Byron's Don Juan as a global allegory.
I would not imitate the petty thought, Nor coin my self-love to so base a vice, For all the glory your conversion brought, Since gold alone should not have been its price. You [Southey] have your salary--was't for that you wrought? And Wordsworth has his place in the Excise. (1)
Byron then departs from this critique of poets to make a larger attack upon British foreign policy, upon the '"intellectual eunuch Castlereagh" and the Holy Alliance, the "Conspiracy or congress to be made-- / Cobbling at manacles for all mankind-- / A tinkering slavemaker, who mends old chains, / With God and man's abhorrence for its gains" (14). There is a movement from the micro-level of individual behavior, to the national level, to the international level--from Wordsworth's gold to Castlereagh's gains--and to explore this movement is to see the nature of Byron's critique of globalizing capitalism.
Byron's uneasy relationship with the British economic empire is found as early as The Curse of Minerva. Although Minerva's narrator tries to fend off her curse by arguing that the plunderer of Greek ruins, Lord Elgin, was a Scot, she negates the distinction, responding that Elgin is a "lawless son / ... do[ing] what oft Britannia's self had done" (211-12). Elgin's sin is to turn sacred ruins into commerce. "Long of their Patron's gusto let them tell, / Whose noblest, native gusto is--to sell: / To sell, and make, may Shame record the day, / The State receiver of his pilfer'd prey" (171-74; author's emphasis). Hence, Minerva's analysis of the corruption of British society, and her retributive curse, is economic in nature; after a scathing critique of British imperialism, which includes the prediction of a nationalist rebellion in India, she turns to London:
Now fare ye well, enjoy your little hour, Go grasp the shadow of your vanish'd power; Gloss o'er the failure of each fondest scheme, Your strength a name, your bloated wealth a dream: Gone is that Gold, the marvel of mankind, And Pirates barter all that's left behind. No more the hirelings, purchas'd near and far, Crowd to the ranks of mercenary war. The idle merchant on the useless quay, Droops o'er the bales no bark may bear away; Or back returning sees rejected stores Rot piecemeal on his own encumber'd shores: The starv'd mechanic breaks his rusting loom, And desperate roans him 'gainst the common doom. Then in the Senate of your sinking state, Show me the man whose counsels may have weight. Vain is each voice where tones could once command, E'en factions cease to charm a factious land; Yet jarring sects convulse a sister isle, And light with maddening hands the mutual pile. (259-78)
In this passage we have the exact reverse of the direction that Byron's critique of society is usually assumed to take. Malcolm Kelsall briefly observes that passages in Don Juan such as 8.125, with its "demotic tone" that suggests "aristocrats ... grow great by war, and the people starve," "might be 'constructively' read with an internationalist and Marxist message." (2) Yet Kelsall does not pursue this theoretical perspective on the poem, arguing instead that the political ennui in Byron's poetry came from a man who had outlived his time: with the Whig discourse of liberation (born with the Glorious Revolution) co-opted by the Tories, who now portrayed their own party as defending Europe from the tyranny of Napoleon, Byron was backed into a corner. "It is as if the Whig tradition, begun in opposition, based on resistance, is tending to become pathological, seeking to provoke situations in which action within the system is impossible and, therefore, not required" (Kelsall 77-78). However, in the above passage from Minerva, we can see that economics structures politics: Elgin's buying and selling of the Attic relics is figured as the larger commercial corruption of the English body politic, and the goddess' curse starts with a blight on commerce and then progresses to the government's dissolution into warring factions.
I suggest that Byron's economic views were internationalist in scope, if not proto-Marxist. Don Juan does not focus on a labor-based class struggle; we are never taken inside a factory, or onto a plantation raising crops for export to the core powers (a major element in Immanuel Wallerstein's globalized model of capitalism). However, the poem's commercialized world fits Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel's model of a "world-system," as Byron depicts countries sewn ever closer together by trade and finance, a process guided by the hegemonic core of the order, Great Britain. (3) Braudel emphasizes that although the world is composed of various orders--cultural, social, political, and economic--"[w]ith modern times, nevertheless, the primacy of economics became more and more overwhelming," an observation mirrored in Byron's cynical statement from an 1814 letter: "I have simplified my politics into an utter detestation of all existing governments.... The fact is, riches are power, and poverty is slavery all over the earth, and one sort of establishment is no better, nor worse, for a people than another." (4) Hence, this essay will be a step toward "rejecting the idea that globalization is a fundamentally contemporary event and recognizing that it has a long history." (5)
Jerome J. McGann argues that "Byron's world is not a system; it is a network of systems and orders, some of which may overlap in some ways, some of which do not.... The key to the form of Don Juan, then, is the episodic method, where fortuitousness, not probability, is sought, and where plans and designs operate only in restricted ways." (6) Although McGann makes a virtue of the poem's episodic quality by arguing that Byron uses an accretional "experimental" method to ponder upon "the tangle of circumstance which prevents the fulfillment of the dream of human love and order" (126), from my perspective this overlooks a continuity in Don Juan's plot and theme. The contradictory political stance of Byron's epic poem--the constant tension between a populist rhetoric of resistance, and the self-mocking deflation of this rhetoric--can be linked to his troubled relationship to this world-system: the love of wealth and pleasure, of unbridled consumption that the system offers, countered by the awareness that this consumption decenters any conception of struggle versus power, of a movement for liberation. To understand this is to understand why Byron stopped writing Don Juan, and why he poured his savings into the Greek nationalist movement. Don Juan was itself a commodity, an element in global trade, and for Byron joining the Greek struggle represented a more authentic way of rocking the markets of tyrants to their foundation. But the pathos (or bathos) of his political activism is that it prefigured simply one more role for the global consumer: because he could never coherently articulate an opposition to the economic world-system, Byron's attempt at political heroism ended up with him dying as a tourist.
We can begin with canto 12, the economic heart of Don Juan. Byron had a love/hate relationship with Napoleon, alternately celebrating him as a liberator, denouncing him as a tyrant, and criticizing him on a purely aesthetic level (in the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Byron judges Napoleon's handling of his fall from power against classical models and finds him lacking). Here, however, he gives an entirely new perspective on Napoleon's historical significance, on why he fell and the power that guides the world:
Who hold the balance of the world? Who reign O'er Congress, whether royalist or liberal? Who rouse the shirtless patriots of Spain? (That make old Europe's journals squeak and gibber all.) Who keep the world, both old and new, in pain Or pleasure? Who make politics run glibber all? The shade of Bonaparte's noble daring?-- Jew Rothschild, and his fellow Christian Baring. (12.5)
Rothschild and Baring were, of course, bankers who played key parts in the consolidation of post-1815 Europe's political structure, while Rothschild was the major financial element in Britain's defeat of Napoleon, conveying gold specie to the cash-poor Wellington. (7) As the statesman Henry Dundas famously told William Pitt at the beginning of the wars with Revolutionary France, "All modern Wars are a Contention of Purse," and Nathan Rothschild, considered a "Napoleon of finance" by his brothers, was "the principal conduit of money from the British government to the continental battlefields on which the fate of Europe was decided in 1814 and 1815." (8) According to Niall Ferguson, after Waterloo the Rothschilds outpaced the Barings as the main developers of the international bond market, becoming the "chief ally of the Holy Alliance": "In so far as they helped to finance Austrian intervention in Italy and French intervention in Spain, the Rothschilds deserve to be thought of as financiers of 'reaction'" (Ferguson 137). However, Ferguson emphasizes that what was important to the bankers was not politics per se, but business opportunities; "[t]he attraction of counter-revolution ... was not that it restored despots, but that it developed new financial needs" (142).
