Percy Shelley: Boy Anarchist

Trying to learn about the 18th and 19th century liberal and anarchist thinkers whose names get bandied about willy-nilly these days but who most of us don’t read past a few excerpts in high school that we don’t understand. I have taken the important first step, which is purchasing copies of The Wealth of Nations and Leviathan (to be clear, Leviathan is neither 18th/19thc nor anarchist; Hobbes gets included in the bandying about I think because he discusses human nature (bad) and what makes civilization work (brutal absolutist dictatorship)). I have also read the intro to this Godwin reader and got so sad I put it down after the first page. William Pitt chose not to prosecute Godwin—an anarchist—for treason because his book cost so much: “a three guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare.” That’s so fucking sad. The book’s price was half the monthly wages of a laborer and yet working people all across Britain got together, pooled their money, bought single copies of it and read it aloud to each other. The idea of all these desperately poor people buying copies of this fancy anarchist tract and sharing it amongs themselves makes me want to cry. Inequality is so completely fucked.

Anyway I barely know anything about Godwin except that he was Mary Shelley’s dad and somewhat of a hypocrite w/r/t his loudly stated antimatrimonialism and his antagonism toward his daughter when she ran off with that wild Percy Shelley of hers. I’m currently also reading an extremely lengthy biography of Percy Shelley that my friend Jamie gave me as somewhat of a joke, and it is absolutely riveting. I am having wild mood swings about Percy, whom I’ve allowed myself to comfortably despise for years due to my sworn allegiance to his wife, whom he treated shabbily (in my opinion; she herself revered him although she did write a famous book in which she seems to subtextually criticize him quite pointedly (FRANKENSTEIN, ever heard of it???????)). On the one hand, he was an egomaniacal, insufferable, rich and privileged little wretch, the epitome of all the worst dudes you had to tolerate in high school, lecturing everyone around him about ideals he barely understood, the ultimate mansplainer, the kind of kid who will walk into the dining room and throw all the food on the floor because his dad won’t entertain his crazy rants about Christianity. On the other hand, he was a sensitive and solitary little boy who got flung into Britain’s hideous boarding school system, and who thus spent his formative years getting raped and brutalized by bullies young and old, and my heart breaks when I think about it. On the one hand, these descriptions of him keeping his dorm mates up all night while he explained the universe to them make me roll my eyes; on the other hand he was expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet that used logic to prove God couldn’t exist, and that’s pretty fun. On the one hand, sure, he was a privileged little shit who wrote passionately about inequality and injustice without really understanding them or his subject position within the power hierarchy; on the other hand, unlike almost every other boy of his class, then or now, he actually WANTED TO LEARN, and went to Dublin and hung out in the poor quarters and spent his time trying to save poor people from constables, and wrote anguished letters about it to this anarchist spinster lady he was friends with. Credit where it’s due: at least he was interested and gave a shit about poverty, even if some of his attempts to address it were ham-handed. He renounced his claim to his father’s title! He thought the nobility was bullshit, and that’s cool of him, even if he did live his whole life off his father’s reluctant largesse like a wastrel. There’s this great anecdote from his teenage years that made a huge impression on him; he sees a beggar asking for alms and getting shit on by everybody, so he follows the beggar, gives him all the money in his pockets, and then starts blissfully trying to talk to him about inequality and how stupid the system of hereditary nobility is, “you and I are the same, brother,” that sort of talk. Finally the beggar is like “you’re Percy Shelley, your dad is the baronet, I’d be a fool to talk openly to you about anything, I’ll never trust you no matter what you say, please leave me alone.” Percy is STUNNED by this encounter. You mean shared ideas don’t make people brothers? There’s, like, a….a CLASS SYSTEM that brutally enforces divisions between people??? Holy shit! Then he moves to Dublin and immediately writes a 30 page pamphlet about how the Irish working class need to start a revolution, and he makes his wife go all over town with him, flinging copies of it into open windows and passing carriages and shoving it into the hands of drunks and street ladies.

