<<

. 20
( 50 .)



>>

And tried to prove her loving lord was mad,
But as he had some lucid intermissions,
She next decided he was only bad. (st. ·)

And so on. One may read these lines, and the entire passage, without any
knowledge whatever of the autobiographical allusions; or one may read
them with no detailed and particular knowledge, though with some gen-
eral sense that personal allusions are being made; or one may read them
from the inside, as it were, as a person learned in the various references.
Don Juan has imagined and written to all three of these audiences.
But it has also done more. Besides all those later readers (like ourselves)
who are learned in such texts by study and application, the passage
has imagined various contemporary readers. Their presences are called
to our attention through the surviving proofs of Byron™s poem, which
were read and annotated by Byron™s friend John Cam Hobhouse. In
these annotations Hobhouse™s principal object was to persuade Byron
to moderate various aspects of the satire “ for example, the personal
swipes at Lady Byron.· Alongside the passage just cited Hobhouse wrote,
disapprovingly: “This is so very pointed.”
The proofs with Hobhouse™s annotations were sent to Byron, who
entered a dialogue with his friend by adding his own marginalia in res-
ponse to Hobhouse™s strictures. Against that comment by Hobhouse, for
example, Byron wrote: “If people make application it is their own fault.”
The remark is entirely disingenuous, of course, but it emphasizes his
awareness of “the people” who might “make application” in texts like
these. Hobhouse is one of those people “ but then so is Lady Byron; and
these two readers, equally imagined through this text, will read in very
different ways.
This proof material raises two points which I want to emphasize and
pursue. First, the “application” which Hobhouse makes in his reading
underscores the variety of possible applications: even if we limit the reading
group to “the knowing ones,” we can see how differently the passage will
be read by Hobhouse, Lady Byron, Augusta Leigh, and so forth. Second,
those different readings do not stand outside the text; on the contrary,
they are part of the work™s imagination of itself. Byron is a reader of his
own text here, as his marginal note to Hobhouse indicates. And when we
consult the reviews of the ¬rst two cantos we ¬nd a series of other readers
± Byron and Romanticism
who have been imagined by the writing and who turn upon Byron™s texts
in various states of outrage, annonyance, disgust. Our later varieties of
amusement are to be reckoned up here as well.
Byron™s poem thus incorporates a large and diverse group of people
into itself. The group includes speci¬c persons, like Hobhouse, Lady
Byron, and a host of named or otherwise targeted individuals “ literary
people (friends, acquaintances, enemies, or simply people he knew or
had heard of ), politicians, public ¬gures, lovers, and so forth; but it
also includes various social, ideological, religious, and political groups
(like the bluestockings, the landed aristocracy, the London literary world,
the government, the opposition, and a variety of Christian readers).
These people are “in” Byron™s poem not simply because they are named
or alluded to “ not simply at the narratological level “ but because
Byron™s text has called them out “ has imagined them as presences
at the rhetorical and dialogical levels. Because Byron has pulled them
into the world of his poem, the poem is forced to overstep its own aesthetic
limits, and to move among them, in their world.
The various public™s responses to the poem are therefore included in
the writing™s imagination of itself. Byron™s readers seem most present
in those passages where the text appears most shocking or tasteless.
The parody of the decalogue in Canto I; the scenes of cannibalism in
Canto II; the aftermath of the siege of Ismael when the “widows of
forty” are made to wonder “Wherefore the ravishing did not begin!”
(VIII, st. ±): these passages horri¬ed early readers, and many of them
still retain their offensiveness. The effects are wholly calculated, however,
though for certain readers this fact only increases the offense which they
represent.
Byron™s calculations are meant to draw readers into the orbit of the
poem, to insist upon their presence. The stanzas in Canto I (°“±°)
where Byron declares that he “bribed my grandmother™s review “ the
British” to write an approving article on Don Juan are a good instance
of what is happening in Byron™s text. The allegation is patently out-
rageous “ an amusing poetical ¬‚ight which calls attention to Byron™s
general awareness that his poem might cause “some prudish readers
[to] grow skittish.” The editor of the British Review, however, William
Roberts, took it all in high seriousness, and was moved to issue a public
denial of Byron™s imaginary declaration.
William Roberts thus becomes an accomplice in Byron™s writing.
Don Juan seeks that kind of complicity, imagines its presence at every
point. We laugh at Roberts™s foolishness for having risen to Byron™s bait
±
Private poetry, public deception
here, but the more important matter to grasp is that Roberts™s reaction
has to be included in our understanding of Byron™s poem, has to be seen as “part
of ” the work.
Roberts™s reaction calls attention to some of the poem™s most impor-
tant discursive procedures. We confront the same kind of situation, for
example, when Hobhouse annotates the texts that allude to Lady Byron.
Where the poem reads (in reference to Donna Inez and Don Jose)

