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Lost Angels of a Ruined Paradise:
John Lauritsen’s The Shelley-Byron Men

3,401 words

John Lauritsen
The Shelley-Byron Men: Lost Angels of a Ruined Paradise 
Pagan Press, 2017

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think of reviewing a book on Shelley, Byron & Co.; mainly because I know little about them, other than what used to be generally known among the educated (before English was replaced with gender studies and time off for anti-Trump demos), plus what I read from Camille Paglia. 

Then, cruising the internets, I found the author getting that rare accolade: the approval of Paglia herself!

I read a fabulous book last week — John Lauritsen’s “The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein”[1] . . . Its thesis is that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and not his wife, the feminist idol, Mary Shelley, wrote “Frankenstein” and that the hidden theme of that book is male love.

As I sat there reading while proctoring exams, I tried unsuccessfully to stifle my chortles and guffaws of admiring laughter — which were definitely distracting the students in the first rows. Lauritsen’s book is important not only for its audacious theme but for the devastating portrait it draws of the insularity and turgidity of the current academy.

As an independent scholar, Lauritsen is beholden to no one. As a consequence, he can fight openly with myopic professors and, without fear of retribution, condemn them for their inability to read and reason.

I haven’t been this exhilarated by a book about literature since I devoured Leslie Fiedler’s iconoclastic essays in college back in the 1960s. All that crappy poststructuralism that poured out of universities for so long pretended to challenge power but was itself just the time-serving piety of a status-conscious new establishment. Lauritsen’s book shows what true sedition and transgression are all about.[2]

So this stuff is right up my alley after all! And so I plunged, expectantly, into Lauritsen’s new book on Shelley, Byron & Co.

Here, Lauritsen expands his field of vision: from how Shelley’s authorship of Frankenstein was and continues to be occulted, to the even more extensive occultation of the true nature of the work of Shelley and his circle:

It is my contention that these five men — Byron, Shelley, [Thomas] Medwin, [Edward Ellerker] Williams[3] and [Edward John] Trelawny — along with Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson Hogg in England — were drawn together by sexual affinities, that they discussed male love, and endeavored to liberate it.

As per usual, the tenured “experts” and even (or especially) family members have either “cast a blind eye” or else labored to cover all this up, transforming Shelley’s image “from that of an infidel, rebel, and advocate of Free Love, into a Christ-like milksop.”[4]

Their efforts involved suppressing and bowdlerizing Shelley’s writings, destroying pages from diaries, attacking writers who told the truth, and defaming the character of Shelley’s first wife.

And the same goes for Byron, who died two years later — the last four Cantos of his masterpiece, Don Juan, were destroyed, and his Memoirs were simply burned by his publisher — and the other surviving members of this two-year sojourn in Italian exile.[5]

Take Medford: he was the first biographer of Byron and Shelley, and the first to promote the latter’s poetry (he was also his second cousin and classmate at Oxford); for this he was subjected to a merciless campaign of vituperation, so that as late as 1989 “scholars” who routinely plunder his work just as routinely dismiss him as “stupid.” And so on.

Hence the need for an independent scholar, like Lauritsen, to turn to the texts themselves and the historical facts — the originals of both, so far as they can be dug up or reconstructed — to set the record straight.[6]

Lauritsen starts off his Introduction by laying out his “ideas on male sexuality,” which however unconventional, are rooted in decades of experience,[7] as well as the study of “history, anthropology, survey research and animal studies.” To wit:

Human males are powerfully attracted to other males, erotically and emotionally. When males have sex with each other, they are expressing an ordinary, healthy part of the sexual repertoire, a phylogenetic characteristic of our species. If a man has any libido at all, it has a homoerotic component, whether or not he is aware of it. The condemnation of male love is a theological phenomenon: the taboo on sex between males in the Holiness Code of Leviticus.

Well, he’ll get no argument from me on this. In the nature of a literary study like this, Lauritsen doesn’t lay out any of this evidence, and instead refers the reader to the Bibliography, which besides books on Shelley, Byron & Co. also “has what I consider the best books for an understanding of male sexuality.”[8]

Lauritsen then devotes most of his Introduction to introducing the somewhat eccentric terms of art he will be using in the text.[9] This is most unsettling in the case of his use of “gay” and “straight.” Based on the aforementioned evidence of male sexual attraction, he gives them a special meaning and lays them out in a helpful schema:

A gay man has recognized and accepted his desire and capacity to love another man.

