Like many other great works of Romantic literature, Don Juan finds human caring to be a source of life and makes it an object of contemplation; like Blake’s lyrics and visions, like the poetry of Wordsworth’s decade, or Coleridge’s ballad, Byron’s mock-epic cares about caring.
Looking for criticism on the topic, I came to Erik Gray’s study of nineteenth-century British poetry, The Poetry of Indifference, but found it was not what I needed, owing to his opposing indifference to emotional investment or intensity. Care, somewhat oddly, appears but does not feature centrally in his study.
I will return to Gray shortly, because he does have something to say about Don Juan, but I first need to introduce a philosophical remark, by Richard Moran, which led be to consider care in Byron’s poem:
By contrast, and however much a matter of necessitation for the person, caring remains an intentionally directed attitude of the person and as such is an expression of his or her responsiveness to reasons, which in the broadest sense means responsiveness to the multiplicity of the ways the world can be and can matter to us. This multiplicity is not restricted to the true and the good, or the inferential relations between beliefs. For example, finding something bizarre or amusing is one such way the world can appear to us, and laughter is one such response. The fact that we cannot either come to care about something or find something funny by “fiat” does not show that these are anything like passive non-intentional states such as headaches or ringing in the ears. It rather shows the contrary, that caring and finding funny belong to the world of rational agency along with (but of course quite different from) belief, and unresponsive to “fiat” for the same sorts of reasons as belief is. Laughter itself is not a form of judgment, and is not the sort of thing that is arrived at as the conclusion of some reasoning. Nor is laughter typically voluntarily produced. But nor is laughter like coughing, or anything else genuinely passive and non-cognitive. One basic difference between the is that laughter, but not coughing, is occasioned by ‘understanding’ (italics) something. In learning what is or what is not capable of making someone laugh and how (i.e., whether bitterly, mockingly, ruefully, etc), we learn something about what they care about, and what kind of caring is in question. A person bears a distinctive form of answerability for what he cares about or what makes him laugh, which shows up in the fact that a distinctive form of the question “why?” applies to both, different from the question of what made someone cough, and we typically take the person himself to be the singularly relevant person to ask why he laughed or why he cares these ways because these are expressions of his own point of view. These are aspects of a person’s active nature, though not in the sense of arbitrary choice or the exertion of control, and the role of reasons here does not relate to proof or demonstration but to the specific forms of intelligibility and self-intelligibility in the domain in question.
The nub, the strong hook, of this rich passage: “Laughter as caring.” But Moran hangs a great deal from that hook, not least of which is the insight that laughter is a caring that, without being passive, is in some sense involuntary; it is an involuntary revelation of the roots of our caring.
But as Byron knew, it might also be an involuntary revelation of our core indifference, our heartlessness.
When we are made to laugh, we are tickled; and laughter is an extension of the tickling we experience as children in this also: it can be a source of embarrassment and pain, our not wanting to feel that way, to react that way, just then. But with laughter, it is not the web of nerves, but the web of our beliefs that is being stimulated, revealed as something over which we might have less control than we would like. At some age, children grow ashamed of being tickled; I wonder whether it coincides with the growth of their sense of moral selfhood.
The responsibility then lands at the feet of the tickler–the comedian–who is asked why they would provoke in such a way. They, after all, are acting voluntarily.
We can understand, therefore, the purported violence with which Keats responded to Byron’s poem. In an account twenty five years after the fact, Severn recalls Keats, on his journey to Italy, as he neared the end of his life, throwing down Byron’s poem in disgust, thinking especially of the shipwreck and cannibalism scene and exclaiming: (I transcribe from Andrew Motion’s biography, with modernized spelling):
This gives me the most horrid idea of human nature, that a man like Byron should have exhausted all the pleasures of the world so completely that there was nothing left for him but to laugh and gloat over the most solemn and heart-rending scenes of human misery; this storm of his is one of the most diabolical attempts ever made upon our sympathies, and I have no doubt it will fascinate many into extreme obduracy of heart–the tendency of Byron’s poetry is based on a paltry originality, that of being new by making solemn things gay and gay things solemn.
Erik Gray comments on a selection from this, though he does not remind the reader that Keats’ remark was reported second-hand, years after the event (he cites a page in the Rollins letters; my copy of the Rollins letters has no corresponding quotation):
There are two different accusations here. The first is that Byron is “laughing” at his castaways (which is just conceivable), “gloating” over their pain (which is a far more dubious claim), and trying to attack our “sympathies.” The second claim is that Byron’s narrative will seduce the reader to a state of indifference. The former is one of the standard charges that had always been brought against Byron, though these reached new heights after the publication of “Don Juan”—accusations of pride, blasphemy, and libertinism. But the latter point is more perceptive and unusual: what disturbs the reader of canto II is not so much what the narrator says as what he omits. Keats projects the laughing and gloating because even that would be less disturbing than the narrator’s unnerving evenhandedness, as in the famous couplet:
They grieved for those who perished in the cutter,
And also for the biscuit casks and butter.
These verses were singled out by the Blackwood’s reviewer; yet they are remarkable not for what they say (that the castaways grieve for the lost food) but the distinction they fail to make. They disturb us by unemphatically refusing to meet our expectation that the narrative will register death in some special fashion.
What I would add to Gray’s commentary is that Keats, in a portion of the remark that he excludes, blames Byron not only for the indifference that he might instill into others, but also because for the indifference that drives him to make his attempt: he is horrified that Byron has “exhausted all the sources of pleasure in the world so entirely,” feeling that his having done so has led him to find humor in the tragic scene.
