The Victorian Sage

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

Month: October, 2012

D.H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent (1922) – Sage-Writing in Mexico

One of the writers who maintained something of the spirit of Carlyle into the 1920s, when the Sage of Chelsea was slipping out of fashion in the anglophone world, was D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence’s novels of the time were moving outward in scope, and taking for their subject the degeneracy of modern civilization in toto. I’ve just been reading The Plumed Serpent (1922), a novel whose project for regeneration of society involves a primitivistic fascism and the deification of the leader. This novel has never gotten a good press; in Katherine Anne Porter’s famous review, she wrote: “After you have read this, read Sons and Lovers again, and you will realize the catastrophe that has overtaken Lawrence.” (D.H. Lawrence: The Critical Heritage, Routledge 1970).

D.H. Lawrence, would-be prophet of a new civilization

Lawrence had read a lot of Carlyle, as Jessie Chambers notes in her Personal Record, and he had undoubtedly been formative of Lawrence’s worldview. Between the social teachings of Carlyle in works like Past and Present (1843) and The Plumed Serpent there is much in common. Both writers start from a position of deep unhappiness with the direction of modern civilization. There are 2 main strands to this unhappiness:

1 MATERIALISM AND GREED: Carlyle calls it the Gospel of Mammonism; Lawrence the Cult of the Dollar (The Plumed Serpent, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2009, p. 37)

2 ABSENCE OF REAL EXPERIENCE: The opening bull-fight in Serpent is a “show”, and it’s only the show that Owen, as an exemplar of modernity, wants to experience: “If anything was on show, he had to see it.” (4) This was, of course, Carlyle’s main concern, and one of the sources of his greatest influence: “Man has forgotten the eternal nature of things, and taken up with the show of things”. Modern society, for both writers, is where man can no longer tell the difference between reality and sham. (It is on this issue that I think Carlyle is at his strongest, and still hits some good points. Our own society is, if anything, even more addicted to what Carlyle would have called sham than his own. Advertising industry? Cosmetic industry? Public relations industry? All  explicitly devoted to sham. Much postmodern thought deals with this too, “society of the spectacle” (Debord) and so on, but from a different standpoint – that of the impossibility of pure and true experience, in any circumstances )

How, then, is a person to regain touch with reality? In Serpent, Lawrence refers to “a Natural Aristocracy of the World”, which is certainly close to Carlyle’s idea of the “Aristocracy of Talent” in Past and Present. These individuals would operate on the “souls” (Carlyle) or “blood” (Lawrence) of the masses by, firstly, their own innate forcefulness, which is what gets them to leadership in the first place; and secondly by the use of symbols – Carlyle had deep understanding of the operation of symbols on the hearts and minds of the community and individuals (see especially Sartor Resartus, Bk. 3, Ch. III). He felt, especially in his early writings, a need for a new symbology to replace the worn-out clothes of Christianity. Lawrence is more definite in his advocations – Christianity is dead, symbolized by the burning of the icons in Chapter 18, and Quetzalcoatl, The Plumed Serpent, god of the Aztecs, is back, providing a symbol under which the “dark, momentous will at the center” (351) of human life can be expressed. Expressed in sex, violence and death of the ego.

Lawrence is somewhat like a Carlyle with added sex. Violence Carlyle, like Lawrence, considered sometimes necessary (and in practice he rarely condemned officially sanctioned violence, though mob violence was another matter), death of the ego very much corresponds to his notion of “Annihilation of Self” in Sartor (Bk. 2, Ch. IX), but sex has no place in the Carlylean society – one assumes it’s permitted as necessary for perpetuation of the species, but even that can only be assumed.  On this subject, if none other, Carlyle is almost wholly true to his “Gospel of Silence”.

Lawrence’s novel is not, I felt, as committed as its noteriety would lead one to believe. Certainly there’s a rhapsodical quality to the ritual scenes that can seem self-indulgent, and that lends itself to mockery, but through the protagonist Kate, a 40-year-old Irish widow, Lawrence reflects with reasonable balance and an understanding of the difficulties of the “regeneration of society”. (It is for this reason that I found the end rather puzzling, changing direction in the closing sentences in a way that seems improvised and not entirely supported by what’s preceded it.) It appears Lawrence couldn’t quite make up his mind and had trouble fully committing to the myth of Quetzalcoatl. There’s also a good deal of casual racism, it must be said, though its reputation probably precedes it here, anyway. Nor are the views of gender relations such as are considered enlightened. However, I did find the novel compelling, contrary to my expectations, and its speculations frequently provocative. Perhaps late Lawrence isn’t so bad after all. I am, however, biased towards this book as it deals with themes I am very interested in, and because it falls in with a tradition I’m studying, being ideologically influenced by the Sage tradition, notably Carlyle. Its program to cure the ills of society is, alas, one-sided and insufficient, but it does have that thing Lawrence valued most of all, “the dark, momentous will at the center”.

Morality and Criticism

I was perusing the pages of the latest New York Review of Books today and found a review of a collection of essays by a critic named Daniel Mendelsohn, of whom I had never heard. The review was by one Edward Mendelson (no relation?). The headline is “Triumph of a Moral Critic” – meaning in this case not a critic of morals, but a critic whose work is informed by a moral position. The great moral problem of our times, says Mendelsohn, is the “reality problem”: “the blurring between reality and artifice” that he attributes to new technologies and that permeates all our conduct; a problem called post-modernism. This problem, I would suggest, is hardly a necessary consequence of technology. That post-modernism has seeped its way into intellectual discourse in our culture was not inevitable, yet now it is a myth, in Barthes’ sense, depoliticized, just there, natural, as if no one in there right mind could say No, existence isn’t just a simulacra. That’s just one way of talking about it. And at this point, not a helpful way. In the terms of Thomas Carlyle, post-modernism seems to me to be an old coat going out at elbow, and one which may now be safely cast off, even at the risk of going naked for a while as we try to retailor our ways of thinking.

Alas, until someone comes up with some system, some way of thinking that has a name, we may be stuck with post-modernism. Carlyle says at the beginning of Sartor Resartus: “Surely the plain rule is, Let each considerate person have his way, and see what it will lead to”, and in the same passage quotes from Daniel 12:4:

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

Unfortunately many won’t run to and fro. They’ll form a line and run after each other! And they won’t increase knowledge at all! They need, as Carlyle knew better than anyone, a flag or banner to run after, then all will be well:

It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being; those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolic worth, and prize it the highest.

While I don’t quite agree with the last part, and would account an age that managed to see symbols as only symbols as the noblest, I don’t doubt that Carlyle is practically right in this case. Yet all Daniel Mendelsohn and the rest of us can do is sit and wait the Rise of the New God, or the new intellectual paradigm, before which, I perceive, post-modernism will crumble into dust.

Foucault and Carlyle: Modes of Sagacity

Michel Foucault is the postmodernist thinker par excellence. Though he didn’t like to be so labelled, the central approach of his work involves denying universal values and insisting that the human subject is always “in the position of beginning again” (“What is Enlightenment?”), helping to form a template for much postmodern theory. Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, is a specifically 19th-century figure, fuelled by his hatred of Enlightenment values and rationalism generally, bent on uncovering “the Eternal Laws of the Universe”, and disseminating same to his readership, a strong advocate of imperialism and a great believer in racial determinism in the formation of character. Carlyle, in terms of wide influence on the intellectual circles of the time, was something of a 19th-century Foucault. Let us recall the words of Walt Whitman in this context:

It will be difficult for the future 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 as regarding myself.  But there could be no view, or even partial picture, of the nineteenth century, that did not markedly include Thomas Carlyle.

He color’d the thought of the age, said Walt. A big statement. And few have “color’d” our own age’s thought like M. Foucault. How then do these two roughly analogous figures compare? Let us look at pronouncements of the two men on a similar theme, taking in both cases spoken testimony. for these are likely to be more direct, succinct, and practical – particularly in Carlyle’s case, for he was a Sage, and thus told people how they must live and how society must be conducted. Foucault too was something of a Sage in this respect, rather than simply a theoretician of what Carlyle called the “Dryasdust” variety. A maître à penser, if you will. [Quote from Foucault is from an interview in Rabinow, Ed.’s The Foucault Reader (Penguin, 1991) pp. 340-373, and Carlyle’s from a talk recorded by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and included in his Conversations with Carlyle (1896), pp. 181-183, under the title “An Harangue”.]

Foucault was not an ideologue, rather than prescribe one approach to politics, he suggested:

I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.