"Who hold the balance of the world?" For Byron, the world is balanced in England, although significantly it is not politicians ("run[ning] glibber all") who do the balancing, but businessmen. It would be a mistake to view the opening of canto 12 as an attack on Jewish financiers; nor is it merely describing bankers, as Byron discusses not just banking but trade in general. The figure he describes is not specifically a banker, or merchant, but the "miser," guided by the rational spirit of accumulation, and Byron describes the miser's "pleasure that can never pall" (12.3) in a Weberian manner:
... the frugal life is his, Which in a saint or cynic ever was The theme of praise: a hermit would not miss Canonization for the self-same cause, And wherefore blame gaunt Wealth's austerities? Because, you'll say, nought calls for such a trial;-- Then there's more merit in his self-denial. (12.7)
Whatever "great projects [are] in his mind, / To build a college, or to found a race" (12.10), his primary purpose is to accumulate. Citing these passages, Jerome Christensen has argued that the misers do not represent dynamic economic expansion, but rather create a sinkhole, "fetishizing the tokens of commerce and blocking exchange." (9) Yet the misers' wealth is based on exchange, as "The lands on either side are his: the ship / From Ceylon, Inde, or far Cathay, unloads / For him the fragrant produce of each trip" (12.9). Moreover, this wealth directs political affairs and determines the outcome of revolutions: "Every loan / Is not a merely speculative hit, / But seats a nation or upsets a throne" (12.6). For all Castlereagh's power as a foreign secretary, Byron referred to him as a weak figure, an "intellectual eunuch" (Dedication I I). Now we see why. The source of the "wealth of worlds (a wealth of tax and paper)" (10.83) is the misers, who are dealing with the real thing--the "ore" and "ingots," or, in a word, the capital. In fact, despite the paper-based nature of loans, if anything had permanence in Byron's poetic depiction of a fallen world with its golden age long past, it is misers and their moneymaking. All is transitory, politicians rise and fall, "Weigh'd in the balance, hero dust / Is vile as vulgar clay" (Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte 100-101), and the thoughtful observer can find nothing of lasting value; in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage IV Byron had lamented, "What from this barren being do we reap? / Our senses narrow, and our reason frail, / Life short, and truth a gem which loves the deep, / And all things weigh'd in custom's falsest scale" (93). By contrast, the miser, with no place in the public mythology of leadership, has both poetic and social power:
He is your only poet;--passion, pure And sparkling on from heap to heap, displays Possess'd, the ore, of which mere hopes allure Nations athwart the deep ... His very cellars might be kings' abodes; While he, despising every sensual call, Commands--the intellectual lord of all. (12.8-9)
Overall, the passage functions as a sophisticated thematic rewriting of its clear influence in terms of imagery, the Cave of Mammon canto in Book 2 of Spenser's The Faerie Queene. (10) Mammon's "masse of coyne," "great Ingoes" and "wedges square" (2.7.4-5) make him the "greatest god below the skye," overseeing "Riches, renowme, and principality, / Honour, estate, and all this worldes good" (2.7.8). The influence of his wealth does not, at least explicitly, represent any particular economic system, but rather the temptation of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, which Guyon resists with his devout faith and emphasis on brave achievements. By contrast, Byron's stanzas are not a moral allegory but poetic journalism, depicting a world in which money holds full sway and there is no coherent alternative to Mammon's lure. For Spenser, Mammon could be resisted in the name of God; for Byron, nineteenth-century misers merit comparison with saints, cynics, and hermits (12.7).
We would expect Byron to vociferously condemn these financial interests. "'Blest paper credit,' who shall dare to sing?" he challenged in Minerva, "It clogs like lead Corruption's weary wing" (245-46). In Don Juan the paper credit of the bond market is merged with accumulation in general, and identified as supporting the "Conspiracy or congress to be made--/ Cobbling at manacles for all mankind" (Dedication 14). Yet, despite the clear satiric tone, Byron's attitude toward these modern figures of power is not one of exposure or denunciation, but profound ambivalence. On one hand, the stanzas function as a panegyric: "The fool will call such mania a disease" (12.11), he admonishes, seeing "merit in [the miser's] self-denial" (12.7). According to Philip W. Martin, "Don Juan is a poem which is continuously elevating the body over the mind ... against the expectations incited by its title, the dominant bodily organs are not those of generation but those of digestion ... the images of the body denud[e] metaphysics of its paradigmatic privilege over the physical." (11) The miser, however, overcomes the split between abstract ideals and the mundane needs of the body that Byron is so delighted to point up: "Ye who but see the saving man at table, / And scorn his temperate board, as none at all, / And wonder how the wealthy can be sparing, / Know not what visions spring from each cheese-paring" (12.3). In this inverted world, it is Mammon that has temperance. On the other hand, the obvious question that follows--where, then, is Guyon?--gives the passage its disturbing nature, as this new materialist religion means the decay of political ideals. Cervantes' Don Quixote, the "real Epic" (13.9) of modernity, made a jest of "Opposing singly the united strong, / From foreign yoke to free the helpless native" (13.10), and the modern examples of political heroism--the "shiftless patriots of Spain" and Peru's liberated "silver soil"--are ultimately subservient to the international bond market. "Go look at each transaction, / Wars, revels, loves--do these bring men more ease / Than the mere plodding through each 'vulgar fraction?'" (12.11) The "wars, revels, loves" are the froth on the surface of the world, as these activities are funded by the misers, whether they are financing England's defeat of Napoleon, propping up monarchs ("Without cash, camps were thin, and courts were none" [12.14]), or simply delivering food and drink to the multitude: "Beneath [the miser's] cars of Ceres groan the roads, / And the vine blushes like Aurora's lip" (12.9). Plodding through vulgar fractions is all that is ultimately real, in the end; a cycle of production and consumption generates a world of surfaces, without depth.
The world-system is not the subject of a digressive commentary in a late canto, but structures Juan's journey through Asia and Europe. Byron's stress is always on money and commodities and the way they cross borders, and over the course of the poem his main character is both himself a commodity, and a promoter of trade. Although Byron will rewrite Spenser in canto 12, he begins his poem by updating Homer, emphasizing that his poem is an epic of trade and finance. Don Juan arrives in Cadiz--"'Tis there the mart of the colonial trade is / (Or was, before Peru learn'd to rebel)" (2.5)--and his journey is from the start fueled by paper money: "A letter, too, [Donna Inez] gave (he never read it) / Of good advice--and two or three of credit" (2.9). Shipwrecked soon after, Juan finds himself on a Greek island inhabited by a character who recalls The Corsair's pirate Conrad, save that Lambro might better be described as a piratical merchant capitalist:
A fisherman he had been in his youth, And still a sort of fisherman was he; But other speculations were, in sooth, Added to his connection with the sea, Perhaps not so respectable, in truth: A little smuggling, and some piracy, Left him, at last, the sole of many masters Of an ill-gotten million of piastres. (2.125)
An inventory of his wares in canto 3 reveals good from all over the world--"Light classic articles of female want" (17), guitars, parrots, British terriers, and, of course, human slaves. As a pirate Lambro is outside the law, yet he is a figure for global trade, doing business as usual: "[F]or the common [slaves], he / Had a large order from the Dey of Tripoli. / The merchandise was served in the same way, / Pieced out for different marts in the Levant" (3.16-17). Lest we think that Byron is merely describing the amoral customs of an exotic land for English readers, he reminds us, "Let not his mode of raising cash seem strange, / Although he fleeced the flags of every nation, / For into a prime minister but change / His title, and 'tis nothing but taxation" (3.14). Byron's depiction of Lambro involves a certain cynicism, as his early oriental romances, for all their sensationalism, made a "political contribution," according to Marilyn Butler, "familiariz[ing] a British (and, rapidly, a European) readership with the idea that the fight within Greece [for independence] would not be led by 'respectable' leaders of society, churchmen, landowners, or wealthy merchants, but by irregulars of little or no social standing, the bandits or 'Hefts' in hill country, and pirates on the sea." (12) By contrast, the emphasis in Don Juan is on Lambro as a miser of the Aegean, who loves "power, and rapid gain of gold" (3.54)--it is as if the master's game of moneymaking is the only one in town, "[stinging] him from a slave to an enslaver" (3.53).
Ensconced in Lambro's castle, Juan wallows in luxury and wealth with Haidee in what amounts to an original consumerist paradise.
Haidee and Juan carpeted their feet On crimson satin, border'd with pale blue; Their sofa occupied three parts complete Of the apartment--and appear'd quite new ... Crystal and marble, plate and porcelain, Had done their work of splendour; Indian mats And Persian carpets, which the heart bled to stain, Over the floors were spread; gazelles and cats, And dwarfs and blacks, and such like things, that gain Their bread as ministers and favourites--(that's To say, by degradation)--mingled there As plentiful as in a court or fair. (3.67, 68)
Juan does not have any particular feeling for the degraded servants, but is rather "A gentleman so rich in the world's goods, / Handsome and young, enjoying all the present" (4.51). Juan, in short, is living on a loan, and when Lambro returns, it is called in. A modern-day Odysseus, he has a very prosaic reaction to Juan and Haidee's revels: "But Lambro saw all these things with aversion, / Perceiving in his absence such expenses, / Dreading that climax of all human ills, / The inflammation of his weekly bills" (3.35). Lambro's initial reaction to the celebration is not flaming anger; an "intellectual lord of all," he remains cool and collected ("Now in a person used to much command / ... It may seem strange to find his manners bland / ... [but] calm, concentrated and still, and slow, / He lay coil'd like the boa in the wood" [3-47-48]). Lambro, whose acquisitive instinct is "the chain cable / Which hold fast other pleasures great and small" (12.3), takes his revenge by converting the pleasure-seeking but cash-poor Juan into his monetary value, shipping him eastward to be "chain'd and lotted out per couple, / For the slave market of Constantinople" (4.91).
