Manfred, Myth, and Magic: the Gospel According to Byron
One of the first lessons I give my composition students is "don't undercut your authority by apologizing to your audience -- if there are significant flaws in your effort, your audience will be quick enough to point them out, without your assistance." Nevertheless, I find myself compelled to preface this material by pointing out that it is not a stand-alone piece of scholarship, appealing as one might be, on the religious sensibility which Byron expresses in Manfred. Rather, it is part of a larger project which is slowly congealing into my dissertation, which intends to reveal the sincere theological schematization and speculation which I believe underlies a great deal of supernatural literature. I present it now not only in the hopes that you will be kind enough to poke holes in my understanding of Byron, but with the desire that you will be merciful enough to exterminate any faulty assumptions infesting my dissertationas well.
That said, I feel obligated to further contextualize my discussion of Byron by recounting some of the questions which prompted me to undertake this dissertation project in the first place. Briefly then, I suppose I am guilty of what M. H. Abrams has called the "pragmatic" critical perspective: I am essentially interested in what work the artistic or literary project is supposed to accomplish, what benefits a text can convey to either its audience or its author. From such a praxis-minded perspective, the very idea of "supernatural literature," literature dealing with occult themes and figures, is anomalous, its existence difficult to rationalize. If we begin from the perspective that literature is meant to be affective how does one begin to interpret literature which takes for its subject tropes and motifs which are, by definition, outside the common sphere? How does literature illuminate the mysteries of existence if its subjects are essentially outside of human experience?
Most criticism of supernatural literature has naturally assumed that authors who invoke supernatural tropes do so in order to metaphorically present material which is either too psychologically disturbing or too socially awkward to relate in plainer language. More specifically, supernatural elements of literature are often considered to be figurative of mental conditions or perspectives, with spirits and curses standing in for the various desires and anxieties which drive humanity. I suppose that critics who take this stance imagine that the authors of supernatural literature have in mind some sort of correspondence between the tentative, transient nature of the psyche and the immaterial, indefinite nature of the supernatural. This is particularly true of critics of nineteenth-century literature, who seem universally bent upon discovering what fascinating traumas and anxieties in the authors' lives inspired the numberless hordes of vampires and goblins which populate the literature of the period. However, what no critic seems yet to have acknowledged is that even though Freud was kind enough to provide the world with a language with which to discuss psychological conflicts in the early 1900's, supernatural texts continue to be written, and avidly consumed, as the ratings of the X-Files and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer can readily attest. If the supernatural was essentially engaged as a default sign-system for representing the psyche, then why, in an age when Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey ensure that our psyches are on full display at all times, does it still dominate our media and our texts?
Of course, we might assume a slightly more Postmodern interpretive stance and declare that supernatural literature is itself a reflection of the instability of the world we live in, that authors of the nineteenth-century and later eras who incorporate paranormal phenomena into their productions do so because the human experience itself is frustratingly inconclusive, ethereal, occult. In other words, there is a surge in the popularity of vampire fiction in the late eighteen-hundreds because everyone is already feeling drained, anemic, bled dry by the post-modern condition. The disquieting, indeterminate nature of the supernatural corpus makes it the perfect signifier for emerging anxieties about the crumbling institutions of the church, state, family, and society. But such readings tend to fall prey to the same weaknesses which plague most post-modern interpretation, inasmuch as they deny the possibility that the works in question may be meant to express sincerely held positions regarding spiritual experience or religious belief, or in fact, any belief system at all -- or at least deny the possibility of meaningfully expressing such a belief. This seems to me to be postmodernism's particular hubris, and I would like to propose that it is both dismissive and unreasonable to automatically interpret supernatural literature as the merely subjective expression of post-modern zeitgeist, and that it is both more efficient and worthwhile to approach such material somewhat more on its own terms. Specifically, it seems logical to assume that a work's invocation of spiritual and occult paraphernalia must consequently evoke a consideration of spirituality and metaphysics, if only by association. To this end, I would argue that it is more useful to examine the degree to which supernatural signifiers are engaged in literature in order to imbue the works with greater spiritual significance, even authority and dignity, in their interrogation of theological and spiritual experience.
Having, I hope, laid myself sufficiently open to charges of naivete and undisciplined application of the intentional fallacy, I now feel sufficiently armored to begin my consideration of Byron and his work.
