Friday, March 18, 2016

The Swan (Part 11) A Chip off the Philosopher's Stone


XI. A Chip off the Philosopher's Stone

          Most of us probably have recollections of happy hours spent as a child in some kind of constructive activity—from building sandcastles and coloured brick structures to turning bits of odd materials into dolls, animals, houses, soldiers, and, above all, of covering a variety of surfaces, including wallpaper and tabletops, with drawings. Few children can resist the attraction of pencils, crayons, chalk or paint box, and the satisfaction derived from such works of creative art is completely unrelated to the results obtained.

          Once the results become more important to us than the work involved, we begin to become dissatisfied, and usually between the ages of 12 and 15 we abandon our childish pursuits and with it a source of happiness which we can ill afford to lose.

          However, the source remains and promises untold delights if only we can overcome our natural laziness and our unnatural idea that whatever we produce has to be perfect.


          For many centuries men attempted to prepare a substance, called the Philosopher's Stone, which was supposed to have two properties: to turn base metals into silver or gold, and to give eternal life to its owner. The emphasis lay on its power of transformation—be it of coarse matter into something finer or, ultimately, of turning sinful man into a perfect being.

          Creative work, from the very humblest to the greatest works of art, contains something of the secret of the Philosopher's Stone. The transformation of coarse matter into something finer touches on that special brand of happiness which is unaffected by outer circumstances.

          Naturally, it would be more gratifying to put paint to canvas and produce the Mona Lisa than, for instance, to turn a piece of felt into two left slippers, but the final result is not indicative of the happiness that is derived from the actual work.

           There is a magic in creative work as many of us have discovered who have diligently fashioned awkward or beautiful objects out of unyielding raw materials. Take a ball of knitting wool: what is it but many yards of thread, and yet it can be in your power to transform it into a wearable garment. An old cardboard box can be turned into a dolls' house, pipe cleaners into little figures, wire into ornaments, paper into lampshades, lengths of can into baskets and, last but not least, a piece of board with the aid of brushes and some paint tubes into a picture, good, bad, or indifferent. Collectors can transform chaos into order by sorting, labeling, and sticking into albums or arranging on shelves.

          After a day's hard work one may feel inclined to look for passive relaxation—if one is ill or old (or both) one may acutely dislike the idea of exertion. How often does one hear the argument, "I have no energy left for such things." Quite wrong! The only real effort needed is the decision to go and do it. Once started it does not sap one's energy—on the contrary, it provides energy in abundance and with it a feeling of happiness that one had thought lost and that, in truth, had only been mislaid in childhood.

17th July, 1975—Dear William

What you wrote about alchemy made me look for an article which I wrote many years ago, called "The Philosopher's Stone" and which was published—if I remember rightly—by the Chest and Heart Foundation because I sang a praise of creative work in all its forms. (The title is Alchemy for Invalids!)I can't find the article but what I did find was something called "Church Organs" which I shall photocopy in the office tomorrow before I send it to you. I don't think you want to read it but I could imagine that Roxanne would like it as the final appearance of the organist's apprentice was in the organ loft of the Marienkirche—although Roxanne could not climb up to it on account of her operation.





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