Alchemical Active Imagination

Alchemical Active Imagination

In her book Alchemical Active Imagination, Marie Louise von Franz explores the work of Gerhard Dorn who was a doctor, natural philosopher, and alchemist.

Dorn was a true alchemist in that he never allowed himself to get away from the fact of the real concrete body, he did not buy into the idea of a metaphysical or astral body but the real body. When the real body is treated properly, he believed that it would form the basis for the medicine which is essentially the experience of Self. He did not want to do away with the earthly man and focus solely on spiritualisation. A somatic healing has to take place before the physical personality can undergo a transformation. It is the inner metamorphosis, that will lead to a long and healthy life.

He is of the school of thought that any psychic disturbance also has a somatic counterpart. The illness so to speak, has got to be cured from both sides. Dorn says that when we come to know the self and come to the point of Self-realization, that this will have a life preserving effect on the concrete physical existence.

There is something unique in alchemy says von Franz, that differs from say Buddhist training or meditation, in the East there is no such “return” to the body (only in some Zen traditions that is).

We are aware that these Eastern philosophies promote a getting rid of our worldliness, superficiality and so forth, what Dorn calls some sort of educational program.

Dorn does think that there is virtue in this, and in a sense a certain amount of this needs to be done, but he always comes back to the notion of the real man as he is – being the final vehicle of the inner transformation.

Von Franz and Jung both wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments, for if you shove the shadow aside you may have brief and wonderful idealistic results but when you are eventually tested, it will not sustain.

“In the human body is hidden a certain metaphysical substance which is known to very few people and which needs no medicine because it is itself the incorruptible medicine. The philosophers, through some divine inspiration, recognized the strength and heavenly virtue of this substance and how to free it from its fetters, not through some contrary principle like physical medicine, but by a similar medicine in itself.” (von Franz)

Marie Louise von Franz goes on to say,

 “I think it is clear that he (Dorn) see’s the healing experience, though it is given by God, not in some outer religious experience or outer teaching, but in a genuine personal inner experience. Everybody can extract the healing experience from himself. He even says (and this is interesting, after having repeated the scorn of the body to be found in every meditation text of the time) that the healing medicine is in the body, not in the anima or animus. In just that part of the personality which most strongly resists any conscious effort, and which we would call the shadow, is the healing medicine. It is incorruptible and has to be detected and extracted from there.”

Von Franz uses the example of the introvert, she uses this example because Dorn was an introvert.

“In an introvert, extraversion occurs through a naïve projection. Nobody believes in the complete solidity and the unique reality of the outer world more than the introvert because he has an unconscious and therefore a primitive, strong, and undifferentiated extraversion. Nobody is so attached to worldliness as he. Through that he is split. Every introvert who has gone through a long period of analysis suffers from that. The introvert is very willing to see the subjective side within himself, so far as his introversion is concerned, but when you come close to his extraverted shadow side, you come to a naïve, primitive man, who always believes that the difficulty is in the outer circumstances and not in his own projections.”

The unification is now what needs to happen writes von Franz. To find the projecting factor that comes from within the personality would lead to a chance of unification. It is only if the introvert can really bring his projections inward can he really get to the “one” of the Self.

Dorn writes as a part of one of his final passages:

“The castle of inner truth will destroy many people; it is a cheap thing, mostly despised even hated. But one should not hate it, but rather love it; it is the greatest treasure, it is loving to everybody and hostile to everybody. You can find it everywhere, and practically nobody has ever found it. Change yourself the heavenly wisdom says, from dead philosophical stones into living philosophical stones, because I am the true medicine and I change everything which cannot exist into something eternal. Why are you possessed by madness? Through yourself but not from you, is everything which you need and which you wrongly seek outside.”

Jung has many times criticised Christianity and their inability to truly understand that every human being in the inner most depths of his psyche has a divine spark, what Jung has termed the Self. Jung was lambasted by many theologians from rabbis to priests, saying that he was turning religion into something that was merely psychological. However, the argument is that if we had God as the true center of our psyches, we shall then honor our psyches as the highest thing on earth.

Dorn says: “Let us take that we have the image of God as an active entity, as an essence in our own psyche, and then we need not run about looking for it”.

“The truth is an eternal road that Adam lost in the Fall, which is why he left paradise naked; it is the wedding dress that God will give back to Adam through His son Jesus Christ. The truth is indissolubly combined with piety and justice, which teaches everybody to recognise or become conscious of himself for the mens speculativia the visionary mind, is higher than the scientific work.”

Von Franz points out (if you go deeper) that Dorn is questioning Aristotelian science – and there you see the extraverted projection.

Dorn comments that we all suffer as did he from doubt and how this needs to be resolved. How we are swayed by our moods, one minute we believe one thing, the next moment it’s something else. We are thrown about by outer influences never knowing our own views of life.

For Dorn says von Franz, truth and the unifying effect is the oneness (the Self).

The idea is that by finding the one inner truth, these doubts or other opinions get slowly dissolved. Taking all those warring doubts and opinions and putting them into an inner melting pot, out of which comes one inner truth. To find that we have to begin with ourselves. “But nobody can become conscious of himself if he does not know what and not who he is. This is a quote of Dorn’s that Jung would often use because it is so interesting.

