The focus of Byron’s Fragment of a Novel is Augustus Darvell, who attracts the attention of the story’s unnamed narrator. Darvell is described as suffering from occasional inquietude “approaching to alienation of mind”. Stories have circulated about Darvell alleging various sources of his disquietude, including “ambition, love, remorse, grief” or “a morbid temperament akin to disease”. Due to the contradictory nature of the stories, the narrator could not name with any certainty the origin of his unease.
The narrator finds himself obtaining Darvell’s friendship with difficulty and has hope that Darvell’s “restlessness… and his apparent indifference to all by which he was more immediately surrounded” would incline him to accept an invitation to accompany him on his travels to ill frequented countries. Our narrator did not hope in vain, as Darvell accepted his invitation.
They travel first to the south of Europe and then east. The narrator comments that though Darvell must have been robust in his early life, he had been lately wasting away without suffering from any physical disease, and during their trip was becoming increasingly silent and sleepless.
The two friends arrive at Smyrna, once an ancient Greek city but since brought under the rule of Turkey. From there, the friends were to embark on an excursion to the ruins of Ephesus and Sardis, ancient cities of the Greeks and Persians respectively. The narrator attempts to delay the trip, considering the purpose of pleasure incongruent with Darvell’s dark mood, but Darvell possessed an eagerness to proceed which ill-suited the “oppression on his mind, and… solemnity in his manner”.
They pass through marches and steep gorges on their way “to the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana — the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques”. When Darvell’s illness takes a sudden downturn, they are forced to stop at an abandoned Turkish cemetery. “[This] ‘city of the dead’ appeared to be the sole refuge for my unfortunate friend, who seemed on the verge of becoming the last of its inhabitants.”
Darvell reveals that he has been to this place before and confirms that he is indeed dying. He has the narrator swear not to reveal his death to anyone and after his death to complete a ritual which includes casting the ring he is wearing into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis at precisely noon on the ninth of any month and proceeding to the ruins at the temple of Ceres at the same time the next day where he is to wait for an hour. The story ends abruptly after Darvell’s death and burial.
This fragment of Byron’s fits both chronologically and thematically in what is referred to in academia and cultural history as the “mal du siècle”. In his essay Who Invented the Mal du Siècle, Armand Hoog provides an analysis of the origins and connotations of the term. He quotes a draft of a preface by Benjamin Constant for his novel Adolphe which diagnoses the malady as “the fatigue, the uncertainty, the lack of strength, the perpetual analysis that saps the spontaneity of every feeling”. In 1824, a writer for Le Journal de Commerce said that Romanticism itself was a malady.
Hoog relates that the writer Evarist Boulay-Paty has it said that the malady arises from the “premature knowledge” which results from advanced civilization, thereby indicating that it is a kind of disenchantment or disillusionment with the world as seen from the perspective of extensive knowledge which leaves little room for mystery.
Other perspectives are also provided such as that given by Maxime du Camp in his novel Mémoires d’un Suicidé where he asserts the disease to be a form of dreaming. Eduoard Alletz, in his story Le Désenchantement has protagonist ask his mother what purpose there could be “to dream without acting, to hope without attaining, to burn alone without giving light to others”.
The mal du siècle had originally been interpreted as resulting from the end of Napoleon’s First French Empire which left man young men idle who, as Hoog quotes Balzac saying, “did not know what to do with their energy”. Hoog says there are reasons to doubt this interpretation and quotes the father of Alletz’s aforementioned protagonist as evidence. The protagonist of Le Désenchantement is said to be a second generation victim to the malady. His father, being of the first generation and considered to have lived through it and recovered and who is therefore thought to know better, calls the malady “the curse of God who punishes up to the seventh generation a nation without faith.”
Where I am in disagreement with Hoog is in considering the latter interpretation to be in conflict with the former. It is likely rather than what has been called the “revolutionary faith” is in fact an attempt to replace the void felt in the absence of a God or gods. A study on his subject has been undertaken by James H. Billington in his monumental work Fire in the Minds of Men.
The philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche, who also associated Romanticism with illness, had a similar concern with the protagonist of Alletz’s story, that of aligning the will with action which he proposed could be accomplished by orienting the striving of man with the desire to become something more than merely human, in the lowest sense of the term.
Byron is sometimes credited with bringing vampire lore into the popular consciousness, as the Fragment was intended to continue with the character Darvell returning from the grave as Nosferatu. There are interesting considerations to be had in this connection. A vampire is also a being which was once man but since has transcended that state to become something more, often possessing such qualities as superhuman strength and the ability to live eternally. Also significant is the process whereby, in becoming a vampire, the human life must first expire so that the individual can rise again in his new form.
If we reconsider the description given by Byron of the destination of his two protagonists’ excursion (“the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana — the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques”) we notice that the characters were on a pilgrimage to a place where three different religions had arisen and subsequently perished from the scene.
Thinking in terms of Hegel’s notion of the zeitgeist, and interpreting Byron’s Fragment as an attempt to work through the mal du siècle, then the latching onto the mythology of the vampire could be considered part of a greater effort to reinvigorate Europe with a new mythology in the wake of the Enlightenment’s discrediting of Christian belief. Just like the passing away of the human to be reborn as a vampire, European culture would need to experience the demise of Christianity to be reborn under the new belief in accord with the understanding of the age.
In this connection, it is also curious to consider that, at the end of his life, Byron travelled to what was then Turkey in order to engage in the revolutionary wars to secure the independence of Greece which at that point was held under the dominion of Turkey. Perhaps the latter was itself part of a greater hope that, in restoring the location where European culture originated, a new Renaissance would arise in Europe.
If I may allow myself to succumb further to conjecture, I might suggest that the reason Byron did not finish his tale is revealed in the manner which the fragment is concluded. Byron has Darvell elaborate a list of instructions for the narrator to undertake following his death. These instructions are highly ritualistic in nature, well suited to the descriptor “superstitious”. If Byron’s fragment was indeed an attempt to work through the mal du siècle, then it is likely that he was, whether consciously or unconsciously, dissatisfied with a solution to that dilemma which falls back upon unfounded superstition. For that reason the vampire is never revealed in Byron’s narrative but its superstitious character is shown in the ritualistic rites which Darvell requests follow his death.
In his essay, Hoog also suggests that the mal du siècle was cured by the mid-eighteen hundreds. While this post does not admit room for such an examination, it is an assertion that I also take issue with. I believe that this malady continued to stalk Europe until 1945, after which it was (even if unconsciously) suppressed and forgotten, but had already reached the most acute stage at what is refered to as the fin de siècle (the turn of the 20th century).
I hope to explore this topic in further posts. Already I have planned a series on the engagement of the philosopher Leo Strauss with the ideas of Heidegger, which I feel at least touches on this theme.
If you wish to experience the feeling of the mal du siècle then I suggest you listen to Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile. For an optimal experience, listen to it alone with headphones, in a dimly lit space, while viewing paintings of the Romantic era.
Lord Byron, George Gordon. “Fragment of a Novel.” Mazeppa, John Murray, London, 1819.
Hoog, Armand. trans. Brombert, Beth. “Who Invented the Mal du Siècle?” Yale French Studies, No. 13, Romanticism Revisited, 1954, pp. 42-51.