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BEN JONSON’S CATILINE

 

 

 

The well-known story of Catiline’s conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic in 63 B.C. lent itself beautifully to the Gnostic allegory which it was Jonson’s chief concern to portray, as we have seen. In Catiline (1611), the eponymous faction is identified explicitly with the unseen world in his very first lines:

 

Catiline  It is decreed. Nor shall thy fate, O Rome,

Resist my vow. Though hills were set on hills,

And seas met seas, to guard thee; I would through:

I, plough up rocks, steep as the Alps, in dust…

 

This is yet another instance of the substitution of ‘I’ for the expected ‘Ay’, which we have noted so frequently in the plays considered thus far, and in the Shakespeare plays, where it is used with great precision and power, to represent the phallos, itself a symbol of the underworld. Jonson’s plays are less tightly and richly wrought than those over which Sir Francis Bacon had direct control, and the ‘I’ symbol is generally used in them more indiscriminately. In Catiline, however, the author was judicious in its employment, as in the following, just a few instances from the no less than twenty-four throughout the play:

 

Catiline  It doth strike my soul,

… To see them swell with treasure; which they pour

Out in their riots, eating, drinking, building,

I, in the sea! Planing of hills with valleys;

And raising valleys above hills!

                                                 

The Republic, in particular the aristocratic Senate, bears here the value of the Gnostic ego, incomparably enriched with knowledge of the unseen world, which underpins its great advances. The First Folio of Shakespeare (FF) describes a Journey of the Hero, the transformation of Will Shakspere’s psyche from the dross of subjection to the unseen world – the collective unconscious, wherein resides the libido – to the gold of that world worked on by the intellect and imagination, to the end of the attainment of wisdom and Gnostic nobility. The necessity of transcendence of the raw libido for the acquisition of Gnostic nobility is a key theme of FF, as we have noted in Ugly Dick, the source most plausibly being the ritual of the twenty-eighth degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, which states: ‘Ye who have not the power to subdue passion, flee from this place of truth.’[i] The reading and writing of the written word was the central plank of Bacon’s treatment of his patient Shakspere, and this medium is powerfully represented in Catiline as the Cicero faction, which includes Cicero himself, the supreme wordsmith, and the great authors Cato and Catullus; and the letters which flow backwards and forwards between the camps. This then is the theme of Catiline as allegory, not at all a loose association with its literal theme, but rather its raison d’être: the victory of the Gnostic ego over the raw libido, with the help of the written word. (The re-irruption of the problematic will-to-eros would be a continuing problem for Will Shakspere, whose grip on nobility of mind was never quite secure: see especially Troilus and Cressida and Henry the Eighth).

 

Cicero  But dead, her [Fulvia’s] very name will be a statue!

Not wrought for time, but rooted in the minds

Of all posterity: when brass, and marble,

I, and the capitol itself is dust!

                                                 (III, iii)

 

This ‘I’ serves to identify Fulvia as a Queen of Hell: in the macrocosmic sense, the prima materia described by Bacon, the fluid principle underlying the forms of nature, from which they are born and into which they will return at death. Modern science recognises this fluid realm as the quantum world. Fulvia’s allegoric value is also signified by the pearl earring she wears (II, i). Clarence sees (Richard the Third, I, iv) in his nightmare of drowning: ‘wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,/Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,/All scatt’red in the bottom of the sea.’ These represent the riches to be garnered from the underworld by the Gnostic enquirer. ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’ (The Tempest), bears the same significance. It is Julius Caesar who has given Fulvia the pearl. This identifies him as the Gnostic enquirer imperilled, as was Will Shakspere, by the resurgent libido, threatening to plunge him into psychic crisis. Jonson emphasises Caesar’s possible implication in the conspiracy, although this was always doubtful. This is entirely consistent with the allegory, for it is the enquiring ego which elicits the libido, albeit against its will.

 

Galla  No, but you know she [Sempronia] is, madam,

And both a mistress of the Latin tongue,

And of the Greek.    Fulvia  I, but I never dreamt it, Galla…

                                                                                                (II, i)

 

Sempronia is an inflection of the Fulvia principle, as the unseen world described in the written word (Greek), and celebrated in the other ‘Musical’ arts (to use Socrates’ term. This is the point, for example, of the lute smashed by Kate over Hortensio’s head in The Taming of the Shrew¸ Kate representing the Catiline principle of the untamed underworld). In Julius Caesar (1599) Greek likewise represents, as mastered by Cicero, the Gnostic word. Sempronia can ‘compose in verse and make quick jests’ and ‘play on instruments’ and ‘doth dance rarely’; and she is portrayed as an enthusiastic letter writer, to drum up support for the conspiracy (this is historically accurate). She therefore represents, more precisely, the Queen of Hell, or Goddess of Love, in whom the Queen of Hell is immanent, described in the written word, as the troublesome provoker of the will-to-eros. This is a scenario with which FF has utterly familiarised us: the typical passage being the vividly described seduction of Lucius by Fotis in Apuleius’ magical masterpiece of psychic transformation The Golden Ass, and the ego in question being Shakspere’s.

