Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Week 02, Thomas Carlyle

General Notes on Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

Carlyle, who often serves as a survey course’s bridge between the romantic and Victorian periods, is a difficult writer, but his insights into literature, history, and politics make his eccentric books worth considerable patience. His style is designed to forge a relationship with an increasing, and increasingly skeptical, post-romantic-era public that is not easily satisfied by time-tested formulations about anything. But Carlyle himself was a complex man who wouldn’t fit comfortably in any era—for one thing, he was raised as a strict Calvinist and kept something of the Old Testament prophet about him even after rejecting the metaphysical tenets of this austere faith. Moreover, born in the same year as John Keats, he was by nature a moody and “romantic” individual, which means that he found it necessary in arriving at his mature prose style and authorial stance to work through his own “storm and stress” tendencies before he could find out what lay on the far side of them. It seems he had to pass through Byron to arrive at the calm classicist humanism of his hero Goethe. (But Goethe, author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, had to do something like that, too.) His German Idealist Professor Teufelsdröckh is not Carlyle, of course, but at the same time, Sartor Resartus is part of Carlyle’s 1830’s project of working out a new and viable way to set himself forth as a writer and social critic. Carlyle is characteristically, if explosively, “Victorian” in his admission that art must re-establish its value anew in modern society—and, most particularly, that it cannot do so by reverting to a programmatically “romantic” set of claims about art and social cohesion. In sum, Carlyle faces a task not unlike that of the Anglo-American modernists who will write nearly a century after his time: how to take past ideas (literary forms, social philosophies, political ideals, etc.) and “make them new” to suit the present time.

In Sartor Resartus, that is what Carlyle, in creating his fictional Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, is doing with regard to the “romantic” tradition to which Carlyle himself has strong intellectual and emotional ties. He cannot (and probably would not want to) play the romantic philosopher in his own person. “Dr. T” is Carlyle’s eccentric spokesman for the Idealism of the Continent and, to some extent, for the recent and increasingly defunct British Romantic movement. As you can see from reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Scott and Byron (along with the Lake Poets Wordsworth and Coleridge) had already come to be regarded as a “school.” And to belong to a school, of course, is to become subject to the inevitable sway of fashion and changed circumstances. Carlyle’s ironic but nonetheless respectful presentation of Dr. Teufelsdröckh’s romantic notions about self and society, then, amount to the author’s way of keeping the best in that tradition open for English consideration while admitting that he, as a modern writer, cannot return to the nineteenth century’s first few decades.

What does Carlyle think is worth preserving about the romantic tradition of thought? Well, he is not a precise philosopher like Kant or Hegel; I think it will do here to say that he finds a couple of things worth maintaining: first, the sense that what binds people together is not so much intellect as passion. But perhaps even more important to Carlyle is that romanticism, in its way religion-like, asserts the primacy of spirit over materiality and brute fact. I don’t suppose Carlyle ever truly reconciled the Weimar or “Goethean” humanist promoter of self-cultivation in himself with what has sometimes been called the “prophet of self-annihilation” and, later in life, the “worshiper of force.” But perhaps that is asking too much of him—he is most consistent in fighting by any and all means the advent of a fully materialist, and materialistic, culture in the British Isles. And Carlyle’s “romanticism,’ as he makes Teufelsdröckh illustrate dramatically in Sartor Resartus, was a necessary phase through which he had to pass if he was ever to establish an authentic new voice for his contemporaries. Romantic poses and premises were an essential part of his makeup as a writer and as a social critic.

