjoined with the body. But a consummation of the mysterium coniunctionis can be expected only when the unity of spirit, soul, and body is made one with the original unus mundus.
-Jung’s Mysterium, page 465, Dorn and Jung’s notes on Dorn
For all our talk of alchemy in this blog, and the analyzing of alchemical literature, seldom do we broach the fact that the operation needs to be repeated on a certain level. Once the spiritual stone is created, the spiritual stone and the body must be made one. Lest we forget, the successful use of the created stone promises everything from the curing of ills to downright immortality. Why else would so many be convinced to drink quicksilver, if not for immortality? But this means that it is not enough to simply have the stone, no more than it is enough to read books I-IV of TBOTNS and not go on to read Urth. This means, longtime readers, that we are in for a rare treat. How often do we get to see use of the completed alchemical process in literature? Of the pieces we have studied so far, most of them have “problem” endings in that the final integration of the stone into the bodily self is not demonstrated. Things are left untied; people die; the perfect world is undiscovered.
But this is not so of TBOTNS. The first four books would feel woefully incomplete, so far as I’m concerned, without Urth, and similarly it is the most vital step in the alchemical process. Once the stone is created, it must be used to restore the world (bodily self), and then one must be prepared for unity with unus mundus, or the God-mind, a unity represented in the Catholic Church by the Assumption of Mary. One might argue that, in a meta-sense, this is represented for The Book of the New Sun by the assumption of the Solar Cycle and Gene Wolfe into science fiction immortality. (Though I must emphasize, that is only the material symbol for the true immortality Mr. Wolfe has crafted, or, more accurately, been divinely guided into crafting, for his eternal soul. His comprehension of, and symbol of, the concept of eternity in the emanation of Yesod is evidence of this.)
Informed readers of the series understand that Wolfe is Catholic in background, although I do not think one needs to be any sort of religious to enjoy these books. I see all the time atheists doing cartwheels to try to boil the book’s theology down to ‘aliens!’ and, of course, that’s some of it, for aliens are only a different way of interpreting those entities which mankind finds to be trans-dimensional; but I would argue that the only real alien (that is, a carbon-based life form who evolved on a separate evolutionary track from the carbon-based lifeforms of earth; I do not include the Alzabo, nor the Cumaean, Heirogrommates, et al., who I believe are all variations of ascended humans, but all of this is speculative and irrelevant to the discussion at hand) in BOTNS is the Green Man who walks the corridors of Time. It is inarguable, however, that the work is rife with spiritual cosmo/theology (for I do not believe there to be a true difference), and rife with symbolism drawn from religious tradition.
Readers who are anti-Christian and who don’t care for Christian theology are encouraged to consider that the notion of a god who dies and must be resurrected is not Christian exclusive. Aside from Adonis (whose name, ‘Adoni’, is one of the names of Yahweh according to the Jewish faith), there is also Osiris, the dead Egyptian god who must be restored/supplanted by Horus. And BOTNS does not draw exclusively on Christian theology by any means; its interpretation of eternity comes in the form of the state of Yesod, not really a true planet so much as a state of being found by those beings who move faster than light and thus, as per Father Inire’s explanation of his mirrors, are moved into another universe. And then, of course, there is the name of the new world, Ushas, which is destined to replace Urth with the coming of the New Sun. ‘Ushas’ is the name of the Vedic dawn goddess; an earth, named for the sun.
Ushas is said to travel in a shining chariot drawn by ruddy horses or cows. Like a beautiful maiden dressed by her mother, a dancing girl covered with jewels, a gaily-attired wife appearing before her husband, or a beautiful girl coming from her bath, she, smiling and confiding in the irresistible power of her attractions, unfolds her bosom to the gaze of the beholders. She dispels the darkness, disclosing the treasures it concealed. She illuminates the world, revealing its most distant extremities. She is the life and health of all things, causing the birds to fly from their nests, and, like a young housewife, awaking all her creatures, sends them forth to the pursuit of their varied occupations. She does good service to the goods, by causing the worshipers to awake, and the sacrificial fires to be lighted. She is asked to arouse only the devout and liberal, while she allows the niggardly to sleep on. She is young, being born every day; and yet she is old, being immortal, wearing out the lives of successive generations, which disappear one after another, whilst she continues undying. The souls of the departed are said to go to her and to the sun.
