Obituary: Kurt Josten

FURTHER to the obituaries of Kurt Josten by Ian Lowe (12 July), and James Buchan (14 July), another interesting element of Josten's personality and scholarship found expression in papers which he wrote for the history of chemistry journal Ambix and for the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, writes A. V. Simcock.

They consist of biographical studies, textual commentaries, and translations relating not to Elias Ashmole but to precursors of Ashmole's in the 16th- and 17th-century world of occult science and mystical philosophy, especially William Backhouse, John Dee and Robert Fludd.

Perhaps the most important of these articles is a translation of and commentary upon John Dee's mystical work Monas Hieroglyphica (1564). Josten's version, really a little book in its own right, was modestly published in Ambix in 1964. Translating it with the advantage of fluency in Latin, he was able to concentrate his attention on understanding Dee's deliberately obscure and difficult argument. Josten's introduction contains the following passage:

The author of the Monas seems to be taking his reader on a conducted tour through a dark room where, every now and then, he strikes a light to illuminate one out of a multitude of objects apparently assembled there for a distinct purpose. The reader guesses soon that other objects, which he perceives dimly glistening in the background, are probably more pertinent to that purpose than the one set before him for which bland and seemingly lucid explanations are offered . . . (Dee) leaves it to the reader even to guess that the subject of the elaborate display, which he is asked to view in such dim light, is the hermetic quest.

This specimen of Josten's beautiful style of writing his adopted language of English conveys his relish at the study of literary texts, historical mysteries, and truly mystical and spiritual things. It is also perceptive: I doubt whether many people had understood what Dee was talking about before. For Josten was truly involved (a word he hated) in the Renaissance mind of occult philosopher-scientists like Dee and Ashmole; he probably saw his own life as a 'tour through a dark room' with flashes of incomplete enlightenment. The mystical side of alchemy, the 'hermetic quest', was ever thus.