INTO DANGEROUS TERRITORY

'With a shudder, we cross what the occultists call dangerous territory.'
- Manifesto of Surrealism




From the Diaries of John Dee
, Nigel Wood & Alan Halsey
(78pp. £6.99, Apple Pie Editions)


Sometime in 1966 a man said to be a bishop paid a visit to the deputy keeper of mediaeval and later antiquities at the British Museum. The visitor had with him Dr John Dee's lost magic mirror or speculum, at one time in the possession of Horace Walpole and last seen at a Christie's sale in 1892. Close scrutiny by experts revealed the item to be a polished black, obsidian glass of Aztec origin. It had been used for divination and the 'conjuring of visions' by the priests of Tezcatlipoca, a god whose name means 'smoking mirror'. It is likely that Dee acquired this magic device during a sojourn to the Low Countries, or, possibly, Paris, around 1550.

Nigel Wood's From the Diaries of John Dee
hails from Philip Davenport's Apple Pie Editions, an imprint where the visual and the literary combine, an outfit described as 'a lab for poetic artefacts'. The general ethos of Apple Pie acknowledges 'contemporary art practice' as much as the more literary mode of 'poetics'. Consequently we have an integrated series of texts derived from Dee's records of psychic work using this obsidian mirror (known as 'the Devil's looking glass') and other 'scrying' devices. The volume comprises 27 poems by Wood arranged in chronological sequence and a similar number of graphic images, text-art or 'vispos' from the Shew Stone Scenarios by Alan Halsey of West House Books. The piece is a 'found work', both poems and images building from original texts. There are various editions of Dee's diaries providing basic sources: the most famous being A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many years between Dr John Dee and some spirits (ed. Casaubon, 1659) and the more recent being The Diaries of John Dee (ed. Fenton, 1998). Wood, Halsey and Davenport have discussed this project at some length on the Apple Pie blog: much of what follows in indebted to that particular 'angelic conversation.'

But, first things first: who was Dr John Dee? Born in London in 1527 he was educated at Chelmsford and Cambridge. During the formative phase of his career he made many trips to Mainland Europe. He also became on good terms with Elizabeth I and calculated the best astrological circumstances for her coronation. Established in a property on the Thames at Mortlake, Dee turned his house into a comprehensive library and centre for politico-religious speculation. His circle at that time included, historians, mathematicians, antiquaries, the soldier-poet Philip Sidney and many great navigators and explorers of the age; men such as Drake, Raleigh and Frobisher.

It was in 1581, at Mortlake, that Dee first began the 'Actions' or 'Angelic Conversations' that have become his most notorious and enduring legacy and comprise the thematic core of this book by Nigel Wood. Intensely pious seances, conducted like religious rituals, these Actions involved the summoning of supernatural entities, identified by Dee as Good Angels. These entities or angels were interrogated to obtain divine knowledge; knowledge of ultimate secrets expressed in the primal language imparted to Adam in the Garden of Eden by God. This Adamic language, uncorrupted by the Fall, had been recorded by the patriarch Enoch in The Book of Enoch
, a legendary text that Dee intended to reconstitute with help from powerful Angels such as Uriel, one of the first to appear in the Mortlake Actions. In the occult world today this mythic, prelapsarian language is still known as 'Enochian' after the patriarch who first recorded its existence.

To communicate with the Angels in his magic mirrors and crystal 'shew stones' Dee required a receptive, mediumistic talent that, unfortunately, he did not possess. Therefore, from 1582, he used a close associate, Edward Kelly (also known as 'Talbot'), as an intermediary (scryer
) with the spirit world. Kelly-Talbot was a highly unstable, temperamental character of dubious reputation. Yet Dee, both inspired by, and immersed in, the progress of the Actions, came to trust the results of their joint experiment. These magical workings continued during an extended visit to Eastern Europe (the Continental Mission 1583-1569) which took Dee and his entourage, including Kelly and their families, first to Poland and then to Prague (Bohemia) the centre of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Mission ended in disaster. Kelly was thrown into prison as the English emissaries fell foul of the Counter-Reformation. The Emperor Rudolf banished them from Bohemia and Dee arrived back in Mortlake to find his property ransacked by unscrupulous associates, his equipment smashed or stolen, his unique library dispersed. The accession of James I led to a different social climate: more intolerant, more suspicious of magicians and 'conjurors'. Dee died, poverty-stricken, in Bishopsgate in 1608. Many of his works have been recovered in the intervening years, and in 1911 Aleister Crowley, claiming to be a reincarnation of Kelly, published The Vision and the Voice
, a vivid record of an attempt to re-enact the Angelic Actions in Mexico and Algeria.

