The Alchemy web site on Levity.com
An Interview with Mike Dickman - Parisian hermetic translator
An Interview With A Parisian Hermetic Translator by Joseph Caezza
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.
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.
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.
We then proceeded on a walking tour of the Latin Quarter which emphasized Tibetan import outlets and esoteric bookstores. Foremost among these were J. C. Bailly's 'Gutenberg Reprints', located at 4 rue du Savoie, devoted exclusively to Alchemy and 'La Table d'Emeraude', Paris's premier hermetic bookstore located at 21 rue de la Huchette.
Once again I thank my beloved Soror Mystica, Miss Natalie Collins, without who's inspiration this work could not have been accomplished.
From France I traveled to Prague where Vladislav Zadrobilek (1) was holding a major exhibit on Count Sporck, a 17th century aristocrat with strong esoteric interests. Sporck is still regarded, perhaps falsely, to be the father of Bohemian Masonic tradition. Lubos Antonin (2) a Hermetic librarian at the National Museum once again lead me on a walking tour to some of the more obscure mystic sites of Prague's Old Town. Both Zadrobilek and Antonin in collaboration with the Dutch philanthropist, Joseph Rittman will produce a major exhibit on Rosicrucian tradition slated for the summer of 2000. Our colleague, Michal Pober continues his efforts to institute a museum of Alchemy in the ancient mining town of Kutna Hora. There is hope that Manfred Junius may give a workshop there in Lab work next summer. Junius, the author of The Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy recently toured through Kutna Hora with his students.
In other news of interest Joscelyn Godwin's long awaited translation of the Dream of Polyphilus, The Hypnerotomachia, will be available through Amazon.com in October. This 15th century tome is fun filled and action packed with heavy metal alchemical idioms, innuendos and allegories. I also recently examined a prepublication copy of a remarkable text, A Monument to the End of Time: Alchemy, Fulcanelli and the Great Cross, Volume I, The Cross at Hendaye, by J. Weidner and V. Bridges. The first installment of a 3 volumes set (!) the study will soon be released by Aethyrea Books. As if that wasn't enough, the publication of Fulcanelli's mysterious third book, FINIS GLORIAE MUNDI, has been announced on the Internet. See: http://www.liber-mirabilis.nu/frlv005.html The fine arts edition will be available for approximately $ 750.00. Draw your own conclusions.
(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://www.alchemywebsite.com/bookshop/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.
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.