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'Tis more than what is called mobility': Structure and a Development towards Understanding in Byron's Don Juan

  • Cynthia Whissel

…plus d’informations

  • Cynthia Whissel
    Laurentian University

Corps de l’article

I. Statement of the Problem and Hint of the Solution

A reader perusing Byron's Don Juan in search of traditional indications of surface structure is doomed to disappointment. The ottava rima epic replete with digressions and whimseys is peppered with plot twists in no way coherent with the Don Juan myth extant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The main character, Don Juan, neither achieves salvation nor is he damned. Byron's views on literary and political figures of his day (notably Southey, Wordsworth, and Wellington) intrude at random points throughout the epic, and disparaging social commentary, both implicit and explicit, frequently displaces narration. Byron's mental lability or his "mobility" both fascinates and repels the reader.  [1] In view of the seeming disorder of the poem, the casual reader might be forgiven for concluding that Byron had composed Don Juan in the same way as he admittedly composed his letters, eschewing caution and "generally say[ing] what comes uppermost at the moment."  [2]

Byron spoke about Don Juan as if the epic were plotless and unplanned,  [3] and as if he could and would abandon it in midstream should it prove to be unpopular.  [4] He also emphasized the humour in the work,  [5] and disparagingly opposed any suggestion that he should work to a grand plan in producing a "'great work' an Epic poem I suppose or some such pyramid".  [6] However, Byron energetically defended his approach to Don Juan, suggesting that the scenes in it were real, that the whole was a sublime representation of life, and that the poem would be eventually be known for what it was "a satire on abuses of the present states of Society."  [7] The fact that Don Juan was "now and then voluptuous" was incidental to the aim of the poem.  [8] Byron's own words allow for the inference that he refused to impose a traditional or surface structure on the epic, but they strongly suggest that he did have a commitment to Don Juan which involved something more than the production of a bouquet of bawdy and amusing episodes written and published over a period of several years (1818-1824). It has been suggested that this commitment to fact or realism which stand, in Byron's work, in opposition to romanticism or idealism.  [9]

Don Juan is unified at the level of style not by a titillating licentiousness but by a tendency to digression and by a pervading irony.  [10] The fact that the epic poem has three major segments or subdivisions has been widely accepted.  [11] The first five cantos of Don Juan introduced by the Julia episode reach their peak in the Haidee episode and end with Juan's being condemned to slavery. The second five cantos begin with the harem episode, lead into the battle of Ismail, and are capped by the Empress Catherine episode. The final seven cantos, known as the English cantos, bring the still-young Juan to England and describe his interactions with English society, ending with the episode of the Black Friar's Ghost.

In view of the inconsistencies and seeming structural deficiencies noted in the epic, and in view of hints provided by the author himself, a search for structure in Don Juan could only be successful if it went beyond traditional or surface dimensions in its scope. This essay describes such a search which was conducted on two levels, the emotional and the philosophic. Results of numerical analyses performed at the broad emotional level led to the conclusion that there was clear evidence of emotional structure within each of the three subdivisions of the poem. Inquiries addressing a deeper level of meaning led to the description of a logical interrelationship among the three subdivisions. They also led to the conclusion that far from being planless and unstructured, the poem was a model of logical development or intellectual growth as defined by Hegel's dialectic.  [12]

II. Emotional Evidence of Structure Within Subdivisions

Emotion is a less obvious form of structure than plot, but it is, nevertheless, a form. It is possible to demonstrate that as Don Juan unfolds, the emotions engendered in the reader by the words Byron employs rise and fall in a patterned rather than a random manner.

A passage containing many pleasant words has the power to induce a pleasant emotion in the reader, and one containing many unpleasant words the power to encourage the dominance of a correspondingly unpleasant affect. Passages bedecked with blood, thunder, and wounds (Canto VIII, for example) leave behind a very different impression than those garnished with grace, happiness, and laughter (Canto XIII). Byron did not scatter pleasant and unpleasant words randomly throughout his epic, but rather used them in such as way as to build up to peaks and down to troughs of pleasantness and unpleasantness. Examples of emotional words from Canto III (Haidee), Canto VIII (chiefly describing the Battle of Ismail) and Canto XIII (chiefly describing Lady Amundeville) represent the deepest trough of unpleasantness and the highest peaks of pleasantness in the poem and are included in Table 1.

