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Ian Dennis, Lord Byron and the History of Desire

Friday, November 18, 2011 - 07:09
Ian Dennis, Lord Byron and the History of Desire (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009). 266pp. (Hdbk., $55.00; ISBN-13: 978 0 87413 066 9.)

Reviewed by
Colin Carman
Colorado Mountain College

Desire, by definition, is mediated, imitative, and mimetic. At the core of identity and indeed of being itself lie the dual demands to be recognized and to be imitated. These are just some of the premises of Eric Gans and René Girard, and the insightful literary study these two thinkers have inspired, Lord Byron and the History of Desire. Byron is a provocative choice: while the “Byronic hero” is usually typified by defiant autonomy, even solipsistic self-adulation, Ian Dennis reveals just how important the roles of mediation, interplay, and the desires of—and for—others are in Byron’s oeuvre.

Since Gans and Girard form the book’s conceptual apparatus, a heavily theoretical introduction to the book’s eight chapters helps to adumbrate the pair’s contributions to the history of desire. That history emerges from certain “imitative processes,” in which “models” act and “subjects” perceive (14). Other key terms include “external mediation,” used to denote the influence of models that exist apart from interpersonal rivalry and, by contrast, “internal mediation,” whereby a more accessible influence can be imitated, even rivaled to the point of violence (17).

From there, Dennis plunges into works as diverse as the closet tragedy Cain and Don Juan, perhaps Byron’s most personal work, begun in 1818. If the first canto of Don Juan concludes with an appeal to the public in the form of an advertisement, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, argues Dennis, are even earlier efforts to promote the reader’s dependence on an authorial model. As Jerome McGann has noted, the geographical place being described in Byron’s travelogue pales in comparison to how the poem’s speaker experiences that locale for himself. What the two cantos gave to the marketplace at the time of their publication in 1812 was more than the suffering and melancholia characteristic of the Byronic hero. Instead, Dennis asserts that the cantos are a “remarkable innovation in internal mediation,” as they market Byron’s unique impression of those far-off places, places where no English traveler had gone before (48). From this internality, Chapter 2 turns to the externality of Byron’s reverence for nature. Because Nature cannot be rivaled, the best a Byronic ego can do is model himself upon nature through partnership. In the parlance of Girard, Nature remains an external mediator because it is indifferent to human desire.

“Partnership” shades into darker dependency in Chapter 3, where Dennis argues that Byron’s popular Eastern tales are powered by the author’s fantasies of victimization. In The Giaour, Dennis finds that desire “takes a beating,” as the poem’s hero suffers the loss of his Leila and dies pathetically in a monastery (65). The Corsair, meanwhile, dramatizes an equally destructive love triangle in which heroes pursue women already taken, and wind up massacred as a result. In brief, lovers need rivals—though Dennis stops short of deploying Sedgwickian triangulation as another theoretical tool. He does, however, pay close attention to characters like Alp in The Siege of Corinth, and Hugo in Parisina, forced as they are into symmetrical relations leading to self-immolation. Moreover, these men implicate their audience in the spectacle of their sufferings. Such appeals to readerly desire also hold Dennis’ critical eye in the brief Chapter 4, which couples Byron’s “Prometheus” with “The Prisoner of Chillon” (both composed in 1816). Again, Dennis pursues the rhetoric of victimhood in these works, specifically the way in which Byron subjects his readers to his own projections. Prometheus, that familiar Romantic symbol, is portrayed by Byron as God’s enviable rival who, alongside the Prisoner, models sublime forms of altruism.

Chapter 5 isn’t the first place where Dennis relies on a rather unusual device to argue his point, but it is where his use of dramatic monologue becomes the most salient. Perhaps Dennis is modeling his own desires on Byron when he writes: “Nemesis neatly summarizes the process in all its circularity and futility, as he recalls the lost Astarte. As long as it is inaccessible I continue to desire it, it continues to torture me, but it continues to live in my desire. Torture and fascination, I gradually see, are the very conditions of love, of life even” (122). And there’s more: “Only you remain desirable, in death, the unobtainable phantasm of my former desire, the doubled image of myself, the vestige of our mad spiral into ontological rivalry, still tempting me on. Forgive me!” (122). First-person effusions, wherein the scholar appropriates the subject, obfuscate the point where Byron ends and Dennis begins, but this could be a stylishly metacritical objective. Dennis’s own study is further evidence of what he terms the “struggle over influence” (138).

