The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: September, 2012

Gavan Duffy’s Conversations With Carlyle (1892)

One of Carlyle’s more interesting, as well as more enduring, friendships was with Charles Gavan Duffy, Irish nationalist and later Australian politician. On the surface, such a friendship seems unlikely. Carlyle was not an advocate for Irish independence, but very much the reverse:

The Irish National character is degraded, disordered; till this recover itself, nothing is yet recovered. Immethodic, headlong, violent, mendacious: what can you make of the wretched Irishman? “A finer people never lived,” as the Irish lady said to us; “only they have two faults, they do generally lie and steal: barring these”—! A people that knows not to speak the truth, and to act the truth, such people has departed from even the possibility of well-being. Such people works no longer on Nature and Reality; works now on Fantasm, Simulation, Nonentity; the result it arrives at is naturally not a thing but no-thing,—defect even of potatoes. Scarcity, futility, confusion, distraction must be perennial there. Such a people circulates not order but disorder, through every vein of it. (Chartism, 1839, Ch. 4)

Yet though Carlyle was fairly consistent in his denunciations of the Irish character, and in the Carlylean heirarchy of races the Irish was somewhere near the bottom, he enjoyed a certain amount of popularity with the Young Ireland movement (see Dugger, Julie M. “Black Ireland’s Race: Thomas Carlyle and the Young Ireland Movement.” Victorian Studies 48.3 (2006)). Anti-Irish as we was, his outspoken denunciation of existing ideal of material progress and capitalist economics, as well as the  notions of instinctive morality on which his doctrines rested (as opposed to the dominant utilitarian principles of John Stuart Mill, et al., in which morality was worked out through rational principles) apparently made them view him as a potential ally. When Duffy was tried for seditious conspiracy in the later 1840s, Carlyle wrote to him letters of support, support not so much for Duffy’s cause as for the man himself, as a person of industry, sincerity and good sense, though he did not come out publicly in favour of Duffy.

Duffy later moved to Victoria, Australia, became a politician, and was much-loved by Victoria’s large Irish population. His friendship with Carlyle survived an they corresponded intermittently and met whenever Duffy was in London. After Carlyle’s death, Duffy witnessed the decline of his reputation, and determined to set down a picture of Carlyle as he knew him: not the cranky, selfish and self-pitying individual of Froude’s biography, but a caring, good-tempered and humorous man, one a good deal more tolerant than his public writings showed.
Duffy’s Conversations with Carlyle (1892), based on notes the author made of conversations at various times from the 1840s to the late 70s, and Carlyle’s own letters, is the anti-Froude. He manages to paint Carlyle as a fairly engaging and humorous character. Witness the following:

One Sunday, walking to Battersea Park with two or three friends, one of whom since became a judge and another was an eminent man of letters, we came on a street preacher haranguing a mob at the top of his voice: “Will you open your ears to the word of God, my brethren?”  he cried: “Do you accept this message which I bring you from the fountain of living truth?”

“Not altogether, my friend, if you insist upon knowing,” Carlyle whispered with comical emphasis when we had passed the preacher. (Conversations with Carlyle, 220)

Carlyle’s sly irreverence is funny, though perhaps less so when seen in the context of Carlyle’s own uncompromising fanaticism, and his own pretensions to setting out “the Eternal Law of things” (Carlyle, loc 220); he was hardly in a position to mock the pretensions of the preacher. That was the contradiction of Carlyle: so alive to the absurdities of speech and thought in others, yet himself guilty of far greater extravagance than any. The modern reader is probably aware of Carlyle, if at all, as the fanatic and intolerant preacher, but he was also something of a humorist. Not that that really excuses his excesses, but it helps explain his great popularity and influence. Sometimes the humorist and the prophet come together in a strange, almost grotesque, amalgam – see for example the “Specimen of an Harangue” reproduced by Duffy. Lazy, simplistic and self-indulgent as political commentary, this harangue is greatly enlivened by the metaphorical form in which Carlyle delivers his message: a conversation with his horse, the “worthy quadruped” who wishes to go to Greenwich when his owner intends to be taken in “a quite other direction” (Duffy, 183). (The horse stands for the common herd, who must be driven, not allowed to lead. Carlyle’s point is that democracy sucks.) The humour is missing from Froude’s account, but is central to Duffy’s defence of Carlyle as a man. Carlyle himself would have insisted on the seriousness of his message, but sometimes it is better to see him as a self-parodist. He was what Matthew Arnold called him: “Part man of genius, part fanatic – and part Tom-fool!” (Heffer, 274).

