Byron and the Academy

The Newstead Abbey Byron Review is published annually, and consists mainly of papers which have been given at various Byron conferences in the preceding year, book reviews and a few pieces which appear to have been specially written for the Review. The 2010 edition contains quite a lot of interest to the Byron enthusiast. I was personally most taken by two pieces, one for positive and one for negative reasons.

 For positive reasons there was a fascinating analysis of the use made of Byron in Greece during the critical year of 1974, by both supporters and opponents of military junta, in a piece entitled Reading Byron in Modern Greek History: The Year 1974 by Maria Schoina who demonstrates how “Byron was tailored to meet the needs of the times”.

At the negative end there is a viciously critical review of a book by Ghislaine McDayter called Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture (2009). The review is uncredited (which I consider a bad practice) so I do not know who is responsible. Now there is much in the lengthy and detailed criticism which seems justified, but this is somewhat obscured and negated by the grumpy old man tone, which is so emphasised that one wonders at times if it is ironic. However this reaches its climax at the review’s conclusion. A quote from the book is offered….

…… what drives this insistence upon a rigid distinction between academic study and ‘middlebrow’ consumption is the fact that academics have a personal investment in its maintenance: it is after all what enables us to ‘exert cultural authority over others’. The academy is notoriously reluctant to relinquish control over what Pierre Bourdieu has famously termed ‘cultural capital’. I would like to insist that there is a libidinal as well as a cultural economy in the academic maintenance of the great divide. What has been deliberately excised from this discussion is the presence of critical desire in the processes of ‘serious scholarship’. In order to explain why Paul West has to sound so apologetic for liking Byron, we have to understand why thinking and desiring have been so insistently separated.

Now as one of those ‘middlebrow’ consumers looking at ‘the academy’ I feel this is an enormously valuable explanatory passage. Our Grumpy Old Man (of course I a making a sexist assumption here – it could be a Grumpy Old Woman: I can only say it feels like a GOM!) not only rejects the thesis but appears to wholly misunderstand it…..

I haven’t observed that, in the world outside universities, academics ever exerted any cultural authority, or that they controlled any cultural capital at all – not even Jonathan Bate is that powerful. So whether or not, as a result of Ghislaine McDayter’s arguments, they feel it necessary to descend into the marketplace and advertise their ‘critical desire’, will make no difference. In the world of twenty-first century fandom, our critical gurus will still be Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and Rupert Everett.

Let us try to analyse this really quite spectacularly offensive and wrong-headed piece of invective. I will start from my understanding of McDayter’s argument (which would not seem particularly in need of hermeneutic analysis): she argues that academia has a personal interest in maintaining a ‘rigid distinction’ between academic ‘study’ and middlebrow ‘consumption’ of a particular text, and that this personal interest is based on the assertion that academic study is a superior way of approaching Byron (or any other author but I will use Byron as we are talking of him); an academic approach is privileged over other approaches. Part of that approach is to ‘deliberately excise’ desire – liking, love for the poet. This would smack too much of the opposed middlebrow approach and therefore academics are embarrassed to talk of it.  McDayter is not arguing, and nowhere says, anything about ‘descending into the marketplace’ ; what she is contending, in perfectly plain terms as far as I can tell, is that academic scholarship harms itself and descends into sterile aridity when it refuses to admit desire and liking.

My own experience is that there is some considerable truth in what McDayter says. I should say instantly that there are many notable exceptions, people whose love for Byron (or Trollope or whoever) shines through their critical discourse. And it is, without exception, they who provide the greater insights and are infinitely more worth reading, and from whom I, non-academic as I am, manage to gain a great deal. I have always been confused about those who spend their life studying someone whom they do not appear to like. Why the hell do it then? (to be very middlebrow!). Can’t they find some writer they do like and study them? Or are they a kind of species of intellectual misanthrope or masochist whose pleasure is derived from immersing themselves in something they dislike? Certainly it is true to say that for the middlebrow the idea of giving up ones time to studying a writer one does not like seems foolish and spendthrift – we have limited time and there are so many books.

