Who’s the monkey now?

Part two of Nothing

When Lord Rochester, the Restoration satirist, poet, libertine, courtier, and acting coach, wanted to make a visual satire on human vanity and transience, he avoided the 17th century’s skull cliché by being portrayed with a monkey offering him a page torn from a book, the descendant of the million virtual monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.


Jacob Huysmans, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680), oil on canvas. Private collection. Image: WGA Rochester, the most glamorous, and lighthearted, of obscene immoralists, collaborated with the Roman Catholic Flemish painter Jacob Huysmans to produce an iconic image mocking the ignorance and pretentiousness of mankind.

He isn’t patronising the monkey; he rated animal instinct higher than human nature, including his own, and his specific targets were the ruling class of which he was a member by birth, and everyone who presumed to exert power over other people, by force or by creed.

Like the other great privileged literary rebel, Byron, he inherited titles, property and a Cavalier heritage without any money, the lifeblood of power in society.

Rochester’s father was a hard-drinking, Anglo-Irish Cavalier officer, of the clubbable “Laughing” kind, committed to upholding monarchy, “his mother a strict Puritan; out of their union, the great disbeliever was born.

Rochester’s portrait also happens to be one of the most seductive images of male beauty, enhanced by androgynous Restoration fashion, which has glamourized the popular perception of libertines and nihilism ever since. We’d all be enrolling in metaphysics classes if the lecherous lecturer looked like that.

We might even dare go into the darkness some of us fear, to read erotic fiction and obscene verse, because Rochester makes sex feel like love.

Like the actor who played the rake-hell Willmore, based on Rochester, in a revival of Aphra Behn’s The Rover in the 1690s, “he made vice so alluring” to even the virtuous Queen Mary II.

Even the most sincere of critics of human nature cannot shake off his own self-consciousness. By showing himself in a portrait as a freethinker crowning, or more likely decrowning, a monkey, he was declaring how much more hip he was than everyone else at court and in the country.

He was right, of course – he’s a sex symbol who still makes hearts throb faster today, a prototype Romantic, by turns lyrical or obscene, depending on his hangover; one of the great tortured, self-destructive, witty, bisexual, substance-abusing, rocking and rolling anti-heroes who lived in the moment because time before and after is a fantasy, a trick of the mind’s eye, a waste of living.

Monkeys were popular pets among 17th century cosmopolitan aristocrats with brains and attitude – Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, had kept one during the Civil War a generation earlier, “a malignant she-monkey” which the Roundheads made crude allegations about.

When their propagandists alleged she was a witch in disguise with whom the German prince was having sex, they were serving the public an inflammatory potion of minor royalty, xenophobia, superstition, and prurience –

That monkey won’t stop jumping about – it’s run away with the theme of this post – I can’t catch it – where has it gone?

The journey into Nothing will be continued….

5 comments on “Who’s the monkey now?

  1. PJR says:

    Thomas Mattheos, you see deeply into the soul of things yourself. The parallels with the Kohelet and hebel are fascinating. I was thinking of that Eric Keys fellow when I wrote about erotica in this piece, because he directed me to look at a genre for which I have no affinity without prudishness for the first time. His own conflict was apparent in his stories, I thought.

    I am grateful to you for tactfully highlighting the gobbledygook “to meet” in the middle of my negligently edited sentence about the lecherous metaphysics lecturer. I can’t bear going back over stuff – partly laziness, partly impatience to be done with it – once it’s flown out of my brain it doesn’t come back – only someone as talented as Rochester can get away with a careless embrace of transience – as if memory alone is not our grim judge depriving us of happiness:

    “All my past life is mine no more,
    The flying hours are gone,
    Like transitory dreams giv’n o’er,
    Whose images are kept in store
    By memory alone.
    The present moment’s all my lot.
    If I, by miracle, can be
    This live-long minute true to thee,
    ’Tis all that Heav’n allows.”


  2. >We’d all be enrolling in metaphysics classes to meet if the lecherous lecturer looked like that.

    Having taken metaphysics classes, I can vouch for the fact that having a dreamy professor makes the process so much easier. Oddly enough, I tend to find teachers of metaphysics dreamy almost by default. It’s a strange sort of kink, I know.

    >We might even dare go into the darkness some of us fear, to read erotic fiction and obscene verse, because Rochester makes sex feel like love.

    I wonder if that’s were that Eric Keys fellow went terribly wrong.

    >That monkey won’t stop jumping about – it’s run away with the theme of this post – I can’t catch it – where has it gone?

    It’s like hebel – a vapor… Mysterious, ephemeral, unpredictable.


  3. I don’t know enough about European history. You make it such a delight. The painting is wonderful, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. PJR says:

    On that recommendation, I must bring myself to watch The Libertine – always tend to avoid movies/tv dramas about favourite historical characters. A great exception is of course Cate Blanchett’s superb Elizabeth I. Johnny Depp is turning into a historical tragic character in his own right – about time he gave a good perf in a good movie again – after Mortdecai!


  5. beetleypete says:

    Read a bit about Rochester years ago, then more recently watched the film ‘The Libertine’, with a very fair turn from Johnny Depp. Seriously good, if not that accurate, it makes Rochester into The Fonz of his time. The bad guy that you secretly want to be, or at the very least hang around with. Irresistible to women, immoral, and carefree, with a hidden side of a compassion that you sense, but he never shows. One seriously interesting historical character.
    Best wishes as always, Pete..

    Liked by 1 person

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