Monday, January 14, 2013

Failures of Neoplatonic Memory Magic

I explore the failures of Prospero’s magic in the context of the public conflict over memory systems that pitted Giordano Bruno’s image-rich magical system (propagated by Alexander Dicson) against the iconoclastic methods favored by the Cambridge Ramists (spearheaded in print by Rev. William Perkins) in late Elizabethan England.  The strongly visual and theatrical strategies employed by Prospero (most notably in the play’s two masques), coupled with the dependence of his magic on memory and the forced rewriting or imposition of memory, suggest that his magic is both neo-Platonic in form and specifically linked to the magical memory system described by Bruno. As a magician, Prospero tries to assert his power by controlling memory, revising history to reflect his desired narrative. However, his attempts to superimpose his own narrative are repeatedly resisted, interrupted, and rejected. Given these failures to control either his own plans or his subjects, I’d like to suggest that Prospero’s magic, most particularly in its image-rich masques and focus on memory, stages a parodic interrogation of this debate over memory and memory systems. And while resistance does not itself invalidate his magical theories, Prospero’s attempts at memory manipulation notably succeed only in altering his own interpretation of events; his inability to recognize his failure thus points to the inherently self-deceiving nature of his art. This frame enables us to consider Prospero not simply a positive or negative figure, but as one who calls into question not simply his own skill, but the basic validity of the magical system he employs.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Calder on Dee and the search for a "real character"

It is of interest to note the intellectual and historical relation between Dee's approach in the Monas and the search for a real character (Francis Bacon in the Advancement of Learning, called for one which would represent "neither letters nor words but things and notions," and would "serve for an antidote against the curse of the confusion of tongues") and the universal language which occupied so many in the succeeding century - Kircher, Dolgarno Hartleb and through him Boyle, Wilkins (who declared "As men do generally agree in the same Principles of Reason, so do they likewise agree in the same internal Notions or Apprehensions of things") and others, and received in England the attentions and encouragement of the Royal Society (94); Dee's manner of regardig his hieroglyph and its constituent parts approaches in some respects Leibniz' conception of the universal character which underlay, though it has been inevitably overshadowed by his more fruitful vision of a general logical calculus, for this latter implied the possibility of the reduction of all scientific concepts, by analysis, into a small number originally constitutive of them, to be expressed in ideographic symbols, revealing their nature and the operations they allowed of and from which all scientific knowledge might be then deduced

Calder on John Dee's answer to Socrates in the Cratylus

Such a position provides an answer to Socrates' objection to such procedures at the end of the Cratylus (89) that the far better and surer way to knowledge is to avoid such an attempt to learn from the image (word or sign), however exact an imitation it may be, and to examine the things themselves, that are supposedly represented. For to Dee, the figures he examines would appear to stand for intelligible concepts, employed by God in creation, principles not directly manifest to sense through particular objects, complex symbolic syntheses of the universal law. This also applies in part to his more conventional "Cabalism," using words and letters, in the Monas, while the way in which other standard objections - as those raised in theCratylus - were thought to be adequately answered has already been discussed (90). It is interesting however that Roger Bacon relies on the same text as Dee cites in the prefatory letter, to justify such practises; writing "For the Lord says, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the alw till all be fulfilled. And therefore there is an admirable exposition in the book on the meanings of the scriptures stating how the individual letters of the Hebrew Alphabet had significance respecting the ancient people, and how they show the number of centuries through which the state of that race passed as regards its different periods and ages, in accordance with the special powers and potencies ofthe letters....I cannot sufficiently admire the manner in which the examination was derived, although it may seem to the uninitiated to have a weak basis in the letters of the alphabet which are the first rudiments of children. But according to the teaching of the Apostles lesser things are more necessary and are to be accorded greater honour...."(91) Bacon, as Dee here also, gives equal status to the Greek and Latin alphabets. Agrippa does the same, declaring that it is God who has given man discourse in different languages, of which the written characters have a fixed order, and particular shapes which are not the result of chance, or human invention, but divinely formed in accordance with the celestial bodies and angelic powers and the virtue of these. In a manner very close to the method of Dee's Monas, he attempts the reduction of letters to zodiacal and planetary signs (92). Tymme sums up the case in his preface to his proposed translation of Dee's book. Adam he says gave names to creatures "agreeing with their nature," he inscribed in two tablets of stone with prophecies and philosophy in hieroglyphical characters, one of which Noah discovered after the flood in Armenia, and from this the signs of the planets derive. A universal science was then possible by their means, but the knowledge it embodied has since then not only diminished but has been divided up in such sort that its surviving fragments "make one an Astronomer, another a Magitian, a third a Cabalist, and a fourth an Alchemist"; but this lost unity of science Dee's work aims at reestablishing by means of the primitive planetary figures and the Cabalah, which last says Tymme "out of hidden and misticall sciences serveth to make away for men to come unto God."(93)

Calder on the influence of Proclus on John Dee

Now, although many early neo-Platonists such as Plotinus (who praises for instance the way the Egyptian sages have expressed the true natures of each thing in the hieroglyphs standing for them (86)) or Iamblichus, dealt with the virtues of figures from this point of view, it is Proclus who offers some of the fullest, most explicit discussions, and the most obviously relevant to Dee's present work. He recurs frequently to the theme, seeming to regard the best method in all instruction to be that which he attributes to the Pythagoreans, which falls into three stages (perhaps corresponding to the familiar levels of Sensible Intuition, Abstract Reason, and Spritual Reality) the first and third of which employ this approach. For prior to scientific doctrine the Pythagoreans render manifest the proposed objects of enquiry by approximate similitudes and images, and finally once more have recourse to symbols of a different kind to reveal the arcane virtues of these objects (87). In the preface to his commentary on Euclid, a work in which Dee seems to have been thoroughly steeped, Proclus declares that in Numbers, Figures and Musical Accords are to be found the three ways in which the constitutive reasons of all intellectual, moral and theological truths are presented to the human mind, and later has a lengthy discussion on the virtues of figures reflecting directly on the position taken up in Dee's Monas