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is able to imagine, and to carry out those tests by setting imagination
against imagination.
The poem, we should therefore say, learns from itself, even though the
knowledge it acquired must remain provisional, subject to change, and
even sometimes unassimilated at the authoritative level of its conscious-
ness. Byron™s private argument with Hobhouse in the margins of the
proofs of Cantos I“II would eventually ¬nd itself publicly displayed in the
contradictory passages set down in Cantos XI and XIV respectively, where
those two imaginations expose their respective limits. This kind of thing
happens repeatedly in the work. The writing seems bound to imagine
the truths in its own lies as well as the falsehoods in its own truths. In Don
Juan, Byron™s imagination of Southey has a fatal appointment to keep
with his imagination of himself.
This structure of provocations does not arise, however, from the ideol-
ogy of Byron™s own “creative imagination.” It is rather the consequence
of Don Juan™s rhetoric, which insists upon the presence of an objective
± Byron and Romanticism
world of various readers. One of these readers is the person we call Lord
Byron, the writer of Don Juan, though even in his case, as we have seen,
the person subsists in a multiplied “ perhaps we should say, a fractured “
identity. But it is the many other readers “ Hobhouse, Lady Byron, the
reviewers, the public in general “ who stand as the work™s most plain
¬gures of otherness and objectivity. “Prepare for rhyme,” Don Juan in
effect says to them all “ and in so saying the work lays itself open to
the preparedness “ the self-consciousness “ it insists upon in those it has
summoned.
Don Juan is seriously interested in what they all have to say “ the
foolish things of William Roberts, the more thoughtful things of his friend
Hobhouse, the critical and antagonistic things of everyone. In Canto VII,
for example, when Byron protests against those who attacked him for
underrating and scof¬ng “At human power and virtue, and all that,”
Byron defends the morality of the work “as a Satire on the abuses of the
present states of society” (BLJ X, ), and on the illusions of those who
were unable to see those abuses.
But the reviewers and pamphleteers insisted that Don Juan was
somthing far different. Jeffrey™s notice in the Edinburgh Review (Feb. ±),
while respectful of the work in certain ways, summarizes the negative line
of attack. Don Juan is “in the highest degree pernicious” to society be-
cause it, like all Byron™s writings, has “a tendency to destroy all belief in
the reality of virtue.”
Though Don Juan vigorously dissents from such a judgment, it also
assimilates the judgment to itself, adds its own assent to that judgment
even as it maintains, at the same time, its dissenting line.
That both/and maneuver is unmistakeable, for example, at the be-
ginning of Canto XIII. In Canto XII Byron had reiterated his position that
Don Juan™s goal is the “improvement” (st. °) of society: “My Muse by
exhortation means to mend / All people” (st. ). But at the opening of
Canto XIII this passion for virtuous improvement, it appears, has waned
somewhat:

I should be very willing to redress
Men™s wrongs, and rather check than punish crimes,
Had not Cervantes in that too true tale
Of Quixote, shown how all such efforts fail.
Cervantes smiled Spain™s Chivalry away;
A single laugh demolished the right arm
±
Private poetry, public deception
Of his own country;”seldom since that day
Has Spain had heroes. While Romance could charm,
The world gave ground before her bright array;
And therefore have his volumes done such harm,
That all their glory, as a composition,
Was dearly purchased by his land™s perdition. (sts. , ±±)

The argument repeats the most commonplace line of attack taken toward
Don Juan by contemporary readers. Its force here as a self-critical move
is only emphasized by the explicit parallels which Don Juan draws at
various points between itself and Don Quixote. Furthermore, since Byron
has been deliberately pursuing this quixotic line at least since the ¬rst
two cantos of Childe Harold,±± the repetition of it here underscores the
“truth” of the idea which Jeffrey had formulated for so many: that all of
Byron™s writings, and not just Don Juan, tend to undermine “the reality
of virtue.”
Byron™s work is so replete with turnabouts of this kind that we tend to
read its basic structure as dialectical, and hence to approach its truth-
functions in an epistemological frame of reference. This is to see the work
as fundamentally critical “ the great pronunciamento of what Carlyle
would call the “Everlasting Nay.” But the critical spirit that drives Byron™s
work is inadequately represented as a dialectical form. True, the work
itself frequently encourages such a representation:

And if I laugh at any mortal thing,
™Tis that I may not weep; and if I weep,
™Tis that our nature cannot always bring
Itself to apathy, for we must steep
Our hearts ¬rst in the depths of Lethe™s spring
Ere what we least wish to behold will sleep:
(IV, st. )