Nigel Wood's text is, as noted, derived from Dee's own written testimony. The poems exhibit what one might call 'avant-retro' or 'avant-antique' mannerisms of style: a combination of archaisms and 'contemporary' or 'experimental' techniques. Each segment or section is separated from the next by a bold stop; there are no individual titles. The typography is distinctive: capitalisation has been reduced to the bare minimum, used exclusively for proper names or nouns and the oracular utterance BE IT SO. The conjunction 'and' has been replaced by an ampersand throughout, further enhancing the antique look. The stark presentation is only enlivened by the rare use of italic for the titles of esoteric books.

Linguistic usage harks back to the sixteenth century and has a rather liturgical flavour ('& he said that his name is Uriel'). There are occasional Latin phrases such as 'O Deus libera nos a malo' or 'Sanctum, Signatum/&/ad tempus' to enhance the pious religiosity of the overall tone. The piece is written in a mode of blank verse using experimental stanza formats ranging from the extreme simplicity of the segment 'I took ghostly council' (2 regular triplets) to the complexity of sections such as 'Edward Kelly/was very unquiet in mind', an irregular structure extending over three pages. Generally the piece oscillates between regular stanza forms of triplets and quatrains and even sextains ('in many booksÉ) and more irregular 'open field' sections using spacing and indentation to create 'exploded' forms that echo some of Halsey's images. Various angelic names are mentioned, including Uriel, Michael and Raphael, and there is a visionary reference to Adam and the primal language of Paradise. The general esoteric mood is further enhanced by reference to several occult texts including Angelicum Opus
, Conclusions, or the Transmutation of Metals, the commentaries upon Extractiones Dunstani and the Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistos. These remind the reader that Dee was engaged in both Hermetic speculation and alchemical researches not just the Actions of the Angels and the Christian Cabala.

Various visions, dreams and apparitions are described: a comet ('silver sky bleeding/into stars/above the horizon'), fantastic storms ('terrible tempest'), strange knocking noises, a sinister spider, aerial writing, disembodied voices and other spiritualistic phenomena. The narrative also includes accounts of some angelic visitations including the famous appearance of one spirit like a 'pretty maiden' wearing 'a gown of changeable green & red'. Between these sections are biographical fragments such as a dream of Dee's wife, an anecdote about his cat, the suicide of his Anne his nurse, his affliction with kidney stones and their treatment. Also there are accounts of political exploits in Eastern Europe including an audience with The King (Stephen of Poland, probably), machinations with Lord Albert Laski and the misadventures of the unstable Kelly. All of these biographical anecdotes broadly follow Dee's career as outlined above.

Turning to the artwork, the reader will note how every image from the Shew Stone Scenarios
is placed 'just so' on its allotted page. There is a generous use of white space to enhance the form and texture of each image. All derived from Dee's works, the images display various contrasting factors: diagrams and verbal text; English and Enochian occult words; bold figures or boldface italic contrast with plain text; words bounce off numbers; print and freehand motifs clash in the same picture; like random doodles, underlining and scratchy annotations abound. Many of the images have an open or 'exploded' form with free-floating or ragged fragments spinning into the void. Some are closed structures; usually square while others incorporate elements of tabulation reminding us that old occult texts can sometimes look disturbingly like primitive computer printouts. Halsey uses a variety of techniques: cut-up sections, repetition, overlay and superimposition, while distressed, smudgy forms create an air of hasty, mysterious activity. Enigmatic phrases like gnomic messages float into view ('Water is not received without air, neither the word of God without blasphemous insinuation'), there are references to dreams and the angel Uriel.