A straight man has denied his homoerotic desires, consciously or unconsciously, or is unable to act on them

And, giving another turn of the screw, he adds:

Straight is a completely negative term. It does not mean heterosexual, but simply not gay.[10]

By contrast to these rather tendentious renderings, male love is given a meaning sanctioned by a tradition going back the Greeks, comprising “sex, love and friendship.” Finally, camp is “the unique sense of humor — and style and sensibility — of gay men,” and includes “a mockery of sex-roles, a mockery of taboos and conventions, a mockery of danger, and a mockery of condemnation.”[11]

In the body of the essay Lauritsen follows a similar procedure, mostly decoding the gay content of such key terms as, e.g., hyacinths, “the initiated,”[12] or shame.[13]

In general, one needs to be able to speak camp to understand their poetry and letters, as well as to decode the clues to their gay sexuality — coded because punishable, in England, by hanging. (It’s just as well, however, since Shelley & Co. regarded themselves as an elite, writing for their fellow cognoscenti, the aforementioned “Initiated” or, in Greek, the sunetoi).[14] Thus, failure (perhaps self-imposed) to understand them to be gay men pursuing both love and liberation leads to, or amounts to, a failure to rightly interpret their literary works and their social concerns.

Corroboration of Lauritsen’s occlusion thesis can be found readily to hand. Grasping my kindle firmly, I open my Delphi Complete Works of Shelley, and look for the essay on the Greeks that Lauritsen presents in App. II; not there. Using the search function, I find it under an alternate, modernized title. Fair enough. Then, reading along and comparing it to App. II, I find that it simply stops in the middle, with no explanation or even indication of any cut; needless to say, all of the discussion of male love, quoted by Lauritsen in his essay, are gone.

Now, it’s true “complete” is used by Delphi in a somewhat Pickwickian sense, usually around the matter of copyright;[15] however, although Lauritsen does tell us the unexpurgated essay (along with the translation of Plato’s Symposium it was to introduce) did not appear until 1931, it clearly is freely available now, since he reprints it himself.

With the late and important poem “Episychidion” — “the most nakedly autobiographical poem he ever wrote” — things are a little trickier. An unsigned preface in the Delphi Works tells us that “some additional lines . . . did not appear in print” but are available in an obscure book published in 1903; instead, “our text follows that of the editio princeps, 1821.” The facts and dates are as Lauritsen gives us; the pompous Latin phrase is meant to insinuate that the decision to present a truncated version is the result of some rigorous paleographical meditations, rather than just laziness or censorship.[16]

Similar investigations would likely turn up more supporting evidence — but the point is not to slag Delphi[17] but to show that this is indeed how Shelley is presented to the public, in the most readily available form.

By the end of its near hundred pages, I would say that Lauritsen has more than proved his point. Of course, a large section of the public — many found among the Right or the man-o-sphere — already think all poets are gay anyway, so why all the fuss?

Well, first of all, truth is important; to put it bluntly, that’s what separates us from the Left, and the White race from the rest.[18]

Secondly, anyone with an interest in Western and particularly British culture will appreciate the new light shed on the work of these key literary figures by Lauritsen’s work on establishing authentic texts and correct interpretations.

Finally, there’s politics.

It may be important to note that Lauritsen is not claiming that Shelley-Byron and Co. were running around rutting like weasels, constantly writing about sex, or other implications of the modern progressive “gay” lifestyle.[19]

In particular, they were intent on fundamentally changing their society:

They had a serious concern for justice. Given the character of these men, the daily meetings at Byron’s palazzo would not have been all billiards and target shooting. They had goals. I believe that one of them was to work for the emancipation of male love. If so, they would have been forerunners of Heinrich Hoessli, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, John Addington Symonds, Sir Richard Burton, Edward Carpenter, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, and the homophile and gay liberation movements of the 20th century.[20]

Five men, living together in exile; united by male love, both practicing and promoting it, infused by and celebrating pagan antiquity against Judeo-Christian dogma; fearsomely well-educated (though, in the fashion of the time, caring little for taking a degree or even being “sent down” for atheism); equally skilled in poetry, prose, translation, or political polemics; masters of manly activities such as sailing (although Shelley and Williams seem to have had bit of bad luck) and warfare (Byron, dying in the cause of Greek liberation); no group since Plato’s Academy ever had more right to consider themselves The Initiated.

In short, the titular “Shelley-Byron men” were a Männerbund;[21] although, like Neil’s research, this concept also seems to have missed the author. As such, their history will interest any student of this essentially Aryan cultural/political formation. More generally, it should have at least historical interest for those involved in the various groupuscules, movements, parties, websites and other grouping on the dissident Right.

About half the book is comprised by a series of appendices, containing a wealth of material from the Shelley-Byron circle. The first gives an amusing — yes, “campy” — section from Thomas Peacock’s Crochett Castle. The second prints the complete text of Shelley’s aforementioned essay on the Greeks.[22] The third presents quasi-autobiographical excerpts from Edward John Trelawny’s novel Adventure of a Younger Son, and excerpts from his Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author, in which “three young gay men candidly [confront] their own oppression.” The fourth is an excerpt from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which, largely due to the obfuscating efforts of Shelley’s family, is “almost unknown today, even to students of English romanticism.”

