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Winter 2013

Table Talk

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Jennifer Zahrt

Nothing magical occurred when I looked into John Dee’s scrying mirror in the British Museum in London. I’ve been interested in the history of the occult in Europe, including Dee’s angelology, for nearly fifteen years, and I guess I had secretly hoped that my passion for the subject might induce something special to happen if I looked into the mirror myself.

My trip to London was not a pilgrimage to Dee’s occult artifacts, but it might as well have been. Last summer I spent a week in Bath, England, attending a program on the history of astrology. I added a few days in London as an afterthought, so when I arrived there and my friend Fabio asked me what I wanted to see, I couldn’t really say. Knowing about my historical interests, he mentioned that he knew where one could see Dee’s mirror, and so we made that the goal of the afternoon. We walked past a tangle of streets, countless closed-circuit security cameras installed around London, and the aptly named London Eye, which seemed to stare out monstrously at the entire city, an emblem for the smaller acts of surveillance taking place on each corner. If one had the access or inclination, one probably could have spliced together a small video of our walk from north London, the short Tube ride, and the rest of our path to Dee’s mirror.

Fabio, a resolute fan of the British Museum, knew exactly where the mirror was located and led us directly there. We found it surrounded by other occult objects from the era, many of them Dee’s. Even though it was far smaller than I had imagined, I still got the temporary thrill unleashed by the discovery of a tangible artifact previously known only through the distant claims of scholarship. The grayish obsidian surface looked more like a round slab of granite countertop than anything I’d call mirror-like. It sat there blankly while my dim reflection stared back at me, doubled through the glass case sequestering it. I clearly wanted more from it than it wanted from me. After I realized that no amount of time spent continuing to stare at the mirror would conjure the experience I sought, we made our way outside.

Suddenly gripped by enthusiasm, Fabio grabbed my arm and said, “Follow me. I have something else to show you.” We wound our way down a blur of streets and corners, past more CCTV cameras, and finally entered a building, ascending a flight of stairs. By this time I was completely disoriented in the labyrinth of London. As we rose to the second floor of the building, Fabio smiled and gestured in the manner of someone revealing a large gift. An oddly placed wood cabinet occupied the corner of the hallway. It was taller than either of us, and behind the solid pane of glass that stretched between its open doors, it contained the stuffed body of a man sitting placidly on a chair, staring out at the hall, hat intact and cane firmly between his slightly spread legs. He was fully clothed, intensely awkward, and obviously dead.

A stripe of gold letters at the top of the cabinet told us that this figure was once Jeremy Bentham, and a plaque shared the information that this was how he chose to be interred after his death. His position in the hall made it seem as though he were watching us (not unexpected, given Bentham’s preoccupations in life), but, like the black slab of Dee’s mirror, the glass eyes of his reconstructed head refused to stare back with anything other than blankness. Yet, in their own subtle way, they also seemed to recapitulate all those security camera lenses we had seen on the streets, the modern inheritors of Bentham’s Panopticon.

Jennifer Zahrt is the deputy editor of The Threepenny Review.

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