Byron and Romantic Occidentalism

Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism

Byron and Romantic Occidentalism

Colin Jager, Rutgers University

Jager argues that occidentalism (a critique of the west) can be found alongside Byron's obvious orientalism. That occidentalism, moreover, finds a use for enchantment that goes beyond secular critiques of the concept. This essay appears in _Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. The title of this essay may be a surprise to some readers. We tend to associate Byron, particularly his so-called "Turkish Tales," with orientalism—that is, with stereotyped and licentious depictions of the "East."[1] In this essay, however, I wish to supplement this by-now familiar reading by identifying within The Giaour (1813) a countervailing strand of "Occidentalism." In appealing to this term I am inspired by a recent essay by Akeel Bilgrami entitled "Occidentalism, the Very Idea," which considers whether stereotypes of the West, distorting as they might be, nonetheless create a space for critical engagement. His answer is a qualified "yes," provided that "Occidentalism" names not only non-western stereotypes of the west but also a persistent response to western-style modernity within the west itself. As Bilgrami wants to define it, Occidentalism is not only a property of modern Islamic fundamentalism but is to be found in Gandhi, in Nietzsche, in aspects of German romanticism and eighteenth-century English deism. He aims to rescue talk of cultural difference from both the neo-conservative rhetoric of the "clash of civilizations" and from left-liberal translations of culture into its underlying economic and political strata. He is worth listening to on these matters because he has written intelligently about secularism before, most notably as a contributor to the landmark collection Secularism and its Critics.[2] In this essay I will use Byron's poem to work my way toward Bilgrami's rehabilitated Occidentalism, and then propose that the poem itself points up some of the limits of this rehabilitation.


  2. One could do worse than read The Giaour as an allegory of pluralism, in which truth is determined by context and presupposition, and whose larger textual apparatus strives to bring rational order to a world of competing loyalties and dispositions. For this reason, the text can also serve as a document of pluralism's complications and exclusions.

  3. The first part of the poem, set in a homogenized eastern location, presents several different voices describing what the reader eventually understands to be the murder of a slave woman named Leila for running away from her master to join her lover. The master, Hassan, has her tied up in a bag and thrown overboard. Leila's lover, the Giaour, avenges her murder by killing Hassan. The second half of the poem is the Giaour's lengthy and unrepentant confession to a nameless monk in a Christian monastery, once again in an indeterminate location. The Giaour himself is a stateless and nameless man who operates on the borderlands of cultures, traditions, and beliefs. The poem named after him, meanwhile, is a collection of fragments apparently arranged by an editor, in which different and anonymous voices take up small bits of the story before themselves disappearing from it. The same fictive editor also provides footnotes to the fragments, and these footnotes vary in tone from scholarly and pedantic to wittily informative to a few in the first person that conflate the editor with Byron himself. Taken together, these various elements place a tremendous burden upon the reader: it is difficult enough to figure out the plot, let alone who speaks, whom to trust, and whom, in the end, to believe.

  4. Against this world of interpretive complexity and incomplete attempts to organize it through textual apparatus, the poem sets two examples of orthodoxy. The first is Hassan himself; the second is the monk to whom the Giaour confesses. Both fulfill stereotypes of (Islamic and Christian) religious orthodoxy. And neither is of much interest to the editor, who goes so far as to excise a harangue that the monk delivers to the Giaour, telling us in a footnote that it will interest nobody:

    The monk's sermon is omitted. It seems to have had so little effect upon the patient, that it could have no hopes from the reader. It may be sufficient to say, that it was of the customary length . . . and was delivered in the usual tone of all orthodox preachers. (204)
    Yet did he but what I had done
    Had she been false to more than one.
    Faithless to him, he gave the blow;
    But true to me, I laid him low:
    Howe'er deserved her doom might be,
    Her treachery was truth to me. (1062-67)
  5. This may be simply a fantasy of liberal tolerance, but if so its act of transposition depends upon the alarming idea that Leila's fidelity to her lover meant that she deserved to die. The translation is not symmetrical: Hassan kills Leila because she is his property, but the Giaour would kill for love (that is, he would kill Leila because he loves her). This difference is crucial to the poem's project; by distinguishing between unfreedom (property) and freedom (love) it keeps Hassan's code and the Giaour's code from collapsing into each other. Hassan murders Leila from within his tradition; as the poem's "Advertisement" tells us, she was "thrown, in the Mussulman manner, into the sea for infidelity" (167). The Giaour, by contrast, imagines murdering Leila in the name of a love described as unique and personal and thus deliberately counterposed to all traditions. To murder in the name of love is to murder freely; as Gulnare tells Conrad in The Corsair, "love dwells with—with the free" (II.502). Love, or more specifically the death inevitably attached to it, is thus linked to a freedom that orthodox tyrants like Hassan cannot understand, and for which the poem's code-word is "heart:"

    To me she gave her heart, that all
    Which tyranny can ne'er enthrall. (1068-9)
  6. One result of this contrast between love and orthodoxy is that love itself comes to seem like a substitute religion. This is only incidentally because the Giaour uses religious language to describe his love; primarily, love looks like religion in this poem not because it is a feeling but because it is an obsession. The Giaour spends his remaining days mourning for Leila, dedicated to her idea to the exclusion of all else, experiencing visions of her, and unable even to hear alternative creeds such as the orthodox sermon excised by the editor. The Giaour's goal, he tells the monk, is "To die—and know no second love" (1166). And he scorns inconstant men and what he calls their "varied joys" (1175). Such constancy is predicated upon the utter hopelessness of his love. Because Leila deserves to die according to a tradition that neither she nor her lover can alter, there is nothing for the Giaour to do but mourn her as the lost object whose very irrecoverability is the condition of his constancy toward her.[3]

