chapter  9
Jerome Christensen Byron's Sardanapalus and the Triumph of Liberalism
Pages 29

This essay on a play about Sardanapalus, an 'Oriental despot' whose violent end was a favourite theme of European painting and literature, shows the complexity of determining a work's historical status, of interpreting its relations with other contemporary discourses andtaking the word in the widest sense - its politics. Christensen begins by re-envisioning as an anomaly what might seem natural or un surprising: references in all sorts of contexts to despots and despotism, during the period of the consolidation of liberalism in Britain. How do such allusions play into that historical development, and what do they reveal about it? Christensen observes that 'despotism' persists not only as a reference to what is ostensibly liberalism's other, as a bad and anachronistic form of government that has been or must be relegated to the past, but also as a model, a compelling idea of how power functions. Byron's Sardanapalus provides an explanation of why. Byron's despot's 'sway' lies in his being 'roused' to swaying: being swayed by the image of his own sovereignty held up to him as in a mirror by his Greek concubine, Myrrha. This is precisely the dynamics of consumerism's sway, the actual basis of the rule of liberalism, according to Christensen's analysis.