The Victorian Sage

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

Month: July, 2013

Carlyle and the 21st-century Far Right

In these modern times of sham and bottomless anarchy, the influence of Carlyle in the political sphere is by no means easily apparent. Yet to the eye that sees, withal, such influence is traceable. Let us try if we can elucidate the matter a little and bring before the reader a picture of the thing as it now stands.

In the old earnest times, the name of Carlyle was in the mouth of all men – that is, of all men that were men. Never the majority, O modern reader! But yet such men there were in those times, in greater or lesser number, and Carlyle was in their mouths, and, what is of far greater significance, in the souls of such of them as had that feature. Here, they perceived, was no flunkey, soul or no-soul of a valet in him, and empty formulas at his lips; here, rather, was a true Hero, God-inspired, God’s message in the heart of him, and true earnest Belief beaming from his eyes, grim enough withal. As his biographer Froude (though pitiful son of indocility he, after all) remarked, recalling the atmosphere of the 1840s in Oxford:

Amidst the controversies, the arguments, the doubts, the crowding uncertainties of forty years ago, Carlyle’s voice was to the young generation of Englishmen like the sound of “ten thousand trumpets” (Carlyle’s Life In London, 1884, v. 1, p. 249)

This was a generation not wholly lost, then; to whom God’s Earth was still God’s, and not the Devil’s, a generation not content to sit grinning by the Dead Sea – with guineas in its pockets. Ah, me – true Teuton stock there, and no mistake.

But of later valet-eras, who shall speak? Better to leave them to silence and to the Devil. Only among our German friends was Carlyle’s name kept sacred in the dark days of the 1930s – earnest enough, the Germans of those days, as I perceive. But by association with such was Carlyle’s fame darkened for the coming ages. (For an account contemporaneous with Nazism linking that movement with Carlyle, the reader is directed to Bertrand Russell, “The Ancestry of Fascism” (In Praise of Idleness, 1936), available somewhither.)

In these dastard times now with us (quickly heading for final moral bankruptcy, some of us think), then, it is in unsearched crannies of the body politic that we may find homage to the Sage in the manner of old. Patience, Reader, a few turns to the Right will take us there – so long as we are Right what matter a few turns more or less! (Much significance in this of right or recht, as the Germans say, in the naming we have the very substance of the thing embodied, or fitly clothed. As for the left – well named senestre or siniestro by certain of our continental neighbours – side of the matter, we will remain silent on such a subject and take care not to take a turn in that direction.)

In this of the Dark Enlightenment there is much; this little movement, situated somewhat to the right of things-in-general stands alone in its evocation of the teachings of Carlyle, but not only in the mouth of it, the soul of it is withal Carlylean. The tenets of this movement we find proclaimed to include “a rejection of sociological universalism”, “an acceptance of human biodiversity” “a concern with bio-politics, oriented to a particular people’s biological and demographic imperatives”, the rejection of the cant and sugary jargon of Political Correctness (we see little scope for the Scoundrel Protection Society in these parts); rejection also, we find, of democracy, as leading to mediocrity, and egalitarianism; neither is third-world immigration much desired by this movement. This, then, is the Dark Enlightenment, and its leader, its Great Man, “symbol of true Guidance in return for loving Obedience” (French Revolution, Bk. I, Ch. II), we find acknowledged to be one Mencius Moldbug; he, at least, works in the Eye of the Great Taskmaster, that is, Carlyle. Moldbug is an self-described “Carlylean“; that is the political designation he lays claim to (but not only with the tongue of him, etc). But, behold, the Carlyle of Moldbug and the Dark Enlightenment is not so much the Carlyle of the French Revolution (1838), still less he of Sartor Resartus (1833-34); Moldbug finds that the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), hitherto almost wholly unloved (“‘Carlyle taken to whiskey’, was the popular impression; or perhaps that he had gone mad”, recalled Froude of its early reception (op. cit., p. 37)) form “the keystone of his political work“. A quite other Carlyle, he of the Pamphlets, to he of the Sartor, with a great love of slavery in the heart of him, and a most sincere, deeply-held hatred for all scoundrels and rascals, and all indigent and unmonied persons – and of races other than the Teutonic who shall speak? Anarchy, disorder and, above all, disobedience in the hearts of them. The whip, I think, must be applied to all such in no small measure – that article decidedly useful in dealing with lackalls and beggars, nothing in the stomachs of them, and indocility in their hearts.

