Getting the ‘h’ out of Jo(h)nson

by William Donoghue

January 1, 2006


The essay looks at characterization in the plays of Ben Jonson as phobic projective behaviors that can best be understood using theories of narcissism and Kleinian object-relations theory. Jonson exhibited what are today clear symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The essay argues that Klein’s ideas on projective behavior in which the subject attempts to cast out bad partial objects (selfobjects) is more helpful in explaining self-fashioning in Jonson than Greenblatt’s theory. Object-relations theory makes sense of the action and characters in several of the plays, explains Jonson’s attitude to his son (another Ben), and even tells us something about his need to drop letters from his name (Johnstone).



Sinne of selfe love posesseth al mine eye
And all my soule and al my every part
And for this sinne there is no remedie,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Shakespeare (Sonnet 62)

A graphic instance of Renaissance self-fashioning occurred in 1604 when Benjamin Johnson, stepson of a Westminster bricklayer, dropped the ‘h’ in his name to become Ben Jonson, son of no John. The author later told Drummond that he was related to the Johnstones of Dumfries, just across the Scottish border, and that his grandfather was a gentlemen who had served Henry VIII. The Johnstones were a rocky quarry of lowland Scots ("a band of butchers and cut-throats" as Rosalind Miles puts it) who would have made colorful ancestors for Jonson, and maybe did.1

     The ‘t’ had been dropped long before, thus eliminating the masonry, and dropping the ‘h’ eliminated the filial note, allowing the author to spring forth parthogenetically, like Athena, from his own mind, into the footlights.2

Unfortunately the repressed masonry had already returned some time before when Johnson’s mother took the bricklayer, Robert Brett, for her second husband. And one might argue that the loss of the aspirated ‘h’ makes no material difference. Indeed, by the time he dropped it, Jo(h)nson was already well-known, if not quite yet the poet and gentleman he envisioned. It was also about this time that he followed the fashion in Renaissance self-fashioning and purchased a coat of arms.

     Jonson does not make it onto the list of the fashionable in Stephen Greenblatt’s "historical drama" on the topic As Greenblatt says, his is only one "narrative selection" among many that would be possible. But an equally good reason might be that while Jonson was a determined self-fashioner, and meets Greenblatt’s requirement of demonstrating "profound mobility," the mobility is not upward. The figures Greenblatt focuses on were self-made men who rose in class from humble beginnings. Spenser was the son of a tailor; Marlowe the son of a shoemaker; Shakespeare the son of a glover. Spenser became a large landowner; Marlowe went to Cambridge; Shakespeare owned a large house in Stratford. Another Greenblatt choice, Sir Thomas More, was the son of a lawyer and rose to the heights of power before achieving the ultimate in upward mobility by losing his head.3 Jonson by comparison could only relieve others of theirs, of their mobility at least, which he did twice, and convert to Catholicism, which he did once. That at least got him moving, since it (probably) saved his life in prison. But it was a lateral mobility at best.

So Jonson seems to require something different by way of a self-fashioning program from what Greenblatt offers—something that can describe and account for his own special kind of mobility, not to mention the mobility of those two letters. What does it mean to drop letters from one’s name? Here is one possibility: the ‘t’ is the old Scottish heritage, the Johnstone masonry, the hard-edged brickbats of violence, contempt, envy, deceit and excremental excess that Jonson wields like weapons in his plays. Those are pieces of his past he wants to dominate and get rid of, and he casts them forth on the stage. He thought they had been eliminated before his time, but the arrival of Brett the bricklayer as his new father figure meant the return of the repressed. Dropping the filial ‘h’ was only the next (oedipal) step.

     In other words, if we are looking for a model of self-fashioning that can account for Jonson, a psychoanalytic approach seems promising. The scatological and excremental defines much of his comedy; and his anality and alimentary obsessions have been amply commented upon. What I propose instead is that we think a little more about the masonry, and expand the conversation between Jonson and Kleinian object relations theory. Gestures have been made in this direction, but to date nothing substantive has been written on this. What follows cannot claim to be any more substantive, but I would at least like to gesture toward a rejuvenated conversation between Jonson and psychoanalysis, since that is a conversation that has been stalled for some time. And what I have in mind in particular is object-relations theory and narcissism.4

