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Monday, August 25, 2003

Book Reviews

A Retrospective Sun

In Byron’s Shadow: Modern Greece in English and American Literature from 1770 to 1967 by David Roessel. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, 385 pages, $55.

This book opens with a description of a meeting between Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell in Patras in 1939. The latter, then a poet, was keen to join the Greek army, in emulation of “Byron, the martyr of Missolonghi, who had made the dream that ‘Greece might still be free.’” As we all know, Byron was possessed by the idea of a regenerated Greece as a “reincarnation of the idea of the ancient past.” How we retroject images of ourselves into the past is a common theme in both civic and personal consciousness. The idea does not come from the past, but goes to it: that is the nature of cultural identity and its formulations. The question is how causality functions in this tradition of English literature: via Greece or Byron? Or, more precisely, why has Greece received this portrayal? Thus, if Byron projects a shadow and Greece was the sun irradiating later literature, that sun is a conception of a civil and Romantic place that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cast backward: the solar being, in effect, retrospective.

Byron’s understanding of an archaic and classical Hellas derived almost wholly from Homer and Herodotus, modified by the then-current trend in taste that admired the classical architectural and sculptural orders. He, unlike modern scholars, was unaware of the magnificence of Greece’s medieval and Byzantine inheritance. David Roessel examines this early model of legacy: why it possessed Byron and his contemporaries, and how it is that this fantasy has continued until today in the Western literary imagination. The focus of this work is on how Greece survived “as a Romantic area long after the age of Romanticism ended.” “Few countries have remained in the shadow of a single author [Byron] for so long,” according to Roessel, and his book proves his point.

How was it that a libertine dandy from London, and the profoundly dark creator of Manfred, came to perceive the Greek war of independence as a moment of great personal and social renewal, and that the sublimity of Romantic pursuit became so fixed on the landscape of Hellas? It is not simply the ideal that drove Lord Byron eastward out of Italy, but the fact that he died, clothed in the appearance of those ideals, which possessed later poets and novelists. Notions of an absolute — in this case death — were key signifiers in the Romantic tradition.

Byron’s swimming the Hellespont in 1810 (on his second attempt) was in imitation of the myth of Leandros. This imitative and performative recapitulation of mythos was an intrinsic component of the poet’s philhellenism; his later death only perfected the scheme. It is Byron’s performative technique that marks him as more accomplished in his Romanticism than others who followed in that belief. Hence the “shadow” that Roessel surveys in his work. The performative is always more crucial than the written; metaphorically, it is more illuminating. Hemingway in Spain cast himself in this model, except that no archaic mythos existed there to be dramatized; nor did the author transcend the ideal with personal decease.

On the level of analogy, the difference between Byron and Hemingway is a similar distinction to that which occurs between the epic poets, the aoide and the rhapsode. The former knows and performs, being informed by the Muses, whereas the latter only remembers and recites. Byron was very much in the former role, whereas Roessel’s “shadow” concerns the latter.

“Through Byron, modern Greece became, as it were, embalmed in the time of Romanticism,” Roessel writes. This conception of a place, compounded of antiquities within a landscape — so well depicted by Edward Lear — has figured in the English-language literary imagination much as North Africa, and especially Morocco, has in the literary imagination of France, or Italy in twentieth-century American writing. It is not merely Romanticism — a sublime spirit of place deepened by the presence of picturesque ruins — nor simply the death of a poet in the cause of an idea, albeit by disease, but a deep and constant social need for Arcadia, a terrain that is conceived as innocent, generous, and ancient, where guilt does not exist: an idyll that is pre-georgic and emotionally unconstrained.

Childe Harold was published in 1812, a time of near-disaster for Britain, both socially and strategically, after years of war with Napoleonic Europe. Byron’s image of Greece encapsulated his notion of the renewal of human culture during this period of disorder. In the preface to his poem, Hellas, Shelley proclaimed, “We are all Greeks.” Of course, he had never traveled further east than Italy, but his understanding of the purity of Greek nature and of the perfection of Greek art — apud Winckelmann — made for a reality that was at once conceptual and recapitulative.

Because Greece’s literature — the epics, dramas, and histories — functioned as the educational foundation for English-speaking elites, the study of Beowulf, Chaucer, or Shakespeare was always secondary. Greece was thus a primary source of literary metaphor. Even Virgil and Horace looked to and drew their inspiration from the Hellenic. To this was allied a neoclassical taste generated by the travel books and antiquities that were made fashionably public at that time.

