Solve et Coagula: Part 3 – Literary Alchemy
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
George Ripley’s Compound of Alchymy (1591) states that “solve et coagula” is one of the prime secrets of alchemical art. Ripley punningly names it the “principal principle”: “Loosing and knitting thereof be principles two / Of this hard science, and poles most principall.” He writes about “the very secreat of the Philosophers Dissolution”:
Our solution is cause of our Congelation;
For Dissolution on the one side corporall,
Causeth Congelation on the other side spirituall.
The dissolution of contraries at the center of “solve et coagula” and its expression of the unifying of solid and liquid, spiritual and material into the one essential whole of the stone makes it a central tenet of esoteric or spiritual alchemy. The mystical, alchemical writer Jacob Böhme (1575–1624) – who inspired such luminaries as Newton, Goethe, and Blake – had an ecstatic vision of the fundamentally creative antagonism between dissolution (“solve”) and recreation (“coagula”) that he called “the yes and no in all things.”
For Böhme, “solve et coagula” is the heart of all creation, and it is a creative symbolism that could resonate in a number of ways for Rowling. It might, for example, be felt to express more modern ideas about moving forward through the questioning of old certainties or the idea that what purifies us is trial. It is precisely in this kind of way that Juan Eduardo Cirlot – a Spanish poet and mythologist – reads “solve et coagula” in his Dictionary of Symbols (1962). For Cirlot, this formula epitomizes alchemical evolution, and he reads it as requiring that the adept “analyse all the elements in yourself, dissolve all that is inferior in you, even though you may break in doing so; then, with the strength acquired from the preceding operation, congeal.” Cirlot argues that alchemy, centering on this idea, “may be seen as the pattern of all other work. It shows that virtues are exercised in every kind of activity, even the humblest, and that the soul is strengthened, and the individual develops.”¹
Rowling’s choice to place this tattoo on her writing wrist suggests that she is influenced by the ideas of writers such as Böhme and Cirlot who link “solve et coagula” so clearly with creativity. The tattoo suggests her own alchemical understanding of her work, and it connects to the two main metaphors she has given for her “process.”
The first metaphor – which she noted in the late ’90s – is her understanding of her writing as new growth coming from a mulch of old ideas, reading, and experience.
It is always hard to tell what your influences are. Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.
Rowling sidestepped a question of influence she did not want to answer here, but she also elegantly acknowledges her literary indebtedness in a phrase which is itself probably indebted to another writer.
This “compost” idea clearly aligns with “solve et coagula” – reading and experience are broken down and then rebuilt in new work. But “solve et coagula” is also latent in her most recent – and extraordinarily detailed – response to the question of how she envisions her process (a response that was, incidentally, broadcast on December 23, 2019, at around the same time she got her tattoo):
Well, I’ve never said this before because I always think it sounds so bonkers, and, although it’s something I think about a lot, I’ve always been a bit wary about articulating it to anyone else. But I envisage my process thus [sounds a bit nervous as though revealing something intimate]: I feel as though I go through a lot of trees which are my day to day concerns, what we all deal with all the time, and those I see as trees inside my head and then I get to a place which is my work place where there is a lake and there’s a shed. And this is my process.
I feel as though the inspiration is the thing that lives in the lake that’s very mysterious, that I never see. But it hands me stuff. And then I have to take this unformed stuff – sometimes it can be reasonably formed, sometimes it’s very blobby like molten glass or something, and then I have to take it into the shed and there I have to work on it. And because I’ve had this metaphor in my head for many, many years, when I read something that I’ve written I have a sort of shorthand that I say to myself, ‘too much lake, not enough shed.’ When I go back over something – I should have spent longer in the shed. And then there are some bits you think, ‘Oh that’s too sheddy. I’m not sure you added a lot out of the lake that day.’ And in a dream world, obviously, the lake gives you something good, but then you work on it properly in the shed and you turn out the finished product.
Alchemy is obsessed with binary opposites, and a central one around which “solve et coagula” circles is liquid and solid – the idea (as George Ripley calls it) of “water congealed.” Rowling’s startlingly intricate metaphor can be read as a narrative form of “solve et coagula.” The lake, as Rowling notes, is “my unconscious that’s processing things,” dissolving (“solve”) all her experiences, reading, and ideas into its waters. The lake then offers up inspiration to the author – “very blobby like molten glass or something” – who solidifies (“coagula”) the ideas in her shed.
The central reason, however, that “solve et coagula” is a fitting metaphor for the writer’s craft is that it must be performed over and over again. Johann Daniel Mylius writes in his alchemical textbook The Reformation of Philosophy (1622) about this maxim:
Now if the body could be completely joined by a single, simple, solution and congelation of soul and spirit, the philosopher would not have said ‘Dissolve and congeal again, and again dissolve and congeal, till the tincture grows in the Stone,’ if they could have been yoked in a single congelation. Know for sure, then, that the more often you dissolve and congeal, the more the soul and spirit are joined to the body, and retained by it, and its tincture increased each time you perform these operations.
Alchemy gives a satisfyingly rarefied twist to the writer-ly truism that you just have to stick at it day after day. (As Rowling puts it, “I never stop writing.”) Alchemists, like writers, repeat the same processes over and over again, hoping at some point to reach a transforming breakthrough. The 16th-century English alchemist Thomas Charnock repeated one operation 476 times in the hope of creating the philosopher’s stone – even the number of Rowling’s rewrites of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire chapter 9 must pale in comparison.
“Solve et coagula” expresses the method and the mystery of alchemy: both the infinite loop of double distillation and the alchemical endpoint of this process of endless breaking down and reconstituting. The hope is that endless repetition will suddenly see the alchemist gifted with the stone. When the amalgam is ready, it glows blood-red as its spirit and body become one, indissoluble whole.
For a writer who knows a “ridiculous amount about alchemy,” “solve et coagula” is a highly fitting motto, encapsulating as it does the business of writing as well as its hopes of distilling something more. The writer, like the alchemist, breaks down her base metals – all her experience, knowledge, and reading – into the words that constitute the prima materia of this art and rebuilds them into something new.
¹ Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. 2nd ed., translated by Jack Sage. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962/83 (8).
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Rowling’s Goblin Problem?” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.