Jonathan David Gross. Byron: The Erotic Liberal. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. ISBN 0-7425-1162-6. Price: $21.95.
G. Todd Davis
In Byron: The Erotic Liberal, Jonathan David Gross examines the relationship between Byron's "erotic life and political commitments" (1). Gross follows predecessors Michael Foot and Malcolm Kelsall, among others, in investigating the Byronic persona through a political lens, yet Gross attempts to move beyond this groundwork by connecting the political to the erotic. This methodology has both advantages and disadvantages to recommend it. By linking the two, Gross underscores how Byron's personal life cannot be disconnected from his public life. Byron flourished within the interstices, creating a place for himself in the limbo that exists between binaries. Gross appreciates this. However, this methodology also assumes, by the connectivity that informs it, that the two should be read together. This leads to a reduction, if not a complete effacement of the lacuna between the two binaries. Byron performs for his audience, and never more so than when either his political or his erotic lives were in question. As Lady Blessington rather insightfully quipped: "Byron is a perfect chameleon [. . .] and says it is owing to the extreme mobilité of his nature." This mobilité gives Byron his cultural relevance, but it also dismantles any categorizing attempts to evaluate one aspect of Byron's life either in conjunction with or in opposition to another aspect.
Gross is most effective when he capitalizes on the blurred boundaries between Byron's public and private life. He argues that Byron "resolved the tension between eros and libertinism, in part, by using his poetry to define a new political outlook—erotic liberalism—which he referred to in his letters as a 'politics of feeling'" (1). Gross employs both Plato and Sappho to define eros; for the former, he draws upon the Symposium and Aristophanes' speech to define eros as the "search for wholeness" while also incorporating Plato's idea of "self-completion"; for the latter, he connects eros and glukipikron, which he translates as "sweetbitter" (2). Accordingly, Gross distances Byron's eros from libertinism by saying: "Byron was not a libertine" (3). Byron, instead, cultivated "cosmopolitanism," which, with both eros and his rejection of libertinism, appreciably influenced his political views. By constructing the term "erotic liberalism," Gross establishes a category within which Byron's quest for personal and political freedom can be encompassed.
The author situates himself against two previous works on Byron's political life: Michael Foot's The Politics of Paradise and Malcolm Kelsall's Byron's Politics. He summarizes Foot's book as illustrating "Byron's political idealism," viewing him as an "aristocratic rebel who championed the cause of the oppressed." Kelsall, he says, "by contrast, debunks the legend of Byron's radicalism by demonstrating his debt to Whig principles" (15). These approaches overlook "the political significance of Byron's private conduct" (31). The connection between the private and the public resonates here, especially in relation to Byron's search for freedom in the realms of politics and sexuality. To further his argument, Gross explores Byron's wish to be both a writer and a politician. He examines the three speeches in the House of Lords, not only their performance, but also how they fit Byron's "politics of feeling." Byron "emphasized passion rather than parliamentary procedure, genius rather than middle-class morality, and action rather than words," Gross argues (21). Byron's pose triumphs over the content, his appearance and fervor surmounts the subject matter. Yet, for all Byron's zeal at the podium, his private life began to intrude into the political experience. Gross identifies the vilification of Lord Elgin in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the alleged incestuous relationship with Augusta as inauspicious ways to begin a political career. "Private conduct was beginning to matter," he says (27). Thus, Byron began to intertwine poetry and politics, breaking down the barriers between his public and his private expressions.
Gross stresses Byron's relationship with Lady Melbourne, and, since he recently edited Byron's 'Corbeau Blanc': The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne, he is excellently positioned to detail the intricate relationship these two share. Lady Melbourne "taught Byron how to conduct himself," he affirms and "their extensive correspondence helped to shape his view of sexual politics" (32). Byron's "erotic liberalism" connects the "erotic and political stimulation" (37). Gross explores three distinct literary models upon or against which Byron fashioned himself: Richardson's Clarissa, Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse, and Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Gross does not suggest that Byron emulated these heroes but is more "interested in what Byron's choice of models (and his ultimate repudiation of that choice) reveals about his politics" (40). This focus sustains the text by elucidating how exterior forces affect or help clarify Byron's political and personal expressions.
Gross also examines Byron's relationship with Madame de Staël. Gross reveals the similarities they share on notions of liberalism and cosmopolitanism. They "resisted political tyranny, cultivated cosmopolitanism, criticized excessive nationalism, and linked the quality of a national literature to its political independence" (83). As a trope, exile influenced both their lives and writings. He compares Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and de Staël's De l'Allemagne to assert that the two "mythologized themselves to make their political views more palatable" (88). A more comprehensive reading of this mythologizing would not only have connected the texts and the two lives, but it also would have better supported Gross's argument that Byron and de Staël incorporated notions of themselves as "outsiders, exiles and lonely individualists persecuted for their liberal beliefs" into their corpus and their personal experience (91).