When considering the interrelationship between religion and literature, Byron is not the first literary figure who generally leaps to mind. Even if we limit our consideration to the early nineteenth century, there are any number of authors whose overt engagement with theological issues would seem to mark them as better candidates. Blake has been frustrating readers and critics with his always unorthodox, and often self-contradictory, pronouncements on religion since the dawn of the Romantic period. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is known as much as a theologian as a poet, and even Shelley's notorious screeds against Christianity might seem a more logical place to concentrate our attentions. Byron, by contrast, is often dismissed as something of a lightweight, a dilettante whose major value lies in his ability to present the most narcissistic, egomaniacal expression of Romantic ideology. Critics invariably point out the degree to which Byron's subjects resemble their creator, and the consensus seems to be that while Byron does engage many of the important philosophical issues of his day, he concentrates his attention on those which speak to the individual ego: free-will, independence, integrity, the struggles between desire and conscience. He hardly has the reputation of a reformer, in the theological or any sphere.
Yet it is precisely for these reasons that Manfred most fascinates -- for it is the tale of an attempted reformation and its consequences, and the capacity for individual redemption specifically as an alternative to institutional redemption: the type of institutional redemption which characterizes orthodox Christianity. By engaging spiritual concerns through the "back door" of the occult and its paraphernalia, Byron manages to generalize his conclusions enough to implicate not only Christianity, but any institutionalized philosophical dogma as essentially unfit. Manfred is in many ways a more effective condemnation of Christian orthodoxy and complacency than Shelley's Necessity of Atheism.
Like several of Byron's longer works, Manfred portrays a powerfully independent man dissatisfied by an oppressive universe and its bourgeois principles, and increasingly unable to find refuge in mere dissipation. Manfred was composed between September 1816 and May 1817 and when it was published it was heavily criticized for defects of form, stylistic inconsistency, and even simple incoherence (Corbett 18). On the other hand, it received remarkable popular attention, largely due to the staging possibilities offered by the numerous supernatural elements (Corbett 19). The plot is fairly simple considering the number of characters who appear: Manfred, a powerful warlock plagued by the insufficiencies of the universe and, increasingly tormented by a mysterious guilt, conjures a coterie of spirits and demands that they end his sorrows by granting him forgetfulness of his past misdeeds. Unable to comply, the spirits instead offer Manfred power over the elements, which he scornfully refuses. Determined to expiate his sins, Manfred resolves to commit suicide by throwing himself from the peak of the Jungfrau. A rustic Chamois Hunter intervenes, and Manfred decides to continue his quest among more powerful spirits. After an unsatisfactory interview with the Witch of the Alps, Manfred invades the Hall of Arimanes, where the spirit Nemesis reveals Manfred's sin by conjuring up the phantom of Astarte, the sister/lover whom the warlock has destroyed with his incestuous passion. Nemesis also reveals that Manfred is doomed to die, and the end of the drama is dominated by his preparation's for death. After refusing the blessings of the church and defying the demons who appear to claim his soul, Manfred dies.
The usual readings applied to Manfred center, as does so much of Byron criticism, around the autobiographical details which seem to so clearly identify the poet with his protagonists. In addition to overwhelming pride and aristocratic demeanor, Manfred shares with Byron the titillating suggestion of an incestuous relationship. Certainly the scandal surrounding Byron's relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh has encouraged many readers to reduce Manfred to mere autobiographical confession, even more so than Byron's other works (Thorslev 165). This is might also be the reading favored by critics who hypothesize that the supernatural elements in the work function primarily as representations of various elements of the psyche. One might easily imagine a reading which suggests that Manfred's (and Byron's) incestuous relationship is mirrored in the mentally incestuous nature of Manfred's conversations with the spirits -- although Manfred's occult dealings might more properly be deemed masturbatory than incestuous, if all the spirits do is reflect Byron/Manfred's repressed anxieties.
A criticism more pertinent to my current project is that Manfred merely presents a haphazard collection of stage mannerisms and sensationalism (Corbett 18), and that a serious reading of the philosophical aspects of the play is impossible due to "a serious confusion or obscurity in the play's metaphysics" (Rutherford 81). I would argue, however, that this is an unfair assessment of Manfred's merits, and that a closer look at the consistency of the protagonist's responses during his encounters reveals a much more cohesive philosophical statement than has heretofore been recognized.
In the initial scene, for example, Manfred establishes himself as a being with enormous power, one who has undergone experiences much like any mortal, but who has reached a contemplative point beyond the normal limitations of humanity:
I have done men good,
And I have met with good even among men--
But this avail'd not: I have had my foes,
And none have baffled, many fallen before me--
But this avail'd not:--Good, or evil, life,
Powers, passions, all I see in other beings,
Have been to me as rain unto the sands,
Since that all-nameless hour. I have no dread,
And feel the curse to have no natural fear,
Nor fluttering throb, that beats with hopes or wishes,
Or lurking love of something on the earth.
