11th International Student Byron Conference Proceedings
11th International Student Byron Conference, 23-28 May 2016 Messolonghi, Greece
“Byron and the Summer of 1816”
MONDAY 23 May 2016
On Monday 23 May, the eleventh International Student Byron Conference opened in Messolonghi Greece, with participants trickling in throughout the day, disembarking from buses and taxis to check in at the Theoxenia Hotel. It was a lovely warm day beside the lagoon in Messolonghi. Participants completed registration at the administrative office of the Messolonghi Byron Society and its Byron Research Center in the Byron House, where they were graciously welcomed with coffee and local cookies and pastries by the President of the Messolonghi Byron Society, Mrs. Rosa Florou, the Center’s librarian, Christina Tsekoura and other officers and members of the MBS. Further welcome came from Professor Peter Graham of Virginia Tech, who oversees International Relations. With everyone registered, participants visited the Center of Literature and Arts Museum ‘’Diexodos’’ , the Municipal Museum of History and the Art Municipal Gallery to learn about Messolonghi’s history before stopping to Tourlida Beach and the lovely Cathedral of Agios Spyridon, visited by Byron during his time in the city.
At the Art Municipal Gallery, participants were formally welcomed by Mr. Nikos Karapanos, the Mayor of Messolonghi, and other Councilors of the City Council.
Peter Graham thanked them on behalf of the conference, and participants were given a guided tour of the artwork, including the incomparable “Woman of Messolonghi” from 1828. This painting, completed in 1828 by the French Painter E. De Lansac, depicts a Greek mother who has already sacrificed her son and is about to do the same to herself to prevent their being taken by the invading Turkish army. Dinner that night was enthusiastically enjoyed at Archontiko restaurant in the city centre and despite the length of travel for many participants they stayed out enjoying one another’s company and conversation until late in the evening before retiring to the Theoxenia Hotel.
TUESDAY 24 May 2016
Tuesday began with breakfast at the Theoxenia, after which participants were conveyed into the city center for the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the monument to Byron newly refurbished by the Messolonghi Byron Society in 2015 at the place where Byron died on 19 April 1824. In 1924 the University of Athens honored the centennial of Byron’s death by erecting a commemorative marble column, work of the sculptor Antonios Sochos. It was a somber event in which all participants joined, laying individual flowers beside the wreath. Following the wreath-laying, they visited House-Museum of the prominent Greek revolutionary and diplomat, Spyridon Trikoupis, who delivered Byron’s eulogy. Participants learned that not only was Spyridon Trikoupis a diplomat, historiographer and vital part of the Greek War of Independence, but his son Charilaos went on to become an indispensable figure in Greek politics in the latter half of the nineteenth century, whose accomplishments included being elected seven times to the office of Prime Minister of Greece. Then participants visited the Garden of the Heroes, wherein the tour guide, Mr. Giorgos Apostolakos told the story of Messolonghi’s resistance against Turkish occupation of the city. These efforts included digging a massive ditch and erecting a huge earthen wall to repel the Turks, with children as young as seven helping in the digging and construction. After lunch, it was time for the first academic session witch started with a welcome address from Dr. Maria Schoina of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, who is Deputy Director of Studies for the Messolonghi Byron Center and chaired by Naji Oueijan.
Peter Graham delivered the first paper, “Byron on Prisoners” in which he presented The Prisoner of Chillon as a thought experiment exploring the difference between a prisoner, who is confined to a space, and an exile who is excluded from a space. According to Peter, Byron’s Bonnivard is imprisoned with his brothers because they serve as external expressions of his own self, a self that is ultimately made unsuitable for existence in the outer world.
Following Peter’s paper was Sam Hunt from University of Minnesota, whose paper “Byron’s Contrary Attitudes toward Religion” examined the ironic contrasts between Byron’s portrayal of Bonnivard, an indisputably Christian figure in a text that makes almost no allusion to his faith, with his depiction of the apostate Giaour, whose depiction is riddled with religious trappings. Sam suggested that the juxtaposition of these two characters demonstrates not only Byron’s playfully contrary nature as a poet but also his deep-seated ambivalence toward religion in general.