By way of introduction, let us take “The Modern Age”, first of these Pamphlets, in which Carlyle includes a suggested Prime-Minister’s address to “the floods of Irish and other Beggars, the able-bodied lackalls, nomadic or stationary, and the general assembly, outdoor and indoor, of the Pauper Populations of these Realms”. Choice reading here, for men who have Eyes in them (and not merely spectacles of the logic or other variety, and no Eye behind them), and can see withal! Observation the first in this articles is that the classes specified “cannot be left to roam in this unguided manner, stumbling over the precipices, and loading ever heavier the fatal chain upon those who might be able to stand.” All unsuccessful persons in that state of society are “of the nature of slaves”, the Prime Minister continues – here we get to the nub of the matter; this of Slavery, as you call it, there is much in this. Call it simply Obedience, rather, the God-sanctioned Obedience from the lesser to what is greater, from the Lackall to the Aristocrat (Aristocratic not only by name but by nature, for there is much in this of heredity – if his family was not greater he would not have been there; if they had not the Right stuff in them, they had never attained the Might). The Lackall has properly only one lack: “Your want of wants, I say, is that you be commanded in this world, not being able to command yourselves.” Until he be rightly commanded, he has nothing; rightly commanded, he has all, though there be but furze and thistles in the stomach of him – it is not to the stomach (vile organ that) he must attend, but to the soul rather. Work, that is the one thing needful, and Taskmasters, that he may actually do the work, for otherwise the Lackall class is not to be relied upon:

Refuse to strike into it; shirk the heavy labor, disobey the rules,- I wil admonish and endeavour to incite you; if in vain, I will flog you, if still in vain, I will at last shoot you,- and make god’s Earth, and the forlorn-hope in God’s Battle, free of you.

In such we have the soul of the Pamphlets – Order is at the heart of them, of that you can never have too much, and this is also our friend Moldbug’s reading of the thing:

Indeed the Carlylean theory of order might just as well be stated as truth. Or justice. For Carlyle, truth, justice and order are all inseparable and perfectly desirable. There is no such thing as too much truth, too much justice, or too much order; the ideal society is one in which all these qualities are seen to their maximum extent. In the society that is Cosmos, truth, justice and order all pertain. In its opposite, Chaos, we see lies and injustice and disorder.

Order is justice: ha!  there is a simplicity in this, not unbeautiful, upon which the reader is invited to reflect. And this thing that is ordertruthjustice, when taken to great lengths (and it can never be taken to too great lengths) necessarily entails slavery – which is transcendently orderly. Disorderly and blockheaded persons must be commanded, that they become agents of Order, and not of Satan and Disorder (for, considered rightly, they are both one). In this of Slavery we have one strand, perhaps the most important one, of the connection between Carlyle and the Dark Englightenment so-called.

The second strand of import, I find, is that of race. The reader will have perceived in the afore-quoted tenets of the Dark Enlightenments, with their  rejection of sociological universalism, an acceptance of human biodiversity, concern with bio-politics, and orientation to a particular people’s biological and demographic imperatives that we find implied a convenient manner of grouping people into the master (the aristocracy of talent, as Carlyle would say) and slave portions of the community. This is done through the art of racial profiling. Should races interact, it is not to be in a spirit of “diversity”, fundamentally “a political power tool“, this of diversity, as Moldbug considers it. One recalls the horrors of diversity in the England of Carlyle; hordes of unclean Irish hurling themselves across the Irish Sea in search of sustenance:

[T]he uncivilized Irishman, not by his strength, but by the opposite of strength, drives out the Saxon native, takes possession in his room. There abides he, in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder. (Chartism, Ch. 4)

The relevance to our own sad times is clear. I refer the reader to the Moldbug-influenced, frequently Carlyle-citing Radish magazine, especially Issue 2.3 for an  account of the greatness of white culture, with its Beethovens, Goethes and such, and Issue 3.1 for the ungreatness of black culture, with its quite other than Beethovens.