  7. Is the heart, then, in opposition to orthodoxy, or is it simply another kind of orthodoxy? More abstractly: is human love the opposite of religion or another version of it? Does the poem take love seriously, and treat religion as its foil? Or does it take religion seriously, finding in human love another image of it? The Giaour himself says both things. Or rather, he says that love is the opposite of orthodox tyranny, but the poem forces him to experience love as simply another and more complex kind of orthodox tyranny: the tyranny of that very tradition which he claims cannot "enthrall" the heart but which in killing Leila has melancholically bound him more firmly to it than it ever could have were she alive. At the level of plot, moreoever, love and orthodoxy must be mutually exclusive—for if they weren't, Leila wouldn't have left Hassan, and so there would be no plot. Two paradoxes, then: the Giaour's capacity for understanding religious orthodoxy depends upon orthodoxy's power to kill those who would leave it—depends upon, that is, its intolerance; and the poem's own motivating distinction between love and religion is likewise a paradox, for if the poem is to proceed that distinction must both exist (at the level of plot) and not exist (at the level of the Giaour's subsequent experience) at the same time.

  8. I deliberately use the word "paradox" to name these problems, for I mean to recall a central moment in the history of literary study. In his essay "The Language of Paradox," Cleanth Brooks undertakes a reading of Donne's poem "The Canonization," in which the paradox is precisely the one that appears in Byron's poem. Here is Brooks (at some length):

    The basic metaphor which underlies the poem (and which is reflected in the title) involves a sort of paradox. For the poet daringly treats profane love as if it were divine love. . . . . The poem then is a parody of Christian sainthood; but it is an intensely serious parody of a sort that modern man, habituated as he is to an easy yes or no, can hardly understand. He refuses to accept the paradox as a serious rhetorical device; and since he is able to accept it only as a cheap trick, he is forced into this dilemma. Either: Donne does not take love seriously; here he is merely sharpening his wit . . . . Or: Donne does not take sainthood seriously; here he is merely indulging in a cynical and bawdy parody.
                 Neither account is true; a reading of the poem will show that Donne takes both love and religion seriously; it will show, further, that the paradox is here his inevitable instrument. But to see this plainly will require a closer reading than most of us give to poetry (11).
  9. The name for that reading practice is of course largely coterminous with the New Criticism itself: close reading. Glance again at Brooks's final sentence: "But to see [paradox] plainly will require a closer reading than most of us give to poetry." The close reading of which "most of us" are incapable is a reading that begins by recognizing the highly nuanced way in which literary language gestures toward doxa rather than naming it. In this way, close reading displaces religious dispute, with its always-lurking potential for violence, into the interpretive arena. Where there was once the distinction between the orthodox and the heretical, there is now the distinction between those few who can read and the majority who cannot. Although New Critical close reading has sometimes been labeled crypto-religious, then, it is important to understand that in replacing orthodoxy with paradox, close reading is functionally congruent with a secular project that seeks to restrain religious violence by making it the proper domain of interpretation.[4]

  10. For Brooks, reading for orthodoxy reduces a poem to doctrine: it simply extracts truths from a poem, paraphrasing it rather than attending to the movements of its language. Under the new, non-dogmatic dispensation of paradox, paraphrase becomes a deviation, literally a heresy from secular reading practices. (Readers will recall that The Well-Wrought Urn, which opens with a celebration of paradox, closes with an essay entitled "The Heresy of Paraphrase.") Literary language inspires endless re-reading because there is always more meaning around the bend; the heresy is to bring that process to an arbitrary stop, and so to resist heresy means constantly rescuing literature from the ravages of naïve readers who still want it to fight their cultural battles for them, who wish to flatten paradox into paraphrasable doctrine and thus re-ignite a clash of civilizations.[5] The reader must be continually re-educated in the new method, a method not content to rest on the surface, or with an easy paraphrase, but that constantly searches out that which is hidden—not in order finally to say it, but rather to show how the text as it were doesn't say it, for the "it" here is precisely doxa itself, that which by definition goes without saying. Translated from the political to the literary arena, the clash of civilizations is thus remade into literary paradox. The final withholding of the "it" is what makes literature literature and not orthodoxy.[6]

  11. Taken as a group, the Turkish Tales obsessively thematize the figure we know as the Byronic hero: a dark, brooding figure with some mysterious tragedy in his past; always alone, even in a crowd, he displays a world-weariness that nevertheless gathers itself into a reluctant heroism at moments of crisis. Most importantly, perhaps, he is an object of obsessive curiosity for the ignorant crowd, who speculate endlessly, and always incorrectly, about his inner nature. The Byronic hero simultaneously invites close reading and repels it: there is always more to be grasped, though it is unlikely that the reader will be up to the challenge. As Selim tells Zuleika in The Bride of Abydos (1813), "I am not, love! what I appear" (I.482). In The Corsair (1814), Conrad's face "attracted, yet perplex'd the view" (I.210). The Giaour, meanwhile, dwells at length on the Byronic hero as a site of interpretive complexity, in lines that strikingly anticipate Brooks's distinction between inattentive reading and close reading:

    The common crowd but see the gloom
    Of wayward deeds, and fitting doom;
    The close observer can espy
    A noble soul, and lineage high. (866-9)
  12. In these poems, the invitation to read closely is mounted most insistently around a characteristic pause that marks the Byronic hero. The pause arrives just before a moment of decisive action; it is a moment carved out of time during which the hero seems both to gather his strength and review his entire life before diving once again into the flow of human events—a lyric moment, in short, in the midst of narrative time. In The Giaour, the pause comes almost as soon as we meet the man himself:

    A moment check'd his wheeling steed
    A moment breathed him from his speed
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    His brow was bent, his eye was glazed;
    He raised his arm, and fiercely raised,
    And sternly shook his hand on high,
    As doubting to return or fly. (218-9; 240-3)
    ‘Twas but an instant he restrain'd
    That fiery barb so sternly rein'd;
    ‘Twas but a moment that he stood,
    Then sped as if by death pursued:
    But in that instant o'er his soul
    Winters of Memory seem'd to roll,
    And gather in that drop of time
    A life of pain, an age of crime.
    O'er him who loves, or hates, or fears,
    Such moment pours the grief of years:
    What felt he then, at once opprest
    By all that most distracts the breast?
    That pause, which ponder'd o'er his fate,
    Oh, who its dreary length shall date!
    Though in Time's record nearly nought,
    It was Eternity to Thought! (257-72)
  13. If the pause characterizes close reading, it is also dangerous for the Byronic hero. For Selim, in The Bride of Abydos, the pause is "fatal" (II.565); Conrad, in The Corsair, pauses when he has unexpected forebodings about his latest adventure (I.309). Because the pause figures a richness of experience, memory, and history, it trails death in its wake—not for the reader, but for the object being read. As imaged in the Byronic hero's paradoxical, nameless spell, close reading seeks to deflect such possible violence into the interpretive realm. The close reader is thus invited to share in the experience of the hero being read, precisely on the grounds of their shared anticipation and deflection of violence. For the Byronic hero, that violence is encapsulated in the necessary but dangerous pause; for the close reader, the violence would be holding on to the pause too long, thereby freezing the hero, paraphrasing him, turning him into doctrine and pushing him back into the violence of orthodoxy.

  14. This is why the close reader, the reader who pauses and searches out paradox, must be a secular reader.[8] Indeed her secularity is the necessary condition of the cosmopolitan fantasy of the Byronic hero: the fantasy of never being tied down, of never having to "represent" anything in particular but of always being more than the sum of your parts, more than either the place you are from or the place that you are at the moment, and of having a reader willing to come along for the ride, a reader who understands the whole business as a series of acts, gestures—parodies, to recall Brooks, of an intensely serious sort. That reader is made to recognize how simultaneously necessary and deadly the characteristic pause is: necessary, because it is the condition of close reading; deadly, because it risks mistaking the interpretive process for a fixed method, to be performed once and then endlessly, orthodoxly, reiterated. The ideal reader of the Byronic hero must be constantly alert to the temptations of orthodoxy, which the poem figures as the temptation to halt the interpretive process.

  15. We are now in a position to appreciate what is at stake in the ideals of close reading (a method) and paradox (its object). Note that in The Giaour, the method's conditions of possibility are an asymmetrical intimacy between orthodoxy and freedom, forged over the body of a dead woman. Close reading is a secular form, both in its relationship to the orthodox reading practices known as "paraphrase" and in the way it tries to blunt and divert religious passion while still acknowledging it. But when we route a genealogy of close reading through a poem like The Giaour, we find that undergirding its secularism is not an exquisitely balanced paradox but a violent and asymmetrical one. Perhaps close reading doesn't divert violence but simply covers it over. The link between close reading's secularism and its possible occlusion of violence will return in the next section of the essay.

  16. First, however, I turn to Akeel Bilgrami's rehabilitation of Occidentalism. His essay "Occidentalism: The Very Idea" aims to motivate cultural difference as an object of analysis in its own right without succumbing to the language of a clash of civilizations. Samuel Huntington's much-discussed essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" has been a frequent target since it appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1993, in part because Huntington's thesis could itself be accused of peddling Orientalist stereotypes. Bilgrami, however, notes that the essay has also been attacked on the grounds that "culture talk" is itself a distraction from the historical and geopolitical analysis necessary to understanding the current world situation. Bilgrami detects this attitude in the "tendency . . . on the part of much of the traditional Left to dismiss the cultural surround of political issues" in favor of an analysis of geopolitics, globalization, or capitalism (388). According to this analysis, to speak of cultural differences misses what is really going on, where "what is really going on" can be revealed through the act of translating culture into its "proper" geopolitical cause. Bilgrami has his doubts about such acts of translation.[9] He wants to resist the tendency to think of culture as a version of false consciousness; at the same time, he wishes to avoid succumbing to a hypostatized language of enlightenment versus enchantment, modernity versus tradition, or civilization versus civilization.

  17. In order to use and acknowledge "culture talk" without resorting to Huntington's sweeping categories, Bilgrami turns to modes of dissent and ambivalence within enlightened modernity. The "Enlightenment," as many have pointed out, was not a monolithic entity; rather, it experienced its own forms of internal critique almost from its inception. Bilgrami's own example is the development toward the end of the seventeenth century of a resistance to "scientific rationality:"

    The metaphysical picture that was promoted by Newton . . . and Boyle, among others, viewed matter and nature as brute and inert. On this view, since the material universe was brute, God was externally conceived as the familiar metaphoric clock winder, giving the universe a push from the outside to get it in motion. In the dissenting tradition . . . matter was not brute and inert but rather was shot through with an inner source of dynamism that was itself divine. God and nature were not separable as in the official metaphysical picture that was growing around the new science, and John Toland, for instance . . . openly wrote in terms he proclaimed to be pantheistic. (396; emphasis in original)
  18. Bilgrami's point is that the critique of western enlightened modernity sometimes described today as "Islamic" or "fundamentalist" picks up on this thread of self-critique within the enlightenment itself. Isolation, alienation, the ravages of a largely unregulated market, the transformation or outright destruction of indigenous and local forms of solidarity—this is the disenchanted world that Toland and other dissenters anticipated, and whose effects they tried preemptively to blunt. And this critique of modernity is not confined to the contemporary non-Western world. Referring to the 2004 U.S. presidential race and the phenomenon of so called "values voters," Bilgrami notes that "in the local habitus of the West itself ordinary people have to live in and cope with the disenchantment of their world, seeking whatever forms of reenchantment are available to them" (407; emphasis in original).

