8 – Byron

It puzzles us today that so many great minds were impressed by Byron. His poetry seems to lack the innovation of other English romantics, say, Wordsworth or Blake. Yet Byron transfixed Europe in his time by defying conventional morality, delighting in sexual adventure and exotic travel; revelling in what Nietzsche might call, independence of the soul. Aside from the gossip surrounding Byron’s personality, or his fame, Byron defied the ultimate Christian undertow which animates even in the most “pagan” poems of Keats or Shelley. Byron challenges God explicitly, and to Manfred, Nietzsche is certaintly indebted. Anyone who reads Conversations with Eckerman will find Goethe equally fascinated by Byron’s gift, his facility in narrative, his ease in realizing whatever sprang to his mind. As a poet of genius, fickle yet gifted, Byron invented a dark Prometheanism, a metaphysical rebellion, to use Camus’ term — without qualm — an aristocratic rebellion against morality. Nietzsche inherited some of Goethe’s and Europe’s admiration for the man, but it is really this proto or pre-Zarathustran invention of Manfred by which
Byron influenced his work.
Byron read Goethe’s Faust while hiking through the Alps and wrote Manfred as a reply to his elder contemporary’s work. In it, Manfred confronts the powers of darkness high in the Alps beyond the ken of small town experience, and beyond the morality which eventually re-emprisons Faust’s soul. Nietzsche write in Ecce Homo:

I must be profoundly related to Byron’s Manfred. All these abysses I found in myself. At the age of thirteen I was ripe for this work. I have no word, only a glance, for those who dare to pronounce the word “Faust” in the presence of Manfred. 22

Manfred, unlike Faust, strikes no deal. There’s no frustrated Mephistopheles, nor an image of purity beyond the perfection of one’s will. In the end, there is no divine intervention, no trick to save the rebel’s soul. Manfred defies, where Faust, the prodigal German professor, surrenders dutifully to the “powers that be”. Manfred rages and triumphs in his exile and projects his revolt against the “law” or coherhence of the universe, despite his misgivings concerning an unnameable crime which relentlessly haunts him. He accepts that:

… grief should be the instructor of the wise
Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most
must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life. 23

And he summons the spirits of earth and air:

by a power
deeper than all yet urged, a
tyrant spell,
which had its birthplace in a star
condemned. 24

Manfred becomes, without Mephistophelean instruction, completely autonomous, willing to accept whatever fate he has chosen by reason or crime to confront the stasis of a cosmos he could just as well do without. Manfred evokes the spirits of the earth, the clouds, mountains, the stars and their eternal life, enslaves them in a rush to overturn Being or fall flat into “self-oblivion”. When these spirits offer him instead a vision of Astarte (or Augusta, the half-sister with whom Byron more or less admits here to having shared the “crime” of incest) Manfred is tormented, crushed, falling down senseless, but he not converted, and never redeemed by faith. When he is saved from suicide in the next scene by the Chamois Hunter and is transported to the trapper’s cottage in the Bernese Alps, Manfred rejects the latter’s attempts to coax him back to the theologic hearth:

Chamois Hunter. Man of strange words, and some half-mad
dening sin.
Which makes thee people vacancy, what’re
Thy dread and sufferance be, there’s comfort
yet –
The aid of holy men, and heavenly paradise –

Manfred. Patience and patience! Hence — that word was made
For brutes of burthen, not for birds of prey*
Preach it to mortals of a dust like thine, –
I am not of thine order. 25

The “morbid” atmosphere and heroic (or tragic) arrogance will show up again in Zarathustra. For, whereas Faust is transformed finally by the love a young, pure seamstress, he eventually surrenders to conventional morality. , Manfred’s instead chooses to exile himself permanently from ordinary human unhappiness:

* Cf. Nietzsche’s poem by that title in his Dithyrambs of Dionysius

From my youth upwards
My spirit walked not with the souls of men,
Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes;
The thirst of their ambition was not mine;
My joys, my griefs, my passions and my powers,
made me stronger … 26

