Carlyle and Shklovskian Defamiliarization

by Mark Wallace

Though Thomas Carlyle is often classified as a historian, or perhaps a social critic, to his contemporaries he was a poet. This may seem odd, as he wrote almost no poetry, yet evidently his writings contained something identified as poetic. John Stuart Mill, another social critic, but one in style and ideology very much opposed to Carlyle, wrote in his Autobiography, recalling his one-time adulation for the Sage of Chelsea:

I felt that he was a poet, and that I was not; that he was a man of intuition, which I was not; and that as such, he not only saw many things long before me, which I could see only when they were pointed out to me, hobble after and prove, but that it was highly probable he could see many things which were not visible to me even after they were pointed out.

There are many definitions of poetic writing, but the one which Carlyle seems to fit best is that by formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who sees poetic language as “defamiliarizing”, preventing the automatic and mechanical perception of the object presented, and thus causing it to be perceive as if new. The artist, quoth Shklovsky, “make[s] the stone stony.” Art, he finds, is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” (20)

Viktor Shklovsky

The defamiliarization of experience was Carlyle’s central goal. This was not just for art’s sake, though, but for society at large. Just as Shklovsky found that “perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic” (19), Carlyle had found the same thing. The important difference was, though, he historicized this finding: perception was automatic because of the times (to quote Kings of Leon). It was the industrial society become internalized. It didn’t have to be like that, said Carlyle, and he wished to open men’s eyes to life as it fundamentally was.

To do this he presented things, everything, in a defamiliarized light. This is especially evident in Sartor Resartus (1833-34). This book purports to be a biographico-critical study of Prof. Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, author of a book on the origin and meaning of clothes. The Professor writes as follows:

[I] have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly. (Bk. I, Ch. VIII)

And so forth. He’s talking about clothes, but his real aim here and in many other passages of this very odd book is to defamiliarized customs and habit, and indeed to defamiliarize the human subject itself, as we see in this passage when a man becomes “a moving Rag-screen.” Through this process Carlyle asks a profound, and almost postmodern, question: Is man a coherent entity or just a hodge-podge of internalized social conventions and prejudices? Is he a body or just an empty suit of clothes? Do clothes really make the man, and if so where does that leave the human race?

To the end of defamiliarization is the character of Teufelsdrockh specially engineered. He lives far above the crowds of Weissnichtwo, rarely conversing with his fellow mortals, but regarding them both figuratively and literally from a great height. Indeed, so unworldly is he that he is “like a man dropped thither from the Moon” (I, IV). Therefore, everything Teufelsdrockh sees and experiences is defamiliarized, and everything he reports on becomes defamiliarized to the reader – known yet not known.

Beginning with the chapter on Dandyism in Sartor, Carlyle used defamiliarization to question specific social norms, and to call for the reorientation of society. From Chartism (1839) comes the following:

The faith of men is dead; in what has guineas in its pocket, beafeaters riding behind it, and cannons trundling before it, they can believe; in what has none of these things they cannot believe. (Chapter 5)

In both Chartism and Past and Present (1843) Carlyle attempts to defamiliarize basically everything about English society. He used once again a persona of a German professor, Sauerteig, in many sections of both works to pass judgement on the English. From the point of view of a serious cultural critic, this technique is bizarre, but from a defamiliarizing point of view, it’s key. Taken in themselves, institutions like the beefeaters or parades featuring trundling cannons are not much, just harmless amusements for the people. But defamiliarized and then reconstituted as symbols of a culture of materialism and show, they gain potency. Carlyle had great success in exposing the frivolity of English society to his contemporaries, much less in offering a new value-system to replace the old. He was a poet, in the defamiliarizing sense, but he was not content that it was only in poetry that this interruption of automatic thinking took place, he wanted it everywhere and everywhen. What he didn’t realize, perhaps, was that “mankind cannot bear very much reality”.