Friday, August 28, 2009

New Issue of Logos Tackles Iran & Revolution

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I stretched things out a bit earlier in the summer to do some Iran blogging, including two posts contrasting Iran's 2009 tumult with Serbia's in 2000 (here and here), as well as a more general post about what might happen.

But a few days ago, I was alerted by my good friend Danny Postel -- one of America's sharpest thinkers on the philosophy of power -- that the links to the new issue of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture were live.

What a bounty of smart Iran-related material! Among the highlights:

* Danny's lengthy interview with Hossein Bashiriyeh, author of State and Revolution in Iran and one of Iran's foremost sociologists. Bashiriyeh was purged from the University of Tehran's faculty in 2007 and is now at Syracuse University.

The entire interview is worth reading as a primer on the political realities of the moment in Iran, but two things stand out:

(1) Bashiriyeh is definitely in agreement with those arguing against engagement. He tells Postel:

I too think that engagement would in a sense grant legitimacy to a regime confronting a very deep crisis of legitimacy, on the one hand, and would alienate a democratically-inclined and growing opposition movement, which expects moral support from all democratic nations, on the other.gement with Iran at the current moment as useful.

(2) Bashiriyeh sees dissident clerical politics as a key to unlocking the situation for the reform movement. At the end of a long analysis of the current political situation vis a vis the leaders of the opposition, he observes:

Finally, under the current circumstances I think that the rise of a dissident cleric, such as Montazeri, at the head of the movement, could make a great deal of difference in terms of political mobilization and the realignment of political forces and actors.

Read the whole interview here.

* In a co-authored essay, "Behind the 2009 Upheaval in Iran," Kamran Afary and Kevin Anderson (co-author of the classic Foucault and the Iranian Revolution) offer a succinct analysis of the forces of gender, new media, youth politics and repression that have coalesced into a powerful movement. They are hopeful despite the violent supression of the protests and the Stalinist show trials currently underway in Iran, observing that:

All of these struggles of women, youth, and workers have a long history in Iran. Both the protestors and the regime are very aware of this. In this sense, the 2009 protests were a long time coming and will be very hard if not impossible to extinguish.

The new issue of Logos also features four "Reflections on Revolution" in essays by Dick Howard, Marc Luccarelli, Mike Lynn and David S. Mason -- which were part of a March 2009 conference ("The Past and Future of Revolutions") held at Norteastern Illinois University.

Head to Logos now and check it out!

(Photo of July 17 demonstration in Iran by .faramaz, used under a Creative Commons license.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Edward Kelley's Alchemy: Fact or Fraud?

Playwriting has some alchemical aspects to it. And like any good alchemist, I don't want to to give away too many of my secrets about writing Burn Your Bookes.

But in writing a play about Edward Kelley, there is no secret about the biggest problem confronting the playwright: Was Kelley a fraud and charlatan -- either as a scryer or an alchemist or both? Was he really talking to spirits and angels? Was he really making gold?

In the spirit of keeping secrets, I will take a pass for the moment on my views on the spiritual actions described in such detail in Meric Causabon's 1659 collection of John Dee's transcripts of the angelic conversations, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between John Dee... and Some Spirits. It's a complicated question with more than 500 pages of evidence to sift through. I did sift through it. I came to my conclusions. The play makes those conclusions clear.

The question that I wrestled with mightily was the question of Kelley's alchemy. It seems impossible to write about Kelley without taking a position on the question of whether he made gold or not.

Writing Kelley as a fake is difficult in the 21st Century. That's the picture that creative works -- Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, for instance --have given us for centuries now. And the historians have been even worse. The fantastical legends that grew up around Kelley decades after his death in 1597 painted him as a grave robber and swindler whose ears had been cropped in the stocks in Lancaster before he even walked through John Dee's door. His alchemical dealings have also been tarred as fraudulent and criminal well into the 20th Century. A bit of Ralph M. Sargent's 1935 biography of courtier, diplomat and poet Edward Dyer (At the Court of Elizabeth, Oxford University Press) gives a flavor of opinion on Kelley into recent times.