The panel was rounded off by Yara Berbery, Notre Dame University, Lebanon, reading her paper, “Victim and Victimizer in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Yara examined the thin line between victim and victimizer, not only in Frankenstein but in Byron’s The Giaour and concluded that when the cycle of victimization is forced to continue, as when the Creature turns on Victor Frankenstein, the victim-turned-victimizer may be forgiven for his actions.
Following a lively question-and-answer period and a coffee break, Session Two got underway, chaired by Dr. Maria Schoina from Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. The first speaker was Dr. Stephen Minta of York University, whose paper, “‘I have been cunning in mine overthrow…’: Byron and Manfred” took his listeners through the transition Byron underwent in 1816, a transformation that would prepare him for the writing of Don Juan. Stephen argued that the pivotal text in this transformation was Manfred, the text in which it becomes clear that human freedom and enslavement come from within the individual, a realization that was necessary to enable Byron to jettison the brooding but static Byronic hero and move on to the more dynamic Don Juan figure. It must be realized, Stephen tells us, that the Byronic Hero craves the sanctuary of Hell.
Next, Anna Radcliffe (University of Virginia) presented “John Polidori in 1816,” which gave an explanation of Polidori’s role as reporter to Murray on the actions of Byron’s and Shelley’s coterie in Geneva. Her paper then moved on to an explanation of the life of the journal Polidori kept at Murray’s request but which Murray elected not to publish. Said journal passed through the hands of many people, including Polidori’s aunt, who censored it and burned the original copy. This, Anna tells us, demonstrates the very real power over a text possessed by a transcriber over the text he or she copies.
Third in this second panel was Malcolm Thaine Bare from the University of Virginia, presenting on “Lines Written in a Country Estate Resembling Maple Grove: Placing Memory in Emma.” He explored Emma as “a novel of whens rather than ifs” and compared the text with Childe Harold, asserting that both are texts trying to preserve cultural memory. The difference, Malcolm concluded, is that while Childe Harold is able to find a place for the individual and his memories even when among others, Emma’s social belonging requires a suppression of individual memory.
The panels were followed by a lovely dinner at the fish restaurant Avgo tou Kokora, where participants feasted on seafood dishes, including sea bass and baby calamari, and continued getting to know one another and discussing each other’s papers and literature in general.
WEDNESDAY 25 May 2016
The day’s first panel, third overall, was chaired by Professor David Radcliffe of Virginia Tech, and the first paper was presented by Professor Naji Oueijan (Notre Dame University): “Lord Byron beyond the Romantics’ Borderlines.” Naji began with a quote from a letter by John Keats in which Keats contrasts himself with Byron. Byron, he said, writes what he sees; whereas Keats writes what he imagines. Following this, Naji addressed Byron’s avoidance of lyric patterns in favor of a fragmentation of narrative that is true to life but sometimes paradoxical. This fragmentation makes Byron’s texts complex and marks Byron as a modern poet who functions within the Romantic Period. To illustrate his points, Naji pointed to the several-times-expanded text of the The Giaour and the multi-tonal Childe Harold with its complex relationship between the narrator and Harold himself.
Next up was Anna Hupcejova from Charles University in Prague. In her paper, “References to and Characteristics of Prometheus in Byron’s Manfred,” Anna took her listeners through the traditional associations prompted by allusion to the Promethean myth and explains those associations’ links to Manfred. Count Manfred is, she concluded, a combination of the figures of Prometheus and Faustus, embodying the qualities of Creativity, Rebellion, and Sacrifice. During the question-and-answer, Peter Graham suggested that Manfred is indeed a “solipsistic Prometheus.”
