Lord Byron and the invention of celebrity.
I think I know what Barthes meant, though. Without a defined purpose, a deadline, and often a word limit--those structures of temporal form--one may lack not just a credible topic but also the motive to pursue them. And yet I'm still puzzled. If being asked to write an essay or give a talk is a mild form of celebrity, or at least entails being treated as a celebrity, then Barthes is implying that out of that celebrity came his most celebrated work. It's the counter-intuitive redundancy of success: you gain fame having already attained celebrity.
The important point perhaps is that being a celebrity is not, strictly speaking, the same as being celebrated. When Dr. Johnson wrote in 1751 "I did not find myself yet enriched in proportion to my celebrity," he meant that his fame had not yet produced economic advantage (see OED 3). One may think of a contemporary example such as James Kelman, whose novel How Late It Was, How Late is the first and so far only Booker Prize book that did not see a rise in sales as a consequence of winning the award (presumably because it was written in a Glaswegian dialect). But Dr. Johnson explicitly did not mean, enriched or no, that he should have been regarded as a celebrity. That concept of celebrity as a concrete entity--as in being a celebrity--is a much later invention, with a new set of values, expectations, and cultural associations.
The occasion for this essay is Fiona MacCarthy's recent biography Byron: Life and Legend (2002), praised even more recently (October 2007) by Terry Eagleton in Harper's as one of the germinal biographies in the history of the genre. In her book MacCarthy tries to understand "Byron's transformation into the first European cultural celebrity of the modern age" (p. x). She is not the first to claim this stature for Byron, although she may make the case more extravagantly than anyone else has. I personally believe that it was Byron's celebrity status, as much as his actual oeuvre, which led Goethe to call him the first modern poet. Byron, one may remember, is allegorically portrayed as Euphorion in Faust Part II, the offspring conceived when Faust teaches Helena how to engage in that poetic practice which is utterly foreign to Greek prosody but ubiquitous in German (and in the poetic tradition that Byron inherited): the use of end rhyme, specifically rhyming couplets. Of course Goethe himself was no stranger to either fame or celebrity, having suffered both when his early novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) spawned a host of copycat teenage suicides across Europe. It has also been argued, most recently by Jane Smiley in her book-length appreciation of Charles Dickens, published the same year as MacCarthy's Byron biography, that Dickens was the first literary celebrity. Dickens, though, was a professional writer, one whose livelihood depended directly upon the sales of his writings, and a public performer, famous equally for his standing-room only readings. Neither Goethe nor Byron needed such economic success quite so urgently, or at least neither was willing to concede the need so publicly. To think of celebrity as somehow removed from economic urgency, as we may do with Byron, is perhaps a salutary way of trying to understand the modern cultural importance of celebrity as such.
Byron's peers recognized celebrity as part of Byron's personal aura. As Lady Blessington wrote upon first meeting him in 1823: "Byron had so unquenchable a thirst for celebrity, that no means were left untried that might attain it: ... there was no sort of celebrity he did not, at some period or other, condescend to seek." But notice that Lady Blessington is not using the word "celebrity" in the same way that Byron's biographer, who quotes her, is using it. For Lady Blessington, the word is largely pejorative and means "notoriety." For her, it does not have the honorific, thoroughly modern, sense intended, say, by superstar English footballer David Beckham when he announced that he and his wife Victoria, celebrated herself as Posh from the Spice Girls, were moving to the U.S. because only Americans have "a proper respect for celebrity." Indeed, having quoted Lady Blessington's letter, MacCarthy follows it with this sentence about her own biographical purpose: "This book is about the nature of [Byron's] fame: the ambition Byron felt as 'the most powerful of all excitements'; the degree to which he created and then manipulated his visual image, attempting to control the reproduction of his portraits; the complex and fascinating intertwining of his personal celebrity and literary reputation; [and] his bitterness when fame turned to notoriety...." One problem in this sentence is that its principal term, "celebrity," is largely unvalorized and is left vaguely synonymous with "fame" or "reputation" or even "notoriety." MacCarthy presumes that the meaning of "celebrity" is transparent, as if all of us know the associations it carries, both now and in respect to the usage of nearly two hundred years ago. To dissect that idea of celebrity, a word that was in the process of acquiring an utterly new valence in the nineteenth century, is what I wish to use the present occasion for.
