The Black Sun – The Alchemy and Art of Darkness
By Stanton Marlan
Foreword by David H. Rosen
Texas and A&M University Press
Reviewed By Nick Opyrchal
I decided to research the imagery of the Black Sun after producing it in an arts therapy group, without any knowledge of what it represented (see the drawings here https://frontiertherapymagazine.com/2016/04/07/art-from-the-land-of-the-dead/ ) . Looking into the symbol I found that there were two highly recommended books written by psychotherapists on the subject – a book on the black sun and depression by the Lacanian analyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva and ‘The Black Sun – The Art and Alchemy of Darkness’ by Marlon Stanton, a Jungian psychotherapist with close links to the founder of archetypal psychology James Hillman.
After my encounter with the symbol, I was interested in the alchemical meanings behind the the Black sun and wondered what the corresponding psychological states were associated with it. I drew it in a difficult environment: A locked psychiatric ward, surrounded by that which couldn’t be integrated, that which remained un-assimilable and ferociously unconscious content. Stanton talks about the symbol of the black sun in similar terms – he gives many case examples of people for whom the black sun appeared during a time of the deepest life crisis; cancers, treatment resistant suicidal depressions, aneurysms of the brain. Stanton explores the symbol without any commitment to the usual ‘Yalom style’ happy endings or therapeutic resolutions and for me it was sometimes scary to read the case histories with the knowledge that my own inner process was brushing up against this symbol. Reading about the client who sees images of the black sun and then has a sudden brain aneurysm losing sight in one eye, or the client who left therapy and committed suicide left me hoping my own psyche was not going to spring a nasty surprise on me.
Stanton does exceptionally well in deconstructing the need for progressing past this ‘blackness’ of deep psychological turmoil on to ‘higher’ stages.
Reassuringly, on top of this more morbid material Stanton also spends a good deal of time talking about the black sun in its place in the alchemical process and its relation to the nigredo stage. This is the ‘blackening of the alchemical substance’ and Stanton does exceptionally well in deconstructing the need for progressing past this ‘blackness’ of deep psychological turmoil on to ‘higher’ stages. He draws on Hillman in saying that the black travels through to other stages in alchemy – we do not leave the black behind forgotten and fully integrated, never to worry us again. I found this very helpful as a therapist trained in a tradition which employs alchemy as a model. It is very easy, when confronted with a developmental model which uses specific stages to feel that you have to progress upwards; To feel that you ‘should’ be moving to the more easily digestable (and more fun sounding) stages of the light white ‘albedo’, ecstatic yellow ‘citrinas’ and powerful red ‘rubedo. This developmental, heirarchical model of alchemy is addressed by Stanton. He sees the black sun as a symbol for that which will always be there as the shadow side of the jungian ‘Self’ and shows the alchemical process as less linear and predictable.
Stanton travels outside of alchemy to support the idea of the black sun theoretically and he draws on many celebrated theorists and weaves them together well. Hillman’s critique against ‘Self’ as a solid destination that we have to travel to by a linear, causal process forms the backbone of the books theory, but continental philosophers who have been linked to discourses of ‘Otherness’ such as Emmanuel Levinas are also drawn on for support. As someone who is quite keen on Lacan’s work I was also pleased to see the author making an attempt to bridge the gap between Lacanian and Jungian theory (see my review this issue), linking the un-assimilable nature of the black sun to Lacans objet petit – a, which is also not able to be assimilated by the ego.
The Black Sun is quite a beautiful book throughout. It is filled with alchemical illustrations showing the black sun in old renaissance manuscripts as well as the original artwork, donated by a client to the author, showing the black sun being worked with in process.
Accompanying this already impressive array of theory and clinical work is a central case study which is accompanied by fantastic original artwork. In fact I found that The Black Sun is quite a beautiful book throughout. It is filled with alchemical illustrations showing the black sun in old renaissance manuscripts as well as the original artwork, donated by a client to the author, showing the black sun being worked with in process. Artwork from eastern traditions such as tantra and taoism are also used to draw comparisons to. If there is a criticism of the book it is the sheer scope can seem too large to include enough detail on each section, however in general there is a good deal of important and valuable information on each topic which Stanton attempts to cover.
All in all I reccomend this book as an absolute must-have for those working with alchemy and also for psychotherapists who are interested in exploring ‘otherness’ in their work. Worth it for the sections on alchemy alone, the book offers far more beyond this.