Material Cultures of a Dead Age

Guess what we did yesterday? WENT CD SHOPPING

Let me back up

On lazy days we like to tinker with our house. Moving furniture around, finally going to the hardware store for the right kind of screw to put up the cool light switch cover my mom sent us from Mexico, this sort of thing. The other day we started tinkering with our stereo area. I am sure I documented the long drawn out scenario in early 2015 by which we paid a lot of money for a beautiful handmade record shelf from that guy who lived in a barn out in the middle of the country fields and who then weeks later while waiting for him to finish our shelf I overheard at the coffee shop talking about the deep despair he was in because he had too many shelf orders and didn’t know how he was ever gonna fill them? So then I felt so bad and just never called him to check up on our shelf, even though we’d already paid him and weeks and weeks were going by. And then out of the blue one day he called me all mad like “your damn shelf is done, where the hell are you?” Anyway long story short: we got a great shelf.

So, the shelf, full of records, is in the living room, with the turntable atop it, and it’s great. But we have this other shelf that we acquired from a bookstore in Iowa and that we’ve been lugging around the country ever since; it was custom-built to be the exact size to hold those pocket paperbacks you can buy at used bookstores for a quarter, and it turns out this is the exact right size for CDs. Since moving here however the shelf has been in the basement along with all our CDs, two huge boxes full of them.

We are middle aged, so aspects of online/digital life that youngsters take for granted are starting to really bother us. I’ve been feeling alienated from my music listening practice for a long time; something about Spotify and even iTunes has always alienated me. I feel like I can never think of what I want to listen to, like I’ve just “forgotten” all the music that I like and don’t know how to think of it, and then there’s also a lot of surfing from song to song. I miss sitting down and listening to a whole album, and I also increasingly am realizing that I miss the way choices used to be somewhat circumscribed. You used to simply choose a CD from the ones available in your collection, and that was it. The endlessness of choice these days I find weirdly terrifying or like it just makes me not want to listen to anything, or just listen to the one playlist I managed to curate three years ago over and over again. Finally, I miss looking at liner notes while listening.

SO the old man finally got that shelf out of the basement and hung it on the wall by the record shelf, and we put my Sony discman from the early 00s next to the turntable and plugged it in with an eighth inch cable, and we unpacked our damn CDs. Those boxes of CDs are a real time capsule. It was very fun. Unpacking a time capsule of your life between, say, 1995 and 2001. So not just Automatic for the People and every They Might Be Giants album but also literally seventy million painstakingly crafted CDRs with beautiful handmade covers made by innumerable bands from the early 00s indie rock scenes, real indie rock not corporate indie rock, just weirdos in basements, both friends of ours and strangers. All my friends’ albums! Those wonderful covers I haven’t seen in years. And not to mention: TAPES. I have a tape archive that makes me weep: the tape Katy and I recorded in our dorm room freshman year of college, just them on guitar and me on banjo, each knowing perhaps four chords, and primarily the tape is just us shrieking with laughter. Tapes of live on-campus shows my various bands played. Katy’s early solo tapes. A tape of me playing a Mozart piano duet with this guy Jeremy. A tape I made with my college boyfriend before we were dating, that is mostly ironically sincere covers of Metallica and that one Live song. A tape of Steve and myself improvising our long-form masterpiece, “Captain Squid,” an epic ballad about a Gump-like character who has been present at every major event of human history, and also played bass on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. I also still have the tape of “Flood” that my cousin gave me in 7th grade that changed my life. “Where’s the cover for that?” “It’s NEVER had a cover.” “Rad!” ALSO, the mix tapes that Gary and I mailed to one another before we were even dating, when we were doing that thing where you are obviously obsessed with each other but pretending you’re just doing normal friend stuff. These mix tapes have TALKING ON THEM. Like, our recorded voices, messages in between songs to one another. I could never listen to mine again but it is fun to look at the label and remember how I slaved over it. And finally, we also have a really legit archive of classical music, much of it bestowed on me by Freddy when she decided to clean house and get rid of most of her own CDs. Classical music is weirdly ideal in CD format, in my opinion. Somehow I never listen to it on vinyl and certainly not off a damn computer. CDs just also SOUND really good; you forget! Listening to stuff on CD that was recorded and mastered with the intention of being heard on CD feels great.

So we put all the CDs out on the shelf and immediately put on Emperor Tomato Ketchup and marveled over how good it sounded. Then today we went CD shopping. There is a store here that I believe was lifted up in 1999 and dropped down in the present completely unchanged. It is a straight-up grimy used CD store. They do not sell anything new; it’s all used, and it’s all CDs and a little vinyl and a couple weird tapes all jumbled together. And all the CDs are organized in bins with those good plastic labels various clerks have designed collages for or like written the band name on in sharpie using the band font. We decided we would go through the entire store and buy all the CDs we’d had in high school and college that we could imagine wanting to listen to again. So for example, yes to Weezer’s blue album or the Indigo Girls; no to Soul Coughing or Spin Doctors or Garth Brooks or the fucking Bare Naked Ladies or whatever (kids these days who fetishize the 90s do not know how much shit we had to wade through to get to the few gems). We also allowed ourselves a few purchases of stuff we weren’t cool enough at the time to have but that we wish we had been (My Bloody Valentine, Mercury Rev). We bought like 15 CDs and then drove home blasting Joshua Tree and guess what? It sounded FUCKING HUGE

Then we came home and listened to Aerial by Kate Bush, from 2005. Later period Kate Bush, post-motherhood Kate Bush, Kate Bush recording in her damn barn in bucolic England with her husband on guitar and her small British child doing some spoken word work. I can not recommend this album highly enough. It’s two discs, and the entire second disc is one long composition linked together by field recordings of birdsongs, that then morph into Bush imitating the bird songs and turning them into speech or turning them into the rhythm track for a song. We lay on the couch for two hours and listened to the whole thing and then went to sleep.


I also got a box set of all the Shostakovich string quartets, which I certainly did not have in the Actual 90s but which I feel great about. Those quartets are devastating.

I’m reading a book about disgust and shame, and I’m trying to finish these two article revisions, and I’m mostly just sitting around biting my nails about my book, and drinking too much coffee and red wine, and procrastinating grading my seminar papers, and just generally it’s normal stuff around here. Feeling my age lately; new wrinkles appearing on my face on a daily basis and those stubborn five pounds you gain in middle age that you can’t lose without becoming one of those psychopaths who exercises for hours every day which I swear will never be me even as I hold a sort of grudging respect for those people, one of whom is my mother. And the gray hair!! I’m kind of digging it—it’s not every day you undergo normal human life span transformation that you can see in the mirror and take note of because it’s happening so fast. I got a haircut the other day and he was kind of peering down at me and I could tell what he’s thinking (he identifies as primarily a color guy) and I said “I’m going gray” and he yelled “I WASN’T GONNA SAY IT”

Gary says it’s interesting that you spend basically half your life dying, like it starts right when you turn forty and then you just slowly die for years until whenever you actually die. I said I prefer not to think of it that way. Like I can really see why there are all these women who are like “menopause is the best time in my life,” embracing these changes and what-not. There’s kind of a sloughing away of bullshit, I think, if you give in to it. Like, here you go, world, here is a middle aged lady with all that that entails, and I know what I like and I know what I want to do and I mostly just enjoy lying around the house listening to Kate Bush albums with my husband. Owning your changing body and not feeling despair about it is hard, I think, but it’s also a great lesson in inevitability. What are you gonna do about it? You can’t do ANYTHING about it. So why bother despairing? And this in turn perhaps does help you accept death, maybe a little bit, but it’s not the same thing as being like “I’m starting to die now.” Really we are all dying, always and all the time. Your brand new baby is already dying. “Existentialist Firefighter Delays Four Deaths”

Gary and I have been together for fifteen years!! What on earth. Unpacking the CDs really hit home what a long span of time that is. There are CDs in that box that feel like I acquired them in a wholly different era, like I almost can’t even remember the person I was when I got that CD. But then in the memory of getting that CD, my old man is also there, like we were already together. “Oh remember this show? That was where we met that guy who had the shitty old 1980s limousine and just drove it around as his normal car” (←one of the coolest things I have ever seen, and even cooler was that the guy acted like he didn’t know what was special or funny about this. “What? Yeah this is my car, so?”)

I also got Metallica’s black album, which I did indeed have on CD at the actual time and which I really will listen to. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s a good album. We also got Megadeth’s first album on vinyl, which is a total banger, and again, I don’t care that Dave Mustaine is a piece of shit. My money’s not going to him anyway: the power of BUYING USED

Our nice old man neighbor died last year and this young couple bought his house and I don’t know what they do for work but one of them is an absolute go-getter, every single day I look out the window and he’s digging a hole or installing a drainage system or planting fruit trees; one day I looked out and realized he was just casually removing the porch steps and moving them to the other side of the porch, like no big deal. My personal husband is a Virgo and has to think carefully about a project for 4-19 months before actually embarking on it, and he’s feeling very shamed by this spectacle of go-getting. Yesterday I said “Oh look, Matt planted a bunch of switchgrass on top of the knotweed,” and Gary’s face fell and he was like “classic Matt” and I was like “what?” and he said “I told him yesterday that I was thinking of doing that; now he’s immediately gone and done it.” Virgo envies other star signs their ability to simply dive into stuff without exhaustively researching it first; at the same time, once Virgo actually does do a job he usually does it to the max and perfectly, witness my office shelves which he promised to build for a year and then finally built with absolutely perfect excellence, stopping short of nothing to make them exactly to my specifications, including going back to the hardware store not once but THREE TIMES to get the exact right materials and tools, including something called a “stud finder.” If this task had been put within my purview I would have done it right away, but so poorly that within a few months all the books would have slid to the floor or the entire wall of the house would shatter and fall out into the yard. So it’s a real give and take in this marriage, it depends on what you need in any given scenario: some stuff does need to get done right away and it doesn’t matter that much how well it gets done, and into this type of chore steps me, a shining Leo, full of chutzpah and lacking attention to detail and wanting a lot of congratulations for doing something shoddily but with guts; some stuff rewards research and measuring and watching eleven how-to videos on Youtube, and it is here that Virgo really shines, and Leo has to leave the house while he’s working because his meticulous attention to detail takes thousands of hours and stresses her out. It’s just like Jack Sprat and his wife! Between the two of us, we lick the platter clean. Gross

I planted a little garden plot and it’s popping off. Trying to grow peas for the first time. I built a truly shoddy pea trellis (see previous paragraph), it looks like absolute shit but I think it will work okay. I planted kale, brussel sprouts, some herbs, basil, peas, bok choy, and lettuce. Also two cherry tomatoes which are called “Matt’s Wild” and which were heavily advertised as resisting blight. It’s hard to grow tomatoes in New England because of the blight, which lives in the air and the soil and which you can’t get rid of. Everyone just rushes to grow as many tomatoes as they can before the blight decimates everything and you have to plow it all under. We’ll see if Matt’s Wild fulfills their promise. I’d say the odds aren’t great. I also canned a bunch of pickled asparagus and am feeling smug about it.


