9th International Student Byron Conference Proceedings

The 9th International Student Byron Conference was held in Messolonghi from 21st – 25th May 2014. Attendees travelled from Greece, Lebanon, the UK, and the USA to participate. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Byron’s Life and His Eastern Tales’.

Upon arrival, after a warm welcome from Mrs Rosa Florou of the Byron Society of Messolonghi, we were able to visit the Byron House and Research Centre. The Centre is home to a large library of books and collection of artifacts relating to Byron, his social and poetical circle, international nineteenth-century Philhellenism, and the Siege and Exodus of Messolonghi during the fight for Greek Independence. This fantastic collection maintained by the Byron Society of Messolonghi is a beautiful and inspirational place for scholars and enthusiasts. Afterwards, we were shown around Agios Spiridon, the Orthodox Cathedral of Messolonghi, which Byron visited; and from there we went on to the Municipal Museum of History and Art Municipal Gallery. This museum houses an exhibition of Byron artifacts and portraits, in addition to its collection of local historical items. We learnt about the town’s history, notably the special role of Messolonghi in the fight for Greek Independence, as well as some of the acts of bravery and heroism performed by residents of Messolonghi during the siege and Exodus of 1826. Several of these acts were portrayed in some of the artworks on display in the gallery, such as De Lansac’s 1828 painting “The Messologhiot Woman” and Kasolas’s copy of Vryzakis’s “The Exodus” and “The Welcome of Lord Byron.” Finally, we enjoyed dinner at the ‘Archontiko’ restaurant which served a variety of excellent Greek dishes.

The academic proceedings opened with a paper from Professor Naji Queijan (Notre Dame University), titled “Eroticism in Byron’s Oriental Tales: An Alter-Ego to the Occident.” Professor Queijan began with the idea that what is foreign becomes exotic, and therefore erotic, extending this concept to the Eastern female in the nineteenth-century Western imagination. He discussed how this was a reflection of Western patriarchy, arguing that the Romantic idea of sexual fulfilment through this fantasy says more about the West than the East. Professor Queijan went on to talk about Byron’s attempts to transform the gaze from one of eroticism to one of aestheticism, through his engagement with Hafiz (in translation) and the idea of love as divine rather than erotic. His argument that Byron’s oriental tales offer a remarkable opportunity to criticize Western erotic ideas fed into the next paper, Bassem Kamel’s (Notre Dame University) discussion of “Goethe’s and Byron’s Oriental Affiliation: The Poet as a Bridge Between East and West.” Kamel argued that Goethe and Byron both bridge gaps between the East and the West through both literature and activism, and that both poets discover that East and West have in common the core human values of love, the transcendental power of religion, and freedom from oppression. Kamel also studied both poets’ engagements with Hafiz, focusing on the idea of the poet as a citizen of the world. He argued that Byron exemplifies a celebration of love in a world fraught with contradictions and goes beyond human norms and constraints, using love as a universal language not confined by time, space, or creed.  The final paper in the first panel was from Dana Harb (Notre Dame University), who spoke about Byron and Greek Women.” Harb’s paper argued that Eastern women’s actions had been masked until Byron began unmasking them through Haidée in Don Juan. Byron observed Greek women and presented their active roles rather than the traditionally understood passive ones. Harb explained how he exposed their true identities to refute the idea of them as pathetic, passive victims. Like Haidée, she argued, Byron believed that love knows no rank or regulation; and he showed this through Don Juan’s and Haidée’s shared experience of a temporary vision of equality between sexes. Haidée’s death represents the women of the East who seek their own freedom, and Harb’s paper finished with a defence of Byron as a pro-revolutionist for feminism.