With the phrase “social critic,” we move on to Carlyle’s mature social philosophy and stance as an historian as they appear in the 1843 text Past and Present. Writing during the Hungry 40’s, when economic instability and discontent were a powerful and threatening combination in Britain , Carlyle decries the alienation capitalism has created amongst workers and employers and, in fact, everyone in Great Britain . In an analysis of labor relations that Marx and Engels would later praise, Carlyle argues that while labor should knit humans together into a social whole, work in industrial Britain is wage-slavery, and the ideology that supports it has the people “enchanted” by its abstract and mechanical conception of human nature and society. The factory hands perform their daily labor for the capitalist, but at day’s end, they have little to show for it in either pecuniary or spiritual terms. The products of the worker’s labor (called “commodities”) enrich the capitalist at the expense of any fair distribution of what has been produced.

This state of affairs, says Carlyle, is even worse than the situation in Europe during medieval times. Back then, at least, the relationship between peasant farmers, their landowning Lords, and the Church, however oppressive and hierarchy-bound, was at least an authentic relationship. That accounts for Carlyle’s praise of feudal society—notice his references to Gurth the Swineherd and his master Cedric the Saxon (characters from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), who is himself an underling to the Norman Conquerors. Feudal labor relations, the idea goes, provided both lord and serf with a reciprocal sense of duty toward one another and with some sense of belonging to a stable world order. But in nineteenth-century Britain , no such responsible relationship between the classes prevails, and nothing makes a dent in the Iron Law of the Marketplace. Everywhere, Carlyle explains, one hears only the sentence, “impossible” in answer to the cries of impoverished workers, the unemployed, and those people’s dependents. The false god of riches Mammon, aided by idle aristocrats (“Game-Preserving Dukes”), greedy factory owners, machine-like workers with their demands for the cash that enslaves them, and political economy’s cant about “free trade” and “laissez-faire,” stops cold every attempt to end Britain ’s chaos.

In our chapters, “Democracy” and “Captains of Industry,” Carlyle tries to redefine what is meant by key concepts such as “freedom” and “aristocracy,” in effect recycling them so that they will turn into solutions and not perpetuate the agony of the masses as well as the rule of the ne’er-do-wells. I call Carlyle a recycler of outworn concepts and systems because it seems that his advice isn’t to do away with the flawed, yet dynamic, capitalist order and return to an earlier time. His agrarian “feudalism” is an ideal construction, not something he sets forth as a viable way of life for the present. Rather, Carlyle wants to retain the basic form of capitalist production and even to hold on to the hierarchical relationship between the working and capital-owning classes. If all goes according to plan, there will be no need for another French Revolution—the big industrialists, properly spiritualized by the remnants of Carlyle’s Calvinist belief in the saving power of order, work, and duty, will become “Captains of Industry” and take control of a threatening situation. They will become the new Norman Lords. What the workers need, thinks Carlyle, is not the vulgar, anarchic democracy for which they presently clamor; it is work under the supervision of the newly responsible employer-class. Freshly recycled and spiritualized capitalists will take on the duties of a true aristocracy. Like the original conquerors who came over with William of Normandy in 1066, they will set to work with the materials at hand and build a stable order. They will organize (not reject) production and distribution in the machine age for the benefit of workers and themselves. In sum, they will lead Britain as no other class presently in it can, and thereby provide an answer to the ‘sphinx riddle” of just relations between human beings. That is Carlyle’s answer to what we generally call the Condition of England Question.