-W. J. Wilkins, Hindu Gods and Goddesses
Yet again, we see the metaphor of a chariot. There are many luscious fusions between Catholic and Hindu theology, and this is but one of them. Jung himself makes this observation many times, even when delving deeper into Dorn’s unio mentalis, the first step in which spirit and soul are combined. The following transcription is long, but it’s a convenient section to which we can refer several times over the many steps of this process.
The unio mentalis, then, in psychological as well as in alchemical language, means knowledge of oneself. In contradistinction to the modern prejudice that self-knowledge is nothing but a knowledge of the ego, the alchemists regarded the self as a substance incommensurable with the go, hidden in the body, and identical with the image of God. This view fully accords with the Indian idea of purusha-atman. The psychic preparation of the magisterium as described by Dorn is therefore an attempt, uninfluenced by the East, to bring about a union of opposites in acordance with the great Eastern philosophies, and to establish for this purpose a principle freed from the opposites and similar to the atman or tao. Dorn called this the substantia coelestis, which today we would describe as a transcendental principle. This “unum” is nirdvandva (free from opposites), like the atman (self).
Dorn did not invent this idea but merely gave clearer expression to what had long been secret knowledge in alchemy. Thus we read in the “Liber octo capitulorum de lapide philosophorum” of Albertus Magnus, with reference to quicksilver (Mercurius non vulgi, the philosophical mercury):
Quicksilver is cold and moist, and God created all minerals with it, and it itself is aerial, and volatile in the fire. But since it withstands the fire for some time, it will do great and wonderful works, and it alone is a living spirit, and in all the world there is nothing like it that can do such things as it can…It is the perennial water, the water of life, the virgin’s milk, the fount, the alumen, and [whoever] drinks of it shall not perish. When it is alive it does certain works, and when it is dead it does other and the greatest works. It is the serpent that rejoices in itself, impregnates itself, and gives birth in a single day, and slays all metals with its venom. It flees from the fire, but the sages by their art have caused it to withstand the fire, by nourishing it with its own earth until it endured the fire, and then it performs works and transmutations. As it is transmuted, so it transmutes…It is found in all minerals and has a “symbolum” with them all. But it arises midway between the earthly and the watery, or midway between [mediocriter] a subtle living oil and a very subtle spirit. From the watery part of the earth it has its weight and motion from above downwards, it brightness, fluidity, and silver hue…But quicksilver is clearly seen to have a gross substance, like the Monocalus, which excels even gold in the heaviness of its immense weight. When it is ini its nature it is of the strongest composition [fortissimae compositionis] and of uniform nature, since it is not divided [or: it is indivisible]. It can in no way be separated into parts, because it either escapes from the fire with its whole substance or endures with it in the fire. For this reason the cause of perfection is necessarily seen in it.
Since Mercurius is the soul of the gold and of the silver, the conjunction of these two must be accomplished:
Our final secret consists in this, that one obtains the medicine which flows, before Mercurius evaporates…There is no worthier or purer substance than the sun and its shadow the moon, without which no tincturing quicksilver can be produced…He who understands, therefore, how to unite this with the sun or moon will obtain the arcanum, which is named the sulphur of the art.
Mercurius is the prima materia. This must be dissolved at the beginning of the work, and the dissolved bodies then transformed into “spirits.” The transformation is effected by putrefaction, which is synonymous with the nigredo, the grave, and death. The spirits are joined together as sponsus and sponsa.
Our stone is of watery nature, because it is cold and moist. For such a disposition of the body is considered obvious or manifest. But breadth is the middle [media] disposition whereby depth is attained. This is the medium between depth and breadth, as between two extremes or opposites, and the apssage from one opposite to the other or from one extereme to the other is impossible save by a medium disposition. [This is possible] because the stone is by nature cold and moist.