  19. The conceptual point here is that geopolitical analyses alone cannot account for those phenomena variously labeled "values" in the mainstream media. Ideology-critique or analyses of false consciousness will not suffice here. In order to do their work, such critical languages have to hold their objects steady. But the reality is that things are always moving, that cultures and historical moments differ internally from themselves and are continually spinning off counter-discourses and producing renegades. This is a "multiple modernities" thesis: the fight is not between rationality and irrationality, or modernity and tradition, but rather among different accounts of what gets to count as reason, and what gets to count as modern. Indeed, the complexity of England's own scientific revolution suggests how partial it is to dismiss critiques of western enlightened modernity as "irrational." That same epistemic generosity, Bilgrami concludes, needs to be extended to modern-day critics of the West, whether in Tehran or Topeka. Bilgrami's second and equally important point, though, is that there are still winners and losers. Thus seventeenth-century deists, Islamic fundamentalists, and opponents of evolution in Kansas are all responding, in culturally various ways, to a particular construction of what it means to be modern that has systematically marginalized their ways of being in the world.

  20. Here I want to honor the attempt—no small one—to put a concept like "enchantment" to work. I also want to claim that this attempt is a romantic one. I think we can get at its romanticism by returning for a moment to the example of deism and the scientific revolution. The example is important for Bilgrami because it allows him to contrast the brute materialism of the orthodox scientific revolution with the more epistemically generous and thickly contextualized dissenting pantheism of the deists. The point I wish to make involves the congruence of this account with that commonly attributed to romanticism. On at least one traditional understanding, at any rate, romanticism is but a short step away from a freethinking deism pitched toward pantheism. Thus from Bilgrami's description of "[a] desacralized world" that "could not move us to engagement with it on its terms" (398) we might move to Blake's statement in "There is no Natural Religion" that "He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only," and then on to Coleridge's claim in the Biographia Literaria that "all the products of the mere reflective faculty partook of death, and were as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter," and then finally to M. H. Abrams, whose seminal 1965 essay "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric" sums up this romantic attitude as follows:

    To the Romantic sensibility such a [dualist] universe could not be endured, and the central enterprise common to many post-Kantian German philosophers and poets, as well as to Coleridge and Wordsworth, was to join together the ‘subject' and ‘object' that modern intellection had put asunder, and thus to revivify a dead nature, restore its concreteness, significance, and human values, and re-domiciliate man in a world which had become alien to him. The pervasive sense of estrangement, of a lost and isolated existence in an alien world, is not peculiar to our own age of anxiety, but was a commonplace of Romanic philosophy.[10]
  21. What Bilgrami calls "Occidentalism" we could thus rename "Romantic Occidentalism"—adding the codicil that it is a romanticism constructed by critics of a certain kind: left-liberal agnostic humanists whose intellectually formative years were the 1950s and 1960s, when anomie, alienation, and the Cold War seemed greater threats to human values than did religious fundamentalism. Ecuminicism was the spirit of the age: the historical contexts of Abrams's "romantic sensibility" must include the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the reforms of Vatican II (1962-1965), the development of mythological criticism, the growth of religious studies, and the widespread agreement among sociologists and even some theologians that if God was not dead, he was at any rate in retreat. Bilgrami's account, that is to say, is secular in the way that Abrams's romanticism is secular: not because it is anti-religious (far from it) but because of the particular kinds of spiritual subjectivities it authorizes. At its center is a certain ethos of spiritual generosity, able to grant legitimacy to a variety of culturally embedded orientations because it is not existentially committed to any of them but can as it were see why somebody might be existentially committed to them.

  22. Can Romantic Occidentalism, forged in the era of ecumenicism and anti-Communism, be retrofitted for the age of fundamentalism and religious globalization? Does it retain its critical purchase on our post-1979 world? Bilgrami is apparently betting that it does. But if I am right that it is the influence of a pre-1979 romanticism that helps him to forge connections between red-state values voters and Islamic fundamentalists, then we need to ask whether and to what extent that older humanist romanticism can be updated, or whether the appropriate romanticism for our own age must be more empiricist, historicist, and ideological.[11]

  23. Consider, in this regard, a document from that watershed year of 1979, an article entitled "The Truth About the World Council of Churches," published in Foundation, a magazine of the California-based Fundamental Evangelistic Association:

    THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES IS FULLY COMMITTED TO THE CREATION OF A NEW SOCIETY based on socialistic principles and deceitfully called "The Kingdom of God". They state: "The participation of the Church in the creation of a new society is not a secondary or derivative dimension of its existence. It begins at the very centre in the celebration of the sacraments as an anticipation of what the world is to become. . . ." Dr. Philip Potter, WCC General Secretary, quoted from a 1969 WCC Central Committee directive as follows: "We call upon the churches to move beyond charity, grants and traditional programming to relevant and sacrificial action leading to new relationships of dignity and justice among all men and to become THE AGENTS FOR THE RADICAL RECONSTRUCTION OF SOCIETY." . . . . Another WCC document stated: "In the developed countries it means changes in the production structure and employment policies which will ONLY BE POSSIBLE THROUGH A CERTAIN 'SOCIALIZATION' of decisions that have so far been taken autonomously on the basis of interests of the private sector." MR. BUSINESSMAN, MR. and MRS. FREEDOM-LOVING AMERICAN—the World Council of Churches has made it abundantly clear what their goal is! Are you willing to sit idly by or even help support this effort to destroy the very foundations of our faith and freedom? (Reynolds)
  24. This is a tall order. For what the passage from the Fundamental Evangelistic Association suggests is that the fundamentalist rejects the romantic's ethos of generosity outright. That is, the language that Bilgrami motivates in order to mount his ambitious argument appears to the fundamentalist as a symptom of the underlying problem of modernity, a symptom that is all the more dangerous precisely because it offers itself as a solution to that problem by promising, in the best natural supernaturalist manner, a new heaven and a new earth: "THE CREATION OF A NEW SOCIETY based on socialistic principles and deceitfully called ‘The Kingdom of God'."

  25. Perhaps this face-off between the World Council of Churches and the Fundamental Evangelistic Association, engaged as the era of romantic humanism was drawing to dramatic close, can help us see how The Giaour plays with the counters of romanticism, Occidentalism, and fundamentalism.

  26. As we have already observed, the close reading of faces and figures is central to The Giaour's operation, and particularly to its production of the Byronic hero. But there is one moment in the poem when the hero, instead of being read, actually tries to do the reading. It comes after he has vanquished his fundamentalist opponent. As Hassan lies dying on the battlefield, the Giaour leans over him:

    I gazed upon him where he lay,
    And watched his spirit ebb away;
    Though pierced like Pard by hunters' steel,
    He felt not half that now I feel.
    I search'd, but vainly searched to find,
    The workings of a wounded mind;
    Each feature of that sullen corse
    Betrayed his rage, but no remorse. (1085-92)
  27. The difference between the Giaour and Hassan, couched in the language of a "wounded mind," may thus be understood to be reflexivity itself. And so, even though the two men seem remarkably similar in their aims and in their behavior, the text insists once again that in reality we are witnessing a face-off between modernity and tradition—or perhaps more accurately, we are witnessing tradition's rage at modernity, with all its talk of complexity, its complicated and self-aware position-taking in relationship to its own beliefs.

  28. But what the poem also documents, of course, is how the Giaour subsequently slips into his own kind of fundamentalism through his single-minded, fanatical, melancholic devotion to the dead Leila. Earlier I described this as a paradox in Brooks's sense of the term. In other words, for this poem to work it must be simultaneously true that love and religion are mutually exclusive models of fidelity and that love and religion model precisely the same kind of fidelity. We can now identify the moment when the Giaour reads Hassan's face as the hinge of this paradox, the point at which the Giaour begins his gradual transformation from reflexivity into fanaticism. Crucially, however, even as he slides into fanaticism he retains his wounded mind, and this makes him, as the poem obsessively demonstrates, a text worth reading precisely because it never gives up all its secrets. That, indeed, is the appeal of the Byronic hero: that he promises more than he will ever deliver, which makes him an endlessly fascinating, because ultimately unsatisfying, object of study. Such indeterminacy, though, pushes the poem's motivating paradox to the breaking point. For if we track the Giaour's development from the figure who searches Hassan's face to the figure whose face is searched by the curious monks, we see that his single-minded devotion to Leila is an effect of the very woundedness, the reflexivity, that he celebrates. To take reflexivity as a ground-level commitment is to make certain assumptions about which one cannot reflect critically. This occlusion at the very heart of things is the engine that produces the unanalyzable, unspeakable, enchanted thing called "Byronism" itself.

  29. Even though the Giaour himself is necessarily oblivious to this effect, the poems's fictive editor seems to grasp it. Thus while the editor is unable to keep his hero from coming under the spell of his own Byronism, he nevertheless arranges the raw materials of the story in such a way that the reader can observe how intimately the reflexivity at the heart of Byronism is bound up with a melancholic self-enchantment that looks more and more like the religious orthodoxy against which it supposedly sets itself. This editorial apparatus is crucial: unlike a theoretical text or a lyric poem, with their single authoritative voices, The Giaour offers multiple unreliable voices, and in so doing it places the reader in a meta-position considerably more reflexive than anything the Giaour himself manages. If we take that wounded mind as a figure for the reflexivity of the modern critic who searches the face of fundamentalism for a shared Occidentalism, The Giaour itself frames that act within the context of a literary object. By doing so, it demonstrates that there is no shared Occidentalism here: Hassan's rage cannot be rewritten as another (less sophisticated) version of the Giaour's woundedness. Moreover, the poem's complicated textuality shows what is behind the desire for such an Occidentalism: namely, "Byronism" itself, in all its powerfully attractive melancholy. And finally, if we read it, the poem offers a genealogy of that melancholy in the bonding that takes place between the Giaour and Hassan over the dead woman they each would kill. The source of Byronic melancholy is thus revealed to be the Giaour's deep need for the tradition (what the poem calls "The Musselman manner") that kills Leila. Earlier I called this a paradox, and we are now in a position to see that in this poem, the paradox at the heart of Byronism, the paradox that solicits close reading, is not the exquisitely balanced tension that Brooks loved to find in poetry, but rather a deep asymmetry between killing a woman freely (that is, for love) and killing her because she is property (that is, for tradition). It is too easy to simply point out that she dies either way. What is tougher, perhaps, to swallow is that the close reading that the poem solicits valorizes one of these killings but not the other, and valorizes it moreover as the condition of possibility for its Byronism, its nameless spell, its paradox—in short, as the condition of possibility for its secularism.