McDayter’s argument however, as I understand it, is not with the middlebrows at all ; it is with the academy. Now GOM’s assertion that academics have never ‘exerted any cultural authority’ is a manifest absurdity. Simon Schama and David Starkey (although I like neither) are just two examples of academics who wield enormous (indeed far too much!) cultural authority (in the UK anyway; I have no idea what the US situation is). In the last century in the field of literature, and coming from very different ideological positions, F.R. Leavis and Raymond Williams, are just two examples which spring to mind of academics who again wielded enormous ‘cultural authority’. The question then would be why no academics in the field of literature (unlike history) currently wield ‘cultural authority’? And I think McDayter puts her finger on an absolutely key component of the answer. The ‘middlebrow’ is not likely to be enticed by anyone who evinces a lack of enthusiasm (as both Starkey and Schama in their own way do). This is not about popularising, if by that is meant the kind of vapid dumbing-down of which I have recently written (see ). Obviously it does demand a wish to be clear rather than to wrap oneself in the current jargon; call a threshold a threshold (if that is what you mean)! But much more importantly it demands an enthusiasm, a desire. To explain clearly that ‘I love Byron’s (or whoever’s) poetry because of X,Y or Z’. It does not appear to me that this is too much to ask, nor that it in any way compromises scholarship. That, as I read it, is the point McDayter makes ; the gap between academic and middlebrow is not so enormous; or at least should not be so enormous, because there should be the solid link of desire.

As for GOM’s references to Ross, Brand and Everett, one can only say that at this point he is tipping into self-satire. To explain for non-UK residents. Jonathan Ross is a chat show host and Russell Brand a comedian who together played a very unpleasant hoax which backfired. They have nothing to do with Byron other than the fact that Brand affected something of a ‘Byronic’ pose and went in for massive hell-raising in his younger days. The entire Ross/Brand furore was a 9-day wonder and anyone reading GOM in even 5 years time will have no idea what he is talking about. In fact for all his hauteur about popular culture it is he who has fallen victim to its illusions! Rupert Everett ‘starred’ in a documentary about Byron in July 2009. I wrote at the time….

In many ways Rupert Everett’s take on Byron – The Scandalous Life of Lord Byron – was a tosh documentary. But it succeeded as a result of Everett’s very considerable charm. His take on Byron was basically that he was a version of Rupert Everett, and I think there is probably just enough of the tiniest tincture of truth about this to enable the programme to work. Certainly Byron as poseur, self-publicist and hedonist was clearly brought out. Of course it was in many ways a travesty – notably in the almost complete absence of any of the poetry, let alone serious consideration of it. But it was hard even for such a Byronist as myself to object. The ‘scene’ in which Everett attended a posh Embassy party in Istanbul and went around relating to everyone Byron’s description of the vices in London as ‘drinking and whoring’ and those in Constantinople as ‘sherbet and sodomy’ was a gem slowly revealed as the shots of horrified and non-comprehending faces accumulated.

There was nothing really to object to here because no serious claims were made. Certainly I am absolutely certain that no-one took Everett to be a ‘cultural guru’ on the basis of the programme: that idea is just GOM becoming caught-up with his rhetoric and assumed fogeyness.

I have had some fun with this, but hope I have shown how absurd and misplaced GOM’s argument is. The sadness is that actually engaging with McDayter’s arguments could be genuinely constructive. They have certainly helped me to clarify some things in my mind and explain some of the things I have seen, heard and read in my encounters with current day academia.

The very best thing about this issue of the NABR, however, is its front cover which shows a quotation from The Giaour affixed to the gate of the Gdansk shipyard in 1980: the particular verse, in Polish, reads…

For Freedom’s battle once begun,

Bequeathed by bleeding Sire to Son,

Though baffled oft is ever won

and if when seeing that your heart does not leap, then all I can say is give up reading or talking about Byron and find some other subject, whether you are academic or middlebrow!

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