Finally, it might be argued with justice (and was so argued by Marx and Engels) that this solution requires the great capitalists to do something that isn’t in their interest: why should they do anything but what fills their coffers with more capital to invest? In sum, it might be said that what Carlyle advocates goes against the operation of a market economy, wherein employers takes on workers for as little as they can pay them, and gets them to do as much “surplus labor” as possible to generate capital. The system itself is the most powerful disincentive to change—it benefits those who are already poised to benefit. What Carlyle is arguing against is, quite simply, the brutal fact that a “system” (economic, social, micro or macro) can function robustly for a long time even though the mass of people who make it work don’t benefit from its continuance. And there is nothing within the system itself that tells they winners they should care about this ugly fact—the will towards a moral “fix” has to come from beyond the system, at least initially. Capitalism isn’t so much immoral as purely economic and amoral. It is entirely capable of solving the ancient problem of production, but when you assail it for not solving the equally ancient problem of distribution, it has nothing to say—that is no concern, properly speaking, of the economic system. Those who have money (congealed, abstract labor power, to borrow from Marx’s terminology) can buy all the things they want; those who have no money can starve unless someone (for religious or other extraneous moral reasons) decides to help them. That is what we call “private charity.” So long as capital keeps getting generated and commodities keep getting themselves produced and sold, the economy rolls along cheerfully—it doesn’t matter much whether one person buys 100 shirts or 100 people buy one shirt; in theory and to some extent in practice, the profits will be there for the taking. Those who are excluded from the magic circle of production, buying, and selling simply don’t count. But of course Carlyle understands that people usually do what is in their own selfish interests—especially when their utilitarian/market “philosophy” proclaims that they ought to do just that very thing. So how do you suppose he would respond to all this criticism of his suggestions? Do you find him anticipating such criticism in the chapters we may have read from Past and Present?

Page-by-Page Notes on Sartor Resartus


“The Everlasting No.”


1006. “Have we not seen him disappointed…?” Such references point to the storm and stress movement in German literature, and in particular to Goethe’s book the sorrows of young Werther.immediately below, the author refers to Teufelsdröckh’s loss of faith, and then Deism comes in for criticism.

1007. “Foolish Word-monger….” Materialism and logic churn out false belief and offer false happiness. Carlyle and Teufelsdröckh oppose Jeremy Bentham’s radical utilitarian movement. Towards the bottom of the page, the narrator says that even doubt leads to God.

1008. “His heaven-written Law still stood legible and sacred there.” Quack muttering from a quack prophet—this will be a consistent theme. “Our Works are the mirror wherein the spirit first sees its natural lineaments.” Know what you can work at, says Teufelsdröckh. Work is of course a key concept in Continental philosophy, especially in Hegel and Marx. Perhaps Carlyle would agree with Oscar Wilde at least in saying that only shallow people know themselves, although Oscar Wilde would never posit work as the answer to this problem. “A feeble unit in the middle of the threatening Infinitude, I seemed to have nothing given me but eyes, whereby to discern my own wretchedness.” Teufelsdröckh is spinning his wheels on speculation not directed towards any object. He is an alienated intellectual. The steam engine universe threatens to run him down.

1009. “To me the Universe was all void of Life… it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” This is a key passage. Materialism and logic lead to atheism, and Teufelsdröckh wrestles with spirituality and the meaning of spiritual language. He dramatizes the problem of materialism for us, providing distance from the raw emotion of his encounter with it somewhat as Wordsworth distances us from raw emotion by means of metrical verse. As for Carlyle’s style generally, he puts us in absurd situations, confronting us with the ugliness and cynicism wrought by unbelief and by the need to survive and render intelligible new environments.

1010. Teufelsdröckh is said to confront freedom and the casting out of Byron-Devils. Notice the mockery of Parliament as well. “Despicable biped! What is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee?” Where does defiance come from? Teufelsdröckh asserts free will to defy death; he takes up a stance against death. “The Everlasting No… pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my Being….” At this point, Teufelsdröckh confronts the threat of unintelligibility and the possibility that he has no true source. He will arrive at his spiritual rebirth by casting out “legion,” to do which requires experience, the great spiritual doctor. And this is where we come to the center of indifference. “For the fire-baptized soul, long so scathed and thunder-riven, here feels its own Freedom….” The doctor needs an object, he needs direction. He must cast away his romantic vagueness and stop reveling in his own isolation and alienation. He must work through, in both senses, this romantic defiance of his. Carlyle acknowledges the need to adopt a romantic pose to go beyond romanticism. The impulse must be redirected. His spiritual labor’s object is the casting out of Byronic devils. They must be made to depart into everlasting fire, as the gospel would say. His feeling of freedom is what he calls a Baphometic fire-baptism. Romanticism will be construed as a movement and a moment in a much larger historical and philosophical context. But at this point standing puzzled between us and Teufelsdröckh and his romantics is the editor, who is just trying to make sense of it all.

