Naive and Knowledgeable Nihilism in Byron's Gothic Verse

By LaChance, Charles | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Naive and Knowledgeable Nihilism in Byron's Gothic Verse

LaChance, Charles, Papers on Language & Literature

Gothic poetry and prose vocalize a medley of Calvinistic, sentimental and naturalistic values, a trio echoing the three "powerful approaches" to gothicism that Jeffrey Cox reviews in Seven Gothic Dramas: "the numinous, the political, the psychological" (6-7). The "numinous" I revise as Calvinistic, the "political" as sentimental and the "psychological" as naturalistic. In particular, naturalism equates to pessimistic materialism, implying a degree of necessity, mutability, reductionism, egoism, hedonism and sex. Sentimentalism, however, conveys idealism, both the ontological or logical variety like Plato's and the ethical or attitudinal one like Jean Jacques Rousseau's. This ethic and ontology include transcendental, utopian, egalitarian, liberal, loving, optimistic, pantheistic and passionately sincere impulses. Notwithstanding -- in the majority of gothic works -- Calvinistic elements predominate. Much has been written about gothicism as a genre but the fact remains that what governs and defines most gothic tales in one way or another is Calvinism.

Calvinistic conceptions of predestination, primordial error, superhuman will, supernatural evil, asceticism, natural depravity, secret sex, public suffering and atonement emerge in the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). Here, Prince Manfred is destined to fall because of his concealed and original sins of murder and usurpation. After sundry occult happenings and libidinous pursuits, Manfred publicly admits his offenses and retreats to the austere life of a hermitage. The same Calvinistic themes of cloaked sexuality, public confession and ascetic penalty energize what Cox describes as the "first' Gothic play" (12), Walpole's The Mysterious Mother (1768). Ordinarily, to be sure, gothic art also illustrates at least a few bits of sentimentality. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, for instance, the virtues of pantheistic nature and non-violence coexist with weighty proclamations on fate and the world's load of vanities. Other key compositions in Byron's gothic corpus are The Corsair (1814) and Manfred (1817). Although a limited strain of sentimentalism registers in these poems as well, Byron's gothicism singularizes itself by the primacy and power of its Calvinistic naturalism. This despairing naturalism destabilizes traditional Christianity, chivalry, rationalism and nearly all sentimentality. Byron's assault on such diverse orthodoxies forges a proto-nihilism, making his gothic writings wickedly new.

Yet unlike the mature nihilism of his burlesque poetry, the proto-nihilism of Byron's gothic verse displays a naivete by undermining only idealistic ideologies like conventional Christianity, chivalrous heroics, chivalrous romance, explicit platonism and most forms of sentimentalism. What Byron's gothic poetry does not undermine is Calvinistic naturalism: doom-filled and fatalistic materialism. Naturalism -- the belief that all things are explained by mundane phenomena -- suffuses the Calvinism in Byron. Indeed, what makes his gothic nihilism naive is his bias for Calvinistic naturalism. Although such naturalism forswears the customary faith in divine providence, Byron's gothic corpus does conjure up Calvinistic imagery of seminal error, hidden guilt, cosmic corruption, erotic trespass, conspicuous atonement and fate. Byron's naturalistic prejudices inflame the pessimism of stock Calvinism while smothering its theology. Likewise, his gothic art reflects the impassioned sincerity of sentimentality while extinguishing sentimental elements of metaphysical idealism, optimism, benevolence, innocence, choice and love. What distinguishes Byron's naive nihilism, then, is the level to which it rebels against sentimentalism but obeys naturalism.

The knowledgeable nihilism of Byron's burlesque poem Don Juan, however, deliberately blots out naturalism, Calvinism and sentimental sincerity, as well as all the other Western worldviews. As discussed in my dissertation, Born for Opposition, all the major Ideologies -- Roman Catholicism, Calvinistic Protestantism, platonism or rationalism, chivalry or heroics, sentimentalism or liberalism, and naturalism -- are subverted in Don Juan.

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