Above the knots of mountain rock, chasms, fiords, morains — where only birds of prey soar above their nests, we visit the same dizzying self-exile, the same secular visionary at home shunning “mere contentment” all compromise with the urban or bourgeois herd, which Nietzsche lampoons in Zarathusta as the Motley Cow. We hear a calling across great distances between man and his self-overcoming, a cross-peak echo, a prophetic mountain poet who utters, in Heidegger’s words, “a call from the self to the self”. Here we encounter the paradoxes and triumphs of the Promethean philosophic recluse and the abyss that independence from a “divine” or formulaic ethic opens up over small-town morality, indeed, an entire world-view, the bad weather of a passive humanity, the fireworks when we overcome all transcedent power, the lightning of the overman, and the prototype for Zarathustra.
Instead of trembling before the spirits, Manfred seals his tragic fate by affirming a struggle against the powers of the Universe, like a blasted oak, refusing the foundations of a Higher Law (or as Ivan Karamazov “turns in his ticket to Heaven”) and its claim to legitimacy. Manfred relates what first set him apart from an ordinary fate; his tragic love for Astarte (Augusta):

She was like me in lineaments — her eyes,
Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone
Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;
But softened all, and tempered into beauty;
She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,
The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind
To comprehend the universe; nor these
Alone, but with them gentler powers than mine,
Pity, and smiles, and tears — which I had not;
and tenderness — but that I had for her;
Humility — and that I never had.
Her faults were mine — her virtues were her own –
I loved her, and destroyed her! 27

Recalling Nietzsche’s concept of love when he admires Bizet’s “Carmen” (in The Case Against Wagner) the amoral fatality of “Alas, I have killed her! My adored Carmen!” we should also examine the differences between what Bertrand Russell calls “Titanic self-assertion” 28 and Nietzsche’s Death of God, and Nietzsche’s fictional hero, Zarathustra.
What antiquates Byron or makes Baudelaire faintly silly, is their Satanism, which must be akin to dandyism: not by taking the side of a mythic outcast like Cain (as Byron does) which proves empty, but by believing in the Devil one can only affirm a worldview one pretends to reject. If any God-Devil opposition is perspectival projection, preferring Satan, when he is defined by God, by conventional Christianity, must be an act, not a next move in thought. Even though it bore fruit in intellectual culture, and in art, and this is clearly true of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, even if he, ironically, knew it, there is much of this in Byron, and arguably traces of a post-God “belief” in Satan is echoed in the expressionistically morbid passages found in Zarathustra, Nietzsche maps out, however, a far cleaner, straight-forward alternative to the conceptual dead-end of Satanism in poetry. Philosophy which requires both a burning off and a construction of an a new way of being, bears the responsibility for the creation of meaning on earth. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is not merely in opposition to the old, for creating a way to live beyond defiance, beyond any “Satanic” pose, but beyond good and evil. Byron’s remains a purely artistic experience which rivals and vanquishes conventional Christian morality without overthrowing the metaphysical or the mythic theology which make that morality possible. Although Nietzsche’s logic might make him less an affective poet and more a conceptual philosopher, he is convinced that it is better to destroy the belief-content of all that remains of religious morality in philosophy, and art — rather than assuming an attitude of opposition which only affirms what one opposes.
This invites the rationalist, and in this case popular, dismissal to the importance of anything but a literal mimicry of science for philosophy’s domain, so that Russell in his History of Western Philosophy can write:

Byron, thought he felt himself the equal of Satan, never quite ventured to put himself in the place of God. This next step in the growth of pride was taken by Nietzsche, who says: “If there were Gods how could I endure it to be not God! Therefore there are no Gods”. Observed the suppressed premiss of this reasoning: “Whatever humbles my pride is to be judged false.”. Nietzsche, like Byron, and even to a greater degree, had a pious upbringing, but having a better intellect he found a better escape. 29

Russell is marginally correct by critiquing the fantasial weakness of Satanism in order to miss the main points about both Byron and Nietzsche. Byron’s problem, as with all Satanism, is that he simply reaffirms the conventional morality he wishes to oppose. This is given. But Byron’s or Nietzsche pride is not the end either to their rebellion or to the meaning of modern Promethean (Dionysiac) poetry — a poetry which critiques every assumption of some outside “world” against which one checks the objectivity of our own — a literal correspondance theory of truth or what Husserl calls the Natural Standpoint. The integrity of Manfred’s and Zarathustra’s “pride” is Promethean, in modern or European terms, post-Faustian, for their power, as fictional characters, constitute the power over our own lives in a world wherein assuming responsibility for making an original meaning might well entail exile or condemnation, but certainly an original creation of new values beyond the analysis of given propositions. Instead of trembling, then, before the spirits, Manfred challenges them, unlike Faust, who finally succumbs. While making his walk through the Alps, Byron intended to go farther than Goethe, and Nietzsche, to go farther, and higher, than Byron.