Friday, February 10, 2012

Impractical magic

I have a review of a book about John Dee in the latest issue of Nature. Here's how it started.
The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee
by Glyn Parry
Yale University Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-300-11719-6
335 pages

The late sixteenth-century mathematician and alchemist John Dee exerts a powerful grip on the public imagination. In recent times, he has been the subject of several novels, including The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd, and inspired the pop opera Doctor Dee by Damon Albarn of the group Blur. Now, in The Arch-Conjuror of England, historian Glyn Parry gives us probably the most meticulous account of Dee’s career to date.

In some ways, all this attention seems disproportionate. Dee was less important in the philosophy of natural magic than such lesser-known individuals as Giambattista Della Porta and Cornelius Agrippa, and less significant as a transitional figure between magic and science than his contemporaries Della Porta, Bernardino Telesio and Tommaso Campanella, both anti-Aristotelian empiricists from Calabria. Dee’s works, such as the notoriously opaque Monas hieroglyphica, in which the unity of the cosmos was represented in a mystical symbol, were widely deemed impenetrable even in his own day.

There’s no doubt that Dee was prominent during the Elizabethan age – he probably provided the model for both Shakespeare’s Prospero and Ben Jonson’s Subtle in the satire The Alchemist. Yet what surely gives Dee his allure more than anything else is the same thing that lends glamour to Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and Philip Sidney: they all fell within the orbit of Queen Elizabeth herself. Benjamin Woolley’s earlier biography of Dee draws explicitly on this connection, calling him ‘the queen’s conjuror’. Yet in a real sense he was precisely that, on and off, as his fortunes waxed and waned in the fickle, treacherous Elizabethan court.

There is no way to make sense of Dee without embedding him within the magical cult of Elizabeth, just as this holds the key to Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen and to the flights of fancy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To the English, the reign of Elizabeth heralded the dawn of a mystical Protestant awakening. In Germany that dream died in the brutal Thirty Years War; in England it spawned an empire. Dee was the first to coin the phrase ‘the British Empire’, but his vision was less colonialist than a magical yoking of Elizabeth to the Arthurian legend of Albion.

It is one of the strengths of Glyn Parry’s book that he shows how deeply woven magic and the occult sciences were into the fabric of early modern culture. Elizabeth was particularly knowledgeable about alchemy. After all, why would a monarch who had no reason to doubt the possibility of transmutation of gold pass up this chance to fill the royal coffers? Because she believed he could make the philosopher’s stone, the queen was desperate to lure Dee’s former associate, the slippery Edward Kelley, back to England after he left with Dee for Poland and Prague in 1583. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was equally eager to keep Kelley in Bohemia, making him a baron. Even Dee’s involvement in the failed quest of the adventurer Martin Frobisher to find a northwest passage to the Pacific had an alchemical tint when it was rumoured that Frobisher had found gold-containing ore.

The relationship with Kelley is another element of the popular fascination with Dee. Kelley claimed to be able to converse with angels via Dee’s crystal ball, and Dee’s faith in Kelley’s prophecies and angelic commands never wavered even when the increasingly deranged Kelley told him that the angels had commanded them to swap wives. The inversion of the servant-master relationship as Kelley’s reputation grew in Bohemia makes Dee a pathetic figure towards the end of their ill-fated excursion on the continent – forced on them after Dee blundered in Elizabeth’s court.

He was always doing that. However brilliant his reputation as a magician and mathematician, Dee was hopeless at court politics, regularly backing the wrong horse. He ruined his chances in Prague by passing on Kelley’s angelic reprimand to Rudolf for his errant ways. But Dee can’t be held entirely to blame. Parry makes it clear just how miserable it was for any courtier trying to negotiate the subtle currents of the court, especially in England where the memory of Mary I’s brief and bloody reign still hung in the air along with a lingering fear of papist plots.

This is probably the most meticulous account of Dee’s career to date, although the details aren’t always given shape. Often the political intrigues become as baffling and Byzantine for the reader as they must have been for Dee. But what I really missed was context. It is hard enough to locate Dee in history without hearing about other contemporary figures who also sought to expand natural philosophy, such as Della Porta and Francis Bacon. Bacon in particular was another intellectual whose grand schemes and attempts to gain the queen’s ear were hampered by court rivalries.

But to truly understand Dee’s significance, we need more than the cradle-to-grave story. For example, although Parry patiently explains the numerological and symbolic mysticism of Dee’s Monas hieroglyphica, its preoccupation with divine and Adamic languages can seem sheer delirium if not linked to, say, the later work of the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (the most Dee-like figure of the early Enlightenment) or of John Wilkins, one of the Royal Society’s founders.

Likewise, it would have been easier to evaluate Dee’s mathematics if we had been told that this subject had, even until the mid-seventeenth century, a close association both with witchcraft and with mechanical ingenuity, at which Dee also excelled. Wilkins’ Mathematical Magick (1648) was a direct descendant of Dee’s famed Mathematical Preface to a new volume of Euclid. We’d never know from this book that Dee influenced the early modern scientific world via the likes of Robert Fludd, Elias Ashmole and Margaret Cavendish, nor that his works were studied by none other than Robert Boyle, and probably by Isaac Newton. Parry has assembled an important contribution to our understanding of how magic became science. It’s a shame he didn’t see it as part of his task to make that connection.

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