BOOK REVIEW Alchemy : An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology Marie-Louise von Franz

There are some psychology books that are not only books to be read, they are spaces in which a transformative meeting takes place.  Alchemy is one of these books. For me this meeting was special, as I was not only the reader of the book, but also translated it, into Polish for release as a Polish edition.
Sometimes I joke that I could write a book trying to explain areas in which meeting with Alchemy was a transformative experience for me, both as a psychoanalyst and a translator, and as we are here only for a short review, let me emphasize just a few.
For the contemporary psychologist, even a Jungian analyst like me, to get together with Marie-Louise von Franz deeply into an alchemical symbolism, as she presents the Arabic, Greek, and early Christian one, is a challenging task. The thing that is being challenged is our taken for granted view of the world, as defined by conceptualized knowledge of Western culture and evidence-based approaches. In the series of lectures from C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich presented in Alchemy von Franz takes us out of a narrow, one-sided approach, but in doing this she doesn’t leave us out in the nothingness without help – she reminds us why we are undertaking the journey and provides necessary tools for such a journey:
You may say why dig up these heavy old texts with all their complications, but don’t forget that that is the root of the good ideas and the prejudices of our civilization. If we don’t discuss these basic prejudices of our civilization, we shall never contact other civilizations. We must know what prejudices we have, though we may still keep them, saying that we like them, but one can think differently, opinions do differ. Such broadness of mind is necessary if one wishes to analyse people objectively and not be the propagandist of one trend; an analyst should be broadminded and see what the inner nature of the analysand constellates as a healing process, wherever it leads. That at least is our conviction.
p. 56
Meeting with alchemy together with von Franz brings then an important insight – we need to keep the connection between the matter and the spirit – among others between the psychological theory and the unconscious – alive, otherwise we ourselves may become stuck in dogma, regulation, and red tape, with their well defined concepts and one hundred percent sure truths, as has happened many times before in the history of our civilization. In the analysis of the presented alchemical texts we can see the functioning of compensatory unconscious energy, which balances the one-sidedness of attitudes, and brings psychological renewal.
For that reason the conflict is eternal and must be sustained; the one-sidedness of consciousness must be continually confronted with the paradox. This means that whenever a truth has been experienced as such and has been kept for a while alive in one’s own psyche, one has to make a right about turn, for that truth is no longer valid. As Jung says, every psychological truth is only a half truth and that also is only a half truth! The analyst himself has always to keep up with his own unconscious, to be consciously ready to throw over everything hitherto attained, which would correspond to a constant double attitude.
p. 149
The above two quotations illustrate well the rhythm and the tone of the book. As next to all the knowledge we receive, and discoveries we make, we also meet the author very strongly – and what a personality she is! Engaged, brave in thinking, always present in the emerging discussions, direct in addressing difficult issues, which maybe sometimes we’d rather skip. I found myself thinking about Marie-Louise von Franz as of a very strong woman, at the same time remembering her working in the garden, as described In Memoriam, a personal reminiscence by Daryl Sharp written after von Franz’s death. As a translator sometimes I struggled with her strong personality, sometimes I felt led by her, until finally I felt that we had traveled through the book together, where gradually the space in between languages emerged.
For me personally, during the work on the book, the most transformative part was the translation of the last three chapters which speak about the psychological meaning of Aurora Consurgens. I realized with surprise, that entering deeply into presented texts attributed to St Thomas Aquinas corresponded with Marie-Louise von Franz commentary changed something in my relationship to the symbolism of Christianity. If I were to describe it in one sentence I would say that it brought it back to me, created the space where the individual relationship to well known Biblical fragments and symbols could be re-experienced, as if they are listened to for the very first time.
This ability – to hold the knowledge and yet listen to what we hear as if it was spoken for the very first time is an important one in every true discovery, and in an everyday psychologist’s work. Probably it is the most difficult where we approach contents from collective consciousness, parts of our everyday cultural reality, which seem to describe the world, as it is. Alchemy reminds us, that the world was not always as it is now in our eyes, even more, it takes us into the journey where we can imagine how it was experienced by the minds and imagination of the people centuries away from us. Then the challenging question appears just in front of our established definitions about limitations of our points of view and knowledge. And only then the true adventure begins.
 Malgorzata Kalinowska
Małgorzata Kalinowska is a Jungian analyst working in a private practice in Poland. She is also the Editor-In-Chief of, a Jungian online magazine. Her main areas of interest are the transcultural aspect of development of analytical psychology and the relationships between trauma and culture. She writes and publishes on those subjects and translates books on analytical psychology into Polish. Her blog can be found at and at Follow her on facebook  and twitter.

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