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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Five items about Lord Byron

1. I'm having a delightful time reading Lord Byron in the Romanticism class I'm grading. The professor had to explain the concept of a "Byronic hero" to the class the other day. "Well, he's melancholic and brooding... He has a strong sense of guilt or shame... He's insistent on exploring the possibility of transcendence, but he wants to see the darker side, too..."

I wanted to shout out from the back row, "He's SEXY! You forgot to say he's SEXY. That's the best part of the Byronic hero." But that would have been inappropriate. These kids are missing something important, though.

2. Worst film Byron ever? Hugh Grant was badly miscast as the poet in this limited-release disaster, also starring Elizabeth Hurley. A representative comment from user:
Curly-topped Hugh Grant as Lord Byron has to be seen to be believed. He wears the frilliest costumes imaginable. With long hair and chest bared, he looks like he's auditioning for a Lifetime biopic of Siegfried and Roy. One of the best (and unintentionally comical) scenes is Grant howling out on a boat. He is too fey and whimsical to make a credible Byron.

My friend and I proposed Joaquin Phoenix or Johnny Depp for the role. "But you know who'd they end up settling for?" she said sadly. "Ethan Hawke."

3. The professor who taught the Romanticism survey at Barnard when I was a first-year had a better take on Byron. The lectures were pretty dry, so you had to be listening closely to appreciate this introductory clause: "After Byron finished screwing anything with legs..." (Blackadder had a similar take)

4. We read Byron's Manfred when I was in ninth grade, which is either the best time to be introduced to (related) concepts of solipsism and transcendence, or the worst time for such discussions. The teacher had photocopied the play from an anthology he used in college, so there were occasional odd marginalia. Late in the verse drama, a character is about to reveal the incestuous relationship between Manfred and his sister when he's interrupted by the Abbot:
MANUEL. ... Count Manfred was, as now, within his tower,
How occupied we knew not, but with him
The sole companion of his wanderings
And watchings--her, thom of all earthly things
That lived, the only thing he seemed to love,
As he indeed by blood was bound to do,
The lady Astarte, his--
Hush! Who comes here?
At this failed revelation, the teacher had scrawled "FUCK!!"

5. Byron's daughter, Ada Lovelace, was a fascinating woman. Betty A. Toole's Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age is limited by its too-rigid Anticipation Narrative frame, wherein her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical and Difference Engines is described as prefiguring the developments in computing and coding in the 20th century. Anticipation narratives tend to be unwieldy because the author has to insist that each idea has a corollary to future idea, when the future ideas may not be the same or wholly directed from one single event in the past. Claims of "prophecy" or prefiguration tend to be overstated. Benjamin Woolley's The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron's Daughter is limited by its insistence on describing her in binaries: was she more like her mathematician mother or her free-wheeling poet father? was she rational or imaginative? alas, she was doomed by being unable to reconcile these influences. This formulation tends to be overstated, too.

Sadie Plant's Zeroes and Ones is a far, far weirder treatment of Ada Lovelace that isn't so much about prophecies or binaries as much as it is about blowing your mind. I still don't know what to make of this book, except to say it's awesome. It's a really strange "secret history" of women and technology that draws from disparate sources, including Ada Lovelace's diaries; the history of women's work in weaving, typing, and coding; and cyberpunk novels. William Gibson has called it a "cyberfeminist rant" (Lovelace shows up in The Difference Engine, which Gibson wrote with Bruce Sterling; Gibson does a great job of proposing an alternative to the anticpation narrative in historical science fiction).

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Blogger Marina on Tue Apr 04, 06:54:00 PM:
Hugh Grant as a hopeless Byron made me think of two things:
in the vein of dissapointing byronic heros, and
(2) Germaine Greer commenting, as an aside, on Byron's sexuality at a conference I went to back in sixth form: "I think he was a bit like Shakespeare, really, anything that moved...". Admirable...