Monday, June 11, 2012

Quote of the Day (Ben Jonson, on the ‘Fine, Elegant Rascal’)

“I fear, I shall begin to grow in love
With my dear self, and my most prosperous parts,
They do so spring and burgeon; I can feel
A whimsy in my blood: I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin, now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. O! your parasite
Is a most precious thing, dropt from above,
Not bred 'mongst clods, and clodpoles, here on earth….
I mean not those that have your bare town-art…
But your fine elegant rascal, that can rise,
And stoop, almost together, like an arrow;
Shoot through the air as nimbly as a star;
Turn short as doth a swallow; and be here,
And there, and here, and yonder, all at once;
Present to any humour, all occasion;
And change a visor, swifter than a thought!”—Ben Jonson, Volpone: Or, The Fox (1606)

A bitterly funny playwright, Ben Jonson—born on this date in 1572—would probably say a lot of cynical things about why, though far more learned than his slightly older friend and contemporary William Shakespeare—and a greater literary celebrity in their lifetimes—his work is far less well-known and read than the Bard’s today. He’d probably start by noting mordantly that, if that’s the case, how come the facts of his life are so much better known than Shakespeare’s? “You don’t see people claiming that the Earl of Oxford wrote my plays and poems,” he’d say, deep in his cups at some pub.

(The shadow cast by Shakespeare seems even more difficult to fathom when considering Jonson's tumultuous life: Let's see--a twentysomething soldier, a graduate of his nation's finest schools, who goes on to become a hard-drinking, wenching guy who ends up in legal trouble because of a violent incident, then puts himself front and center in his works. Who ever knew that Norman Mailer time-traveled?)

In an essay on Jonson in his work of criticism The Sacred Wood (1921), T.S. Eliot—himself subject to the changing tides of academic approbation—identified the problem as “the most perfect conspiracy of approval”: “To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries.” There was really only one way to rescue him from this dilemma: “[I}n order to enjoy him at all, we must get to the centre of his work and his temperament, and …see him unbiased by time, as a contemporary. And to see him as a contemporary does not so much require the power of putting ourselves into seventeenth-century London as it requires the power of setting Jonson in our London: a more difficult triumph of divination.”

At this juncture, seeing Jonson through early-20th-century London is a conceptual leap. But we don’t have to look that far. In Volpone, his satiric masterpiece of greed, we can see a clear through-line to Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Kenneth Lay, and Bernie Madoff.  Jonson would have scoffed at the idea that some regarded greed as gold. No, he’d correct you: like his elderly Venetian title character, they regarded gold as a secular religion to be worshipped unashamedly.  

Modern screenwriters and playwrights have regarded Volpone as rich with action and insight into human behavior. Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted it for his 1967 film The Honey Pot, while Larry Gelbart of M*A*S*H fame alluded to it as his inspiration by borrowing and transforming the subtitle: Sly Fox (1976). Even the master-parasite dynamics present between Volpone and his servant Mosca (translation: “fly”) are reproduced between Burt Lancaster’s power-hungry Gotham columnist and Tony Curtis’s hustling small-time press agent in the 1957 cult classic Sweet Smell of Success.

The “Quote of the Day” comes from the Mosca soliloquy that begins Act III. The first seeds of the capitalist system take root not merely in the merchant class holding sway already in Venice and emerging in London, but more broadly, in a philosophy of secular humanism that Jonson is eyeing suspiciously. Mosca, a man on the make, is unmoored from considerations of family (he's “dropt from above”), honor or religion (“like a subtle snake” is as obvious an illusion to the Garden of Evil as you can get).

Freedom and individualism, Jonson is saying through this theatrical mouthpiece (attractive, despite his amorality, because of his sheer energy), offer more than just the opportunity to improve one’s circumstances. They open avenues to anyone willing to use words to alter the appearance of situations, to lie, to cheat on a grand scale.

Jonson’s Volpone and Mosca, then, are more than T.S. Eliot’s contemporaries; they are ours, too, every bit as much as Jonson was of the more celebrated Elizabethan, Shakespeare.

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