Learning that "A day of gold from out an age of iron / Is all that life allows the luckiest sinner" (3.36), Juan enters the largest power in the region, the Ottoman Empire, as a sort of picaro of the international marketplace: initially an indulgent traveller, he is now a commodity. Although Juan himself is hence in a vulnerable position, canto 5 as a whole represents the growing Western influence in Turkish affairs. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the Empire responded to increasing economic and military pressure by centralizing its bureaucracy and streamlining its tax-collection system (which helped to provoke the Greek Revolution). As with Lambro, Byron updates his oriental tales and gives his Eastern tyrant a more concrete socioeconomic role, as the Sultan in cantos 5 and 6 is concerned with Russian advances and a weakened economy:
But as it was, his Highness had to hold His daily council upon ways and means, How to encounter with this martial scold [Catherine II of Russia], This modern Amazon and Queen of Queans; And the perplexity could not be told Of all the Pillars of the state, which leans Sometimes a little heavy on the backs Of those who cannot lay on a new tax. (6.96)
The Ottomans' military disasters with Russia convinced them that "they were in no position to defend themselves militarily without assistance," which led to them becoming "the first non-Christian country to participate in the European state system and the first unconditionally to accept its form of diplomacy." (13) This constituted "a major step in the transformation of the European state system into a world system"; the Empire's eventual fate was to be incorporated within the political and economic influence of Great Britain. Byron himself commented in the notes to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage II that "The Mussulmans have been beaten into a kind of sullen civility, very comfortable to voyagers" (CPW 2.209), and in Don Juan he cynically claims that a lucrative industry of travel writing has been generated "Because one poet travell'd 'mongst the Turks" (5.42) in this earlier work. Ironically, after giving himself credit for setting off an explosion of commercial Orientalism, he observes that his own narrative of Juan's entry into the Sultan's palace is now redundant:
... [A] magnificent large hall display'd The Asian pomp of Ottoman parade. I won't describe; description is my forte, But every fool describes in these bright days His wond'rous journey to some foreign court, And spawns his quarto, and demands your praise-- Death to his publisher, to him 'tis sport; While Nature, tortured twenty thousand ways, Resigns herself with exemplary patience To guide-books, rhymes, tours, sketches, illustrations. (5.51-52)
In cantos 1-5, Byron's strategy is to continually remind the English reader that beneath the seemingly exotic and distant locales of Juan's wanderings are "pragmatic contest[s] among the nations for world power" (Butler 78), which involve the same financial matters that he or she finds in the newspaper (and, moreover, that poetic descriptions of these exotic locales are themselves financial endeavors). In cantos 6 and 7, however, Byron takes on a new, more challenging radicalism. He announces this intention in a preface, heaping more abuse upon (the now-deceased) Castlereagh, identifying England as the engineer of an international regime of tyranny, and taking on the role of the denouncer of this regime against its bought-off apologists (lines 61-67). From this point onward there is a great increase in Byron's populist rhetoric, as in canto 8 when he writes, "I think I hear a little bird, who sings / The people by and bye will be the stronger: / ... the Mob / [will] At last fall sick of imitating Job" (50); he would doubt that the Mob will revolt in the near future, "If I had not perceived that Revolution / Alone can save the Earth from Hell's pollution" (8.51). In canto 9 we have the striking imagery of "human Insects, catering for Spiders" (27):
Raise but an arm! 'twill brush their web away, And without that, their poison and their claws Are useless. Mind, good People! what I say-- (Or rather Peoples)--go on without pause! The web of these Tarantulas each day Increases, till you shall make common cause: None, save the Spanish Fly and Attic Bee, As yet are strongly stinging to be free. (9.28)
Meanwhile, Juan himself, according to Anne Barton, was going to take on an explicitly political significance. "Juan's death in the aftermath of the French Revolution had now become a fixed terminus. What remained imponderable was the amount of time and the variety of circumstance required to conduct him, and the poem, to that resolution." (14) Appropriately, in the Siege of Ismail episode we have an explicit reference to Rousseau. Byron had earlier linked Rousseau's concept of the "noble savage" with liberal revolutions, as in Childe Harold IV:
Can tyrants but by tyrants conquered be, And Freedom find no champion and no child ... Or must such minds be nourished in the wild, Deep in the unpruned forest, 'midst the roar Of cataracts, where nursing Nature milled On infant Washington? Has Earth no more Such seeds within her breast, or Europe no such shore? (stanza 96)
Byron makes a similar commentary in Don Juan on the merits of "General [Daniel] Boon [sic]," the "back-woodsman of Kentucky" (8.61) who was "even in age the child / Of Nature" (8.63) and his "free foresters" (8.67). This is not a random insertion, as a few stanzas later Juan shows that he carries the seeds of freedom in his breast. Fighting for the Russians, he turns against his own side to save a Turkish girl from marauding Cossack soldiers, becoming a figure of natural nobility who comes to the rescue of the gift in her moment of pain and fear. The brutality of the Cossacks, meanwhile, is blamed not on their natures, but on the political system that they're a part of:
[M]atched with them The rudest brute that roams Siberia's wild Has feelings pure and polished as a gem,-- The bear is civilized, the wolf is mild: And whom for this at last must we condemn? Their natures? or their sovereigns, who employ All arts to teach their subjects to destroy? (8.92)
It is the leaders of states who are corrupt and murderous; their subjects, and even their mercenary soldiers, are potentially Daniel Boones or Don Juans, figures of uncorrupted nature. Yet Byron does not pursue this theme. Don Juan has been called a poem of freedom and a "possible influence ... on the Reform movement and the Chartists," but I would argue that, to seriously consider the work a call for political freedom, we should find some sort of affinity between Juan and political action (if not necessarily movements for national liberation or republicanism, then political action of any sort). (15) Instead, Juan continues to indulge himself in the goods of the international network of trade, making for a disjuncture between the increase in Byron's demotic rhetoric from canto 6 onward, and the way Juan acts in society. As a war hero in St. Petersburgh, Juan enjoys "gay / Damsels, and dances, revels, ready money, / [which] Made ice seem Paradise, and winter sunny" (10.21). Not homesick at all, a few stanzas later he writes to his family:
He wrote to Spain:--and all his near relations, Perceiving he was in a handsome way Of getting on himself, and finding stations For cousins also, answered the same day. Several prepared themselves for emigrations; And, eating ices, were o'erheard to say, That with the addition of a slight pelisse, Madrid's and Moscow's climes were of a-piece. (10.30)
Juan's invitations and the eager responses he receives amount to a marketing of court patronage and a cultural blending; Madrid can be the same as Moscow if one wears the correct item of clothing. Juan's private individual destiny is an allegory, then, not for a single nation, but for an emergent global economic system. (16) Even if one argues that Byron is at heart simply a satirist, and using Juan as a foil to expose money-driven statecraft and high society, he clearly has his political imagination limited by this very structure of world trade and wealth-generation. This is shown when an actual historical figure, Catherine II, makes an appearance and becomes Juan's lover. Although Peter the Great is commonly credited with leading Russia's first drive toward modernization, Catherine continued his work and, according to Wallerstein, "The majority of Soviet scholars argue that it is in the 1760s that 'the capitalist system was established' in Russia," a time when "exports to England grew 'briskly'" due to Catherine's signing the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty in 1766 (Wallerstein 185, 151). Enjoying the high life at Catherine's court in the early 1790s, the underlying economic basis of Juan's travels becomes explicit, as he is asked by Catherine to go on a mission:
There was just then a kind of a discussion, A sort of treaty or negociation Between the British cabinet and Russian, Maintained with all the due prevarication With which great states such things are apt to push on; Something about the Baltic's navigation, Hides, train-oil, tallow, and the rights of Thetis, Which Britons deem their 'uti possidetis'. (10.45)
As with the later twelfth canto, here we have not allegory but simple reportage (specifically, according to McGann, of a set of negotiations between England and Russia that culminated in a new treaty in 1793) (CPW 5.744), providing an explanation for why getting Juan to the French Revolution was so "imponderable." The only way Byron can move the poem along is to have it follow the flow of world trade, which, as an ambassador, Juan is now helping to direct (and, whether intentionally or not, in England's favor).
Thus, we can see that Juan's journey is not entirely random and episodic; it is an arc, starting in the semiperiphery, moving through weakening empires in the process of being incorporated, and finally arriving at the hegemonic core of world economic power:
Those haughty shop-keepers, who sternly dealt Their goods and edicts out from pole to pole, And made the very billows pay them toll. (10.65)
Later in the canto Byron famously describes the English as the "true sons" of the soil "Who butchered half the earth, and bullied t' other" (10.81), a description that comes as Juan watches "A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping ... an alchymic furnace, from whence broke the wealth of worlds (a wealth of tax and paper)" (10.83). Great Britain is the military might that anchors the worldwide system of trade (10.67), meaning that within this structure, all are prisoners:
Would she be proud, or boast herself the free, Who is but first of slaves? The nations are In prison,--but the jailor, what is he? No less a victim to the bolt and bar. Is the poor privilege to turn the key Upon the captive, freedom? He's as far From the enjoyment of the earth and air Who watches o'er the chain, as they who wear. (10.68)
With his main character in the core power of this international order, Byron is now in a position not merely to blaspheme, but to act as a "male Mrs. Fry," reforming the leaders of English society instead of female prisoners in Newgate (10.84, 85). He will not discipline "poor rogues" but rather try his hand at "hardened and imperial sin" (10.85), "prattl[ing] / Like Roland's horn in Roncesvalles' battle" (10.87). It is the poem's most radical moment, when Byron conceives himself as a literary resister of economic, political, and military power.