Posted in Opinion | 2 Comments

This Is Just To Say

I have finished
the Shelley biography
that Jamie gave me
for my birthday

and which
you probably
I would never finish

forgive me
it was riveting
so long
and so stressful

I DID IT. This book is 733 pages long and I didn’t think I would actually finish it until the second to last chapter when I suddenly realized that I would. What a wild ride! When I finished I flipped back through the first chapter and couldn’t believe the length of the journey I had just taken; Percy’s sad time at boarding school and his hijinks at Field House seem so incredibly distant to my mind. I began reading this book last August on a sleeper train to Chicago.

The first sentence of the book is: “There will always be Shelley lovers, but this book is not for them.” The last sentence is: “Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget.” In between are lots of other sentences, many of them beginning “It was during this difficult time that Shelley conceived his most audacious poem yet”

I found the experience of reading this book extremely interesting. The book itself is interesting for many reasons. Shelley’s life is interesting, his times are interesting, all the details about daily society in the early 19th century are fascinating, reading about these kids gallivanting around Europe and recording their observations is fascinating, etc. But also, it’s interesting to read this book with an eye peeled for women. When you’re interested in women from history—their lives, their thoughts, their experiences—you often have to read between the lines of other histories written about men. You see the women who surrounded the men kind of peeking out from behind all the stuff about somebody’s great ode ‘pon the death of Keats or whatever. Behind all that are women doing things, not just cooking and cleaning up after the men, or doing things that reflect directly on the men’s artistic development, but also just doing stuff unrelated to the men that is itself interesting, but you have to kind of use your imagination in tying it all together. Such is the case with this book (and sidenote, when I finally finished it and threw it down on the ground, interrupting my husband who was watching a baseball game on his iPad, I said “say what you will about Percy, but this is QUITE A BOOK TO HAVE WRITTEN” (additional sidenote: only after finishing it did I realize this was Richard Holmes’s FIRST BOOK. Devastating)). Because, I read this book not because I’m particularly interested in Percy Shelley but rather in order to learn more about a different Shelley, namely MARY Shelley, the wife of the great man. And the thing is that even though Holmes himself is mainly interested in her insofar as she affected Percy’s life (there’s an unfortunate use of the word “nagging” throughout in his descriptions of their marriage), at the same time his book is FULL of her. She peeks out from behind the lengthy exegeses of Ozymandias and such (one hot tip for getting through a book like this—skip all the analyses of poems. I know they’re penetrating and good but….“WHO CARES”). There she is, in the background, and if you read the book with an eye peeled for her, you learn a lot.

I don’t mean to sell Holmes short, as he is an absolute genius, and also he’s interested in these women and in their experience, a lot more so than your average biographer in 1974. In fact one thing that sets his biography apart from the other Great Romantic Era Fellows Biographies I have read is the fact that he takes the women in Percy’s life a lot more seriously—their letters, their diaries, their thoughts and feelings, their perspective on Percy. He takes a sympathetic tone with them and doesn’t work to paint Percy’s often truly horrendous actions regarding them in a positive light. All of this is much appreciated. But still, it’s a biography of the Great Poet, and mostly the information is organized based on how it helps to explain the man and his works, so there is still a lot of between-the-lines reading one must do if one is actually more interested in Mary, not to mention Claire (more on Claire in a minute). Also there is an alarming tendency to move directly from a documentation of the results of Percy’s awful or stupid actions into a discourse on how his feelings about these results influenced whatever poem he was writing at the time. Like a woman kills herself because of him, and then there’s six pages on how Percy channeled his shame into a great poem. I must say that a little of this goes a long way, although again I realize that this kind of thing comprises much of the point of writing a book like this.