Here I must cut short my investigation into this Dark Enlightenment, interesting and edifying as it has been. It is, if nothing else, a small corner of the internet which remains attentive to the teaching of the Chelsea Sage, a specifically authoritarian, anti-democratic and racist reading of his works. About 100 years ago, Carlyle was favoured reading among socialists (see overview in this essay at, impressed by his anti-capitalism, iconoclasm and earnestness; now, the dominant political reading has moved to the other end of the political spectrum. Perhaps all of this is a Sign of the Times, an anticipation of the final validation of all Carlyle’s prophecies, the great social death and rebirth he foretold with some iteration. Or perhaps the fact is not so, even the reverse of so – yet it matters little, still we must welcome each effusion from this quarter and remember Carlyle’s defense of writers, which we here give (with some amendations where noted) as our final word on the subject for the moment:

How knowest thou,- may the distressed [political theorist] exclaim,- that I, here where I sit,- am the foolishest of existing mortals;- that  this my Long Ear of a [Political Tract] shall not find one and the other, into whose still longer ears it may be the means, under Providence – of instilling some good? We answer, none can certainly know; therefore write on Brother, even as thou canst, even as it has been given thee.    -“Biography”, 1830.

Note: This post is, for the most part, a pastiche/ parody of Carlyle’s style, and, in many parts, of his opinions as well. Therefore, it is to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Great Irish Journeys, RTE1, Sunday 7 July, 2013, 7:30 – Carlyle’s Irish Journey of 1849

The first in the new series of the Great Irish Journeys program saw Thomas Carlyle take centre stage as host Grainne Seoige recreated the Chelsea Sage’s trip around Ireland in the company of Irish nationalist activist and newspaper editor Charles Gavan Duffy in 1849, the aftermath of the Great Famine in Ireland. It is not every day that Carlyle gets onto primetime TV; however, if he’s up there with the Eternal Powers looking down on us, he may not have been wholly pleased with the treatment given to him.

Clearly, Seoige and the program’s scriptwriter had a particular narrative and Carlyle was the villain – but a specific villian: the type of the English aristocrat who stood uncaringly by as the Irish peasantry starved, in between bouts of stuffing his face with Irish food produce. So when the VO reads an excerpt from Carlyle’s posthumously published Reminiscences of my Irish Journey in 1849 and Seoige comments: “His lack of humanity is almost unbelievable”, it’s more than just a comment on Carlyle. He’s a representative figure: “He doesn’t live in a bubble. Whole swathes of his society thought, felt and acted the same way.” To an extent, the actual facts about Carlyle are sacrificed to the narrative of the Heartless Aristocrat. Nothing is said about his own peasant background. He’s described as an “English gentleman” – in fact, he was born, bred and lived for his first 30-something years in Scotland, and was of very far from genteel birth.

In a similar vein, Carlyle’s friendship with Duffy is ignored. It’s speculated by historian Ronan Sheehan that Duffy “needed a name” to gain publicity for his causes, and left at that. Seoige later wonders what Duffy thought of all Carlyle’s vocal anti-Irish sentiment, and Sheehan says of the pair’s relationship: “It’s a mystery”. The program makers seem to have totally missed out Duffy’s book Conversations with Carlyle (1892), in which his enduring respect and affection for the Sage is made abundantly clear. In this book, Duffy objects to Irish Journey, saying:

There is nothing which a man might not have written to his wife or friend without offence, but there is much quite unfit to be launched into publicity.

Duffy considers that Carlyle would never have allowed the book to be published in such a form, and blames his posthumous editor, J.A. Froude, rather than Carlyle himself. He also stresses Carlyle’s amiable behaviour during the journey (responding to the unfavourable impression of Carlyle many had drawn from his posthumous writings and from Froude’s biography):

If I be a man who has entitled himself to be believed, I ask those who have come to regard Carlyle as exacting and domineering among associates, to accept as the simple truth my testimony that during those weeks of close intercourse, there was not one word or act of his to the young man who was his travelling companion unworthy of an indulgent father. Of arrogance or impatience not a shade […]. He was a man of genuine good nature, with deep sympathy and tenderness for human suffering, and of manly patience under troubles.

To introduce such a reading of Carlyle’s character would certainly have complicated the narrative of Great Irish Journeys.  It complicates reading of Irish Journey as well, for it must be said that there is little evidence of “deep sympathy and tendernes for human suffering” in that document, and much of the reverse. So the demonization of Carlyle in the program is understandable, but the truth of his relationship to the Irish, and the Irish reception of him and his works, is much more complicated.

