I first encountered Michael Dickman at the 1997 Prague conference on ALCHEMY AND THE HERMETIC TRADITION. Casual conversation revealed his profound understanding not only of Hermeticism but Eastern Mysticism as well, particularly Buddhist and Taoist traditions. His impeccable erudition remains matched by sincere humility and ardent practice. Subscribers to Adam McLean's Internet forum will recognize him as a frequent contributor. A published collection of Dickman's work has been recently released by McLean as ALCHEMICAL COMPENDIUM I: A COLLECTION OF ALCHEMICAL TREATISES TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH". It constitutes Hermetic Studies No. 3 in an ongoing series. He also translated MAGNUM OPUS Hermetic Source Work Series No. 25: INTELLECTUAL CATILENAE of Michael Maier (17th century). He studied Yang style Tai Chi Chaun with Yang Zhenduo and Ningmpa Tibetan Buddhism and Dzog Chen under H.H. Khyentse Rimpoche and H.H. Dudjom Rimpoche. In addition to western alchemical literature he maintains an extensive library of original Tibetan texts, translations of which appear regularly in editions limited to fellow Buddhist practitioners. In the style of the great sage, Marpa the translator, Michael Dickman, the Hermetic translator, treads the path of an esoteric ambassador bridging vastly different cultures. I met Michael midday September 9th, 1999 (9/9/99) on the Parvis of Notre Dame de Paris to conduct this interview.
J.C. What first attracted you to hermetic literature?
M.D. I was searching for an already established language to express Oriental ideas, specifically Tibetan ideas. I worked my way through the Golden Dawn over a period of ten years, reading on the side the works of Crowley, Waite and Mead and so on...the French schools, and what have you. But I knew early on that this was not it. This is not what it's about. Then I started into Mead's THRICE GREATEST HERMES, and there it was. I knew where the western tradition had gone, started reading my classics again, and - very slowly - worked round to alchemy. Alchemy and Hermeticism represent the purest mystical wisdom of the west.
J.C. Even the more popular classic texts, for example, THE ROSARY OF THE PHILOSOPHERS, THE TURBA PHILOSOPHORUM and THE HERMETIC TRIUMPH seem hopelessly enigmatic. What kind of author writes such a work and for what kind of audience? Do you have any favorites that you read and reread continuously?
M.D. I'm not convinced they write obscurely so much as in a heavily coded language in the hope that those who read them will become intrigued and take the trouble to keep reading until they find out what they really mean. They are very wise and keen that you should understand too, but they leave it up to you. They write in a guarded way as not to defile the TRUTH with words. Their words are for people who have enquiring spirits. They want you to read their texts from the inside. They want you to stand in their shoes. Even if they know the words will never get you there. SPLENDOR SOLIS, ATALANTA FUGIENS, LAMBSPRING...These are some of my favorite texts.
J.C. The Sanskrit scholar, Dr. Douglas Brooks speculates that Tantrism emerged from primitive Hindu alchemical traditions. What is the relation between Tantra, yantra worship and alchemy? How does this relate to the Gothic cathedrals?
M.D. I don't quite agree with Doug Brooks. I think alchemy emerged from Tantrism. Tantra really is the root of everything that is Indian, be this Aryan or Pre-Aryan. Sir John Woodroffe discovered this and was very much a champion of the idea. Alchemy comes in part from the ancient smiths. The ancient smiths were outcasts, beyond cast. Tantra, yantra worship and alchemy are really very similar on many levels - even almost the same thing. These practices lead to very similar if not identical experiences on many scores. One thing that is for sure is that body, speech and mind must all be engaged. The cathedrals grew like yantra seeds. They grew like this magnificent edifice before us now as living plants growing out of the aspirations of the common people, the clergy and the workmen. These Gothic cathedrals are living yantras. That is to say that they function as living manifestations or emanations of enlightenment.
J.C. I met an ascetic who now lives in Assisi, Italy. He had spent many years in India. On the basis of his experience he advised me that all of western mysticism is a sideshow compared to India. How do you react to such a statement?
M.D. That's a ball of shit. There are great souls everywhere.
J.C. Some contemporary authors cite the Blessed Virgin Mary as a manifestation of Kundalini. New age enthusiasts claim that the gothic cathedrals can trigger powerful kundalini type religious experiences because of their architectural basis in long forgotten principles of sacred geometry. Is this vein hype?
M.D. Notre Dame de Paris is the sacred center of this city. It's the bindu or seed of the city that grew around it in a dynamic play of subtle energy. It's a manifestation of Primordial Awareness. The experiences people have here are preliminary. They represent only the first level of initiation. People today in their desperate search experience a twinkling of sacredness here and then believe they understand the whole mystery. Sacred geometry is only one of many starting points. Then there's the question of whether they ever actually do understand it.