“Centre of Indifference.”


1011. So Teufelsdröckh will seek experience—he will go to see the visible products of the past. But already the reader is being led to the necessary Mystery that will make life supportable. At the bottom of the page, Teufelsdröckh questions government and laws. But his point here is allied to the doctrine of natural supernaturalism—even such mundane things as governmental practice and legal codification have their source in mystery. The goal is to recover a sense of the eternal in the temporal and ephemeral, to spiritualize ordinary things.

1012. “Books. In which third truly, the last invented, lies a worth far surpassing that of the two others.” Books last and can continue to generate values. They offer us organic ties to the past. They are things woven, and retain the power to produce new thoughts, new suits of idea-clothes. Refer to John Milton’s claim that “a book is a living thing.” Then Teufelsdröckh moves on to discuss the significance of the battlefield, war.

1013-14. War, “from the very carcass of the Killer, [can] bring Life for the Living!” Teufelsdröckh offers a meditation on war and on the folly of passions about it. This page shows the influence of Hamlet’s ideas about the same subject. “Thus can the Professor, at least in lucid intervals, look away from his own sorrows….” At least he can look beyond himself now, can turn his gaze outward.

1015. “All kindreds of peoples and nations dashed together….” Teufelsdröckh wanders through the landscape, and recovers a sense of mystery in historical process by meditating on the revolution. He moves on to discuss the significance of history’s great men, Napoleon in particular. This page also shows the author coming to terms with the great upheaval stylistically.
1015-16. “Of Napoleon himself….” Napoleon is here described as an enthusiast of the very sort he criticizes Teufelsdröckh for being. Next the professor is off to the North Cape where he confronts a Russian smuggler. This passage is important for its style—Carlyle combines the sublime and the ridiculous in his representation of the northern landscape. It is a romantic symbol for regression into self-consciousness, with the ice reflecting itself to itself. But Teufelsdröckh is not allowed to remain in this place for long. The Russian smuggler brings him back to earth again, and in doing so he typifies Carlyle’s method.

1017. “How prospered the inner man of Teufelsdröckh under so much outward shifting?” It is time to cast out legion, or the Satanic school of romanticism. This will bring the professor to the Centre of Indifference. He muses much like Hamlet about humanity’s pretensions. “[W]hat is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth….? The professor is still isolated and apathetic; he has merely passed through his objects of exploration. It is time to apply himself directly to an object—labor is central to Carlyle as it was to Hegel and will later be to Marx. We produce ourselves and find freedom and meaning in work.

“The Everlasting Yea.”


1017-18. “Temptations in the Wilderness!” And “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force….” These pages prepare the way to the everlasting yea with preliminary definitions and injunctions. Here the injunction is to work in well doing. Once asserted, free will must turn itself towards work. For Carlyle, that seems to be what replaces God. But the basic point is one made by moral conservatives in many ages. Here is what Pope John Paul II said in 1979—”Nowadays it is sometimes held, though wrongly, that freedom is an end in itself, that each human being is free when he makes use of freedom as he wishes, and that this must be our aim in the lives of individuals and societies,” he wrote in 1979. “In reality, freedom is a great gift only when we know how to use it consciously for everything that is our true good.” (Redemptor Hominis, March 4, 1979.)

1018-19. “So that, for Teufelsdröckh also, there has been a ‘glorious revolution’.” The narrator or editor breaks in to end the professor’s over-reaching. Self-annihilation is announced as the first necessary accomplishment. The Professor has now achieved it.