Gross complicates Byron's liberalism through the inclusion of aristocracy, supported by Byron's fervent defense of Pope against the denigration of William Bowles. Gross affirms that Byron's liberalism was "never really democratic" and he considers how "Byron's conservative aesthetics and aristocratic birth inflect his political liberalism" (101). While he uses the Pope-Bowles controversy to elucidate some of Byron's more class-conscious attitudes, this chapter does not move beyond this close reading to a more extended analysis of how Byron's aristocratic underpinnings problematize his liberalism, his devotion to freedom, and his hatred for cant. To accentuate and support his argument, Gross examines how the hero of Marino Faliero becomes progressively more and more disenchanted "with the democratic cause" (115), but he never effectively analyzes Byron's rank and its intimate connection to, and tension with, his revolutionary attitudes and his radical political stances.
Gross's section on the gay narrator in Don Juan is problematic because Gross is searching in this chapter for an analysis of the narrator's queerness rather than his gayness, which remains rather contradictory by his definition. He claims that the "narrator's closeted sexuality can help explain his digressive style," then contradicts that statement later by saying he does "not mean to imply that his sexual character is fixed" (129-30). If Gross is documenting the narrator's "closeted sexuality," he assumes that sexuality as "fixed." Gross refers to Butler's Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, but his essentialism decries the constructivism that Butler purports. Had he used queerness, a theory always in the act of becoming and an anti-identificatory reckoning, he might have skated over the very thin ice upon which this chapter rests. However, the idea that the narrator evokes some kind of "gay" identity, "sensing his English audience's heterosexual bias clearly enough to narrate his story cautiously" (134), works against constructivism by demarcating the binaries of heterosexual and homosexual. This reading also works against the Foucauldian contention that these identities did not occur until the late nineteenth century, somewhat after Byron's death.
Even allowing for the possibility that binary categories existed in Byron's time that would permit the narrator to distinguish between normative and non-normative acts, the anachronism created by the use not only of gay but also of the heterosexual/homosexual binary detracts from the argument Gross creates. He goes even further in saying that "Byron displaces his gay identity onto another" (135), thereby stipulating that since Byron could not be openly "gay," he created a "gay" narrator as a surrogate. Byron never would have conceptualized himself as gay or straight, homosexual or heterosexual for a number of reasons, not the least of which the terms and the ideas of the terms did not exist yet. The inexpressibility of this particular binary works against many of the conclusions upon which this argument relies.
Towards the end of the book, Gross examines the influences of Leigh Hunt and the Greek fight for independence on Byron's erotic liberalism. He downplays the latter somewhat by asserting the political impetus was connected with Byron's longing for personal and sexual freedom. Byron was not simply helping the Greeks for altruistic reasons; he was also furthering his own agenda. His attraction to Loukas Chalandritsanos becomes, for Gross, a major motivation for Byron's continued assistance to the war effort. Byron "took comfort in the company of a young boy" and sought to help the Greeks overcome their tyrants in order to remain "faithful to his erotic nature and the politics of feeling it inspired" (171). That Loukas did not return Byron's feelings of love or that this unrequited love was the subject of Byron's last poems hardly enters into Gross's argument. "When placed in the context of his love for Loukas Chalandritsanos," he says, "Byron's support for Greek independence appears less democratic, more personal and aristocratic" (130). Byron's final act becomes more private, less public, more influenced by eros than by his feelings of justice and hatred of tyranny. Gross concludes with his conception of Byron as an "ancient liberal," who longs to bring back the glories of classical Greece to a war-torn and demoralized population, but this culmination is muted by the previous influence of eros in connection with Loukas.
Overall, this text insightfully explicates a number of exterior forces that influenced both Byron's personal and political lives. What remains somewhat absent, however, is a strong connecting tissue between the various chapters and the determining argument as a whole. Each chapter stands alone, less related than merely joined under the umbrella term of "erotic liberal." The chapters resemble a collection of journal articles, amassed under a broad rubric but only tangentially related to one another by means of commonality. The thread that ties these chapters together remains somewhat elusive and ethereal. This does not diminish the often important aspects of the text. It simply diffuses them by means of their disjointedness.
|Author:||G. Todd Davis|
|Title Reviewed:||Jonathan David Gross. Byron: The Erotic Liberal. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. ISBN 0-7425-1162-6. Price: $21.95.|
|Journal:||Romanticism on the Net, Number 25, February 2002|
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