Really all the women in Percy’s life are fascinating. Both of his marriages started when he essentially kidnapped a pair of sisters. Two different times! Eloping in the dead of night with your 16 year old girlfriend and her sister. Very weird. He’s married to this girl Harriet when he falls in love with another 16 year old, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin, the daughter of two famous radical philosophers. The story of their relationship is so epic: he’s been hanging around the house because he’s obsessed with William Godwin and wants Godwin to be his daddy (this daddy complex had terrible repercussions for Percy’s future finances, as Godwin basically spends the next 7 years emotionally blackmailing him. Godwin doesn’t come off well in this telling; it’s a shame, really, for as a young man he was quite spectacular). Mary of course was raised in a wild and radical way, reading philosophy and holding her own in dinner table arguments with all kinds of great men of letters/politics. Imagine growing up knowing that your mother was Mary Wollestonecraft!!!! Who died giving birth to you?! She grew up reading her famous mother’s books and essays. So epic. So anyway one day Mary tells Percy she has something to say to him, so they go to Wollestonecraft’s GRAVE, a special place where Mary undertook all her serious thinking, and there she calmly tells him she loves him and will love him forever no matter what else may happen. This absolutely BLOWS PERCY’S MIND, her calmness and boldness, the intensity of the setting and of her declaration, and it seems to have sent him off into a sort of manic episode. He tells his wife he doesn’t love her anymore, he tells Godwin that he and Mary are in love and want to be together without getting married, and to his surprise (to anyone’s surprise, really, as Godwin was all Mr. Free Love and himself lived with Wollestonecraft sans marriage for quite awhile) Godwin freaks out and forbids Percy from coming inside the house ever again and demands that he cut off all ties with his daughter. Percy responds with just the kind of wild violence you expect from the kid who got kicked out of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet on atheism and who then threatened to beat up his dad’s solicitor: at one point he breaks into the family living room with a bottle of poison and threatens to kill himself on the spot, while Mary’s screaming and crying, and Godwin’s second wife is like “Lord save me from these Romantic-era poets.” I imagine him all sweaty and handsome with his floppy hair screwed into tangles from him wrenching melodramatically at it. And then finally he runs off in the night with both Mary and Jane, her step-sister. And they go on a really fun adventure—they sail to the continent and go to Switzerland and have a blast, all of them writing in their diaries about the cool sights they see and the fun food they eat and how scandalized their various landlords are. Percy is the oldest and he’s only 21; they’re just a bunch of rabble-rousing kids kicking up a ruckus. They think it’s so fun/funny that they’ve run away from home. Later it will become less fun, as Percy’s financial situation is extremely bad, and it turns out no one back home in England thinks it’s very cool for a married man with a pregnant wife to steal not one but TWO daughters from a famous Enlightenment philosopher. Percy seems always to have been surprised by people’s reactions to the wild shit he does; he seems never to have quite figured it out. What do you MEAN it’s bad that I’m living in sin with two sisters while trying to agitate the working classes into open rebellion against the monarchy?? I thought you’d think it was cool!

It’s actually pretty sad, how disappointed he is by his friends over and over again. A lot of his beliefs are extremely sound; his take on Britain’s class system for example. You know what, the working people SHOULD fucking rise up and overthrow the goddman hereditary monarchy and also Parliament, and frankly I’m on Percy’s side when it comes to all his milquetoast liberal friends telling him he’s too hotheaded. “FUCK YOU ALLLLLLLL”

Anyway, re: this whole Mary/sister thing, I don’t think I ever fully realized what the deal was. I knew that he and Mary traveled around and lived for years with the sister, Jane Clairmont, who of course is actually the famous “Claire Clairmont” (she changes her name to reflect her more adventurous new life). Holmes does this cool thing with her where he introduces her as Jane and withholds the information that she is really the famous Claire until she herself chooses her new name; so for me, as a bit of a Shelley dilettante, I didn’t know who this Jane was at first. Then when she announces her new name I was like OH SHIT THIS IS THAT GIRL WHO SEDUCES LORD BYRON.

But anyway Claire is always there, in histories of Percy, of Mary, of Frankenstein. She was there in the room on the famous night when Frankenstein was conceived, the ghost-story-in-Geneva night. She was there literally for the entirety of Percy and Mary’s marriage; save for a few stints here and there where Mary would send her away for a bit, the three of them lived together always, as a family, a ménage a trois as Holmes puts it. Indeed Holmes calls the whole trio “The Shelleys.” Percy and Claire were clearly lovers although the language is sort of weird on this point; Holmes acts like this hasn’t been proven, and he also seems to think that Mary was unaware of it, neither of which can possibly be the case. What seems to be the deal is that Percy eloped with a pair of sisters and then lived in a kind of half-acknowledged bigamist marriage with both of them. They certainly considered themselves a family unit—when Mary’s son dies, Claire writes in a letter of “losing our boy” e.g. On the honeymoon, the three eloping kids ride a donkey into the Swiss alps and all sleep in the same bed at the inn. To be fair I think it was a lopsided group marriage, as Mary is always sick of Claire and asking Percy to send her away, but he more or less refuses. Holmes quotes tons of Percy’s letters to Claire, and it seems like he just really liked her. He calls her his “dearest,” his “love,” at one point, his “best friend.”

Percy, as Holmes notes, had a weird thing with women. He liked them, and liked to be surrounded by them, he liked to live amongst a gaggle of ladies with whom he had both platonic and sexual relationships. From his earliest adulthood he’s constantly trying to set up these big free love radical communes; he’s always scheming with his best friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg to try to help Hogg seduce whatever girl Percy is currently with. Indeed, Hogg and Mary seem to have had an affair during the early part of the relationship (and, in an amazing coda, Holmes notes that eventually Hogg ended up common-law-married to yet another one of Percy’s ex girlfriends, the lady he was having an affair with when he died). In the very last year of his life Percy is still trying to get a big ol’ community of English weirdos to start a commune in Italy with him. He wants to fuck all the ladies and publish radical pamphlets with all the men. One of his earliest political beliefs was one he never altered, and it was the belief that marriage is stupid. He wrote all these poems about how love always changes and is never permanent; why should two people chain themselves to one another forever, when the nature of love is that it will fade and subside into gentle friendship? Shelley was always disappointed in the women in his life for insisting that he marry them. And after he abandons his first wife Harriet for Mary, he writes Harriet these truly bizarre letters about how obviously now they are “brother and sister,” no longer husband and wife, and would Harriet please come live with him, Mary, and Claire, so that he can take care of her, as a brother would? LITERALLY. Asking your pregnant wife to come live platonically with you and your new pregnant girlfriend?? He seems to have found nothing odd in this request. There is obviously a lot of obnoxious “we as humans” universalizing in his statements on love, and it’s also very immature, especially in a world where sex has extremely real physical and social consquences ONLY FOR WOMEN AND NOT FOR MEN. Reading this biography, one gets the impression of these dudes bouncing around the world leaving an absolute trail of literally bloodstained women in their wake, women who are now “ruined” and also destitute and everyone points and laughs at them in the street, and they have to spend the rest of their lives writing groveling letters to these dudes about how they can’t pay the rent or feed the kids. Some of them go on to commit fucking suicide. So yeah, free love is great for you, Percy.

