Virtue (Latin virtus; Greek ἀρετή, aretē) is moral excellence. A virtue is a trait or quality deemed to be morally excellent and is thus valued as a foundation or principle of moral being. The opposite of virtue is vice.
MIAMI VICE is an allegorical dramaturgy in which the protagonists, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, are undercover agents in a Hermetic sting operation. Concealed like alchemical chameleons, their role is distinctly Mercurial: to move fluidly between the higher and lower worlds—the worlds of virtue and vice. But true to the alchemical imperative, it is only by penetrating to the depths of corruption that they can hope to bring virtue to prevail.
This modus operandi is a precise mirror of transmutation in Graeco-Egyptian alchemy. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the process of transformation in ancient alchemy operated by inversion (ekstrophē, turning something "inside-out"). An agent of transformation would penetrate into the innermost depths of a corrupt substance in order to reveal its hidden or interior virtue (aretē). It was not a matter of turning one thing into something else, but of revealing the ever-present virtue of a phenomenon from the midst of its vice. Like tantra, alchemy engages the world at its most corrupt in order to wrest from this condition its hidden light.
The Sun in the Underworld
In the twilight language of the royal art, Decknamen, or ‘cover names’, are never accidental. They reveal important nuances of the hidden nature. When “Sonny Crockett” goes undercover, he takes the name “Sonny Burnett”. In both instances he retains his solar character. Sonny is clearly synonymous with the Sun: the luminous, animating principle in the cosmos.
As an undercover agent in Miami’s criminal netherworld, Crockett is thus a thinly veiled allusion to the Sun’s journey through the underworld. In Egyptian cosmology, the sun god sailed through the underworld in his solar barque each night. It was a dangerous journey, however, and the sun had to overcome the forces of chaos and darkness in order to be reborn every morning at dawn. This exact mythology is replicated in the iconography of Miami Vice. Sonny Crocket not only journeys through the (criminal) underworld, he lives on a yacht, and is frequently portrayed driving speedboats at sunset.
The iconography of Miami Vice cunningly recapitulates the processes of Egyptian cosmology: Sonny's speedboat is a modern image of Ra's solar barque, while his sojourn in the criminal underworld mirrors the decent of the Sun into the dangerous waters of the netherworld.
Miami, Florida: Radical Humidity
In any authentic mystagogy, the symbolic value of the setting cannot be ignored. In every instance of Miami Vice, Miami itself is thrust to the very forefront. As the title of our allegory makes clear, we’re not simply dealing with vice, we’re dealing with Miami vice. “Location is a character”, David Lynch once remarked, and here it takes centre stage in a lurid symbolic unfolding.
Florida is hot and humid, and in the alchemical idiom handed down to us from Greek physics, heat and humidity are precise qualities. Above all, it is the thick, humid air that predominates in Miami. As Plato makes clear in the Timaeus, water and air are mediating elements. If fire is the heavenly world, and earth physical reality, humid air is the interzone between these polarities, straddling the realms of transcendence and concretion. The air of Miami Vice is thus a transitional realm, thick with the weight of water. Its promise hangs in the balance between volatility and precipitation—and it is precisely this ambiance that infuses the nature of our agents.
The palpable nature of this ambiance is saliently accentuated through the sacramental liturgies of Philipus Collinsius. The sacred hymn, “In the Air Tonight”, invokes the thick, amorphous interzone that mirrors, indeed externalises, the moral dilemmas of our protagonists—undercover agents operating between the worlds of high virtue and underground corruption. But in addition to this moral Zwischenreich, there is also another, more fundamental level of signification at play here.
The elemental ambiance of Miami ultimately represents the radical humidity of the alchemists—i.e. the vital, fluid life-force in the human body that is slowly dried out over time by the body’s natural fire. It is due to our radical humidity that we are born young and supple, but it is due to our innate fire that we die withered and aged. Indeed, the entire purpose of the Sun god’s nocturnal quest is to restore this radical humidity by bathing himself in the primordial, life-giving waters that reside at the nadir of the underworld. Crockett’s quest into the heart of vice is thus a quest for immortality. As an agent of virtue, he must ensure that the life-giving waters prevail over corrupting heat.
Alchemy is inextricably bound to colour as an expression of transformation, and one of the most enduring legacies of Miami Vice is its bewildering use of colour. Crockett’s omnipresent ensemble—white linen suit and tight pastel t-shirt, along with a perpetual kaleidoscope of pastel blazers—is not merely iconic of the 1980s imagination; it is ultimately of deep symbolic value.
