Aaron Cheak, PhD, is a scholar of comparative religion, philosophy, and esotericism. Former president of the International Jean Gebser Society, Dr Cheak presently resides in New Zealand, where he maintains an active interest in tea, wine, poetry, typography and alchemy. This interview was conducted by Robert J R Graham in February 2014, and originally appeared on his website.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
While I’m a scholar by vocation, I have always been, more fundamentally, an artist, and this fact speaks deeply to the heart of the alchemical process. As Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, once said: “the work of art lives and develops, like any other natural organism, through the conflict of opposing principles”. He likened directing to the “separation of light from darkness”, mirroring Genesis (which is the Greek word for “creation”). Creativity in this alchemical sense is in my blood, and over the years my creative drives have shifted through numerous modalities: from fine art proper, to music, through to the silver-tongued craft of the wordsmith. And I always engage whatever I do with a consummate passion for perfection.
For the last fourteen years, however, my energies have been almost exclusively devoted to intensive esoteric research and academic writing. I studied philology, philosophy and classics, graduating with majors in German and Religious Studies from the University of Queensland. In 2011, I completed a PhD on the life and alchemy of René Schwaller de Lubicz, the great French Hermetic philosopher, and during this time I also studied laboratory spagyrics in the tradition of Frater Albertus. I am also deeply involved in the International Jean Gebser Society, of which I am currently the president. Gebser was a German poet and phenomenologist of consciousness who rubbed shoulders with figures such as Lorca, Picasso, Jung, Heisenberg, and Lama Govinda, to name but a few. In sum, my scholarly work on Gebser and Schwaller de Lubicz speak to two poles of my nature. By delving into the deep interstices between Hermetic and Integral philosophy, I seek no less than the alchemy of consciousness.
In your book “Alchemical Traditions” you go into great depth pertaining to alchemy, what’s some of the most fascinating history you’ve uncovered?
Much can be said here, but perhaps the most fascinating thing for me personally was learning about the alchemical traditions that have remained intact in the East—which have not died out and become fragmentary like those in the West—such as the practical and spiritual techniques preserved in the Vajrayana school of Tantric Buddhism. This is crucially important for here one begins to see alchemy not as a reconstructed esotericism, like so many quasi-Masonic schools of western occultism, but as a living traditional science, a hieratikē technē (i.e. a sacred art/science) forming an integral part of a Tradition (in the Guénonian sense). As such it sits alongside other traditional hieratic and cosmological sciences, such as ritual magic, medicine, and astrology. What is more exciting, one begins to see the boundaries blur as alchemy overlaps with its perennial sister sciences.
Did any culture think of alchemy as a mainstream practice?
Alchemy has always been germane to all high civilisations of antiquity, for the practical knowledge of alchemy in an operative sense—which encompasses mineralogy, metallurgy, botanical knowledge, fermentation, distillation, and much more—is intimately bound to the shift from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian civilisation. While alchemy has been a hieratic art of some of the highest world cultures, it has never been “mainstream” as such, for it is typically the province of the master artisan and the priest. And yet, at the same time, the central mysteries of alchemy, like the public displays of the craftsman and the hierophant, are always “hidden in plain sight”.
This, incidentally, is the premise behind the alchemical symbolism of the Gothic Cathedrals, which Fulcanelli infamously revealed as “alchemical texts in stone”. His 1926 book, The Mystery of the Cathedrals, allegedly derives from the geometric hermeneutic of Schwaller de Lubicz, who subsequently went to Egypt to study the temples at Luxor and Karnak, which he presented in three grand volumes as an architectonic symbolique preserving the highest pharaonic wisdom: the doctrine of the Anthropocosmos.
You’ve devoted a great deal of your life to understanding alchemy and similar traditions, what draws you to it?
My path as an academic and my path as an esotericist are two sides of the same coin. They should be seen as an extension of my deeper creative path, which is fundamentally alchemical and rooted in a calling that is both philosophical and mystical, like the swan song of Socrates. But that having been said, I have always been fascinated with the arcane and the mysterious. In fact, I am more at home and alive here than in the day-to-day world.
Does alchemy provide any further insight into our evolutionary process as humans?
The evolutionary process, in metals or humans, is a quintessentially alchemical phenomenon. The best alchemists study all phenomena, not just minerals and metals, in order to understand the universal principles of transformation that apply to all species, and all kingdoms, from mineral to man. In doing this they seek to glimpse the mystery by which one divine process acts through all things—like the invisible helix that shapes the growth not only of the chambered nautilus and the sunflower, but of the entire galaxy in which they grow. In this sense, I agree with Schwaller de Lubicz, who views the entirety of the visible cosmos as one, giant, living alchemical reaction to a metaphysical action. Here the visible phases of transformation or evolution are merely the empirically graspable parts of a greater whole. Visible phenomena are thus a temporary manifestation that veils but also reveals the invisible, like a piece of silk concealing yet revealing the contours of a naked body.
