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work that tilled new ground but was perhaps too “literary” and experimen-
tal to become in¬‚uential, has remained a fallow possibility. You applaud
Susan Howe™s book on Emily Dickinson. And, since Sontag was largely
right in Against Interpretation, why have most critics resisted taking more
chances with their work? We are allowed to “get personal” now, but that
seems to be an etiolated form of, for example, Pater™s Impressionism.
J J M : Yes, what a critical gain if we had more imaginative critical activity. But
we do have some splendid writing along those lines. Nearly all of Charles
Bernstein™s critical work, for instance, or Steve McCaffery™s. Of course
they™re poets, like Susan Howe. But then what of Jeffrey Skoblow “ his
remarkable book on Morris, Paradise Regained, and his even more bril-
liant book that appeared only last year “ a study of Burns and Scots
poetry. And Randall McLeod has been writing the most innovative
 Byron and Romanticism
Renaissance and textual criticism for more than two decades. Just four
years ago Jena Osman and Juliana Spaar edited that double issue of Chain
( Vol.  Parts ± and  [Spring/Fall, ±]) devoted to imaginative forms of
criticism. So we do have enterprising work “ mostly by young people, not
by older scholars like McLeod (for some a ¬gure of legend, for others an
outrage and scandal).
McLeod is a particularly interesting ¬gure because his scholarly cre-
dentials are unassailable. He is one of the most learned and broadly read
scholars alive today. His passion for exactitude is nearly as rare as his critical
originality. McLeod™s and Skoblow™s astonishing ¬‚ights are grounded in the
thoroughgoing rigor of their work. Imaginative criticism and scholarship,
then, by all means “ but demanding and exigent as well.µ
The recent biographical forays by various professors are something else
entirely, of course.
J S : It™s odd that biographical treatment of Byron is an imperative (as your
teacher Cecil Lang long ago argued) and yet to put one™s own biography
forth as an equal imperative seems wrongheaded. Have we in some sense
looped back to the beginning of this conversation and the idea of objec-
tivity? There™s something of a puzzle here, for Byron is also known as a
great “objective” writer on one level, and yet deeply autobiographical on
another. What follows from this paradox for his critics? Is your own objec-
tivity somehow a “re¬‚ection” (or is that the wrong word) of Byron™s? And
is there some connection between irony and objectivity?
J J M : Well, James, surely there™s “biography” and biography. A scholar™s or
critic™s biography might be quite interesting, but next to Byron or Dickinson
or Colette? “Be real” as the youngsters say. Certain ¬gures “ those three
are simply obvious ones “ seem great Stars in all senses of that word. Their
force ¬elds are immense and they are part of the map of the universe, at
once elements in it and powers that help to organize it.
That™s rhapsodic and perhaps unhelpful here. But your comment re-
minds me of the still-neglected study of the relation of biography to works
of art and to culture and history. In our recent scholarly “return to his-
tory,” the “biographical element” remains largely, as we say, “untheorized.”
Psychoanalytic models continue to dominate, and these are models “
despite the efforts of writers from Marcuse to Foucault and beyond “ that
make a hash of “history.”
Here™s a thought experiment out of Trotsky™s History of the Russian
Revolution, where he included a chapter that asked the question: “Would
the Revolution Have Taken Place Without Lenin?” That it™s an impossible
question is exactly what makes it interesting. It™s a question that forces
Trotsky to reconsider the premises of his narrative. And his answer “ a
very weak one “ locates one of the greatest moments in his remarkable
work.
“What Would the Romantic Movement Be Without Byron?” Without
Mary Robinson? Without Laetitia Elizabeth Landon?
·
Byron and Romanticism, a dialogue
JS: Rather than “get real” let me get ideal. That means getting Shelleyan. For
when you speak of what History would be like without Great Men “ or
Ignored but Great Women “ I think of Shelley™s Defence of Poetry and his
wondering about what our civilization would be like had Homer, Dante,
Shakespeare, and Milton not lived. Since he saw the genius of Don Juan
he might have added Byron. And certainly he had high hopes “ in every
sense “ for Prometheus Unbound. As you say, this is rhapsodic stuff. And now
I wonder (this is becoming rather wonderful) how far you believe in the
Great Man theory “ the Star-struck theory “ of History (and Literary
History)? Your rhetoric suggests you do, but then you also seem to believe,
as the remarkable Shelley also did, that authors are both the creators and
creatures of their age. Have we all suf¬ciently “theorized” how Byron
weighs into this question?
J J M : If I understand what “the Great Man/Woman Theory” is, I™m sure I don™t
“believe in” it. What does seem to me important, perhaps especially in this
“return to history” we are part of, is that we should think in terms of
histories that “were actually ¬lled with living [ people], not by protocols,
