Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Race, Writing, and Don Juan

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Race, Writing, and Don Juan

Article excerpt

THERE ARE MANY WAYS IN WHICH LORD BYRON'S NARRATOR DEFENDS THE cause of slavery's abolition in Don Juan. We frequently read the speaker's pronouncements of political allegiance to the cause of William Wilberforce, the greatest parliamentary leader on behalf of abolition and the "moral Washington of Africa"; in the same vein, the speaker vilifies false Christian "bigots" who make their "pure creed" into the "sanction" for slavery's "ill." (1) In this essay, however, I want to show that Byron's opposition to slavery and the slave trade is a great deal more complicated than we might think if we were merely to take at face value the poet-narrator's claims to be "born for opposition" (15.22). While generally voicing support for abolition (a support that Byron openly expressed elsewhere), Don Juan nevertheless depends upon a subtle yet profound logic that insistently privileges the purity and beauty of white bodies. This is not because the poem merely expresses a racist ideology, but rather because its intertwined configurations of political and aesthetic value are inseparable from a self-consciously constructed racial hierarchy. Byron is fully aware of this hierarchy's artificiality, but this awareness cannot detract from the sway of race over the poem, and from the sway of race within a cultural history that the poem brilliantly and comically instantiates and endorses.

The work of David Theo Goldberg has shown how conceptions of rights (which include rights expounded upon in abolitionist discourse) have been historically inseparable from raced conceptions of the political subject. Such conceptions have aimed at discriminating between those subjects who are, and those who are not, capable of civilization and self-government. (2) Helen Heran Jun has continued this line of argument to show how even recent twentieth- and twenty-first-century views of citizenship depend upon exclusionary understandings of racial difference. (3) Such accounts, and others like them, collectively show how attempts at liberal inclusiveness depend upon still deeper inequalities; to some extent, they therefore might lead us to see why Byron's poem could appear to be politically progressive in some respects, even while it compromises or complicates its commitments in others. Still more than even these accounts allow, however, I wish to show how and why white bodies are so crucial for the poem's aesthetic project. It turns out that the crux of Byron's Don Juan--its celebrated ability to represent "life's infinite variety" (15.19)-depends upon the preeminence of white flesh. Whiteness is the ground for registering gorgeous articulations of features on the body's alabaster surfaces; whiteness is the condition for capturing the seductive altering hues that demarcate mood and solicit desire. Simultaneously, and most important, the white body is analogized at key moments to the poet-narrator's own work--printed on white "foolscap"--as if poetic composition and the raced subject were finally inseparable.

By exploring the dynamics of race in the poem's political aesthetics, I embark on a discussion that merges with a long-standing interest, among many of Byron's critics, in his political or ideological affiliations. For a few readers, Byron adheres to the most traditional of values. Malcolm Kelsall argues that, in the Whig tradition, he upholds "aristocratic oligarchy"; (4) Marilyn Butler, though acknowledging his sympathies with less conservative causes, also sees him as a "liberal" who is only "superficially rebellious." (5) The vast majority of critics take his rebellions more seriously, however. From the time of the poem's appearance, Byron and his publisher John Murray feared prosecution; it was denounced in reviews of the day for its "infidelity and licentiousness"; the pirated cantos of Don Juan appearing under the auspices of radical publishers fueled suspicions of the author's affiliation with radicals like Paine and Carlisle. (6) And recent critical opinion has essentially agreed with and updated those accounts, while of course siding with, rather than against, the author. …

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