Carlyle, Thomas, Latter-Day Pamphlets (Kindle: Amazon, 2011)

Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan. Conversations with Carlyle (London: Sampson Low, 1892). [Also available online at the Internet Archive]

Heffer, Simon, Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle (London: Phoenix-Orion, 1996)

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Biographies of Literary Men: Carlyle and David Foster Wallace

I am once again deeply mired in Carlyle studies, having begun to read the 4-volume Life of Carlyle (1882-1884) by James Anthony Froude, some 1800 pages(!) in all. Froude’s Carlyle is one of the most significant in English letters, for the reason that it played a significant part in destroying Carlyle’s reputation – from being seen as one of the great minds of the age, Carlyle fell into total discreditation, then into oblivion. Walt Whitman said on Carlyle’s death  that:

It will be difficult for the future—judging by his books, personal dissympathies, &c.,—to account for the deep hold this author has taken on the present age, and the way he has color’d its method and thought. I am certainly at a loss to account for it all as affecting myself. But there could be no view, or even partial picture, of the middle and latter part of our Nineteenth century, that did not markedly include Thomas Carlyle. (“Carlyle from American Points of View”, 1892)

But if Carlyle did color the method and thought of his age, with his disquisitions on justice, duty, and a stern adherence to the Eternal Laws of the Universe; his ridicule for those who felt life could be theorized into meaningfulness; the worship of sorrow and silence and the need for Heroes/ Great Men to lead the unthinking herd, and above all his constantly being “dreadfully in earnest” (Froude II, 56); as I say, if he did color his age’s method and thought, with the publication of Froude’s Carlyle, he was opened to the opprobrium of those very same idle, chattering classes who had listened so intently as he ranted against them. Yeats recounted a conversation he had in the 1890s in which he noted with satisfaction that Carlyle, already, was “as dead as Ossian”. Later, as the conversation moved onto Walpole, Yeats’ dialogist noted “Walpole is exactly the sort of man Carlyle would have hated, and called a sham, yet Carlyle himself was the most insincere of all” (from memory, citation not to hand). The most insincere of all – for a man who had spent his long writing career denouncing cant, quackery and sham, to be so remembered was somewhat ironic. Carlyle had been painted by Froude as a constantly self-absorbed, self-pitying, hypochondriacal, selfish-to-the-point-of-cruelty, probably-sexually-impotent fraud who had married one of the most accomplished and intellectual women of the age and used her belief in his genius to turn her into a drudge and maid-of-all-work, while ignoring her emotional and intellectual needs, driving her nerves to breaking point, till she took refuge in that old Victorian staple of “delicate health”, and died before her time. Simon Heffer’s biography of Carlyle (1995) tells the story of Carlyle’s reputational demise in his Introduction. Many have since argued that Froude’s picture was totally unfair, and that he was blinded by his own admiration/ love for Jane Welsh Carlyle and his vision of her as tragic martyr. In any case, Froude’s book was a sensation, read by all of Gigmanity, and Carlyle’s writings, in this new light, began to seem like the greatest sham perpetuated on the reading public since Ossian’s heyday.

As I make my slow way through Froude’s opus, I read today a review of the new David Foster Wallace bio, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by DT Max. Strange as it may seem, Wallace is something of a latter-day Carlyle. Only consider the following, from a review of Carlyle’s last major work Frederick the Great:

His power, though, we trust, lessening, is still great – especially in three classes – litterateurs, the more intelligent of our working men, and thoughtful young people generally.

Apart perhaps from the second class mentioned, this is very much Wallace’s readership as well: the literary classes – he’s very much a “writer’s writer”; writers and young intellectuals and students are his readership. He is an intellectuo-moral touchstone for a generation: smarter than everyone else, but constantly debating and evaluating the moral fundamentals of life in our time. As he says himself

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day…. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

Having no DFW to hand, I have pasted the above from Wikipedia. This much admitted, I wish to draw attention to the sage quality of Wallace’s writing, to the fact that the implied author here is a sage in the Carlyle sense, one who meditates deeply on how we must live our lives and speaks with a moral authority that is absolute. Where Carlyle raged, Wallace maintains a reasoned tone, but the implied author as holder of the keys to moral truth, as wanderer in the desert and martyr for the people (note the use of the word “sacrifice”), who is wise that the general populace may be happy, is the same.