Sidenote: whenever I read biographies of old famous people like this, I end up becoming really fascinated by the totally unimportant side characters that populate these people’s lives. For example, Percy’s father’s solicitor, this guy Whitton. He’s just a middle class lawyer, not an important figure historically, and yet he comes up CONSTANTLY in this biography, because he had to actually manage and deal with Percy during the awful years of his early adulthood when he was getting expelled from Oxford and being socially ostracized for being an atheist and renouncing his birthright and breaking his father’s heart by refusing to inherit his seat in Parliament. Percy’s dad basically tells Whitton to open all his mail from Percy because he can’t deal with it emotionally, so Whitton is on the direct receiving end of these furious crazy letters from this 20 year old wild anarchist atheist son of his boss, and he has to like figure out how to placate Percy without angering Percy’s dad, and he’s forever making decisions that the dad doesn’t like, like he’ll send Percy money when he’s not supposed to, etc. And then at one point Percy figures out that his dad isn’t reading his letters and is leaving it all to Whitton, so then he starts including PERSONAL THREATS TO WHITTON in his letters to his dad, like one where in a complicated flowery way he basically threatens to come punch Whitton in the face, and Whitton is like “Lord this is above my pay grade.”

But my point is biographers are never interested in the Whittons of the story, because the story is focused on the Percys of the story. But I want to know more about this guy!!!!!! Or like there’s a part where Percy tries to bribe his grandfather’s manservant to deliver a seditious letter to his (Percy’s) youngest sister and the servant is like “yes master” but then of course takes the letter directly to his boss, who is furious and disowns Percy. I just really want to know more about that manservant. His life and thoughts. But those people never get biographies written about them, unless they go on to bomb the House of Lords or otherwise do something that brings them into the consciousness of the ruling class. Similarly, his weird little family gets kicked out of the neighborhood they’re living in because Percy’s doing all these experiments with gunpowder and electricity and the locals think he’s summoning devils. I would give all the money in my bank account to go back in time and just sit in on some of the neighborhood meetings about this issue.

Reading this book I just keep imagining how PISSED you’d be if you were one of the neighbors, or the manservant, or Whitton, once Percy grew up and became a world-famous poet. “Oh god, THAT little shit????” You’d be so mad.

I was telling Gary about all this and we started imagining a movie we want to make about the famous night Frankenstein was conceived. For starters I find it hard to believe this night has yet to be portrayed in a movie—if any of you know of one please tell me—because it’s just incredibly cinematic. The Swiss chalet, the thunderstorm, the lightning searing across the scene, the book of German ghost stories, the firelit room in which two of England’s greatest poets sit, observed by two lesser-known figures who, based on the events of this very night, will go on to write SENSATIONAL first novels each of which is based to some degree on its author’s observations of one of the famous poets (Frankenstein and The Vampyre)??? This shit writes itself!

Our movie would be like a biopic but it would view Percy and Byron only through the eyes of Mary and Polidori. So like we’d see Byron as monstrous and cruel; we’d see Percy caring too little for the pleasures and bonds of domestic life. I want there to be a part where Mary’s lying in bed and the curtains open and she’s startled by the yellow eye of…..HER HUSBAND omg. Gary says this is “too on the nose.”

Anyway I’m up to 1812 in the Percy biography and I’m getting excited because I know he runs off with Mary in 1814 so that must be coming soon. He’s already married, to this girl Harriet, and I’m interested to see how that all implodes. He’s also currently estranged from his lifelong best friend and soulmate, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, co-writer of the famous atheist pamphlet, and I can’t wait to see how he comes back into the picture. Hogg was the son of a family that had just recently clawed its way into the middle class, he wasn’t a fancypants lordling like Percy, and meeting Percy totally changed the entire direction of the rest of his life, beginning with getting him expelled from freaking Oxford. TJ Hogg!!! Talk about disappointing your father!

There’s a really really funny letter from Godwin to Percy—before they meet—where he’s annoyed with Percy’s firebrand pamphlet, which he feels misconstrues his (Godwin’s) ideas as laid out in his famous book ENQUIRY CONCERNING POLITICAL JUSTICE (that’s the book the working class people had to buy collectively and read aloud to one another). In the letter, he writes “If I may be permitted to understand my book Political Justice,” then picks apart Percy’s assessment of the book. I love that!!!!! “If I may be permitted to understand my own damn book I wrote.” Then at the end he also mentions that he had to pay for Percy’s letter when it got delivered because Percy hadn’t put enough postage on it. When I read that I said out loud “CLASSIC PERCY!” The guy was always looking for a free lunch. That’s how it goes when you get disowned by your noble father I guess.