     From what we know of Jonson the man, narcissism in its general form appears to define him. He had an inflated ego, and an overblown sense of his own value and importance, combined with a low opinion of others. He railed against courtiers, and yet yearned to be one himself. He saw things in stark black and white, and tended to either praise or blame. As for the emotional ability to connect with others called love, it is not much in evidence in the man or his work. According to Otto Kernberg narcissistic personalities display

    grandiosity, extreme self-centredness, and a remarkable absence of interest in and empathy for others in spite of the fact that they are so very eager to obtain admiration and approval from other people. [Narcissists] experience a remarkably intense envy of other people who seem to have things they do not have or who simply seem to enjoy their lives. [They] lack emotional depth and fail to understand complex emotions in other people, but their own feelings lack differentiation ...5

And the DSM IV notes in its diagnostic criteria, among other things, that the narcissistic personality "exaggerates achievement [. . .] expects to be recognized as superior [. . .] is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success [. . .] requires excessive admiration [. . .] has a sense of entitlement [. . .] is interpersonally exploitative [. . .] "6

     In the "Sinne of selfe love" narcissism and ‘self’ are parts of a single multifold articulation. When we talk about ourselves, we are narcissistically engaged with them; when we talk about narcissism we are self-involved. But the ‘self’ is an ontological shadow that always takes a step back when we try to get a look at it—a kind of necessary fiction, as Nietzsche says about ‘truth,’ that we have merely forgotten is one. Or perhaps there is some form of a primary self that comes to us genetically. Given the uncertainty, we should not be too sure we know what Shakespeare means by ‘selfe’ when he writes about the "Sinne of selfe love" in Sonnet 62. We think we do because we still use the phrase ‘self-love’ in the same way and sense he does, but how did Shakespeare’s contemporaries understand the word? The meaning of ‘self’ seems too often self-evident, as self-evident to us as what we mean by ‘self-evident’ itself, for that matter, not to mention ‘self-regard,’ ‘selfish’ or even ‘itself’ itself. As self-evident as narcissism.

     But the ‘self’ is a chain of signifiers at best that migrates through language, reproducing, mutating, dividing and playing itself out in a kind of semanto-cellular long division along the multiplying and signifying channels of its own oneiric devising, without ever reaching a moment of full presence—meaning one thing in a phrase like ‘self-evident’ where it means, paradoxically and abysmally, evident to itself, and another in a phrase like ‘self-love’ where it means the love one has for oneself. And this is not a motionless mirroring, getting us absolutely nowhere further toward knowing what the ‘self’ is, for no good reason. The good reason might seem at first to be that this is just the nature of language, which is a play of differences only, as Saussure said, with no positive terms. But the infinite regress built into the ubiquitous word ‘self’ and its multiple family couplings goes deeper than that and tells us something true about its ostensible signified—about the endlessly deferred and Protean nature of what we are trying to nail down and coffin with that word.

     The ‘self’ partakes of the differential and always differentiating nature of Hegelian ‘spirit,’ showing its face in self-making only as an endlessly vanishing point where every mark, every trace, every scar is only capable of significance or meaning [Bedeutung], and hence of contributing to one’s ‘identity’ insofar as it is overcome, no longer present, as it vanishes (like the ‘h’), but not without a trace, into the penumbra of active ‘entanglement’ [Verflechtung] that Husserl names as the true nature of signifying relations. Derrida notes that these relations must be understood as purely functional, grammatical, temporal and free of what Heidegger called any ‘ontico-theological’ presence. Thus, the self. The linguistic turn or language game that the self is so adept at playing is a result of its inability to signify in any other way than by reflecting upon itself in the equally self-perpetuating, self-referential way language does, as a function without substance. That ‘identity’ should then be self-composed, like language or a poem, of equally and exclusively functional qualities should be no surprise. That one can succeed in self-fashioning means only that one can hypostatize the process and forget who (how) one is and becomes. To fail means leaving the process in view, the stage littered with body parts.

     The problem of corporeality in self-building stands Hegel on his head. The scars and memory traces that outrageous fortune leaves as its calling cards on our personalities are only understandable as taking place in time, but they are also only understandable as taking place. That is, they take their place in and on our bodies, on and in the physical body in a material way—giving us, as Edith Jacobson puts it, "the psychophysiological self." Hartmann claims that while the ego is a psychic system, ‘self’ is "the whole person of an individual (my emphasis), including his body and body parts as well as his psychic organization and its parts."7 The self is a material idea occupying time and space.