Max’s book, at least as presented in the Sunday Times Culture review of 16.09.12 by Robert Collins, explodes all this. Wallace is “exhaustingly erratic, petulantly self-regarding, obsessively jealous, etc.” It will be interesting to see if this has any effect on Wallace’s reputation. It is unlikely to go with him as it did with Carlyle, mainly, I think, because we have a very different attitude to our heroes and idols now. An idol should have feet of clay. The human being is not perfectible. Further, it is such a commonplace now to regard society as the oppressor that individual neurosis is health: a reasonable response to an unreasonable world. One must also remark that despite Collins’s determined efforts to portray Wallace as unpleasant, the actual facts he cites to support his contention are not so prejudicial: neurotic Wallace obviously was, but not so clearly morally reprehensible as Collins seems to think. Therefore thoughtful young persons will no doubt continue to look to DFW for guidance, a great reader of the Signs of the Times, and a “sacrifice” to those times, too sensitive, it may seem, for this harsh world.

On watching the first 6 minutes of Heart of Darkness (Nicholas Roeg, 1994)

I have been reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness recently, and have of course watched the much-admired semi-adaptation of the novella, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). I also took a peek at the lesser known adaptation from 1994, directed by Nicholas Roeg, a noted filmmaker in his own right for works like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s HoD is not too readily available, but it has been uploaded onto YouTube in small segments, only the first of which I have watched, six minutes in which Marlow is introduced, sitting in a boat engaging in a conversation with an emissary of “the Company”, identified as a lawyer, come to collect Kurtz’s papers, which Marlow refuses to give him. The framing device for the film, then, is not Marlow telling a story to some sailor chums as in Conrad, but, it would appear, to the Company Lawyer. The dialogue for this opening scene is taken partly from Marlow’s preliminaries to his story in Conrad, and partly from the scene related towards the end of the novella between Marlow and the Lawyer.

Company Lawyer Guy raises a toast to Empire-building

What is interesting is the way some of Marlow’s dialogue is given to the Lawyer. This is a man of advanced years, stiff and respectable looking, stocky, ponderous in his movements, with a starched collar (played by Peter Vaughan). He is a quintessential, stereotypical Victorian man of business. He is also, somewhat improbably, drinking wine from a glass while on the boat talking to Marlow. The drinking of wine signifies his gluttony, his devotion to sensual gratification; his clothes and appearance signify his unthinking conservatism and lack of imagination; his lip-pursing while Marlow talks of the evils of colonialism illustrates his unsympathetic nature. In these opening minutes, we are given one of the most famous speeches from the novella:

It’s just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale. The conquest of the earth mostly means the taking it away from those with different skin tone, slightly flatter noses than ourselves. Not a pretty thing when you look into it too deeply.

That’s all, just those lines. Another part of the speech is, in fact, given to the Lawyer, a paean to the Romans: “A brave lot they must have been”, he concludes. It is in response to this that Marlow counters with the conquest/ robbery with violence analogy. Those familiar with the novella will note that after making this analogy, Marlow makes a very important qualification: “What redeems it is the idea only” etc. This part of the speech is left out.

By choosing which thoughts of Marlow’s can be retained, which must be removed, and which displaced onto an obviously demonized representative of corrupt authority, Roeg’s HoD does something a lot of adaptations of classic texts of recent times do. The thinking behind it goes, I believe, something like this: “Conrad was a great writer and Heart of Darkness is a great book – everyone knows that. Therefore he must have had properly liberal and progressive political views, as only moral and ideological correctness is consistent with classic literature”.

Thus Conrad’s irresolvable ambiguities are ironed out, and anything questionable is A) left out or B) communicated in an obviously disapproving way that also implies Conrad disapproved of it.  This is a feature of popular discourse on what it considers classic literature: ambiguity is not an appropriate feature, unmistakeably liberal politics are. With this reading we’re back in the pre-Achebean days of HoD criticism – not that I remember those days but if Achebe is correct then the work was discussed without reference to its colonialist sympathies. Not that I’m advocating a wholly Achebean reading, either. The text isn’t really reducible to any single reading.

This is a subject that has struck me in my studies of adaptations of Victorian writers like Dickens, Gaskell, etc. It seems adapters and their audiences are constantly looking for ways to read these writers as liberal-progressives, even radicals. I’ve recently been looking at Gaskell in some depth, and would describe her as a conservative and paternalist writer; yet adaptations are constantly trying to rewrite her politics. Conrad is politically a more complex case than Gaskell, but all of these writers function similarly in popular discourse: it seems that current popular discourse can’t gets its head around the notion of great literature and conservative and even reactionary politics, so, rather than adapting possibly not great literature with the right politics, it attributes the right politics to the ready-established greats, and adapts them through that lens. This is made abundantly clear in adaptations of relevant works. This is surely something that warrants study in the near future. What I have written here is not very original observation, perhaps, but it has not been fully dealt with, either.

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