One truly surprising thing I have learned: Percy’s branch of the family was the degraded branch, the chain of second sons who didn’t inherit anything, such that his great-grandfather actually fled to AMERICA in the early eighteenth century in an effort to make some cold hard cash, and made a fortune and then lost it and became what this biography literally describes as a “quack doctor,” like one of those guys shilling snake oil from the back of a horse cart, and so his son—Percy’s grandfather, Bysshe—was actually born in….NEWARK NEW JERSEY. In 1723. Isn’t that wild????? And then through a series of unexpected events (the death of one brother and the madness of another), the great-grandfather surprisingly inherited the baronetcy and came back to England and worked to re-infuse some sense of grandeur to the family line. What a weird period in this famous family’s history—the debased years in the colonies! Newark New Jersey! Land of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. What a weird world this is.

Anyway anarchism is cool despite all these crazy rich people who have espoused it historically

In other news the semester has begun and my students are already tired. “I’m already so tired of talking” said Gary in the car on the way home last night. I have the requisite student who has yet to show up to class even though they’ve been enrolled since day 1, and who will no doubt show up on the day of the first quiz all mad, like, how can you give us a quiz when I haven’t learned anything yet??? To which I shall respond with the teacher’s timeless riposte: LOL

For my big art appreciation class they’ve stuck me this semester in a straight-up biology lab on the other side of campus. It’s the worst room I’ve ever taught in. It’s very ancient and has never been renovated, with bare gray concrete floors and heavily gouged wooden benches, which I assume can only be covered with graffiti like “GOLDWATER SUCKS” and “I HEART GENERAL MACARTHUR” and “DOWN WITH THE GOLD STANDARD” and it’s that old-school raked amphitheater style of seating where the teacher stands down at the bottom and then rows and rows of seats go up dramatically high, so you have to crane your neck and shield your eyes to see the students who are in the very back of the room, it’s like The Trial as I imagine it (have not read the book LOL). On the first day I kept making the Mr. Show joke about that movie “The Paper Chase,” much of which is set in just such a classroom. “YOU BEGIN LAW SCHOOL WITH YOUR BRAINS FULL OF SOUP!” Additionally, there is no stage area—the only place the teacher can stand is behind this fixed lab counter that has a big metal sink in it and those spigots that shoot out air or gas or whatever. The counter is covered with lab equipment I could not possibly divine the use of, like there’s this crazy thing that looks like a cross between a scale and a paper cutter, with buttons all over it and wires coming out of it. The counter itself is ancient, made all of gouged, stained wood; yesterday I opened all the drawers and found them mostly empty but with odd ephemera like a thousand years’ worth of unusable chalk ends, a single protractor, a box of rubber gloves. The big metal sink yesterday was covered with splatters of a weird gray substance and there was a huge yellow sponge flung into the bottom of it. It’s such an unnatural teaching environment for me personally and certainly for an art appreciation class. I like to pace around the stage and loom intimidatingly over the first row and get down on my knees to demonstrate weird performance art and such. So now I’m standing behind this brutal science counter, wearing a lapel mic, looking like I’m about to dissect a fetal pig, but instead I’m like “Ah yes, let us discuss Pauline Oliveros’s ideas about ‘deep listening’.” It’s so hilarious, the perfect distillation, actually, of the position of the arts and humanities in today’s university. Literally teaching art in a classroom space designed for teaching science. Next they’ll probably put me on the fake stock exchange floor they’re building for 65 million dollars directly across from the crumbling, roach-infested building where my department is housed. I’ll be standing in a simulacrum of Wall Street, trying to get students interested in weird anticapitalist art that nobody wants to pay money for. Amazing! (←THIS IS A JOKE: the business school would never let us use their space).

IN CONCLUSION: Percy Shelley seems like an asshole but you gotta hand it to him

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One Response to Percy Shelley: Boy Anarchist

  1. Susannah says:

    This movie, but it’s kind of bad.
    …. I guess just kitschy, and very 80’s.

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