    The patterns of ambitions, skills, and goals, the tensions between them, the program of action they create, and the activities that strive toward the realization of this program are all experienced as continuous in space and time ... they are the self.8

What is the relevance of this for the playwright? Leon Grinberg writes that the object-relations theorist works from the supposition that "[the artist] experiences the product as part of himself and himself as part of the work."9 A stage character written by an author with Jonson’s self-fashioning issues is, from this perspective, going to be special and partial—less than an allegorical figure because less singular; less a provisional composite of the self, a ‘tryout’ so to speak in the process of self-fashioning, for the same reason; and more like a body part, a partial object that embodies something (material) the author wants to drop, to loose from his body, and yet hold onto at the same time.10

     Narcissism is the operative dynamic for this sort of transaction between the object world and the ego. Freud and Melanie Klein both accord a high degree of importance to the object world in narcissism. Freud distinguished between primary and secondary narcissism, where primary narcissism is a healthy "libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation" while secondary or clinical narcissism is an aggravated state where libido is "called in away from external objects."11 Klein agrees with Freud on the constructive and developmental aspect of ‘primary narcissism’—like the oedipal conflict it is a necessary phase the child must go through, and even be encouraged to go through. But following her own ideas she posits in the first months of a child’s life the existence of a world of undifferentiated ‘partial objects’ in which the infant is not aware of external phenomena as integral and other, but rather feels them as part of its own body, as selfobjects that are sources of both pleasure and pain. Without differentiating between ego and self, Klein calls this the ‘paranoid-schizoid position.’ In this position the infant harbors alternately beneficent and sadistic feelings toward these external ‘part-objects,’ depending upon whether it is feeling gratified or deprived of gratification. Klein presupposes the existence of a pre-verbal ego/self—one which is essentially moral and reacts to aggression by separating good and bad. When comfortable the infant goes through ‘introjective identification,’ identifying the good feeling with an external object, which it sees as part of its own body—taking in the mother’s breast for instance and identifying it with the thumb. When hungry or hurt, ‘projective identification’ takes place, identifying the bad feelings, or as Klein calls them, the ‘bad parts,’ and projecting them onto an external object, which it also still feels to be its self, in this case its bad self.

     The maturing child slowly learns to see external objects as whole, and as ‘other’ or not-self. At first, as Joel Fineman puts it, "the infant is its Umwelt;" then it "must negotiate the duality inherent in that unity."12 Klein refers to this as the ‘depressive position.’ Here the child no longer sees ‘part-objects’ that are either good or bad but whole objects that are both good and bad. Characteristic of this position is the realization that feelings of love and hate are directed at the same object. Life becomes complicated. Symbolic thought and creativity are linked to this phase as a way of dealing with the anxiety created by the love/hate conflation.13 One characteristic in patients with a successfully resolved depressive position is humor, the ability to laugh at oneself. Another is love, as reparation is made to the object for having harbored aggressive feelings toward it.14 Kernberg writes that "the tolerance of ambivalence implies a predominance of love over hate in relation to whole objects."15

     While Freud talks of stages, moving from primary narcissism toward healthy object-relations, Klein calls the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ and ‘depressive’ states positions that subjects can occupy at different times in life. Anxiety and psychosis in the self-fashioning adult is characterized by a narcissistic malfunction that stalls the subject in the paranoid-schizoid position. Here exterior objects are seen as partial objects or selfobjects, good or bad, fantasized as part of the body and the causes of sensations. Narcissism still retains its ambivalent quality. It remains in one respect a healthy self-defense mechanism where withdrawal of libido to the internalized part-object takes place.16 Only when that libido is exclusively cathected to the internal part-object does the condition take on the familiar clinical symptoms of self-importance and omnipotence. But Klein insists that the central narcissistic (infantile) activity in the paranoid-schizoid position is not the self-cathecting of libido, but the sorting of objects into good and bad, and the acts of introjection and projection. Everything is part of the body, not just the good parts. This is what allows her to say that "the relation to another person on the basis of projecting bad parts of the self into him is [also] of a narcissistic nature."17 Kleinians assert that creativity is germane to the mature ‘depressive position,’ but the creative element in Jonson, I would suggest, issues from the ‘paranoid-schizoid position.’ And Klein herself appears to say it can when she says that projective identification, the negative casting out, even in an infant, is obviously only a fantasy act, not a material one.18 Skura calls this "a primitive form of thinking [. . .] of organizing all internal and external experience." It is the child’s act of "fiction-making" that constitutes his "first way of making contact with the outside world as he gradually learns to separate internal and external from the original unified experience."19 The logical sequitur, however, is that this casting out of the ‘bad parts’ onto an external object is only understandable as such a creative act, since in itself it is purely mental—a fantasy. In Jonson’s theater I would suggest that this is what we are seeing—the expelled ‘t’ and the expelled ‘h’ in all their material guises—the masonry; a projection of bad ‘parts’ onto the stage that are nonetheless at the same time the partial selfobjects in Jonson’s drama of self-composition. The ‘depressive position’ is not in evidence. That would have obliged the playmaker to see how good and bad exist together in the same external part-object, adding complexity and dimension to characters. Lawrence Danson writes that "the Jonsonian plot [. . .] does not negotiate the passage from nurturing family to adult family to leave us with a sense of self-attainment."20

