[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]
The House of Doctor Dee
By Peter Ackroyd
Hamish Hamilton, 1996
Reviewed by Steven E. Alford
A man gazing into a crystal ball can see many things, depending on the angle
of his vision. Analogously, the reader delving into Peter Ackroyd's excellent
The House of Doctor Dee will discover an elaborate ghost story, a
portrait of London, an investigation into psychological aberration, and
a reflection on the nature of time itself. Dee remains Ackroyd's most compelling
novel to date.
Matthew Palmer is a twenty-nine-year-old only child living in London. His
parents are estranged, and his mother has a lover, Geoffrey, "the surveyor."
On the death of his father Matthew learns that he has inherited a house
in Clerkenwell, a section of central London. As the novel opens we see Matthew
deciding to occupy the Clerkenwell house. On moving in, however, he begins
to disintegrate psychologically as he slowly learns the awful and unbelievable
secret of his paternity.
Interwoven with this modern story, in alternate chapters, is the fictionalized
narrative of Doctor John Dee (1527-1608), polymath, mathematician, astrologer
to Queen Elizabeth, and a professed Hermetic scholar. We encounter Dee at
the approximate age of 40, sometime between 1566 and 1570. In telling us
his life story, he wrestles with a professional interloper, Edward Kelley,
and the devastating death of his wife, Katherine. As the narrative unfolds,
we realize that, unbeknownst to him, Matthew Palmer has inherited from his
father the house of Doctor Dee.
Both characters, Matthew Palmer and John Dee, become obsessed with the past:
Dee with recreating an ancient, undiscovered and glorious London, and Palmer,
with uncovering clues to his own increasingly disordered mind. In a fascinating
way, Ackroyd dramatizes these two quests for historical and psychological
knowledge as interpenetrating one another. Although some view the novel
as a ghost story, its characters' influences travel in both temporal directions,
suggesting that far from being simply a tale of a haunting, The House
of Doctor Dee plays for much higher stakes. This novel explores how
space prefigures our temporal experiences, and how this spatial prefiguration
is ultimately linguistic.
Matthew Palmer is a professional researcher, and he realizes that researchers
"are at odds with the world":
. . . [W]e are traveling backwards, while all those around
us are still moving forward. . . . I would look up from the books or documents
I was reading, and find that the immediate world around me had become both
more distant and more distinct. It had become part of the continuing historical
process, as mysterious and unapproachable as any other period . . .
He says that "If my work means that I had often viewed the past as
my present, so in turn the present moment became part of the past."
He realizes that just as historical time is a consequence of language, the
same could be said of psychic time:"I can't bear to look at myself.
Or look into myself. I really don't believe that there's anything there,
just a space out of which a few words emerge from time to time." Palmer
realizes that psychically and globally, his own sense of self, and of time
and the space time inhabits, is constituted and effected through words.
In Palmer's research the present and past commingle. Unfortunately for his
mental stability, when he moves into his deceased father's house, his interior
world begins to disintegrate, through a similar commingling. He has dreams
and visions; he hears voices both in his head and in the house, which lead
him to believe that there is a spirit in the house that is invading his
Dee, a 16th Century magus, has a different view of time and space. Dee inhabits
a cosmos that consists of three parts, elemental (or material), intellectual,
and celestial. He believes that, given the proper linguistic tools, the
magus can experience these contemporaneous worlds. The world of dreams for
him is not the arena for revealing the repressed contents of waking consciousness,
but a mental space integrated with his waking consciousness, a potential
link to the realms beyond the elemental. In his waking life, he seeks the
magic words that will evoke the true world hidden behind the world of appearances.
In one of his dreams, he says, "I look down at myself, and find myself
with letters and words all upon me, and I know that I have been turned into
a book . . ." The spirit of his dead wife instructs him late in the
book that Nature herself is a book inscribed with knowledge of the world,
that awaits only the proper skill in reading. For Dee, both the self and
the world are part of a Book of Nature inscribed with transcendent meaning:
The stars do live and, through the spiritus mundi, influence
us; there is sympathy or disharmony between all living things, and to gain
mastery over this point is to exercise control over the entire world. There
is nothing done in the lower world which is not controlled by the powers
above, nothing moved or changed in the sublunary sphere except with the
aid of the incorruptible heavens whose emblems and messengers are the planets
and the stars.
Both Dee and Palmer experience the eerie interpenetration of each of their
minds by the other. Dee hears voices and sees spirits. Aided by the mountebank
Edward Kelley, Dee sees visions of Palmer in his crystal ball, and hears
his voice within the house. Despite their different views of the ontological
status of space and time, Dee and Palmer both experience the other in the
house of Doctor Dee.
This, of course, sounds like a ghost story. And Palmer himself wonders if
the voices and people are real or if they are ghosts. He considers whether
psychologically ghosts reflect sexual unease. By definition, the ghost has
successfully transcended the definition of its own being, a mortal, and
has chosen to return to that definitive mortal space and haunt it. However,
in The House of Doctor Dee, the beings and voices are not dead when they
undertake their activity, and interpenetrate one another's spaces without
leaving their own times. Hence, these are not ghosts, but what one might
call "magical" elements of the story that embody Ackroyd's thematic
intentions with regard to space and time.
Dee's great intellectual quest is to create a homunculus, the subject of
his Liber Mysteriorum and the secret that Edward Kelley wishes to
steal from him.