Holmes elegantly skewers all the free love stuff and Percy’s thoughts on love generally:

The reader, however much he sympathizes with Shelley’s position, cannot be unaware of immaturity and inconsistency of thoughts, and a tendency to approach real human problems in a spirit of scornful, bookish brilliance. Shelley’s attitude to love is marred by two obvious blind spots. The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations, so that loving has the chance to develop from a static ‘sweet sensation’ into a cumulative process of discovery and exploration…His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship. Shelley was to remain faithful to his free love principles throughout his life, but he was to pay dearly—and make others pay dearly—for his personal blindness in both these respects.

“the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations, so that loving has the chance to develop from a static ‘sweet sensation’ into a cumulative process of discovery and exploration”????? DAMN. Richard Holmes just neatly and perfectly summarizing the potential joy of monogamy as a means of calling Percy Shelley an immature egomaniac? Sign me up

However, it’s complicated! These guys are all reading Mary Wollestonecraft and agitating for women to get the vote and stuff. They’re radicals! They’re egalitarians! In fact part of what Shelley hated about marriage was that, at his time, it included no legal protection for women, it turned women into chattel, and he found that disgusting, which is a correct and good attitude. It’s interesting to see these 19th-century radical guys who “get it” to some degree—they have an awareness of class warfare and the horrors of modern capitalism; they can see the subjugation of women; they’re reading Wollestonecraft and being like YOU GO GIRL; and they’re very encouraging of the women in their lives in certain ways. I mean as much as I am fully Team Mary and would rather read Frankenstein ten times in a row than actually sit down and try to read Alastor or whatever, you can not deny that Percy played a major supporting role in getting that shit published. He negotiated an amazing contract for her, a much better contract than he ever got for any of his own publications; he read it, edited it, talked about it with her, etc., he wrote an extremely hardcore preface for it and everything, in many respects he was more supportive as a husband than you would think was possible for a 20 year old kid in 1816 to be. And yet on the other hand he’s just blithely impregnating women all over the place and going out dancing with Claire while Mary is at home violently grieving the death of their baby. TWO DIFFERENT WOMEN KILL THEMSELVES BECAUSE OF PERCY. They fucking DIED. One of them (Harriet!) wrote a suicide note telling him she wished him happiness and forgave him for leaving her socially and financially ruined and abandoning his children; all she asks is that he allow her sister to continue raising the kids. Did he honor this incredibly pathetic note from a woman whose life he destroyed? Nope. Instead he freaked out and engaged in a protracted legal battle trying to win custody of these two kids he seems not to have even thought of one time in his life. He’s suing his former parents-in-law for custody and they are like I WILL KILL YOU YOU PIECE OF SHIT, all they want is their poor dead daughter’s children so they can raise them in a decent home but Percy insists he should have sole custody and finally the judge rules in neither of their favor and sends the kids to live with random foster parents out in the country. And even though he grants Percy visitation rights Percy NEVER BOTHERS TO GO SEE THE KIDS AGAIN. After all that! It was just a power play, something he did to hide from his shame and guilt. Lord

So it’s a real mixed bag, with these guys and the women in their lives. Like on the one hand it’s so fun to imagine Lord Byron blasting around Europe having affairs with all these noblewomen, filling his mansion with pet peacocks and llamas, throwing huge parties and giving no fucks for what anybody thinks; on the other hand oooops maybe the woman gets pregnant and isn’t fun anymore and then he just absolutely bails on her, and again at least one of these ladies killed herself after being literally caricatured in the British press as this pathetic fool following Byron around pleading with him to love her…I mean at the point when NEWSPAPERS ARE MOCKING YOU for being broken and ruined by a dude it truly doesn’t seem like a fun romp anymore, and the fact that these dudes clearly did not give one shit about the anguish these women were going through—like maybe even if you no longer “love” someone you could still feel some human compassion for them??—kind of belies all the egalitarian talk, and quite frankly it also belies all the “love” talk itself, like I think you and I have very different ideas of what “love” means, Percy, like deep down it’s all just the same old misogyny and not seeing women as human beings. So in one respect, fuck all these guys. But then like I said, in other respects, you kind of have to hand it to them. I truly think it is so fun that Percy was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet about how God doesn’t exist. And he was literally attacked and shot with a gun in his own home for trying to organize local workers into a union to demand better wages! And he was an ethical vegetarian, and he was horrified by poverty, and he wanted to bring about utopia, and he was also very good at telling ghost stories. Anyway, make of him what you will. I guess today we’d call him a brocialist

Holmes is pretty good about the ladies, as I’ve said, but still there are these weird moments where the way he reflects on an event is far removed from the way I view it, and it causes weird dissonance. For example, when yet another one of Mary’s children dies, Holmes discusses how everyone tries to help her and cheer her up, including Lord Byron, who gravely asks her to make a fair copy of the poem he’s just finished. I read that and was like….wait what? This lady’s child just died and he’s asking her to do some secretarial work for him? But this gesture was clearly meant to PLEASE HER—the great Lord Byron “gravely” asking for her help. This was his effort to cheer her. And she fucking did it! I know times have changed but honestly can you imagine.