    Coda: Imaginary Terrorism

  30. In an interview with Bill Moyers that aired in the summer of 2006 as part of a PBS series called "Faith and Reason," the writer Mary Gordon offered a scenario that strikingly recalls Byron's:

    MARY GORDON: And also, I believe that if a writer can do her or his work, it is to try to imagine the other, not the comfortable other. I'm actually much more comfortable thinking of a suicide bomber as an other than I am of Donald Trump. Donald Trump—

    BILL MOYERS: The inner life of a suicide bomber—


    BILL MOYERS: —intrigues you more than the inner life of Donald Trump?

    MARY GORDON: I find it much more comprehensible.

    BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

    MARY GORDON: I can very easily put myself in the imaginative place of believing that something is worth dying for and even worth killing for. And so, my imagination can understand somebody who would say, this is a life or death thing. This is about the truth. I will give my life for the truth. And if I have to take lives in order to defend the truth, I will do it. . . . I think that Osama bin Laden was a person who got disgusted. And sometimes when I look, there are some things in the world that disgust me to the point of despair. So that, for example, some of the things that kids will do on the Internet now. Somebody was telling me about young girls from very good schools who will photograph each other having sex, and put it on the Internet, so that people can, you know, see them, access them having sex. Thirteen, fourteen year old girls are doing that. And I see something like that, and it makes me despair. And I think there is something so wrong with this culture that, wipe it out. Start from—start from zero. It's too corrupt. It's too far gone. There's an almost physical revulsion that I can have from some of the glut and some of the—just some of the ugliness that I see. And I believe that that's what Osama bin Laden saw in the West. That he saw a kind of disgusting corruption that made him feel very, very, very sick. Conrad gives us the example of some people who-

    BILL MOYERS: Joseph Conrad.

    MARY GORDON: Joseph Conrad, who was just disgusted by a kind of behavior that they found incomprehensible and so gross, that it made them want—it's as if you were in a swamp. And you were covered with stink. And you just wanted to be on a high, dry rock. And I can understand that very well.

    BILL MOYERS: I am sympathetic to the angst on the Christian right towards popular culture.


    BILL MOYERS: Towards the banality.


    BILL MOYERS: The sheer ugliness of it.


    BILL MOYERS: And I share that sense with them. You obviously do too.

    MARY GORDON: Yes. And I think if you can put yourself in that place and say, you know, and sort of ratchet it up, you can say, I understand Osama bin Laden. That, if I have to—I mean, this is absurd—but if I have to look at all the violence, all the stupid violence that's on TV and some of the stupid violence that teenagers seem to think is fine, and kids carrying guns. And kids shooting other kids. And eleven and twelve year olds having all sorts of sex that they can't possibly really connect to pleasure. And the greed that this, to tell you the truth, to see people driving Hummers sometimes makes me feel so sick that, you know, I want to just drive them off the road and say, okay, in the name of Christ, in the name of peace and justice, I'm just going to shoot you because you have to get out of your car now. We live in a very stupid, banal, gross, greedy and rather disgusting culture.

    BILL MOYERS: But it does not lead you to do what Osama bin Laden did, to kill.

    MARY GORDON: And I think that I have to go back to a religious position, which is that if reading the Gospel means anything, if Jesus means anything, it's about seeing everybody, every human being as Jesus. That's what makes sense. That—therefore, every human being is of enormous value. Every human being is sacred. So it seems to me the only thing that stops me from going out and shooting people in Hummers is a religious belief that, even though I don't like them, they are sacred and valuable in the eyes of God. And that does stop me. Because I could really, you know, go out on quite a spree. (Gordon)
  31. But if this exchange is a further example of what I have been calling Romantic Occidentalism, Gordon's final comment also contrasts that Occidentalism to an ideal of reading familiar from our discussion of Byron. For the activity that calls a halt to her imaginative over-identification with terrorism is "reading the Gospel." What that reading extracts is the paradox of the incarnation, with its message of "seeing . . . every human being as Jesus." Appropriately enough, the figure of a crucified Jesus, the thing that calls a halt to Gordon's slide into fundamentalism, here comes to stand for the very kind of reflexivity that The Giaour had celebrated as "wounded."

  32. Perhaps counter-intuitively, then, the reading of the Gospel that Gordon performs here is a secular affair. The figure of Jesus operates as a figure of reflexive self-distancing that halts the slide into fundamentalist mindlessness and murderous rage of the sort Hassan stands for in The Giaour. Gordon produces her figure of Jesus through an interpretive practice ("reading") that is secular insofar as it presupposes that dramas of interpretation are at the center of a religious life—a particularly modern presupposition. For once it begins to seem at the very least tasteless, and at the most positively bloodthirsty, to continue asserting the exclusive claims of one particular religion or sect, it becomes desirable to deflect cultural conflict into the hermeneutic domain—to turn "reading the Gospel" into a plea for tolerance rather than an excuse for bloodshed. Paradox, on this understanding, offers one possible answer to the inescapable fact of pluralism. Given the co-existence of a variety of mutually exclusive truth-claims upon which apparently hang the salvation of millions and in the name of which people are willing to die and to kill, paradox offers a method of reading that replaces violence with the indirect and ultimately inarticulable feeling that one is in the presence of something beyond words. To read for paradox, as I am suggesting that Gordon does here, is thus to participate in a history of reading intimately bound to the transformations of religion promulgated by secularism.[14]

