Byron did not do with the Gothic hero-villains what Blake and Shelley did–infuse them with existential force, ramify them profoundly. Rather, Byron made the Gothic hero-villain into a bourgeois attraction, the merely interesting man. For if Byron is himself the hero-villain–an original enough stroke–he never confronts what’s darkest in himself with a transforming urge.
Byron lacked all capacity for introspection. He had a sharp, mercurial mind, capable of lightning response to events, but he had the analytic ability of a songbird.
And what is darkest in the Byronic hero is not really very dark. He cannot see deeply enough, look with sufficient coldness, to reveal anything truly disturbing. Byron is forever playing at evil. He’s sentimental, shallow, always posturing, never conveying the intensity of precursors like Hamlet, or even of Ambrosio. The Byronic hero is charismatic, but thoroughly conventional and small-scale in all of his crises and woes. He performs the role of alluring aristocrat to the philistine middle classes. Without intellectual capability, without emotional nuance, the wildly popular Byronic figure cheapens the image of the Gothic hero-villain, and makes the serious Gothic-visionary encounter that much less tenable.
Byron had what Freud would call a stunningly mobile libido. He was able to shift commitments of psychic energy with the speed that an accomplished trader can move futures on the floor of the Exchange. Byron never rests where he might be caught out an made to commit himself. He’s always on the move, always changing–in part out of a fear of being confronted for the opportunist that he is. He’s radically attractive, but loves no one but himself.
Byron turns the idiom of the Gothic into the stuff of Hollywood entertainment; his persona influences every cheaply alienated actor from Humphrey Bogart to Jack Nicholson, as well as the femme fatale. In his vision of life as endless irony (for what is irony but the expressed unwillingness to render full investment in one’s beliefs or relations?), he offers a deconstruction of the various modes of mental strife that Blake and Shelley and Emerson practice. He’s a progenitor of everything in the Anglo-American mind that’s attracted to our various postmodernisms, predicting and endorsing the world of parody, cut-up, pastiche, mime, impersonation, repetition, surface flash, and ceaseless movement. (If David Letterman could rhyme, he’d be a second-tier Byron.) Byron saps the potential for Gothic and visionary conjunction, leading culture toward a new age in which wisdom lies in the art of sliding well on surfaces. In the current cultural imagination, one of Gothic’s main alternatives is the skimming mode manifest in the postmodern culture of unabated irony.
Mark Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic