Don Juan and the “Cosmopolitics” of Seduction

What would Lord Byron say, I wonder. How might that quintessentially Romantic “man of affairs,” as Jerome McGann once delighted in punning,[1] respond to our current state of affairs? What would he say of our endlessly streaming 24-hour news cycle, or to our social media? We can never know, of course. But as a politics and news junkie, as well as a Romanticist, I love to speculate.

Byron is often thought to have lost his taste for politics after his unsuccessful appeal to Parliament in 1812 on behalf of the Luddites. And yet, his poetry, as well as his life (especially the end of his life), reflect a deep, if often ironic, investment in the political. So, I wonder. Would his Lordship greet today’s headlines with his signature scorn, mockery, and aristocratic disdain? Or would Byron recognize, as we all must, that our current vacillation between irony and indignation is among the worst symptoms of our political dysfunction? Would he still want, as many of us surely do, a hero? And would we have to resign ourselves, as he once did, to a hero we deserve, if not the one we need, in Don Juan? Sometimes, in my more fanciful moments, I like to think so.

While interloping at this week’s CSECS/NEASECS conference – the theme of which is “Cosmopolitanism/Cosmopolitanisms” – in Toronto, I have been thinking about the legacies of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism, especially as they continue to impact our current political climate. As many of the speakers have observed, there are striking resemblances between the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain and our own historical moment, particularly in terms of how cosmopolitanism, understood largely in a Kantian sense, seems to have fallen out of favour. At the usual risks of reduction, simplification, and erasure, let us briefly consider the parallels. Post-Waterloo Britain witnessed a reactionary conservatism that extolled inward-turning forms of nationalism against the perceived failures of the Enlightenment’s outward embrace of a trans-national, trans-historical consciousness. Now, we too are witnessing a rise in nationalist – even jingoistic – political movements (think “Brexit,” Trump, the rise of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, etc.) in response to decades of globalization and strides toward a pluralist, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic consensus. As The Economist recently put it, when seen from a global perspective, the divide is no longer properly between “left” and “right,” but rather between “open” and “closed” to the world.[2] Where this phenomenon has been most striking, however, is in the extreme political polarization and anxiety it has produced, especially in my home country of the United States: the utter breakdown of bipartisanship in the legislative process serving only to underscore the deep fissures in American political discourse.[3] Campus politics themselves have not been immune. Indeed, these seem to have devolved along similar lines into mere shouting matches.[4] Surely, somewhere between a long-discarded empathy, and this current mode of bellicosity, there is a better political way forward.

And so, that famous opening line of Byron’s Don Juan – “I want a hero” – would seem to be more resonant now than ever.[5] Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are in dire need of a political palliative, if not a panacea, to the current situation. And who better in this indecorous age of “post-truth” politics and “fake news” than the “true one,” himself? In addition to Don Juan’s celebration of an embattled cosmopolitanism, its propounding of what I am suggesting are a “politics of seduction” also seem to make its eponymous hero more than suitable for our troubled times. Both of these – the poem’s cosmopolitics, as well as its politics of seduction – I think are integrally related. We might, in fact, link them in Don Juan as a “cosmopolitics of seduction,” a notion I want to flirt with in this post, as one that resides between a discarded empathy and hopeless belligerency, and one that may yet be capable in our current moment of alluring and enticing us, attracting and enchanting us, away from, and even beyond, parochial prejudices, myopic attachments, and entrenched positions.

While the scholarly jury is still out in terms of who is seducing whom in Byron’s poem, there is little question that Juan’s world tour is driven by seduction. As Kirsten Daly argues, “in the poem, the citizen of the world becomes a man of the world whose survey is conducted in the realm of the flesh; knowledge is thus reconstituted as a form of sexual curiosity and spirit is metamorphosed into matter.”[6] Most important is how seduction functions politically in each of Juan’s encounters. Juan’s dalliances are framed “as a series of delicate negotiations with complex and diverse feminine systems whereby [Juan] comes to function as sexual diplomat or ‘diplomatic sinner’ who manoeuvres himself through a minefield of different codes” (XI, 230).[7] As Caroline Franklin suggests further, “the women in Don Juan are subtly drawn so as to embody the particular customs, institutions and laws of their [respective] countr[ies]: Haidee stands in for primitive democracy; Gulbeyaz for despotism; Catherine for enlightened despotism; and Adeline for limited monarchy.”[8]