For an English tradition, educated solely in classical texts, the triumphs of Marathon and Plataea became icons in an ideology against contemporary political instability: the nascent liberalism of the West, spawned by the American and then the French revolution, and the subsequent fire in Europe, where monarchy was seriously challenged. The idea of a “renascent Greece,” cast in the model of classical antiquity, became a key motif in the theory of the time. Similarly, the visual signs taken from Republican Rome were exploited by David and other artists during the neoclassical flourish that dominated esthetic appreciation at the end of the eighteenth century. Like the Greek war of independence, the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s generated a similar idealism, but conflated with communism and materialism — contemporary rather than retrospective ideals.

This nominal mixture of idyll and democracy, of the defeat of tyranny and the amplitude of sculptural and architectural taste, somehow became a standard that was soon to be near-canonical. This fused with a Westerner’s delight in the easiness and sensuality of Levantine living: much as California or Florida is today idealized in literature, painting, and cinema for its casual beauty and easy sexuality. The reality of all this, as with any social category, is imaginary: Greece became a paradigm, a template for political and literary fashion. Some critics would go so far as to aver that it was solely the unrepressed sexual life, available to foreigners like Byron as they cruised about the eastern Mediterranean, which was the real force of inspiration. The political praise given to Greece functioned as mere ideological metonymy to this liberation of physical desire.

The final chapter of Roessel’s book points to “a new kind of Byronism” — with Rex Warner, Dylis Powell, George Johnston, the painter John Craxton, and others — all still in love with Greece, not for its political potential but for its landscape and spirit of place. This is a place, however, of Dionysus — again, where an idealized projection of the past continues as a current force.

The military dictatorship in the late Sixties and early Seventies controverted this shift in writing by giving it counterpoint, as well as returning the focus of foreign writers in Hellas toward a civic and humanitarian perspective. The tyranny of the colonels was graphically portrayed against an ideal setting in Peter Levi’s Hill Of Kronos. Yet, undeniably, from The Corsair, to Mythistorima, to Leigh Fermor’s Mani and Kevin Andrews’s Morea, there is a steady and constant pulse that looks not so much to antiquity or its literature, but throws up a view of modernity that is modeled via the lens of a hypothetical prior world. Trying to retrieve the myths of old, crossing the boundaries of the secular and modern, and reinstalling human experience within that archetypal terrain: this is the nature of the “shadow” of Roessel’s book. Peter Levi, along with Philip Sherrard, was one of the last great philhellenes; for tourism, globalization, and the EU have all moderated, if not simply modernized, that former source of inspiration.

Whether this view of the Hellenic falls under the rubric of Orientalism is another question: certainly this could be argued for much of Durrell’s work, or for Miller’s writing. Exoticizing a group of people on the eastern margins of Europe was very much part of the worldly view of early Romanticism. Roessel would argue that philhellenism is the opposite of Orientalism: for him, they are “competing ideologies.” This depends on one’s particular methodology: an historical approach or a structural one, sequence or relationship?

Delineating this literary or metaphorical track has been a lengthy work for Roessel, and he has successfully accomplished his aims. It is not so much the shade of Byron that charges later authors with an ideal, but the sun that forms that darkness; and that solar force is something that the present — for one reason or another — casts backward as an image of a past in order to supply the contemporary with gravity and stability.

The only significant omission in Roessel’s survey lies in the field of late twentieth-century songs, notably those of Leonard Cohen, composed on the island of Hydra. These lyrics have now been published along with Cohen’s verse in Stranger Music. Certainly, this poetry is well within the tradition of amorous lyric that is set within a particular geographic locale, and is also well within the forms of a genre that Byron was also inhabiting: Marianne or the maid, Teresa Macri? Perhaps the shadow that Roessel speaks of so excellently and completely is paradigmatic rather than personal. Byron is merely a key signifier of this conduit.

The great value of David Roessel’s book lies in its studied compendiousness: it contains a surely near-definitive bibliography of all materials that are in the philhellenic literary tradition, a genre established by Childe Harold. Roessel has assembled a fascinating tapestry of source material that should remain a classic itself in philhellenic writing for years to come. One hopes that In Byron’s Shadow is not a valediction to philhellenism and looks for an accompanying text, something that would be, perhaps, “In the Shadow of Edward Lear,” in which the visual arts in the West — as they are inspired by Aegean culture and topos — are similarly treated with such finesse.

Kevin McGrath is an associate of the Sanskrit department and poet in residence at Lowell House, Harvard University. His books include Fame, Lioness, and Maleas; The Sanskrit Hero will be published next year.
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