*This episode of Great Irish Journeys is available to view within the Republic of Ireland on the RTE Player for 3 weeks from date of broadcast. The program is structured around a replication of Carlyle’s journey, but much of the content is about Famine conditions, not Carlyle per se.

The Granada Sherlock Holmes: An Imagological Reflection

This blog has recorded in a prior post its predilection for the Sherlock Holmes series broadcast by Granada TV company in the 1980s and 90s, as well as opining that the said series is primarily motivated by an aesthetic of fidelity blended with an aesthetic of spectacular privilege: it sticks close to the dialogue and storyline of Doyle’s originals, but with loads of shots and camera movements motivated by the need to catalogue and linger on the sumptuous settings which predominate. I have also been struck by the series’ use of stereotype and willingness to accentuate Doyle’s “othering” of non-English and especially non-European characters, and by the “dynamics between those images which characterize the Other (hetero-images) and those which characterize one’s own domestic identity (self-images or auto-images)” (Beller and Leerssen, xiv) – the Imagology of the series, in a word.

A small but rather striking instance of the 19th-century approach to ethnicity in the series occurs in the adaptation of Doyle’s second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four (1890). The character of “the Islander” in Doyle’s novel is only really represented by his racial characteristics. The characteristics of his race include, according to Holmes (referring to a gazette in his possession):

The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this earth […]. They are a fierce, morose and intractable people […]. They are naturally hideous, having large misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features […]. So intractable and fierce are they that all effects of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree […]. Their massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast. (Chapter 8)

Armed with these generalizations, Holmes orders Watson to “Fire if he [the Islander] raises his hand” (Ch. 9). Before it comes to that, though, Watson finally gets a glimpse of the Islander’s face (from a boat, in another boat), and, as Holmes had suggested, it’s not a pretty sight:

Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half animal fury […]. [T]he unhallowed dwarf with his hideous face, and his strong yellow teeth gnashing at us in the light of our lantern. (Ch. 9)

The Islander does then raise his hand, and Watson does shoot, and the unfortunate Islander is knocked overboard:

[W]e flashed our search-light in every direction, but there was no sign of the Islander. Somewhere in the dark ooze at the bottom of the Thames lie the bones of that strange visitor to our shores. (Ch. 9)

The Islander is definitively Other, then; even his name, when we finally are given it after his death, emphasizes his status not as individual but as representative of a certain geographically defined type of humanity – it is Tonga, another aboriginal island somewhere in the dark and unknowable depths of the Orient (in the critical theory rather than geographical sense of that term). He does not speak for himself, but is defined and categorized by the words of Holmes, which are later confirmed empirically by Watson.

In Granada’s take on this novel, not much is changed in terms of the dialogue in which the Islander is defined by Holmes. Watson’s description of the Islander’s face is missing, of course, but we do have what is perhaps the filmic medium’s equivalent for this description – a close-up shot of the character’s face. Some signifiers of sub-humanity are, I feel, present in this image, most notably the huge teeth, irregularly arranged within the mouth and uncommonly sharp (seen later in the film, he appears, though I’m no expert on hairstyles, to have both dreadlocks and an afro!).

The I

The Islander

What really caught my attention in this scene, though, was a small detail that was not taken from Doyle. The body of the Islander, here too, is not recovered, but not because they couldn’t find it. Instead, when Watson’s head-shot knocks him from the boat, he floats right by them, and they just stand by and watch, with expressions of disgust on their faces, letting him float off down the river and into the darkness, not even attempting to retrieve the body.

Death of the Islander

Death of the Islander

Watching the River Flow

Watching the River and the Islander flow by

The end of the Islander is metaphorical: he is a child of darkness, and thither he returns, but that metaphor only exemplifies the degree to which the Islander has been dehumanized, till he can become a piece of detritus on the river. Can you imagine an English gentleman (in top-hat and tails, let us say) coming to a similar end, howsoever evil he be? No, that moment, in its generic rightness, is only available for a certain stereotype, and implies in its audience (or its implied audience) a less than total realization of the humanity of the geo-ethnic other. It is a touch of which Conan Doyle, keen patriot and imperialist that he was, might have approved.

Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen, Eds., Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National Characters (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007)

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