state papers, controversies and abstractions.” That™s (more or less) Carlyle
praising Walter Scott™s historicism. And Carlyle was writing in this way as
part of his critique of Enlightenment history, a fact we do well to remember
since our “New Historicism” emerged from that ferociously enlightened
period we now call “Theory.” Much in our new Cultural and Historical
Studies remains highly theoretical and “enlightened.” But history is a ¬eld
of desire “ a theater of cruelty even, pleasure and pain. When I spoke above
about “theorizing Byron” I spoke ironically, of course. But not insincerely.
History without a sure relation to the engines of desire is not just boring,
it is unenlightened. And your reference to Shelley couldn™t be more apt.
J S : What do you mean by “ferociously enlightened”? In what sense is or was
that true? Or am I once again not registering an ironic tone?
J J M : Let™s say “self-ironical.” “Theory” brought remarkable liberations to lit-
erary studies and in the midst of those times one scarcely saw the costs
involved, much less counted them. Now they™re only too apparent. I™m
not speaking here of the crisis in general education “ deeply troubling but
not a subject for this conversation. I™m thinking of the scholarly dif¬culty
inherent in any posture of critical distance. One can™t practice any criti-
cal investigation without standing back to observe matters coolly “ even
severely. But then one can™t pretend to authoritative understanding unless
one adopts what Rossetti called “an inner standing point.” The paradox
locates one of criticism™s regular dif¬culties. Another has been captured in
that line from Burns: “To see ourselves as others see us.” Students of human
studies, we often speak and think an alien and even ludicrous discourse “
at least so it may reasonably appear. We™re not talking about quantum
mechanics after all. Byron™s critique of Wordsworth and Coleridge in
Don Juan was vulgar and probably unfair too. But it was also (a) witty and
(b) true. Not theoretically true of course, as we see in the historical
 Byron and Romanticism
aftermath, when many people decided they understood and liked what
Wordsworth and Coleridge were saying. So then not Wordsworth and
Coleridge needed “explaining” but Byron!
“I wish he would explain his explanation”: the comic point of that splen-
did passage in Don Juan seems once again very clear and current. Not for
Coleridge and Wordsworth “ they have outsoared the shadow of our night.
For us.
J S : Let me dwell for a moment on “self-irony.” In Flaubert™s Parrot, Julian Barnes
describes Irony as: “Either the devil™s mark or the snorkel of sanity.” What
I love about Byron is how his irony demolishes this either/or by giving
us both diabolism and lucidity in equal measures and often with bracing
simultaneity. Then it™s just a matter of whether the temporizing glossers
(critics) can catch a ride on his mind and desire, or whether we succumb
to the sort of canting routines and ludicrous habits that Byron loved to
burlesque. But before I get carried away, let me have your response to
Barnes™s witty, witting disjunction.
J J M : But surely you™re right, it™s not an either/or, it™s a both/and. The best
(and worst) thing about the devil is that™s he™s supremely sane “ getting
tossed out of heaven can really clear your head I think. And the best
(and worst) thing about God or the gods is that they™re completely crazy,
as that wonderful ¬lm put it. Look at all the god-haunted creatures “
St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, Bataille, Byron himself for that matter.
Wordsworth loving to see the look of an unfeeling fortress. All of this is
crazy, as Mephistopheles tells Faust. One of the signal marks of a “Modern”
consciousness “ a consciousness like Mozart™s, Goethe™s, Byron™s, and all
their successors from Delacroix through Poe, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and
beyond “ is the ways they transform that either/or into both/and. Blake
called it “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
J S : In what ways can criticism attend [to] this marriage? After all, not just
anyone can get tossed out of heaven.
J J M : Yes, I think we have all ¬nally been thrown out. Modernity, “the world
turned upside down,” the Fall of the Angels. It™s a general condition, though
some are still unaware that this remarkable event has occurred. But the
persons I just mentioned “ lots of others might be added to the list “ have
been important because they registered this moment with such acuity.
And in the event we have discovered the Nova Scientia called Pataphysics,
the Science of Exceptions. Byron is of course an exquisite instance of the
pataphysical “ his work and his life as well. Pataphysics comes to set a
measure to all the normative sciences. Its elementary formula is “a equals
a if and only if a does not equal a.” Norms are based on a rationale of
the mysterious, a “ratio” imposed on reality in order to make it usable
in certain determinate ways. Exceptions make up the ¬eld of normative
derivations “ just as, to return to a Romantic and scholarly frame of refer-
ence, Schiller™s concept of the naive is derived from the energetic ¬eld of
sentimentality.

