Meeting the other in the secret of the mirror

The humanism of Elémire Zolla

Meeting the other in the secret of the mirror

In the spring of the year 2002, in the adored and impressive hills of Siena in Montepulciano, where he spent many years of his life, Elémire Zolla died, a man of letters and a shaman, to recall the title of one of his epochal books. 

He is still quite unknown, despite the commitment generously given by Grazia Marchianò, 

the woman and scholar who focused on the philosophy of Asia and the East and who accompanied him for much of his course as man and researcher; she now edits the publication of the opera omnia of Zolla for Marsilio Publishing.

Significantly, two other women have been significant for his existence, marking the stages of an ever-vivid journey about knowledge and wonder: the poetess Maria Luisa Spaziani in his first years as writer and translator and the writer Cristina Campo during the years of the discovery and creation of a boundless and sacred anthropology, from the Indians of America till the Western Mystics – also his immersion in Eastern spirituality during the many years of collaboration and cohabitation with Grazia Marchianò.

This essential constellation which had always accompanied him, even if Zolla was an untiring traveller during a life rich with meetings and friendships, underlined his nature as an adverse man, as a non-lover of noisy crowds and attention and with a certain inclination to avoid modes, political or cultural as they were.  

He was often and haughtily distanced by the gurus of the Italian cultural scene between the Sixties and the Nineties, and had the luck and chance to silently consecrate himself to treasures such as “Religious knowledge” (1969 – 1983) focusing on mythology, ethnology, alchemy, comparative religions and literature, contributing to “untie” in Italy the first knots of a certain sectarianism, which was so provincial and dogmatic, in the studies about spirituality. 

In his extended production, thanks to his endless knowledge, both from his experiences and interests, let’s turn towards some core values, vital topics which were so special for him and always present in any society and human coexistence, as in any inner reality. These cores, often imprisoned under many clichés and studied forgeries, were gathered and offered by Zolla as jewels of inestimable value being offered as they were on the basis of freedom of thought. When a thought, the inner movement of thought, is really free, it means that others, if they so wish, may draw from the same source, freely. 


The mirror and the meeting with the image 

Revelation, knowledge of oneself and guidance from the Other, to the other. The manifold function of the mirror leads to the process of knowing, going back to the source of being, to that situation which we commonly define ‘at the mirror”, the unbearable presence of the Other which is the same unbearable fascination with our own image. It is the mystery of the vision or the trap of self-satisfaction, the freedom of creation or the prison of repetition. How can we be set free from the prisons of repetition? Along this line of the knowing eye there can’t be any division. 

 … Therefore Böhme observed that the abyss of darkness is as ample as the supremacy of light: these two are not distant, but interpenetrated… We always adored, counter posed to the main source of light, the black sun, and this was the emblem of melancholy which, carving in ourselves in a desperate and obsessive manner, opens the way towards deep knowledge… In Genesis light and darkness are created together by God, who defines the light « good ». But there are two lights: the first, mysterious, created the first day, coinciding with that which is so familiar to us, created on the fourth day, the sun and the moon. Man endlessly discussed the diversity of these two illuminations and the mystery intrigues…”  (from The childish wonder, 1994). 

These few lines witness a deep and not only erudite comprehension, even when, proceeding with the text, the eye of Zolla passes with a light and brilliant attention from Milton and Paradise Lost to Dante and the Divine Comedy, from Grossatesta and his De Luce to the Pseudo-Dionigi with the Theologia mystica, commenting then

“ … in the Christian history an ancient doctrine survived: light would be the fifth element after earth, water, air, fire, and would have a seminal character, procreative and agglomerative, would serve to connect the soul to the body. In this perspective, the light becomes synonym of seed, ether, connective. This fifth element would be hidden in the matter and the alchemist would succeed in extracting it (ibidem). 


Overcoming the division of the opposites

“When the psyche perceiving and the perceived things, subject and object, blend and absorb mutually, that which we define metaphysical experience occurs. It is not unknown to poetry, it is the sea in which sweetly flounders the Leopardi of the Infinite. Metaphysical experience is a good name to denote this confusion of the self with the being, but it’s only a name that should not be mistaken with the thing (…) The person who turns within looks like a turtle when it pulls back its head, withdrawing its tail and paws… The mind does the same when it is concentrated on its own identity. In Indo-European sm means unity, unification, which comes from the Sanskrit samà, identical, the same (from Archetypes, 1988) 

The experience of the original unity can be lived with regard to “the outer” and/or “the inner”:

In the myth of Tiresias, in yoga and in tantra, the motif of the crossed snakes represents the perfect equilibrium of the inner energies… To enter into a relationship with this core of cosmic life is the aim of the initiate, both as alchemist and as mystic. The initiate identifies himself with Mercury, the fluid, androgynous principle of reality… (from The Androgynous, 1989)


The secret of movement

Birth, death and rebirth, a movement which apparently has no way out, in which we are involved in the wheel of incarnations, whether or not we believe in reincarnation or we consider the rebirth to be in a “heavenly” world, in a traditional “afterlife”. 

This “damnation” is solved in the knowledge of Light, a topic to which Zolla consecrated the last years of his work and which led to the origin of the posthumous publication of the text  Descent to Hades and resurrection – we quote some extracts: 

“A good part of common life is lived in the state of dream. Only few people know where the realm of dream begins, they know where the border is and are really careful not to traverse it…
Most of them live in the dream and do not know how many times and at what point each day they traverse the border dividing reality from dreaming…”

Among the manuscripts of Nag Hammädi,

the Treatise of resurrection denounces the world as illusion:

“Only resurrection leads to full truth.
Not only baptism saves man, knowledge (saves him) too…

The baptismal immersion unites the opposites,
the step from the immersion in the waters to the surfacing of the body, 

therefore, passing away from darkness to light 

allows the gnostic to be endowed with knowledge 

as a perfect knowledge, distant from any possible inadequacy…

Very different from the common baptism is the gnostic one.

The Son of Man did not baptise any disciple, 

the Testimony of Truth reminds us. ​

He realized his fivefold initiation
simply passing through the pléroma to our world
and going back: with a baptism, an unction,
an act of grace (eucharis),
a redemption and a nuptial chamber (nymphón)


The path of the soul towards the Light is described with these words:

“The heavenly man, elevated as the pole star, open to all the forces of cosmos, 
void, headless, becomes a pure mirror of the universe.
In this way the alchemist in his vase melts lead and mercury
obtaining, as a proportion of the two opposites,
the metal he wishes” (from Descent to Hades and resurrection, 2002).

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Date: November 13, 2017
Author: Maria Galantino (Italy)
Photo: Alfred Bast

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