She kept a journal, where his faults were noted,
And open™d certain trunks of books and letters.
(I, st. )

the text is glancing at one of Byron™s most cherished beliefs about his
wife and her deviousness (“You know,” Byron wrote to his sister, “that
Lady B[yro]n secretly opened my letter trunks before she left Town”). Hobhouse
annotates the Don Juan text “There is some doubt about this,” meaning
that he is not sure that Lady Byron actually ransacked Byron™s belongings
in January ±±. What is remarkable here is the way Hobhouse is reading,
the way he, like Roberts, refuses to distinguish between the ¬ctive and
the factive dimensions of the text. Hobhouse reads the poem as if it were
literal statement at the level of the subtext.
Byron™s response to Hobhouse™s annotation is even more interesting.
Against his friend™s expression of doubt about the factual truth of Byron™s
poetic allusion, Byron writes this in the margin:

What has the “doubt” to do with the poem? It is at least poetically true”why
apply everything to that absurd woman. I have no reference to living characters.

Here disingenuousness unmasks itself as hypocrisy. Byron™s argument
that his work should not be read outside its purely aesthetic space is
belied by his own continual practice. What Byron™s remark indicates,
however, is his reluctance to accept fully the consequences of the writing
procedures he has set in motion. The writing has collapsed the distinction
between factual and ¬ctional space, and it calls various actual readers
into its presence. Byron™s annotation shows that he still imagines he can
control those readers, that he still imagines it is his poetic privilege to
keep them in control and to require them to read “in the same spirit
that the author writ.” But a larger “spirit” than Lady Byron™s husband
supervenes the act of writing here. The poetry, written “in” that larger
spirit, exposes that man as another partisan reader of the poem, and
hence as a reader who can claim no authoritative privilege. Hobhouse™s
± Byron and Romanticism
critical reading of Byron™s text is written in, is part of, that larger satirical
spirit. The generosity of Byron™s satirical project is that it has licensed his
work to bite the hand that feeds it.

III

To the degree that Don Juan is committed to telling the truth, the under-
mining of the narrator™s authority has important implications. In laying
“Byron” open to criticism, the writing takes away a fundamental Roman-
tic truth-function. Sincerity, the integrity of the “veracious self,” will not
survive the poem™s own processes. The poem responds to this situation
by developing a new theory of truth, the idea of “truth in masquerade”:
And after all, what is a lie? ™Tis but
The truth in masquerade; and I defy
Historians, heroes, lawyers, priests to put
A fact without some leaven of a lie.
The very shadow of true Truth would shut
Up annals, revelations, poesy,
And prophecy.

This being the case, Byron concludes:
Praised be all liars and all lies!
(XI, sts. ·“)

The project of Don Juan is itself an instance of the truth in masquerade:
for while six volumes of the work were published under Byron™s authority,
they were all issued anonymously. Note or text, the name Byron never
passes the lips of the poem. That Byron was its author everyone knew,
nor did he try to conceal the fact; but he did equivocate, as we see from the
“Reply” he wrote (but never published) to the attack made on Don Juan
in Blackwood™s Edinburgh Magazine of August ±±.
With regard to Don Juan, I neither deny nor admit it to be mine “ everybody
may form their own opinion; but, if there be any who now, or in the progress of
that poem, if it is to be continued, feel, or should feel themselves so aggrieved
as to require a more explicit answer, privately and personally, they shall have it.
I have never shrunk from the responsibility of what I have written.±°

