An answer to the question, “Why does Don Juan incite laughter?” will not take the form of verbal criticism, because verbal criticism, the close analysis of language, will murder the life of the jokes by dissection even as it succeeds in revealing what cognitive elements the jokes arrange and order.
The question needs to be approached differently, and I’ve made notes towards doing so: but the product itself would need to be something else, akin to the phenomenological criticism produced by the Geneva School, perhaps. That in turn depends on attention to the text first and foremost, but the space for speculation and meditative acrobatics it affords is broader. Its answer to the question will resemble a description of Byron’s subjectivity, his relationship to world and others, as it is known through the text.
The answer is why the Byron-of-the-poem would have the desire to incite, and possibly participate in, laughter, and one thought is that he would do so because of laughter’s relationship to caring: it may be a form of caring, it may awaken new caring, it may confirm the absence of care, or it may reveal, to one’s horror, that one does not care. Byron’s poem is a satire, and a satire depends on a mixture of all of these things; the world does not care enough; the satire would reveal that to the world; but the satire would change things if it could, would ask that others care, would perhaps touch those who do care; and those who laugh at a satire might, if they know it to be a satire, and critical, feel that their laughter is itself a form of caring about the same as the satire’s author.
Where Don Juan’s laughter differs from that of other satires, where it resembles perhaps more a comedy, is in its being tempered by, moving from, and always encountering the inertia of Byron’s immense boredom. I quoted yesterday Adam Phillips, who draws attention to boredom frustrating us on account of its being a desire to desire; we might say that differently, pointing out that boredom is frustrating because when bored we care that we do not care about what is in front of us; we may resent the world for not providing us with anything worth our care. It is not a feeling that we are, like a melancholic, like a depressive, like one suffering from acedie, incapable of caring; when bored, we blame the world and not ourselves, even if we are told as Berryman is, by the recalled voice of a parental figure, in the Dream Songs (an heir to the formal stanzaic inventiveness of Byron’s poem) that to admit one is bored is to admit that one has no inner resources (I admit it, he admits).
Boredom then entails blame–the world is failing me in some way, or the world has failed me in some way, if I have been made unable to appreciate what is before me. If I were melancholic, the fault would like within me; but being bored, the lack of interest in the natural world would be the world’s fault. Of course, a melancholic will not see it that way necessarily, and might stir in anger against what is lacking, when others would diagnose what he lacks. The dividing line,then, cannot be drawn absolutely from the perspective of the melancholic or bored figure; but from the perspective of a work of literature, it can be–a work can diagnose melancholy, investigate depression, take that as face value a true state of affairs (Berryman’s poem does not blame the world, really), or else it can assume the perspective that the boredom is valid, that the boredom of the world is failing the person who is bored.
That is Byron’s perspective in Don Juan, and it is open to the charge that Keats brings against it: that it is pathetic to claim that all of the joys of life have been exhausted. In Severn’s recollection what Keats exclaimed was: “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.”
That Keats’ charge may be more specific to who and what Byron was, and that Byron knew that his readers would know it, is also to the point of the poem: “a man like Byron,” a man who, though exiled from British society (and Keats did not know that Byron would end the poem by pillorying it), has the immense mobility and opportunity to consume so wide a variety of the world’s possibilities and pleasures, owing to his Lordship, to his celebrity, to his mobility; this is not to say that Byron is not to be pitied, that his life was without hardship, but the hardships of his life are not readily assimilable to the idea that he was deprived of what might be most fascinating, rich, and captivating in the world; what Keats might have preferred was a Byron who looked inwards more seriously to consider whether the failings of ennui were to be found in his own outlook.
Byron, of course, rejects such a course, with dramatic flair: whenever he takes up his inner failings, or his altered, mid-age state of mind, or his scarred past, his tone is flippant, his poetry conspicuously plodding, and his boredom thickens; he drops it, returning to Juan’s adventures. He does so knowing full well that Wordsworth’s great poetry had pursued it (that his earlier sentimentally-inclined verse had done so even). It is not pig-headed or principled only, though it might have been the latter in part, but a matter of the scope of Byron’s satire that it would insist that the world is not enough.