It is, however, only a moment, and the reference to the Song of Roland is apt: much like Roland himself, who neglected to blow his horn for Charlemagne's reinforcements until his outnumbered rearguard army was reduced to sixty men, Byron waits too long to extend his poem's political thrust, to go beyond the mere demotic rhetoric. As on Lambro's island and in Russia, Juan enjoys the high life in London; as an "inveterate Patrician," he was "well received by persons of condition" (11.45). Usually this ideological prevarication (the split between Byron's populist radicalism as a narrator, and Juan's immersion in the delights of high society) is attributed to the political views that were linked to Byron's traditional social status, which Leslie A. Marchand describes as "the eighteenth-century conception of liberalism as a revolt against tyranny which might go even so far as republicanism, but which envisioned an aristocratic or gentlemanly leadership. This concept involved distrust of the mob and lack of sympathy for democratic or proletarian, or even middle-class, control or participation in government." (17) This is the story that Kelsall tells, that of the superfluous aristocrat in a time of ideological polarization between monarchies and mobs (Kelsall 1-56). By this line of thinking, Byron's impossible political stance makes for his ideological proteanism, as in 15.23, when he says that, should kings fall, "I should turn the other way, / And wax an Ultra-royalist in loyalty, / Because I hate even democratic royalty."
However, Byron does, after all, promise us that "my best Canto, save one on astronomy, / Will turn upon 'Political Economy'" (12.88), and there is a specifically economic explanation for Juan's odd status as a potentially rebellious nobleman who instead indulges himself in "worldly goods." In London, Juan enters a world that is thoroughly subordinated to middle-class commercialism. Orrin N. C. Wang writes that Christensen makes a "heady historical claim" when the latter links Byron's early best-selling poetry to "the commercial rise of the middle class ... collapsing, as it were, Byron's Oriental Tales into Fredric Jameson's L. A. Bonaventure Hotel," but Christensen's focus on Byron's immersion in commercialism is entirely accurate. (18) Juan's England is a sort of hell, the Cave of Mammon having become the world. "An individual is an uncompleted contract in an open market. Each person is a character that can he entered into a ledger or an actuarial table.... The public feast of the Amundevilles, where once upon a time the reconciliation of classes was symbolically achieved by the lord's bounteous expenditure, has been transformed into a commodity exchange, the Gothic temple become a marketplace for the purchasing of votes" (Christensen 312). Yet, as we saw in canto 12, Byron also has an admiration for the global money men, and when Juan enters England, he feels "A kind of pride that he should be among / Those haughty shopkeepers" (10.65; my emphasis). As David V. Erdman notes, Byron felt a tension within himself between an aristocratic and middle-class bourgeois mindset, he had a "class scorn of the city money men," yet his condemnation of most modern poetry was linked to a sense that aristocratic values were fading, even in his own poetry and persona. "In [Byron's] 'aristocracy of poetry,' then, the really unspeakable writer is not the 'rude blackguard' [i.e. a member of the lower or working classes] but the 'shabby-genteel,' the 'vulgar' bourgeois ... It is the rise of middle-class vulgarity, even in himself, that alarms Byron, as if he saw shadows of the 'futurity' of Victorian sentimentality, ormolu, and jingo." (19)
Byron's wavering between radical calls for resistance and Juan's life of dissipation cannot be called a sort of poetic hypocrisy. Rather, caught between an admiration for money-men and a love of indulgence on one hand, and a sense of outrage at the damage inflicted by tradesmen on the other, Byron's world is so structured by the marketplace that he can't articulate a political position that would make hypocrisy possible. Despite his awareness and occasional endorsement of class-based revolt in England of the early 1820s, his larger picture of the country seems to be that, as the core power of the world-system, it can never offer authentic political action. (20) When he alludes to the Peterloo Massacre in canto II, it is simply as a part of the country's general evanescent whirl and bustle, and followed by a comment upon a change in consumer preferences: "I've seen the people ridden o'er like sand / By slaves on horseback--I have seen malt liquors / Exchanged for 'thin potations' by John Bull-- / I have seen John half detect himself a fool--" (11.85). Arriving in London and naively admiring England as the land of the free, Juan is confronted by four young knife-wielding men who demand "your money or your life" (11.10), and after he shoots the leader, Tom, the reader is given a burlesque presentation of Tom as a dying epic hero. Kelsall comments perceptively,
Byron, with the Luddites in mind, might have represented [Tom] as an example of the 'excess' to which people might be driven by poverty.... The connection between poverty and crime was a criticism readily available to the [political] opposition. But the highwayman's cry, 'Damn your eyes! Your money or your life!' is merely rapacious. He sees a rich man and he determines to take his money off him. The connection Juan makes in his own mind is with British innkeepers. They see a wealthy traveller and also rob him. In this the lower classes practise in their small way what the aristocracy practises in a great fashion. Everyone is on the make for money. 'Cash rules the Court,' the poet exclaims. The social order is sustained by 'a wealth of tax and paper.' Even the narrator himself calls avarice 'a good old-gentlemanly vice' in a mock encomium. (Kelsall 171)
It is not just the "twice two thousand people" (DJ 11.45) in the best part of the city who indulge in petty forms of luxury, but all of the classes. As Neil McKendrick emphasizes, in the late eighteenth century England unquestionably became a consumer society: the "economic advantages of competition, envy, emulation, vanity and fashion" were explicitly recognized in opposition to older traditions of thrift and rigid class boundaries, and "even highwaymen" were seen to "encourage trade by spending lavishly on what they have stolen." (21) Byron describes Tom as a "kiddy," defined as "a thief of the lower order, who, when he is breeched by a course of successful depredation, dresses in the extreme of vulgar gentility." (22)
It makes sense, then, that Byron, adulating the people in one stanza, insists that he does not "adulate the people" a few stanzas later, explaining that he wishes "men to be free / As much from mobs and kings--from you as me. / The consequence is, being of no party, / I shall offend all parties:--never mind!" (9.25-26). This is not so much Byron's sense of aristocratic entitlement vis-a-vis the mob coming through, as it is emblematic of the social fragmentation of an early consumer society. Aristocratic pastimes have become, themselves, consumerist activities, and Byron's aristocratic "hero" is yoked to a day job.
His morns he passed in business--which dissected, Was like all business, a laborious nothing, That leads to lassitude, the most infected And Centaur-Nessus garb of mortal clothing, And on our sophas make us lie dejected, And talk in tender horrors of our loathing All kinds of toil, save for our country's good Which grows no better, though 'tis time it should. His afternoons he passed in visits, luncheons, Lounging, and boxing ... Then dress, then dinner, then awakes the world! Then glare the lamps, then whirl the wheels, then roar Through street and square fast flashing chariots, hurled Like harnessed meteors; then along the floor Chalk mimics painting; then festoons are twirled; Then roll the brazen thunders of the door, Which opens to the thousand happy few An earthly Paradise of 'Or Molu.' (11.65-67)
"All kinds of toil, save for our country's good"; initially a picaro of the world-economy and, while in Constantinople, himself a commodity, Juan is now an agent of multinational capitalism in the system's core, where ships from Ceylon, India, and China unload their produce (12.9) and English goods (and edicts) go out to the world (10.65). Hence the impact of canto 12, in which Byron suggests that the economic power of Great Britain corrupts the globe. Just as everyone is on the make for money on London's streets, on the international level not only the monarchs of the restored ancien regime, but republics, fresh from the struggle for national liberation, are drawn to the economic center of the world and powerful figures like the Rothschilds and Barings. "Who hold the balance of the world? Who reign / O'er Congress, whether royalist or liberal? / ... Republics also get involved a bit; / Columbia's stock hath holders not unknown / On 'Change ..." (12.5-6) If "[e]very loan / ... seats a nation or upsets a throne," if the world-system is the shade of both Napoleon, the great leader, and Tom, the highwayman, how do you decide what's worth fighting for? In Don Juan, you can't. Since Juan's spending will always outstrip his income, Byron's ultimate advice to him is to seize the day and live in the moment ("But 'Carpe diem,' Juan, 'Carpe, carpe!'" [11.86]), until the bill arrives and the loan is called in.
The wanderings of Don Juan over the disenchanted geographical space of Asia and Europe are an allegory of the economic growth of the world-system, the temporality of accumulation. It is an allegory without the liberating function that Jameson identified for the postcolonial novel. "If allegory has become once again somehow congenial for us today, as over against the massive and monumental unifications of an older modernist symbolism or even realism itself, it is because the allegorical spirit is profoundly discontinuous, a matter of breaks and heterogeneities, of the multiple polysemia of the dream rather than the homogenous representation of the symbol" (Jameson 73). Jameson saw allegoric polysemy as offering radical socioeconomic critique; however, after all the criticism of Wordsworth's monumental, unitary systematizing ("the vasty version / Of his new system to perplex the sages" [Dedication 4]), Byron's commentary upon his own digressive, episodic global allegory is wistful at best, with an undercurrent of despair.