This passage begins with a dialectical gesture as the ¬rst two lines put us
on the brink of a neatly turned antithesis. With the third line, however,
we veer off unexpectedly “ not in the direction of the laughter initially
imagined but toward “apathy” and forgetfulness. These, it turns out,
are neither wanted not attainable here, though they are raised up as
imaginable goals. In the end the passage does not tell us what would
follow if the text were to “weep” instead of laugh. Forgetfulness, indiffer-
ence, and laughter would, by the logic of this argument, all be equally
possible.
±° Byron and Romanticism
This famous passage displays in miniature an important point:
that in Byron™s writing, contradiction is not dialectic, it is asymmetry.
Metaphoric transfers yield to the transactions of metonymy which them-
selves branch out along rhizomatic lines. The order of things in the work
therefore turns out to be wholly incommensurate:
Ah!”What should follow slips from my re¬‚ection:
Whatever follows ne™ertheless may be
As apropos of hope or retrospection,
As though the lurking thought had followed free:
(XV, st. ±)

Writing “what™s uppermost, without delay” (XIV, st. ·) may equally mean
description, narration, direct address; it may mean to write sponta-
neously or re¬‚ectively; it may mean gathering similes in a heap, de-
veloping an argument, opening a digression. It might mean copying out
something (a quotation, a pharmaceutical prescription) or it might mean
not writing anything at all, but simply editing.
The “ever varying rhyme” (VII, st. ) of Don Juan seems to me a direct
function of its choice of a rhetorical rather than a lyrical procedure. The
decision has pitched the work outside the bounds of its subjectivity and
forced it to take up many matters which it may have imagined but which it
could not comprehend. As a result, the writing will not “ indeed, cannot “
achieve anything but provisory and limited control over its own materials.
It continually enters into contradictions, but the contradictions do not
typically emerge out of a structure of their own internal logic. Rather,
contradictions come to the work at odd angles “ for instance, through
structures of the unforeseen and the haphazard:
For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
(Not the most “dainty Ariel”) and perplexes
Our soarings with another sort of question:
(XI, st. )

What undermines authority in Don Juan is the presence of many com-
peting authorities, all of whom have been called to judgment. Some of
these authorities are not human beings at all but circumstantial powers:
Indigestion, for example, or puberty (or age), boredom, or different kinds
of chance events (like the assassination of the military commandant
of Ravenna, Luigi dal Pinto).± If all are summoned to judgment, all
are equally capable of introducing unauthorized topics and problems “
surprises for or threats to the text which have to be taken into account.
±±
Private poetry, public deception
The poem may then consciously engage with these materials or not,
and when it does (or when it does not) its engagements (and refusals of
engagement) will themselves be highly idiosyncratic.
Don Juan develops its masquerade by pretending to be equal to itself
and to all its heterodox elements. This pretense to understanding and
truth is carried out, however, in the contradictory understanding that
it is a pretense; and the ground of that contradictory understanding is
the presence of others who are to observe and respond to the pretenses
being made.
That differential of a real otherness is most clearly to be seen in the
texts that resist incorporation by Romantic irony. Because Byron™s mas-
querade is not all in fun, for example “ because many persons have been
invited who are each other™s mortal enemies “ Don Juan™s pretenses are
not all embraceable in a comic generosity. Benevolence may be uni-
versal, but it is not everything. Savagery and tastelessness are therefore
Don Juan™s surest signs of a collapse of its integrity, a rupture in its pre-
tensions to the truth. Did Byron™s text imagine or anticipate the public
outcry that would be raised at the passage which sneered at Southey™s
and Coleridge™s wives as “milliners of Bath” (III, st. )? Was it equal
to that outrage and to the meaning which the outrage represented? We
would have to say that it was only if we also said that, in this passage,
meaning deploys itself as an unreconciled differential.
At the end of Canto XIV, when the narrator teases us about the possible
outcome of Adeline™s and Juan™s relationship, he forecasts the actual
event which will prove crucial to their lives in the plot of the poem.

