16 March 2009

What Is It You Do, Precisely?

I promised myself that I'd write a blog post on my work, since I'm worried that this blog makes me seem like an airhead, so here we go.

As you may have already figured out from previous posts, I work on Lord Byron.  In order to explain why you should care about Byron, I'll start by directing you to a brief biography, here. In case you're too bored to read that, I'll just tell you the cool stuff about Byron now:  he had a ton of sex.  A ton.  A ton of sex (with men, with women, with his half-sister). He swam the Hellespont, and the Grand Canal. He gained and lost enormous amounts of weight, so that at 5'8" his weight varied between 120 and 196 pounds. He was apparently dazzlingly attractive.  He was bled to death (his doctors took out roughly 43% of his blood over a two-day period).  He basically financed the Greek Revolution.


Byron at the height of his beauty

Also, he wrote some of the funniest poetry you will ever read.  If you have some time on your hands, read the first two cantos of his major work, Don Juan (pronounced, importantly, Don Jew-an; we'll get to that.  You will avoid seeing me flinch, and having me either correct you or burn to correct you, if you remember to pronounce this name JEW-an, not jew-AHN).  I promise you, you will laugh; you will giggle; you will smirk wittily.

Fat Byron.  How are the mighty fallen!

It's important to say here that Byron was also a very unpleasant man.  He was moody, and self-centred, and he was a misogynist of the first order (he wrote to his publisher of an educated woman, for example, "That sort of woman seem to think themselves perfect because they can't get covered [a word used to describe sex between animals]; & those who are seem no better for it--the spayed bitches."  Nice) .  When people ask me why I picked him to work on, I always want to tell them that those unpleasantnesses are part of the reason why: it's impossible for me to romanticise him, because just when it gets to a point where I think he's wonderful I'll stumble across some terrible behaviour.  I like his complexity, but also I value the repulsion he can engender in me.  

Okay, so what exactly do I work on?  I work on Byron's ideas about knowledge.  Byron is generally underrated as an intellect by Romanticists, but in fact his work demonstrates a very sophisticated set of beliefs about knowing, how we know, and what it means to know, and the beauty of this is that they do so in ways you don't expect, and often in ways that enact the very ideas Byron is asserting.

Let's start with one of my favourite Byron lines, from one of my favourite Byron poems, Lara (this is not my favourite.  My favourite is a poem called "Darkness," which makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I read it). The hero of Lara (Lara is his surname) is allegedly a Spanish nobleman, returned to his home estate after a mysterious absence of many years.  In describing his behaviour after his return, Byron says, "Not much he loved long questions of the past."  So, a smart reader says, what do I know from this?  Well, obviously something bad has happened to this man while he's been away - I know this because he doesn't like to talk about his past.  

Now this is the tricky part.  Because what you've done here, as a seasoned reader, is read a series of cues.  That is, what most readers do when they read is recognise, consciously or (more likely) subconsciously, a series of tags that the text offers, tags that have meanings we've acquired from reading hundreds of previous texts.  Here, the cues are "not" "loved" "questions" "past" - in fact, Byron helpfully puts stress on three of these.

The problem is, readers recognise these tags out of context:  they tend to extract the familiar elements and elide the ones they don't know.  Byron, however, reminds us that meaning, and knowledge, cannot be treated this way.  Read the sentence again, read it not as a clued-in reader but an attentive one.  Here is what it actually says:  "He didn't really like being asked long questions about the past."  Well, what does that mean?  Does he not like being asked questions?  Does he not like being asked long questions (but it's okay if they're short)?  Is he happy to answer questions about the present, but not the past?  Does he not particularly like ("not much") being asked questions, but he'll answer them anyway?  This declaration, which appears to provide a central piece of important information about the poem's hero, in fact provides no information at all.  What it does provide, however, is a good deal of information about knowing:  it tells its reader, if its reader is canny enough to pay attention, that knowledge is formed serially and cumulatively (since we know something very different about Lara if we know he did not like "long questions" than we do if we know he did not like "long questions of the past"); that pieces of information can have radically different meanings depending on their setting and on the way they add up.  Most importantly, it tells us that what we think we "know" may very well not be what we know at all:  it may merely be what we believe we know, or -- much more worryingly -- what someone has coerced us into thinking we know (since Byron the author has created the "knowledge" that Lara is troubled by his past by manipulating the reader to ignore what the sentence actually means).  In this way, the declaration points out to its readers that knowledge is a created item, not a constant, a given, or a certainty.

At this point you have either clicked away or think this is all pretty cool.  Since I agree with you if you think it's pretty cool, I'll go on.

Lara is a poem from the middle of Byron's career.  It's generally agreed that his masterpiece is his final long poem.  Don Juan tells the story of a young man from Seville named Juan ("in Seville was he born, a pleasant city / Famous for oranges and women") who keeps being seduced by predatory women.  Byron starts his story at the beginning of Juan's life ("My way is to begin with the beginning" -- actually, before, with a description of his parents' marriage), charting his "fall" into being a seducer.  As this plot summary will suggest to you if you know the usual Don Juan story (and here in a sung version, starting at roughly 2.28 - my favourite line is "La piccina e ognor vezzosa" - "the little one is always cute."  This is true), Byron is still playing with the question of what we know.  The very fact that he tells the Don Juan story in this way hints, obviously, that he still wants to suggest knowledge is versional (that is, there may be another side to the DJ story, or another way of telling it.  Have we ever actually heard Juan's version, or how it all began?).  Here, however, what he does is much more total and much more sophisticated.  