Everything is integrated into a network of visual motifs including a mash-up of the famous Sigillum Dei Aemeth
and another example using the well-known cruciform sigil from the first Action with Kelly (10 March 1582) with its central circle surrounded by the capital letters AGAL. Among this profusion are other sigils, grid structures, strings of letters, freehand circles, a star, squares, torn discs and vertical rows of dots. There are motifs like flags and others like fragments of fortification or derelict roads and mysterious paths mapping the terrain of that 'dangerous territory' mentioned in the first Surrealist Manifesto. The entire effect recalls some early Dada graphics by Max Ernst or grainy photos taken of spooky traces on pioneer radar screens; yes, this is radar of the imagination. Intimations of language theory beckon. Notation and script as possible evidence of deep linguistic phenomena fascinate the artist.

Are we in 'dangerous territory' with this excursion into the magical realm of Dr John Dee? In some ways we are; perhaps this territory is rather too dangerous for our author. This is apparent when considering certain omissions. As we live in an era crippled by post-colonial guilt, it is not surprising no reference is made to Elizabethan imperialism and Dee's promotion of a radical, religious global reformation. Also, with regard to the Angelic Workings, it is noticeable that the most significant angelic messenger is described but not named. That 'pretty maiden' spirit (she was Madimi) became the most significant influence in Dee's magical life - he even bestowed her name on one of his own daughters. Madimi was erotically provocative, appearing, on occasion, naked beneath a cloak and showing 'her shame'. This spirit or angel played a catalytic role in the most scandalous aspect of the Dee-Kelly relationship, that marital 'cross matching' (sharing wives in common) adopted as a divinely ordained domestic regime. Other visitations were equally scurrilous, for example the vision of the Golden Woman, the 'daughter of Fortitude' who also paraded naked before them. We are, therefore, only given a partial, morally unambiguous picture of Dr Dee and his preoccupations in this otherwise intriguing contribution to Enochian lore.

Basically, Dee was a Christian Cabalist in the German tradition of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, author of the influential De Occulta Philosophia
(1533), a textbook on Christian-Cabalist-Hermetic angelology and esoteric numerology. Imbued with the intense ethos of the Tudor Reformation, his central concern was the imperial destiny of the Virgin Queen and the creation of a British Empire with a politico-religious dimension: all his efforts were concentrated on this grand Reformation scheme.

Like Agrippa, Dee's reputation was soon blackened. Although Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest
(1611) is a positive representation, Marlowe started a trend of denigration with Dr Faustus (1594), followed by Ben Johnson's The Alchemist (1610). Marlowe depicted a Dee-style magus as a doomed over-reacher; Jonson depicted the alchemist as a charlatan. By the Victorian era Dee had become a figure of ridicule, derided as the 'Merlin of Mortlake' and a madman. In the twentieth century scholars like Frances Yates helped rehabilitate Dee's reputation and establish him as one of the key figures of the Elizabethan Renaissance and chief exponent of its Hermetic-Neoplatonist 'occult philosophy'.

As one would expect, given its pedigree, From the Diaries of John Dee
is a professional production. The glossy cover features an abstract quasi-marbled design by D Sharon Pruitt of Pink Sherbet Photography evoking the idea of 'gazing' into dimensions of the soul. The only editorial 'niggles' are a lack of contents list and a strange absence of pagination. At 78pp the item is a substantial but slim, attractive volume. Halsey's black and white graphics are strategically placed throughout the text and counterpoint the voice of a magus who talks to us across the centuries.

Manipulating Dee's words and phrases, Wood has constructed a series of poems (or one multifaceted text, if you prefer) that 'delve beneath the rumours and the mythologies'. This is a composite (if partial) portrait of a prototypical psychonaut
- a 'spiritual traveller', questing fabled New Worlds, like those Elizabethan voyagers he knew so well. An explorer seeking those 'undiscovered continents' of the mind; working to unearth the deep-grammar of a primal language from an era before 'the catastrophe of Babel'; seeking, even, to disclose the ultimate structure of the cosmos. What we have here is a portrait of Dr John Dee as - to use William Burroughs' phrase - a 'cosmonaut of inner space', navigating a complex network of occult symbolism and scientific code systems via the magic portal of his uncanny 'smoking mirror'.

© A.C. Evans 2015