The following are some notes and observations I had as I read this book Languages of Revolt, which aims to show how the language of Alchemy was used by both Dadaists and Surrealists to break viewer’s paradigms and then rebuild them according to frame theory.
Alchemy as Initiation
This chapter presents alchemy, and in particular, the Tarot as a coded narrative describing the stages of man’s progression through the trials of life towards wisdom. The “occult” sciences refers to that which is hidden, where the alchemist is often shown with his eyes bound. In this way, he must turn his attention inward towards the “true science” of primary cause rather than the science of the phenomenal world.
I would also add that occultation implies action and engagement on behalf of the viewer-initiate. He/she cannot merely be a passive observer but must actively engage in the pursuit of wisdom. The occultation is in fact an invitation for the curious to draw back Sophia’s veil (The Priestess Card). There is a longstanding association of Wisdom (Sophia) as a divine feminine energy, a holy center, a sacred temple, the mother church, or the bride – both in alchemy and Christianity. Most importantly this energy is rooted in compassion so that all action (the male principle) is motivated by divine love. In this sense, it’s the key to the initiate’s fulfillment.
I am now appreciating on another level Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even as I suspect it is a reference to the alchemical wedding. If so then we see the absurd result of a mechanical manifestation of the Shekinah from Duchamp, perhaps as a reaction to the industrialization and mechanization of Europe and America. If alchemy represents the highest pursuit of the soul, Duchamp is using the alchemical langauge to explore the place of man in a world that is increasingly mechanized. What does it mean to automate human activity?
It seems The Large Glass is a critique on the stripping of the Bride, or the removal of wisdom’s “veils” by her bachelors. The bachelors in this case are an allegory for those who are pre-inititates. That is, they have not culminated their knowledge and accomplished the Wedding (the reconciling of opposites within the self into a greater whole). For me, there is a definite allegory of forcefully abusing the material world without proper understanding of consequences – this is the impetus behind the Nightmare sequence for MX-93. To strip the bride is to take away the heart from our philosophical sensibilities, leaving only the mind and the material world – a heartless, calculating, mechanistic worldview is what remains.
Additionally, Duchamp’s Étant donnés has always seemed to me to be about the death of the Divine Feminine in western culture. Everything about her position, what is visible and not visible, suggests that the creative, nurturing, compassionate forces lie inert and lifeless in a field. The image is disturbing in it’s suggestions of foul play. The figure holds a lamp (The Hermit card) out, indicating to me that she is indeed this
Divine Wisdom, the light that guides the soul and illuminates the mind.
I have no idea if Duchamp meant all these things nor has the author discussed him, but it’s likely he was aware of the occult and alchemical foundations of the dada and surrealist movements. At least it’s helpful for me to understand how other artists might have worked with the occult language in their work.
Meanwhile, MX-93 is himself enacting an initiation. He experiences the fluctuations between the poles of Heaven and Hell, but such a realization is only the beginning.