  33. Getting here, though, requires just the sort of literary attentiveness that usually goes by the name of "close reading," with its faith in an idea of the distinctiveness, however attenuated and compromised, of the literary—most especially, as I have been pointing out throughout this essay, in the ability of the literary to deflect cultural conflict into the interpretive realm and thereby contain it. Paradox and complexity are made available to those who read texts in a certain way. The literary is both the carrier of religious transformation and the agent through which we come to understand the ambivalences that such transformations necessarily entail. Insofar as it is presupposed by the literary itself, that ambivalence needs to be understood, and historicized, as a product of secularism.

  34. On at least some definitions of the term, cosmopolitanism is another name for the collection of values I have been gathering here under the headings of reflexivity, reading, and literariness. These are secular values, as I have said, in that they place the ultimately human drama of interpretation at the very center of things. They are cosmopolitan for the same reason—particularly if we think in terms of that version of the "new cosmopolitanism" that remains committed to a dialectic of universal and particular, and that takes seriously the modern drama of reflexivity and self-consciousness. In his response to Bilgrami's "Occidentalism" essay, Bruce Robbins voices a cosmopolitan suspicion of enchantment itself, particularly what he sees as a tendency in Bilgrami's interest in pantheism and deism to introduce Nature as a proxy for enchantment. Robbins worries that this will carry with it related temptations to naturalize prevailing social mores and norms. And as with Nature, so with Art: "these forms of enchantment do not always embody politically desirable items like value, community, tolerance, and so on," Robbins writes. "This is why you can't trust the enchantments of art. It's why art needs critics. And it's why critics need rationality—though we don't always admit this, since it makes us seem traitors to our subject" (639). It seems clear that Robbins's concerns about enchantment are also worries about romanticism, specifically the way that romanticism mixes up aesthetics with politics, or smuggles in norms under the heading of facts, and thus he seems to join the ranks of those intellectuals who regard romanticism as insufficiently secular.

  35. In fact, however, romantic enchantment (including the enchantment isolated by Romantic Occidentalism) is already secularized. This not because its content has been transformed, in the manner of natural supernaturalism, but rather because, as Talal Asad has noted repeatedly, the very notion of enchantment has remade religion into a private, spiritual, and putatively universal affair.[15] What this means is that religion can be translated into some other, "deeper," language—not into geopolitics, but simply into what Bilgrami calls "the desire of ordinary people for enchantment, for belonging, for the solidarities of community, for some control at a local level over the decisions by which their qualitative and material lives are shaped, in short, for . . . substantial democracy" (408). The Moyers-Gordon exchange makes such acts of translation more bluntly: Gordon's thought experiment writes an aesthetic and moral revulsion in the language of religiously-inspired terrorism, making it clear that her act of identification with Osama bin Laden is achieved not on religious grounds but on secular ones. A different and I believe more productively complex attempt at translation can be glimpsed in the Giaour, as he searches in vain for evidence of Hassan's reflexive woundedness. At such moments the poem offers the literary itself, and its proper reading, as that which can bring together fundamentalism and romanticism. But the poem also documents the degree to which such a notion of the literary is itself problematically tied to a secularism that seems to occlude the violence that is its condition of possibility. By thematizing reading as a form of critical engagement, a poem like The Giaour models an ongoing critical practice. Like the famous duck-rabbit optical illusion, we might have to trade off between literariness and critical engagement; perhaps this is the best we can do when it comes to tracking the various costs of secularism. Whether we can have it both ways—whether The Giaour can be both secular and a means to see around secularism's corners—has been the dilemma of this essay.

Works Cited

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

---. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Abrams, M. H. "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric." The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism. New York: Norton, 1984.

Bilgrami, Akeel. "Occidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on Enlightenment and Enchantment." Critical Inquiry 32 (Spring 2006): 381-411.

---. "Secularism, Nationalism, and Modernity." Secularism and Its Critics. Rajeev Bhargava, ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998. 380-417.

Blake, William. "There is No Natural Religion." The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. David V. Erdman, rev. ed. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Brooks, Cleanth. "The Language of Paradox." The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. 1947. San Diego: Harvest, 1970.

Brown, Bill. "The Dark Wood of Postmodernity (Space, Faith, Allegory)." PMLA 120.3 (May 2005): 734-750.

Butler, Marilyn. "The Orientalism of Byron's Giaour." Three Oriental Tales. Alan Richardson, ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 306-321. [Orig. pub. Byron and the Limits of Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988].

Christensen, Jerome. "Perversion, Parody, and Cultural Hegemony: Lord Byron's Oriental Tales." South Atlantic Quarterly 88.3 (1989): 569-603.

Connolly, William E. "The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine." Political Theory 33.6 (December 2005): 869-886.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. In The Major Works. H. J. Jackson, rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gordon, Mary. Interview. "Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason." 30 June 2006. Accessed 25 September 2006. <>.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Huntington, Samuel P. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer 1993): 22-49.

Jager, Colin. "After the Secular: The Subject of Romanticism." Public Culture 18.2 (Spring 2006): 301-322.

Levinson, Marjorie. The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Mahmood, Saba. "Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation." Public Culture 18.2 (2006): 323-327.

Reynolds, Marion H. "The Truth About the World Council of Churches." Accessed 20 June 2006. <>.