     Jonson’s victims usually ‘embody’ a fault he sees in himself and wants to expel and triumph over. They are his narcissistic creations. In Every Man out of his Humour he embodies a host of them. Many are themselves narcissistic traits—there is the man who wants to buy a coat of arms (Sogliardo), which was something Jonson himself had done;21 there are those who need praise (Puntarvolo; Fastidius Briske); those who see themselves as unappreciated and owed a higher life (Fallace); or are self-absorbed (Saviolina). We also get a "prophane Jester" (Buffone), ready to "transforme any person into deformity" who is Jonson himself—those "whom he studies most to reproach" are those who "stand highest in his respect;" and most interesting of all, a ‘Presenter,’ Asper, who is also Jonson, and who goes off and returns literally transformed into Envy (Macilente), thus staging within the play the same projective identification that characterizes the play as a whole.22 "Ile prodigally spend my selfe," Asper says, and as Macilente, he does.23

     This kind of exponential meta-staging of the selfobject—what I would call the Jonsonian double-clutch—occurs again in the play with Macilente. Primary envy is "a spoiling hostility at the realization that the source of life and goodness lies outside."24 In the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ the subject identifies the source of pain with a part of its body that it tries to expel or project. In the play, the "spoiling hostility" of envy is Macilente, "your envious man." When he sees others who are "great ... mighty and fear’d ... lov’d and highly favour’d ... wise ... learn’d ... [and] rich," his reaction is to identify them with his eyes.

    When I see these (I say) and view my selfe,
    I wish the organs of my sight were crackt;
    And that the engine of my griefe could cast
    Mine eye-balls, like two globes of wild-fire, forth [. . .]

Thus, Asper is the principal Jonsonian selfobject, from which Macilente emerges as a partial object himself—"a Man well parted" Jonson calls him, to say the least—and Macilente in turn does his own casting out.

     Criticizing courtiers while desiring to be one of them is a form of hypocrisy, another ‘bad part’ and one that ‘comes out,’ for example, in Bartholomew Fair. There it shows up as the reformers, Adam Overdo, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and Humphrey Wasp. Leah Marcus claims that it is not easy to accuse these three of hypocrisy; but the fact is that none are able to maintain any objective distance from the targets of their opprobrium. And all are brought down.25 A chastened Wasp in the end states: "he that will correct another, must want fault in himselfe" (V.iv.99 - 100). He realizes too late that this prerequisite has not been met in his own case. Again, these characters and events do not re-present ideas of the author, they are the author, or at least the partial objects of his self-fashioning. Jonson, after his debauch in France, must have felt particularly guilty; and he transposes the experience directly into the play, as if to purge it from his system.

     Self-satire here can be seen as a form of exomologesis or expulsion of sins. In the Middle Ages the word repraesentatio meant actual presence, not an artistic copy, and this is the concept of embodiment that defines exomologesis as the penitential disclosure and expulsion of one’s sins. The Greek word for the purgative expulsion of sin from the body, as used by the early Latin fathers, meant "recognition of a fact." It was not a confession but a ritual display—in hair shirt and ashes—of the penitent’s guilt. It was, as Foucault writes, "the dramatic recognition of one’s status as a penitent." The Roman Stoics called it publicatio sui. One renders the self public, or publishes it, although the Stoics’ self-examination was a private affair. For Christians, however, the practice was public, and designed to expel sin from the body. Like the Kleinian subject in the ‘paranoid-schizoid position,’ the penitent identifies the ‘bad part’ and attempts to purge it. This "theatrical" act is a break up of the self or identity from the perspective of the Church—a form of self-destruction that entails a necessary and deeply-felt sense of self-loathing.26 But it is also narcissistic in nature and characteristic of the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ that Klein outlines.