I come to this occasion not unlike the way I was originally thrust into the study of British Romanticism itself--in part through a wayward dream of Celebrity. The first professional essay I ever wrote was about William Blake. I had discovered in my earnest and accidental early post-baccalaureate research that someone named William Blake had been an outspoken and in his day highly public participant in the great debate occasioned by the British bullion controversy of May, 1810. This political William Blake was a sort of celebrity. My engraver/ poet William Blake, I had always thought, was decidedly not. I was a graduate student. For one luminous moment I almost thought that there was only a single William Blake who ... well, never mind. It is one of those self-deceptions that the printer named Ben Franklin calls in his Autobiography, written by the statesman Benjamin Franklin, an erratum.
Simply put, the bullion crisis of 1810 was this: as a stopgap measure to halt plummeting cash assets, the Bank of England in 1797 had temporarily suspended cash payments on paper banknotes. (This temporary suspension was to last until 1821, or for the entire life span of John Keats and most of the adult lives of Shelley and Byron.) In effect, this created for almost a quarter century a bifurcated fiduciary system. Paper money was legal tender but was not convertible to gold as coins were. There was also a steady, at times spectacular, rise in the price of gold bullion. Any layman of the time could see that gold was less "golden" in some forms than in others. Because "money" had to sustain multiple meanings, this economic crisis was also a crisis of language.
Once I realized there were more William Blakes than I had imagined, I got curious about the poet's attitude toward paper money. For a man who believed so strongly in the reality-making power of the imagination, he could easily have been a proponent of paper not backed by specie, a form of representation that depends upon the consumer's willingness to believe in the economic power of money's very fictionality. On the other hand, this is also a man who claimed that the great mass of mankind, when they looked at the sun, saw only a golden guinea (coin), whereas he, a man of visionary imagination, saw the heavenly host crying "Holy, Holy, Holy." An avid reader of the Bible, my Blake knew you can't serve both God and Mammon, and yet, an astute interpreter of the Bible, Blake surely knew that the parable also applauds the good steward who invests his economic resources wisely and damns the one who hides them away.
There is an entry in the poet Blake's notebook that reads in its entirety: "23 May 1810 found the Word Golden." My essay tried to show a correlation between what I presumed to be the poet's thinking and that of the economist who bore the same name, though I couldn't prove, of course, that the poet had read or even heard of the economist. The night I sent off this, my first, article to a learned journal, I had a dream in which I was back at Marshall Junior High School (named for the general, he of the Marshall Plan--in fact, I had been on the renaming committee) and I had made the basketball team (which in reality I hadn't). Late in a game, I was sent in, made the crucial shot, looked up at the scoreboard, and saw that we, a team from William Blake Junior High, had won.
I woke from this dream of delusional celebrity long enough to finish my dissertation, only part of which was about the British Romantic period. But when I came to the University of Texas, my first and so far only permanent college teaching job, I discovered that not only was there one of the world's great research libraries, full of Romantic-era publications (though missing, I noted with a certain savoir faire, anything by William Blake the political economist) but also that the University of Texas English Department had a strong legacy of Romanticists, including three former faculty, two still living, who were among the most fabled Byronists of their day. This sort of inadvertent celebrity, the result of being fortuitously placed in an office a hundred yards from a library whose nineteenth-century holdings had been built up by that ghostly trio named Lovell-Steffan-Pratt, pushed me more deeply into the field of Romanticism.