Sargent's biography gets lots of facts wrong as it winds through the complicated tale of Dyer's missions to Bohemia to deal with Dee and Kelley -- and then later, with Kelley alone -- on the instructions of the highest levels of the English government. Indeed, the author's animus against Kelley blinds him to some of the most interesting bits of the story of Kelley's flight from Prague and first arrest in 1591 and Dyer's imprisonment in Bohemia in connection with the affair:

That Edward Kelley was no honest alchemist his dealings with Dyer and [William Cecil, Lord] Burghley attest. Had he been able to perform what he claimed for himself, he would have had need of none of the promises and guarantees he asked for. On the contrary, of course, he was playing the ancient game of all charlatans.... Kelley's career differs from that of an ordinary mountebank by the audacity of his claims and the magnitude of his success.

"The magnitude of his success." Interesting words. Indeed, Sargent even admits that "[h]is tricks, whatever they may have been, were never during his life, or later, satisfactorily exposed."

Dee believed that Kelley could transmute, mentioning the fact on multiple occasions in his private diaries. Dyer's belief was so powerful -- and has the added power of his time working with Kelley in his lab -- that Francis Bacon mentioned it in his Apophthegma, which was published in 1626 -- almost four decades after Dyer first encountered Kelley and 19 years after Dyer's death:

Sir Edward Dyer, a grave and wise gentleman, did much believe in Kelley the alchymist ; that he did indeed the work, and made gold : inso much as he went himself into Germany, where Kelley then was, to inform himself fully thereof. After his return, he dined with my Lord of Canterbury, where at that time was at the table Dr. Browne, the physician. They fell in talk of Kelley. Sir Edward Dyer, turning to the Archbishop, said ; I do assure your Grace, that that I shall tell you is truth. I am an eye-witness thereof, and if I had not seen it, I should not have believed it. I saw Master Kelley put of the base metal into the crucible, and after it was set a little upon the fire, and a very small quantity of the medicine put in, and stirred with a stick of wood, it came forth in great proportion perfect gold, to the touch, to the hammer, to the test. Said the Bishop ; l You had need take heed what you say, Sir Edward Dyer, for here is an infidel at the board. Sir Edward Dyer said again pleasantly ; I would have looked for an infidel sooner in any place than at your Grace's table. What say you, Dr. Browne? saith the Bishop. Dr. Browne answered, after his blunt and huddling manner, The gentleman hath spoken enough for me. Why (saith the Bishop) what hath he said? Marry, (saith Dr. Browne) he said he would not have believed it except he had seen it ; and no more will I.

The other piece of evidence is Kelley's own self-assurance, bordering on arrogance. His famous tract, "The Stone of the Philosophers," apparently written during one of Kelley's stints in prison, is dedicated to Emperor Rudolf II and starts off with one of the most breathtakingly audacious introductions I have ever read:

Though I have already twice suffered chains and imprisonment in Bohemia, and indignity which has been offered to me in no other part of the world, yet my mind, remaining unbound, has all this time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish, but is praised an admired by the wise.... Nevertheless, it always was, and always will be, the way of mankind to release Barabbas and to crucify Christ.

And then, of course, there is also the first stanza of Kelley's poem that gives my play its title:

All you that faine philosophers would be,
And night and day in Geber's kitchen broyle,
Wasting the chips of ancient Hermes' Tree,
Weening to turn them to a precious oyle,
The more you work the more you loose and spoile;
To you, I say, how learned soever you be,
Go burne your Bookes and come and learn of me.

The notion that Kelley might be no fake at all was a powerful lure for me to write. But I didn't want to turn the play into a piece of magical unrealism. So I went looking for explanations that might have Kelley making gold but not through magic.

Enter Ivan Sviták -- Czech philosopher and one of the intellectual giants of the Prague Spring in 1968. Faced with a jail sentence after the Soviet invasion, Sviták emigrated to the United States and ended up teaching at California State University at Chico. (His book of essays written during the Prague Spring -- The Czechoslovak experiment, 1968-1969 -- remains one of the wisest. most humane and most ebullient political books ever written.)