The second academic panel opened with Grace Nakhoul’s (Notre Dame University) study of “Emotionally Adjusted Elements: Time and Space in The Corsair.” Nakhoul spoke about time as a controversial element in The Corsair in relation to thought, experience, and essence. She discussed the ways that time and space are co-dependent and explained how in literature this can show the apocalyptic nature of timelessness and spacelessness. Nakhoul discussed how Byron adjusts the elements of time and space Conrad experiences in The Corsairdescribing the way in which characters reach the sublimity of timelessness or spacelessness through experiencing high emotions such as love. She went on to show how these experiences happen to Medora, Gulnare, and Conrad in the poem and finished with a discussion of the poem’s end and how it stresses a lack of place and time: no headstone or commemoration.  Nakhoul’s final references to piracy led into Kirsty J. Harris’s (Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge) paper on “Pirate Identity and Destructive Space in Byron’s Corsair.” Harris spoke about the characters of Conrad and Gulnare and the changes they either embrace or reject throughout the tale. Underpinning this discussion was a reading of the sea as synonymous with change, and piracy as a reflection of that notion. Harris argued that by the end of the poem, Gulnare had become the Corsair of the title, whereas Conrad’s lack of fluidity caused his downfall, this reversal suggesting the idea of Gulnare as a ‘warrior-woman’ archetype and Conrad as an example of a misplaced bourgeoisie. Harris’s paper finished with the notion that to break social boundaries, characters must be prepared to reform themselves first. The final paper of the session was from Lee Mathias (Virginia Tech), who spoke about “Coastal Connections: Analysis of Lord Byron’s Coastal References in Don Juan.” Mathias gave a comprehensive history of Byron’s engagement with and experience of the Greek coastline before discussing how this coastal understanding feeds into a birth/rebirth reading of the coastal scenes in Don Juan, most particularly in Canto II. Matthias focused on the relationship between Haidée and Don Juan and the balance of their relationship, asking whether this could be representative of the balance between life and death associated with the sea and Byron’s coastal experience.

There followed a good discussion about myth, movement, and fluidity within texts and characters. We then proceeded to lunch at the fish restaurant ‘Yannis Dimitroukas’ in Messolonghi, where we enjoyed several local specialities.

In the evening, Mrs Rosa Florou gave an official opening in both Greek and English. The evening ceremony of keynote speeches, dinner, and traditional Greek dancing was attended by many local residents as well as the conference participants.

First of the two keynote speakers was Professor Jonathan Gross (De Paul University), whose Ibsen-inspired title was “Escaping the Doll’s House: Byron’s Imaginary East.” Professor Gross opened his keynote asking the question: to what extent can a doll’s house, or an actual home, inform the imagination? He went on to discuss the idea of places that no longer exist and meditated on efforts to reclaim Georgian London such as Tee Bylo’s doll house version of Byron’s 13 Piccadilly home. This led into an exploration of the ways in which Byron’s world of the imagination was nomadic and filled with changes and exchanges like these recreations. Professor Gross raised the idea of Byron’s daughter Ada, now known as a pioneer in computer programming, as part of a world of cyber reality, which led to a discussion about the idea of a perfect world, a substitution of a double via the virtual. He closed by speaking about how fictions can imprison as well as liberate, speaking about Byron’s cultivation of madness as a condition and product of the poetic lifestyle he led in his nomadic imagination and in actuality.

The second keynote speaker was Dr. Stephen Minta (York University), who gave a paper on “The Giaour – The Early Reception.” Dr. Minta’s keynote began with the recognition that The Giaour was problematic for early critics, who nonetheless recognised it as an important poem. None of the reviewers completely approved of the poem for two reasons that Dr. Minta identified: the broken, fragmented form, and the characterisation.  The perplexed reviewers were anxious about Byron’s apparent lack of moral compass regarding crossing boundaries into death. Dr. Minta went on to explore how this displays Byron’s sense of humanity’s limitless capacity for despair in The Giaour, explaining how the early reviewers saw both the attraction of horror and the danger of a place where suffering goes beyond the capacity to discuss the morals associated with it. He argued that Byron challenges the nostalgia of a settled, orderly world and finished with the notion that souvenirs from the nineteenth-century Grand Tour become like fragments themselves in the English home: items emptied of context yet claiming to be something exotic.

To finish the ceremony, we enjoyed a traditional Greek dinner hosted by the Messolonghi Byron Society at Theoxenia Hotel, together with a display traditional Greek dancing which conference attendees joined in with at the end. The Gala also included a performance by Professor Jonathan Gross, who entertained us on the piano.  Among other selections he  played his own song “Love so Soon”and jazz selections by Duke Ellington, featured on The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (2011). In addition the conference participants Grace Nakhoul and Dana Harb performed songs in both English and their native Lebanese.