     Volpone contains another variation of the Jonsonian double-clutch. Just as Macilente issues forth from Asper in Every Man out of His Humor, so are Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore, with their vulturous and taloned names, orthno-versions of Volpone himself, birds of avarice perched above his door that "peck for carrion" (V.ii.66). They are Volpone-times-three, his selfobjects. The fox of course does not see this. Volpone sees himself rather in the shiny objects he has collected: the linen and carpets, damask, pearl and ebony that he calls his "substance." Jonson, however, knows we know they are not Volpone—that they are just acquisitions; that Volpone is essentially empty—since this is how he leaves at the end.27 Jonson comments profoundly, unconsciously and wishfully on his own ‘substance,’ on what the ‘h’ should be (out)—the sly fox and its three clones—and what should be in: all the fine objects.

     Germane to the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ is the subject’s paradoxical need to maintain a strict moral division between good and bad partial objects, while subsuming both in the self. On one hand the narcissist projects and isolates, distinguishing good from bad parts, while at the same time striving like Narcissus to collapse boundaries and plunge into a self-destructive sameness. The world is divided into objects that mean pleasure and those that mean pain. Riggs notes how Jonson’s life was similarly polarized—an "interplay of reckless self-assertion and rationalistic self-limitation." His theater was an either-or world of blame or praise, as he was himself.28 Inigo Jones called him "the worst of men;" but Jonson called his mind "great and free," above censure, as he says in "An Ode. To himselfe," "high and aloofe, / safe from the wolves black jaw, and the dull Asses hoofe."29 Holding onto all these walls, boundaries and distinctions between good and bad objects, both of which make up the self, is of the utmost importance in the ‘paranoid-schizoid position.’ Their collapse is more than symbolic; it is physical (self-obliteration), with direct consequences for the psychic mechanism.

     Jonson’s attitude to the world across the sewage ditch in front of his house—the back lanes of the upper-class world of Westminster—was both to yearn for it and resent it. But it was the sewage ditch itself that gave him his distinctive psychology. Urine, feces and general ordure feature prominently in the plays and provide him with fecund material for abuse. In this, he was hardly anal retentive.30 But his character was doubly marked by the ditch: it was an important boundary, and boundaries are important in the ‘paranoid-schizoid position,’ but the narcissist also yearns to collapse those boundaries and fold everything into himself. Sewage represents the ultimate dissolution of boundaries. For Freud, the fear of a return to an undifferentiated state, and a yearning for it, is at the bottom of the repetition compulsion—both a death wish and a yearning to return to the oceanic.31 Feces and ashes: the cradle and the grave—these are the pure states of de-differentiation and bookends of identity.

     The dissolution of boundaries is an issue in several plays, in the circulatory obsession with intake and output in Bartholomew Fair, but also in Sejanus, The Case is Altered, and The Alchemist. A transgressor of boundaries like Sejanus, who forgets his place and believes that it is place and not blood that should matter in life, becomes geography, ending up distributed over the landscape like Pentheus. Arruntius says that he was "rais’d, from excrement" (IV.i.406) by Tiberius, and in the end he returns to a fertilizer-like condition. In The Case Is Altered, Jaques de Prie hides gold under dung in his backyard, where the principle is the absolute difference and distance between these two ‘products.’ Where there is dung no one will ever think to look for gold.32 And in The Alchemist the concern with boundaries and differentiation is ‘staged’ almost literally—we are told that the transformation of metals into gold is nonsense, a ploy on the part of Subtle, Face and Doll to gull their victim. Maintaining distinctions is integral to the self-fashioning process; and distinction was what Jonson sought. The absence of humor and love in Jonson’s self-struggle is striking. The narcissistic personality displays a particular brand of humor that is self-defensive, never self-deprecatory, and often contains what Heinz Kohut calls "an oral-sadistic ring of sarcasm." The appearance of a capacity for genuine humor—laughter without sarcasm—is a sign that a resolution of the narcissistic cathexes is taking place. "It is of decisive significance ... to ascertain that the patient’s devotion to his values and ideals is not that of a fanatic but is accompanied by a sense of proportion which can be expressed through humor."33 In Jonson’s plays laughter is rarely celebratory, never an expression of delight. Instead, it almost always has a sadistic ring of sarcasm. The accusation of "railing" made so often against him voices this complaint. There was no joy and less merriment in Hartshorn Lane.