Sviták had a passionate interest in the story of Dee and Kelley (and, also, Kelley's stepdaughter Elizabeth Jane Weston). He wrote a trio of books about these three personages which are available in their entirety only in Czech editions published in 1994.

Fortunately, Sviták also published a short article in English about Dee and Kelley in the journal Kosmas in 1986. It contained a bombshell: An argument that Kelley's chicanery was never uncovered because it he was not a fraud at all. Sviták recites the eyewitness evidence of Kelley's "transmutations" and then writes:

We could dismiss these reports as simply common fraud and alchemical tricks... My explanation coincides with the historical evidence available about Rosenberg mining and about his constant effort to improve the conditions in the old gold mines in Jilove (Eule) near Prague.

The short version of Sviták's theory is that Kelley was using mercury to extract trace amounts of gold and other precious metals from seemingly spent soils in old mines. "The metallurgist must have appeared to his contemporaries as a magician," Sviták writes. "Indeed he was producing gold from earth, and everybody could see that..." (Sviták also posits that Kelley's training as an apothecary gave him useful knowledge of all sorts of drugs -- a leg up in making things like aurum potabile, or liquid gold.)

But the important thing for me, as a playwright, is that Sviták's theory -- which I think holds up quite nicely -- also carved out space for me to imagine myself back into Kelley's shoes. He's a bad guy, yes. Machiavellian to Max-iavellian. But he's smart. Super smart. And that fabled arrogance is, in some important ways, justified.

In short, it let me imagine a Kelley that is comprehensible to a modern sensibility without resort to magic or an outright con job. It's all of a sudden a very complicated and very believable story. Which is just the sort of thing to write a play about....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Burn Your Bookes: Tracking Edward Kelley

Over the next couple days, I'm going to post some background about my play, Burn Your Bookes, which gets a sneak preview two weeks from today at the Kennedy Center as part of the 8th annual Page-to-Stage Festival. Full play to follow, courtesy of Taffety Punk Theatre Company, in early spring. Details on the September 6 performance here.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Edward Kelley is the central character in Burn Your Bookes. For many, this English alchemist is a personage of mystery, malfeasance and menace. But I find him fascinating and very misunderstood despite his obvious flaws. My grappling with Kelley is what animates the play. Who was he? What was he doing?

Back in 2007, when I was in Prague for five weeks for rehearsals and the four performances of the one-act version of Burn Your Bookes, I found a place to stay in Mala Strana, near one of the houses where Kelley lived when he was a "golden knight" of Emperor Rudolf II's court in the late 16th Century.

There are a few places associated with Kelley still extant in central Prague, including the famous but wildly misnomered "Faust House" on Karlovo náměstí. Kelley owned that house for a time, but there is no connection between the legendary scholar who sold his soul to the Devil and Prague. (Though that didn't, of course, stop filmmaker Jan Švankmajer from setting the beginning of his version of Faust in Prague!)

The other place associated with Kelley is a house on Jánský Vršek in Mala Strana called "At The Donkey in the Cradle." It is linked with Kelley as a place he lived after his first arrest, and its nook on a narrow street in the shadow of Prague Castle seems the perfect location to try and mount a comeback at Rudolf's court. It also has a tower that peeks out over Mala Strana -- and a courtyard with a wine bar and restaurant. (See photo above of thoroughly-chilled playwright at base of tower.)

I rented a place at the bottom of the same street, a few doors away, to stay during my theatrical sojourn in Prague. I also wrote much of the play's third act during that same trip, and the knowledge that Kelley's stepdaughter -- Neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Jane Weston -- likely stayed in that house as well also provided some good vibrations. (Kelley and Weston are the main figures in the third act.)

Prague is the sort of place where one can imagine oneself back into a Renaissance past, especially on a narrow street like Jánský Vršek. But imagining oneself back into Kelley's shoes is a difficult task, for a number of reasons. And as I unfold them below, you will see why I felt trying to get nearer somehow to the places Kelley haunted felt like the right thing to do.

