I Was A Lover
by CAMILLE PAGLIA
Jane Porter found Byron's complexion "softly brilliant" with a "moonlight paleness." Lady Blessington called his face "peculiarly pale," set off by curling hair of "very dark brown": "He uses a good deal of oil in it, which makes it look still darker." White skin, dark oiled hair: Elvis Presley. In homage to singer Roy Orbison, Presley dyed his brown-blonde hair black and continued to do so to the end, despite friends' urging to let the natural color return. Presley, a myth-maker, understood the essence of his archetypal beauty.
Byron and Elvis Presley look alike, especially in strong-nosed Greek profile. In Glenarvon, a roman a clef about her affair with Byron, Caroline Lamb says of her heroine's first glimpse of him, "The proud curl of the upper lip expressed haughtiness and bitter contempt." Presley's sneer was so emblematic that he joked about it.
In a 1968 television special, he twitched his mouth and murmured, to audience laughter, "I've got something on my lip." The romantic curling lip is aristocratic disdain: Presley is still called "the King," testimony to the ritual needs of a democratic populace. As revolutionary sexual personae, Byron and Presley had early and late styles: brooding menance, then urbane magnamity. Their everyday manners were manly and gentle.
Presley had a captivating soft-spoken charm. The Byronic hero, says Peter Thorselv, is "invariable courteous towards women." Byron and Presley were world-shapers, conduits of titanic force, yet they were deeply emotinonal and sentimental in a feminine sense.
Both had late Orientalizing periods. Byron drawn to oriental themes, went off to fight the Turks in the Greek war of independence and died of a mysterious illness at Missolonghi. A portrait shows him in silk turban and embroidered Albanian dress. The costume style of Presley's last decade was nearly Mithraic: jewel-encrusted silk jumpsuits, huge studded belts, rings, chains, sashes, scarves. This resembles Napoleon's late splendor, weighed down in velvet, ermine and jewels.
Napoleon, Byron and Presley began in simplicity as flaming assertions of youthful male will, and all three ended as ornate objets de culte. British legend envisions a "westering" of culture: Troy to Rome to London. But there is also an eastering of culture. We are far from our historical roots in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; yet again and again, collective emotion swelling about a charismatic European personality instinctively returns him or her to the east. Elizabeth I also ended as a glittering Byzantine icon.
Byron and Presley were renowned for athletic vigor, yet both suffered chronic ailments that somehow never marred their glossy complexions or robust beauty. Both constantly fought off corpulence, Presley losing towards the end. Both died prematurely, Byron at thirty-six, Presley at forty-two. Byron's autopsy revealed an enlarged heart, degenerated liver and gall bladder, cerebral inflammation and obliteration of the skull sutures. Presley suffered an enlarged heart and degenerated colon and liver. In both cases, tremendous physical energy was oddly fused with internal disorder, a revolt of the organism. Presley's drugs were symptom, not cause. Psychogenetically, Byron and Presley practiced the secret art of feminine self-impairment.
Camille Paglia is a professor in the humanities. The above is excerpted from Paglia's 1992 masterpiece Sexual Personae, which won the 1992 Literary Award for a volume of general literature written by a Philadelphian.
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