Our greatest certainty and greatest mystery is our mortality. In this book, I explore the subject of death and rebirth from a philosophical perspective that addresses the question of human identity. What death and its possible survival mean to us depends on the meaning of “us”—they depend, that is, on what we assume to be the boundaries and limits of our being. In the chapters that follow, I will show how our sense of who and what we are has evolved through the millennia, and we will see what this implies for our understanding of death and the prospect of rebirth.

This will not be a purely academic account. The philosophical and historical narrative will be interwoven with my personal experience, particularly through the medium of my dreams, whose contents will serve to mirror the themes of the text in a concretely embodied way—like a “Greek chorus” echoing forth from the unconscious. The intimate connection between dreams and death was brought to light by psychologist James Hillman. In The Dream and the Underworld, Hillman associated the oneiric realm with the realm of the dead: “[I]f each dream is a step into the underworld, then remembering a dream is a recollection of death and opens a frightening crevice under our feet.”[1] The dreams I recall in this book can be seen accordingly as excursions into the netherworld.

The present volume carries forward work I did in my 2006 book, Topologies of the Flesh.[2] I ended Topologies by taking some tentative steps into the subterranean sphere, guided by the ancient discipline of alchemy. Though alchemy is commonly regarded as an absurd flirtation with transmuting cheap metals into gold, C. G. Jung discovered that it actually involved a sustained and serious effort at transforming more than just matter, but the human psyche as well.[3] And alchemical transformation entails nothing less than a confrontation with death that aims at rebirth. So the discipline of alchemy lends itself nicely to the present investigation.

My previous work with topology[4] will also be taken further in the pages ahead. Topology is the branch of mathematics conventionally concerned with the properties of geometric figures that stay the same when the figures are stretched or deformed. While mathematics is often a highly abstract enterprise and topology has certainly followed suit, the way I am going to use it, the contrary will be true. I will be proceeding more in the spirit of philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, who spoke of topology as being “rooted in the body”[5] (she worked with the idea that stretching and twisting our bodies are essentially topological operations). And I will be guided by communications researcher Anita Hammer,[6] who noted that, when a new direction for thinking is indicated, topological imagination can give it concrete form. Indeed, it is concrete imagination that is needed for alchemy’s paradoxical encounter with the underworld, and in the journey I am planning, the use of certain odd topological structures will facilitate the imaginal process.

The first chapter of the book opens with a dream that foreshadows the theme of death and rebirth. I then proceed to examine the relationship between mortality and identity in an historical context going back to ancient culture. In chapter 2, the crisis besetting modern culture is acknowledged. The grave challenges confronting humankind are explored as they relate to the denial of death. We discover the need for human awareness to move backward to its unconscious roots where it encounters the uroboros—the tail-eating serpent that is perhaps the most primordial symbol of death and rebirth. This archaic figure is also a key symbol of alchemy, and the alchemical approach is seen as crucial in responding to humanity’s dilemma. In chapter 3, we follow the call of some contemporary thinkers for a revival of the old practice of alchemy in a new form. Enter here topology. Alchemical imagination is enhanced by enlisting topological structures such as the Moebius strip and Klein bottle—structures that bear a remarkable resemblance to the enigmatic vessel in which the work of alchemy was said to have been done.

Each of the four remaining chapters of the book concerns itself with a different stage of the alchemical opus, as initially described by Jung.[7] In each case, the alchemist’s aim is to achieve a coniunctio (conjunction): to integrate consciousness and deepen it, bringing awareness to primary spheres of knowing and being. In moving successively through the last four chapters, the focus of the work shifts from one form of psychological functioning to another (thinking→feeling→sensing→intuition); one stage of development to another (adult→child→infant→embryo); one epoch of cultural history to another (mental-rational→mythic→magical→archaic[8]); one organ system of the body to another (brain→heart→groin→gut); one order of phylogeny to another (human→animal→vegetable→mineral); and so forth. And each chapter reaches its climax in an alchemical encounter with death that opens up the possibility of a transformative rebirth. In the most general terms, movement through the final four chapters of the book traces the path of consciousness backward and downward to earlier, more primordial, more concretely embodied strata of psyche and world. This retrograde passage of awareness is the crux of the alchemical odyssey—a journey that I believe can be helpful in attempting to address the profound global dilemma we currently face.

