Orson Welles as Count Cagliostro in "Black Magic" (1949)
Week Eleven: Chapter 11 “The Grand Orient and Other Treacheries” pg. 211-231 Hilaritas Press edition
By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger
We meet upon the level, we part upon the square. Could you feel it, the crescendo swelling up to the nonexistent book four? I did, and that nagging feeling has been with me every time I look into the chapter. We will never know what happened with Sigismundo Balsamo and his vendetta against Weishaupt, Orleans, and his brother. Of course, given that RAW spent most of his life trying to teach us model agnosticism, this could be taken as a lesson in only having suspicions to lean upon.
I don’t have anything to add to Wilson’s sparking conversation at the party thrown by Duc d’Orleans. I will say that as a critic I believe this is some of the finest dialogue that Wilson had written and that I would say that we get a clearer depiction of the author’s “beliefs” from Sartines quips than from the satori-laden “Wilderness Diary.” Or perhaps Sigismundo’s diary and Sartine’s scandalous wit are two sides of the same coin -- one representing the view from above and one representing the panorama on the ground floor.
At first I believed that Madame de Monnier was the ancestor, perhaps grandmother, of Blanche Monnier, a French socialite who was once the toast of the mid-to-late nineteenth century Parisian party scene. Blanche made the mistake of pissing off her mother who locked her in a room in the attic for twenty five years and told everyone that Blanche had died. The story is horrifying, as are the before and after pictures. While not to make light of Blanche’s tragedy, researching these novels had made me acutely aware of the historical dangers of being a libertine born to French nobility/high society.
Digging a little deeper I was able to find out that de Monnier was in fact Marie Thérèse de Monnier, better known to history by her lover’s pet name for her “Sophie.” Sophie de Monnier would become the mistress of the already married Honore Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau who I briefly discussed during Week Four of The Widow’s Son reading group post. De Monnier was quite as scandalous, or had as scandalous a reputation, as Wilson depicts her at the Duc’s soiree. She is probably best remembered for her affair with Mirebeau leading to his father issuing the lettre de cachet that led to his final imprisonment before the Revolution. During his imprisonment Mirabeau spent his time writing filthy letters to Sophie, writing pornography for his own amusement, and honing his rhetoric. (I believe I mentioned this during The Widow’s Son but during his imprisonment Mirabeau met de Sade, the two did not like each other. Like de Sade, Mireabeau led the French authorities on a merry chase as he initially escaped to Switzerland, where he “lived in sin” with Sophie, only to be captured in Belgium.)
But all this is ahead of de Monnier at the time of her conversation with Sartines, Orleans, and Beaumarchais. (With Sigismundo somewhere in the background.) We can see clear examples of the ideas that would make de Monnier a figure of interest in the years preceding the Revolution, especially in her brilliant spiel comparing the Old Testament god to Caligula.
Dr. Cyprus is also mentioned during the character’s discussion in a similar manner that the plebeian characters discussed “Spartacus” in The Widow’s Son. Dr Cyprus, as I mentioned previously, seems to share some qualities with Dr. Hankopft. His philosophy is very similar to that espoused by Unistat President Furbish Lousewart V, who also loathes technology and scientific thinking. At the end of The Universe Next Door, after the nuclear holocaust, Wilson informs the reader that the quotes from Lousewarts book Unsafe Wherever You Go are taken from Adolf Hitler. It seems like a safe assumption that Dr. Cyprus would have become one of the tertiary or quaternary characters whose words mimic and mock along with the main plotlines of the proposed future novels.
We will pass over duc d’Orleans and Weishaupt's flame daggers as another thread we cannot follow and land upon the manipulation of the Cardinal de Rohan at the hands of Count Cagliostro, Giuseppe Balsamo. Surprisingly, the tryst with a prostitute in the garden was true and de Rohan seems to have been one of the biggest dopes in the annals of history.
The story goes back a few years to the reign of Louis XV. King Louis decided he wanted to gift Madame du Barry with a magnificent diamond necklace. The production of such a necklace took years, during which Louis grew sick with the pox and went to the big whorehouse in the sky. The jewellers, who were understandably pissed at having a very expensive necklace that they couldn’t sell, tried multiple times to offer it to Marie Antoinette. Perhaps because of her distaste for du Barry, or perhaps because she was canny enough to understand how such an expenditure would look to the suffering French citizens, Marie Antoinette refused each time.
Marie Antoinette is famous for her prickly relationships with many of the French nobility and was not a fan of the Cardinal de Rohan. Louis Rene Edouard de Rohan had earned the Queen’s ire by his actions in the Court of Maria Theresa of Austria, her mother. de Rohan, despite his ecclesiastic role, had no scruples about putting his love of pleasure and wealth on display. He also, in an act of hypocrisy that according to Sartines we shouldn’t be surprised by, told Maria Theresa about Marie Antoinette’s (probably fabricated) disreputable activities in France.