Juan’s traversing such disparate “minefields” of political and sexual nuance across Europe begs the question of what gives him, “like Alcibiades,” – another political and sexual cosmopolite of antiquity – “the art of living in all climes with ease” (XV, 88–87). For that, we may finally have recourse to the poem, itself:

His manner was perhaps the more seductive,

Because he ne’er seem’d anxious to seduce:

Nothing affected, studied, or constructive

Of coxcombry or conquest; no abuse

Of his attractions marr’d the fair perspective,

To indicate a Cupidon broke loose,

And seem to say, “Resist us if you can”––

Which makes a dandy while it spoils a man.

 

They are wrong––that’s not the way to set about it.

As, if they told the truth, could well be shown.

But, right or wrong, Don Juan was without it;

In fact, his manner was his own alone;

Sincere he was––at least you could not doubt it,

In listening merely to his voice’s tone.

The devil hath not in all his quiver’s choice

An arrow for the heart like a sweet voice. (XV, 89–104)

 

As these lines intimate, rather than rely on the traditional seducer’s wily charms, vain conceits, or false promises, Juan’s seductive appeal derives solely from the “sincerity” and “sweetness” of his voice. The poem further explains that such a voice neither betrays “a struggle for priority,” nor “claim’d superiority,” an important distinguisher from Don Juan’s more misogynist and chauvinist predecessors in Spanish legend (XV, 119–20). Readers of Don Juan will rightly point out that Juan’s seductiveness is also enabled by his mobilité, which Byron’s note defines in part as a certain “susceptibility,” or receptiveness, to immediate impressions (see note to XVI, 820). Yet, if a “sweet voice” and an openness to experience seem to offer up a rather passive, flaccid model of seduction, then we should ask how, of all attributes, this is what allows Juan to successfully negotiate the cosmopolitan array of social, cultural, gender, and political codes of each country to the point of climax: “Though differing in stature and degree, / And clime and time, and country and complexion; / They all alike admired their new connexion” (VI, 318–20).[9]

We may explain Juan’s political as well as his sexual successes by reading his “sweet voice” as one with more than just a pleasing pitch. As an arrow in the Devil’s – not Cupid’s – quiver, Juan’s “sweet voice” is weaponized as a diabolical form of seduction, invoking a longstanding association between the powers of speech, persuasion, and politics. Since antiquity, the first theorizations of rhetoric and the art of persuasion were seen as central to the practice of politics. As a contemporary of Plato’s, it was Gorgias (c. 485 – c. 380), in his Encomium of Helen, who went one further, conceptualizing politics as not just persuasion, but seduction.[10] In its baser forms, political seduction has inspired the popular conflation of sex and politics in the image of the “sleazy” politician, or in the idea of political “prostitution.” It is also likely what earned the Sophists (Gorgias’ school of rhetoric) a bad name. But in Classical antiquity, when simple persuasion failed, it was the mark of a certain political finesse – more skillful than shouting down your opponent, and less weak than begging for their sympathy – to rhetorically seduce the opposition into betraying their original moral, philosophical, ideological, or political commitments. By constructing arguments that do not lazily rest on a presumed moral or tautological self-evidence, but rather engage in the rigorous practice of reorienting the opposition’s moral or ideological framework, one could, in theory, offer a rhetorical position that was wholly irresistible.

Since that time, of course, the West has grown less easy with the notion of political seduction. While it has been taken up by such diverse thinkers as Ovid, Rabelais, and Baudrillard, in many instances, seduction has become too closely associated with treason, bribery, corruption, or dogma; in others, it connotes too much of rape and violence; while, culturally, we have collectively absorbed the morals of Pandora’s box, of Eve in the Garden, of Gawain and the Green Knight, of Dr. Faustus in his study, and a seeming endless stream of Victorian melodrama in which the villain almost always features as a seducer.