Before we explore colour proper, however, it is first necessary to point out that Crockett’s Armani summer suits were exclusively made of linen. As such they are a covert reference to Pythagoreanism. Pythagoras, who travelled by yacht to Egypt, famously wore white linen, and all his followers did the same. This was in strict adherence to the practices of the Egyptian priests, who Pythagoras studied under, as well as the rites of Orphic worship.
It is thus no surprise to find that the Egyptian and Orphic rites—of which Crockett, like Pythagoras, is a clear initiate—were concerned precisely with descent into the underworld. Ostensibly solar and Apollonian, the essence of the sun was most directly accessible to these initiates through descent into the magma-filled caverns of the Mediterranean underworld.
The Pastel Elixir
But returning to the alchemical colour symbolism at play in Miami Vice, much can be said regarding Sonny as solar preceptor. Like Mithras (and Elvis), his brilliant white suit blasts through blackness with the uncreated light of purification (leukōsis, albedo, the alchemical whitening). His occasional lemon blazer exalts the true principle of xanthōsis (yellowing), while his pale pink suits hint delicately at the solar iōsis (the perfection in red, rubedo). All such colours, moreover, emerge from the fundamental ground of blackness (melanōsis, nigredo), and it is no coincidence here that Sonny, when on land, drives a pitch-black Ferrari. Nor is it insignificant that when this car is destroyed by the inimical denizens of the underworld (the forces of putrefaction), it is replaced with a pristine white vehicle. Sonny’s Ferarri rises from its death like a phoenix from its calcined ashes.
Vehicles of the Sun, Colours of the Opus: Black, White, Red-Purple.
Of course, like the yacht and speedboat, the Ferarris of Sonny Crockett must ultimately be recognised as vehicles of the Sun—phases of the solar journey. However, it is the preponderance of pastel itself that is of more exacting significance. Pastels are, after all, dry powders, and the very word elixir in alchemy comes from the Greek word xērion, ‘dry powder’. Traditionally, an elixir was not a liquid substance, but a mineral or metallic powder that had the ability to tincture and transform a metal’s colour. Ultimately the virulence of the powdered elixir would transform a metal’s nature into the royal alchemical colours, silver and gold.
Sonny Crocket—the undercover agent in the solar sting operation—bears these perfected alchemical pastels into the realm of deepest corruption. Literally invested in the elixir, he becomes their vehicle and embodiment. Here, powder pink suits are not mere social camouflage: they signal the presence of solar virtue taking root in the midst of underworldly vice.
The Alchemical Pharmakon
As we enter the underworld, we are confronted with an intriguing parallel between the pastel elixirs of our alchemical agents, and the white powders of the drug lords. Miami Vice is almost exclusively concerned with drug trafficking. Indeed, the vice at the very core of Miami Vice is no less than a chemical substance.
Alchemists have always known, however, that all substances can be poisons or medicines, depending on dosage. They even encoded this fact in the word pharmakon, which means both ‘poison’ and ‘medicine’, and which also gives us our word ‘pharmaceutical’. Confusing poisons for medicines, however, is never the path of the wise. Pharmaceuticals and narcotics are never alchemical elixirs, for they do not integrate us into our primordial liberation. The true alchemical pharmakon penetrates the black earth of vice and makes virtue flower like a rose.
POISON as MEDICINE
This brings us to the fundamental ambiguity at the heart of alchemy—and of Miami Vice. The powders of perfection are often derived from oxidised, i.e. corrupted, metals. The poison is the medicine. Corruption, the elixir. Confusion is the prima materia of our enlightenment.
Alchemy, like its tantric counterpart, is dangerous. By engaging corruption as a path of liberation and virtue, one risks succumbing to the very vices that one seeks to transmute into vehicles of transcendence. A pervasive theme of Miami Vice, and many of Michael Mann’s other works, is that sustained exposure to corruption corrupts. The agent, rather than effecting the transformation of corruption into virtue, runs the very real risk of being transformed by the forces of corruption. And so the mercurial boundaries blur.
But this is precisely the paradox. All our texts tell us that the transformative alchemical
elixir must penetrate to the deepest essence of the metallic bodies in order to permanently fix them with the transformative tincture—the royal colouring imparted by the pastel elixir. However, if the elixir doesn’t go deep enough, its effects will wear off. For permanent transformation, the deepest level has to be penetrated.
This is for very good reason. As the earliest Buddhist parables tell us, the primordial, liberated nature is actually ever-present—eternally perfect under the veils of our self-created corruption. Every vice is secretly a matrix of virtue.
Aaron Cheak, PhD, is a scholar of comparative religion, philosophy, and esotericism. He is the author and editor of Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Numen Books, 2013), and translator of the Greek Lexicon of Goldmaking (forthcoming through Rubedo Press).