Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Doctor is in

Among a few entertaining coincidences in my reading and listening of late is the appearance of a figure from English history whom I intend to read a little more about, er, at some point soon.

Dr John Dee was royal astrologer to Elizabeth I, and her sister Mary before his skill and persuasion found better favour with the Virgin Queen. Dee seems to have been cut from similar cloth to the genii of his era and the later Renaissance; he was a scholar, cartographer, Hermeticist, military strategist, an astronomer and a mathematician. By forecasting the potential death of Mary he courted his own demise, yet in setting an auspicious date for Elizabeth’s coronation almost certainly retained his station as one of her most trusted advisors. His feats were humanist, yet remarkable – he owned the largest library in England and conceived the idea of a national library in the interest of the preservation of knowledge (Mary wasn’t keen), and for Elizabeth he presented the notion (and thus coined the epithet) of a British Empire. By predicting the approaching tempests off the Dover coast he encouraged his Queen to spare her navy the perilous and precipitous defence against the approaching Spanish Armada, and instead they watched nature perform the task from the safety of land. Alongside the Queen’s ‘spymaster’ Sir Francis Walshingham he pioneered the use of espionage and was literally through his own codename the original “007.”

As befalls one who straddles history and mysticism, Dee finds his way into the canon of Iron Maiden songs, with The Alchemist from The Final Frontier:

Dee’s pursuit of mysticism and the occult is presumably what endears him to Maiden, and has helped to ensure the longevity of his name today. He has been described variously as the inspiration for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero; Alan Moore surely also had him in mind in his conception of the latter character for the closing of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, yet it’s curious too that this somewhat late pursuit of his life turns him into an utterly human figure as well. Taking up with mystic John Kelly, an aging Dee and his young wife travelled Europe with Kelly in their pursuit of the supernatural. Communing with angels, Kelly claimed that he had instructions from the diving agents to share a bed with Dee’s wife; Dee reluctantly submitted, and returned to England alone, never seeing Kelly again.

This year’s Manchester Festival of the Arts saw the debut of Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee: An English Opera, from which the following song Apple Carts is taken. Albarn originally was to have worked on the opera with Alan Moore, but the would-be modern polymath and postmodern magician parted company early on, the cause apparently being frustration on Moore’s part rather than the intervention of alleged angels. I love the song; it’s so much that Maiden’s galloping biography simultaneously isn’t, humanist and spiritual, it suggests a twofold narrative, of Dee ordering a new Empire built on the mystical landmarks of England’s past (Silbury Hill), and later returning to “the kingdom of the broken heart”, much beaten and seeking solace beneath its stones, the same man who returned from Europe to a ravaged and looted library and ended his days in poverty, the new monarch James I being the antithesis of his aunt in a morbid distrust of the supernatural.

It’s Dee’s fate to have become one of popular literature’s playthings, portrayed as a spy, a wizard, a necromantic villain or a mystical guru. This side of the story interests me less than his falling in and out with Kelly, of whom the jury is itself still undecided – was it carnal interests that led him to turn Dee into a cuckold, or was his growing fame as an alchemist leading him to some drastic action to divorce himself of a man on the wane? It might depend on what book I eventually read…

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