First, there are the layers of mystery and inscrutability that surround all alchemy in this period. Alchemists intentionally made themselves difficult to understand. Charles Nicholl, in the preface to a new edition of his wonderful 1980 book, The Chemical Theatre, puts it best:

I suspect that a measure of bewilderment and exhaustion attends anyone who attempts to unravel the complexities of alchemy. Like all occult systems, alchemy employs a language of symbolism and subterfuge. You enter a linguistic labyrinth full of cross-references and false trails. Its strange and wonderful images -- its green lions and red kings, its nigredos and albedos, its lactating virgins and cannabalistic couplings -- have a multiplicity of interpretations and counter-interpretations. One avoids with difficulty the old scholarly pitfall of ignotum per ignotius, explaining the obscure by the more obscure.

Nicholl is right. The hardest thing about writing Burn Your Bookes was deciding that I needed to find my way out of the labyrinth of researching alchemy and start to actually write the play. And in that writing, I struggled with ways to clarify and simplify without stripping the science alchemical of its complexity and linguistic beauty.

The second hurdle in representing Kelley is navigating the obscurity of much of his early life, untangling the messy strand of the seven years (1582-1589) in which we have a bounty of detail (too much?) about his life, and then plunging back to shape the fragments that have come down to us about his final years.

When Kelley walks into the house of John Dee, one of the most impressive English intellectual figures of the Renaissance era, in early 1582, he literally walks into history. We know almost nothing about him before that moment. He comes under an assumed name (Talbot), offering his services as a scryer (or crystal gazer). We only know his birthdate (August 1, 1555) because Dee casts his horoscope. Dee is suspicious and with good reason. But he also finds Kelley strangely compelling and useful.

From that moment on, thanks to Dee, we have almost 500 pages recording the "spiritual actions" conducted by the two men, first published in 1659 by Meric Causabon as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between John Dee... and Some Spirits. We also have almost 70 pages of Dee's personal diaries, scribbled down in the margins of Johannes Stadius' Ephimerides Novae -- a year by year published chart of planetary positions that also served Dee as a datebook of sorts. (More on this material to come in future posts.)

Act I of Burn Your Bookes examines the end of the Dee and Kelley partnership. When the two men part, the trail of information about Kelley thins out once again. (Nicholl does an incredible job of piecing together what we do know about him in a London Review of Books piece from April 2001. Subscription only, alas.)

Even the date of Kelley's death is uncertain, though Nicholl argues that he died in the castle in the Czech city of Most in late 1597. We do have a letter from Elizabeth Jane Weston to her brother John Francis, written from that city in July 1597, and published in her second book of poetry (Parthenica) referring to their "magnificent Parent" (Kelley) in a way that implies he is still alive. (In a letter from October 1598, however, he is referred to as "our magnificent Parent of blessed memory.") The rest can only be pieced together from legal documents, letters about him and legends.

The legends about Kelley, alas, took the firmest root of all for almost 500 years. The blanks of his early life were filled with lurid tales of necromancy, coining and forgery, and a cropping of his ears at Lancaster -- none of which has been conclusively proven in the documentary record. One must also take into account that both the spiritual and personal diaries of Dee record the relationship from Dee's perspective -- though we do not have much cause to doubt their veracity.

A third difficulty in getting a true read on Kelley is modern scholarship on John Dee, which steadfastly denigrates Kelley to reestablish Dee's reputation as one of the great -- and most interesting intellects -- of the Renaissance.

The project of restoring Dee is a worthy and useful one that was long overdue -- and it has produced some rich and wonderful scholarship. (Nicholas Clulee's John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion and William Sherman's John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance are among the best.) But all too often the scholars who've embarked upon it have cut through the knotty complexities of the relationship between the two men in favor of deriding Kelley, eliding Kelley, or just plain ignoring him.

Unless one actually does believe that spirits were talking to John Dee through Edward Kelley, it is hard to dismiss the centrality of Kelley to the joint enterprise. But the more vexing question for those who denigrate Kelley as a charlatan or a fraud is that while Dee was eventually sent packing back to England, his former scryer was knighted and moved for a time in the highest circles of Rudolfine Prague.