Mercurius is not only the lapis as prima materia but the lapis as ultima materia, the goal of the opus. Hence Albertus cites Geber: “One is the stone, one the medicine, and therein lies the whole magistery.”
-Jung, Mysterium, pg. 499-501
Where in the name of the Increate do we even begin? There is that serpent again, the one mentioned in a previous citation in this essay and ever related to the Spirit Mercurius; that same serpent which rode its chariot out of the Red Sea. What serpent is this which will drive the same vehicle as Dawn? What serpent draws us from the bleak nigredo of dying Urth with its fading sun and into the bright, gleaming world of Ushas? Here, our serpent is none other than Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, known to Incans as the Sun God Apu-Punchau, and to the people of Ushas as The Sleeper. Ironic, as our only reference to snakes in BOTNS reveals to us that Severian (or, at least, his feminine essence) is frightened of them: but are we not always frightened of that inner being which marks our true power before we are given the chance to comprehend it? Hold on to your fucking hats, ladies and gentlemen, because this next connection is a doozy. First I will give you the BOTNS’ reference to snakes, and then we will allow Jung to provide a passage which establishes Severian as the prima/ultima materia of our operation, and Urth/Ushas as the Self. Take note: it is not Severian who is frightened of snakes, but Thecla, the woman who becomes united with him in the vessel of his body in an action which resembles, for the microcosm of Severian, both the albedo of alchemy and Dorn’s fusion of mercurial substance AKA spirit (Severian) and soul (Thecla). Thecla’s fear of snakes in this context indicates a fear, to me, of loss of herself as separate within Severian and Severian’s fear of the same, for there is always hesitation, for varying reasons, when confronted by the notion of joining into a whole unit—spiritual cold feet, if you will. But, I digress. From The Book Of The New Sun:
Jolenta lay between our fire and the water, I suppose because she felt safer there. Dorcas and I were on the opposite side of the fire, not only because we wanted to be out of her sight as nearly as possible, but because Dorcas, as she told me, dislike the sight and sound of the cold, dark stream slipping by. “Like a worm,” she said. “A big ebony snake that is not hungry now, but knows where we are and will eat us by and by. Aren’t you afraid of snakes, Severian?”
Thecla had been; I felt the shade of her fear stir at the question and nodded.
“I’ve heard that in the hot forests of the north, the Autarch of All Serpents is Uroboros, the brother of Abaia, and that hunters who discover his burrow believe they have found a tunnel under the sea, and descending it enter his mouth and all unknowing climb down his throat, so that they are dead while they still believe themselves living; though there are others who say that Uroboros is only the great river that flows to its own source, or the sea itself, that devours its own beginnings.”
-Wolfe, Gene, The Claw of The Conciliator, Chapter XXVII “Toward Thrax”, Page 383
And from Jung’s Mysterium, closing that same section which we just cited:
The “serpent rejoicing in itself” (luxurians in se ipso) is the Democritean physis (natura) “which embraces itself” and is symbolized by the uroboros of Greek alchemy, a well-known emblem of Mercurius. It is the symbol of the union of opposites par excellence and an alchemical version of the proverb: les extremes se touchent. The uroboros symbolizes the goal of the process but not the beginning, the massa confusa or chaos, for this is characterized not by the union of the elements but by their conflict. The expression “giving birth in a single day” (in uno die parturiens) likewise refers to Mercurius, since he (in the form of the lapis) was named the “son of one day.” This name refers to the creation of light in Genesis 1:5: “And there was evening and morning, one day.” As the “son of one day,” therefore, Mercurius is light. Hence he is praised as the lux moderna and a light above all lights. He is thus Sunday’s child (born on the day of the sun), just as the planet Mercury is the nearest to the sun and was accounted its child. St. Bonaventure (1221-75) also speaks of the one day in his Itinerarium, where he discusses the three stages of illumination (triplex illustratio). The first stage consists in giving up the bodily and the temporal in order to attain “the first principle,” which is spiritual and eternal and above us”:
We must enter into our mind [menten], which is the eternal spiritual image of God within us, and this is to enter into the truth of the Lord; we must pass beyond ourselves to the eternal and preeminently spiritual, and to that which is above us…this is the threefold illumination in one day. (Cf. The Franciscan Vision, pp. 14f.)