J.C. Titus Burckhart among others interprets the "Hail Mary" prayer as an invocation to the conjunction of sulfur and mercury. The Mass itself appears as a parody of the Magnum Opus. Your translation of NATURE DISCOVERED by an Unknown Knight contains a section entitled "Christian Chemistry" that expounds the seven sacraments as metaphors for alchemical manipulation. Do French people today appreciate the esoteric aspect of the Catholic Church?
M.D. The Mass is not a parody of the Magnum Opus. The Mass is an exact manifestation of the Magnum Opus. Most Parisian Catholics have no idea of what they're about. They're Sunday Christians only. Many French people today are fascinated with all things esoteric. But it's only an intellectual fascination. Alchemical wisdom can not be understood intellectually but only experienced...or -better put- Alchemical wisdom can only be understood intellectually IF experienced.
J.C. In recent years much light has been shown on the Fulcanelli enigma. Among your colleagues in Paris is there any consensus that Rene Schwaller de Lubicz was the genius behind the "MYSTERY OF THE CATHEDRALS"?
M.D. There is no consensus here. I used to believe it was Dujols. Now people generally point to Champagne. I am more impressed by Canseliet. It would have been fortunate to have met him but I arrived here too late for that.
J.C. Your recent book features an intriguing tract: A MOST CURIOUS EXPLICATION OF THE HIEROGLYPHIC AND PHYSICAL ENIGMAS AND FIGURES TO BE FOUND ON THE GRAND PORTAL OF THE METROPOLITAN CATHEDRAL OF NOTRE DAME by Lord Esprit Gobineau de Montluisant in 1640. Much of the iconography he explains is nowhere to be found on the present day facade. How do you account for that?
M.D. This Cathedral has been rebuilt five times over the past eight hundred years. Restoration efforts of Viollet le Duc were not faithful to the intentions of the original design. Fulcanelli laments at length about this in MYSTERY OF THE CATHEDRALS.
J.C. Fulcanelli explains the statue of St Marcellus on the trumeau of St Ann's Portal on the western facade of Notre Dame as a reference to the Dry Way elaborated in a crucible at very high temperatures. In your translation of Montluisant, in section 9 of this tract he describes the same icon as a reference to a process elaborated in a "crystaline egg", a glass flask used for the Humid Way. Such a glass flask could not endure the temperatures required for the Dry Way. How do you reconcile the inconsistency of these two authors?
M.D. These texts can be read on many levels. It's not a matter of one way or the other but possibly both at the same time. These authors aren't bound by the same rules of logic that confine you and I. These two texts are not inconsistent.
J.C. Contemporary alchemical commentators fall into two categories, those that deal with practical laboratory operation and those that deal in terms of "psychospiritual babble". What approach do you follow?
M.D. One may attempt to approach alchemical symbols the way Jung and his followers have done, or to choose to view the whole subject as mere metaphors for life's struggles, but that kind of thing will not help to elucidate what, in their veiled manner the adepts sought to impart. Be it said, that in his l'Alchimie Expliquee sur ses Textes Classiques, Eugene Canseliet, in a lengthy chapter entitled "Deceptive and Demented Enticements", holds forth against the interpretations of Rene Guenon, Gaston Bachelard and Carl Gustav Jung as totally misleading as to the veritable goals and significance of Alchemy. This is not to denigrate the work of at least the last two of these within their own fields, or to deny the importance of certain alchemical symbols within the interpretative purview of the fields in question, but it does, especially when read in conjunction with Fulcanelli's assertion that man is not himself the subject of the art, clearly attest to the unquestionable existence of a difference between a so-called "psychological" interpretation of the Great Art, and the actual intention of the genuine adepts thereof.
Not that Jungian or other interpretations of the Alchemical imagery are wrong but it is quite certain that, for various reasons, Jung did misinterpret the original intentions of the ancient authors, as in another slightly different context, he was led to do with his reading, based on inadequate translations, of Tibetan and Chinese thought.
One must simply be prudent. Alchemy exists in and deals with the time beyond time, which is Eternity, and is concerned only with the restoration of the Lost Estate, that is to say the realization of the divine and inherent potential, the purification and spiritualization of matter, and the materialization and incarnation of spirit. To this end, every effort must be made to search out every last detail of the ultimate meaning of the words of our forefathers.
One is once again and forcefully reminded of the ultimate exhortation of the Mutus Liber, to wit, Ora, Lege, Lege, Relege, Labora et Invenies...Pray, Read, Read, Reread, Work and you shall Find . Only through prayers, profound and humble study and then trying one's realizations against the touchstone of reality and the declared results of the adepts themselves will one even begin to understand.
J.C. Why does one pursue hermetic knowledge?
M.D. There are many reasons for seeking knowledge, as many as there are seekers thereof probably, but the reason for seeking alchemical knowledge is clearly stated in all texts to be that, of one's own good fortune, one may aid the fortune of others, particularly the indigent and abandoned. In other words, that wisdom is to manifest as compassion, and that compassion and compassion alone is the enactment of wisdom. All other goals are fools gold.
