"Know this: I, Mercurius, have set down a full, true and infallible account of the Great Work. But I give you fair warning that unless you seek the true philosophical gold and not the gold of the vulgar; unless your heart is fixed with unbending intent on the true Stone of the Philosophers, unless you are steadfast in your quest, abiding by God's laws in all faith and humility and eschewing all vanity, conceit, falsehood, intemperance, pride, lust and faintheartedness, read no further lest I prove fatal to you..."
Mercurius: The Marriage of Heaven and Earth
Published in the UK by Macmillan, 1990; in 2008 by Squeeze Press, an imprint of Wooden Books. Paperback.
'...a supporting cast of eccentric and mostly malevolent villagers, and Harpur's fine description of the local landscape turning under the seasons, together with his mastery of musty scholarship and his evocations of a growing subterranean menace, reminded me of the superb ghost stories of M R James. The author aims to do more than entertain by making the flesh creep, however. Mercurius, first published in 1990, is an intensely serious didactic novel. Whereas Edwin Abbott's novel Flatland explored mathematical dimensionality and Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World taught philosophy, Harpur's book provides lengthy and cryptic lessons that come close to being sermons on the spiritual dimensions of alchemy.' The New Statesman
Harpur cannot now avoid the credit for the most full and profound philosophical exposition of our times. It has made a deep and permanent impression on me, and I have received a vast benefit for which I shall be ever grateful. John Michell, author of The View over Atlantis, City of Revelation, The Dimensions of Paradise etc.
An authentic spellbinder. The Guardian
Surely one of the most persuasive evocations, ancient or modern, of genuine alchemists at work. Joscelyn Godwin, author of The Theosophical Enlightenment, Arktos: Myths and Mysteries of the Pole, Harmony of the Spheres: a Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music etc.
Extraordinary and brilliant... the work is a classic and will be recognised as such.
Charles Nicholl, author of The Chemical Theatre, The Reckoning, and the Lives of Rimbaud and Leonardo da Vinci.
Mercurius is a splendid celebration of the spiritual intellect and the soul's imagination. I will keep and value it as a moving (and beautifully told) story and as a lucid and provocative manductio to the Art. Lindsay Clarke, Whitbread Prize-winning author of The Chymical Wedding, Alice's Masque, The War at Troy, The Water Theatre etc.
Fascinating... absorbing... the kind of book I deeply enjoy.
Colin Wilson, author of The Occult, Mysteries, The Outsider etc.
Mercurius is a book written at least as much to elucidate as to entertain. It is probably the most explicit account of the alchemical art ever published - it presents a strong argument for the perfectibility of man and against the species of bloodless asceticism which drives a wedge between spiritual and corporeal love. The Literary Review
Each of its 479 mystical pages needs to be closely read, for the dramatic turns in this extraordinary alchemical novel are so well hidden that one dare not skip a single sentence for fear of missing an essential key to the developing mystery. It is rare to find an author who can expound with such authority on a subject whose very existence is known only to a few initiates. He goes far beyond Jung... This book is uniquely useful. There is no rival to it. Fortean Times
|Mercurius is magnificent. On one level it is a novel that
intertwines the lives and different times of Smith, a 1950's Church of
England cleric (who when off duty dabbles in the pursuit of alchemy and
the Great Work) and Eileen who discovers Smith's secret when she moves
into his house at a later time. On another level the novel is a sort of
modern treatise on alchemy and the Great Work....
Patrick Harpur provides notes on each chapter at the end of the book, and the notes themselves are highly informative, based on extensive scholarly investigation. In fact, they're so good that I would find myself looking up a single item, but then another fascinating note would catch my eye and I found myself just reading all the notes for the chapter first.
Returning attention to the purely fictional aspects of Mercurius, you may think that the metaphysical element might give an overall mystical feel to the book, but actually it makes the physical more vivid, even more real. The literal and psychological/daimonic meet in a creative expression of unified awareness. It took me about 20 pages to "get it" and from that point on I could relax & enjoy the trip - or I could just read the notes and get pleasantly educated, not only on the history of alchemy, but also the author's views on Carl Jung and other philosophical interests. Harpur's interpretations of Jung are particularly insightful & helpful....
A chapter later, I felt that I reached yet "another level" of understanding based on the storyline & text. This process - dare I say "initiation" - continued throughout. This may have been intentional on the author's part, maybe not. You can't completely pin Harpur down, he does not intrude in his own story....
I'll say this: Mercurius is no lightweight, New Age, fantasy fluff. It is a serious, mature work demonstrating the skill of a brilliant writer and metaphysical investigator. Justin Erik Farrow, editor of www.gnostics.com
I never got round to Colin Wilson's fiction. Or Arthur Koestler's. I knew that Patrick Harpur, author of two of my favourite books (Daimonic Reality and The Philosophers' Secret Fire) had also done 'a novel', but as ever my mysterious lack of interest in reading fiction seemed destined to leave it in the shade.
