Colorado Mountain College
Desire, by definition, is mediated, imitative, and mimetic. At the core of identity and indeed of being itself lie the dual demands to be recognized and to be imitated. These are just some of the premises of Eric Gans and René Girard, and the insightful literary study these two thinkers have inspired, Lord Byron and the History of Desire. Byron is a provocative choice: while the “Byronic hero” is usually typified by defiant autonomy, even solipsistic self-adulation, Ian Dennis reveals just how important the roles of mediation, interplay, and the desires of—and for—others are in Byron’s oeuvre.
Since Gans and Girard form the book’s conceptual apparatus, a heavily theoretical introduction to the book’s eight chapters helps to adumbrate the pair’s contributions to the history of desire. That history emerges from certain “imitative processes,” in which “models” act and “subjects” perceive (14). Other key terms include “external mediation,” used to denote the influence of models that exist apart from interpersonal rivalry and, by contrast, “internal mediation,” whereby a more accessible influence can be imitated, even rivaled to the point of violence (17).
From there, Dennis plunges into works as diverse as the closet tragedy Cain and Don Juan, perhaps Byron’s most personal work, begun in 1818. If the first canto of Don Juan concludes with an appeal to the public in the form of an advertisement, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, argues Dennis, are even earlier efforts to promote the reader’s dependence on an authorial model. As Jerome McGann has noted, the geographical place being described in Byron’s travelogue pales in comparison to how the poem’s speaker experiences that locale for himself. What the two cantos gave to the marketplace at the time of their publication in 1812 was more than the suffering and melancholia characteristic of the Byronic hero. Instead, Dennis asserts that the cantos are a “remarkable innovation in internal mediation,” as they market Byron’s unique impression of those far-off places, places where no English traveler had gone before (48). From this internality, Chapter 2 turns to the externality of Byron’s reverence for nature. Because Nature cannot be rivaled, the best a Byronic ego can do is model himself upon nature through partnership. In the parlance of Girard, Nature remains an external mediator because it is indifferent to human desire.
“Partnership” shades into darker dependency in Chapter 3, where Dennis argues that Byron’s popular Eastern tales are powered by the author’s fantasies of victimization. In The Giaour, Dennis finds that desire “takes a beating,” as the poem’s hero suffers the loss of his Leila and dies pathetically in a monastery (65). The Corsair, meanwhile, dramatizes an equally destructive love triangle in which heroes pursue women already taken, and wind up massacred as a result. In brief, lovers need rivals—though Dennis stops short of deploying Sedgwickian triangulation as another theoretical tool. He does, however, pay close attention to characters like Alp in The Siege of Corinth, and Hugo in Parisina, forced as they are into symmetrical relations leading to self-immolation. Moreover, these men implicate their audience in the spectacle of their sufferings. Such appeals to readerly desire also hold Dennis’ critical eye in the brief Chapter 4, which couples Byron’s “Prometheus” with “The Prisoner of Chillon” (both composed in 1816). Again, Dennis pursues the rhetoric of victimhood in these works, specifically the way in which Byron subjects his readers to his own projections. Prometheus, that familiar Romantic symbol, is portrayed by Byron as God’s enviable rival who, alongside the Prisoner, models sublime forms of altruism.