Chapter 6, on Cain (1821), scrutinizes the sources of violence behind the first murder, in order to posit that the poet (playing priest) widens his cultish following, while dramatizing new models of desire: Lucifer’s influence over Cain and the ensuing rivalry with brother Abel. Since the modern market best embodies the mediation of our collective desires, it’s not for nothing that Byron’s greatest poem, Don Juan, abounds with slave and marriage marts, harems, even shopping lists and menus as food for thought. There’s a refreshing aside—entitled “Digression on Sex, Joking about Sex, and Sexism in Don Juan”—in which Dennis unmasks humor and joking as differentiation: “To laugh at others is to differentiate them, to scapegoat them even, in order to ward off the contagion of their betrayed desires” (159). Thus, on the sexist jocularity of Don Juan, Dennis concludes that its author is primarily a sexist and only secondarily a comedian. An additional chapter on Don Juan broadens the degree to which Byron’s magnum opus affects readers, specifically through irony and alliance-building. The poem’s narrator is another model with whom we form an alliance through confession and identification: the work’s “Ironic Lesson,” according to Dennis, teaches readers to “be like Byron, ironically” (219).

But Lord Byron and the History of Desire doesn’t quite take all of Byron’s lessons to heart. It’s not just that Dennis’ exegesis of Don Juan overlooks, in its consideration of Byron’s love of double entendre, Jonathan Gross’s claim (in Byron: The Erotic Liberal) that Byron uses a gay narrator in Don Juan. Queer theory as a whole is a significant blind spot in Dennis’s work. Indeed the main deficiency of this book is that, for a history of desire, this is a sterile and normative one, either unfamiliar with or resistant to the queer Byron revealed by Louis Crompton’s Byron and Greek Love. Since then, Andrew Elfenbein has hardly been alone in reminding us that Byron was not only the “most famous poet of his day” but also “the one with the most scandalous sexual history” (207). Byron’s erotic biography looked backward and forward, from the homophobic persecution of William Beckford thirty years earlier to the lynching of Oscar Wilde eighty years later. His erotic nonconformity outraged even the heterodox Percy Shelley into drafting one of the rare references to same-sex desire in early nineteenth-century letters: Byron, living in Venice in 1819, “associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait & physiognomy of man, who do not scruple to avow practices which are not only not named but I believe ever conceived in England” (Letters II: 488). It’s surprising that the queerness of Byron’s “practices” are still “not named” in a study published in 2009.

The life notwithstanding, there are always Byron’s writings, chiefly his gender-bending drama Sardanapalus (1821), with its eponymous “man-queen,” tellingly absent from Dennis’s study. What’s missing also in an otherwise fine reading of Byron’s satiric comment on Plato in Don Juan—“Oh Plato! Plato!” who “paved the way” to “immoral conduct”—is an alertness to the cultural association Byron’s readers would have made between Plato’s supposed immorality and sodomy, which is vital to what George Rousseau has called the “historicizing of homoplatonism […] within the domain of same-sex relationships” (21). In a memorable phrase, Dennis calls Byron the “author of the greatest and most novelistic verse satire of his century” situated “in the eye of a hurricane of celebrity, of mass desire” (15). In this respect, Lord Byron and the History of Desire joins another engrossing examination of Byronic notoriety—namely Ghislaine McDayter’s Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture (SUNY, 2009)—but the more infamous and radical dimensions of Byron’s desires, on and off the page, are here effaced. The risk of writing any comprehensive history is that it invariably leaves the feeling that more than a little has been left out.

Works Cited

Elfenbein, Andrew. Byron and the Victorians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Rousseau, George. “Homoplatonic, Homodepressed, Homomorbid: Some Further Genealogies of Same-Sex Attraction in Western Civilization,” in Love, Sex, Intimacy, and Friendship Between Men, 1550-1800, ed. Katherine O’Donnell and Michael O’Rourke (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 12-52.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).