John Robison, electricity enthusiast and a bit off his rocker
Week Eighteen (pg. 301-313 Hilaritas edition, Chapter 7&8 Part III all editions)By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger
My elementary investigations point towards the fact that Spawn of the Serpent only exists in our feverish narrative and that MacKenzie is a MacGuffin.
Although they are accounted as rivals in the footnote that begins chapter seven, MacKenzie (1735-1826) seems to be a fictional reflection of John Robison (1739-1805) that is slightly distorted, as in a funhouse mirror. While I could find no connection between Robison and Banks’ Floralegium nor any account of Robison’s musical aptitude, he was a many of many accomplishments.
Robison spent fourteen years serving as a surveyor, navigator, and tutor to the son of Admiral Charles Knowles- during this time he served in Quebec and sailed around the Atlantic. During a period of time ashore in Scotland Robison became the professor of chemistry at the University of Glasgow and helped the aforementioned James Watts with the construction of a steam car. He left Scotland to accompany Admiral Knowles to St. Petersburg. During this sojourn he was initiated into Continental Masonry.
We are told that John MacKenzie involved himself in the disputes concerning the authenticity of James Macpherson’s The Poem of Ossian. The Ossian debate concerned some translations that were purported to have been translated from ancient Scotch Gaelic, Ossian himself was purportedly the son of the legendary Finn McCool; the works were heralded by members of the Scottish intelligentsia and the burgeoning Romantic movement but cracks soon appeared in Macpherson’s story. Historians pointed out incongruities with names and words used in the text with its supposed date of origin: Samuel Johnson, never one to let an opportunity to shit on the Scottish go wasted, also became involved and generously maintained that Macpherson had found snippets of an authentic text and incorporated them into his embellished narrative.
Despite their dubious origins the Poems of Ossian were still valued by poets such as William Blake and the later Romantics for their beauty and imagination- Goethe included fragments of his own translation into his bildungsroman The Sorrows of Young Werter. (Interestingly, Werter would become the focal point of another hoax or faux-hysteria when the book was blamed for a rash of suicides modelled on the end of the titular protagonist. There are no reliable accounts of any such suicide. Thomas Love Peacock, in his hilarious Nightmare Abbey, parodies the concerns by having his fictional stand-in for Percy Byshe Shelley attempt suicide saying “I will make my exit like young Werter.” ) Literary historians today consider Ossian to have been one of the greatest forgeries of all time.
This is all to say that I could find no connection between John Robison and Ossian aside from a couple publication schedules that had the poems being printed at the same time as some works on natural philosophy by Robison. Henry MacKenzie was the name of an investigator who, on behalf of the Highland Society, investigated the provenance of The Poems of Ossian and found it to be less-than-authentic.
Robison would indeed author Proofs of a Conspiracy later in his career after he had settled in Edinburgh and had served as the professor of natural philosophy at its famed University. He also invented the siren somewhere during this time and tried a bunch of shit with electricity. Robison had grown disillusioned with the Enlightenment after the events in France and was perhaps still concerned over discoveries made in his travels with Admiral Knowles. His book was famous enough to cause concern among the ranks of political power during the late 18th century- a copy was sent to George Washington by a minister. In his response to the minister Washington wrote:
“It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am. The idea that I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of separation). That Individuals of them may have done it, or that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects; and actually had a separation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.”
Like MacKenzie in our narrative, Robison drew heavily upon the work of Jesuit priest Abbe Augustin Barruel whose writings on the history of the clergy in France, seemingly first, drew a connection between Enlightenment values, the Revolution, Illuminati conspiracies, paganism, and a plotted overthrow of Christianity and European power centers. It is part of the fun that Robison’s fictional analogue accuses him of being a member of the conspiracy he spent so much energy trying to expose.
The actual excerpt from MacKenzie’s Spawn of the Serpent doesn’t offer the reader much new information but instead serves as an atmospheric touch to heighten the sense of continent-spanning paranoia. After a time of great upheavals the people of Europe are at a loss to explain what has happened; not everyone has as shrewd a mind as Signor Duccio or the agnostic vantage point of Henri Benoit and we are left with the raving reconnaissance of someone on the other side of the veil.
Professor Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium served as an inspiration for much of the shadow history contained in The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
Chapter eight consists mostly of an interrogation between Sartines and Sigismundo. I believe that through Sartines characterization as professional, competent, and imminently practical, RAW betrays some affection for the character. Sartines certainly doesn’t share the sinister, odd, or wretched characteristics that make other characters uncomfortable to the reader but instead seems to serve as a reminder that there is someone with a decent amount of composure, even humility, in the narrative. Their conversation, not to mention the footnotes, is concerned with genealogical matters having to do with Holy Blood, Holy Grail which Alias or Oz will do a much better job elucidating upon in the comments than I could do here. I will say that in Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire, what the Templars found is implied to be the physical remains of Jesus Christ- this is a theory I have heard elsewhere and seems to be the most chilling for the faithful.
For a moment the reader seems to be led into having a faint hope that Sigismundo has found an ally who can help him escape his interminable and confusing fate before it is taken away by an interruption. Sartines is no hero and the dread and resignation that Sigismundo must feel as the police inspector gives his men orders to transport him back to the Bastille and refuses to meet his eyes seeps slightly off the page.
And the tension is broken with the crack of a gunshot.
A very Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Yule or whatever makes you happy during the darkest days of the year! I’m glad to have this forum and time with all of you and look forward to one more post before the new decade. While I’m not always as active as I’d like to be with my responses, I hope you all know that reading what you have to say has been one of the great joys of life for the past few months.
From Eric Wagner: “With Sigismundo’s love of Bach and Bob Wilson’s love of the Modern Jazz Quartet, I thought this might work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADHny8ZDmbI .”