All allegiances had to be constantly questioned for Foucault. A section from Carlyle can be taken as his response to such a suggestion:

Get out of that, you ugly and foolish windbags: do you think the Eternal God of Nature will suffer you to stand in the way of His work? If you cannot open your eyes and see that this is a thing that must be done, you had better betake yourselves elsewhere – to the lowest Gehenna were fittest – there is no place for you in a world which is ruled, in the long run, by fact and not by chimera.

Carlyle is not responding to Foucault, but to hypothetical opponents of a mooted plan of his to send the poor of Ireland to work on the Bog of Allan, doing what is unclear, but their organization into labour could only be a good thing, according to his values; however, his stance here makes it clear how hostile he is to a Foucauldian approach, which fails to acknowledge that the world is ruled by fact, and fails to distinguish between chimera and fact – that, worse again, effectively denies the distinction. The main danger is the same every day for Carlyle, and the end of Man is an action, and not a thought, though it were the noblest (Sartor Resartus, 2, VI).

Foucault’s prescription is rather vague, and sounds hard, nay Sisyphean. Carlyle’s posits 1) a transcendental truth-maker, or God 2) a means of knowing God’s will – through his intermediary, Carlyle himself 3) and is very decided on the contemptible nature of those who disagree, the ugly and foolish windbags. Thus it fulfils human needs for intellectual submission – to this God and his intermediary – and for scapegoating and xenophobia. All this is lost in Foucault. No wonder he doesn’t hit it off with the man in the street.

A Note on Smollett’s Lady Poet

Recently I have been looking into that foundational work of feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Guber, as part of my general reading in literary theory and literary criticism. This book contends that the social construction of “creativity” placed it in opposition to femininity, citing the male mind as the mind which begats, and female efforts in that direction were unnatural, nay monstrous. The pen existed in various discourses explored by Gilbert and Guber as “a metaphorical penis”. This reminded me of a passage from Smollett’s Roderick Random, in which a middle-aged spinster is witnessed in the act of monstrous literary creation. Consulting Madwoman’s index, I found that this passage hadn’t been remarked therein, though another Smollett character, Tabitha Bramble from the (unread by me) Humphry Clinker, was mentioned in passing. It doesn’t seem to have been much discussed elsewhere, either (I could easily be wrong about that), but it is an interesting scene from a feminist point of view. That said, I must admit the reason it had stayed in my head in the first place was because it had made me laugh when I first read it, and it still does.

Tobias Smollett, 1721-1771

The lady’s appearance is unattractive, unfeminine, and her linen “never washed but in Castalian streams”. She is surrounded by clutter and disorder, and holds a stump of a pen, another indice of the impossibility of her task. She doesn’t note Roderick’s entry as she sits in a reverie of concentration; her movements are spasmodic, orgasmic, she bites her pen, contorts her face, and eventually says aloud, with an air of triumph:

Nor dare th’immortal gods my rage oppose!

This, it turns out is the closing line of a poem to be inserted into a tragedy she is composing, this poem the speech of a regicide as he stands over the body of his victim and haranges the crowd gathered thereabout. This lady-poet of Smollett’s then is dramatizing her Oedipal conflict, her desires to kill the father-king figure, and on a wider level her gender’s wishes to rebel against the patriarchal norms regarding creativity later identified in Madwoman. But it is all carried out with a stump of a pen, and recounted in tones that robs her attempts of any dignity. Nevertheless, Smollett was an early witness to  the discontent engendered by patriarchy, his acuteness not the less impressive even if he sees it only as an occasion for merriment.

As it happens, the whole poem, some 11 lines, is given later, and is, I believe, well worth reproducing:

Thus have I sent the simple king to hell,
Without or coffin, shroud, or passing-bell:—
To me, what are divine and human laws?
I court no sanction but my own applause!
Rapes, robb’ries, treasons yield my soul delight;
And human carnage gratifies my sight:
I drag the parent by the hoary hair,
And toss the sprawling infant on my spear,
While the fond mother’s cries regale mine ear.
I fight, I vanquish, murder friends and foes;
Nor dare th’immortal gods my rage oppose.

An “unnatural rhapsody”, Random calls it; or is it a primal howl of rebellion against the patriarchal norms Smollett is even within the poem upholding by its preposterous overstatement? We note again the “spear” reference, and are once more compelled to remark the phallicity of the image. This post is not the place for a more substantial reading of Smollett’s lady-poet (I’m not sure, but I don’t think her name ever appears. He refers to her as “my mistress”, as he has been employed as her footman), merely to note that this interesting personage has yet to receive her critical due.

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