A tool called the Dictionary of Affect was used in conjunction with a computer program to examine each word in Don Juan with respect to its pleasantness.  [13] The Dictionary contains a summary of many people's opinions as to the pleasantness of several thousand words. Individuals in previous research had assigned high scores to words which they considered "pleasant" in their emotional impact and low scores to those which they considered "unpleasant." More than 25,000 words from Don Juan were matched to words from the Dictionary, and were therefore associated with a numerical value for pleasantness. An average score was calculated for each canto reflecting the degree of pleasantness found in the matched words from that canto. The resulting averages are plotted in Figure 1. Scores were scaled so that zero represented the average pleasantness of Don Juan, which was, in fact, quite similar to that of many other texts analysed by the same method. Whenever the line in Figure 1 rises above zero there is evidence of greater-than-average pleasantness in the poem, and when it falls below zero of less-than-average pleasantness (or unpleasantness). A high score signals the predominance of words which many individuals have rated as being very pleasant words, and a low one the predominance of words which many have identified as highly unpleasant words (Table 1).

Figure 1 reveals that the emotional tone of language in Don Juan rises and falls in a very clear pattern. Within the first subdivision of the poem, cantos I-V, there is one major peak in pleasantness representing the passionate interlude with Haidee (canto III). The segment begins on an unpleasant note (the failed relationship with Julia, exile, the shipwreck) and ends on a different unpleasant note (slavery). Within the second subdivision of the poem, cantos VI-X, there is one pronouncedly unpleasant trough representing the Battle of Ismail (canto VIII), which is flanked by two amorous adventures (Dudu, Gulbeyaz, and the harem to the left, the Empress to the right). There is also a rough symmetry in emotional design between the first and second subdivisions of the poem: the first represents the ecstasy of passion bracketed by despair and the second the desperation of war bracketed by pleasurable amorous diversions. Within the final subdivision of the poem, cantos XI-XVII, there is one pronounced peak for pleasantness coincident with the introduction of Lady Amundeville. The poem comes to an end with pleasantness values which have descended to an average level.

In spite of the digressions noted by many critics, it is evident from the emotional tone of the words used by Byron that each of the three segments of Don Juan was building to something, and then returning from it to an emotional starting point. The emotional structure which underlies each segment is carried through the segment in a simple pattern of either a V or an inverse V. The cantos representing the crux of each segment of the poem are cantos III, VIII, and XIII respectively. If the reader were to momentarily disregard digressions and seek structure in the flow of emotion within each segment, he or she would find it in the patterned rise and fall of pleasantness which underlies the text as a result of the words used in it, and in the mirrored symmetry of the first and second segment.

III. Philosophical Evidence of Structure Across Subdivisions

Structure within subdivision was attested to by the patterned rise and fall of pleasantness in the text of Don Juan, but the relationship among subdivisions and the completeness of the work as a whole have yet to be addressed. Could Don Juan simply be an accretion of orderly subsections, with no grand plan and no evidence of poem-wide development? Would Byron, had he lived, have continued writing more and more "subdivisions" and adding them to the poem ad infinitum? One argument against an indefinitely extended addition of episodes lies in the different emotional nature of the existing subdivisions, but an even better argument lies in the relationship of subdivisions to one another when they are interpreted as phases of an Hegelian dialectic.  [14]

In Hegel's philosophy the dialectic is the method by which all knowledge (natural, logical, and spiritual) is acquired.  [15] There are three phases to the dialectic. In the first phase a category, A is seen to include the seeds of its contrary, B. In the second phase, the contrary, B, is discovered to imply or contain its contradiction, A. The double negation (A containing its contrary B and B containing its contrary A) is resolved in the third phase which unites the two categories A and B in a new system that allows for the existence of both in a changed or congruent form. If the final phase or category of a dialectic process, C, is anything other than the metaphysical Absolute,  [16] this new category is found to include its own contradiction D, and the dialectic cycle is re-enacted. The dialectic does not necessarily proceed in a cumulative fashion because some contradictions cannot but lead back to an examination of first principles. Only arrival at the Absolute terminates the dialectical method of discovery.