The meatiest appendix is the fifth, which presents “an annotated [and, I would add, revelatory] gay reading” of Epipsychidon, including the passages Shelley himself excluded from publication, which “touch upon many of the ideas that would later be used by those who strived to emancipate male love.” Perhaps the least of general interest is the last, which defends the authenticity of William Edward West’s portrait of Shelley, against the usual professorial hacks.

A man of many parts,[23] Lauritsen founded his own Pagan Press in 1982 (“Pagan here denotes the culture of Western Classical Antiquity”). I haven’t seen the other Pagan editions, but this book is nicely designed, using Eric Gill’s Golden Cockerel font; it is a pleasure to read and handle.

Lauritsen concludes that this “ugly” story — involving “the destruction of documents — the suppression of masterpieces – the falsification of lives — the defamation of good people — the misinterpretation of great poems” — teaches us a lesson: “we must rely on ourselves.”

This is true and important, whether “we” are readers and students of literature, oppressed by academic hacks; or gay men, oppressed by both Leviticus and liberals; or citizens oppressed by political pseudo-elites promoting the latest dogmatic politically correct nonsense. We must rely on ourselves.

This is an intellectually exhilarating work of literary detection and bold reinterpretation; long enough to provide convincing evidence without becoming tedious and cranky. I would recommend it to anyone with what Nietzsche called an “intellectual conscience,” and given my initial hesitation over my ignorance of the subject, I plan to delve further into this fascinating period of English literature and society.

Notes

[1] Pagan Press, 2007.

[2] Camille Paglia, Salon.com, 14 March 2007, here.

[3] Shelley’s “inseparable companion” and, Lauritsen argues, most likely his lover. The two died together – both aged 29 — in a boating accident in the Gulf of Spezia on July 8, 1822. Their shared epitaph is:

These are two friends whose lives were undivided.
So let their memory be now they have glided
Under the grave: let not their bones be parted
For their two hearts in life were single-hearted.

[4] After all, these men, like many others, were on the Continent to avoid being hanged.

[5] In a letter of 1820, Shelley describes Italy as “the Paradise of exiles, the retreat of Pariahs.”

[6] An ironic term, of course, but even more so given Lauritsen’s own idiosyncratic use of the term, of which more anon.

[7] This includes involvement with the leading gay liberation organizations right from the ’60s onward, and, I suppose, other kinds of experience.

[8] Curiously, he fails to include James Neill, The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies (McFarland, 2009), which was written to produce a compendium of exactly this kind of evidence for the same conclusions. See, if not Neil, at least A Review of James Neill’s “The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies” (Amazon.com: Kindle Editions, 2013), by your reviewer.

[9] It reminds one of Jason Reza Jorjani’s sound aversion to the idea of beginning an investigation by “defining one’s terms” rather than letting them arise out of the investigation itself; see his Prometheus and Atlas (London: Arktos Publishing, 2016). Lauritsen and Jorjani come into more substantive conjunction with the titular Prometheus, a major theme and icon for Shelley

[10] I much prefer Neil’s neologism “ambisexual,” a neutral term derived from the evidence, rather than Lauritsen’s pre-loaded hijacking of ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ But as Chris Rock said of OJ, “I understand.”

[11] Although Lauritsen name-checks Wilde and Coward for camp, I discuss what I see as the decline of their wit into “camp” in “Sour Cream: Michael Nelson’s A Room in Chelsea Square,” reprinted in Green Nazis in Space! New Essays on Literature, Art, & Culture, edited by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).

[12] “The grand arcanum’s not for men to see all; My music has some mystic diapasons; And there is much which could not be appreciated / In any manner by the uninitiated.” Byron, Don Juan, Canto the Fourteenth, XXII.

[13] One wishes he could discuss on of my favorite studies, Ellis Hansen’s Decadence and Catholicism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), which explains how the notion of shame was ret-conned by the English and French decadents into a mode of Catholic spirituality. As another author says: “Parsifal’s emphasis on the symbol over the word, and of the grail over any doctrine, has clear connections to Catholicism, as does its dialectic of shame and grace-the core of much of the Catholicism espoused by self-declared decadents in particular.” James  Kennaway, “Degenerate Religion and Parsifal Reception,” Current Musicology, No. 88 (Fall 2009),  here. Hanson, indeed, has much to say about the cult of Parsifal among the Decadents, which should give pause to Wagner enthusiasts on the dissident Right.

[14] It would be interesting to trace the similarities to the Straussian neocons, with their notions of coded writing intended to fool hoi polloi but not the Philosopher and his youthful “puppies.” “Strauss relished his role as a guru to worshiping disciples, once writing of ‘the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn.’” Kevin MacDonald, “Understanding Jewish Influence III: Neoconservatism as a Jewish Movement,” here; quoting Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1952), p. 36.

