I sometimes wish every long poem could exasperate like Paradise Lost or The Aeneid, since the exasperation of either is owing to their containing within themselves so perfect an expression of a conflict within a poet’s mind over a matter that, to the poet, must have mattered a great deal: the nobility and inherent greatness of Rome’s mission, for Virgil, and the goodness of God for Milton. Maybe the great ones all do and it’s more difficult to see in some than in others; the conflict in Byron’s Don Juan has all of a sudden blazed forth to me after a discussion in a class I’m teaching. We proceeded from one of the perfect stanzas of the poem:
Suwarrow, who had small regard for tears
And not much sympathy for blood, surveyed
The women with their hair about their ears,
And natural agonies, with a slight shade
Of feeling; for however habit sears
Men’s hearts against whole millions when their trade
Is butchery, sometimes a single sorrow
Will touch even heroes, and such was Suwarrow.
From this stanza, the entire poem can be surveyed. Christopher Ricks says that, for him, this is “the greatest tragic moment in Don Juan,” contemplating as it does “this rising above posing and posturing.” Ricks comments: “The lines mean exactly what they say exactly. Not ‘no regard’ for tears’; not ‘so sympathy for blood’; not ‘no shade of feeling.’ Slight, no slighting. No sentimentality, and no cynicism either. With ‘regard’ coming to be seen somewhat differently when ‘surveyed’ arrives, and with ‘their hair’ and their ‘agonies’ bringing the sensation of a dispassionate yet compassionate zeugma.” With Ricks’ discerning praise in my mind, I attempted a demonstration on how pushing, Empson-ape, upon the word “small” could open a vista into the poem as a whole.
“Small” might have been “no” and the difference would have been enormous, for while “no regard” suggests an outright denunciation of Suwarrow, “small” both contemptuously, disgustedly acknowledges an impoverished capacity to feel but also grants, with a recognition that this too is a human individual, some capacity to feel. Had Byron written “little,” even, the effect would have been altered, since “little regard for tears” suggests only, solely, that Suwarrow held tears in low esteem, with the word “little,” flicking the tongue against the teeth, carrying a lordly disdain. “Small,” more than “little,” takes the measure of Suwarrow’s regard, and in so doing, both condemns its limit and acknowledges its extent; rather than flicking the tongue at his regard, it opens the mouth towards it. That it is a word of measure fits in with the Canto as a whole, where the language of battlements, engineering, measurement, and the calculation of life figures prominently. It cooperates also with “regard,” since the “regard” is
esteem and respect, but also suggests the act of looking, measuring, and taking stock; for Suwarrow tears don’t count much, but they do count a bit, and are, in a very small way, among the facts of war worth counting. In a Canto in which the waste of life is so great as to be uncountable, matched only by the waste of words in the gazettes that list the dead and promote new heroes daily, there is little room for what is “small,” but it is the “small” moments of life that Byron cares for most in this context. In Stanza 77, he writes, in a stanza that parallels the structure of this one, that Suwarrow “saw things in gross| Being much too gross to see them in detail.” There, the criticism is unambiguous, and is grounded on Suwarrow’s failing to take details into account. Against the waste of war, the attention to detail will be Byron’s poetic countermeasure, and the word “small,” and Byron’s conceding that Suwarrow does have “small regard,” rather than simply none at all, that he shows himself scrupulous and attentive enough to account even for the small remnants of virtue that warmonger possesses. Don Juan is a big poem, mocking, sneering, and cynical; but it does not enumerate or digress only to dismiss. Instead, Byron delights in the “small” moments and objects that make endurable the world’s waste.
But then class took another turn, with students seizing instead on the wonderful turn of phrase that turns the line: “habit sears| Men’s hearts against whole millions when their trade| Is butchery.” The crucial points were that to sear operates only on the outside of meat; that searing seals in juices and does wonders for flavor, and that in this Byron is showing Suwarrow the butcher to be serving up his own heart; that Byron’s suggestion of taste is itself tasteless, but of a piece with the rest of the poem, especially in its joining together the flesh and the feelings, with the heart a hunk of throbbing meat but also a figurative seat of the emotions; that in this word Byron acknowledges that Suwarrow must have felt some pain at having his heart thus made indifferent to the slaughter of war; and that the heart is here hardened, but Byron does not say hardened, or burned even, preferring instead “seared” not only for the gustatory implications, but for the speed it suggests, that speed of searing striking like a paradox or oxymoron (depending on how far we take the analysis) against “habit.” How can “habit,” that forms over time, in repetition, gradually, indiscernibly, itself sear? One thought is that the habit is a habit for searing, a habit of searing. But another, more promising thought is that for Byron habit is not a slow accretion of dispositions to act, think, feel, move—instead, habit sears, with speed, because in this poem, habit is formed quickly and easily.