Evangelia Papadogiannaki, from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, gave us the third paper of the panel, “The Byronic Hero in Byron’s Manfred and in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Comparison.” Eva argued that Shelley “problematizes the Byronic Hero” by taking him off his pedestal rather than glorifying his Byronic nature. This interrogation of the Byronic Hero took the shape of a moral examination of Victor Frankenstein who is undoubtedly a Byronic overreacher after taboo knowledge and unhallowed arts. Eva contrasted the depiction of Frankenstein with that of Manfred, concluding that Mary Shelley is less forgiving toward Byronic excesses than Byron was himself, presenting Frankenstein as a critique of Utopian views and of the Byronic persona. Frankenstein, Eva told her listeners, does not consider consequences, except in his destruction of the female Creature, and even then, his consideration is incomplete and precipitates his Creature’s decision to kill Frankenstein’s family as punishment. Eva concluded her paper by stating, insightfully, that Victor Frankenstein as a Byronic Hero is a better critique of Byronism than the Creature is.
Last but not least in the panel was Nick Allen from Virginia Tech, presenting “‘Be Thy Proper Hell’: The Romantic Psychology of Self-Destruction and the Sublime.” Nick conducted a comparative analysis of Victor Frankenstein and Manfred, arguing that these two characters exist outside nature and Romantic ethics. They wrestle with wretched identities and behave as judges of life and as authors of their own respective deaths. Frankenstein is more subconscious than Manfred in his tinkering with life and death, but Manfred connects only with Astarte and thus remains lonely. Nick suggested that “science or pseudoscience acts as a coping mechanism” for these two figures, who are isolated by their own lack of human relationships. Nick concluded with a discussion of Freud’s notion of “oceanic feeling,” a response to the sublime which he argues is a form of narcissistic regression.
Following a coffee break, the fourth academic session of the conference, chaired by Stephen Minta, began with a paper co-delivered by Stephen’s students, Catherine Norrie and Alicia Barnes, from the University of York. In ‘Byron’s “Darkness”: Reception and Interpretation’ Catherine and Alicia gave a thorough account of the contemporary reviews of “ Darkness’’, which has been largely overlooked by modern critics due to the “horror” and lack of a “pleasing” quality, combined with a difficulty in separating the poem from its poet. Though conventional wisdom says that “Darkness” was largely reviewed positively, Catherine and Alicia undermined this, uncovering a number of negative contemporary reviews. They went on to say that the consensus is that the text is among the first of the “Last Man” genre, though some critics demur, claiming that it defies genre or serves as an early example of science-fiction. They concluded that “Darkness” has been a neglected poem dealing with the theme of destruction and decreation.
Sotiria Kalpachtsi from Aristotle University presented ‘On “Darkness” and Nature: The Impact of the Year without a Summer.’ Sotiria argued that “Darkness” can be read autobiographically. The Year without a Summer with its torrential rain, snowstorms, and destruction of crops represents a departure from normality in Nature. This departure is echoed in “Darkness” as a complete subversion of social order through the advent of darkness and famine, so that Nature takes over in a brutal way. Society provides material to be consumed in the pursuit of survival, and natural laws become impossible to overcome, so that living without civilization is living without freedom. The Nature in “Darkness” is not a peaceful, Wordsworthian Nature, but an echo of man’s savage capacity for destruction.
Nathalie A. Hajj from Notre Dame University read the paper “The Gothic and Scientific in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” She gave an account of the scientific and pseudoscientific underpinnings of Frankenstein, including Victor Frankenstein’s fascination with alchemy and galvanism as well as the tension between empiricism and rationalism present in the text. Nathalie compared the issues in Frankenstein to similar ones presented in the 2015 film Ex Machina, concluding that both deal with the creation of an “alternative” form of human life that is then rejected and destroyed, rather than assimilated. This destruction, she argued, suggests the broader implications of Frankenstein as a text.
