The British Empire — a thing culled from Arthurian legends whispered between Faerie Queenes and court astrologers — stood for a time as proof of magic’s power. ‘Twas a rabbit pulled from the hat of Elizabeth I’s wizard-friend John Dee. The same rabbit that draws Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Enlisted as Her Majesty’s spymaster — indeed, he was the original secret agent, Mr. 007 himself — Dee stormed the reality studio, made Elizabeth a Time Traveler, conversed with angels.
And this thing Dee dreamt into being was of course a terrible thing: an expansionist project armed with ships of fools and launched outward to seize others — other persons, other worlds — for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
Literary greats went on to reimagine Dee just as he himself was a reimagining of Merlin. Shakespeare figures him as Prospero, and against him imagines the colonized subject Caliban. To overthrow Prospero, says Caliban, “Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot.”
Christopher Marlowe supplies the more influential imagining of Dee, however, by casting him as Doctor Faustus.
“For my next act” I think as I stare at trees, their upper branches bathed in the orange light of the setting sun. I feel like a magician having built boxes, four wooden raised beds, conjured them in the midst of a field of clover here in the yard behind our home. In these beds, we’ll plant our garden. Yet the utopian in me (or the Faust in me? the Gnostic in me? the “slow sick sucking part of me”? same difference?) is already restless, ready to set sail (as per Wilde), ready to walk away (as per Le Guin), wishing for something other than what is here, wanting in its stead some other bower of bliss (this not that): a vertical garden, say, in the midst of a food forest.
Is it Faustian to wish joy and happiness? Are Utopians Faustian? What about those of us who wish alleviation of suffering through escape from capitalism? Or through religion, education, spirituality, cultivation of land and consciousness — all of which are at least Promethean, if not Faustian, in their defiant aims and ambitions. Projects waged against fate. The Faust character is distinct from the others, though, as he practices magic. Faust visits a crossroads. He makes a deal, sells his soul. The Devil features as a character in the Faust narrative, as does a demon named Mephistopheles. The latter name appears in the late-16th-century Faust chapbooks, stories concerning the life of the historical figure on which the Faust character is based, an ambitious scholar named Johann Georg Faust. The author of these chapbooks remains anonymous. The proper response to Faust, I suppose, is the one offered by Fatima Bhutto: “nothing on earth can be gifted to compensate for injustice.”