(I, i, p. 380)
For all his remoteness from mortal limitations, however, Manfred is by no means sanguine with his existence. For, despite his powers, Manfred is unable to escape his own guilt: not all the mystical power, nor all the familiar spirits, can ease his very human anxiety. In a way, Manfred's dissatisfaction with his existence parallels that which is felt by all of humanity. Yet most people attempt to quell their discontent with the pursuit of power, or security. Manfred already has these, in abundance, and is wise enough to know that no further degree of either is going to satisfy him. Only a change in kind, not in degree, will make his further existence tolerable. And, unlike most philosophers who are searching for a reason for continued existence, Manfred is not afraid that his inquiries might lead him to a negative conclusion. He repeatedly demonstrates that unless his pangs are satisfied, he will conclude that death is the only alternative to continued unhappiness.
In a way, therefore, Manfred is the perfect delegate for investigation into the mysteries of the cosmos, particularly into the necessity of suffering. With his first invocation, Manfred raises seven spirits, and commands them to erase the memories which cause him distress. However, the spirits are only able to offer him more of that which he already possesses, mystical power over the elements. Indeed, the seventh spirit exacerbates Manfred's agony by appearing to him in the form of his beloved Astarte. These spirits perhaps most closely support the notion that the phantoms of Manfred are nothing more than elements of the warlock's own psyche, since they are unable to deliver anything other than reflections or amplifications of his strengths and weaknesses. But Manfred himself quickly recognizes the unsatisfactory nature of such pursuits. "Philosophy and science," which are the roots of Manfred's mystical power, are merely another distraction from suffering, not a solution to it, and even when they reach such sorcerous heights, they are ultimately insufficient. Accordingly, Manfred declares that he will "lean no more on superhuman aid," and discouraged, he resolves on a pleasant mountain hike up the Jungfrau, to be followed by a liesurely suicide (I, ii, 383).
Manfred's self-destruction is checked, however, by the appearance of the Chamois Hunter, who, after a weary day of hunting chamois, comes across what he takes to be an aristocrat apparently about to plunge to his doom. After admonishing Manfred to "Stain not our pure vales with thy guilty blood" the Hunter returns to his cabin with the chastened warlock (I, ii, 384). The action here is curious: if Manfred were truly bent upon suicide then surely no insignificant Chamois Hunter could possibly prevent him. Instead, Manfred realizes that simply because he has foresworn "superhuman aid," there is no reason that he might not consider "human aid" as a possible source of satisfaction in his quest. In fact, when the Hunter suggests that, whatever Manfred's woes he might find comfort in "the aid of holy men, and heavenly patience--" (II, i, 385), Manfred emphasizes his rejection of the supernatural by scornfully replying "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." It is important to note the manner in which Manfred extends his rejection of his spiritual advisors to the Hunter's offer of "holy men and heavenly patience."-- by "superhuman aid," he denounces hackneyed Christianity as well as occult mystification. Strangely, some critics have seen this as evidence of Byron's consideration of a humanist answer to the Manfred's dilemma; that the scene with the Chamois Hunter represents a sort of Wordsworthian idyll of rustic "natural piety," in accordance with accepted Romantic principles. Manfred himself depicts the Hunter's existence in an almost Wordsworthian manner:
Thy humble virtues, hospitable home,
And spirit patient, pious, proud, and free;
Thy self-respect, grafted on innocent thoughts;
Thy days of health, and nights of sleep; thy toils,
By danger dignified, yet guiltless; hopes
Of cheerful old age and a quiet grave,
With cross and garland over its green turf,
And thy grandchildren's love for epitaph;
(II, i, 385)
If so, it is a consideration which is extremely short-lived, as Manfred, like Byron perhaps, continues to distance himself from the self-satisfaction of such an existence. He concludes the vision by excluding himself from the possibility of sharing in it "This do I see -- and then I look within -- / It matters not -- my soul was scorch'd already!" Manfred's perception of the essentially illusory nature of Wordsworthian homilies and tautology render them incapable of lending him any reassurance.
Manfred is also unable to find solace in that other Romantic commonplace, the appreciation of nature. When Manfred conjures up the spirit of the natural environment, the Witch of the Alps, he claims that it is in order "To look upon [her] beauty -- nothing further" (II, ii, 386). However, he almost immediately demands that the witch also offer him relief for his suffering. However, the offer which she makes, immortality in return for an eternity of servitude, is unacceptable. Although the bargain sounds suspiciously like that which a Romantic poet might be willing to make with his muse, Manfred's pride renders him unable to accede, and he is reduced to importuning the spirits once more for assistance.