Following the end of the panel, participants went downstairs for another excellent lunch at the Theoxenia hotel, returning afterward for the fifth academic session, chaired by Peter Graham. The first panelist was Maria Schoina of Aristotle University, with the paper “Mary Shelley and the Attractions of Classical Scholarship.” Here, Maria intriguingly suggested that Mary Shelley’s knowledge of Greek, though previously treated by scholars as merely a “postscript” to Percy Shelley’s knowledge of classical languages, proved central to the emergence of her intellectual and emotional self-determination. In her talk, Maria documented Mary’s expanding interest in Greek and finished up by pointing to Mary’s decision to take refuge in classical study as a way to maintain her sense of closeness to Percy Shelley and preserve her sanity after his death in 1822.
David Radcliffe and Anna Radcliffe followed with the joint presentation “Expressing One’s Self on Paper: Transcribing 19th Century Letters.” The presentation included a practical activity, with letters and excerpts of letters being passed around so that we could all try our hand at transcribing a piece of Byron-related correspondence. After giving everyone a chance to experiment with their example letters, David and Anna discussed the idiosyncrasies of nineteenth-century letters and transcription as well as the advantages of digitizing both original letters and transcripts. Their presentation provided a fine segue into Virginia Tech graduate student Andrew Wimbish’s talk, “The Catherine Byron Letters,” which described the process of transcribing the correspondence of Byron’s mother, comprising 92 letters plus explanatory materials. The project took place in three phases: transcription, mark-up, and producing the final product. Andrew presented transcription as a “different kind of close reading” and explained TEI, the programming language designed to describe transcription patterns and features (such as cross-outs) in a digital medium, through the use of tags and annotations.
The last academic event of the evening was the keynote lecture. Peter Graham introduced Professor Paul Douglass of San Jose State University as the speaker, and Paul surprised and delighted his audience by launching into a traditional Irish folk song, for which he both sang and played guitar. The rest of the keynote was equally gratifying. In his lecture, titled “Betrayed and Abandoned: Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon and Byron’s Departure from England in 1816,” Paul gave a thorough account of the publication history of Glenarvon, the roman a clef based on her four-month-long volcanic affair with Byron and its contemporary critical reception, including Byron’s reaction. Paul asserted that the text was, in part, an acknowledgement of and a raging attack against the sexual double standard, as Lady Caroline’s behavior was condemned more than Byron’s, and her novel’s critical reception was vindictive and personal. Paul then argued persuasively that Lady Caroline’s excoriation of Byron could help explain why he became a serious revolutionary in Greece after years of being more casually in favor of liberal causes. The character of Lord Glenarvon is a false revolutionary, and in fact, a traitor to the Irish cause in the 1798 rising against British rule. Byron was able to recognize himself in Caroline’s portrait of Glenarvon as a beautiful liar, a political coward, and a seducer of women. According to Paul, he accordingly was determined to prove himself as a true supporter of independence when the opportunity arose in Italy and Greece, thus escaping permanent characterization as a “typical hypocritical English Whig.” The keynote was not only intriguing and well-researched but entertainingly delivered and among the highlights of the conference. Following the keynote, participants went into the city center for dinner on their own.
THURSDAY 26 May 2016
Thursday’s morning and early afternoon were given to David McClay, Senior Curator of the John Murray Archive, for his interactive workshop on putting together an exhibit using the different archival objects available in the Murray Archive. First David gave a lecture on the theory of exhibition, explaining that an exhibition includes two parts: the verbal explanation by the curator and the distillation of the curator’s knowledge into the display. He also discussed shaping exhibitions based on how much visitors will be able to absorb, as well as the place of technology in exhibitions. Then he divided the rest of us conference participants into small groups, where he gave us the task of shaping a display around a set number of objects. He gave each group a different word limit for their object descriptions (ranging from an unlimited number to 25 words, with the stipulation that all descriptions should be understandable by a young audience, regardless of length). Groups were given free rein regarding which archival materials were available, provided each display used a total of three items, and that we varied our choices by ensuring that we used at least one piece of poetry manuscript or fair copy and at least one letter. This activity was both enjoyable and excellently illustrated the challenges of putting together exhibitions. Following completion of our displays, each group presented their items and captions before the larger group, competing for the prize of handsome mounted facsimiles of several archival documents related to Byron’s work and biography.