The work of alchemy can be described in another way, through its ancient motto: solve et coagula, “dissolve and coagulate.” The alchemical substance to be transformed was first dissolved, broken into parts, sublimated so as to refine it. Then, in the second phase, the process was reversed and the material was made to congeal, its constituent elements being drawn together and solidified. This was the stage of “coagulation.” So what had been taken apart was now put back together in a refined form.

Alchemy’s old motto applies to this neo-alchemical text, which incorporates both a solutio and a coagulatio. In portions of the present volume, the subject-matter is “taken apart,” i.e. analyzed and approached abstractly.[9] This is the conventional way of working with the modern text, that wherein the author remains largely detached and anonymous. An exception, of course, is the inclusion of my dreams and personal reflections in various places. In the closing sections of the last four chapters, following the solutios there, an even more concrete kind of self-reflection is sought. Here, the author of the text does not just make his presence felt in a personal way. Through a special kind of meditation, an opening is created for the possibility that the author’s particular self may become aligned with a universal or transpersonal Self (the Self that Jung wrote of in his volumes on alchemy[10]). We will see that this alignment is part of the retrograde movement of consciousness described above, and that the full-fledged concretion of the text depends on said alignment. Only through the “joint authorship” of self and Self can the textual coagulatio be realized in full.

Why a Multimedia E-Book?

After completing Topologies of the Flesh, I sat down and asked myself what my next step should be. In writing the final chapter of that book, I had already been intent on achieving an alchemical coagulation of the text. True, for that to happen, the author had to put himself into the text, and, true, there was the need to go beyond the author’s particular self to one that is universal. But I realized that whatever I wrote about these and other things (dreams, topological figures, etc.) would remain abstractions as long as the “delivery system” for my ideas was not itself fleshed out in a tangible way. That is to say, if the material composition of the text consisted merely of these typographic marks you are reading—these arbitrarily devised, conventionally agreed upon, one-dimensional tokens—my abstract words about concretizing the text would fall short of actually becoming the living reality they signify. So it was a matter of bringing the physical signifiers of the text into correspondence with what the text signified, and it was clear to me that this had not been adequately accomplished in Topologies. What could I now do to make it happen?

Gradually, I came to the conclusion that a conventional paper book would not suffice for what I had in mind. Even richly illustrated works (such as C. G. Jung’s magnificent Red Book[11]) cannot do justice to the three-dimensional vividness and dynamic sensuality of the concrete world. But new electronic-book technology was becoming available that would seem at least to allow a better approximation, given its promise for displaying motion and depth. My interest was further excited by another example of the e-book’s potential for coagulating the text: If I wanted to bring in a dream, instead of just describing it via the written word, I could use an audio recording of it that would evoke the feeling of the dream in a more visceral way (see chapters 5–7). Still other possibilities for the electronic coagulation of the text began suggesting themselves to me. The aim of concretizing the text so as to enact alchemy’s coagulatio was therefore what motivated my turn from the paper book to the multimedia e-book. Clearly then, the production of the present volume was not merely driven by the goal of embellishing the book’s content via state-of-the-art technology. Rather, the use of the new technology was mandated by the prime dictum of alchemy: dissolve and coagulate.

This multimedia work employs audio, video, and a great many images as a way of fleshing out the alchemical opus. There are hyperlinks to a wide variety of materials—some created by the author, some drawn from public sources, and some of a highly personal nature: dreams, photographs, artworks, drawings, diagrams, stereograms, animation, film clips, articles, recitations, sound effects, music, passages from other parts of the book, and self-reflexive soundings of my own process. Perhaps I am stating the obvious when I say that, in a philosophical text such as this, the written word cannot simply be supplanted by pictures and sounds but must continue to play a prominent role. After all, the solutio was indispensable to the quest of alchemy, and, in turning to the coagulatio, the alchemist did not merely seek to undo the refinements that had been achieved in the process of dissolution, but to carry them forward in a more concrete form. Accordingly, in preparing this alchemical manuscript, the highest priority was given to producing an effective, aesthetically pleasing blend of abstract text and concrete multimedia effects. Of course, the reader can activate as many hyperlinks as s/he wishes, so s/he does have the option of reading the book as a conventional text.

