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 Dr. John Dee, who lived from 1527 to 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 Dr. 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 Dr. Dee plays for much higher stakes. This novel explores how space prefigures our temporal experiences, and how this spatial prefiguration is ultimately linguistic. For the psychologically minded, this view of the relation of space, time, and language gives rise to two claims. First, selfhood is fundamentally a linguistic construct. Second, the traditional model of language as a "tool" for the analyst to help the analysand to reveal the past to himself as a form of therapy suffers from a lack of understanding of the circular relation between language and the self. One consequence of these insights is that we may do well to rethink the causal relationship between childhood trauma and its effects on the adult psyche.
Matthew Palmer is a professional researcher, and he realizes that researchers ". . . are at odds with the world: we 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 view the past as my present, so in turn the present moment became part of the past" (Ackroyd 13). 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." (81) 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 consciousness.
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 (Ackroyd 65). 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 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 . . ." (72). 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 (252). For Dee, both the self and the world are part of a Book of Nature inscribed with transcendent meaning:
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 Dr. 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 (229). 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 Dr. 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, while some have called this book a "ghost story," 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 (65, 134) and the secret that Edward Kelley wishes to steal from him.
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" (219). 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" (125). 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 Kelly.
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 Dr. 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 event significance.
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.
Psychologically, we could extend these insights to argue that past events do not so much shape identity, but that present psychoanalytical investigation into the past sets up a hermeneutic dialectical link, past-present, which constitutes both of them in the same moment.
Assuming the truth of this claim, it would be interesting to revisit the notion of childhood trauma. The trauma becomes a trauma not through the actual experience of the trauma, but through the excavation, through analysis, and the constitution of it, linguistically, as trauma. Once the link is made—present neurotic or psychotic condition, causal agent: trauma—both events emerge into significance simultaneously. The past and the present, then, do not occupy to separate ontological spaces, but instead emerge as the past and present in a single space, the space of signification, which temporally is neither past nor present.
But 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 Dr. 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" (140). 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" (218). 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 of 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" (178).
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" (256). 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 us all.