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Jonathan David Gross. Byron: the Erotic Liberal.

Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 200L Pp. xi + 230. $78.00 cloth/$21.95 paper.

The habit of taking liberties with freedom has a long history, and an especially revealing one at times when "freedom itself" (to use the proprietorial words of George W. Bush) is a prominent theme in public discourse. To mention President Bush here is not as intrusive as it might seem to some, because the book under review takes pains to connect events and concerns of the romantic period to the "Liberal Imagination in America," linking in particular Byron and the Cold War, Lord Castlereagh and Henry Kissinger. In playing up the fact that he is writing about the past from a very specific present, Jonathan Gross makes his work more stimulating and also more vulnerable to dismissal as opportunistic, or unscholarly, or unduly ideological. In my view this is a risk worth taking because the result is so thought-provoking; and it is also arguably truer to Byron's practice than a more distanced and resolutely retrospective approach would be. The desire for academic detachment is but a desire after all, and hence never entirely fulfillable or permanently fixed, no matter the sobriety of its style or the apparent effacement of the authorial self "in" or "behind" primary documentation. Byron knew this as well as anyone, and Gross does a fine job of following Byron's adroit example while for the most part avoiding the lapses into the idiom of an aggrieved narcissus which punctuate, indeed animate, virtually everything that Byron wrote.

As befits the editor of Lady Melbourne's responses to Byron's letters, Jonathan Gross demonstrates a sound knowledge of historical contexts, cultural codes, and Byron scholarship. This knowledge is evident also in his current book's title, a canny catachresis (borrowed from an earlier study of Montesquieu by Diana Schaub) from which opens up space for an investigation at once original and intelligently derivative. The mobile scene of contradiction and consistency which is Byron's self and work continues to challenge critics and biographers alike. Gross does not aspire to deliver the last word on either Byron's personality or his poetry, or to reduce the political to the personal in a weak echo of certain forms of feminist individualism, but to recombine art and politics through an extended glossing of the key notion of erotic liberalism. Byron is offered, not for the first time, as an important precursor of modern liberalism and homosocial politics.

Erotic liberalism is a label that yields a substantial harvest here within the broader Byronic category of a "politics of feeling." Gross pays unusual attention to the Old Testament and Koran versions of the story of Joseph as a key to Byron's capacity to "resolve the tension between eros and libertinism in his own life" (1). With its New-Critical overtones, the word "tension" signals, as does the resolve to pursue "doubles entendres" in Don Juan, the close reading to come. But Gross reclaims "tension" for a more broadly dialogic and intermittently dialectical set of concerns with the aid of feminist and gay studies concepts and methods largely absent from earlier debate about Byron's politics engaged in by the likes of Michael Foot and Malcolm Kelsall. Gross shows a fierce loyalty to literature's role in the imagining of community and nation, and in the chastening of nationalism via the literary cosmopolitanism evidenced by a Byron or de Stael (96), and this robust culturalism effectively challenges the imagined monopolies of political science. But it is hard for anyone interested in postcolonialism to share Gross's criticism of Benedict Anderson for being too Asiacentric in Imagined Communities or to accept Byron's "cosmopolitan liberalism" as "shorn of abstract theory" (96).

Gross gives a brisk summary of Platonic, Aristophanic and Sapphic understandings of eros, the first of a number of contextualizations that will press the case for influence more than intertextuality, for the specific effects of reading Laclos or Jami or de Stael on particular poems by Byron. Part of the effect of this is salutary. Byron's intelligence is everywhere evident in his reading and what he makes of it. Moreover, Gross rightly connects Byron's broad sympathies to the breadth of that reading, but I think it is equally the case that the liberality of Byron's values and the promiscuity of his interests caused him to seek out or return recurrently to particular works and passages that challenged the tyranny of systems, especially the ones supportive of "cant" in its several principal versions. Gross succeeds in sympathetically "outing" a rich set of implications from the "cross-writing" (45) and sexual and political crossings performed in the great poems of Byron's maturity, and thereafter in his collaborations with Leigh Hunt and the sincerely felt political artifice and erotic intrigue of his final Greek (ad)ventures. By the end of this narrative, few readers would dispute Gross's claim that "Byron's liberalism was never really democratic" (101). However, some might think that no bad thing, at a time when democracy is so often reduced to a commodity controlled by First World financial institutions, and there is, as Byron would say, "a sad chasm in [our] connections."

LEN FINDLAY is Professor of English and Director of the Humanities Research Unit at the University of Saskatchewan. Widely published in nineteenth-century studies, literary theory, and the nature and role of universities and the humanities in Canada, his most recent work relevant to this project includes an edited collection, Pursuing Academic Freedom: 'Free and Fearless'?, and such essays as "Always Indigenize! The Radical Humanities in the Postcolonial Canadian University" (Ariel), "All the World's A Stooge? Globalization as Aesthetic System" (Topia), "'Speaking Truth to Power': American Usage, Canadian Literary Studies, and the Public Good in Canada" (ESC), and "Desperately Seeking Sanctuary: Learning From APEC, or Not" (Education/ Pedagogy/Cultural Studies). He has completed a revised translation and edition of The Communist Manifesto for Broadview Press, is at work on a book on intellectual and artistic freedom based on his Frye Lectures, and is collaborating on a federally sponsored endeavor entitled "Decolonizing Education: An Interdisciplinary Aboriginal Research Project."
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Author:Findlay, L.M.
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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