You know or don't know, that great Bacon saith, "Fling up a straw, 'twill show the way the wind blows;" And such a straw, borne on by human breath, Is Poesy, according as the mind glows; A paper kite, which flies 'twixt life and death, A shadow which the onward Soul behind throws: And mine's a bubble not blown up for praise, But just to play with, as an infant plays ... It occupies me to turn back regards On what I've seen or ponder'd, sad or cheery; And what I write I cast upon the stream, To swim or sink--I have had at least my dream. (14.8, 11)
As Wallerstein says, the goal of the world-system is unlimited accumulation, and it is not surprising that Byron announces in 12.55 that his market-generated simulacrum may go on forever: "I thought, at setting off, about two dozen / Cantos would do; but at Apollo's pleading, / If that my Pegasus should not be foundered, / I think to canter gently through a hundred."
Neither Don Juan, nor Don Juan the poem, can imagine coherent political action; neither the casting of Byron as a prophet of freedom, nor as an artist concerned only with the freedom offered by poetry, seems to serve, as both positions are undercut by the cycle of production and consumption in which Byron felt himself caught. The most serious criticism of this argument would come from Christensen, who, while acknowledging that "there is no position on which to take a stand independent of the phenomenon [Don Juan] would satirize," argues that Byron was nevertheless publishing in opposition to bourgeois commercial society, and indeed against his own earlier deployment as "the culturally dominant and economically profitable phenomenon called 'Byron'" (Chtistensen 352, xx). Christensen claims that "[I]n the aftermath of Waterloo, Byronism took on an imperial dimension, reaching its fullest scope in Childe Harold IV. This empire conspicuously began to unravel with the publication of Don Juan, which, in apposition to Byronism, addressed a strong, ethical challenge to the murmurous complacencies of commercial society" (xx). For Christensen, Don Juan's language makes it not a commodity but a volcanic force of nature; its "opacities in diction, hobbles in versification ... strained constructions, ink stains" (xxi) make it a text that opposes "the depletion of substance and the acceleration of reproduction" (5) involved in the mechanized seriality of publication for profit. Hence, the poem represents Byron's disengagement from commercial society, "his final break with the coveting cherub of his bookseller and his virtuous commitment to continue publication of Juan 'though it were to destroy fame and profit at once' (BLJ 10:126)" (215), which produces, not a revolution with an "empirical referent," but a "revolutionary text" that resists a commercialist modernity (353).
Given Don Juan's relationship to the marketplace, one wonders whether it can truly be called a revolutionary text. Much of Christensen's argument hinges on his reading of the miser passages in canto 12, where (as noted above) he argues that the misers, "fetishizing the tokens of commerce and blocking exchange," are in his view like Byron as the poem's narrator (322). (23) Quoting an 1819 letter in which Byron paraphrases passages from The Merchant of Venice, Christensen argues that Byron is not to be likened to his profit-seeking publisher John Murray; he is not a "Murray/Byron" but a "Byron/Shylock" who "shames the cant of the enlightened but idolatrous Gentile, Antonio/Murray," opposing commercial culture's "trade in images" (323). Yet, as explained above, the misers can more accurately be seen not as blocking exchange, but promoting it, guiding the world with their trade and investment. Where Byron himself is concerned, although several statements in his letters indeed indicate his desire to publish Don Juan whether it were profitable or not (and whatever the legal consequences), there is still stronger evidence that he wanted to make a profit with his work, and identified with the misers precisely because they were commercially successful. As Barton observes, "The younger Byron had stubbornly refused, even when in serious financial straits, to accept payment for his poems ... [but] his attitude towards his literary profits underwent a radical change. In letters to Murray and others, he took to haggling fiercely over terms for his new works, including the successive installments of Don Juan, taking a perverse pleasure in caricaturing himself as the most grasping and niggardly of men" (Barton 70. Whatever the commercial success of "Byronism" may have been, Byron himself adopted an attitude of aristocratic disdain toward what we might call poetic profiteering in his early years, and gave away the copyright of the first two cantos of Childe Harold because he had "conceived the high-minded idea that a gentleman should not take money for his poetry like a Grub Street hack" (Marchand, A Portrait 102). By contrast, according to Benita Eisler, the Byron of later years "had begun to take a professional view of his work and its market value, a change that marked a seismic shift in his attitude toward money generally ... he began to look carefully at expenses and--unimaginable for the younger Byron--to contemplate with pleasure the accumulation of capital." (24) When Douglas Kinnaird (Byron's agent and business manager) and Murray stalled publication of the allegedly obscene opening cantos of Don Juan, Byron described the situation as if he were a merchant with a stock of unsold goods: "This acquiescence is some thousands of pounds out of my pocket, the very thought of which brings tears into my eyes" (quoted in Marchand, A Portrait 294). It is a comical statement, but only contains hyperbole in the second clause, as later Byron would himself forestall publication "because of his continued hope that the copyright might still be sold for something approaching the Murray prices for former cantos." (25)
In The Faerie Queene, Guyon refuses Mammon's offer of wealth because he would rather "be Lord of those, that riches haue, / Than them to haue my selfe, and be their seruile sclaue" (2.7.33); in Don Juan, with the owners of riches having taken over the rulership of the world, the narrator himself, far past the point of temptation, is thoroughly corrupt ("Oh Gold! Why call we misers miserable?" [12.3])- Indeed, Byron himself may be considered a producer (if not an actual "capitalist" like John Murray): at the same time he makes appeals to a worldwide demos oppressed by tyrannies, he tries to catch and hold the attention of consumers in the hegemonic core of the world-system. Joking that he's bribed a newspaper to print a glowing review of the poem, he compares his literary/commercial project, with its "new mythological machinery, / And very handsome supernatural scenery" (1.201), to the oppressive political and economic system that he'd attacked in the (suppressed) Dedication:
The public approbation I expect ... For fear some prudish readers should grow skittish, I've bribed my grandmother's review--the British. I sent it in a letter to the editor, Who thank'd me duly by return of post-- I'm for a handsome article his creditor; Yet if my gentle Muse he please to roast, And break a promise after having made it her, Denying the receipt of what it cost, And smear his page with gall instead of honey, All I can say is--that he had the money. I think that with this holy new alliance I may ensure the public, and defy All other magazines of art or science, Daily, or monthly, or three monthly ... (1.209-11)
From the beginning Byron is bound up in a love/hate relationship with a "gentle reader! and / Still gentler purchaser!" (1.221), whom he alternately scorns and admits he desperately needs, bearing out Adam Smith's maxim that "[c]onsumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is ... perfectly self-evident" (quoted in McKendrick 15). Even after Don Juan acquires a new political seriousness in 1822 that makes it, according to McGann, "a great work of hope, for it insists that projects of change and renewal must continue to be raised up despite the fact of absolute adversity," (26) Byron self-mockingly deflates his political pronouncements with the reminder that his poem is, after all, just commodified entertainment. In canto 15 he states that "In politics my duty is to show John / Bull something of the lower world's condition. / It makes my blood boil like the springs of Hecla / To see men let these scoundrel Sovereigns break law" (92). Yet immediately after expressing his desire to show Englishmen something of "the lower world's condition," Byron congratulates himself on his ability to market his story to this detested public, implying that his topics of "politics, and policy, and piety," although supposedly having a "moral use," are simply elements of popular demand: "And now, that we may furnish with some matter all / Tastes, we are going to try the supernatural" (15.93). This exposure of the mechanism of his own writing, of its juxtaposition of different kinds of rhetoric, does not lead to a Bakhtinian "joyful relativity" (Martin 105) but rather a world-weary cynicism--as in the fourteenth canto when a debate with himself over why he bothers to write and publish ends with the comfort that, if nothing else, it will benefit the economy:
Love, war, a tempest--surely there's variety; Also a seasoning slight of lucubration; A bird's-eye view too of that wild, Society; A slight glance thrown on men of every station. If you have nought else, here's at least satiety Both in performance and in preparation; And though these lines should only line portmanteaus, Trade will be all the better for these Cantos. (14.14)
From one point of view this is simply a self-deprecating joke; the paper bad poetry was printed on was used by merchants to wrap their merchandise, or travellers their luggage. But from another view it's not ironic, as it fits with Juan's immersion in the world-system, which the portmanteau is a perfect figure for: the poetry in the suitcase, the global whirl of trade.
In short, Byron is in a bind, wanting to tell the truth about political tyranny, but compromised because his poem is a part of the very economic system that underlies the tyranny. (27) Writing to Kinnaird in August, 1822, Byron fulminated, "[T]hey hate me--and I detest them--I mean your present Public--but they shall not interrupt the march of my mind--nor prevent me from telling the tyrants who are attempting to trample upon all thought--that their thrones will yet be rocked to their foundation," yet the poetic assault against these tyrants involved a marketing strategy, as an 1823 letter about the Siege of Ismail cantos makes clear: "You must publish the Juans--now is the time for the warlike Cantos--especially as we hate the Muscovites.--Publish them taking what precautions you can against piracy (publish them on my account) and with whom you please." (28) Such an awareness of commercial opportunities makes an ironic counterpoint to Byron's chiding of the leisurely newspaper reader: "Cockneys of London! ... / Just ponder what a pious pastime war is: / Think how the joys of reading a Gazette / Are purchased by all agonies and crimes" (DJ 8.124-25).