Byron and Romanticism, a dialogue
JS: So Byron™s being “born for opposition” is also one of these exceptions? But
if the ¬eld is made up of exceptions, then the “rationale of the mysterious”
(nice title for a book!) also accounts for Wordsworth™s writing “exceptional”
sonnets in favor of capital punishment. In this new register, what I S N ™ T
exceptional? There must be degrees of the pataphysical, no? Is there some
analogy here to submitting to Conrad™s “destructive element” “ the one in
which modernism found baptism?
J J M : Your Conrad reference is so very apt. These days I think in terms of what
Rossetti called the “inner standing point” as a necessity of art. It™s the
precise analogue (and forecast) of what Conrad was speaking about. In a
Modern situation art occupies an inner standing point with respect to both
its subjects and its materials. Its moral authority comes from the explicit
character of its social “complicities,” so to say “ whatever point of view
it takes. Even were it to take that peculiar modernist (and neo-classical)
standpoint of “disinterestedness,” the horizon of Modernity would force
out the pataphysical revelation: that disinterestedness represents and ex-
ecutes a certain ideological position. And Wordsworth is yet another ¬ne
instance of an art that moves us by its losses and failures, by its involvement
in the “destructive element,” an involvement all the more rich because of
its unwilling participation. Blake and Byron, in that respect, are “more
Modern” than Wordsworth. But because the whole ethos is ruled by a
Science of Exceptions, all forms of artistic expression become more or less
consciously pataphysical.
J S : Just as Byron had more Rousseau than St. Augustine in him, so he must
have had more (nascent) French absurdism in him. And I take it the par-
odic element is the proli¬cally destructive one, no? But I need a clarifying
example of what you™ve been presenting: to under-stand this inner stand-
ing. Something generously nonsensical where the law of non-contradiction
pirouettes.
J J M : For Byron, yes, parody “ including self-parody “ is pivotal. For Wordsworth
I should say “cant” “ Byron™s word “ is the “proli¬cally destructive” ele-
ment. Cant, for example, about the famous “abundant recompense” that
issues from “loss.” This representation is cant. Byron™s registration of this
kind of falseness was as acute as it was defensively unfair, however. For the
truth is that Wordsworth™s cant is the (self-)destructive element that gener-
ates the heartbreaking (self-)revelations of his heartbreaking verse, which is
a kind of perpetual machine of suffering and loss fueled by Wordsworth™s
cherished moral illusions. “Abundant recompense” is a “cherished mad-
ness of [Wordsworth™s] heart.” To read that fearful myth as “truth” is
to learn nothing from it. With Wordsworth, alas, the possibility of gen-
erous nonsense seems to have stopped with that magical and charming
neglected masterpiece “The Idiot Boy.” But of course it™s absurd to say
“alas” here, given that river of lacrymae rerum that issued from his pen.
It is one of the rivers of (our) life. Shelley revealed something important
about the river when he insisted upon its benevolent transformation in
°° Byron and Romanticism
Prometheus Unbound “ I™m thinking not only of the incomparable “My soul
is an enchanted boat” but of the later moment when Earth translates
the ¬gure of Death into a mother calling to her child, “Leave me not
again” (III, , ±°·). That event is the exact equivalent of the moment in
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when the angel™s tormented vision of “hell”
is imaginatively translated into a Garden of Eden.
J S : The lucid Lucifer must be, then, both Ironist and Parodist. Do you recall
what Dr. Johnson said after having cited Satan™s [in]famous line about
“the mind is its own place”? He observed, with speci¬c gravitas, “Yes, but
we must remember that Satan is a liar.” And Byron, by his own admission,
was a “devil of a mannerist” when he wrote Manfred and nearly cribbed
Satan™s lines. Would you say that modernism as we™ve been discussing it
occurred when readers ¬rst began taking Satan as N O T lying. Blake must
have believed that Milton himself was the ¬rst such reader. Byron™s mock-
epic submits to the Satanic element with gusto and a certain Enlightenment
hope. Hence,