The first speaker in the third academic panel was Professor Peter Graham (Virginia Tech), who spoke on “ParisinaMazeppa, and The Romantic Telling of Tales.” Professor Graham focused his paper on these two tales not located in the Ottoman-dominated Eastern end of the Mediterranean in light of Byron’s concept of “lava of the imagination.” Professor Graham argued that Parasina is an anomaly among the tales as the hero is not conventionally “Byronic.” After examining several similarities between the two poems—their prolonged periods of composition, their shared theme of a transgressive love triangle featuring a woman, her older husband, and his younger rival, their basis in and departure from historical specifics– he also studied the intertextual conversations the works hold with Coleridge’s Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Professor Graham closed with an analogy between Byron’s fluid metaphor “lava of the imagination” and Coleridge’s embodiment of the imagination’s eruptive creativity in “Kubla Khan.” Leading on from this, Sam Crain (San Jose State University) spoke about “Self-Loathing Legitimised: The Byronic Heroes of AbydosCorinth, and Parasina.” Crain’s paper argued that the Byronic hero takes two forms – the one who commits a crime and believes it leads to his own damnation, and the one who has been made Byronic by mistreatment from a paternal figure (or his home country, such as in The Siege of Corinth). After an analysis of several of Byron’s heroes, she went on to explore Byronic heroes in the Post-Romantic period, arguing that in Victorian literature the self-condemned, self-isolated Byronic hero becomes less common. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is isolated by others, and Jane Eyre’s Rochester transcends his Byronic nature while still alive. This led to a discussion on the complications of heroism. Crain ended asking the question of why the Byronic hero is so compelling to Victorian (and later) writers, stating that he becomes less frustrating and more pitiable in these later texts, when less blame is ascribed to the character.

There followed a lively discussion regarding where heroism comes from and how it can be a criticism of the patriarchal model, along with whether the Byronic hero fails in later texts, or whether the character is redeemed.

The first paper of the final session was from Elli Karampela (Aristotle University), who discussed “Lord Byron and Wuthering Heights: Representations of the (Anti)-Heroine.” Karampela continued threads of discussion which had been present in Dana Harb’s, Grace Nakhoul’s, and Kirsty J. Harris’s papers regarding the varied female personae in Byron’s works. The paper complemented Sam Crain’s study, as Karampela focused on the Victorian Byronic heroine rather than hero. She discussed the mixture of female vulnerability and masculine behaviour or temperament in both Bronte’s and Byron’s women, asking questions about how this reflects or affects gendered social and political stereotypes.  The final paper of the academic proceedings was given by Dr. Argyros Protopapas (Athens University), who spoke about “Creative Impasses of Genre Rebellion and Revolutionary Ethos: Byron’s Feared Heroes in Lara Versus Shelley’s Fierce Spirits in ‘Ode to the West Wind.’” Dr. Protopapas argued that a revolution in genre can be seen in Byron’s and Shelley’s works. He discussed the crises and revolutionary impulses in both texts’ rejections of tradition and stability. He went on to discuss how Lara features alienating states of self-consciousness up to the moment of crisis and identified stylistic Shelleyan overtones in Lara before exploring Shelley’s mythologically inspired Spirits in “Ode to the West Wind.” Finally, he argued that an identification with the wind represents an identification with freedom from socio-political constraints, making “Ode to the West Wind” a meditation upon the chains of a historical time.

On Friday evening we enjoyed a visit to the Chapel of Panayia Finikias (Church of the Virgin of the Palms), following in Byron’s path as he used to ride there from Messolonghi. This was the habitual journey after which Byron became ill under heavy rain on 10th April 1824. Afterwards, we visited the island town of Aitoliko, which Byron visited twice in February 1824. On the way back to Messolonghi we stopped at an art gallery dedicated to the work of Vasso Katraki which was both fascinating and enlightening, the only museum in Europe dedicated exclusively to engravings.

The conference came to a close Saturday after a wreath-laying ceremony at the site where Byron breathed his last on 19th April 1824. Each of the conference attendees left a rose at the Byron memorial column dedicated by the University of Athens to commemorate the centennial of his death. Following this tribute, we visited the Garden of the Heroes to pay respect to the statue of Byron and the graves of Greek fighters and Philhellenes who fell during the sieges and Exodus of Messolonghi in the 1800s.   Also we experienced a wonderful sailing trip crossing the lagoon waters and visiting the historic isle of Agios Sostis, where Byron landed on January 5, 1824 and from whence his remains left for England via Zakynthos on the ship “Florida” in May 1824.

This 9th International Student Conference was hugely successful and enjoyed by all who attended and participated. There was a wonderful combination of academic discussion and cultural experiences, which provided the perfect opportunity to engage with other scholars and learn about Greek history at the time when Byron himself experienced it. The conference provided a fantastic opportunity for students and scholars from around the world to connect with one another and share these experiences. We would like to thank the conference organiser Mrs Rosa Florou and her assistants from the Byron Society of Messolonghi for all their hard work and effort in arranging this memorable shared experience.

By Kirsty J. Harris