Perhaps now we can explain why, instead of riding "gently through a hundred" cantos (12.55), or even the conventional twenty-four of the epic, Byron drew up with only sixteen (and a few extra stanzas). Explaining to a friend, Dr. Julius Millingen, why he'd become involved in Greek politics, Byron said, "Heartily weary of the monotonous life I had led in Italy for several years; sickened with pleasure; more tired of scribbling than the public, perhaps, is of reading my lucubrations; I felt the urgent necessity of giving a completely new direction to the course of my ideas ..." (quoted in Marchand, A Biography 3: 1133). The only way for Byron to "escape" the market-generated allegory that was Don Juan was to simply stop writing the poem. Byron's political and socioeconomic satire, and his eventual disillusionment with it, gives an interesting twist to Edward Said's historical scheme in Culture and Imperialism. Said distinguishes between a nineteenth-century realism that accompanies Europe's political domination of the world, and a twentieth-century modernism that reflects the self-conscious insecurity of dominion, when Western artists nervously confront the increasingly resistant oppressed:
I venture the suggestion that when European culture finally began to take due account of imperial "delusions and discoveries" ... it did so not oppositionally but ironically, and with a desperate attempt at a new inclusiveness ... a new encyclopedic form became necessary ... [a feature of which] is the irony of a form that draws attention to itself as substituting art and its creations for the once-possible synthesis of world empires. When you can no longer assume that Britannia will rule the waves forever, you have to reconceive reality as something that can be held together by you the artist, in history rather than in geography. (29)
Byron's poetry represented geographic domination, and was self-conscious and ironic; but as someone who very early took account of European delusions and discoveries, and was a scathing critic of the British world empire, this artistry was ultimately unsatisfying for him. "As to defining what a poet should be, it is not worth while, for what are they worth? what have they done?" (30)
What was the new direction that Byron gave to the course of his ideas? In addition to writing a global allegory, which is a treatment of a "post-modern" world of surfaces in the early 1800s, Byron recalls Jameson's social theory in another way: his desire to be a symbol, the savior of an oppressed people. To say this might sound surprising, since, after all, Jameson's famous 1986 article denigrates symbolism in favor of ostensibly allegoric "Third World" literature: "the story of private individual destiny [in Third-World texts] is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society" (Jameson 69; his emphasis). But as Aijaz Ahmad observes, Jameson changes from being a Marxist to being an Hegelian when he crosses over into the supposed Third World: that is, he essentializes the people who live within a given national boundary, seeing them as the unitary "slave" of a First-World capitalist "master":
For if societies here are defined not by relations of production but by relations of intra-national domination; if they are forever suspended outside the sphere of conflict between capitalism (First World) and socialism (Second World); if the motivating force of history is neither class formation nor class struggle ... but the unitary "experience" of national oppression (if one is merely the object of history, the Hegelian slave), then what else can one narrate but that national oppression? Politically, we are Calibans all. (31)
Here Ahmad suggests something that he doesn't quite follow through: what Jameson is actually valorizing is not the oppressed Third World and its ability to produce national allegories in its literature, but rather the role he imagines the Third-World intellectual playing in society.
[O]ne of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political ... [but] in the third-world situation the intellectual is always in one way or another a political intellectual. No third-world lesson is more timely or more urgent for us today, among whom the very term 'intellectual' has withered away, as though it were the name for an extinct species. (Jameson 69, 74)
In a word, what Jameson valorizes is the Third-World (or, rather, postcolonial) intellectual's symbolic union with his "people," which contrasts with Jameson's feeling of alienation from a society that, as the economic center of the world, has no need or desire for dissenting voices. The allegory in Jameson's article, then, is actually the article itself: Jameson's analysis of postcolonial texts can be read as the concealed tale--that is, an allegory for--his own desire to be an "organic intellectual," a speaker for an oppressed populace and a synecdoche for a nation.
As we have seen, Byron felt himself to be a part of the hegemonic center, with the burden of telling the complacent English reader what was really going on in the world. "The view from the top is epistemologically crippling," Jameson writes (85), and Byron has the same vertigo as a member of the "higher" core power, as when he writes that "In politics it is my duty to show John / Bull something of the lower world's condition" (15.92), satirizes the English public's myopic adoration of country and king ("A subject of sublimest exultation-- / Bear it, ye Muses, on your brightest wing!" [8.126]), or warns England:
Alas! could She but fully, truly, know How her great name is now throughout abhorred; How eager all the earth is for the blow Which shall lay bare her bosom to the sword; How all the nations deem her their worst foe, That worse than worst of foes, the once adored False friend, who held out freedom to mankind, And now would chain them, to the very mind;-- (10.67)
But Byron could never quite get the message across to John Bull; although his mock-epic poem did not fall into the "radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political" (Jameson 69), the allegory was never more than simply a representation of the economic development of the global marketplace. Hence, what Byron wanted to do in Greece was precisely to achieve a symbolic union with an oppressed people. Jameson valorized cultures that were "locked in a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialism" (68), and in similar fashion Byron was attracted to a war "which the Greeks did not fight for Political theories, nor for Independence only, but for their very existence...." (BLJ 11: 38). The Greeks were, Byron said, "perhaps the most depraved and degraded people under the sun" and "damned liars; there never was such an incapacity for veracity shown since Eve lived in Paradise" (quoted in Marchand, A Biography 3:1133, 1116). But Byron, as Marchand says, recognized that the characters of these present-day Calibans "had been formed by the habits of deceit engendered by the very circumstances of their slavery," and what was needed was to throw off their masters (3: 1115). Byron's struggle was not specifically against Turkish tyranny; indeed, in the notes to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, I-II he had attacked ethnocentric Western prejudices against the Ottoman Empire, noting among other things that "there does not exist a more honourable, friendly, and high-spirited character than the true Turkish provincial Aga, or Moslem country-gentleman" and that the Turks' control of Greece was analogous to Britain's rule over Ireland (CPW 2.210). What mattered to Byron was the fight for a nation's emancipation from a global system of power, the rebellion of the slave versus the master:
Greece now faces these three courses--to win her liberty, to become a colony of the Sovereigns of Europe, or to become a Turkish province.--Now she can choose one of the three--but civil war cannot lead to anything but the last two. If she envies the fate of Wallachia or of the Crimea she can obtain it tomorrow; if that of Italy, the day after tomorrow. But if Greece wants to become forever free, true, and Independent she had better decide now, or never again will she have the chance, never again. (BLJ 11: 71)
In coming to Greece to liberate the slaves, Byron could realize his dream of being the savior of a nation; while he was too cynical a philhellene to see the modern Greeks as the direct descendents of Pericles, his own role in the struggle could be a realization of classical ideals of heroism. The desire for this self-transcendence is found in one of his final poems, the only great lyric he wrote, according to McGann (Don Juan in Context 152):
The Sword, the Banner, and the Field, Glory and Greece, around me see! The Spartan, borne upon his shield, Was not more flee. Awake! (not Greece--she is awake!) Awake, my Spirit! think through whom Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake, And then strike home! ... If thou regret'st thy youth, why live? The land of honourable death Is here:--up to the Field, and give Away thy breath! Seek out--less often sought than found-- A soldier's grave, for thee the best; Then look around, and choose thy ground, And take thy Rest. (stanzas 6-7, 9-10)
Byron will achieve symbolic authenticity, which postulates "identity and identification" and "nostalgia and the desire to coincide," through actual life-and-death struggle. (32) The lyric describes a spatial relationship which lacks the ambiguity that Paul de Man observed in Coleridge's famous contrast between symbol and allegory (which, in de Man's view, actually blends them together). In stanza 7 Byron's spirit becomes a synecdoche for Greece as a whole, and in stanzas 9 and 10 Byron's "material perception" and "symbolical imagination" are continuous, as the narrator looks about and chooses a gravesite in the earth that holds the heroes of the past. This is the only way out of the dilemma found in Don Juan, canto 3: the dilemma of the trimmer-poet who can only sing of political authenticity. Although the bard within "The Isles of Greece" overcomes his compromised position through suicide, the poet who actually sings the song returns to everyday life, unable to tell if what he's just sung was authentic or not, as "[poets] are such liars" (3.87). The way for Byron to escape being the trimmer-poet is to become a rejuvenated Lambro, to lay aside the pen (and the purse) for the sword and achieve symbolic union as a martyr/hero with an oppressed populace.