     The predominance of love over hate is another sign of the dissolution of the narcissistic cathexes. Jonson’s plays lack the tender emotion—there are "no women one feels mad to kiss" as Keats might say, no Orlandos or Romeos. With Volpone, Celia would still be alone. This is not to say the plays never treat of love. Echo loves her lost Narcissus, Thorello loves and marries Biancha, Ovid loves Julia. One might say that love is to narcissism what humor is to sarcasm; in both cases a certain complication of the self is required to pass from the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ to the ‘depressive position,’ where whole objects, and love exist. This is not in the cards for the narcissistic personality. In The Poetaster love is vulgarized, and in Ovid’s case appears as a dangerous self-dissolution. When he waxes lovelorn over Julia, Tibullus warns him: "thou’lt lose thy selfe." Ovid answers "O, in no labyrinth, can I safelier erre, / Then when I lose my selfe in praysing her" (I.iii.46 - 50).34 This sounds Shakespearean, but Ovid’s words are not the Sonnets; they are empty, and he is a "shallow libertine" who leads the Emperor’s daughter into low company and is banished for his trouble.35

     There is little love lost in Cynthias Revels, or The Fountayne of selfe-Love. The play is the most direct expression of Jonson’s narcissistic pathology as it relates to love, that he produced—the lack of the heart of the problem. The characters who drink the water from the ‘fountain of self-love’ in the play are immune to Cupid’s arrows. No one is in love. As if in recognition that Narcissus is the embodiment of the problem, the character of Narcissus is himself cast out from the cast. He is dead. Echo’s love for him is purely posthumous. Jonson treats love with rough hands. The lyrical passages surrounding Echo’s arrival, and her opening lament for Narcissus are as warm as he gets in this regard. Echo knows the consequence of her love will be identical to the fate of Narcissus: the collapse of self in the ‘other.’ But she doesn’t care: "His name revives, and lifts me up from earth. / O, which ways shall I first convert my selfe?" (I.ii18 - 19). Echo, however, now runs into Mercury, who is immediately curt with her and tells her to "be brief" (I.ii.54). Echo asks for and receives his permission to "sing some mourning straine / Over [Narcissus’s] watrie hearse" (I.ii.58-59), but her song, "Slow, slow, fresh fount ..." is received by an increasingly impatient Mercury with scorn. "Now, ha’ you done?" he hallows like a fishmonger (I.ii.76). Echo begs him to be patient, to "bide a little;" but he replies by telling her ominously to, "Foregoe thy use and libertie of tongue" (I.ii.80).

     Depending on the direction, sympathy could be with either character at this point. Echo could be pretentious and melodramatic, or Mercury an unfeeling boor. The text directs us toward the first choice. Echo goes on talking, turning steadily into a parody, a domestic chatterbox. When she continues with, "Here yong Acteon fell ..." (I.ii.82), one can almost hear the guffaws. Mercury, increasingly exasperated, interrupts her: "Nay, but heare"; and when she again continues he says brusquely, "Stint thy babling tongue!" (I.ii.92). Echo and the discourse of love are first vulgarized, then banished. Cupid in Jonson’s masques always represents danger, the Ovid problem of love as the loss of self in the other. The narcissist sees love as a betrayal of himself, a kind of infidelity, not a fulfillment; it feels like self-annihilation. Cupid in the masques threatens boundaries and his irrational temper produces discord. Traditionally viewed as a convention of the Renaissance ideal of concord from discord, or the coincidence of opposites, Jonson’s treatment of Cupid and the dangers of cupiditas feels nonetheless more personal than artistic, aesthetic or philosophical. Cupid means betrayal, and a collapse of boundaries. He wants discipline. And in masques like Lovers Made Men and the Balet Comique it is Mercury who again supplies it. On love, Jonson was always clear that one must love God first, and then the King. It is hard to imagine that there was much left over.