In his assault on the Hall of Arimanes, however, Manfred makes explicit what has been heretofore only implied. In calling up the Phantom of Astarte, Manfred claims that he will, at the very least, acquire an answer to one of the great theological quandaries, even if the answer proves unsatisfactory. "I can call the dead," he notes, "And ask them what it is we dread to be: / The sternest answer is the Grave, / And that is nothing" ( II, ii, 388). Yet the Phantom of Astarte reveals only a fact which was already known, that death awaits all mortal flesh, and that it awaits Manfred's in particular. The information which Manfred desperately desires, that Astarte rests easily in the afterlife and has forgiven him for her suffering, is unavailable to him. In short, while Manfred has considered many remedies for his suffering, he has effectively reached the limit of his explorations; it is impossible for him to transcend the human condition, with its attendant suffering, and still remain mortal. Of course, various supernatural entities have been implying this throughout the poem, but Manfred's tremendous pride has rendered him incapable of contemplating their offers.
Mortal philosophical systems and perspectives are incapable of providing satisfaction to the mind which examines them, since they must be limited by individual, mortal apprehension of the universe. Self-sufficiency, pride, and independent spirit become then not merely Byronic character traits, but the basis of the only satisfactory philosophy which Manfred can conceive. As he prepares for death in the final act, he relates this conclusion to his manservant, Herman:
There is a calm upon me --
Inexplicable stillness! Which till now
Did not belong to what I knew of life.
If that I did not know philosophy
To be of all our vanities the motliest,
The merest word that ever fool'd the ear
From out the schoolman's jargon, I should deem
The golden secret, the sought "Kalon," found,
And seated in my soul. It will not last,
But it is well to have known it, though but once;
It hath enlarged my thoughts with a new sense,
And I within my tablets would note down
That there is such a feeling.
III, i, 391
Byron makes clear that he intends this understanding of the bankruptcy of mollifying philosophies to extend to the Christian church as well as other philosophical commonplaces. In his penultimate confrontation with the Abbot of St. Maurice, he makes clear that, as far as he is concerned, the Phantom of Astarte has sufficiently answered his query regarding the disposal of the soul, and that Christian promises of paradise are, by comparison insignificant:
Old man! there is no power in holy men
Nor charm in prayer, nor purifying form
Of penitence, nor outward look, nor fast,
Nor agony -- nor, greater than all these,
The innate tortures of that deep despair,
Which is remorse without the fear of hell,
But all in all sufficient to itself
Would make a hell of heaven -- can exorcise
From out of the unbounded spirit the quick sense
Of its own sins, wrongs, sufferance, and revenge
Upon itself; there is no future pang
Can deal that justice on the self-condemn'd
He deals on his own soul.
III, i, 392
But if there is no hope of heaven in Manfred's philosophy, there is also no threat of an externally decreed hell. When Manfred refutes the preeminence of the church, he once again denies the supremacy of any spiritual authority beyond his own self-determination. When the demons from the court of Arimanes arrive for their due, Byron rewrites the Faust myth by having Manfred disavow their claim:
--Back to thy hell!
Thou hast no power upon me, that I feel;
Thou never shalt possess me, that I know:
What I have done is done; I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine:
The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts,--
Is its own origin of ill and end
And its own place and time: its innate sense,
When stripped of this mortality, derives
No colour from the fleeting things without,
But is absorb'd in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert.
Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe, nor am I thy prey --
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter -- Back, ye baffled fiends!
The hand of Death is on me -- but not yours!
III, ii, 396.
In death, Manfred is neither pious nor nihilistic-- he certainly does not take this moment to repent as the Abbot suggests, and affirm what is, to him, a bankrupt religious orthodoxy. Yet he does make reference to a "hereafter," -- although if Manfred is bound for an afterlife, we can be certain that it is populated with neither angels nor demons, unless they bear the stamp of his approval. Indeed, Manfred's self-assertion at the moment of death absolutely denies not only the demons who claim him, it denies the authority of any spiritual system to excercise tyranny over individual will, whether it wears the guise of the church, of science, of Romanticism; or, come to think of it, the guise of Postmodernism, or literary criticism. Coming from one with such experience in the ways and limitations of demons, perhaps we too might reconsider the value of his declaration.
Corbett, Martyn. Byron and Tragedy. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1988.
Rutherford, Andrew. Byron: A Critical Survey. London, 1961.
Thorslev, Peter L. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis, 1962.