But something of the spirit of old Greece Flash'd o'er [Lambro's] soul a few heroic rays, Such as lit onward to the Golden Fleece His predecessors in the Colchian days; 'Tis true he had no ardent love for peace-- Alas! His country showed no path to praise: Hate to the world and war with every nation He waged, in vengeance of her degradation. (3.55)
A man of action who had forsaken "idle" poetry-writing, Byron was incensed when a friend told him he had heard that "instead of pursuing heroic and warlike adventures, [Byron] was residing in a delightful villa, continuing Don Juan" (Marchand, A Biography 3: 1196). For Byron, by this time "[t]he active, dangerous, yet glorious scenes of the military career had struck my fancy, and became congenial to my taste" (quoted in Marchand, A Biography 3: 1133).
For many Byron critics and admirers, the story stops here, with Byron becoming a symbol of liberty with his death, and being inducted into the pantheon of heroes of ancient and modern Greece. I suggest that Byron's activity in Greece, like his poem Don Juan, can be read allegorically, as an extension of British economic power and, most of all, as a consumer's attempt to buy political heroism. To say this is not to disparage a brave man who, at Missolonghi, was ready to fight on the front line of armed resistance. But we can begin by noting that Byron's very notion of a nationalist struggle versus the Empire was largely a Western idea foisted on a people that had a very different conception of what the fighting was about. (33) As St. Clair observes, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, in contrast to philhellenes and Western-educated Greeks, saw the struggle as primarily a religious one, that of a Christian minority versus Muslim domination. "A policy of establishing a European nation-state based on ideas about Ancient Hellas formulated in Western Europe was far from their minds. Their aims were much simpler. They wanted to get rid of the Turks and take their place as rulers of the country." (34) Ironically, this Western melding of modern nationalist politics with classical ideals was given impetus by Byron's enormously successful poetry of a decade earlier, which made "literary philhellenism" a "widespread European movement":
Byron had read many of the travel books and the philhellenic sentiments which Childe Harold contains can be found in the works of dozens of earlier writers in prose and in verse, but never before had they been expressed in a best-seller.... By the time of the Greek Revolution in 1821 the educated public in Europe had been deeply immersed in three attractive ideas--that Ancient Greece had been a paradise inhabited by supermen; that the Modern Greeks were the true descendants of the Ancient Greeks; and that a war against the Turks could somehow "regenerate" the Modern Greeks and restore the former glories. (St. Clair 17, 19)
In a sense, when he arrived in Greece in 1823, Byron was coming full circle, trying to realize in real life what he'd popularized in his bestselling poetry; that is, he was trying to link himself to a past that was fabricated to begin with, an origin that was not located in ancient Greece but rather the print runs of Childe Harold.
Hence, it should not surprise us if there were touristic elements in Byron's struggle for Greece's freedom, as the producer of philhellenism was now consuming the experience of revolution. Urging Kinnaird to "stretch his credit to the limit," Byron added that "after all, it is better playing at nations than gaming at Almack's or Newmarket ..." (quoted in Marchand, A Biography 3:1142). If there is an arbitrary element in Don Juan's adventures--if he is simply carried about by the winds of global trade--Byron's choice of a site for heroic struggle, also, was somewhat random, since he had previously sought to play a part in an Italian revolution, considered going to Spain and South America and was mainly lured to Greece by the efforts of the London Greek Committee. Greece was one potential venue among others; what was at issue was what to do with his fortune. To his friend Pietro Gamba Byron remarked, "With a certain sum in advance ... and no particular occupation, how could I better employ my time and money? I might have lived, or rather vegetated, in splendour, in some uninteresting country of Europe; but what are those pleasures, so much sought after, when once obtained?" (quoted in Marchand, A Biography 3: 1124). Going to Greece meant bringing a new wardrobe, which included half a dozen lavishly decorated military uniforms, ten swords and a sword stick, and "two gilded helmets decorated with the family motto 'Crede Byron,'" as "the fascination of the appurtenances of war just could not be resisted." (35) Meanwhile, although Byron did not expect great earnings from his new relationship with publisher John Hunt, he told Kinnaird that
H[unt] ought to have collected the works by this time--as before directed--and published the whole eleven new D[on] J[uan]s.--I am particular on this point only--because a sum of trifling amount even for a Gentleman's personal expences in London or Paris--in Greece can arm and maintain hundreds of men--you may judge of this when I tell you that the four thousand pounds advanced by me is likely to set a fleet and an army in motion for some months. (BLJ 11: 75)
Byron briefly felt what it was like to be the redeemer of a nation's freedom, making a triumphant entry into Missolonghi and enjoying the "patriotic fervor that permeated the town" (Marchand, A Biography 3:1154). However, although "hailed ... as a deliverer" according to Millingen (quoted in Marchand, A Biography 3: 1154), he soon discovered that the faction-riven natives could not be thought of as a newly independent state fighting the Turks. In the absence of a viable resistance movement, he hired a "private army" which amounted to "a force of several hundred wild undisciplined Albanians on his pay roll at Missolonghi" (St. Clair 173). The poet had written in Childe Harold II, "Oh! who is more brave than a dark Suliote, / In his snowy camese and his shaggy capote?" but of these hired freedom-fighters "only a proportion were genuine Suliotes, the others being unashamedly mercenaries.... Byron would go riding in the plain outside Missolonghi at the head of this motley army, no doubt imagining himself as a future conquering hero" (CPW 2.67; St. Clair 173). He alternated between exasperation at his undisciplined retinue and the hope that, with sufficient buying power, he could realize his "dreams of playing soldier":
I am embarking for Missolonghi.... I am passing "the Rubicon"--recollect that for God's sake--and the sake of Greece.--You must let me have all the means and credit of mine that we can muster or master--and that immediately--and I must do my best to the shirt--and to the skin if necessary.--Stretch my credit and anticipate my means to their fullest extent--if Rochdale sale has been completed I can keep an army here, aye, and perhaps command it. ... Why, man! if we had but 100,000 I sterling in hand, we should now be halfway to the city of Constantine. But the Gods give us joy! "En avant" ... (BLJ 11: 85-86)
Byron, in sum, was a sort of super-tourist; while Marchand and St. Clair attribute the world-weariness that he often felt in Greece to a sophistication that saw through philhellenic excesses to the unhappy reality of the country's political situation, I would argue that Byron was alternately enthused with the prospect of heroism and confronted by the awareness that this was simply the extension of gaming at Newmarket. Political heroism turned out to be "Or Molu" (DJ 11.67), a consumerist fantasy that was dependent on his savings and whatever credit could be obtained, and his main task as a wealthy traveler was to guard his pockets. "The Greeks seemed to think he was a mine from which they could extract gold at their pleasure." (36)
While it would be too simple to argue that Byron's presence in Greece represented the direct extension of British economic interests, it did represent the power of the pound on a global level. His attempt to be a savior of the oppressed and a hero on a classical model was based on the role he played in the world-system, as a member of its core power. What was really funding Byron's exploits was not his poetry, but his estates (one of which he had sold, Newstead) and his investments, which, as Erdman notes, led to an ambiguity in his political position. In late 1820, "Petitions reached him for and against a new marketplace 'from the town of Rochdale (of 30,000 inhabitant radical souls) to their liege lord of the manor.' What should he do? 'I am full of philanthropy, but must maintain my manorial rights,' i.e. his right to a fee on the market. To finance his part in the revolutions of Italy and Greece he must maintain his feudal imposts on the blackguards [lower and working class] of Britain." (37) Ironically, the radical elements in English society that Byron began to sympathize with in the 1820s were themselves helping to fund his role in the Greek liberation struggle. Since, as we saw above, Byron tended to portray the middle or lower class Englishman as a thug (Tom the thief) or an oaf (John Bull), and in general as simply another vulgar element in the consumer society, this may not have struck him as a contradiction; as the world economic hegemon, England obviously did not fascinate Byron in the way that oppressed Greece did. But it is further evidence for the overwhelming influence of those "who hold the balance of the world" (DJ 12.5) and the "cash [which] rules the grove and fells it too besides" (12.14), as clearly Byron could not have hired a private army in a poor country without Britain's economic dominance. This dominance obtained on a macropolitical level as well as on a personal level. Byron was aware, from the beginning, that Greece would need large foreign loans to defeat the Turks, and the 800,000 pound loan being negotiated by the London Greek Committee (of which Byron was the most prominent member) amounted, for London investors, to a "speculative hit" (12.6) that would unseat the Sultan from his Greek throne: "[N]ever before had it appeared that the best way to promote the Greek cause was also the best way to maximize the return on capital. For a short period in 1824 and 1825 a few rich Englishmen were to enjoy the delusion that by helping themselves to grow richer more quickly they were also helping the poor struggling Greeks to regain their freedom" (St. Clair 205). In fact, Greek resistance leaders became concerned that they "would be accused of having sold Greece to the English" (St. Clair 209).