     With respect to his own domestic relations, Jonson apparently did as well as he could with what he had. We do not know why, when the plague struck in 1603, he took himself off to Robert Cotton’s manor house in Huntingdonshire and left his family behind, trapped in the plague-ridden city. He had been separated from his wife for a year. Perhaps his house had been quarantined. In any case, he did not make Orpheus’s mistake, or risk his life like Aeneas going back for his Creusa. Or for his seven-year-old Ascanius. The boy’s death caused Jonson great pain; but the poem itself that he wrote about him blurs the distinction between father and son and has a marked narcissistic quality.36 In Kleinian terms one might say that the boy was Jonson’s one material projection that was non-theatrical, a good part of himself (appropriately Ben-times-two) that he cast forth as his "best piece of poetrie." Dropping the ‘h’ from his name the next year cut the filial thread in the other direction. With no more connections to either father or son, Jonson was at last fully self-contained.



End Notes

1 Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden, in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925 – 1952): I, 139. All future citations will be from this edition and noted as HS. See Rosalind Miles, Ben Jonson: His Life and Work (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), pp. 1-3; David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), who calls dropping the ‘h’ "retrospective self-fashioning" (pp. 4 - 5; 9); and Marchette Chute, Ben Jonson of Westminster (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1953), p. 17.

2 He could "loose all father, now" as Jonson wrote the next year after losing his own son in the plague. See Riggs, pp. 114-15.

3 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 6-7.

4 I follow Danson, who understands the ‘self’ in Jonson’s plays, following Mead’s view of the self in his Mind, Self and Society, as socially constructed and unstable. See Lawrence Danson, "Jonsonian Comedy and the Discovery of the Social Self," PMLA 99(2): March 1984: pp. 179-93. See also, Sharon K. O’Dair "The Social Self and Science," PMLA 100(1): Winter 1985, who replies to Danson and objects that the contingent self of sociology denies the possibility of an integrated individual self; while the self of the psychologists denies culture and history. Both are "based on and refer to a limited and partial view of the human being" (p. 100). From an object relations standpoint, I would suggest that Jonson himself was never a whole, so that exploring a part, or parts of him, is just what a self-fashioning program in his regard needs to do. For object relations theorists the self is both psychological and material.

5 Otto Kernberg, Internal World and External Reality: Object Relations Theory Applied (New York: Aronson, 1980), pp. 228-29.

6 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 1994), p. 661.

7 Edith Jacobson, The Self and the Object World (New York: International Universities Press, 1964), p. 6, where she quotes Hartmann.

8 Heinz Kohut and Ernest S. Wolf, "The Disorders of the Self and Their Treatment: An Outline," in The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 59 (1978), p. 44.

9 Qtd. in Lynne Layton and Barbara Ann Schapiro, ed., Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1986), p. 25.

10 On Jonson’s fascination with things and objects, especially in The Alchemist, see Eric Wilson, "Abel Drugger’s Sign and the Fetishes of Material Culture," Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture, ed. Carla Mazzion and Douglas Trevor (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 110-34.

11 Freud, Sigmund, "On Narcissism: an Introduction," Collected Papers (London: Hogarth Press, 1949): IV, 31-32.

12 Joel Fineman, "Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare’s Doubles," Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press), p. 103.

13 Winnicot speaks of "transitional objects" that usher the child into the symbolic order; they are the first objects of ‘play’ and mark our first cultural acts. See D. W. Winnicot, "The Location of Cultural Experience," Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces: Literary Uses of D. W. Winnicott, ed. Peter L. Rudnytsky (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 3-12; "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," Collected Papers (London: Tavistock, 1958); and The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965).

14 On the two ‘positions’ see Melanie Klein, "A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic Depressive States" (1935), The Writings of Melanie Klein, 4 vols. (New York: Free Press, 1984): I, 262-89; "Mourning and its Relation to Manic Depressive States" (1940), ibid., I, 344-69; "Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms," (1946), ibid., III, 1-24; et passim. On love, see "Love, Guilt and Reparation" (1937), ibid., I, 311. For objections to Klein on the premise that any discussion of things partial imply a whole, where the whole is always an idealism or fiction, see Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Psychoanalysis, trans. Helen R. Lane, Robert Hurley and Mark Seem (New York: Viking, 1977). On making "restitution" as the compensatory motive for literary creation, see Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: Octagon, 1976), p. 46, n. 3.

15 Kernberg, p. 30.

16 Kohut, Guntrip and W.R.D. Fairbairn, for example, see it as an important form of self-defense against stress, where the primary impulse is assertiveness not aggression. See Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self and The Restoration of the Self (New York: International Universities Press, 1971; 1977).

17 Klein,"Notes," III, 13. Otto Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New York: Aronson, 1975), pp. 227-28, discusses this ambivalence in narcissism: others are solicited for their "tribute and adoration" while being despised and distrusted.

