The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason

>> Sunday, July 19, 2009

...what was he really? A spiritual seeker, a mystic and healer guided by a deeper purpose? Or a charlatan, an opportunist, a con man working on Europe's grand stages? (McCalman, 234)
I picked this book up at a used book store, King's Books, on a whim last summer. It was in the historical section and the title, The Last Alchemist, intrigued me. (Alchemy? Really? In the historical section? Gee, there might be something interesting in there.) The man in the title, Count Cagliostro, well, I had never heard of him. And if I have, I certainly don't remember him.

I started reading this last fall, after I finished Madonna's brother's book. I didn't get very far because I didn't consider it very interesting. Some Sicilian named Giuseppe Balsamo was an excellent thief, went to apothecary school, got married to a woman he adored and then later pimped out as he traveled throughout Spain and France pulling cons and shenanigans on the wealthy. Oh, he met Casanova too. It all equated to a big yawn for me. I stopped reading last fall just when he became a freemason in London.

Freemasons. Masons. The movie National Treasure. Anything that touches on Masonic conspiracies gets one giant UGH! from me. I think the first time I had ever heard of Masonic conspiracies was on my 20th birthday when a lady started talking to me in the university library copy machine area while I was waiting for my sister to finish copying something. The lady handed me a copy of her anti-Mason thing. It was, um, interesting. I don't remember it, but I remember giving it to the guy I liked at the time because he collected things like that, which made me feel better about that bizarre encounter.

Last week, I just finished reading Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Fascinating essay. At the beginning of his essay, he talks about the history of paranoid writings such as those on the anti-Masonic and anti-Illuminati movements.
A suitable point of departure is the panic that broke out in some quarters at the end of the eighteenth century over the allegedly subversive activities of the Bavarian Illuminati. This panic, which came with the general Western reaction to the French Revolution, was heightened here by the response of certain reactionaries, mostly in New England and among the established clergy, to the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. Illuminism had been founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt. Its teachings today seem to be no more than another version of Enlightenment rationalism, spiced with anticlerical animus that seems an inevitable response to the reactionary-clerical atmosphere of eighteenth-century Bavaria. A somewhat naive and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason, it made many converts after 1780 among outstanding dukes and princes of the German states, and is reported to have had the allegiance of such men Herder, Goethe, and Pestalozzi. Although the order of the Illuminati was shattered by persecution in its native principality, its humanitarian rationalism appears to have acquired a fairly wide influence in Masonic lodges. It is very easy to believe that it was attractive to some radicals with a conspiratorial cast of mind. (Hofstadter, 10)
Hmm...I'd never read a logical paragraph about the Illuminati before. They are such the proverbial bogeyman and make excellent movie villains for crappy movies, such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. How are paranoids supposed to scapegoat without them?

When I was inputting all my books into my Shelfari account last week, I remembered that I stopped reading when this guy became a freemason. Perhaps I could finish the book and it would be more interesting this time?

It certainly was. This scoundrel Balsamo, aka Count Cagliostro, used the Masons, as far as I'm concerned, to pull off sham after sham. A consummate con artist, he was; although, he probably believed in some of the teachings/requirements/beliefs of the Masons to some degree. But freemasonry allowed him and his wife to live in luxury for many years. This man was not Saint Francis of Assisi.

The two most fascinating chapters in his life, and subsequently the book, were in Russia and France. In Russia, he was determined to get Catherine the Great to convert to his own brand of freemasonry, "Egyptian Masonry." Except Catherine hated freemasonry and later had it banned from the country, worried that it might inflame democracy amongst the little people. Cagliostro had a knack for working aristocratic channels, but even his venture was doomed in Russia. But he started working as a healer for the poor during this time. He must have been putting his apothecary knowledge to use.
By the standards of the day, Cagliostro's medical knowledge seemed as much "scientific" as magical. He gave de Corberon a recipe for "a delicious distilled water," and in the 1930s the French medical historian Dr. Lalande (Marc Haven) collected and analyzed nine original prescriptions for a variety of health pills, balms, salves, and elixirs that Cagliostro issued around this time. They included an herb tea purgative, a face pomade, a cough elixir, stomach pills, turpentine oil pills, pills from the balm of Canada two purgative powders, and saccharine oil. In Lalande's judgment, the were all either innocuous or beneficial. (McCalman, 86)
In France, we reach the high point with the "affair of the diamond necklace." An event that I knew little about until reading this except that it was the subject of a terrible Hilary Swank movie after she won her first Oscar. Now, after reading this book, I'm going to have to see the movie, no matter how terrible it really is because this chapter was fascinating. Cagliostro met his match in famewhoredom and cunning in Jeanne de Valois de La Motte, a woman who conned Cardinal Rohan not only into a love letter relationship with a fake Marie Antoinette but buying a huge diamond necklace for the Queen of France. (There really is a sucker born every day!) An event which wrecked the French monarchy and tarnished the reputation of Cagliostro and La Motte. Even better is reading about Cardinal Rohan's sexcapades. There is no entity like the Roman Catholic church that can be rivaled for sheer hypocrisy on money, sex and misogyny.

Years later, Cagliostro was eventually sold out by his wife, Seraphina, to the Vatican while in Rome because she was sick of traveling with him and wanted to marry someone else. After she got an annulment, of course. Crooks really can't trust each other.

But it was amazing to read how the Vatican utterly feared freemasonry. They linked it to the French Revolution as did a few others such as Abbe Augustin Barruel. Cagliostro was considered to be the most dangerous man in Europe when he was imprisoned at the end of his life. Who knew that a few silly rituals could form a vast conspiracy?
This version of the Masonic conspiracy became a staple, imitated and extended all over the western world. The idea also migrated into literature, art, and culture through a myriad of agents, carrying Cagliostro's mythic role along with it. Over the centuries, the idea of a multitentacled world conspiracy of secret societies--whether of Templars or Illuminati--took hold in the European imagination. In his best-selling novel of 1988, Foucault's Pendulum, the Italian philosopher and social critic Umberto Eco suggests that those with a paranoid cast of mind were intoxicated with the idea of a secret conspiracy irrespective of any content or purpose. The secret was that there was no secret; there was merely the thrill of involvement in a vague and mysterious vanguard unknown to others. (McCalman, 235-6)
The paranoid style indeed.

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