It was also a time when the field itself was being radically redefined. The Romantic period, usually placed roughly between 1780 and 1830, was expanding in both directions, creating a phenomenon now called the long eighteenth century, which stretches from the early Hanoverian period well into the Victorian. The term "Romanticism" was itself being contested. Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's revolutionary anthology (of 1996) was called simply British Literature: 1780-1830--no mention of Romantics. In the field of Romanticism, as in virtually all other literary periods, women, and, where they could be found, writers of color or hybrid nationalities, were being added to the list of historically significant writers, but even among the male writers Wordsworth was losing some of the preeminence that had always been accorded him in modern Romantic studies, and the whole job-lot that Harold Bloom famously called the "visionary company" was being upended by, among other things, the meteoric stock-market rise of the self-proclaimed opponent of all things Romantic, Lord Byron.
Byron was unlike all the other canonical Romantics in that he was, or at least gave a very good public impression of being, economically well off. He was also famous; at the time of his death, the most famous writer in Europe. The young Alfred Tennyson, when he received the news from Greece that Byron had died in Liberty's defense, went into the woods behind his well-off parents' house and wept. It is important to remember that none of the other so-called Romantics were either famous or celebrated; it is crucial in analyzing the dream of literary fame, or what we were then starting to call "canonicity," to recognize how far from renowned in their own time the Romantics actually were. Although Wordsworth had some public status and was eventually made poet laureate (to be succeeded in 1850 by Lord Tennyson), it was mainly on the basis of works that we no longer even read, much less esteem. Coleridge, too, earned a measure of acclaim, but there were rumors about his emotional and psychic stability, gossip about his drug use, and later on about his plagiarism, and of course whatever public veneration he enjoyed was for his lectures and belletristic writings, not his poetry. Shelley was virtually unpublished in England in his lifetime. Blake was published only through his own labor as a printer, one hand-made work at a time, part of a long genealogy of self-published authors (passing through Whitman, Proust, and Tony Kushner). And Keats, dead at age twenty-five, had only modest public recognition until late in the nineteenth century.
What made Byron different was that, as he famously said upon the publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." Fiona MacCarthy rightly cautions us against taking this Eureka Moment too literally. Byron's celebrity had dramatically preceded the popular success of his initially anonymous publication. So had a marketing strategy. Prepublication copies of Childe Harold, strategically circulated to influential readers and critics, made clear the author was Byron. That this was important is because of Byron's a priori celebrity, the way he was already understood to resemble his fictional hero.
Subtitled by Byron "a Romaunt," that is precisely what Childe Harold was not. Its popular success was nourished by the real, not romantic, way in which one could read behind the character of Childe Harold, who was called "Buron" in early drafts, the real life of the book's author. Indeed, by 1816, with the publication of the third canto of what would be eventually a four-canto poem, Byron the author had assumed explicitly the role of protagonist. The third canto opens with an invocation in propria persona to Byron's own infant daughter, named Ada. The narrator does not say that the reason why Byron would never see her again was because, on April 25, 1816, Byron sailed from England, never to return. Nor does he explain why he left England in the first place, although, remembering back to canto 1, we know Childe Harold left England because of some sort of transgression. In a sense the narrator of canto 3 doesn't need to go into any of this. Rumors about Byron's immoral personal life had already preceded, fueled, and confirmed his narration.
For me, the Byron of canto 3 establishes the groundwork for the modern idea of celebrity. It resides in the wish of the reading public to derive meanings from a work of art in large part because of the way that work represents the life of the artist; and inversely, in the willingness of the artist to engage with, one might even say to manipulate or exploit, that consumer demand. At one level, MacCarthy's premise is absolutely right: the question is not whether Lord Byron was a celebrity, for in some sense he always already was, even as an unpublished eccentric minor aristocrat. The question is what happened after his celebrity became an effect of his writing and thus a causative agent in his functional life thereafter. To what extent did that celebrity affect, determine, or even undermine what he imagined the writing process to be?
