- John Dee's Occultism: Magical Exaltation through Powerful Signs
Scholarship on John Dee has recently experienced something of a boom. Since Nicholas Clulee's pioneering John Dee: Between Science and Religion (1988) put a comprehensive understanding of Dee on a firm foundation, others have turned their attention to narrower concerns: Elizabethan court politics, the angelic conversations, and Dee's library and sources. Now the Hungarian scholar Györgi Szőnyi has presented us a fine survey of Dee's occultism in the context of the occult Renaissance conception of exaltatio, the mystical-magical ascent through the spheres to the Godhead.
All this excellent scholarship, on Dee as well as such related figures as Ficino, Agrippa, Cardano, Bruno, and Kircher, nevertheless remains a kind of backwater of intellectual and cultural history. One is supposed to know about philosophical, scientific, and theological developments, but when those developments have a strongly magical dimension it all seems mysteriously new. As a result, books on Dee — including Szőnyi's — must present a great deal of basic background information that should no longer be required.
The unfortunate effect is that Szőnyi's book, while valuable and stimulating, devotes much attention to what specialists in the field already know — or think they do. With admirable clarity, he lays out the precedents and sources for Dee's exaltatio, drawing a lucid picture of conceptions first explicated well in D. P. Walker's classic Spiritual and Demonic Magic (1958), and then Frances Yates's various works. The knowledgeable reader thus spends part of the book waiting for new analytical work to begin. In the process, one misses interesting and new material: a discussion of Dee's sources for Enochian language and an analysis of Ficino's De triplici vita as a model for the Hieroglyphic Monad are treasures a bit too buried. Sadly, Szőnyi is right: most readers will need all this introduction; one hopes, however, that his work will contribute to the progressive obviation of preliminaries.
Once into the main discussion of Dee, Szőnyi makes two further major [End Page 605] contributions, one theoretical and the other documentary. On the documentary side, Szőnyi, as a Hungarian based in Szeged, has access to a range of crucial Eastern European documents that greatly clarify Dee's mission in the East. We at last get a sharp picture of what Dee did, whom he saw, and, to a significant degree, what they thought of him, assisting materially in our understanding of both Dee's failure and his purposes — purposes that in turn cast a dramatic light on his later occult career in both political and mystical terms.
On the theoretical side, Szőnyi, who is firmly grounded in New Historical literary criticism as well as more traditional historical method, formulates an elegant rendering of Stephen Greenblatt's self-fashioning as it applies both to Dee and to those who encountered him (textually and otherwise). Here, in my estimation, Szőnyi could have gone much farther: the discussion is quick, and might be misread as only speculative. Nevertheless, by deploying and explicating rich theoretical models, sketching a cyclical process of "input" and "output" (to use his section titles), Szőnyi admirably lays a foundation for future study beyond the norms of this somewhat constrained and traditionalist field.
A salutary effect of the lengthy and subtle introductory material, as it combines with Szőnyi's generally clear and graceful prose, is that the book can serve as a more general introduction to problems of the occult Renaissance, something we have been lacking for some time. Indeed, given that SUNY generally makes its books available in inexpensive paperback editions, there is every reason to use Szőnyi's book in an advanced undergraduate seminar. Antoine Faivre remarks on the back jacket that the book "is a must for any specialized library," but, with all due respect, this seems to me an unfortunately limited reading. For...