Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism
Byron and Romantic Occidentalism
Colin Jager, Rutgers University
For comments on this paper, many thanks to Orrin Wang, to the anonymous reader for Romantic Circles Praxis, and to audiences at Berkeley and Columbia.
1. See, of course, Said. As Marilyn Butler has detailed in her important essay "The Orientalism of Byron's Giaour," however, Byron's Orientalism was always more material and specific than that form of it analyzed by Said. "Whatever the East came afterwards to represent as an abstraction . . . in English culture of the Napoleonic war period it is also the site of a pragmatic contest among the nations for world power." It is also, as Butler's essay describes, a way for Byron to advance his ongoing literary battle with Robert Southey (Butler 306).
2. Compare Bilgrami, "Secularism, Nationalism, and Modernity" (1998). It seems to me that Bilgrami's position on modernity has shifted somewhat between this essay and his "Occidentalism" essay eight years later.
3. In putting matters this way it might seem that I have fallen into the Byronic trap of taking expressions of fidelity too seriously. Maybe the joke is on the naïve reader, who fails to see that for the Byronic hero all objects of desire are basically equivalent. For an explication of this point see Christensen. To some extent, Christensen's approach represents a challenge to my approach in this essay. What I would say briefly in response is that the Giaour's fidelity is an intensely serious parody, and so that the point of such parody is that we take fidelity seriously, and don't take it seriously, simultaneously. I hope that this is not unlike Christensen's point that to write oppositionally Byron had to write against Byronism itself.
4. For a contemporary example of just this process, see Saba Mahmood's discussion of a U.S. government program called Muslim World Outreach, which seeks to identify and support moderate, pro-democratic Islamic reformers. Mahmood writes: "The core problem from the perspective of U.S. analysts is not militancy itself but interpretation, insomuch as the interpretive act is regarded as the foundation of any religious subjectivity and therefore the key to its emancipation or secularization" (Mahmood 329).
5. Though I do not dwell here on The Giaour as a fragment, I find support for my reading in Marjorie Levinson's description of the work done by the Romantic Fragment Poem: "Insofar as the RFP cannot be objectified, determined, hence depleted by any one reading (including the author's), the form prevents the reader from appropriating the poet in a vulgar way, as the provider of definable goods or services. The fragment, which keeps its own inviolate retirement, conceals both the source of the poet's/poem's power to shadow forth a magnitude, and the method by which this power is implicated" (Levinson 209).
6. The link between Byron and Brooks may seem odd, given the New Criticism's hostility toward romanticism. In my judgment, the evident similarity between their models of close reading is enough to make the comparison stick; however, two other justifications may be offered. First, Brooks's celebration of paradox over orthodoxy evinces a wariness of religiously-inspired confidence, and a similar faith in the ability of literary language to re-direct its worst effects, that would shortly be taken up by romantic humanists like Abrams; the socio-historical context for both critical movements—post-war anomie, the developing cold war, religious ecumenicism—are the same. Second, it may be that Byron's amenablility to Brooksian close reading provides us with another way into the often-remarked fact that Byron is an odd sort of romantic writer. It is no coincidence, surely, that Abrams essentially leaves him out of Natural Supernaturalism. Taken together, these two justifications begin to suggest how Byron both is and is not romantic in the sense constructed by post-war humanism: his faith in the literary partakes of the same spirit and yet remains, somehow, different.
7. Christensen makes the more complicated point that this moment in The Giaour both invites reading and resists it in the name of a superficial, repetitive, appropriation—what Brooks, though not Christensen, might call paraphrase. See Christensen, "Perversion," 580.
8. Let me emphasize one more time that "secular" does not mean non-religious; it simply means that which contextualizes and frames religion and thus produces "religion" as such. It is sometimes thought that New Critical close reading aims to resolve or transcend paradox, whereas I am here emphasizing that it is designed to manage it. From my perspective this is a difference that doesn't make a difference, for at the heart of the secularity I am here exploring is the idea that managing paradox just is to transcend it.
9. Bilgrami might agree with Bill Brown, who remarks in a related context that transcoding religious motivations into economic ones is "a parochial account that depends on an a priori distinction between religion and politics and on the separation of church and state" (747). Brown's target here is Slavoj Žižek.
13. Byron's poem deliberately mixes up the reading of texts and the reading of faces; these are brought together at the moment that the Giaour commands his monastic interlocutors to read his face: "She died—I dare not tell thee how, / But look, 'tis written on my brow! / There read of Cain the curse and crime, / In characters unworn by time" (1056-59).
14. For example, the history of the secular behind the "Jesus" whom Gordon's reading produces peeks out in the process by which, in her final sentence, "reading the Gospel" transforms itself into a "religious belief."