For a writer of Bryon's time this was a new question, however familiar it may now seem to us. Being a celebrity in the sense I mean here is not something that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Swift, Fielding, Sterne, or even Wordsworth had to confront. You could say that Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's contemporary, wanted to be such a celebrity, for he was the first author to arrange, in his own lifetime, the publication of a collected poems. But consider the first poem in that volume: "Reader, take care, that tak'st my book in hand, / To read it well: that is, to understand." To "understand" means here specifically not to confuse the poet's own notorious real life as a rake, an epicure, and a political opportunist with the formal aesthetic value of the work. It means to separate "my" from "it," the personal life from the objective text. Jeannette Winterson, the contemporary British novelist, claims that the latter-day equating of an author's life and work, of her biography and bibliography, promulgates an aesthetics of Realism, not the sort of realism that derives from the Greek notion of mimesis but the sort that wishes to overcome, overlook, and obliterate the essentially fictive nature of fiction-making. A recent issue of Poetry magazine contains a long article about whether bad men can write good poetry, using Philip Larkin as its stalking-horse. This is the kind of Realism that Winterson is talking about, which turns aesthetics into sociology and ethics, and I would assert that its persistence as an analytic strategy relies upon a thoroughly modern concept of celebrity. Bookdealers trying to interest libraries in literary archives always pitch first and foremost the prizes the author has won.
Why is it culturally important to assess the impact of celebrity on our modern concept of value? Celebrity is one of the principal ways a consumer-driven economy represents to itself an idea of value that appears not to require conversion to any other measure of value. It is the modern version of what classical economists called intrinsic value, meaning the opposite of money. Conversely, what distinguishes the modern celebrity-driven author is the inclination to write to assignment--that is, to what the market wants. We saw this complex need, which is actually a form of desire, operating in Roland Barthes. In the case of Byron, Childe Harold discloses a crucial pivot between the authorial pursuit of fame, that frenzy of renown which is as old as human society, and the allure of celebrity, which I believe is different in degree and kind. MacCarthy seems to see Byron's public adult poetic career as a seamless web of celebrity with no such breaks or pivots, no epistemic shifts or aesthetic feintings, just as she sees Bryon's private erotic life as one continual round of intercourse involving partners (whom she is not loathe to name) without discrimination as to race, age, social class, gender, or national origin.
But let's contrast the publication details of Byron's earliest books circa 1806-08, with the publication of Childe Harold in 1812 and then of Don Juan from 1818 to 1824. We know that Byron as a seventeen-year-old university student was reluctant to become a public author, but the Ridge boys, Samuel and John, printers from Newark, persuaded him to publish, anonymously of course, a small volume of verse. It came out in November 1806 under the title Fugitive Pieces, a title that makes clear Byron's trepidation. Almost immediately Byron suppressed the publication, in part because he had been warned that one of the poems was too indiscreetly erotic. Byron had all the copies he could get his hands on destroyed. Only four survive. Almost immediately after this dramatic gesture, however, Byron was at work on a revised version of Fugitive Pieces, which was in fact published about sixty days later, in January 1807 under the title Poems on Various Occasions. The Ridges liked the outcome so much that they enjoined Byron to do a second edition, to be called, at their suggestion, Hours of Idleness, and this volume came out over Byron's own name in June 1807. Byron remarked at the time that he was enjoying his "fame in secret," an interesting oxymoron that belies how active a role Byron was starting to take in these serial publications. Finally, when Crosby, the distributor of Byron's books in London, joined John Ridge in urging a second edition of Hours of Idleness, Byron, now warming to the task, urged them to use his own portrait as frontispiece. This volume, entitled Poems Original and Translated, came out in March 1808.
As letters from Byron to Crosby and to Ridge reveal, Byron's only concern here from an economic point of view was that no one lose money on his behalf. Nothing, however, about the "fame" that he garnered from these four "first" books really altered his verse or his celebrity status as an author (as opposed to his celebrity status as a minor lord with rather extravagant habits). What I mean is that even the newly added poems of 1808 are not significantly unlike the poems of 1806. The same cannot be said after the two-canto version of Childe Harold published in 1812, which launched what Byron called "my reign." The kind of success inaugurated by this work now required or at least encouraged Byron to write to assignment, where "assignment" was in large part a function of reader expectation.
