Review: Don Juan

Review: Don Juan

Don Juan by Lord Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.

The legend of Don Juan appears to be one of the most productive stories in all of literature. After its first setting by Tirso de Molina—still a classic of the Spanish stage—it has been adapted innumerable times. Molière’s powerful version may be the most famous for the theater, and Mozart’s opera is considered to be among the greatest works of music even sounded. After speaking in French verse and singing in mellifluous Italian, the infamous seducer of Seville lived on—though much altered—to speak iambic pentameter in Lord Byron’s comedic epic.

Nonetheless, Lord Byron’s use of the legend is free to the point that it may as well have been discarded entirely. The protagonist is, indeed, an attractive young man from Seville with a formidable sexual appetite. Byron’s Juan, however, is usually the seducee rather than the seducer. He does not lie to get his way, he does not have a wisecracking servant, he does not kill the fathers of his victims, and he does not meet his end at the hands of a living statue. There is none of that here. Instead, Don Juan is an attractive young boy with a good heart who runs into a lot of trouble, mainly because every woman who sees him wants him. It is a pleasant twist on an old tale.

Though a member of the Romantic age, Byron does not strike me as a Romantic poet. His poetry is witty, snappy, sharp, irreverent, and lean. There is nothing sentimental, meditative, or wistful in this long poem. Indeed, the verse is so prose-like that it is hardly even poetical. His most obvious literary forebear is not Milton or Donne, but Pope—another witty versifier. It seems strange, then, that of all the great English Romantic poets, it was Byron who was arguably the most famous and influential. Perhaps tastes did not change as much as we are prone to believe.

This epic poem has a loose and baggy structure. That is to say that it is full of holes and an awful lot of wind blows through it. Byron appears to have begun with a fairly concrete idea in mind, and the first three or four cantos are brilliant fun. Soon thereafter the poem falls apart, however—dissolving into an endlessly long aside, in which the main action is lost. The poem ceases to be the comic epic of Don Juan and instead becomes a vehicle for Byron’s own endless editorializing. This is still mostly worth reading, for Byron’s wit if not for his logic, but it is not exactly a work of high art.

Poor Don Juan is left in the lurch, and never does get to meet his final end—whatever that may have been. Byron met his own end before he could give one to Don Juan. If not for that, this poem may have gone on for twenty cantos more. But at the rate the story was progressing in the final cantos, twenty more may not even have been enough to bring this sprawling story to a satisfying conclusion. So let us be thankful for what we have. The parts that are weak are readable, and the parts that are strong are delightful.



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Quotes & Commentary #65: Proust

Quotes & Commentary #65: Proust

In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.

—Proust

When it comes to love, artists can be usefully divided between romantics and cynics.

The former see love as something unambiguously wonderful, whose presence produces absolute joy and whose absence the most profound misery—something endlessly interesting to contemplate and unquestionably good. The cynical attitude—far less common—sees love as a kind of illusion, a self-hypnosis, which promises everything and delivers nothing. Proust was of the latter camp, whose solipsism admitted no possibility of genuine human connection.

I admit that I normally incline towards Proust’s view. I have never much liked love songs or love poetry, and most love stories leave me cold. Indeed, I wish that we did not dedicate so much of our art to romance. Human life is so rich in potential themes, and yet our art circles endlessly around the standard tropes of romantic love: the pain of rejection, the agony of desire, the triumph of success, the pangs of jealousy, and so on. The conventions are so well-established that it strikes me as artistically lazy to go through the same motions: first, because little originality is needed; second, because love, being an innate human desire, is something that people will respond to automatically, so little skill is needed to hold the audience’s attention.

I would even go farther, and assert that any art which relies so exclusively on these instinctual urges is a form of pornography. This is what I mean. However artfully pornography is directed and acted, it is still a lower form of art than non-pornographic films, since to be effective it only needs to appeal to a fundamental human desire. Food photography is arguably in the same class: even when well-done, its main appeal is to the stomach and not the mind. Extremely sentimental art, by appealing to the basic human desire for intimacy, falls into this category as well.

This is not to say that art should not involve emotions; that would be absurd. But true aesthetic appeal, for me, is always disinterested, involving the absence of desire. Thus any art which appeals directly to desires—and, like pornography, is really just the satisfaction of a desire in fantasy—falls short of real aesthetic appeal. Much love-themed art is clearly based on this fantasy satisfaction.

I do not wish to be dogmatic about this. Undeniably there are poems, plays, songs, and novels of the finest quality about love. My contention is only that these superlative works sublimize love into an aesthetic sensation, a pure appreciation of emotion devoid of pain or excitement. The ultimate example of this is Dante, who took his erotic passion and made it the primary element of his sweeping vision of the universe. But this, of course, is no easy thing. Rather I think it requires the greatest artistry to create excellent works devoted to love, since the artist must resist at every point the temptation to give into fantasy.

