It’s been a busy week and so I’ve posted less than normal, but here’s a nice re-entry. Today’s random item is an article called ‘John Dee as a Cultural Hero’ published in 2011 in the European Journal of English Studies and authored by Gyorgy E. Szonyi & Rowland Wymer, professors of English from Hungary and the UK, respectively (Central European University, Budapest and Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge). The authors provide a thoughtful overview of the history of how this Renaissance figure and confidant of Elizabeth I has been represented over the centuries up to the present.
Initially, in his own day and subsequent to his death, Dee was represented as either a fraud or a dupe, an untrustworthy sorcerer. Soon thereafter, in addition to the image as a “magus, fraudster, and gull,” he also became associated with necromancy and the violation of sepulchres after dark in order to extract information from the dead–the “longstanding tradition of ‘Dee and Kelly Raising the Dead’.” This was still in the 17th Century. However, while Dee’s reputation languished for a long time in England, in Germany and East-Central Europe he gained legendary status as a great scientist and mathematician. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, notably influenced by the writing of historian Frances Yates (whose approach to and conclusions about occult history have sometimes been called into question), it is the representation of Dee as the enchanted magus and scholar, in stark contrast to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which has become prominent.
The authors of the article give a nice, condensed analysis of significant media (from fiction, to television documentaries, to films and plays) that provide an introductory overview of the range of how Dee has been treated. The article comes to a head with a brief discussion of Terence McKenna’s appearance in the film The Alchemical Dream: Rebirth of the Great Work, in which he occasionally appears in the character of John Dee, in addition to his role as narrator, guide, and interpreter. Szonyi and Wymer use McKenna’s narration as something like a summary explanation of some of the relevant factors that have led to Dee’s transformation into a ‘cultural hero’.
[T]here may be a broader reason for Dee’s recent popularity. His turning
away from mathematics towards alchemy and angel magic in the 1570s can be seen as anticipating the rejection of the Enlightenment which began with Blake and which was a particular characteristic of the counter-culture of the 1960s and early 1970s. As the narrator of The Alchemical Dream – Rebirth of the Great Work (2008), Terence McKenna, puts it: ‘the house of constipated reason must be infiltrated by art, by dream, by vision’. In this highly personal dramatised documentary on Frederick V of Bohemia, McKenna not only provided the script and narration but played the part of John Dee himself. Following Yates’s (1972: 30–41) suggestion, the author–narrator—actor regarded Dee as the precursor of Frederick’s grandiose alchemical ambitions. Despite the crushing of the King’s hopes at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, McKenna’s film argues for an unbroken thread stretching from Dee through William Blake and the visionaries to the drug-fuelled, consciousness-raising experiments of the 1960s or the practices of modern shamans. -Szonyi & Wymer
And, here’s a relevant passage from Terence’s narration to the opening of The Alchemical Dream film:
What I’m in Europe to do is to be part of a film-making effort, and I want to describe the project to you a little bit, because it’s what’s on my mind, naturally. It’s not a film about rave culture; it’s not a film about Albert Hofmann; it’s not a film about body piercing, or any of these things that great films need to be done about and have been done about. It’s about one of your local heroes, who is a great hero of mine, and I’m talking about Frederick V, Elector Palatine, Prince of Heidelberg, King of Bohemia, who was not content to sit back and let things happen but was willing to launch a grand alchemical dream of a reformation of human society. -Terence McKenna
Finally, here’s a review of the film by Erik Davis from 2009.
I was struck by McKenna’s assertion that psychedelic shamanism is a living alchemical tradition that “is not seeking the stone, but has found the stone.” With this shamanic leap, it is clear that McKenna is on a more than historical mission with this film. At the very least, he is attempting to reframe a specific history as an overtone of the archaic past and the millennialist future. As was so often the case, McKenna seems both clear-eyed and dreamy in these speculations. He acknowledges that LSD and rock n roll were insufficient Rosicrucian triggers: “a failed alchemy instead of the dissolving and recrystalizing at a higher angelic level.” At the same time, he puts his money on the spirit of novelty and life, which he understands as an energy of dissent waged against materialism and the confines of the modern ego. -Erik Davis