It is all very well to be scholarly and precise, or fired-up and visionary but if these points of view, however apparently clever lead one away from the path and back into the labyrinth of one's own hubris, preconception and confusion, of what practical use are they to anybody at all? And is it not the touchstone of Alchemy that it is an infinitely practical art?
J.C. In the course of our acquaintance you have often expressed profound concern with ecological and humanitarian issues. How does this follow from hermetic vision?
M.D. The universe is sacred. People must learn to deal with it that way.
J.C. Do you have any projects that you're working on now that you'd like to talk about?
M.D. I'm translating L'Ami de L'Aurore, by Henri de Lintaut, (1700). I'm also writing, recording and performing music. In the future I look forward to a lengthy retreat, if possible...at least 6 months to a year.
J.C. On behalf of the Invisible College I'd like to thank you not only for making time for me here today but for your work of keeping the dream alive. Thank you Mike Dickman.
This interview was conducted on September 9th, 1999 at the threshold to the central porch on the western entrance to Notre Dame de Paris. Michael then escorted me to the Gothic masterpiece, Sainte Chapelle and then to the ancient church tower of Saint Jacques, the starting point of the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.
(1) Vladislav Zadrobilek was interviewed in THE STONE, No 28 see also http://www.levity.com/alchemy/caezza6.html
(2) Dr Lubos Antonin was interviewed in THE STONE, No 27 see also http://www.levity.com/alchemy/caezza5.html
ALCHEMICAL COMPENDIUM I: A COLLECTION OF ALCHEMICAL TREATISES TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH , translated by Michael Dickman, 1999, Hermetic Studies No. 3, Glasgow,140pp.(36 pounds sterling) see http://dialspace.dial.pipex.com/alchemy/herm_studies3.html)
Here is a superb collection of ten obscure 16th, 17th and 18th century French Alchemical works. The translator expresses reservations about whether or not these various authors refer to practical operative lab work or mere armchair psychospiritual babble. Careful reading and long meditation reveal that all of these tracts concern operative manipulations. Each is "good". Each testifies to illuminated insight into the mystery of Being at the heart of Alchemy.
Two tracts by Bernard Trevisan, "The Green Dream" and "Parabole" from his, Book of Natural Philosophy of Metals, open this compendium. Written in the oblique cabalistic manner these fables abound in surrealist images. Like other tracts in this collection they offer brief scenarios reminiscent of Rosenkreutz's Chemical Wedding.
The juiciest heart of this book appears in the next four tracts, "Concerning the Material of the Stone", " The Torch of Natural Philosophy", "The Hermetic Apocalypse" and "Nature Discovered". Flowing from anonymous sages who need not assert their academic authority by posting capital letters after their names, they invite us to consider the most subtle archetypal process of Nature. Often these texts vacillate between explicit lab manipulations and hallucinatory journeys accompanied by bizarre happenings. A passage from the commentary to the "Hermetic Apocalypse" calls to mind the contemporary concept of the 'Invisible College' made popular by Joscelyn Godwin in his ongoing series for Lapis magazine:
"The society of Unknown Philosophers is unbounded by notions of kingdom, realm or particular place; but spreads throughout the universe. An institution dictated by reason, illumined by religion and which follows after virtue, should be known to all men. Worldly protectors are without avail for admission to this choice assembly; worldly greatness is as nothing there; there is a man naught but a man, but veritably man"
Another tract, "Nature Discovered" by an Unknown Knight, remains remarkable as the little known work of an unquestionable adept. After an intense discourse on laboratory methods it features a section, "Christian Chemistry" that reveals the esoteric dimension of that great undiscovered treasure, the Roman Catholic Church. Even more impressive, the final section of this tract, "Poetic Chemistry" explicates with meticulous detail the alchemical import of Greek mythology. One tract alone, "A Most Curious Explication of the Hieroglyphic and Physical Enigmas and Figures to be Found on the Grand Portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris" by 'Lord Esprit Gobineau de Montluisant, Gentleman of Chartres, Lover of Philosophy Natural and Alchemical', is worth the price of the entire compendium. Writing in the Spring of 1640 he gives us precious impressions of images mutilated during the French Revolution. Fulcanelli made a career out of deciphering symbolism hidden on the western facade of Notre Dame but he stood on the shoulders of this savant.
The two final tracts will be familiar to most hard core connoisseurs of this genre. "The Epistle on the Philosophical Fire" by John Pontanus offers in covert language one of the simplest procedures for elaborating the Philosopher's Stone. "A Letter to a True Disciple of Hermes Wherein are Six Cardinal Keys of the Secret Philosophy", comprises the final section of the Hermetic Triumph. Stanislas Klossowski de Rola describes this as "the best of the best of 17th century alchemical literature".
The compendium, produced in a limited edition of only 300 copies, printed and bound by hand by Adam McLean himself comes signed, dated and numbered. Bound in a leather-like material with its title in gold lettering it already maintains status as a collectors item. This volume will serve as a worthy reference for any serious student of Alchemy.