Man fell with apples, and with apples rose.

Is there a more ef¬cient, brilliant example of “ratio” than this? Has “the
Fall” “ and its downward spiral “ ever been more happily reversed and
parodied, a deformation transformed through sheer ingenuity, as Byron™s
mind skiffs like an enchanted soul?
J J M : There™s another ancient tradition that holds Satan to be the most rigor-
ous kind of truth-teller “ like Mephistopheles. His rigor indeed is what
traps unwary mortals, who generally have much less control over their
wills. Satan chose to disobey. It is this other tradition that Byron™s Cain in-
vokes and exploits. Byron makes Lucifer the Last (Enlightenment) Man,
which is to say that he makes him a ¬gure of the High Romantic.
Manfred is another type of work altogether “ an outrageously parodic
(and self-parodic) text and the clear forecast of Don Juan™s miscegenated
parodies. Manfred™s legacy is comic, sentimental, Bakhtinian: Joyce or
J. C. Powys, for instance; Cain™s is critical, re¬‚ective, Derridean: Pound,
Riding, Perec.
J S : I™m reminded of lines you often cite and critically gloss, from Byron™s
“[Epistle to Augusta],” written about the time he was hatching Manfred.

The fault was mine”nor do I seek to screen
My errors with defensive paradox”
I have been cunning in mine overthrow
The careful pilot of my proper woe.

Is Byron being, at long last, a rigorous truth-teller, or is self-parody
“screening” his errors even as he rather proudly confesses them? So many
“exceptional” nuances to sift through. But is there a trap in these lines?
°±
Byron and Romanticism, a dialogue
And for whom, precisely, are they meant? What “ hypocritical? “ readers
do they imagine?
J J M : Poems always lie in wait to trap unwary readers, don™t you think? Or
unwary writers of poems. They leave no one safe. And so that lovely
text of Byron™s. Is it truth-telling “at long last”? Yes it is, it stretches itself
back over those Years of Fame and lays Lord Byron out for an autopsy,
like the corpse of Greece he himself anatomized in The Giaour. Is Byron
“screening his errors”? Yes, of course, for the confession is an apology
and even a kind of justi¬cation. Its hypocrisy comes clear as soon as we
isolate the model and convention of what is written there: it™s that most
self-deceived and hypocritical of all rhetorics, the Christian confession of
one™s sin before God. Byron wrote Manfred to begin his astonishing effort to
unmask and exorcise that fearful anti-human rhetoric, which raises such a
barrier against self-clarity. And then later, in the ludic “Forgiveness-Curse”
sequence in Childe Harold Canto IV, he left that rhetoric in utter shambles.
J S : Do you also consider the following stanza to raze that rhetoric, or to be
facetious about it, which amounts to the same thing? The narrator is
describing the education of Don Juan in Canto I.

Sermons he read, and lectures he endured,
And homilies, and lives of all the saints;
To Jerome and to Chrysostom inured,
He did not take such studies for restraints;

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