And what complicates the question further? Contemporary scholarship has largely established that Kelley's first arrest may well have been -- at least in part -- a sort of "protective custody" to prevent him fleeing back to England with courtier and poet Edward Dyer, who was placed under arrest in Kelley's house at the same time that the alchemist was being pursued in South Bohemia and finally arrested in Soběslav. Nicholl posits that Kelley's second and final arrest and imprisonment was because of a duel or debts.

In neither case, however, does it appear that Kelley arrested for alchemical fraud. So the
question is: What was Edward Kelley doing? In the next post, I'll talk a bit about the best theory that has emerged, and what it might mean to our understanding of Kelley.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Red Star Vs. Slavia

In my last post, I cited Cecil Parrott's memoirs as the ultimate Balkans via Bohemia books. Well, today, in Prague, we had the Balkans via Bohemia Europa League clash of the season... and in more ways than one. It was a Czech team with a red star as its symbol (Slavia Prague) against a Belgrade team with the Red Star in its name. (Red Star Belgrade.)

My two favorite cities. Bragging rights on the line. And a literal clash of heads between hooligans and cops.

Via ESPN, I read a Reuters report this afternoon about battles between Red Star Belgrade fans and Czech police in Old Town Square:

"Police detained 150 fans. Of that number, 38 ended up at the police station for further investigation. Twelve will be charged with criminal offences," Prague police spokeswoman Andrea Zoulova said."

And the actual game? Slavia crushed Red Star 3-0.

A couple other Balkan and Bohemian teams played as well. Partizan Belgrade could only manage a 1-1 tie at home to Slovakian side MSK Zilina. Sarajevo also suffered the indignity of a 1-1 home draw against Romanian side CFR Cluj. Czech side Teplice lost to Hapoel Tel-Aviv at home by a 2-1 score.

And there were some crushing results. Everton smashed Sigma Olomouc 4-0. Dinamo Zagreb depantsed Edinborough's Hearts by the same scoreline. And Liberec smoked Dinamo Bucharest 2-0.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I'm Back (Burn Your Bookes News!!!)

It has been a month between posts here at Balkans via Bohemia. I can only offer my humblest apologies. The web traffic on this site -- strangely enough -- has not dipped, aided in part by search threads such as "zagreb occupation," "bohemia beograd" and "slaughter on the autobahn." It's been busy in my absence.

I cannot blame the lack of posts on my own Hildegard Kneffian "weary dreary holiday time." To the contrary. At Richard Byrne Inc., like much of the rest of America, individual hours and productivity have been up, even if wages have remained stagnant.

Anyway, things are about to get real busy on this blog again. The reasons?

* A slew of new Taffety Punk Theatre Company projects, including a sneak preview of my own play, Burn Your Bookes, at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, September 6th as part of the 8th annual Page-to-Stage Festival. There's a full press release here. Let's just say I'm excited that Edward Kelley (above in an engraving from from A True & Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits -- the classic 1659 text of Kelley's spiritual "consultations" with Dr. John Dee) gets to walk again. The Punks are also doing an all-female production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure starting in mid-September, of which you will hear much more anon.

* I will have a huge article in The Nation about Dušan Makavejev appearing sometime in the next few weeks. But as long as that article is, I wasn't quite able to get everything in. So look for some of the bonus extended disco remix material here.

* I finally managed to get my hands on both volumes of Sir Cecil Parrott's memoirs: The Tightrope and The Serpent and the Nightingale. Parrott is best known now as the first English translator of Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk -- which is the Bible of this website. But let's just say that Parrott's memoirs are perhaps the ultimate Balkans vis Bohemia books, covering Parrott's time as tutor to young Yugoslav crown prince Peter (who was suddenly thrust into the kingship when his father, Alexander I, was assassinated in Marseille in 1934) and extended stints as a diplomat in Prague, Moscow and elsewhere. They were never published in the United States, so I'm looking forward to giving readers a taste of these books.

First order will be a couple posts about Burn Your Bookes to set up the sneak preview. Who was Edward Kelley? What do we know about Renaissance alchemy? So stay tuned -- and if you live in DC and are here over the Labor Day weekend, consider yourself invited! (It's a free performance...)