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A LC H E MY


‘Token Hammers’


an alchemist who tells him: ‘Listen to your heart.’ The New York Times called the book ‘more self-help than literature’.


‘An Alchemist’


‘Token Hammers’ Nickel, bronze and ash John Newling, 2002 RRa0307–11 / L0075857 Wellcome Images


The hammers in John Newling’s (b. 1952) work are representative of tools used to transform slugs of metal into objects with an associated value. ‘Token Hammers’ incorporates replicas of coin-like eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tokens that could be exchanged in order to receive Holy Communion. This process of striking coins or tokens echoes the ultimate aim of many alchemists, to turn base metals into wealth.


The quest to approach that which is beyond us has been


and continues to be a principal motivator of humanity.


Artist John Newling in Currency and Belief, 2003 Selling your soul Financial alchemy


Alchemy has always meant different things to different people, and in modern parlance the word continues to be used, not in relation to any scientific or magical enterprise, but to describe desirable trans- formations that are often of a creative or financial nature. It’s therefore unsurprising that a number of venture capital and asset management companies have taken ‘alchemy’ for their names.


Self-help alchemy


Paulo Coelho’s (b.1947) bestselling 1988 novel The Alchemist has been translated into over 60 languages and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. The book tells the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of finding treasure. He travels and meets


German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749– 1832) practised alchemy in a laboratory in the attic of his father’s house. He referred to it as ‘my veiled love’ and reported being ‘very fond of secretly busying myself in working it out.’ In his most famous written work, an epic poem of the German Faust legend, a weary scholar dissatisfied with learning from books is seduced into making a pact with the devil. In exchange for the scholar’s soul, the devil promises unlimited knowledge and power.


How fortunate are those who can still hope To rise above this sea of error all around! For what we need to know is quite beyond our scope.


And useless all the knowledge we have found.


Faust in J W Goethe’s Faust, Part I, 1808 — 14 —


‘An Alchemist’ Oil on canvas Eugène Lomont, 1890 RRa0039 / 45145i Wellcome Library


By the nineteenth century, alchemy was commonly depicted in a romantic style that linked it with the occult. This contemplative alchemist sits alone, having cast his papers aside, perhaps with a Faustian air of dissatisfaction.


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