But great things spring from little:”Would you think,
That in our youth as dangerous a passion
As e™er brought man and woman to the brink
Of ruin, rose from such a slight occasion,
As few would ever dream could form the link
Of such a sentimental situation?
You™ll never guess, I™ll bet you millions, milliards”
It all sprung from a harmless game of billiards.
(st. ±°°)

A superb masquerade of truth, the passage is not at all what it may
appear: for concealed in its reference to a “harmless game of billiards”
involving Juan and Lady Adeline is a private recollection of just such a
game once played in ±± by Lady Francis Wedderburn Webster and
Byron.± But of course it was not a game of billiards at all, it was a game
± Byron and Romanticism
of hearts. In his wonderful description of the scene at the time to Lady
Melbourne, Byron observed that

we went on with our game (of billiards) without counting the hazards “ & supposed
that “ as mine certainly were not “ the thoughts of the other party also were not
exactly occupied by what was our ostensible pursuit. (BLJ III, ±)

Lady Frances and Lord Byron played out the truth of what was happening
in a masquerade. They were making love, not playing billiards, but the
larger truth “ as Byron™s letters at the time show “ was that the lovemaking
was itself masked in a series of sentimental moves and gestures.
Don Juan pretends it is forecasting the lives of its ¬ctional characters,
but while its mind is on that game of billiards, it is on something else as
well, a different game of billiards which was, like the other game, not
simply (or “harmlessly”) a game of billiards at all. The text here, in other
words, executes a complex set of pretenses as a ¬gure for the kind of
truth which poetry involves.
That truth is best seen, perhaps, in the interpretive stanza which fol-
lows the one I just quoted.

™Tis strange”but true; for Truth is always strange,
Stranger than Fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
How oft would vice and virtue places change!
The new world would be nothing to the old,
If some Columbus of the moral seas
Would show mankind their souls™ Antipodes.
(XIV, st. ±°±)

Once the mask of truth is exposed in the ¬rst stanza, we understand how
the thematized discussion in this stanza is equally a mask of truth. This
happens because the text has revealed itself as a dialogical event in which
various parties may be imagined to be participating. We may imagine, for
instance, Lady Frances reading this interpretation, or Lady Melbourne,
or any number of Byron™s “knowing” friends “ or, for that matter, other
readers, people who are unaware of the subtext. Each would have a
different way of interpreting the interpretation. Furthermore, in each of
those cases the authoritative interlocutor, let us call him “Byron,” would
undergo an identity shift, for the masque of truth would have to play
itself out differently in each of the exchanges.
±
Private poetry, public deception
When truth comes in masquerade, propositions and states of affairs
are called into question, are called to an accounting; and this includes the
propositions and states of affairs which the poetical work itself appears
to aver or de¬ne. Thus we might say of the poems, after Sidney, that
if af¬rms and denies nothing “ that it is, in our contemporary terms,
a “virtual” reality. That idea is often represented in Don Juan, as when
the text insists that it denies, admits, rejects, and contemns “nothing.”
But “in fact” the work denies, admits, rejects, and contemns various
things, though sometimes “ as in the text I am alluding to “ it “in fact”
denies, admits, rejects, and contemns “nothing.” Don Juan is not a virtual
reality, it is a particular deed in language. It is “ to adapt a phrase from
Bruno Latour™s work “ poetry in action.
What is “true” in the poem therefore always depends on context and
circumstances. The concept of truth itself is revealed as open to change.
What does not change, I think is the structure in which knowledge and
truth are pursued and (however provisionally or idiosyncratically) de-
¬ned. This structure is rhetorical and dialogical “ not an internal collo-
quy but a communicative exchange.
Finally, that structure is to be seen as a masquerade for two important
reasons: that the parties to the exchange may be concretely de¬ned,
and that they may share each other™s consciousness. The both/and
form of the masquerade establishes the possibility of identity precisely
by putting identity in question. In the same way, the pretense involved
in the masquerade, being kept in the foreground, sets in motion an
exchange of awarenesses from both sides of the encounter.
This is perhaps to put it all far too abstractly, so I close by asking you
to imagine the billiard passage being read by different parties, and to
measure the differentials of truth which would emerge through those
readings. After you imagine it being read (say in ±, the year the text
was published) by Lady Frances, then imagine Lady Frances™s husband,
Byron™s friend Wedderburn Webster, coming to the passage ten years
after that billiard game at Aston Hall which, at the time, Webster knew
nothing about. If you make the latter imagining you might recall as
well “ would Webster have recalled it? “ that on the very evening of the
perilous billiard game Webster, in company with his wife and his other
guests, loudly proposed a bet to Byron “˜that he [Webster] for a certain
sum wins any given women “ against any given homme including all friends
present[™]” (BLJ III, ±); and recall as well (would Webster have had the
moral strength to make such a recollection?) that Byron “declined” the
± Byron and Romanticism
challenge with, as Byron put it, “becoming deference to him & the rest
of the company.” What truth Webster™s reading would have involved “
however he read the passage!

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