If Dante is the ultimate artist of the positive potential of love—describing God as “The Love that moves the sun and other stars”—then Proust is the ultimate artist of the cynical view. For him love was just another false prophet that distracts us from the truth of life and the tranquility of art. And nowadays it is hard to disagree with him.

We have found that love, far from a divine mystery, is the expression of an instinctual drive to procreate. Since stable pair-bonding is helpful for the survival of our children, it makes sense that we would evolve the tendency to fall in love. And now that romantic relationships are more fluid than ever before—with the rise of dating and divorce—we have clear and persistent evidence that even the strongest feelings of love do not necessarily, or even often, lead to permanent relationships.

Indeed, when you observe a person moving from partner to partner, equally in love with all of them in turn, equally convinced that each one is incredible (until he breaks up with them, at which point they become undesirable), then it is hard to resist the conclusion that love is a sort of self-hypnosis. For when we fall in love, we see only perfection in the beloved; and when we fall out of love, we see only ordinary flaws. The conclusion seems to be, as Proust says, that we love what we possess only because we possess it, and see the beloved as extraordinary simply because it is our beloved. This, of course, is an ironical situation, since the “most intimate” of connections appears, upon inspection, to be based on willful misapprehension. The loving eye sees least.

Given these reasons for cynicism, why is the romantic, rosy-eyed view of love so common in our culture? I would even go so far as to say that the cult of love has become a sort of religion. Finding the perfect partner is portrayed as the apex of happiness, the seal and guarantee of a good life.

Now, do not think I am some bitter enemy of love. Anybody who has ever been in love knows that it is one of the best feelings in life. Even so, I think it is unhealthy to dwell so insistently on romantic love, as if it could save us, complete us, perfect us. It is unhealthy, first, because happiness must always come from within us, and not from some external—not even a relationship; and, second, because our inflated notions of love ironically lead us to expect too much from it, which damages relationships.

Though it is a cliché to say so, I think the truth about love lies between the romantic and the cynical view. Neither salvation nor illusion, neither effortless nor impossible, neither invincible nor insubstantial, neither the point of life nor a pointless waste—love is a beautiful but ordinary thing. And art, insofar as it strives to represent reality, ought to try to show love in all its ordinariness.

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerHow to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many reviewers have noted, a biography of Montaigne’s Essays, tracking how they have been reread and reinterpreted in the centuries since their publication. This double-biography is structured as a series of answers to the question: How to live? In the hands of a less able writer, this organizational principle could easily have become a cheap, tacky gimmick; but Bakewell’s skill and taste allow the book to transcend biography into philosophy—or, at the very least, into self-help.

Bakewell herself is hardly a Montaignesque writer. Her prose is disciplined and controlled; and though she must weave philosophy, history, literary criticism, and biography into a coherent narrative, she keeps her material on a tight rein. While Montaigne serves as the “massive gravitational core” of his own essays, holding all the disparate topics together by the force of his personality, Bakewell herself is mostly absent from these pages. Instead, she gives us a loving portrait of Montaigne—the man, his times, and his book. And this was especially interesting for me, since Montaigne, despite writing reams about himself, never manages to give his readers a coherent picture of his life or his society. Bakewell’s book is thus most recommended as a compliment to Montaigne’s Essays, providing a background for Montaigne’s rambles.

Montaigne himself was interesting enough. Best-selling author; modern-day sage; dissatisfied lawyer; literary executor for his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie; translator of the obscure theologian, Raymond Sebond; and the reluctant mayor of Bordeaux: Montaigne wore many hats, and most of them well. He even played an important role in the negotiations and maneuverings that took place after the death of Henri III over the question of succession. Today, however, Montaigne is remembered more for his painful descriptions of his kidney stones than his political accomplishments.

The career of Montaigne’s reception was, for me, even more interesting than the story of his life. At first, he was interpreted as a later-day Stoic sage, a Seneca for the sixteenth century. In the next generation, both Pascal and Descartes didn’t like him, the former because Montaigne was too cheerful, the latter because he was too comfortable with uncertainty. The philosophes were fond of Montaigne’s secularism, though they had a very different conception of good prose. Rousseau and the romantics liked Montaigne for his praise of naturalness, his fondness for exotic customs, and his exploration of his own personality. Later, more puritanical generations chided Montaigne for his open attitude towards sex and his detached attitude toward society. Nowadays Montaigne is seen as a prophet of the postmodern, with his emphasis on shifting perspectives and the subjectivism of truth.

As far as Montaigne’s pieces of advice go, I’m happy to report that I was already putting most of them into practice. I don’t worry too much about death (no. 1), I like to travel (no. 14), and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been born (no. 3). I am particularly adept at number 4, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted,” though I’m still working on number 13, “Do something no one has done before.” Well, as much as I’d like to be original, I’m happy following in Montaigne’s footsteps; indeed, I agree with Bakewell in thinking that Montaigne’s example is more useful now than ever. I will let her have the final word:

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

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