Don Juan is 558 pages long (all of it in ottava rima: abababcc, a very difficult rhyme scheme in English.  Writers the poem influenced:  Auden, Pushkin, Yeats.  At a cocktail party, you will want to say, "It's all based on Whistlecraft, of course," then smile in superior way), so I'm certainly not going to undertake a thorough analysis here.  Instead, I'll lead you quickly through the first stanza:

I want a hero, an uncommon want
When every year and month sends forth a new one;
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan.
We all have seen him in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.

("I should not care to vaunt," in case you trip over it, means, "I wouldn't want to speak well of")

First of all, look at the first phrase, "I want a hero."  It seems pretty clear, especially given that it's the opening of an epic poem ("My poem's an epic, and is meant to be," Byron says later): "I'm looking for a hero."  But "want" doesn't just mean "am looking for."  It also means "desire" (a very good meaning for a poem about a man associated with sex), and, more importantly, it also means "lack."  So here we have a word that means at least three things, and two of those things are a concept and its opposite. Note, please, that readers can't dismiss any of these possible meanings at this stage: we don't have any context to cancel any of them out, and in fact the two opposite meanings depend on each other (you "want" a hero because you "want" a hero).

Now, as the stanza progresses we get some filler info that turns out to be important:  all the heroes that the gazettes (which can also mean military gazettes) hold out as heroes are eventually unmasked as unworthy of the title.  Because Byron doesn't want to praise or give page space to such men, he's going to choose Don Juan - all his readers have seen Don Juan on stage, being sent to hell, so they can't be disappointed if he turns out to be bad.  The thing is, this apparently straightforward statement turns out to be just as confusing as "I want"; what Byron is saying is that all the heroes who have lately been held up as heroic have turned out to be flawed, and therefore the best hero is one who is already flawed.  In other words, the best of heroes is one who is unheroic.  

Not only that, but Byron promises us a hero "we all" know:  "our ancient friend Don Juan."  But the previous line endings have prepared readers for the "mis"pronunciation of Don Juan ("new one/true one" must lead to "Jew-an"), which means in fact that we don't know this hero; we know Don Wan (or Hwan), but we've never encountered this Jewan guy.  But "we" must know him, because Byron tells us we know him, and even tells us how we know him, and indeed "we" do know a Don Juan this way (this pantomime was very popular in B's time, and does tell the story of Don Juan's seductions and fate [yes, he is sent to hell, and what's more by a stone statue]).  

So what we have here is a hero who is a hero only because he isn't a hero, different to the Don Juan we know but somehow still that Don Juan, desired and/or lacked, and desired because he is lacked.  If in Lara we knew that we had to pay more attention in order to be sure that we really know, what we learn in Don Juan is that we can't really know anything.  Things can mean one thing and their opposite simultaneously; in order to know we must remember what we don't know as well as what we do.  Most importantly, Byron shows us that in order to make meaning, we must choose from a number of possible different "knowledges" (in fact, what philosophers call "knowledge claims"), all equally valid, in order to produce a meaning that works for us.  And, if we have to do this to make meaning in a poem, that would seem to suggest that...this is how we make meaning in the real world, also.  All knowledge is subjective, is selected, and is thus not really knowledge at all:  knowledge is guesswork, inclination, assumption, determination (and, to be fair, legitimate need) to make things mean something, and a good deal of persuasion.

In English lit, you cannot stop at this conclusion, because you must say why that matters. Normally I say, and believe, that this is important because Byron thus moves the power of knowledge from the hands of outside authority - philosophy, culture, government - to the hands of the individual (note, incidentally, how much like William Blake this makes him).  Each person can make his or her own meaning.  Indeed, Byron says this later in Don Juan: "Why, I'm posterity -- and so are you."  

Here, however, I will end by saying that for some reason this vision of knowledge as fragmented, subjective, and dependent makes me intensely happy.  I've never been able to figure out why.  No doubt it's partially because Byron makes this point with such wit and bite ("But, oh! Ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly: have they not henpeck'd you all?" What a rhyme!  So unexpected, yet so perfect).  But there's something else I can't put my finger on...Perhaps I like it because it's so freeing?  Really, I sometimes think, I like it because it's so true.  This is what knowledge is, and what it is like, and to have that truth revealed (even with all the problems it raises) is intensely pleasurable to me.  

Yes, I should end with a joke, but I think I'll let Byron end with a joke - it's even a dirty one. 

Juan has become the lover of Catherine the Great of Russia (who is by this time elderly), and he is thus greatly sought after in her court:

Juan, instead of courting courts, was courted, -
A thing which happens rarely.  This he owed
Much to his youth, and much to his reported
Valour; much also to the blood he show'd,
Like a race-horse; much to each dress he sported,
Which set the beauty off in which he glow'd,
As purple clouds befringe the sun; but most
He owed to an old woman and his post.

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