|Review of John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature|
|Deborah Harkness, John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy and the End of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiii + 252 pages. ISBN: 0-521-62228-X. $59.95.
A sympathetic intellectual biography, this book chronicles the years between 1581 and 1586 which John Dee spent in communication with angels mediated by several different scryers with the aid of a crystal stone. While this period in Dee's life has often been treated before by biographers and historians, what is delightful about Harkness' book is how strongly she manages to bring out all the ways in which these really were, as the title suggests, conversations. This is in part because the angelic communications are situated by Harkness in the context of the many other conversations going on at the same time in Dee's life -- conversations personal and intellectual, with family and friends, visiting royalty, academic acquaintances and teachers. Sometimes the angels were drawn into these other conversations; and at many points brought out by Harkness, the subject matter of these different conversations overlapped. The effect of this interweaving of conversations is not only that Dee's angelic dialogues appear much less as curiosa; it is also that the angels themselves begin to appear to the reader more strongly as persons, shown not only in their prophetic and enigmatic mode, but also praising or chiding Dee or manifesting pleasure or irritation.
While this illumination of human and angelic personalities cannot help but make the book consistently engaging, the author's primary aim is not simply to tell the story of this part of Dee's life, but rather to situate the angelic dialogues in the context of sixteenth-century natural philosophy, since it has always been the connection between Dee's angels and his philosophy (or more broadly put, perhaps, his magico-religious and intellectual selves) that has eluded scholarship most persistently. Thus Harkness addresses Dee's motivation in seeking information from angels, emphasizing the ways in which the celestial realms would have been seen by Dee as a kind of intellectual resource; she traces some of the overlapping content in the matter of the angelic discourse and the contents of Dee's library, tying these to other notions current at the time in the realms of alchemy, cabala, and the search for a universal science. This is a laudable endeavor, and in many respects a successful situation of Dee's angelic operations in the intellectual context of his period. Certainly Harkness does bring out the ways in which Dee's angelic operations were tied to all his other intellectual and philosophical concerns, and in this alone the book represents an advance over most previous treatments of these issues.
But inevitably the book has weaknesses too. Harkness does not in fact bring very much new information to Dee scholarship. In outlining the pertinent contours of sixteenth-century natural philosophy she relies for the most part on secondary source accounts and generally does not follow up the primary sources which might have given her more concrete knowledge of the derivation of Dee's concepts. In general medieval sources, where she refers to them, tend to be lumped together and quickly dismissed: Harkness asserts the importance to Dee of the metaphysics of light, and here Roger Bacon is given a cursory citation along with Al-Kindi and Robert Grosseteste, but there is no real attempt made to distinguish between their ideas (in some ways radically at variance), or determine which (if any) of these strands were really important to Dee, or how. Beyond this, Harkness does not seem to have looked closely at manuscript sources outside the corpus of Dee's own writings, showing not so much a lack of acquaintance with manuscript texts as a lack of interest in them.
This lack of interest is most perceptible when it comes to the late medieval precedents for the practice of invoking angels. She is clearly unfamiliar with the medieval antecedents for the sorts of prayers Dee uses, and perhaps in connection with this, she seems in some ways naive about how the problem of magic was constructed in relation to the theological problem of discernment of spirits. The result of this oversight, particularly in Chapter 3 which concerns Dee's angelology, is that Harkness (like other scholars of the early modern period before her) tends to overstate the originality of Dee's angelic enterprise. She does not recognize that in Dee's arguments for a divine and Christian rationale behind his operations lies a rhetoric (and a set of biblical topoi) already much worn by use. Although she cites Stephen Clucas' recent work on the precedents for Dee's practices in medieval Solomonic magic, she largely ignores its implications; at any rate she does not pursue his leads and does not seem to have looked closely at most of the texts he cites.
The assumption that Dee's practices are original with him, or at the very least must harbor early modern principles (as opposed to medieval principles or precedents) sometimes leads her to misread the evidence. So, for example, Harkness writes:
In Dee's time ... Reformation theologians placed a new emphasis on the ways in which prayer could foster an "unmediated relationship between the individual and God." Dee showed himself, in this respect at least, very much a Protestant, for he did not direct his prayers to intercessory agents .... He communicated with God directly, and asked the Deity to send angels, who would then function as intermediaries in the transmission of divine knowledge. (125)
However addressing God in order to request the presence of angels to deliver information is a standard procedure of such operations, having little to do with the Reformation or Protestant theology. In medieval texts like the Ars notoria and its avatars, and in fact in those crystallomantic experiments intended to bring down angels (whose prayers differed in no fundamental aspect from orthodox Christian prayers, or for that matter, from Dee's), God is typically addressed directly and is similarly requested to send angels as intermediaries in the transmission of knowledge. (See for example the crystallomantic experiments numbered 24 and 25 edited by Kieckhefer in Forbidden Rites [Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1997], 244-245). Harkness' unfamiliarity with the medieval traditions of theurgy leads her to overstate as well the distinction between "magical invocation" and "prayer." She writes: "In prayer, the practitioner subjects himself to the will of God. In magical invocation, on the other hand, the practitioner subverts the hierarchical arrangement of the cosmos by asserting his or her will over a spirit and, through a subsequent binding spell, controlling a spirit's actions."(120)
Yet in practice few texts show more consciousness of the hierarchical arrangement of the cosmos than those devoted to conjuring spirits. All use prayer; even necromantic rituals often show a fine sensitivity to the order in which lower spirits must be bound by loftier ones, and it is generally recognized in one way or another that the whole machine moves at the will of God. While is not clear in all cases whether the spirits involved in necromantic experiments are good, bad, or simply neutral, in those experiments and texts explicitly devoted to the invocation of angels, the angels are typically not "bound" or coerced in the way that demons are -- as Dee clearly knew himself, their presence was requested through humble petition to God.
Other bald generalisations about practices commonly characterised as "magical" obscure their possible relevance to Dee's enterprise. Harkness writes: "In late medieval and early modern Europe stones were used in divination typically to locate stolen property, a practice decried by the church." (117) While it is true that the immediate point of many kinds of divination is the location of stolen property (or hidden treasure), it is also true that medieval texts which actually describe the prayers and rituals accompanying the use of crystal stones show a somewhat broader and more interesting array of spiritual concerns and sensitivities than such a characterization might suggest. In fact, even in respect of using the crystal to locate hidden treasure, Dee's work is hardly unusual, for Dee himself was wont to use the crystal to ask questions about hidden treasure whenever his financial fortune was at a low ebb (as Harkness notes in another location). Doubtless Dee had other concerns as well; but so too, sometimes, did medieval conjurers of angels, whose aims and motivations were sufficiently close to Dee's to warrant further and more detailed comparison of their prayers and practices to Dee's. While it is probably true that Dee's concerns in his angelic conversations differed in certain ways from those of the medieval predecessors, Harkness is not really sufficiently aware of the medieval practices to make authoritative statements about what these differences are.
It must be acknowledged that an author cannot accomplish all things at once in a book. In many ways Harkness engages Dee's angelic conversations with an attention to their philosophical background that is both sympathetic and interesting, and the book points a new and potentially fruitful direction for students of the occult practices of Dee's period. However the reader should be aware, too, that this study does not escape quite all of the prejudices of previous scholarship, nor should its information be taken as definitive, particularly in regard to Dee's medieval sources or the way in which Dee's writing reflects specifically early modern preoccupations. In this area much close comparative work still remains to be done.