Alchemy in a Modern Woman. A Study in the Contrasexual Archetype, by Robert Grinnell. (Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1989.)

Book review by Rob Couteau






Published in: The Bloomsbury Review, Sep. / Oct. 1989 (CO: Denver)

The study of alchemical imagery and its parallels to the symbol-producing function of the psyche is a little known specialty in the world of Jungian psychology. Alchemists-the philosophically oriented ancestors of chemists-constructed elaborate images that strangely resemble the dreams and fantasies of modern patients of psychology. Taking a clue from Herbert Silberer (the Austrian psychoanalyst who first proposed a link between psychology and alchemy), in the last decades of his life Jung devoted a great deal of time to exploring the psychological meaning of alchemical research. He concluded that the alchemists had projected their psychic processes onto the unknown world of physical matter. Thus, they had uncovered not only chemical principles but important psychological principles, as well.

The latest Jungian to continue in this vein is Robert Grinnell. Focusing on the archetype of the internal masculine principle (or animus) in a modern woman, he uses alchemical imagery to explore stages of psychic development. According to Grinnell, the modern woman is in danger of becoming possessed by this inner masculine function. For instance, by entering "as a rival into the masculine professional world," she is subjected to "strains and distortions," especially "in her diminished capacity to further psychological relationships." "In the 'modern woman's' psychology, this personal orientation has gone into partial eclipse." With her function of "relation building" endangered, she "is influenced by her unconscious masculinity in a way that is obvious to everyone but herself."

After enumerating the problems of the "modern woman," Grinnell introduces the reader to an analysand he calls "A." Hoping to use A's "case" as a paradigm of the modern woman, he explains: "her symptomatology centers on conflicts between her ego and her experience of the masculine component within herself." While he does go on to note a few specific symptoms, we're left largely in the dark about who she really is, how she feels about her suffering, or what she hopes to accomplish in analysis. For instance, it's often unclear what her associations are to the symptoms and dreams that are discussed; whether she's even been asked for her associations; or if the author has already included them in his interpretation. It's nearly impossible to properly analyze a dream without a patient's associations-a point often made by Jung himself (which seems to be increasingly forgotten by many of his followers). The lack of personal detail about A results in distancing the reader, making it difficult to "feel into" her analysis. This impersonal approach was intentional, as the author hoped to focus more on "collective" rather than "personal" aspects of the case. His interest is not only in therapy but, rather, in the "deeper meaning of the phenomenon": one that "lies at the archetypal level." While this approach was successfully attempted by Jung in studies such as Psychology and Alchemy (Princeton University, 1968), here, it just doesn't work.

This is because the author has not only omitted important details about A, he has also failed to include relevant details about alchemy itself: the symbolism that might have helped us to explore a deeper meaning at the archetypal level. Instead, alchemical terms are bandied about without a credible link to the case, with the result that we are left in the dark not only about A but about the relevance of alchemy and psychology, as well.


 fine art

Updated: 16 August 2011 | All text Copyright 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: literature book reviews of Jungian psychology by Rob Couteau expatriate writers in Paris Robert Grinnell Carl Jung Alchemy in a Modern Woman A Study in the Contrasexual Archetype