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MARK CANUEL Race, Writing, and DonJuan T here 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 op­ position to slavery and the slave trade is a great deal more complicated than we might think ifwe were merely to take at face value the poet-narrator’s claims to be “born for opposition” (15.22). While generally voicing sup­ port 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 inter­ twined configurations ofpolitical and aesthetic value are inseparable from a self-consciously constructed racial hierarchy. Byron is fully aware ofthis hi­ erarchy’s artificiality, but this awareness cannot detract from the sway of race over the poem, and from the sway ofrace 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 sub­ jects who are, and those who are not, capable of civilization and selfgovernment .2 Helen Heran Jun has continued this line of argument to show how even recent twentieth- and twenty-first-century views of citi­ zenship depend upon exclusionary understandings of racial difference.3 1. George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, canto 14, stanza 82; canto 15, stanza 18. All references to the poem are from Jerome J. McGann, ed., Complete Poetical Works, 7 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-1993), vol. 5; hereafter cited in the text by canto and stanza. 2. Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Oxford: WileyBlackwell , 1993), 14-40. 3. Jun, Race for Citizenship: Black Orientalism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Emancipation to Neoliberal America (New York: New York University Press, 2011). SiR, 54 (Fall 2015) 303 304 MARK CANUEL Such accounts, and others like them, collectively show how attempts at lib­ eral 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 com­ plicates its commitments in others. Still more than even these accounts al­ low, 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 ofwhite flesh. Whiteness is the ground for registering gorgeous articulations of features on the body’s alabaster sur­ faces; whiteness is the condition for capturing the seductive altering hues that demarcate mood and solicit desire. Simultaneously, and most impor­ tant, the white body is analogized at key moments to the poet-narrator’s own work—printed on white “foolscap”—as ifpoetic 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 ofByron’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 conserva­ tive causes, also sees him as a “liberal” who is only “superficially rebel­ lious.”5 The vast majority of critics take his rebellions more seriously, how­ ever. From the time of the poem’s appearance, Byron and his publisher John Murray feared prosecution...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 303-328
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-13
Open Access
No
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