Video 7. Idolatry
The masters are often tied to the practice of idolatry, the worshipping of carved images or statues. These figures would therefore design and forge idols for their own movements, out of stone or wood or bronze, often in the shapes of fearful creatures that were half-human/half-animal or completely unrecognizable. In rare yet essential circumstances, the masters even choose to become the objects of adoration themselves, treating themselves as living icons. And still, there is an intricate philosophy behind the experience of the idol; it is not a simple matter of religious belief, but rather an entire constellation of impulses and moods that must come together in the right balance and imbalance, the right dosage and overdose. We will enumerate only 5 principles here.
First principle: the idol is a force of incarnation. It must not be understood as the symbolic representation of a god but instead as the material embodiment of that very god-force. It is therefore not a placeholder for some transcendent being who lives elsewhere or rules from impossible distances, but rather is the being itself manifest and crystallized…one that can be seen and touched with perfect immediacy. And one can understand the dangerously limitless territory that emerges from this notion, when one can stare into the actual face of the otherworldly, or hold it within their hands.
Second principle: the idol is a force of vulnerability. It is not immortal or untouchable as in classical sacred paradigms but rather can be shattered or buried, lost or stolen, fractured or decayed, but also rediscovered after time. Thus the idol can perish precisely so it can return, and this instability and imperfection, this highly delicate form that it takes, is the very key to its commanding presence, for it is at once reversible and irreversible, impermanent and eternal.
Third principle: the idol is a force of silence. We have seen these ancient sculptures in museum cases, still ominous and menacing as they sit quietly behind modern glass, their slit eyes full of unspoken malice and threat. No doubt, this very stillness of the tongue, this radical hush, is precisely what creates entrancement in the beholder, for the idol offers no written text to read or laws to follow, often not even a name, only a plateau of disturbing silence through which one must then hallucinate into the open void.
Fourth principle: the idol is a force of locality. It never pretends to reign over the universal; it does not seek to dominate the totality of things or to establish a world-order, but rather wishes only to exercise control over a specific region or people. The idol is thus always embedded in a defined terrain, casting its supremacy over a single island or mountain tribe or narrow patch of earth. This only enhances the allegiance and fascination of the group to whom it belongs, for they are endlessly devoted to what is theirs alone.
Fifth principle: the idol is a force of minimalist immensity. It does not require colossal stature to be colossal in dominion; it does not need massive scale to overwhelm and bring havoc or fortune upon the land. Instead, it oversees vast expanses of fate and time, it manipulates plagues and wars, all while emanating from the most miniature structure. This only enhances the awe and dread of the idol, for it draws elegantly upon the human terror of small things.
Alchemy: To understand the world of idols, one can look to alchemy and the master alchemists who stretched from Egypt to Greece, China to India and the Mediterranean. These secret circles experimented in closed quarters, risking body and sight and health while testing the combustible limits of sulfur and mercury, and then sharing their theories and findings in elusive codes and diagrams with other alchemical undergrounds. But what exactly were the alchemists after, and why was gold elevated to the level of an idol within these orders?
We will speak of only three imperatives of the alchemists here, those they thought that if somehow conquered would lead to the fulfillment of the soul.
First imperative: transmutation. Many of us know the most common image of the alchemists as those who strived to turn base metals into gold, but in actuality this was just a micro-platform by which they aimed for something far greater: the ability to distort destiny itself. Thus gold as material fortune stood for the larger puzzle of altering Fortune in the broader sense, meaning the power to invade, subvert, and twist the foundations of existential reality, to malform and reform the essence of things at will.
Second imperative: exoticism. Many have interpreted alchemists as dedicated to rituals of purification, but in fact deeper study reveals an interest in contamination above all else. They studied contagions and processes of corruption, so as to mislead things into what they should supposedly never become. The alchemists’ methods are therefore more criminal than scientific, not seeking some inner truth but rather the fastest way to turn forces against themselves, to make them betray their originary properties and burst outwards, luring and tainting them away from their oppressive natural states and into the anarchic beyond. Thus they sought the pathways to creating the formless and the unworldly.
Third Imperative: immortality. As we have seen, the alchemists did not respect the elemental laws and structures of being but rather always sought the escape-route, the defect, the deviation, and this holds even for the boundaries of life itself. Thus the alchemists’ highest quest was for the uncovering of what they called “the alkahest,” later known as the “philosopher’s stone”, which was a hypothetical universal solvent that could dissolve all other substances including gold. This liquid was also said to hold the crucial combination of ingredients to outlast and defeat death. Indeed, the search for this everlasting elixir consumed the entire life-spans of certain masters across many continents, but what this reveals most of all is that the alchemists somehow linked the secret of immortality to the ability to infinitely disappear the world.
Thus the alchemists and their manic love of gold bring us full circle to the experience of the idol, for they understood that the ultimate task would be to find the way to extinguish the ultimate itself, meaning to overthrow the very idol they exalted.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh; Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Image Credits: [Part 1] Video of the visual art installation of David Spriggs. “Stratachrome Gold,” Pittsburgh, 2017. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9y8GfYwDmNE)
[Part 2] Video of the visual art installation of Citizen. “Light Is Time,” Milan Design Week, 2014. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajv14nINbUU)
[Score]: Max Richter. “Path 5 (delta)”.