By 1783 the Cardinal de Rohan, while welcomed to Court because of his familial status, was in fact persona non grata at Versailles. Marie Antoinette did not have time for his shit. de Rohan was taken for a ride by his mistress, Jeanne de la Motte. Much of the manipulation ascribed to Cagliostro in this final chapter was in fact pulled off by de la Motte, her husband, and some engravers. de la Motte convinced the Cardinal de Rohan that Marie Antoinette wanted to put the bad blood behind them in a series of increasingly intimate forged letters- this culminated in the garden tryst with a prostitute that de Rohan sincerely believed was the Queen of France.
The necklace comes into play because Jeanne knew about it and thought that it would look better picked apart and sold for her ascent into Parisian high society. She convinced the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette, once more through a series of forged letters, wanted the necklace but could not purchase it herself while the people were suffering. “Marie Antoinette” asked if the Cardinal would buy the necklace for her; he did so and the whole affair came to light. The French Court would be rocked by “the affair of the diamond necklace” from 1784-85.
The fallout of the purchase was de la Motte was able to french the necklace on the black market but she and her conspirators were captured and punished. Interestingly, Jeanne would escape six months into her prison sentence. de Rohan was thrown in the Bastille and never got to sleep with the real Marie Antoinette who still hated him. Marie Antoinette’s reputation, despite her non-involvement, took another massive blow in the eyes of the French public and the “affair of the diamond necklace” is cited by historians as one of the precipitating events of the French Revolution by destroying confidence in the House of Bourbon. Presumably Louis XIV was off playing with his toy boats.
While Count Cagliostro was arrested for a role in the conspiracy, historians seem to agree that he had nothing to do with this particular con. While looking into this I believe that Wilson’s rearrangement of history is due to the influence of a film Black Magic, itself an adaption of Alexander Dumas’ Joseph Balsamo, based on the life of Cagliostro. In Black Magic (from 1949), none other than Orson Welles plays Count Cagliostro; while Dr. Mesmer does make an appearance, it seems as if Cardinal de Rohan is absent. Instead the film is about a plot to replace Marie Antoinette with a prostitute which leads to the purchase of the diamond necklace by a fictional dupe.
What fun! It is a pity that all things come to an end, but they do. We’ll never see the excised 500 pages from Illuminatus!, nor will we ever find exactly how Sigismundo waged war against the Illuminati. We do know that when a character’s name changes in Historical Illuminatus that it indicates a major shift in that character’s perspective and goals. Both Sigismundo and Seamus reclaimed their “original” or “truest” selves and both are prepared to take drastic actions. We know that tragedy has struck the Babcocks...but we don’t know what. Loose ends! And like history itself we find out that the trail runs cold and we’ll never know.
I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun writing about and discussing Historical Illuminatus with all of you. Special thanks to Tom for allowing me to write for his blog, to Eric for providing our musical selections, Oz for his insightful qabbalistic commentary, and to everyone who took the time to read or share their thoughts and ideas in the comments. I believe that our next reading group is going to be Prometheus Rising which is a hell of a book. Don’t miss it!
Looking forward to seeing everyone for Maybe Day and in conclusion I’m going to add a poem by Masonic Poet Laureate Rob Morris. (Morris became Laureate after his death an honor that had not been bestowed upon anyone since the death of Robert Burns.)
The Level and the Square by Rob Morris
We meet upon the Level, and we part upon the Square,
What words of precious meaning those words Masonic are,
Come let us contemplate them, they are worthy of our thought,
With the highest and the lowest and the rarest they are fraught.
We meet upon the Level, though from every station come,
The king from out his palace, and the poor man from his home;
For the one must leave his diadem outside the mason's door,
And the other finds his true respect upon the chequered floor.
We act upon the Plumb,—tis the order of our Guide—
We walk upright in every way and lean to neither side;
Th' All-Seeing Eye that reads our hearts doth bear us witness true,
That we still try to honor God and give each man his due.
We part upon the Square, for the world must have its due,
We mingle with its multitude, a cold unfriendly crew;
But the influence of our gatherings in memory is green,
And we long upon the level to renew the happy scene.
There's a world where all are equal—we are hurrying towards it fast,
We shall meet upon the level there, when the gates of death are passed,
We shall stand before the Orient, and our Master will be there,
To try the blocks we offer by his own unerring Square.
We shall meet upon the level there, but never thence depart,
There's a mansion—'tis all ready for each trusting faithful heart,
There's a mansion and a welcome, and a multitude is there
Who have met upon the level, and been tried upon the square.
Let us meet upon the level then, while laboring patient here,
Let us meet and let us labor, though the labor seem severe,
Already in the western sky the signs bid us prepare
To gather up our working tools, and part upon the square.
Hands round, ye faithful masons, form the bright fraternal chain,
We part upon the square below to meet in heaven again,
Oh what words of precious meaning those words masonic are—
"We meet upon the level, and we part upon the square."
From Eric: “The presence of Beaumarchais and the reference to Mozart led me to choose this selection from The Marriage of Figaro. Thank you for the opportunity to choose these pieces. I suspect Sigismundo disguised himself as the young lady’s father.”