The attitude of people in the past to children dying is fascinating. It was just so much more an accepted part of normal reality than it is now (at least, from where I’m sitting in good old middle class 21st-century America). I think I already wrote about this back when I was reading the Schumann marriage diaries, how the baby dies and after like three days it’s back to practicing the piano. It is crazy to read the recitation of facts and dates in this regard, because it forces you to realize that things like “grieving the death of a child” are not actually universal processes. It turns out you can actually grieve the death of a child in really different ways depending on time and place and context. E.g. the Shelleys’ beloved four year old son dies abruptly of a fever and like 3 days later they’re packing up to move, and writing people letters, and the letters are like “oh it’s so sad, we are quite miserable. Please send English newspapers and a copy of Milton to me in Livorno if you get a chance, my best to your family.” Like they’re definitely sad, but not devastated, not totally laid up with grief like people are today when a kid dies. For example Mary’s grief over the loss of her first baby is clearly considered excessive by those around her, and then you look at the date and it’s only been like 2 weeks. Everyone’s like “oof, Mary, come on kid get over it.” And even she is like “I don’t know why this is haunting me so intensely, I feel crazy.” After just a couple of weeks??? It’s really strange, jarring, surreal. But you just couldn’t possibly be shattered by a baby’s death in 1816 when you know you’re going to (a) give birth like a thousand times and (b) half of those babies will die in early childhood. Society would have ground to a halt if every lost baby meant that people were absolutely shattered. Still, it’s a bit unnerving to see how quickly life goes on, back then. Percy’s like “oh damn” and writes a sad poem and then it’s back to the ladies and to his sailing.

It’s also crazy to think of sex without birth control. I know this is still the state of things in much of the world and even in this country, but I mean it’s crazy to think about a world in which “birth control” isn’t even a thought in your head. The situation being just that sex = putting the woman in extremely real danger for her life. All these guys in the era who have second and third and even fourth wives and you’re like, wait, divorce wasn’t legal, and then you’re like OH SHIT. Imagine a situation in which making love to your wife who you care about means putting her life in danger! I don’t know how to put it into words but it’s just really bizarre to me, to imagine going ahead and having sex knowing that there’s a 50/50 chance she’ll die in childbirth. Again, that was just the way life went and what could you do about it? It’s just wild, these childbirth scenes. The great man working on his important poem while on the second floor a woman he loves screams in agony for 27 hours. The social relations between the sexes are truly so weird; the fact that some people go through childbirth and other people don’t, based on their biology, is honestly crazy. I mean I realize this is not new information but it’s just hitting me all of a sudden. How the fuck are we supposed to get along with each other

Anyway I really can not imagine writing a proper review of this book. How would one organize one’s thoughts? I learned SO MUCH and so much of it was so interesting. For that matter, I can truly not imagine writing the book itself. It’s one of those books that reminds you yet again of how spectacular archival research can be. To think of tracking down all these letters and cross-referencing them to get some sort of three dimensional idea of an event or a time in this guy’s life. Finding references in letters between people talking ABOUT Shelley, not even letters to/from the man himself! All these scraps of paper and bills of sale and weird notebooks where Shelley has doodled a bunch of drawings of devils. The tantalizing, surely devastating loss of documents, e.g. there’s a scandalous period in the Shelleys’ life that not much is known of, because they all RIPPED OUT THOSE PAGES OF THEIR DIARIES. Imagine being Richard Holmes and wanting to know! Wanting to know so badly!! And staring at those goddamn tattered page-ends interrupting otherwise highly informative diaries. WHAT HAD BEEN WRITTEN THERE????? There’s also wonderful work with different drafts—like, comparing the first draft of a letter that someone didn’t send, to the draft they did send, and noting all the provocative stuff that was deleted in the final draft. Crossing out “dearest” e.g. From details like these Holmes speculates wildly yet compellingly about the changing nature of these relationships, the feelings of everyone involved, etc. Figuring out from postmarks which letters to Claire were secret—meant to be kept from Mary—and which she was likely to have read. That sort of thing.

There’s a part where Percy is sent into raptures of enthusiasm after visiting an Italian macaroni factory.

I love the nineteenth century so much. I love the way people wrote. Holmes includes excerpts from an absolutely blistering review of The Revolt of Islam that really shook Percy because he thought (incorrectly) that Robert Southey had written it. But check this out, can you imagine someone writing this about your latest poem:

Like the Egyptian of old, the wheels of his chariot are broken, the path of mighty waters closes in upon him behind, and a still deepening ocean is before him:–for a short time are seen his impotent struggles against a resistless power, his blasphemous execrations are heard, his despair but poorly assumes the tone of triumph and defiance, and he calls ineffectually on others to follow him to the same ruin—finally, he sinks ‘like lead’ to the bottom, and is forgotten. So it is now in part, so shortly will it be entirely with Mr. Shelley.