In Hegel's Phenomenology, the first phase of the dialectic of consciousness is sense-certainty (the I-am), the second phase is perception (the It-is), and the final phase is understanding (which allows for both the I-am and the It-is to coexist). The three subdivisions of Don Juan parallel the three phases of the dialectic. The first subdivision which describes a love affair is written from the perspective of the I-am, or from the personal and narrow viewpoint of passionate youth, while the second subdivision which provides a narrator's view of the battle is written from the perspective of It-is. The I-am segment contains the seeds of contradiction to I as a coherent force (unwelcome interventions by It-is characters such as Juan's mother and Haidee's father who have their own agendas occur at different times), and It-is includes the contradictory emotions of the protagonist (I-am) in response to the battle being perceived. The I-am and the It-is (sense certainty and perception) coexist in the third subdivision of the epic and they are able to do so because the perspective is neither that of a involved protagonist nor that of a close narrator but rather that of a distanced observer sensitive to both the I-am and the It-is. The acquisition of a new framework which accommodates previously contradictory categories is often the key to the resolution of a dialectic.  [17]

When emotional analyses were performed for Don Juan, two additional measures not reflected in Figure 1 were also obtained. These measures reflected the extent to which Byron used active words (words such as blood, glory, and adventure rather than words such as sleep, sadness, and charm), and the extent to which he used nouns which could be easily imaged as opposed to abstract nouns (nouns such as treasure, swords and wounds rather than nouns such as belief, acceptance, and concern). In all cases, scores depended on many volunteers' previous interpretations of the words involved. In the first two segments of the poem which reflect the first two segments of the dialectic, both arousal and imagery first rise and then fall. As each of the phases unfolds, Byron uses more and more active and arousing language and more concrete language leading to the creation of stronger mental pictures in the reader's mind. Having peaked in these respects (in Cantos III and VIII), his language then descends back to an average level for the two dimensions. The third segment of the poem is distinctively different from the others because this process is not repeated. Instead, Byron's language becomes non-arousing in character and also more abstract. Byron does not use words calculated to make the heart beat faster, nor does he tell a story which allows the reader to employ vivid pictorial imagery. Operating at a new level - an abstracted and distanced one- Byron attempts to resolve the dialectic.

If Don Juan were a definitive dialectic is would culminate in the discovery of the Absolute which is equated with an understanding of the concept of God. There is a tantalizing reference to a confrontation with forces of the Almighty in the Black Friar's Ghost episode, but this confrontation is jokingly turned aside by Byron in the very last canto. From Galt's contemporary description of the last days of Byron's life (the ones closest in time to the writing of the last canto), we know that the poet was still willing to search for the Absolute, though he was sceptical of finding it.  [18] The dialectic process is therefore incomplete in this respect: Don Juan shows evidence of a development (across phases of the dialectic) and of a definite goal (understanding), but it does not culminate with an understanding of the Absolute. Lovell was probably responding to the lack of complete understanding when he defined Byron's primary - but failed - quest as a "quest for a spiritual cure" or for "an intellectual system satisfactorily relating God, man, and nature."  [19] The questing discontent which Lovell and others have noted in Byron was likely the motivation for his progress through the dialectic. It would only have diminished once Absolute understanding had been reached.  [20]

Parallels between Don Juan and Hegel's dialectic can also be drawn on other levels. The dialectic and Newton's laws of motion both suggest that something cannot exist without its contrary, or that there can be no action without an opposite reaction, which implies that pleasantness cannot occur without unpleasantness, and that the contrary is also true. It is the movement from pleasantness to unpleasantness (or vice versa) that structures a tale. The emotionally pleasant first segment of the poem (A) is bracketed by unpleasantness, while the emotionally unpleasant second segment (B) includes a pleasant introduction and coda. Thus phase A includes (or grows out of and back into) its contrary, unpleasantness, and phase B similarly evolves out of and returns to its contrary, pleasantness. Furthermore, being rough mirror images of each other the two first sections prove to be contraries to one another at the global level (B is the opposite of A). The third segment is different than either A or B: it is more pleasant than A and less unpleasant than B, yet Byron makes some of his most scathing indictments of English Society in this segment where unpleasant truths are capable of being presented in the guise of pleasantness. Lovell describes this segment of the epic as one which is "loving and satiric at the same moment".  [21] If understanding were complete and pleasantness and unpleasantness were allowed to coexist, the epic should terminate on a balanced emotional note and it gives some hint of moving in that direction.