If one wishes to be cynical, one might call Byron the original tourist who wanted to get away from it all, but found himself and the cultural sickness of his own country wherever he went. A more favorable view would see Byron making a quixotic attempt to recover from this commercialist illness--to rediscover the chivalric spirit of "redressing injury [and] revenging wrong" that "Cervantes smiled . . . away" (DJ 13.10, 11). But perhaps the point isn't whether one is cynical about Byronism or not--Byron, after all, with his lacerating irony and self-awareness, was cynical enough about his poetic efforts and his political ambitions (one imagines him saying of his posthumous adulation, "All I know is that I am not Byronic"). Living in a world ruled by the vulgar fractions of accumulation, where "right and wrong are accidents," Byron attempted to search out the "gem" of truth, which "loves the deep" (CHP IV.93). But this truth always turned out to be prosaic earthly jewels and their influence over the minds and actions of men. Don Juan is Byron's poem of this world, which he finally found impossible to live in. If it is true, as Barton says, that in recent decades, "after a period of rather shabby neglect ... [Don Juan is] able to communicate at last with the audience for which, over one hundred and fifty years after Byron's death, it sometimes seems to have been written" (Barton 100-101, we are not merely contemplating a newly legitimated addition to an artistic canon, but rediscovering a work that casts a satirical and even baleful eye upon our own commercial culture and globe-encircling capitalist system.
I would like to thank Hugh Roberts for his comments on this essay.
(1.) Lord Byron, Don Juan, in The Complete Poetical Works (CPW), ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980-86), stanza 6 (hereafter DJ). Quotations of Byron's poetry, identified by line number for the short poems, or canto and stanza for the longer works, are taken from this edition.
(2.) Malcolm Kelsall, Byron's Politics (Sussex: Harvester P, 1987) 162.
(3.) Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840s (San Diego: Academic P, 1989); Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, Volume III: The Perspective of the H/odd, trans. Sian Reynolds (London: William Collins Sons & Co., 1984). The claim that Don Juan is a world-systemic poem without being Marxist is not as paradoxical as it sounds. As Ian Roxborough observes, Andre Gunder Frank, who may be considered world-system theory's seminal figure, has never claimed to be a Marxist proper, putting his emphasis on the transfer of economic surpluses between spatial regions instead of social classes (Theories of Underdevelopment [Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities P, 1979] 42-54). Wallerstein departs from Marxist economic models in significant ways, notably in his emphasis that capitalism's development in the West is to be located in globalizing "commodity chains" and not in a change in the mode of production (see Historical Capitalism [London: Verso, 1983]). While I do not endorse every aspect of Wallerstein's theory (such as his diminution of cultural factors like the Protestant Ethic, and his insistence that the world-system comprises a single unit), I find his theory useful for understanding Byron's depiction of global economic and political relations in the early 1800s in Don Juan.
(4.) Braudel 47; Byron quoted in Kelsall 54 (Byron's emphasis).
(5.) Paul Jay, "Beyond Discipline? Globalization and the Future of English," PMLA 116.1 (2001): 32-47.
(6.) Jerome J. McGann, Don Juan in Context (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976) 103.
(7.) Niall Ferguson, The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998) 89-118.
(8.) Dundas quoted in Ferguson 89; Ferguson 91.
(9.) Jerome Christensen, Lord Byron's Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993) 322.
(10.) The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, and Frederick Morgan Padelford (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1933). Quotations from The Faerie Queene, identified by book, canto, and stanza, are taken from this edition.
(11.) Philip W. Martin, "Reading Don Juan with Bakhtin," in Don Juan, ed. Nigel Wood (Philadelphia: Open UP, 1993) 112-15.
(12.) Marilyn Butler, "The Orientalism of Byron's Giaour," in Byron and the Limits of Fiction, ed. Bernard Beatty and Vincent Newey (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1988) 91.
(13.) Wallerstein 175; J. C. Hurewitz quoted in Wallerstein 174.
(14.) Anne Barton, Byron, Don Juan (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992) 54.
(15.) William St. Clair, "The Impact of Byron's Writings: An Evaluative Approach," in Byron: Augustan and Romantic, ed. Andrew Rutherford (New York: St. Martin's, 1990) 23.
(16.) Fredric Jameson, "Third-World Literature in the Age of Multinational Capitalism," Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
(17.) Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Portrait (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) 321.
(18.) Orrin N. C. Wang, Review of Lord Byron's Strength, SiR 33 (Summer 1994): 303.
(19.) David V. Erdman, "Byron and 'the New Force of the People,'" The Keats-Shelley Journal 11 (1962): 54, 55.
(20.) For Byron's radical politics, see Erdman, "Byron and Revolt in England," Science and Society II (1947): 234-48.
(21.) Neil McKendrick, "The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England," in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, ed. McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb (London: Europa Publications Ltd., 1982) 15, 18.
(22.) James Hardy Vaux quoted in T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan, and W. W. Pratt, "Notes," in Lord Byron: Don Juan (New Haven: Yale UP, 1982) 693. Kelsall also makes this observation, although he emphasizes its political implications instead of the consumerist element.
(23.) It might seem problematic to discuss the author's intention, since Christensen argues that he departs from the model of the "humanistic poet who is the master strategist of his poem" occupying a "standing place of transcendental freedom outside the 'array.' ... I try to avoid the kind of objectification of poet, poem, and historical period implicit in the notion of 'Don Juan in Context'" (215; his emphasis). But I feel that in many ways Christensen's approach is traditional, in that it poses hypotheses about the author's intention and builds a reading of Don Juan upon these suppositions: for example, it is important to him that Byron states in a letter that he will virtuously go on publishing "though it were to destroy fame and profit at once" (qtd. on 215), and if the misers are promoting instead of blocking exchange, Christensen's argument that Don juan is anti-commercialist is weakened. That is, Christensen's reading of Don Juan depends upon his use of relevant material available to other critics (poem, historical documents, etc.), and makes debatable assertions about the poem, poet, and historical period. In fact, although Christensen names McGann as the major culprit behind the humanistic approach (at least in his 1976 book Don Juan in Context), their books have similar things to say about Byron and his epic poem. Both see Byron abandoning his early "Byronism" (for McGann it is a hyper-individualistic Satanic antiheroism, for Christensen commercialist) for the radically democratic Don Juan; both insist that Don Juan lacks a formal structure because it is deeply engaged with social and political conditions ("Don Juan ... is almost a contradiction in terms: an epic on no plan.... Byron had to transform in his mind his sense of a literary life: to de-aestheticize it, to make it a heroic, public affair, and hence to put literature into history and not history into literary form" [McGann 3, 7]; "In my reading the unfolding of Juan is fully circumstantial, subject to no master plan.... A spectral title for the following three chapters ... might be 'Don Juan as Context.' Believe me, on the distinction between in and as rests the difference between an ironical book and a revolutionary text.... Byron's gift to the republican tradition is to turn publication into a kind of material foundation and to demonstrate the possibility of civic virtue in hell" [Christensen 215, 332]). Although Christensen's book certainly has a more radical bent than McGann's, his methodology has enough in common with a "humanist" approach to make it fair to engage with it in a conventional manner (i.e., to treat Byron as an author who wrote a poem instead of someone who "becomes a text" [xxi], and then discuss whether Christensen's model of the poem's significance, the poet's intention, and the nature of the historical period can be countered by or supplemented with a different model).
(24.) Benita Eisler, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) 552.
(25.) Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Biography, 3 volumes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957) 3: 1068.
(26.) Jerome J. McGann, "The Book of Byron and the Book of a World," in Poems in Their Place, ed. Neil Fraistat (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986) 265.
(27.) Hence, one must be skeptical of readings that make the poem a herald of working-class activism. As St. Clair showed in his seminal article ("The Impact of Byron's Writings"), Don Juan was pirated heavily from the start, and Byron's transition from Murray to John Hunt as a publisher was also a transition to an entirely different audience, a working-class one that could afford the cheaper editions being produced. This audience was "politically active and much more sympathetic to Byron's ideas than his previous readership" (17), and within a decade "Don Juan had penetrated far deeper into the reading of the nation than any other modern book ... probably read by thousands who read no other book of any kind except the Bible" (18). Yet such a potentially radical audience would have had to overlook such passages as "It is not that I adulate the people: / Without me, there are Demagogues enough" (9.25), and from Byron's point of view as a producer, this new readership was simply a new market to be explored.
(28.) Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 12 volumes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1973-1982) 9:152, 10:115; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as BLJ.
(29.) Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993) 189-90.
(30.) Quoted in Erdman, "Byron and 'the New Force of the People'" 55.
(31.) Aijaz Ahmad. In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures (London: Verso, 1994) 102.
(32.) Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," in Critical Theory Since 1965, ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle (Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986) 210.
(33.) Although it should be stressed that, unlike many other philhellenes, Byron had a loose idea of what the new Greek state would look like. "He saw that some centralized government was necessary, but he felt that it must grow out of Greek conditions and experience" (Marchand, Byron: A Biography, 3: 1201).
(34.) William St. Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free (London: Oxford UP, 1972) 22; hereafter cited as "St. Clair."
(35.) St. Clair 154; Marchand gives a fuller inventory in Byron: A Biography 3: 1098.
(36.) William Parry quoted in Marchand, Byron: A Biography 3: 1204.
(37.) Erdman, "Byron and 'the New Force of the People" 55, n. 20; quotations are from Byron.
University of California, Irvine
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|Title Annotation:||Lord Byron|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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