Claire’s seduction of Byron is so triumphant, even though it ends in such heartbreak. She’s like 19 years old, and wants a famous poet of her own, given that Mary has officially snagged Percy. She literally just starts writing letters to Byron, these wonderful letters that are perfectly designed to reveal (a) her liberal attitude regarding premarital sex, (b) her lively intellect and interest in poetry, thanks to living with Percy Shelley, who is really great and who he should really meet as she thinks they’d like each other (Holmes notes that Percy helped her with these letters, LOL what a scene) and (c) just enough hints about her weird living situation to be intriguing but not upsetting (Byron is weirdly prudish in certain regards). AND IT WORKS. He’s like say, you seem cool as hell, and they start a relationship. What on earth! Times were truly different. Byron was EXTRAORDINARILY FAMOUS at this time, and was also fabulously wealthy and a member of the high nobility. But this saucy 19 year old random kid was able to seduce him through return of post. Wild stuff! Anyway he got her pregnant and then treated her with absolutely monstrous cruelty for the rest of his life, took her baby, wouldn’t let her see the baby, stuck the baby in a convent, and then it died and he didn’t even write her a letter to tell her about it; he wrote to Percy, like “sorry old chap, guess you’ll have to break the news to old you-know-who.” Percy, to his credit, was profoundly enraged (by this as well as some other stuff) and never wanted to be friends with Byron again, although he did still try to rope him into his utopian radical pamphlet scheme. Then they both immediately died: Percy sailed a boat directly into a storm and drowned and ten days later his body washed ashore and his face was eaten off by crabs but he was identified thanks to his smart nankeen sailing trousers; Byron sailed off to Greece to fund a militia of freedom fighters in the war for Greek independence but then caught a fever and died. Mary spent the next 15 years begging Percy’s father for rent money until he died and her son, her only child, good ol’ Percy Florence inherited the baronetcy. She never remarried. Claire never married at all, and spent her life working as a governess for various rich people. When she was an old lady, a student from Harvard came to visit her in hopes of weaseling all her love letters out of her. She rebuffed him and told everybody about what an idiot he was, and this was later immortalized in a short story by Henry James making fun of biographers.

The index is wonderful. Under “Shelley, Percy Bysshe” one can look up page numbers for among other things
– “and wedding night shooting incident”
– “local opinion against strange behaviour of”
– “takes laudanum to cure nervous attacks”
– “attacked by ruffians”
– “distributes propaganda”
– “and fire balloons”
– “hides from bailiffs”
– “his attitude to Wordsworth”
– “and discusses ghosts with M.G. Lewis”
– “and pistol incident at Lake Como”
– “experiments in mesmerism”
– “Byron’s presence acts as challenge to”
– “dissuades Claire from kidnapping Allegra”
– “ability to laugh at himself”
– “callousness, cruelty”
– “self-identification with the Devil”
– “hallucination and ghost theories of Tan-yr-allt shooting incident”

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I Don’t Care If I Never Get Back

Getting excited for my summer. Oh boy oh boy it’s only three weeks away!

I’ve been asked to do some stupid shit I don’t want to do over the summer but even so I will still have a million miles of freedom before me. FREEDOMMMM I can not wait to read this stack of books and get back into all the stuff I want to write. This book stack is epic, it now includes Veblen, Nussbaum, Harvey x2, a William Godwin anarchy reader, a book about experimental art, and some Kafka. “I’m Lovin’ It”—McDonalds

I’m excited to read this Veblen. One thing I have been surprised to learn is that Veblen was FUNNY. I never think these people are going to be funny but then they often are. When people are funny they can not suppress it fully no matter how dour their field; tis a human truth. Also I do think there is something inherent in the act of cultural criticism that brings out this kind of absurdist embrace of the madness of the world; everything starts seeming hilarious in kind of a nihilistic way, which of course you also have to fight against because nihilism can so quickly become cowardice and sloth.

People Who You Maybe Didn’t Know Were Funny:
Wagner (unintentionally)

I think when the serious Germans are funny it is funniest. Weber’s epic screed about how Ben Franklin wasn’t even a proper Puritan but just a “bland deist”! and when he says all of Franklin’s writings on common sense would have been taken as expressions of “the most filthy greed” in every past era of human history. HA HA HA. Although, I read those parts aloud to my grad students and they didn’t laugh, so maybe my idea of what counts as “funny” has become twisted by all this crazy shit I read. Lord

Anyway but also summer also does feel like a real vacation and I will never pretend otherwise, my solemn pledge to you. Summer is I think when the real gifts of living in rural New England rear their heads. Life is slow and easy. There are no lines for brunch even when you go at 11:00 on a beautiful Sunday. Similarly, if on a blazing July Saturday you think “hey, lets go to the river and take a little swim,” whereas in a river-adjacent metropolis this would be madness because (a) the river is radioactive and/or (b) at said river there will surely be 500 sunburned bros flinging footballs with one hand and eating ten hot dogs at once with the other hand while screaming “bro” at each other, here it is not a wild idea at all, in fact one simply heads over to the river and finds there either no one or like two nice ladies dipping toddlers into the cool water and chatting. One walks alone through the whispering fields of tall summer weeds and emerges on the cool banks of the river where one can paddle at one’s leisure, nary a hot dog bro in sight. No offense to hot dog bros, they’re just trying to get through this life like everybody else.