When Byron inspires laughter, it is not only because he gloats over the suffering of the world, but because he expects that the laughter he inspires will be directed at his own sense of boredom; in the comedic dramatization of his boredom, he finds at least some interest–he can care that others care about him, or he can allow the poem to include within itself a judgment that its ground is too narrow to sustain all of life, at the same time as it would claim, in its cycles of perpetual invention, to being able to do just that.
The poem is a comedy as much as a satire because the laughter is directed both at the world that Byron reveals and at the vantage point that Byron occupies; Pope and Swift, though not immune to criticism, are never really the objects of derisive laughter; they are not the ones who need correcting. Byron, ever so bored, does.
Perhaps the poem stands out in the English tradition for this: it is a satire that targets its own ground without discrediting its own observations and aim. The world is too boring for Byron–and he is to be criticized for it; but the boredom is shown to be valid, at least partially just, because, in bringing us to laugh at a world that has failed to inspire him to care, he discovers care afresh:
Famine, despair, cold, thirst, and heat had done
Their work on them by turns, and thinned them to
Such things a mother had not known her son
Amidst the skeletons of that gaunt crew.
By night chilled, by day scorched, thus one by one
They perished, until withered to these few,
But chiefly by a species of self-slaughter,
In washing down Pedrillo with salt water. (II. 102)
Like many other readers, I take the ship-wreck scene to be the high point of the poem; Eric Griffiths has traced out the dense intricacy of allusion to Dante in the stanzas, but it is not the fact of allusion but the solemnity that Byron finds in it, and that he sets against, astride, the itch to laugh amid tragic suffering, which yields the novel strength of the poetry.
Even here, Byron is bored, and so wants to laugh and to have us laugh; but a crucial specification needs to be made to what is meant by Byron’s boredom-at-the-world, for it is not right or fair to say that Byron is bored by the pain of those shipwrecked. He does not, that is, laugh at them to entertain himself; it is truer to say that he is bored at the ways available to him for thinking of, representing, talking about those in the shipwreck. He is bored with the world-as-it-imagines-itself for him.
To say so is to put Byron in very near vicinity with the melancholic, whose imagination is to blame, and not the world. But the essential principle of Don Juan is the one that, far from being post-modern, is distinctly modern, the product perhaps of the age of gazettes and accelerated media, or perhaps of an earlier time, or perhaps of a time that extends before modernity: that the world is imagined on our behalves, that we cannot distinguish our interest in the world, or lack of interest in the world, from the language, signs, systems of representation, language, etc, etc, so that our capacity to see the world is only so good as what the world lets us see. For Byron, these are all to blame for failing to captivate his care sufficiently; he is numb to the world because the world is numb to itself.
Byron takes the position to extremes, and that is where the satire becomes comedy; that is where he cuts the ground out from beneath his feet; because his implicit claim about the world is realized in the stanzaic inventiveness and verbal play that suggests that he is not without agency or entirely bereft of autonomy in his approach to what is presented to him. But the joke of the poem is also that his ingenuity and play is demanded if he is to find a way to care about the world at all in some cases, or to reveal that the world is not worth caring about in others; which is why the poetry is thick with cant, cliche, truism. He needs to bring these close together, to adopt them, if he is going to find a way through them, or show them up, or gloat when they ring hollow.
The joke at Pedrillo’s expense does not take Pedrillo’s life as cheap; it takes as cheap the ways in which Byron might have been expected to swoon; nothing he says in the lines is false, and the report he offers would only be judged cold or callous if one were to neglect the gravity that he can summon by the allusions to Dante, by the slowed turns of enjambment and the approach to sentimentality which he curtails. The world would make Pedrillo’s death so boring that Byron could not care; he is doing what he can, laughing with pity, to find a way to do so, and also, so as to offer us a cake and being eaten in it too, asking that we laugh (with occasional pity, occasional mild horror) at him for not being able to do any better.