Von Franz points out that so many people think that going to analysis is egocentric and that to become conscious it means reflecting on one’s own personality to think and brood on “how I am”

This is not the case though. This would mean to think only of the ego and would be completely sterile. She compares is to a dog chasing its own tail.

True knowledge of oneself is the knowledge of the objective psyche, as it manifests in dreams and in statements of the unconscious. Only by looking at dreams can one honestly know and see who one truly is. Dreams tell us who we really are, something which is objectively there. To meditate on that is an effort towards self-knowledge. It is scientific and objective and not in the interest of the ego but in the interest of finding out : “what I am” really.

Dorn goes on to highlight by saying more clearly “on what one depends and to whom one belongs and to what end one has been created.” So true self-knowledge is knowing on what one depends – the ego constantly depends on the unconscious. We depend on the unconscious every second that we function. “To whom one belongs” means where the obligation of the ego personality is. Knowing “to what end one has been created” means finding the meaning of one’s life from one second to the other. The end or the meaning of our lives, Dorn then says, is immortality – the state in which we constantly enjoy the presence of God.

He continues,

“Everybody should carefully consider within himself what I’ve said before and should taste it again and again as if drinking it again and again and should carry it around with an honest mind. Then slowly certain sparks will come. From day to day, they will come alive and alight before the inner mental eyes, and slowly those sparks will coalesce into such a light that in time one will always know what one needs and will thus only be attached to that inner truth by which great tranquillity and great quietness of mind are acquired.”

Jung and von Franz both agreed that these aha moments could be reached through understanding one’s dreams. If your dreams are truly grasped not just intellectually but also emotionally felt and embodied, then the aha moment would be achieved. Von Franz compares the nighttime dream to a letter that one receives from that same inner centre- the Self. If you keep tracking the dreams from the Self and having these aha moments, you will slowly become aware of that nocturnal letter writer or constantly aware of the presence and the reality of the Self. A second source of information to rely on, that should give the ego a peace of mind.

“You do not always have to follow your own voice, and that gives the ego a patient attitude and a certain continuity, for it waits to hear the inner source of information through which it will cope with a certain impossible situation, instead of going round and round like a wriggling frightened mouse and thinking as the ego always tends to think: ‘that is has to put stalks onto cherries” as Jung once said! In other words, the connection to Self makes for a certain quietness and constancy in the personality.” (von Franz)

“Learn therefore out of thyself, whatever is between heaven and earth, so that you can then understand everything. That is what we would call the archetype of the Self and what Dorn would call the divine image within the unconscious, which lodges in the psyche or in the body and is also a microcosm. You can learn about all outer things just as well by considering the microcosm within you.” (Dorn)

In conclusion, Marie Louise von Franz’s exploration of Gerhard Dorn’s work highlights the importance of somatic healing, the integration of the shadow, and the pursuit of self-knowledge for personal transformation. Dorn’s emphasis on the physical body as the basis for medicine and the presence of a metaphysical substance within it challenges traditional conceptions. Von Franz and Jung resonate with Dorn’s ideas, emphasizing the value of dreams and the Self in the journey towards self-understanding. Ultimately, this perspective encourages individuals to embrace their inner truth, integrate their shadows, and cultivate a sense of tranquillity and self-knowledge.


Alchemical Active Imagination, Marie-Louise von Franz, Shambala Publications, 1979

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Comments (6)

  • Robert Mercurio Reply

    Excellent treatment of a book that I love and have read over and over. Thank you Stephen.

    June 29, 2023 at 5:34 pm
  • Jane Redfern Reply

    Very interesting, thank you Alexia. I have this book on my bookshelf but haven’t read it yet. You’ve inspired me to get it down and read more into this fascinating subject.

    July 2, 2023 at 9:03 am
  • Etel Reply

    Excellent article Alexia. I bit of synchronicity for me as I have been reading a lot about Alchemy lately. Fascinating symbolic language for us Jungian’s 👍

    July 5, 2023 at 8:34 am
  • Brinda Reply

    How synchronous ! Thank you, Alexia for this article on Alchemy and MLvF studies on Dorn’s works. I have been glued to whatever is available lately, going through dreams and symbolic languages from the core of our deeper Self.
    Take care,

    July 10, 2023 at 11:20 am
  • Ginny Reply

    Love this notion of the castle of inner truth. It reminds me of the Parsifal story, which Joseph Campbell regarded as the first piece of western literature with spiritual significance. This need for inner solidity has never been so important as we enter an age of dissolution.

    July 21, 2023 at 11:42 pm
  • Tosia zraikat Reply

    A very informative and actually inspiring article. Thank you, Alexia Athalie. I haven’t paid that much attention to alchemy, which I find so complicated, but after reading Edinger and Von Franz on alchemy, I realise how much my own analysis has been experienced in alchemical language and symbols, even to the wolf of my dreams as prima materia and its role in transformation of the king, the ego. Frankly, I am astonished.

    August 5, 2023 at 11:48 pm

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