Anyway it’s nice. Everything is chill, all the little ice cream stands staffed by high schoolers open up, the farmers markets start popping off, a local farmer emails you saying she’ll sell you 40 pounds of gross tomatoes so you can can them, and even though it’s 90 degrees and so humid you can’t breathe you’re able to freaking RELAX a little bit. Make a fire and sit outside at night slappin’ mosquitos, as our forefathers did and their forefathers before them.

We are going to go to a lot of minor league baseball this summer also. We went to a game last weekend and it was really fun, probably the most consistently engaged/interested I’ve been in a sports game in my life. Gary has decided to get really into baseball all of a sudden, specifically regional AA baseball, and he ordered a $30 book of scouting reports on all the players that he reads constantly and now this subject comprises 90% of his conversational topics and I’m learning a lot but also sometimes I have to say “I can’t talk about baseball anymore,” and he is always respectful of my limits in this regard. He gets up every morning and watches game highlights; I’m in my office right now listening to the crack of the bat/roar of the crowd as he wanders around the house watching it on his phone.

One thing he does to helpfully facilitate my interest in the game is sincerely engage with all my non-game-related questions just about the culture and trivia history of baseball; he also collects fun trivia or crazy things that happen during games so he can tell me about them. I will never forget when I asked him off-handedly if a bird had ever swooped down and been hit by a baseball and he showed me the video of Randy Johnson annihilating that poor seagull. Suddenly I realized: anything is possible in baseball! Now I want to know EVERYTHING. Last night I asked if anyone had ever been killed during a major league baseball game and he googled it and we got really sad because there’s only been one, and it was in the 1920s, and he got hit in the head by a pitch and died, and because of that they changed the rules about scuffing up the ball and getting it dirty, which until then had been the norm for pitchers because it made the ball hard to see and hit. Apparently this guy just stood there while a 90 mph fastball crunched into his skull, because he couldn’t see it. So he died, and the pitcher who killed him played nine more seasons, and also was involved in a scandal wherein he was accused of throwing the World Series.

Knowing my penchant for non-game-related trivia, he tricked me the other night and I’m still mad about it. He came home all excited to tell me that a BALD EAGLE had swooped in and LANDED ON A PLAYER DURING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM. I absolutely freaked out but when he showed me the video it turned out it was a tame eagle that was there for a publicity stunt, and it just briefly got loose and hopped up onto the guy. I was and remain furious; that was NOT was I was led to believe had occurred.

Other questions I asked during the game:
– has a dog ever gotten loose and run out onto the field and then all the players are chasing the dog and the dog is loving it and running wildly and the crowd is cheering? (“I don’t know. Probably”)
– Has a player ever proposed to his girlfriend on the big screen like audience members do? (“Yes”)
– Has a player ever hit an umpire with the bat in a rage? (“Surely not. It would mean an assault charge. Plus it would be disrespectful to the bat”)
– Does the ball ever hit the catcher in the nuts? (“All the time, but they all wear cups”)
– Is catcher a really scary position? (“Oh my GOD yes”)
– When did they start putting up this huge net behind home plate (“I don’t know”); probably it had to wait until the invention of plastic (“that seems right”); same with batting helmets (“right”)
– Has someone ever accidentally let go of the bat while swinging and it flies into the crowd and hits someone? (“I’m sure”)
– Has someone ever accidentally let go of the bat while swinging and the bat flies all the way across the outfield and into the stands and it counts as a home run? (“What? No of course not”)

One thing I was asking about at the game was how is it possible for a player to steal home base? Both Gary and the stranger sitting next to us assured me that it was not only possible but fairly common. I couldn’t picture how it could be done; third base is so far from home plate, and the pitcher is standing there holding the ball looking RIGHT AT where you’d be running. So last night he put together a best-of reel of guys stealing home plate and it’s really amazing, like wizard magic. The runner comes out of NOWHERE; you just hear the crowd suddenly scream and then he’s just there, already at home plate. The pitcher literally watches it happening, throws the ball home, and somehow the guy either makes it there BEFORE THE BALL (!!!??) or because the whole “oh shit somebody’s stealing home” thing throws the pitcher/catcher off their intensely calibrated telepathic focus the ball goes wildly off somewhere and the catcher has to fumble for it and the guy slides in with a fraction of a centimeter to spare. It is truly very exciting, and the look of sorrow on the pitcher’s face is a sight to behold. Verily, for ‘twas I not looking RIGHT AT HIM as he stole home in front of my very face?! And then the runner walks off the field like “NBD” and everyone slaps him on the butt.

At the game we were sitting right behind home plate, and at one point the catcher did actually get hit in the nuts by the ball. It was extremely thrilling. The ball smacked him, the crowd went OOOH! The guy sank slowly and silently to his knees, bowed his head, and clenched his fist on his upper thigh, mastering his pain using only his mind. The crowd sighed. The umpire stood over him quietly. It was like a Renaissance painting. Then he unclenched his fist, and very slowly and precisely traced the whole palm of his hand in a big arc in the dirt, then stood up and everyone clapped. High drama! That was my favorite moment by far.

Anyway so I guess I am into baseball now

I google image searched “catcher getting hit in the nuts” and it’s a real cavalcade of misery, I recommend it. Those guys sure work hard for their money

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