I indicated above that coagulating the text in part means adding dimensional depth to the physical composition of its signifiers so as to bring them into accord with the content signified. But there is another sense in which the text is palpably deepened in this electronic work. Clicking on a hyperlink has the effect of taking the reader somewhere else, transporting her into another dimension of experience. The sense of this is heightened by employing links within links, which convey the feeling of moving through multiple layers. And when the links are to dreams, the reader may feel himself passing into deeper levels of consciousness.

In addition to helping me deepen the text, the electronic medium has allowed me to broaden it in a unique way. In a conventional text, the reader basically plays the passive role of anonymous onlooker. But with this e-book, readers can be integral in bringing the alchemical opus to fruition. They may submit to my website links to parallel texts of their own, with pictures and/or videos, dreams and reflections on their existential process—whatever they can do to make their concrete presence felt vis-à-vis the subject-matter of the book. Given this dehiscence of the text—its bursting open like a seed pod to yield “seedling texts,” no longer is the text a single fixed document written by a solitary author and taken in passively by anonymous readers. With readers extending the text collaboratively via material of their own, the text now becomes a virtual network of interconnected texts engaged in fruitful cross-pollination to open new horizons of creativity.

Let me end this Preface simply by expressing my wish that  …


I want to thank a number of people for the encouragement and support they have given me as I worked on preparing this book. I am gratefully indebted to Chris Alvarez, David Dichelle, John Dotson (who would call multimedia books such as mine “irruptions in the cinemaesthetic field”), Lloyd Gilden, Wally Glickman, Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, Deborah Hillman, Shelley MacDonald, Lael McCall, Adair Linn Nagata, Derek Robinson, David and Cyndy Roomy, Josh and Lesley Sullivan, Ernest Sherman, and John R. Wikse.  I owe special thanks to Nathan Schwartz-Salant for his helpful feedback and sage advice. Finally, my love goes out to my two mainstays during the long process of creating this work: Geo N. Turner, my cherished sister, and Marlene A. Schiwy, my beloved wife and very own anima mundi.




[1] Hillman, James. 1979. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper and Row, p. 131.

[2] Rosen, Steven M. 2006. Topologies of the Flesh. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

[3] See Jung, Carl G. 1967. Alchemical Studies: Collected Works, Vol. 13; translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 1968. Psychology and Alchemy: Collected Works, Vol. 12; translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 1970. Mysterium Coniunctionis: Collected Works, Vol. 14; translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[4] See Rosen, Steven. M. 1994. Science, Paradox, and the Moebius Principle. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

——. 2004. Dimensions of Apeiron. Amsterdam–New York: Editions Rodopi.

——. 2006. Topologies of the Flesh. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

——. 2008. The Self-Evolving Cosmos. London–Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

[5] Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 1990. The Roots of Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 42.

[6] Hammer, Anita. 1999. “Mirroring and the Topology of Theatre,” presented in Cross-Disciplinary Seminar, Trondheim, Norway (15 February): Department of Social Anthropology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

[7] Jung 1970; Jung’s description in fact makes explicit only three stages, but I demonstrate that one of these is actually best regarded as comprising a pair.

[8] See Gebser, Jean. 1985. The Ever-Present Origin. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

[9] The word “abstract” is from the Latin abstractus, “dragged away, pp. of abstrahere, to draw from or separate” (Webster’s, 1976, p. 8). “Analysis” is a word of Greek origin that means a “dissolving, a resolution of whole into parts; ana, up, back, and lysis, a loosing, from lyein, to loose” (Webster’s, 1976, p. 64). Or we may say equivalently that “analysis” connotes “a breaking up” (American College Dictionary, 1968, p. 45).

[10] 1967, 1968, 1970

[11] Jung, Carl G. 2009. The Red Book, edited by Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.