The “one day” is the day on which light appeared over the darkness. I cite this passage not only for that reason but as a parallel to the three stages of conjunction in Dorn, which obviously originated in the exercises for spiritual contemplation in the early Middle Ages. The parallel is clearly discernible: first the turning away from the world of sense, then the turning towards the inner world of the mind and the hidden celestial substance, the image and truth of God, and finally the contemplation of the transcendental unus mundus, the potential world outside of time, of which we shall have more to say below. But first we examine more closely Albertus’s statement on the nature of the quicksilver.
The middle position ascribed to Mercurius provokes Albertus to a remarkable reflection: it seems to him that the concept of breadth (latitudo) expresses the “middle disposition” whereby depth can be attained. This disposition is the “medium between depth and breadth” (media est inter profunditatem et latitudinem), as between two extremes or opposites (contraria). The idea at the back of his mind is obviously that of a cross, for height is the complement of depth. This would indicate the quaternity, a symbol of Mercurius quadratus, who, in the form of the lapis, consists of the four elements. He thus forms the mid-point of the cosmic quaternity and represents the quint essentia, the oneness and essence of the physical world, i.e., the anima mundi. As I have shown elsewhere, this symbol corresponds to the modern reinterpretations of the self.
-Jung, Carl, Mysterium, Chapter VI., “The Conjunction”, section 6., “Self-Knowledge”, pg 504-505
Just get a load of all that! Pretty groovy shit, if I do say so, myself. I hope you toked a little before starting this essay, because it helps. Much as Jung closes his section with a ‘swoosh’, I think all of that up there renders pretty self-explanatory the positions of Urth and Severian in the constellation of this operation. As the torturer destined to bring the New Sun, Severian is a bundle of tension and opposing forces. His greatest sin, after all, was an act of mercy, which is not a sin at all. There is evidence he couples with his grandmother (albeit out of her own time frame and still as youthful as she was when she died so as to simply be ironic, without provoking a parodox), and incest in the operation is a very common motif. And then, of course, there are Gene Wolfe’s own words on the matter, which, when keeping in mind that, by its very definition, the figure of Christ is the ultimate, most holy and most ‘purely archetypal’ form of the mercurial archetype, marks firmly Severian’s position in the list of archetypes. The essay “Helioscope”, his companion essay to BOTNS, contains the following much-admired quote:
It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was a “humble carpenter” that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer; that the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter too; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a “humble carpenter,” the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair, but a whip.
And if Christ knew not only the pain of torture but the pain of being a torturer (as it seems certain to me that he did) then the dark figure is also capable of being a heroic and even a holy figure, like the black Christs carved in Africa.
-Wolfe, Gene, Castle of the Otter, “Helioscope”, pg 10
The dark figure, of course, is a symbol of the nigredo, the step which marks the initiation of the alchemical process. It is concerned with deaths, graves, putrefaction, rot, ravens, dragons, suffering, melancholia, etc. It is a state of psychic misery which must be rectified: and it is this state in which we we first discover Severian, as we will find in the next essay, Part II, which will explore the events of Book 1 and the City of Nessus as representations of the nigredo. Come back in two weeks for that, and in the meantime, if you enjoy books which blend fantasy, sci-fi and alchemical themes for a psychedelic effect, consider pre-ordering THE LIGHTNING STENOGRAPHY DEVICE, which will be available on March 19th! Get it on Amazon now.
Come back every other week over the next ten weeks for the rest of the essays!
- NIGREDO – THECLA, NESSUS, AND TERMINUS EST
- ALBEDO – THE CULT OF VODALUS AND THE STONE CITY
- XANTHOSIS – THRAX, TYPHON, AND BALDANDERS
- RUBEDO – RETURN TO NESSUS, THE ASCENSION OF SEVERIAN AND THE CREATION OF THE CLAW
- THE STONE – THE NEW URTH, CALLED USHAS