I would also point to the word “fascinate” near the end of Keats’ remark as Severn delivers it. Whether it is Keats’ remark in whole, or partially his and partially a construction of Severn’s mind, that word returns us to Byron’s own exhaustion: Byron asks us to be fascinated by the scene because he has no better source of fascination.
The trouble for Keats is that Byron’s elected mode of fascination is laughter: Byron’s and the reader’s. The laughter of the scene becomes for Byron, a way of caring about the world–but it is a way of caring that is indifferent to what it apprehends. The laughter that Byron indulges and elicits, Keats worries, cares carelessly.
Here, I think, is the contradiction upon which Byron’s poem stands: that the indifference to the world may be combatted by humor and the capacity to laugh at it–but that laughter itself might prompt, after that brief illumination of existence, a hardening of the heart, or a reduction of the world into something to be cared about, without being cared for: the world solely as a means for laughter.
But truer to Byron’s poem, I think, is his recognition that laughter might allow us to see the world as an end in itself, even as it is also a means for sustaining the fascination that laughter represents.
And perhaps Keats worries not that hearts will harden from laughter, but that they will reveal themselves as already obdurately hard–in which case Byron does laugh and gloat, but not only over the scene, but over his readers whose laughter is indifferent, rather than caring.
The point–to attempt a more direct line of attack after what feel like tightening circles–is that laughter is a jolt to the system that might succeed in reviving care for the world or in establishing, conclusively, that care is dead.
Indifference and care can take various forms, and do in the works of the great poets of Byron’s time. For Wordsworth, indifference was a turning-away, a failure of the sympathetic imagination–care being sympathy. For Blake, indifference was cruel hypocrisy and deluded repression of natural instincts–care was love. But for neither Wordsworth nor Blake, any more than for Byron, was care a simple matter: for Wordsworth, the sympathetic imagination can prove woefully inadequate, can be a source of misapprehension, exacerbate distance, exhaust itself, or presume; for Blake, the pity that is proper to love might be instead a pity that complacently substitutes itself for more radical and active efforts at social change. To say that they write poems about care is to say that they write poems about the threats to care from without, but also from within: from the conditions that make care possible in the first place.
For Byron, indifference is supremely a matter of boredom, and here again Keats is astute, recognizing that the poem presents, dramatically and self-consciously, a form of ennui that suggests the world’s pleasures have been exhausted; the poem does not celebrate consumption, but it shows us, repeatedly, how little satisfaction is found despite the endless consumption that the world affords. It is not difficult to imagine why Keats, himself exhausted, and dying of consumption, might be disgusted at the poem; his response is humanly honest.
But Keats’ response was also necessarily limited. Not least in the assumption that Byron was laughing while writing those lines. Though it is possible, and all too easy, to imagine a comedic poet joining in on the laughter, as any regular viewer of Saturday Night Live, stand-up, or improv knows, the fact of ‘breaking’ and indulging in the laugh with the audience, soon cuts off the source of laughter. More pertinent to Byron’s poem, as any who have been deeply bored know (who hasn’t? who doesn’t?), boredom dries up the urge to laugh or to make others laugh; it must be overcome by some source of energy before laughter is possible, and possibly also before tears (though I think tragedy a better cure for boredom than comedy).
Boredom, Adam Phillips observes, “contains the most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” And Phillips goes on, describing the boredom of a child, though such boredom is not distant from the boredom of adolescence or adulthood, both of which are Byron’s in Don Juan. Especially pertinent seems to be the following anecdote that Phillips offers:
A boy of eight referred for being “excessively greedy and always bored,” said to me in the first session, “if I eat everything I won’t have to eat anymore.” This could have meant several things, but for him it meant then that if he could eat everything he would no longer need to be hungry. One magical solution, of course, to the problem of having been tantalized is to have no desire. For this boy greed was, among other things, an attack on the desiring part of the self, a wish to get to his end of this appetite and finish it once and for all…But for this desolate child greed was a form of self-cure for a malign boredom that continually placed him on the threshold of an emptiness, a lack, that he couldn’t bear; an emptiness in which his own idiosyncratic, unconscious desire lurked as a possibility. When I asked him if he was ever lonely, he said that he was “too bored to be lonely.”
Phillips’ words offer an opportunity to reappraise the poles around which Byron’s poem spins: the boredom that is indifference and the laughter that might stimulate a form of caring.
As laughter might revive but also reveal the failure of caring, so boredom might lead one to exhaust one’s appetite for and fascination with the world, or else to deem the world unbearably inadequate to appetite and fascination. Being bored might mean preferring not to need to care, having exhausted all that might be cared about–and such a preference might derive from an underlying fear that nothing will be up to the care that can be offered.
In a reduced form, the two poles of Byron’s poem can be presented, each with its own tension:
Caring Revealed as Dead
Desire to exhaust the world (and so not have to care)
Rejection of the world (as not worth caring for)
It should be apparent why laughter serves as a litmus whereas tears do not; why comedy does what tragedy does not: tears do not reveal caring to be dead, any more than the absence of tears reveal caring to be dead. There is no physical response to tragedy as there is to comedy: the latter demands a bodily response, a provocation to laughter, at least a smile. Tragedy, as Wordsworth knew, might strike too deep for tears.
Don Juan works in part because of the natural transfers between the poles: the boredom that would reject the world as not worth caring may laugh at it, and then revive caring in the process; the revival of caring may prove too much, and so move towards the desire to exhaust the world, or even to reject it; the revelation that caring is dead might provoke a rejection of the world as not working the caring in the first place, which might in turn require reinforcement by means of laughter which inadvertently revives the caring after all…
I have here only explained how Byron’s poem and the laughter of and from Byron’s poem have to do with caring. I have not said much about the laughter that is in the poem’s language. That, another time.