And yet, as Kenneth Minogue claims, “seduction [remains] a central, indeed in certain respects, the central, idea, in political life,” and further, that “the very attempt to seduce may well be seen today as a virtuous act in its own right, opening up possibilities of choice that ought to be frankly discussed and explored.”[11] At its essence, seduction induces a fundamental moral revaluation, to make the betrayal of a commitment seem like something different. It is to introduce an alternative ethics that opens up the possibility of choice. Shakespeare’s representation of the assassination plot against Caesar highlights the ambiguity of political seduction. As Cassius observes, “None so strong that cannot be seduced.” He then wins Brutus over partly by the persuasiveness of his argument, but also by feigning the existence of a public opinion demanding that Brutus move against Caesar.[12] Political loyalties are thus abandoned in favour of a higher moral idea: civic responsibility to the people. That seduction could operate on moral high grounds was recognized by no less than Milton, who once reflected on Eve’s seduction in Paradise Lost that he could never praise a “cloistered virtue.” And finally, as Minogue points out, it was the Romantic period that ushered in the technique of mass political seduction when nationalists juxtaposed the abstract principle of cultural essence against inherited legitimacies, calling into question Irish loyalty to the British crown, the Czech to Austria Hungary, the Sicilian to his Bourbon oppressor, or the Basque to remote capitals in Spain and France. Remaining “faithful” to inherited political loyalties was thus construed as the “real” form of cultural betrayal.[13] Small wonder, then, that Byron’s conservative critics took such issue with Don Juan. In promoting a kind of politics of seduction against local, national allegiances to crown and country, critics were quick to conflate the poem’s licentiousness with its tendency toward sedition.

Still, Don Juan’s backward glance toward the eighteenth century, as well as its astonishing “anti-Romantic” turn, suggest that its moral commitments lie with an earlier Enlightenment ideal of globalism, as well as with a broader category of humanity, than the current model of nationalism would permit. This is why, in spite of Juan’s many affairs, he remains as “true,” as the poem remains faithful to its cosmopolitan commitments. And if Juan seduces, well, it is only so that we might be introduced to the romance of the world, in all its multiplicity, totality, and humanity.

What would Byron have said about today? I imagine probably the same thing he said of the nineteenth century. As the self-professed enemy “Of every despotism in every nation,” he would, no doubt, still “wish men to be free / As much from mobs and kings – from you as me” (IX, 192–200). From Don Juan’s cosmopolitics of seduction, we might do well in our current time to rediscover a politics that works more by rhetoric than wrath. A politics that can command the art of persuasion in the rhetorical corollaries of a stolen glance, a soft caress, a sighing breast, and a shivering heart, might do more to liberate us from our current political entrenchment than any current alternative. To entice those “closed” to the world to be more “open” will require a great deal more than attacking their supposed “backwardness.” To entreat our opponents, to capture their hearts, from left or right, or from whatever sect or creed, by way of “undressing” their pretensions to provincial concerns and particular interests, and by opening ourselves to the same, we may yet achieve a far more satisfying resolution to our current state of affairs.

 

NOTES:

[1] See Jerome J. McGann, Introduction to Lord Byron: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 2008), xi.

[2] See “The New Political Divide,” The Economist. 30 July 2016. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21702750-farewell-left-versus-right-contest-matters-now-open-against-closed-new.

[3] See Niraj Chokshi, “U.S. Partisanship Highest in Decades, Pew Study Finds,” The New York Times. 23 June 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/24/us/politics/partisanship-republicans-democrats-pew-research.html.

[4] See Kelly Oliver, “Education in the Age of Outrage,” The New York Times. 16 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/opinion/education-outrage-morality-shaming.html.

[5] Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1980–1993). All references to Don Juan are given in parentheses, with canto and line number(s).

[6] Kirsten Daly, “Worlds Beyond England: Don Juan and the Legacy of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism,” Romanticism 4.2 (1998), 192.

[7] Daly, 192.

[8] Caroline Franklin, Byron’s Heroines (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). Qtd. in Daly, 192.

[9] My emphasis.

[10] See Robert Wardy, The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato and their Successors (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[11] Kenneth Minogue, “Seduction & Politics,” The New Criterion (November 2006), 17, 22.

[12] Minogue, 19.

[13] Minogue, 20.