1019-20. The editor says that in Teufelsdröckh, “there is always the strangest Dualism….” That is a good description of Carlyle’s prose style. First the professor responds to nature, and then to his fellow human beings. “Nature!—or what is Nature? Ha! Why do I not name thee God? Art not thou for ‘Living Garment of God’?” Here the editor describes Teufelsdröckh applying the metaphor of clothing to nature. And then comes an important moment: “The Universe is not dead and demoniacal….” This universe is Teufelsdröckh’s source and connection to others. Everyone is a wanderer like him, so he serves as a model.

1021. “Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness....” Carlyle uses the example of the common shoe black to illustrate the problem of desire: and the problem is that desire is infinite; it is based upon perpetual lack. I like the sentence “Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.”

1021-22. “The Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator.” If you set the denominator to zero, anything will yield infinity. On the same page, the doctor says “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.” Do away with excess, and devote yourself to balance and calm. The key to life is not the pursuit of happiness—renunciation is the key. Carlyle dismisses the utilitarian happiness principle. Carlyle insists that there is something “godlike” in humanity—it is not something that the pursuit of happiness will bring out. The Everlasting Yea is “Love not Pleasure; love God.” The point is to walk and work in this kind of love.

1022. What does Dr. Teufelsdröckh need to do? The answer lies in his own statement, “Wilt thou help us to embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live?” This will be his task as a philosopher and writer. The metaphor of clothing appears in this formulation—words spin new systems of thought and institutions.

1023-24. “ America is here or nowhere.” The ideal resides within yourself. The doctor must produce a world from his own inner chaos. Carlyle reshapes the romantic conception of self so that the point is not infinite removal into isolated, alienated self-consciousness but instead to realize one’s divinity through work of whatever kind. Spirit must inform, give shape to, what the doctor calls the “condition” (by which he means material matter and circumstance). “Been no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!” Extra: Carlyle is trying to align or balance the self-cultivating humanist side of himself with the one that is always thundering about the need for work. Carlyle’s gospel of work sounds like promotion of self-annihilation, but a lot of Sartor Resartus is about how his eccentric German Professor develops spiritually and intellectually. He comes to realize that “ America is here or nowhere,” meaning that the Ideal (freedom, self-perfection, progress) is inside our own spirit, and we first need to understand that before we can actualize the ideal. (Romantic premise: spirit must move through matter to realize itself fully; and as Hegel would say, you only realize your individuality fully in the context of society—you can’t do it “all by yourself.”) The Everlasting Yea is to love God rather than pleasure: first put an end to stormy posing (like Byron’s Manfred on the Jungfrau mountaintop, above everything and everyone else, sublimely alone, alienated, dissatisfied), realize that your ideal or “America” is right at home, and then direct your actions to the world so you can actualize your ideal, make it real. So the task is to get priorities straight and plan to make life worth something. Carlyle is a Scottish man of letters making his way into the world of English literature and hoping to make a living. He has to work, too—only as a writer. But write what? And what good will it do? What’s the point of foisting a strange autobiography/biography like Sartor Resartus on thousands of English “blockheads”? This page is capped by a call to order and production— work.

The Seinfeld Quotation in Full: “Whoso belongs only to his own age, and reverences only its gilt Popinjays or soot-smeared Mumbojumbos, must needs die with it: though he have been crowned seven times in the Capitol, or seventy-and-seven times, and Rumour have blown his praises to all the four winds, deafening every ear therewith,—it avails not; there was nothing universal, nothing eternal, in him; he must fade away, even as the Popinjay-gildings and Scarecrow-apparel, which he could not see through. The great man does, in good truth, belong to his own age; nay more so than any other man; being properly the synopsis and epitome of such an age with its interests and influences: but belongs likewise to all ages, otherwise he is not great.” Thomas Carlyle. “Biography” from Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 91. (Google Books) {George Costanza’s pretentious new girlfriend Patrice quotes only the first line or so, whether accurately or in adapted form I don’t recall. Season 3 (1991), Episode 2, “The Truth.”}

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