I do not wish to overstate a comparison with the way in which modern popular music--that of the Spice Girls, say--is branded so as to produce a distinctive and recognizable "sound," one that can be repeated through changing melodies and indeed through changing girls called "Spice Girls." But there was a Byronic branding. In the wake of Childe Harold's success, "The Bride of Abydos," published later in 1812, sold 6,000 copies in the first month; "The Corsair," published in 1813, sold 10,000 copies in the first day. Both relied on heroes very much like the dark and roving, now gypsy, now gothic, and strangely cross-gendered Childe, and some of Byron's most famous self-portraits show him dressed up as his fictional heroes. So, when he writes at the end of canto 4 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1818, "I am not now/That which I have been," one of the chief differences is that the celebrity of the poem Childe Harold has driven the writing itself in directions that changed the identity of the writer. Byron's narrator in canto 4 rechristens himself as "a Child of [Ocean]" (iv. 184.7), but "Ocean" is here simply a trope for the tidal process of having written and of having been read. When he says, in the same penultimate stanza of the last canto, that "what is writ, is writ," it sounds as if he is washing his hands of the whole writing enterprise, but in fact what this cliche here means is that he is now, and has become irrevocably, a function or operative of what he writ.
That burden of inhabiting the celebrity which his own writing had created is precisely what Byron's Don Juan inherits. In fact even as Byron was completing the last canto of Childe Harold with its lingering, slightly melodramatic, farewells--"Farewell! a word that must be, and hath been--/A sound which makes us linger;--yet--farewell!"-he had begun to compose Don Juan. This epic-length poem uses the same narrative strategy--the same logo, we might say--as Childe Harold, although Byron in 1818 now makes clear from the start that Don Juan is a character, not the narrator, for, as Byron knows, given his own lickerish reputation, we could be easily misled.
What Byron discovers in writing Don Juan is not that the poem is all about himself--that was Wordsworth's liberatory prior discovery about his own poetics--but that the poem is about the predicament of writing to assignment--that is, to the attribution of public demand. I do not mean that Byron was courting a public readership, the GrubStreet sense of commercial success that Byron's noblesse oblige always obliged him to disdain. What he discovers is that anything he might write is already prefigured as an icon of what the reader wants his or her "Byron" to be. Byron has become a functionary of "Byronism." As has been often noticed, this is precisely the fate of the fictional character Don Juan in the poem, who is infantilized, enslaved, cross-dressed, tormented, and adored as if he were the pure object of the desire of others, possessing no subjectivity of his own.
But if this is the fate of the character Don Juan in the poem, it is not the fate of Lord Byron's poem. Byron's way of addressing in the poem the celebrity-predicament of the poem is not by means of character but by means of metaphor, and the chief metaphor is the one that hung over virtually the whole of Byron's economic life--the status of money. What I mean is, the question of what money refers to. As mentioned earlier, the question of money's referential status vexed the period from 1810 to 1821. At issue was whether there was or should be some intrinsic value--gold bullion, say--upon which the value of money could be grounded. Unlike with Blake, we know exactly how Byron stands on the question of paper money versus coinage.
O Gold! I still prefer thee unto paper, Which makes bank credit like a bank of vapour. How beauteous are rouleaus! how charming chests Containing ingots, bags of dollars, coins, (Not of old victors, all those heads and crests Weigh not the thin ore where their visage shines, But of fine unclipped gold, where dully rests Some likeness, which the glittering cirque confines, Of modern, reigning, sterling, stupid stamp!-- Yes! ready money is Aladdin's lamp.
Gold has a traditional narrative economy. Even if its value fluctuates somewhat, it is what it is; what is writ there is writ. Byron may prefer gold (though he concedes that gold coins, too, can be clipped and so devalued), but a pure coinage, even of the "modern, reigning, sterling, stupid" sort, is precisely what Byron's poem can't be. The author's celebrity has made any coinage of his imagination an alloy of reader-expectation, or worse, merely a likeness, a ghost, "the thin ore," of someone's else's narration.