Byron here insists on maintaining the ¬ction of the author™s anonymity
even as he all but acknowledges the poem as his production. Not to come
forward explicitly as the author of Don Juan meant that the work could
±µ
Private poetry, public deception
operate as a masquerade performance whose many roles and attitudes
would all have to be understood to have been assumed by one person.
Furthermore, the work is properly to be designated a masquerade rather
than a theatrical performance because the encounters with the poem™s
audiences do not take place across the distance marked by a proscenium.
The poem engages its interlocutors “ even when those people are a group
or a class “ in much more intimate and personal ways. The style is, as
the work says, “conversational.”
Still, the truth that lies in masquerade remains contradictory. In his
enthusiasm for his new theory of truth the narrator exclaims “Praised be
all liars and all lies!” But the propositions concealed in that sentence “
that all liars and lies are worthy of praise, and that the speaker of the
sentence assents to this idea “ are both belied by Don Juan. The text is
happy to praise many lies and liars, even the lies of lying women which
the younger Byron, drowning in his sentimental sexism, once had so
much trouble with; and the narrator stands behind the text in all those
instances. But one liar stands outside the pale: “shuf¬‚ing Southey, that
incarnate lie” (X, st. ±).
The exception is extremely important so far as Don Juan is concerned.
I pass without comment the obvious fact that Southey™s exceptional
position gives the lie to “ contradicts “ the universal praise of liars. This
is important, but not so important as another contradiction. To the
degree that Byron can perceive untruth incarnate in Robert Southey, to
that extent Byron comes forward in his masquerade as one possessed,
however unselfconsciously, of truth. A kind of negative ground of truth,
Southey becomes one of the still points in the turning world of Don Juan.
The veracity of the Byronic self is de¬ned through its differences from
and with Robert Southey.
But even here we encounter a problem, as one may see very easily
from that passage in Canto III which centers in “The Isle of Greece”
ballad. At the plot level, the ballad is sung by the Romantic poet kept
by Lambro on his island fastness. The song becomes the occasion for a
series of re¬‚ections on poets like Southey who sell themselves to authority,
or fashion their work to catch the main chance. The textual dif¬culty
arises because, in developing the attack on Southey™s crassness and lack
of integrity, the poem uses details and illustrations which are drawn
from Byron™s own work and career. As we saw earlier, in drawing the
portrait of the “sad trimmer” poet (III, st. ) in the likeness of Robert
Southey, Byron™s poem creates an unusual palimpsest in which the faces
of Southey and Byron, those arch antagonists, are super-imposed on
± Byron and Romanticism
each other. The two men are, in the full meaning of that paradoxical
phrase, “Twin opposites.”
When truth operates in masquerade, then, even negative grounds of
truth fail to keep their identity. If bad “moralists like Southey” (III, st. )
are not the reeds on which the poem can lean, perhaps “ as numer-
ous readers have suggested “ we are to count on the play of Don Juan™s
ironies. Integrity and stability lie in the work™s ¬‚aunting of its own con-
tradictions, in the Romantic irony we observed playing through the pas-
sage about Byron™s “veracious self ” in Canto XV. There Romantic irony
is invoked, as so often in the poem, to expose and transcend its own
contradictions.
But Romantic irony is not the work™s ground of truth either. We
glimpse this even through the example of Southey, who is not known in
Don Juan through plays of Romantic irony. He is known rather through
hatred “ the same way that Brougham and Castlereagh are known.
The poem™s equation of Byron and Southey, therefore, cannot be as-
similated into Don Juan™s ironical self-understanding, for it is an equa-
tion which, though real, stands outside “ in true contradiction to “ the
horizon of the work™s self-consciousness. Byron can be witty at his own
expense, or at Southey™s expense, but his wit is not engaged in face of
the Byron/Southey parallel. His wit cannot be engaged here because
Southey is not in the end a ¬gure of fun for Byron, he is a ¬gure of all
that is hateful and despicable.
The issue of Southey and the presence of anger and hatred in Don Juan
are the touchstones by which we can measure the poem™s contradictions.
The argument in the margins between Byron and Hobhouse, noted
earlier, eventually spills, like so much else, into the public text:

And recollect [this] work is only ¬ction,
And that I sing of neither mine nor me,
Though every scribe, in some slight turn of diction,
Will hint allusions never meant. Ne™er doubt
This”when I speak, I don™t hint, but speak out.
(XI, st. )

Which is all very well except that the poem not only practices such an
art of allusions, in Canto XIV it explicitly declares itself committed to the
mode. Don Juan is written in a secret code, the text declares, because
the work contains so “much which could not be appreciated / In any
manner by the uninitiated” (XIV, sts. ±“). It is important to see that
±·
Private poetry, public deception
these two passages “ these two positions “ do not cancel each other out
in the poem. Don Juan is constructed to show that there is a sense in
which “ or perhaps one should say that there are times when “ both
assertions apply; just as there are occasions when each of these attitudes
would have itself belied by the text.
Thus Don Juan does something more than set in motion Byron™s ver-
sion of Kierkegaard™s either/or problematic. The poem™s contradictions
deconstruct all truth-functions which are founded either in (metaphysi-
cal) Identity or (psychological) Integrity, as we have seen. In their place
is set a truth-function founded (negatively) in contradiction itself, and
(positively) in metonomy: to the negative either/or dialectic Don Juan
adds the procedural rule of “both/and.” That procedural rule is Byron™s
version of what Hegel called “the negation of the negation.”
The latter, in its Byronic form, means that the terms of all contra-
dictions are neither idealistically transcended nor nihilistically cancelled
out. They simply remain in contradiction. The both/and rule means
that the writing of the poem must “invariably” produce not simply the
dialectic of “Opinions two,” but somewhere “a third too in a nook,” that
third being, minimally, that awareness of the unresolved character of the
original opposition.
It is through its many forms of contradiction that the poem declares its
truth-function to consist in the setting of problems and not the presenta-
tion of solutions. The point of the work is to test the limits of what it itself

<<

. 20
( 50 .)



>>