Byron Journal – Academia and Byron’s Sexuality

I subscribe to the Byron Journal which is a bi-annual publication of The Byron Society. It is a somewhat strange mixture of extremely academic articles (especially most of the lengthy book review section), reports from various conferences and Byron societies around the world, and articles on various Byron related matters.

Although some of the articles, and reviews, I find so jargon-ridden as to be almost unreadable, there are always a couple of well-written, thought-provoking items. And I do like scanning the academic articles because it provides a fascinating glimpse into a closed world – something which I have also encountered, if to a much lesser degree, at Byron Conferences. All this is perfectly understandable: these are people whose careers and livelihoods depend on being published and gaining recognition within their own community. It therefore makes sense that they should acquiesce in the rules and forms of that community. I do not mean that they all agree with each other – that is certainly not one of the rules and forms of the community; indeed disagreements of a certain sort are encouraged. Moreover some members of the community have either acquired such seniority or are no longer dependant on it for a living that they can ignore these rules and forms. But the regrettable part of this is that it can take Byron entirely away from a general readership. That ground is then left open for absurd popularisers to spread their various misconceptions. A flagrant example of the latter was demonstrated by a discussion I heard on Radio 3 (Radio 3! what is the world coming to? I feel very old-fogeyish) on 9th August, a large part of which was to devoted to vampirism and a contention that Byron’s chief interest lay in the fact that some of the Oriental protagonists paved the way for The Twilight Saga! A discussion of Byron on the supposedly most intelligent radio network in Britain in which Don Juan was not mentioned. There should surely be room for comprehensible clear discussion of Byron (or indeed any other literary figure) involving neither academic obscurantism nor misleading popularising? But despite this I enjoy a limited amount of dipping into the former which the Byron Journal provides me with. It is like being present at a party or social gathering where one feels everyone else knows what is going on except oneself (a not unknown sensation for me!). The language is the main part of this game and it is fascinating to observe the buzz words of the day. Currently one such is ‘liminal’. Given the shadowy (sorry for slight pun) definition of this word (take a look at the Wikipedia discussion of liminality at – an article which in Wikipedia’s delightful terms has ‘multiple issues’!) it is no wonder that it so useful: it sounds extremely good and if challenged it would always be possible to find a way of justifying its use. I am not being over-critical – indeed I think I shall see if I can introduce it into my own discourse – but I think there are many occasions on which a simpler and more direct word would be better if one were aiming for clarity and a general readership. Another example of this is mimetic. To quote Wikipedia this time….

Mimesis (Ancient Greekμίμησις from μιμεῖσθαι) is a critical and philosophical term that carries a wide range of meanings, which include: imitation, representation, mimicry, imitatio, nonsensuous similarity, the act of resembling, the act of expression, and the presentation of the self.[1] Mimesis has been theorised by Plato, Aristotle, Philip Sidney, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Erich Auerbach, Luce Irigaray, René Girard, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Michael Taussig, Merlin Donald, Paul Ricoeur,[citation needed] and Homi Bhabha.

One can certainly see why this is beloved in the academic community! However there are times when it would be far better to just say imitation.

My biggest problem with some of the articles – and I emphasise some – is when they display a lack of enthusiasm; when it does seem as if the only reason the person writing about Byron (or indeed whoever) is doing so, not because they love the poet or poetry, but because it is their job. If this is really true – and I find it hard to believe although perhaps I am being utterly idealistic – then my suggestion is that they are in the wrong job. Whatever the case when this happens it is very off-putting to the Byron amateur.

I should emphasise that there are many writers, critics and academics for whom the foregoing does not apply and whose commentaries and explications are a source of great pleasure and vastly add to my knowledge and insight.

And one of these produces the best item in this edition (Volume 38, Number 1, 2010) of the Journal, Emily Bernhard Jackson, whose article ‘Least Like Saints:The Vexed Issue of Byron’s Sexuality’  is a version of the paper that she gave at the Byron and Women (and Men) conference in2009. I wrote of this (see that it was the most entertaining paper of the Conference, as well as thought-provoking and it was good to be able to read it at leisure. It is clear, cogent and very well-argued. I remain slightly unconvinced, partly because of my own personal bee-in-the-bonnet about depression and the way this interacts with sexuality (see my comments in the previous article), but also because of an assertion which I had not noticed when listening  to the article (it is always easier to spot things when reading). Jackson affirms that, working from Freud’s differentiation of sexual object from sexual aim, that ‘Byron had neither sexual object nor sexual aim. He did not particularly care who his partners were, and he did not particularly care what he did with them’. Now I quite see how Jackson establishes the first point in respect of sexual object; my small caveat is to ask what the evidence is of the latter? The problem with this is that evidence is always going to be difficult. One of the vague allegations or innuendos made by his wife was, I seem to recall, that he liked or attempted anal intercourse (and it was that I think which was actually against the law rather than homosexuality per se?). But the truth is that we may not actually know what his sexual aim was. Jackson suggest that his ‘goal’ was ‘badness’ – any non-normative sex ‘sex with boys, sex with those of the lower classes, sex with his sister’. But if this is so – and I am not at all sure that sex with lower class women was non-normative for English aristocrats of the period – would he have not experimented with sadomasochism (which albeit not identified by that name of course was well-known in mid-late 18thc London – specialists in the art appearing in the infamous Harris’s List) for instance? I wonder in fact if Byron ever knew, or was aware of, de Sade? I am not really suggesting any alternative interpretations, and Jackson’s seem to me to carry far more weight and cogency than any other I have read, but I do think there remain unanswered questions; questions which by their nature will probably remain forever unanswered. Anyone interested in Byron’s sexuality should read this compelling article though.

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