“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, May 17, 2013

Byron Talk July 3

At the International Byron Conference in London

“Byron's Nonhuman”

At several points in his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer quotes Byron. These deeply sympathetic citations have to do with a feeling of being immersed in things, a mystical sense of being at one. What are the physical and phenomenological conditions of the state Byron evokes? They are far from obvious and far from straightforward. In this talk I shall be arguing that Byron's poetics is in part an attempt to think these conditions, which have to do with the basic coordinates of the experience of beauty according to Kant, Schopenhauer's predecessor. These coordinates have to do with some kind of unconditional intimacy with at least one other entity that is not me. Beauty thus provides some kind of zero degree of relating to another entity, a relating that is not prefabricated or conceptual. Yet it is precisely this relating that disturbs the Hegelian logic under which much contemporary thought still labors. What this thought cannot tolerate is, as I shall show, connected to the kind of unconditional, “empty” self-relating evoked in Kantian beauty. Hegel describes this as the night in which all cows are black. We will thus proceed with a reading of “She walks in beauty, like the night”—in which all cows are black. This poem elegantly stages the encounter with not-me that overlaps the encounter with the nonhuman. 

As we shall see, this night is the basic flavor of ecological awareness. It is a flavor I find on the inside of me, insofar as I can experience beauty. The double-entendre of my title is a deliberate attempt to speak this necessary encounter with the nonhuman, above and beyond facts and factoids about DNA, evolution, and the trillions of bacteria in my gut. 

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