[15] Complete Public Domain Works of X would be less misleading; hence, there are differing editions for the US and UK, the Lovecraft volume uses texts from the old pulp editions, not Joshi’s definitive texts (for which see the Library of America edition), etc.

[16] That the first edition is the best edition is by no means always or mostly the case, and in any event needs to argued for in each case, not lazily assumed “on principle.” Housman, another gay/poet/scholar, eviscerated this kind of nonsense in his inaugural lecture, “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism”; bitter, hilarious, and of general importance beyond the academy: “Textual criticism, like most other sciences, is an aristocratic affair, not communicable to all men, nor to most men. Not to be a textual critic is no reproach to anyone, unless he pretends to be what he is not. To be a textual critic requires aptitude for thinking and willingness to think; and though it also requires other things, those things are supplements and cannot be substitutes. Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head.”

[17] Delphi should be praised for leveraging the kindle format to make vast amounts of literature available for ridiculously low prices — all of Henry James for $1.99! — and does occasionally provide original texts for comparison with translations, alternate versions, etc. On the other hand, Lauritsen points out the “ridiculous” change of title from “Kissing Agathon” to “Kissing Helena” is perpetuated in the supposed official and scholarly Oxford edition.

[18] “Right now, White Nationalists have almost no money or institutional power. But we have the truth on our side, and the credibility that comes from fearlessly speaking unpopular truths. Our enemies, by contrast, have enormous wealth and power, but their worldview is based on lies, and their credibility is steadily sinking. They have never been more degenerate, corrupt, and ridiculous either.” — Greg Johnson, “Rules for Writers, Part II,” here.

[19] Despite his attempt to ret-con the word, the connotations remain with any reader, unlike Neil’s ambisexuality. On the origins and nature of the fake “gay” identity see, of course, the title essay of my The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics and Popular Culture; edited by Greg Johnson; 2nd, Embiggened Edition (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017).

[20] And yet we still find the lazy cliché that “homos don’t care about the future because they don’t have children” infesting the blogs of even the dissident Right.

[21] See; and  Wulf Grimmson, Loki’s Way: The Path of the Sorcerer in the Age of Iron (Second Edition, Lulu.com, 2011) and my review, “A Band Apart,” here and “‘God, I’m with a heathen’: The Rebirth of the Männerbund in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables,” here; both reprinted in The Homo and the Negro, op. cit.

[22] Despite its historical importance — only the second essay in English on Greek love after Bentham’s — Lauritsen admits its thesis is “untenable.” Greek women were not so oppressed as to be unavailable, and ultimately homosexuality needs no “explanation”; what needs explaining is the theological taboo, and the answer to that he finds in Leviticus. In other words, in the Jewish cultural kink: see again the title essay of The Homo & The Negro, op. cit. Lauritsen does agree with Shelley’s view that the Greeks held what we ironically call, in the language of the personal ads, “Greek,” to be abhorrent, though what they did approve of is rather vague. I’ve long held the view — seconded by the English New Right’s Alisdair Clarke — that an obsession with “sodomy” is characteristic of heterosexual males; ask their wives, girlfriends and prostitutes, examine their pornography, and observe any rightwing comment thread. This is then projected onto homosexuals — “they must have some sick parody of our natural acts.” Of course, one can’t discount the Left’s manufactured “gay” identity having an influence on modern homosexuals, just as they’ve been persuaded that they want marriage and children, “just like everyone else.”

[23] He’s too modest to mention his MENSA membership, but it’s there on Google.

3 Comments

  1. Norman
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    O, Mary Renault, we hardly knew thee!

  2. rhondda
    Posted July 16, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    So, Mary was just Shelley’s beard? How generous of him to give her full credit. I am afraid this reminds me of a lesbian feminist I read once a long time ago who claimed Emily Bronte was a lesbian, because no straight women could write of love that way in Witherng Heights and of course she had to disguise it with a male. Just saying. Whatever. Could be true. What do I know?

    • Peter Quint
      Posted July 17, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I read somewhere that “Wuthering Heights” may have been written by Emily Brontes brother, who later died. To me it is a ghost story, and I got the feeling of a masculine viewpoint when I read it, but, whatever it is still a good book. A man with a feminist bent that I despised was E. M. Forster (admitted suppressed homosexual), I have read several of his novels, and they all sucked. Forster’s novels are full of homoerotic imagery; his works are pathetic attempts of a homosexual to write from a masculine point of view, but fails, because, he comes across with a feminine point of view, which he botches, because he is not a female. Another homosexual writer of note was Oscar Wilde, but he wasn’t as bad as Forster, I actually learned something from reading him.

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