[A homunculus] can be taught like any other child; it will
grow and prosper with all its intellect and faculties, until its thirtieth
year when it will fall asleep and return to its first unformed state. One
of the generation of the Inspirati must then cherish it, and place it again
within glass, so that this secret and wonderful being may grow once again
and walk upon the world. If you speak to it the sacred words it will prophesy
about future events most cunningly, but its chief glory is that with proper
care and reverence it will be constantly regenerated and so live forever.
The twenty-nine-year-old Matthew Palmer slowly learns, to his horror, that
he is not the only child of his parents, but was "found" by his
father. Reading over some papers left by his father he found little of significance,
"except for the fact that my father had bought the house from Mr. Abraham
Crowley on 27 September 1963 -- that date aroused fresh speculation in my
mind, since it was the one we had always celebrated as my birthday."
And a homunculus, he learns, "remembers nothing about its past or future
until it returns home at the end of its thirty years, but it always does
return home." Palmer's father, one of the generation of Inspirati,
has sustained Matthew's existence as a homunculus, and, Palmer's father,
dying, has returned Matthew to where he was created by Dee and Kelley.
Palmer's inheritance of the house at Clerkenwell was no accident; his was
a return to his home, one he had occupied since the middle of the sixteenth
century. The space of the house, then, has become the space of significance
for his self -- its very spatial character is infused with the meaning of
his nature. As an homunculus, his being itself was generated by the linguistic
invocations of John Dee. The magus Dee constituted him from words, the words
that held the secret of life's creation, contained in Dee's Liber Mysteriorum.
Palmer's psyche is not, as he assumed, a Cartesian interiority independent
of the outside. Nor does his body inhabit a neutral space which itself is
understood solely as a container for objects, among them his body. Instead,
his psyche finds itself "always already" within the space of his
house, suggesting that spaces don't simply influence our psyche, but constitute
it. Thematically, the novel suggests that the space of the psyche is not
interior, but exterior, constituted by the meaning -- conferring activity
of language on space.
In seeking the truth about his own self, Matthew Palmer decides to uncover
the past-both that of his familial past, his father, and the history of
the house of Doctor Dee. In the linguistic act of discovery, he misunderstands
the spatiality of the past, as well as its temporality. Spatially, it's
not back there, in some ontologically other-space, but is rather brought
forth in its being to Palmer's consciousness through the linguistic act
of writing, of research. Temporally, the past is not in the past, but constituted
as the past through its link to Palmer's present. The past only becomes
the past, qua past, through a link with a present event that lends the past
The significance of the past in this case is that it would solve the mystery
of Palmer's identity. Given that his identity is ultimately linguistic,
the text of the past engenders the text of the present through the arbitrary
privilege of the past as having a unilateral influence on making the present
present. However, as we have said, the past is made past through its connection
to the present. The past and the present depend on one another for their
respective self-constitutions. This insight is illustrated imaginatively
in the book when the past and present are destroyed, so to speak, when they
begin to inhabit the same space, a space that could be understood simultaneously
as mental, elemental, and linguistic. This event, the simultaneity of the
past with the present, is rendered as either a transcendental, epiphantic
experience, or madness.
While the homunculus functions symbolically as the confluence of space and
language, in the novel it serves a further role as a negative index of our
analysis thus far. Ackroyd suggests that the existence engendered by linguistic
magic -- whether it be the magic of Doctor Dee, or that of Matthew Palmer,
researcher, in linking the past and present -- this existence is one, in
Matthew Palmer's words, of "illusion, and trickery, and nonsense."
Something is missing, something which we Romantics will be delighted to
learn, is love.
Katherine Dee, John Dee's dying wife, says to him, "This was a vision
of the world without love, John Dee, but one you yourself have fashioned.
You hoped to create life, but instead you have made images of death."
For Katherine Dee, creating the homunculus suggests an erroneous understanding
of past and present, transcendent and immanent, an attempt at physical mastery
that goes wrong. The homunculus is at once a Faustian and Frankensteinian
creation, one that attempts to transcend the requirements of mortality and
master the rules of nature, the very embodiment of the hubris of the magus.
The product of pure intellect, of language, the homunculus is quite literally
life without love.
Matthew Palmer thinks the same:
I had grown up in a world without love -- a world of magic,
of money, of possession-and so I had none for myself or for others. That
was why I had seen ghosts rather than real people. That was why I was haunted
by voices from the past and not my own time. That was why I had dreamed
of being imprisoned in glass, cold and apart. The myth of the homunculus
was just another aspect of my father's loveless existence -- such an image
of sterility and false innocence could have come from no other source.
And yet, and yet. The final chapter of this novel, entitled "The Vision,"
suggests that the visions of London given to Dee and Palmer, of the "mystical
city universal," are not simply the delusions of the hyper-linguistic,
but real, if we understand the real as Katherine Dee does. "It is true,"
she rejoiced," that the imagination is immortal, and that thereby we
each create our own eternity." Along with Ackroyd, she arrives at the
clearly Blakean conclusion that the imagination, infused with love, engenders
not only the world properly seen, but a type of immortality available to
[This review was adapted from a lecture presented in Germany by Professor
Alford and titled "The Space of the Psyche in Peter Ackroyd's The
House of Doctor Dee. " ]
Steven E. Alford lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he is a professor
of Humanities at Nova Southeastern University. His book reviews have been
variously published in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Houston
Chronicle, and Escape magazine. A wide selection of Professor
Alford's book reviews, essays, and lectures are available online and can
be accessed at: http://www.polaris.nova.edu/~alford/index.html.
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