Sunday, October 30, 2011

Michael Mann analysis - part 6: Depiction of alchemical processes


From Manhunter: Will Graham catches his breath as his surroundings come back into focus, after his encounter with his psychological shadow, Hannibal Lecktor. The encounter with the shadow is associated with the alchemical stage known as the nigredo.

In early Greek alchemy, the nigredo stage was identified with chaos (below is a basic description of alchemy and the nigredo). Chaos is associated with creation in Genesis, where "[T]he earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." [Gen. 1:2, New International Version]

Alchemy is an ancient tradition, the primary objective of which was the creation of the mythical "philosopher's stone," which was said to be capable of turning base metals into gold or silver, and also act as an elixir of life that would confer youth and immortality upon its user. The philosopher's stone is created by the alchemical method known as The Magnum Opus or The Great Work. Often expressed as a series of color changes or chemical processes, the instructions for creating the philosopher's stone are varied.[a] The Great Work originally had four stages:

1) nigredo, a blackening or melanosis
2) albedo, a whitening or leucosis
3) citrinitas, a yellowing or xanthosis
4) rubedo, a reddening, purpling, or iosis

After the 15th century, many writers tended to compress citrinitas into rubedo and consider only three stages. However, it is in citrinitas that the chemical wedding takes place, generating the Philosophical Mercury without which the philosopher's stone, triumph of the Work, could never be accomplished.

In the framework of psychological development, and especially within the context of Jungian psychology, these four alchemical steps are taken as analogous to the process of attaining individuation.[b] Let us examine the four steps in greater detail.

1. Nigredo, or blackness, in alchemy means putrefaction or decomposition. The alchemists believed that as a first step in the pathway to the philosopher's stone all alchemical ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to a uniform black matter. In psychology, Carl Jung (a student of alchemy) interpreted nigredo as a moment of maximum despair, that is a prerequisite to personal development.[c]

Mann's depiction of the Holy Spirit moving over the waters in some of his movies, is connected with the nigredo, insofar as they both have to do with chaos. Also, the nigredo is associated with the encounter with the psychological shadow; Hannibal Lecktor represents Graham's shadow, and as indicated above (next to the screencap), Will's encounter with Lecktor and the events immediately following it, comprise a nigredo for Will.

2. Albedo - following the harrowing, chaotic nigredo, it is necessary for purification provided by the albedo which is literally referred to as ablutio; the washing away of impurities by aqua vitae. Jung equated the albedo with unconscious contrasexual soul images; the anima in men and animus in women. It is a phase where insight into shadow projections are realized, and inflated ego and unneeded conceptualizations are removed from the psyche.[d]

3. Citrinitas literally referred to "transmutation of silver into gold" or "yellowing of the lunar consciousness", and in alchemical philosophy stood for the dawning of the "solar light" inherent in one's being, and that the reflective "lunar or soul light" was no longer necessary. In Jungian terms, citrinitas is the wise old man (or woman) archetype.[e]

4. Rubedo is a Latin word meaning "redness." In an archetypal schema, rubedo would represent the Self archetype, and would be the culmination of the four stages. The Self manifests itself in "wholeness," a point in which a person discovers his or her true nature.[f]

Later in this analysis, we will see more on the topic of Mann's depiction of alchemical stages in some of his films.

a. Wikipedia, 'Philosopher's stone'. Web, n.d. URL =
b. Wikipedia, 'Magnum opus (alchemy)'. Web, n.d. URL =
c. Wikipedia, 'Nigredo'. Web, n.d. URL =
d. Wikipedia, 'Albedo (alchemy)'. Web, n.d. URL =
e. Wikipedia, 'Citrinitas'. Web, n.d. URL =
f. Wikipedia, 'Rubedo'. Web, n.d. URL =


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