A parallel may also be drawn between the dialectic and the expression of cynicism/realism and idealism/Romanticism in Byron's writing. Marjarum titles Byron both a skeptic and a believer, and Ehrstine suggests that the poet held both a positive and a negative metaphysic simultaneously.  [22] As a failed quester, Byron was preoccupied with both the object and the failure of his quest. This dualism of attitude is evident in Byron's work. The first segment of Don Juan is an idealistic love story told with cynical overtones and leading to unpleasant consequences while the second is a cynical description of battle with surprisingly pleasant consequences for Juan. The emotional data show that in each of the main subdivisions of the poem, Byron either moved towards a positive emotional outlook or away from one, in either case returning to the contrary view by the end of the segment.

If idealism and realism were products of a dialectic, neither could exist in the absence of its contrary which might explain why bitter cynicism is often the outcome of defeated idealism, growing out of its contrary rather than out of neutrality. One would find it difficult to be cynical without admitting to the existence of ideals which had been betrayed. Byron's "realistic" perspective evolved out of a negation of Romanticism and idealism, and strenuously countered their overly optimistic views of reality. By extension of this parallel, the English cantos of Don Juan should represent an attempt at understanding the manner in which cynicism and idealism could coexist by reference to a new framework. Ehrstine, for example, believes that Don Juan demonstrates a trend in this direction.  [23] Byron was critical of English society (and therefore cynical, or, as he preferred to see it, realistic rather than idealistic) because he expected better of it, and saw the possibility of better in it. Without the great expectations engendered by the original Romantic ideals, which were still to some degree valid for the author, there would have been no impetus for cynicism or for what Byron described as realism. In order to, in common parlance, "get real," one must have been unreal to begin with.

IV. Did Byron's Work Exemplify Hegel's Dialectic or His Own?

Throughout this essay I have referred to Hegel's dialectic in Byron's work, but there is no direct evidence of the fact that Byron was influenced by Hegel's philosophy.  [24] Although A Phenomenology of Mind was first published in 1807, Byron's leanings were towards Italian and Hellenistic modes of thought rather than Teutonic ones. However the parallels between the development implicit in Byron's Don Juan and the developing mind in Hegel's phenomenology are valid, even if Byron were totally unaware of the writings of his contemporary. The three levels of the dialectic that appeared in the work of each author might easily have been the result parallel development within the broader Romantic Zeitgeist - an instance of two independent discoveries of a universal truth. It should be stated that while Hegel defined and discussed the dialectic, and Byron merely enacted it.

Parallels have been drawn between the philosophy of Hegel and the writings of Romanticists other than Byron. Bradley explicitly identified Hegel's optimistic philosophy with Wordsworth's work and Schopenhaur's pessimistic philosophy with Byron's.  [25] Stokoe catalogued several superficial influences of German sources on Byron's writing but these did not include the work of Hegel and were more a matter of content or style than of substance.  [26] Abrams entirely excluded Byron from his comparison of English Romantic authors to German philosophers and writers, and he did so in a single sentence a mere three pages into his preface. Abrams defended this decision on that basis of the fact that "in his greatest work [Byron] speaks with an ironic counter-voice and deliberately opens a satirical perspective on the vatic [prophetic, mystical] stance of his Romantic contemporaries (26)." The counter-voice so clearly perceived in Don Juan is in actuality a more advanced - or postromantic - phase of Byron's personal dialectic inquiry.

V. Conclusions

Readers have responded strongly to Don Juan, viewing it as one of the best pieces of work produced by Byron. It is unlikely that such a response would have been engendered by a random collection of episodes without structure and without internal development. Little evidence of structure may be available at the superficial level, but ample evidence has been found at deeper levels. In fact it has been demonstrated here with some force that Don Juan had structure at many levels, that it represented intellectual growth or development as reflected by the dialectic, and that understanding was the eventual aim of such growth. Evidence suggests that although the quest for understanding was interrupted, Byron was closer to understanding at the time of his death than he ever had been before. Evidence of growth has been preserved in Don Juan because the poem was both written and published in several segments over several years. This process allowed for the time necessary for development to take place and it also captured each phase of development as portions of the epic were published.

With respect to structure and content, it could not be said of Don Juan that "-'tis merely what is called mobility/A thing of temperament" nor could it be affirmed without contradiction that the work includes "little that's great".  [27] At the same time, no one reading the epic could straight facedly profess that it was a model of surface structure and plot continuity. The dialectic enacted in this essay has mobility and lack of structure as its first phase and deep structure and logical development as its second. The third phase of the dialectic resolves these conflicting viewpoints, and allows for the conclusion, in paraphrase, that Don Juan encompasses mobility but also "more than what is called mobility," and "much that's great" along with "much of what is clever."

Parties annexes