After David’s workshop, it was time for a well-earned lunch back at the hotel, followed for many of us by a nap before our visit to Aetoliko, the island town Byron visited twice in February of the last year of his life. We were able to see the Church of the Archangels, which incorporates a well that stood in Byron’s time as well as a garden that holds the grave of Ali Pasha’s wife Kyra Vassiliki. Next we went to the Folklore Museum and finished up at the Vasso Katraki museum, devoted to the renowned Greek painter and engraver, who lived from 1914 to 1988. Upon arrival at the museum, we were given a guided tour of the artworks and then attended the welcome address by the Deputy Mayor of Aetoliko, Mr. Panagiotis Staramos. The address was followed by a lovely concert by the Plucked String Orchestra, conducted by Spyros Cholevas.
In a venue not to be matched in any of the other panels or lectures, the marble hall of the Katraki museum, Professor John Gatton of Bellarmine was introduced by Peter Graham and gave the last academic lecture of the conference, “Reading The Prisoner of Chillon as Dramatized by Eugene Delacroix and Ford Madox Brown.” In his illustrated lecture, John explicated the two artists’ depictions of the Prisoner, in which Delacroix makes the decision in his painting to leave the Prisoner chained whereas Madox Brown focuses on the interplay of light and shadow. John concluded that both painters “perform” the Prisoner of Chillon in their respective “mental theaters,” using the medium of visual art. Following John’s lecture, attendees returned to Messolonghi, where they ate dinner and enjoyed one another’s company for the remainder of the evening.
FRIDAY 27 May 2016
Friday was the big day of excursions outside of Messolonghi, beginning with the traditional visit to the Chapel of the Virgin Palms, the destination of many of Byron’s sunset rides. Afterwards, attendees continued up the hill on the bus to the historical site of Plevron, the ruin of a Homeric city. Perhaps the most interesting features of this mountainside city were the amphitheater, built so that theatergoers would have had a view not only of the stage but of the sea behind it, and the clever aqueduct system by which the city was supplied by running water. Conference goers were first able to watch a video in the visitor center and then to walk around the ruin themselves, keeping an eye out for the large and abundant spider webs, complete with spiders. The tour guide, who told us the story of Ancient Plevron, was Mrs. Polixeni Charalambopoulou officer of the MBS’s Board.
Conference goers then had much of the day free, with many eating a long lunch at various places in town, and then going swimming or shopping. The professors and David McClay, however, gathered at the Byron Center to be interviewed by a PhD Student of Athens University, Ira Karadimitriou, along with Rosa and to discuss possibilities for the coming year’s conference.
That night, the Theoxenia hotel hosted the conference’s farewell dinner, served buffet-style and accompanied by ethnic dances by the “Free Besieged Society.” The traditional music was provided by DJ Sakis. Conference participants joined in the fun, and several of Naji’s students were then called on to sing and dance, as was Paul Douglass, who accompanied himself on guitar. He reprised the Irish revolutionary song “At the Rising of the Moon” at Rosa’s request before going on to other selections, among them the stirring “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” famed as the African-American National Anthem. The final evening of the conference came to a satisfying close, though doubtless many attendees were sad to realize their time in Greece with their fellow Byronists was nearly over for the year.
SATURDAY 28 May 2016
The final breakfast in the Theoxenia Hotel was bittersweet and contained numerous goodbyes as most participants readied themselves to leave Messolonghi. A few left quite early in the first of a series of taxi departures. Others left by coach or later taxis, and a few remained another day or two in the sacred city. After saying goodbye to old friends and new, the eleventh International Student Byron Conference came to its close.
Written by Sam Hunt, University of Minnesota