 

The numerous Watches bear always in FF (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, V) the value of the visual imagination; and so Mark Antony here:

 

Caesar  That will Antonius make his care.    Antonius  I shall.

Caesar  And watch the watcher.

                                                    (III, i)

Antonius  I found his mischiefs sooner, with mine eyes,

Than with my thought…

                                    (IV, ii)

 

The Catiline faction is therefore cognate with Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece, as the ego possessed by the will-to-eros; and this identification is made explicit in the scene of Curius’ attempted rape of Fulvia:

 

Fulvia  Hold off your ravisher’s hands, I pierce your heart, else.

I’ll not be put to kill myself, as she did

For you, sweet Tarquine.

                                                    (II, i)

 

Fascinatingly, there is a storm in Catiline, a mighty one, at the moment critique, when the Cicero party is rousing itself to destroy the conspirators:

 

Cato                                       Hear: The gods

Grow angry with your patience. ‘Tis their care,

And must be yours, that guilty men escape not.

As crimes do grow, justice should rouse itself.

                                                                          (III, viii)

 

The several storms in FF represent always the ‘brainstorm’ of reason, evoked, with the help of the written word, to combat the surgent blind libido, in its threat to flood the ego. It is thus germane to the storm in Othello (1603-4), which lands the main characters on Cyprus (Puritan ego); and cognate with Prospero’s isle (Gnostic ego) in The Tempest, which dates to the same year, 1611, as Catiline. Thus, Cato welcomes the storm:

 

Catullus  I never saw a morn more full of horror.

Cato  To Catiline, and his: but, to just men,

 Though heaven should speak, with all his wrath at once,

That, with his breath, the hinges of the world

Did crack, we should stand upright, and unfear’d.

                                                                               (IV, i)

 

The Allobroges clearly bear the value, as allies of the Catiline faction, of the as yet untransformed unseen world:

 

Catullus. Ambassadors, from the Allobroges,

I take ‘hem, by their habits.    Allobroges  I, these men…

                                                                                           (IV i)

 

The Allobroges’ defection to the Cicero party with the help of the incriminating letter (written word) will represent the transformation of the ego from a state of domination by the unseen world, particularly here its aspect of the raw libido, to one of engagement with and control over it. Pomtinius, of the Cicero party, will lead the Allobroges across, and is therefore also identified with the unseen world:

 

Flaccus  they’l fight then, bravely, with him.    Pom.  I, and he…

                                                                                                        (IV, vi)

 

At present, however, the libido is flooding the vulnerable ego, perhaps even accompanied by tumescence:

 

Cicero  … I would with those preserve it, or then fall.

Caesar  I, I, let you alone, cunning artificer!

                                                                       (IV, ii)

 

The sword or dagger represents always in FF the ithyphallic principle or broader unseen world (see, for example, the scene of Hamlet’s procrastination over the murder of Claudius). Here we have the libido (‘weapons’) conquered as the reasoning imagination works on the written word, as expressive of the unseen world:

 

Cicero                                                  Please you, Fathers,

To break these letters, and to view them round,

If that be not found in them, which I fear,

I, yet, intreat, at such a time as this,

My diligence be not contemn’d. Ha’ you brought

The weapons hither, from Cethegus’ [one of the conspirators] house?

                                                                                                               (V, iii)

 

Finally, the ego engaging with the Gnostic written word overcomes its last vulnerability to the blind libido:

 

Cato  From whom? Let ‘hem be read, in open Senate;

Father’s they come from the conspirators.

I crave to have ‘hem read, for the republic.

Caesar  Cato, you read it. ‘Tis a love-letter,

From your dear sister [Fulvia] to me: though you hate me.

Do not discover it.    Cato Hold thee, drunkard. Consul,

Go forth, and confidently.    Caesar  You’ll repent

This rashness, Cicero.    Praetor  Caesar shall repent it.

Cicero  Hold, friends.    Praetor  He’s scarce a friend unto the public.

Cicero  No violence. Caesar, be safe. Lead on:

Where are the public executioners?

Bid ‘hem wait on us. On, to Spinther’s house.

                                                                         (V, iv)

 

In an adroit legerdemain, the conspirators (unseen world unredeemed) are here transformed into Fulvia, the Queen of Hell, Who is also a Grail Queen throughout FF, as guardian of the unseen world. There are many such legerdemains in FF. Caesar’s tendency to spare the Catiline faction (vulnerability of ego to raw libido) is finally overcome by Cicero (adept of the Gnostic word).

 


 

[i] Knight C. and Lomas R., The Second Messiah. Arrow, 1998.

 

 

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