I call my lack of interest in fiction 'mysterious', because whenever I get round to a novel, I invariably love it. I guess my attention is just too occupied by rooting for 'information' and inspiration in non-fiction. Well, imagine my delight in discovering that Harpur's novel was not only a warmly absorbing read, a gripping narrative peppered with crisply evocative images and deeply engaging characters; it is also a masterful blend of fiction and non-fiction.
The premise is that an ex-lover of Harpur's left a manuscript on his London doorstep while he was out. Having broken off their relationship suddenly, riven by spiritual dislocation, Eileen had fled to a run-down vicarage in a small West Country village. Here, it seems, she discovered the alchemical diary of the town's vicar in the 1950s, a certain 'John Smith'. Her hunger for gnostic insight leads her to start piecing together Smith's experiments'including a debatably successful attempt at the Great Work'and his particular take on the alchemical quest. Echoes of disaster and nefarious intrigue haunt Smith's legacy, still felt by some residents of the village, and suffused through the buildings and landscape of its rural locale. Eileen's manuscript is a combination of Smith's diary, together with her own. Both jump from philosophical and psychological speculation on the alchemical opus to their everyday relationship with the village and the local environment.
Harpur himself interjects only occasionally, with footnotes and occasional, more extensive endnotes, elucidating particular points. His usual hobby-horses, such as structuralist anthropology and Fortean phenomena, are much in evidence, as is his penetrating, common (and uncommon) sense mind.
It's tempting, of course, the take the whole thing as a clever conceit; and certainly, it seems there is as much art as Art here. But such an easy categorization would, at best, miss the point. Whether Harpur has embroidered actual experiences, spinning out a yarn based on some truth, or merely added the occasional personal insight to a wholly fabricated tale, the tricksterish Mercurius, the representative figure of the alchemical process, should be allowed to fully inhabit one's reading of the book. This flighty messenger of the gods, guardian of commerce and thievery, communication and deceit, asks us to push past the weighing up of fact and fiction, to see what both may be saying to us. Distilling one's own reading of the book becomes, naturally, an alchemical process in itself: trying to separate the author's own story from his ruse, and then seeing them combine into a transcendent inner significance.
The narrative parts of the diaries build up a vivid image of English village life, lacking any sickly tourism-tinged sentimentality, but glowing with the life of eccentric inhabitants, exquisitely delineated flora and fauna, and of course pervasive weather (tellingly, more varied in the 1950s). Without becoming too literal or rigidly symbolic, Harpur allows this human and other-than-human environment to interpenetrate with Smith's Great Work and Eileen's personal upheavals, making the characters' lives no mere 'backdrop' for their spiritual activity, but part of its very fabric.
Given the bizarre and frequently sexual imagery deployed by the alchemical imagination, it's no surprise to find murky and sometimes disturbing erotic episodes at key junctures. C.G. Jung'whose psychological reflections on alchemy are considered here at length and with great insight'was often criticized by Freudians for losing sight of the carnal reality of sexuality by emphasizing its sublimations in spiritual symbolism. Harpur's earthy and revealing narrative transcends this particular issue, the alternating of philosophical musings with personal confessions and painful events making the intimate relationship between Heaven and Earth lucid if not artificially 'clear'.
Crucial to this and all of Harpur's narrative and philosophical successes is his thorough and uncompromising assessment of alchemy itself. Elsewhere he has argued that the modern scientific revolution engendered a split in European consciousness, driving the life of the world inside, down into the 'unconscious''this concept being a result of science banishing psychic life from the manifest world. As this revolution unfolded, alchemy'besides becoming increasingly irrelevant to most people'began to split. Our perspective on it shunted between the literal quest for gold and the mystical or psychological quest for salvation. 'Real' alchemy, the modern, Jung-informed occultist will say, is the process of realizing the Self, not that nonsense about cooking metals. That's 'just a metaphor'. Harpur insists that real alchemy only exists in a perspective that antedates the scientific breach; from our post-science perspective, it was a fusion of the 'literal' and 'metaphorical' aspects, in one. The alchemist cooks his metals, and transforms himself.
Harpur asserts that reflux distillation, the circular, repeated cooking of the alchemical substances, 'provides a model'perhaps the only model'for the dynamic interrelationship of the elements within the human unity, and especially for the origins of self-consciousness.' Appreciating the significance of this can be approached via this thoroughly excellent, deeply illuminating and enjoyable book; but the message is that it can only be achieved by practising the Great Work itself, in body and soul.
Review by Gyrus, at http://dreamflesh.com/reviews/mercurius
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