Monday, May 17, 2010

Power Outage, Blogging Hiatus

The end of my personal V-E-Day celebrations was interrupted by a late-night explosion, as the room went black. The high winds had broken the top of one of our maples, which dropped onto the power lines. Those directly in front of the house sagged under the weight of the tree limbs but did break, yet the shock caused a segment down the line to snap, whereupon the loose ends fell into the street, sending off sparks, smoke, and flame.

Police arrived promptly, and the repair crews from Western Mass Electric were not far behind. Soon, a man in a bucket lift took a chainsaw to the branches.

As for me, I still had several hours of computer battery power but decided to go with the flow: beer, book, and candle. Every once in a while, especially when prompted by circumstances, it's worth trying to explore the realities of early modern life. As Thomas Jefferson said, "from candle light to early bedtime, I read."

Many people have "romantic" notions about candlelight, but there's nothing very charming if you actually have to work by it. We forget the extent to which the lives of our ancestors were tied to the rhythms of the day and the seasons, and we sometimes exaggerate the presumed benefits of early artificial lighting. The popular image of ordinary gatherings illuminated by the glow of dozens of candles is a fiction. In Colonial Williamsburg, it was considered extravagant to burn as many as three candles in an evening. Stanley Kubrick was famously able to shoot "Barry Lyndon" (1975) in even relatively extravagant candlelight only because he specially adapted a NASA lens originally designed to photograph the dark side of the moon: We are told that only because it was "100% faster than the fastest movie lens" was it "possible to shoot in light conditions so dim that it was difficult to read." Indeed. When researching the lives of writers in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, I've come across regular complaints about the difficulties of working at night, and in the winter, when the days were shorter and the light poor.

Here, I was using a Sheffield Plate study lamp from the early 1800s, which reflects and focuses the light of a single candle on the page or other work surface. It helps a great deal, but even with other candles nearby for ambient light, reading a small volume with small Fraktur font takes some effort, and the eyes tire easily. The book I happened to be reading before the power outage was The Plague of German Literature (Die Pest der deutschen Literatur; privately published, Zurich, 1795), in which the reactionary Swiss author Johann Georg Heinzmann railed against reviewers, moneygrubbing writers, and revolutionaries.

The outage was minimal (a couple of hours), but it interrupted the flow of writing and posting, and then exam week was upon us, so I'm only now catching up. As luck would have it, there was another explosion and outage yesterday afternoon, though of undetermined cause and location. The electricity was off for two hours again. It's starting to become routine, but one I could do without.

Still, life is far easier than in the "good old days." Now as then, however, the task of writing awaits.

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