Although phenomena may appear to evolve towards an unmanifest finality, they are in fact a partial manifestation of a pre-existing whole, and this whole does not evolve per se. Like an Archimedean screw, its movements appear to suggest growth but in fact it stays the same, its only “change” being its eternal dance of self-circumambulation.
This view of “evolution” accords with the Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Tibetan Buddhism, in which the “goal” of liberation and spiritual “evolution” is already, primordially, achieved. We are already primordially awakened. It is only a matter of removing the impurities (mental and emotional afflictions) that stop consciousness knowing itself in its primeval, luminous boundlessness. The phases that we go through to make this primordial realisation may appear like “evolution”, but are in fact phases of increasing transparency to the pre-existent whole. The very same principle applies to material evolution, and this is why alchemy proceeds principally through the techniques of separation and purification in order to reveal the primordial purity. It does not “create” as such. Rather, like the technique of Michelangelo, it reveals by taking away.
I’m fascinated with your study of elixirs, what are some of the resulting effects from your mixtures?
While I have studied elixir making and have produced Magisteria in the plant kingdom (the separation, refinement and reunification of the Sulphur, Mercury and Salt of a given plant entity), it should be stressed that alchemical medicines are ultimately a bi-product of the alchemical philosophy. The philosophy is to re-establish the primordial whole of which manifest phenomena (whether plants or metals, men or women), are a partial derivation, a separation from the whole. Alchemical work in the laboratory is essentially a demonstration of the philosophy that all things participate in a fiery seed or “father”, and a nourishing matrix or “mother”, and that all manifestation occurs like the crystallisation of an acid and a base to form “salt”.
Thus, all manifestation mirrors the inter-reaction of these fundamental principles—acid and alkaline, seed and matrix, warmth and coldness. Their product creates a fallen image that mirrors the primordial unity of the polarities that generated them, but which in the original condition are united in an incorruptible and pure form. Like Yin and Yang, the primordial androgyne, or the alchemical union of king and queen, they contain an archetypal masculinity and femininity entwined within its wholeness. And it is this primordial wholeness, and the process of revealing the incorruptible condition through its physical evolutes (or devolutes), that the alchemist seeks to achieve.
Thank you for interviewing, where can we find out more about your work?
My work is currently available through my book, Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde, published by Numen books, and available through Amazon. A summary of my scholarly work is available both on my own website, and on the Academia website. Recently, I have appeared in Gabriel D. Roberts’ book, The Quest for Gnosis: Spirituality Without Dogma, and in issue 3 of the Clavis Journal. Other than that, I've just got back from co-hosting this year's International Jean Gebser Society conference with Jeremy Johnson in New York City; the conference theme, Crisis and Mutation, as well as all the presentation abstracts, can be seen here. I am presently in the process of finalising some recordings for my course, Alchemy East and West: History, Theory, Practice, which will be available through the University of Philosophical Research in Los Angeles via distance education. I am also revising my doctoral dissertation, Light Broken Through the Prism of Life: René Schwaller de Lubicz and the Hermetic Problem of Salt, for publication, and if all goes to plan, it will be ready for publication next year. In other words, I’m quite busy, so stay tuned!
Since completing this interview, a number of new projects have come to light. I have published the inaugural issue of Diaphany: A Journal and Nocturne, through Rubedo Press, a publishing house that I founded in 2015. Rubedo Press specialises in “classical and contemporary works animated by the sophianic fire”, and the Diaphany journal is in many respects a “philosophical flagship” for the press. It was inspired by Gebser’s idea of an integral transparency that allows not only the waking, rational consciousness to be present, but also the nightside of existence: the primordial, vital, and mythic ontologies which undergird our being and make our reality whole.
Two important scholarly studies of Schwaller de Lubicz’s alchemy have also appeared: one in Dr. Hans Thomas Hakl’s Octagon series (Scientia Nova, 2016), which deals with the sexual themes in Schwaller’s Hermetic philosophy; and another in Dr. Peter Forshaw’s book, Lux in Tenebris: The Visual and the Symbolic in Western Esotericism (Brill, 2017), which focuses on Schwaller’s concept of Symbolique and the trinity of Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt. A survey of Schwaller’s clash with French academia appeared in issue 6 of Heretic under the heading: “The War Between Symbolists and Egyptologists: René Schwaller de Lubicz in Egypt: 1936-1951”. I also held a series of webinars on the life, colour theory, and alchemy of Schwaller, which was hosted via my sacred sciences project: Ars Hieratica.
Last but not least, I had the pleasure to spend most of 2016 with the fine folk at Magical Egypt, ensconced in their beautiful headquarters on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. We worked intensively on the new series—Magical Egypt 2—while decimating the world’s margarita and truffle populations. The first episode is scheduled for imminent release.