18 Ibid. For a discussion of the simultaneity of identification and projection, see Meira Likierman, Melanie Klein: Her Work in Context (New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 157-58.

19 Meredith Anne Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 78-79.

20 Danson, p. 187.

21 After his purchase, Sogliardo says, "I can write my selfe gentleman now" (III.iii.52-53).

22 Leggatt writes that "Macilente is not just a role played by Asper; Macilente is Asper." Aleander Leggatt, Ben Jonson: His Vision and His Art (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 197.

23 Induction, 204.

24 Hanna Segal, "Some Clinical Implications of Melanie Klein’s Work." The Journal of Psycho-Analysis 52 (1983), pp. 270-71.

25 Leah S. Marcus, The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Pastimes (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986), pp. 46-47.

26 Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 41.

27 Greenblatt says the "essential action" of play "is the hero’s attempt to ‘fill himself.’" The narcissist, however, will in so doing always reveal the emptiness that is there. Volpone empties himself, after which he and the audience realize there is nothing left. See Stephen Greenblatt, "The False Ending in Volpone," Critical Essays on Ben Jonson, ed. Robert N. Watson (New York: G. K. Hall, 1997), p. 177; and Thomas M. Greene, "Ben Jonson and the Centered Self," Studies in English Literature 10 (1970), p. 337.

28 Riggs, p. 146, argues however that between 1606 and 1616 Jonson "heeded Sidney’s maxim that ‘the oblique must be known as well as the right,’ and brought these superficially disparate activities into a richly dialectical relationship."

29 Riggs has Jonson, on one hand, a "scoundrel," a view common in "contemporary gossip, satires, court records and private correspondence;." a "notorious reprobate and public nuisance: a drunken, swaggering, murderous sponge" who was a shameless flatterer and back-stabber. On the other hand, "tributes and memorabilia written by his friends, tell a very different story." Jonson was "a discreet and scholarly man" who in his own words "’ever trembled to thinke toward the last prophanenesse’" and sought only to "curb extravagance," p. 1-2. See Inigo Jones, "To his false friend," (HS, XI, 385); and Underwood, 23 (HS, VIII, 174 – 75).

30 In Bartholomew Fair, for example, there is as much emphasis on what goes in as what comes out. Psychoanalytic approaches to Jonson often focus on anality and anal eroticism in the plays. See Edmund Wilson, "Morose Ben Jonson," The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), pp. 213-32. Bruce Thomas Boehrer, The Fury of Men’s Gullets (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 8-14, surveys the field and goes on to discuss the London sewage system in relation to alimentary motifs in Jonson. See, esp. his excellent chapter, "The Ordure of Things," pp. 147-75.

31 The Lacanian phantasm of morcellation and fear of the corps morcelé embodies the same set of neuroses in the closeness of bodies and earth. See Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self, trans. Anthony Wilden (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), p. 36.

32 Riggs, pp. 30-31, suggests that the anality of the play is tonic rather than symptomatic, signaling what is overcome in Jonson rather than (as in Wilson) what is not.

33 Kohut, The Analysis of the Self, (New York: International Universities Press, 1971), p. 324.

34 For the narcissist, falling in love with another is perceived as a form of emasculation and loss of self. But it is the withdrawal inward, as Lasch notes, that constitutes true self-obliteration. See Coppelia Kahn, Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 43-44.

35 HS, IX, 533.

36 The narcissistic quality of "On my First Sonne" has been noted. See Joshua Scodel, "Genre and Occasion in Jonson’s ‘On My First Sonne,’" Studies in Philology 86 (1989), p. 235-36, n. 3; G. W. Pigman III, Grief and the English Renaissance Elegy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 88-89; and Katherine Eisamann Maus, Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 119-23. I am indebted to David Lee Miller’s essay, "Writing the Specular Son," Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), p. 258, n. 11, for pointing out the three references. On Jonson and dead children, see Riggs, pp. 87-89, and Ann Barton, Ben Jonson, Dramatist (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 19. Miller offers a compelling analysis of the famous dream of the son that Jonson recounted to Drummond, suggesting that the boy’s premonitory death in the dream can be read as a kind of self-inflicted wound or sacrifice to the author’s own identity (pp. 234-41).

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: William Donoghue "Getting the ‘h’ out of Jo(h)nson". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2006, Published: January 1, 2006. Copyright © 2006 William Donoghue