And so, what Byron invents is something Jerome Christiansen has christened "the Juan effect," meaning the way in which the poem rids itself of its potential for what I call novelization--that is, the creation of a readership that would want and expect a plot, a hero, a Byron. Byron himself calls this principle of a text aesthetically undoing itself "speculation":
I perch upon an humbler promontory, Amidst Life's infinite variety: With no great care for what is nicknamed Glory, But speculating as I cast mine eye On what may suit or may not suit my story ...
Although he calls such speculating a humbler occupation than the pursuit of glory, it is actually a consequence of what his celebrity hath wrought, this constant need to cast about for what will sustain a narrative that is not a story. Byron even claims that poetry, or what he metonymically calls "rhyme," diverted him from the pursuit of fame:
For I was rather famous in my time, Until I fairly knocked it up with rhyme. (XIV. 9)
If he means that his pursuit of a writing career kept him from more honorable kinds of fame, such as one finds in the political or military arenas, the sentiment cuts both ways. His fame, one might say, has become celebrity. When the Greeks welcomed Byron to Missolonghi in 1824 with parades and twenty-one-gun salutes, it wasn't for his prowess as either a politician or a military leader. It was for his celebrity, based largely on the thematic content of his poetry. Celebrity is knocked-up fame.
Rather than conceding artistic control to the socioeconomic dynamic of production and consumption, Byron returns the creative process to the realm of chance or hazard--that is, to the idea of writing on spec: "And what I write I cast upon the stream, / To swim or sink," is how he puts it late in Don Juan. This sentence from Don Juan translates the sentence "what is writ is writ" from Childe Harold into a different key. Both lines suggest that Byron is not dependent (or co-dependent) upon his readership, but the later one from Don Juan still retains, still clings to, still speculates upon the possibility of success, though success perhaps without acclaim.
What might "success without acclaim" mean? Well, nobility perhaps. Isn't success without contemporary recognition of it one way of construing the ancient meaning of fame: renown that endures beyond one's own contemporaneity? Two centuries farther along in the history of celebrity, we might be inclined to hear this deflection of fame into nobility as rhetorical sleight-of-hand on Lord Byron's part, another Byronic celebration of his own Byronism. And yet, if so, it does put him, to say the least, in an awkward metaphorical predicament. A lover of gold coins, Byron finds that to write on spec is to become an investor in paper money, the paper being literally here the page:
Sometimes with and sometimes without occasion I write what's uppermost without delay. This narrative is not meant for narration, But a mere airy and fantastic basis To build up common things with commonplaces.
Elsewhere, Byron makes the dry joke that pages not meant for narration might only end up lining the insides of someone's portmanteau. The point is that as a medium of exchange his narration-less pages are backed by nothing save the celebrity of their author.
It is against the grain of that danger that Byron makes his most dramatic riposte:
But what's this to the purpose? you will say. Gent. reader, nothing; a mere speculation, For which my sole excuse is--'t is my way.
Airy, or even breezy, though this may be, it is not fantastic; in fact, it has become a commonplace, however extraordinary it may once have seemed. Translated into 1820-terms what Byron means is "My words, unlike the speculative value of other paper notes or currency, are things." If the motto on the Byron family crest, Crede Byron, means literally believe or trust in Byron, then the fully modernized translation, in light of Byron's celebrity, is, "Bank on Byron." Indeed, it is almost impossible to avoid translating Byron's bow to the power of his own celebrity into anything but commonplace modern terms, a task I here accede to that former boy wonder and celebrity lyricist Paul Anka, whose famous song, "My Way," became, in effect, the motto for another singer trying to balance the conflicting values of any coin stamped "Fame":
And now, the end is near; And so I face the final curtain. For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels; And not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows And did it my way!
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|Title Annotation:||Byron: Life and Legend|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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