It is a traditionalist communitarian vision of the world that suggests that cultures provide us with meaning by inculcating a deep set of values that orient action, ground identity, and thicken values; modernity, on such a diagnosis, results in the loss of meaning and also the loss of freedom, in so far as the communitarian model of commonly-held thick conceptions of the world entails individuals with the agency to shape the shared public context of their private lives. The roots of the communitarian vision reside in Aristotle, for whom habit formation is the crucial work of education; habits root individuals to their communities and shared values; habits are where those shared values take practical form. If we read Byron’s Don Juan as comedically and satirically reacting against the modern condition—the alienation that communitarians see as endemic to, say, Rawlsian liberalism—then the phrase “habit searing” makes the rapidity of habit seem yet another failing of the age. The world in this poem is ephemeral, rapid, kaleidoscopic (all characteristics of modernity, its critics might say); habit is yet another example of this widespread condition of the world, a condition that makes for rootlessness, empties fame of meaning, and disperses the attention so the meaning disclosed by sustained attentiveness to things dissolves also.
But even here we stumble into what seems to me like a basic conflict within the poem: for if Byron is suggesting that the ephemerality of the world works against a proper attentiveness to things or a fulfilling commitment to act towards ends that might or might not be fulfilled, and whose being unfulfilled would not matter because something new must come along anyway, then he is arguing that this should not be the case, when in Stanza 77 or Stanza 3 of Canto VIII he affirms his own attention to “detail”; even if details fade, his holding tight to them, and his despising war for its failing to do so, for its wasting the particularity of life that makes life what it is, suggests that Byron believes that even his art of inattention and the ephemeral can contain within itself the means to redress the waste of the world. Byron both condemns modernity for and to endless waste, a churn of celebrity, and restless distraction, but also believes it contains the resources for a remedy. Byron is conflicted, in other words, in how bad this modernity is; in how pessimistic he ought to feel; the seeming indifference of the poem is not necessarily, it might follow, indifference at all, but instead the meeting of Byron’s minds in its total effect.
But there is a happier reading of the “habit sears,” if not of the conflict of the poem. For though there is no denying that Byron’s poem finds reason to rail, however funnily, against the gossip-winged transience of things, gazettes, fame, heroism, meaning in general, it could be said that he finds more resources in that transience than the pursuit, and seizing, of details, themselves susceptible to change. The capacity to seize details is not an especially persuasive rejoinder to the charge that modernity pulls up all by the roots, since there is nothing in the up-rooting itself that would also lend itself to taking hold of the details; the problem does not contain its solution, but sits adjacent to it. With “habits sear” we see another possibility: that the same rootless, unsettled, unsettling modernity yields the delightful realization that one of the very phenomena, habits themselves, that we took to depend on, and thrive by, roots in fact can be formed quickly and dispensed with at no less speed. “Habit” can mean to dress, can refer to clothes, and Byron, lover of costumes and dress-up, as well as taking dresses and clothes off, embraces an attitude to the world, or a condition of the world, that allows habits to be taken up and put off with ease and abandon. How we dress is, after all, a crucial feature of habitus; but for Byron, the world allows us to change the latter as easily as the former, and any charge that such a change is superficial posits depths where there are none. Costumes are not all there is to customs, and we go wrong when we reduce customs just to this, but customs, themselves the habits of cultures, are as easily picked up and tossed off as costumes might be. They are all part of the cosmopolitan play-acting that liberates Byron and Juan alike. Habit might sear, but it also might cauterize, both with equal speed.
Dressing in costume and adopting foreign habits we know, these days, to constitute acts of appropriation, a word much maligned, but also key to Rahel Jaeggi’s recent attempt at rehabilitating “alienation.” She would enlist the word as a tool of critical theory, rather than setting it up merely as a target; but the fact that it is potentially both target and tool is relevant to what Byron does. For he recognizes that the cosmopolitan detachment of the poem that makes liberating the capacity to appropriate for one’s evolving identity and very survival is also liable to an appropriation that is callously indifferent to what appropriation can and should be. Byron’s critique of appropriation gone awry would not be, I think, that cultural objects have inherent authentic value, or authenticity; instead, I imagine that he, like Kwame Appiah, would deny that culture is the sort of thing that could be appropriated. Instead, he would criticize the appropriation that fails to overcome alienation and that instead reinforces it. For Jaeggi, appropriation is a healthy normative relationship of self to world; for Byron it is nothing so wholesome, but it is a sign of strength and happiness that such appropriation is possible, its virtue and value depending as much on the situation of the person who appropriates as it does on the method or means of appropriation divorced from situation.
“Habit sears” speaks out of two sides of the poet’s mouth. This is better than Byron speaking two things, one from each side; it is a phrase that catches at the ambivalence Byron feels towards the easy of adopting habits, of becoming habituated. The upside of adaptability and appropriability to the diversity of the world is reflected in a downside that the most inhumane and insensitive acts may form too. And the phrase suggests too that, if habits can be changed, the heart nonetheless sustains damage and change that endures; it is a part of the Byronic myth, the long-suffering poet, who inner pain is belied by his external ease and carelessness. (This is not the fault of rootlessness or cost of cosmopolitanism: it is the heart’s condition to endure, whatever the way of the world.) The ease and speed of habituation can be a relief and release but also a source of indifference and inertia; the virtuosic formal performance in the poem’s ottava rima is itself a source for the recognition of both sides of the matter.
The conflict of Don Juan does not feel Virgilian or Miltonic; it does not aspire to sustained solemn grandeur, and its expression depends upon Byron’s detachment from conflict itself; where that detachment is most poignant, both most powerful in the diagnostic purchase it grants and most symptomatic of the ills it diagnosis, it sustains both sides of the conflict within itself simultaneously.