Robbins, Bruce. "Not Without Reason: A Response to Akeel Bilgrami." Critical Inquiry 33 (Spring 2007): 632-630.

Ruoff, Gene W. "Romantic Lyric and the Problem of Belief." The Romantics and Us: Essays on Literature and Culture. Gene W. Ruoff, ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 288-302.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Ward, Graham. True Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Wolfson, Susan J. and Peter J. Manning, eds. Lord Byron: Selected Poems. London: Penguin, 1996.


For comments on this paper, many thanks to Orrin Wang, to the anonymous reader for Romantic Circles Praxis, and to audiences at Berkeley and Columbia.

1. See, of course, Said. As Marilyn Butler has detailed in her important essay "The Orientalism of Byron's Giaour," however, Byron's Orientalism was always more material and specific than that form of it analyzed by Said. "Whatever the East came afterwards to represent as an abstraction . . . in English culture of the Napoleonic war period it is also the site of a pragmatic contest among the nations for world power." It is also, as Butler's essay describes, a way for Byron to advance his ongoing literary battle with Robert Southey (Butler 306).

2. Compare Bilgrami, "Secularism, Nationalism, and Modernity" (1998). It seems to me that Bilgrami's position on modernity has shifted somewhat between this essay and his "Occidentalism" essay eight years later.

3. In putting matters this way it might seem that I have fallen into the Byronic trap of taking expressions of fidelity too seriously. Maybe the joke is on the naïve reader, who fails to see that for the Byronic hero all objects of desire are basically equivalent. For an explication of this point see Christensen. To some extent, Christensen's approach represents a challenge to my approach in this essay. What I would say briefly in response is that the Giaour's fidelity is an intensely serious parody, and so that the point of such parody is that we take fidelity seriously, and don't take it seriously, simultaneously. I hope that this is not unlike Christensen's point that to write oppositionally Byron had to write against Byronism itself.

4. For a contemporary example of just this process, see Saba Mahmood's discussion of a U.S. government program called Muslim World Outreach, which seeks to identify and support moderate, pro-democratic Islamic reformers. Mahmood writes: "The core problem from the perspective of U.S. analysts is not militancy itself but interpretation, insomuch as the interpretive act is regarded as the foundation of any religious subjectivity and therefore the key to its emancipation or secularization" (Mahmood 329).

5. Though I do not dwell here on The Giaour as a fragment, I find support for my reading in Marjorie Levinson's description of the work done by the Romantic Fragment Poem: "Insofar as the RFP cannot be objectified, determined, hence depleted by any one reading (including the author's), the form prevents the reader from appropriating the poet in a vulgar way, as the provider of definable goods or services. The fragment, which keeps its own inviolate retirement, conceals both the source of the poet's/poem's power to shadow forth a magnitude, and the method by which this power is implicated" (Levinson 209).

6. The link between Byron and Brooks may seem odd, given the New Criticism's hostility toward romanticism. In my judgment, the evident similarity between their models of close reading is enough to make the comparison stick; however, two other justifications may be offered. First, Brooks's celebration of paradox over orthodoxy evinces a wariness of religiously-inspired confidence, and a similar faith in the ability of literary language to re-direct its worst effects, that would shortly be taken up by romantic humanists like Abrams; the socio-historical context for both critical movements—post-war anomie, the developing cold war, religious ecumenicism—are the same. Second, it may be that Byron's amenablility to Brooksian close reading provides us with another way into the often-remarked fact that Byron is an odd sort of romantic writer. It is no coincidence, surely, that Abrams essentially leaves him out of Natural Supernaturalism. Taken together, these two justifications begin to suggest how Byron both is and is not romantic in the sense constructed by post-war humanism: his faith in the literary partakes of the same spirit and yet remains, somehow, different.

7. Christensen makes the more complicated point that this moment in The Giaour both invites reading and resists it in the name of a superficial, repetitive, appropriation—what Brooks, though not Christensen, might call paraphrase. See Christensen, "Perversion," 580.

8. Let me emphasize one more time that "secular" does not mean non-religious; it simply means that which contextualizes and frames religion and thus produces "religion" as such. It is sometimes thought that New Critical close reading aims to resolve or transcend paradox, whereas I am here emphasizing that it is designed to manage it. From my perspective this is a difference that doesn't make a difference, for at the heart of the secularity I am here exploring is the idea that managing paradox just is to transcend it.

9. Bilgrami might agree with Bill Brown, who remarks in a related context that transcoding religious motivations into economic ones is "a parochial account that depends on an a priori distinction between religion and politics and on the separation of church and state" (747). Brown's target here is Slavoj Žižek.

10. Blake 3; Coleridge 232; Abrams 96.

11. Within romantic studies the best meditation on these issues is an underappreciated essay by Gene W. Ruoff, "Romantic Lyric and the Problem of Belief."

12. For a recent attempt to analyze the coimbrication of capitalism and religious conservatism without resorting to the language of false consciousness, see Connolly.

13. Byron's poem deliberately mixes up the reading of texts and the reading of faces; these are brought together at the moment that the Giaour commands his monastic interlocutors to read his face: "She died—I dare not tell thee how, / But look, 'tis written on my brow! / There read of Cain the curse and crime, / In characters unworn by time" (1056-59).

14. For example, the history of the secular behind the "Jesus" whom Gordon's reading produces peeks out in the process by which, in her final sentence, "reading the Gospel" transforms itself into a "religious belief."

15. See Asad, Genealogies 42, 201-205, and Formations 52. See also Jager; and Ward, 73-113.

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