Patrick Proctor Alexander’s Parody of Carlyle

Being a parodist is a thankless task. One reason is the paradoxical one that the more successful a parody is, the shorter its shelf-life. The reason being that a parody can’t outlive its hypotext (hypotext = Genette-speak for a text onto which another text is “grafted” (Palipsests, Ch. 1 – “grafted” is parenthesized in G.’s definition)). If it succeeds in  discrediting the hypotext, it thereafter loses its own raison d’etre. It’s only interesting to someone who is familiar with its parent-text, and without that point of reference, it makes little sense. Maybe this is why I seem to be the only person in the world to have enjoyed Patrick Proctor Alexander’s Carlyle Redivivus: Being an Occasional Discourse on Sauerteig by Smelfungus in recent decades. This parody of Carlyle was written on the publication of the first two volumes of Frederick the Great, so probably in 1858, and published shortly thereafter with a work on Mill (a serious refutation of Mill’s doctrines). Discourse on Sauerteig was republished on its own in 1881, shortly after C.’s death – and probably never since, I’d imagine. But it’s a very interesting read for one steeped in Carlylism.

In the most extensive treatment of Carlyle parodies,  G.B. Tennyson’s essay in Carlyle and his Contemporaries (Duke University Press, 1976), Alexander is limited to a passing and very dismissive mention in a footnote, despite having penned what is perhaps the longest sustained parody of Mr. C. in existence. Odd, nicht wahr? But I think the reason is clear enough: Tennyson was a great champion of Carlyle’s writing and thought, and Alexander’s work is not only a parody of Carlylean style, but of his philosophy and even of the psychology underlying such a philosophy, offering a thoroughgoing critique of its subject. So Tennyson prefers parodies of Carlyle’s style, such as those in Punch magazine, that are essentially sympathetic to his position, and that have a tickling-the-belly-of-the-great-but-irascible-and-eccentric-sage feel.

In the preface to the 1881 edition, Alexander laconically notes that Carlyle had noted the first edition, and “had not, at the time, quite appreciated the compliment paid him.” Unsurprisingly, as there is very little complimentary to C. about the Discourse on Sauerteig. But the preface also makes clear Alexander’s respect for C., and his admiration for certain of his literary qualities. One cannot, perhaps, create a good parody without a certain love for the subject.

Discourse on Sauerteig starts off with some general points about Carlyle’s – I mean Sauerteig’s (Sauerteig is an alter ego used by Carlyle in Past and Present, among other works) – worldview. Alexander’s narrator Smelfungus (another Carlylean alter ego) takes Sauerteig’s taste in pork chops as a point of analysis: Sauerteig only likes old pork chops of centuries past: “our hero-chop can only be sniffed from afar”. Conversely, “[he] finds no pork of the present era the very least to his mind; no cut of it all, alas! will satisfy the ravening soul of a Sauerteig gone wild with his ‘divine idea’ [of a pork chop].” But why is this preferred chop so divine? I really think Smelfungus hits a nail on the head when he writes:

[O]ne perceives that solely by its being so devoured all away from him a century or two ago, does his chop become radiant, divine-aromatic for him. A chop, the severe actual of which cannot now be got at, the Eternities having ravened it up some time since, will be highly convenient for a Sauerteig gone made with his “divine idea”.

One perceives also that it is not only the style that is being parodied, but there is also a sharp focus on content: C.’s emphases are being designated as “mad”; his love for the great heroes of the past is predicated on their unavailability – to be unavailable is to be available to be idealized. There is something in this criticism, undoubtedly.

Then comes the biography of Grimwold (for which read Frederick the Great, or perhaps his father Frederick I of Prussia), the Carlylean Hero par excellence, ” heroic baronial figure”, and a lover of justice. Grimwold’s first feat is as follows:

In which high Hero-mood, a model Grimwold had the misfortune one fine spring morning to – murder his grandmother Katie (Katte?) the poor old name of her – hanging, with his own hands, that venerable ancient gentle-woman; details of the Hero-feat obscure […] Murder of Grandmother, Sauerteig! not a doubt of it; plainly set down there in Jocelinus, unhappily without detail. Singular Hero-feat, which Sauerteig, person in all matters of fact of even exemplary rigour and veracity, will nowise try to suppress, will state quite frankly gently cooking the while; consenting a little to deplore even, in order that he may cook, may softly insinuate cookeries. On the whole, Sauerteig will skim lightly over such awkward bits of Hero-business, treating it in an easy way, not without comic touches. To judge by the Sauerteig cookery of it, it might seem that the murder of one’s Grandmother was a commonplace sort of occurrence; eccentricity of “the grim man”, regrettable, not quite defensible perhaps, and yet with allowances to be made for it, which blockheads, with no Eye for the Heroic, will be so good as to refrain from overmuch shrieking at.

Sauerteig’s “cooking” here is designed to normalize, and, ultimately, idealize Grimwold’s hanging of his grandmother, on grounds unspecified. Those to whom his action seems objectionable are, of course, “blockheads” (one of C.’s favourite epithets). Next Grimwold has to deal with a turkey-theft, which he does by ordering hanged “twenty ragged losels”, one of whom is Grimwold’s own brother. Sauerteig reflects on this occurence:

Terrible we will call it; grim-tragic, which will also mean, well-considered, grim-Beautiful and afar off Benign. […] Truly a most stern man! Rhadamantine-inexorable; with Berserkir rage in him, nearly to all extents; yet, with soft wells of pity withal, deep down in the rude rock heart of him; the soft quality of mercy – when permissable, as hitherto it clearly could not be[.]

Finding beauty in grim violence was a Carlylean specialty, undoubtedly. But of course Carlyle was not content simply to recount history without deriving from it lessons explicitly for his British reader, and so it is in the Discourse on Sauerteig. Sauerteig, we are told, has written a paper in which he “proposes to hang the universal British people, (a company of foreign artists being engaged for the occasion,) and ‘so reform it in perhaps a sufficiently radical manner’ – a Hero-ruler, adequate to that high feat, being, at present, the one thing needed.”

Thus Alexander posits an authorial persona for Carlyle that is deeply brutal, ever ready to excuse violence when carried out in the name of justice and in a sufficiently “grim” and earnest manner. In the final part of his parodic tour de force, he moves onto a “Horoscope” (this title itself a reference to the final part of Past and Present), in which is presented an analysis of Carlyle’s underlying psychology in parodic form. Smelfungus’ diagnosis is that Sauerteig’s violent anger results from the fact that “it has not lain to his hand to do heroisms, but only to unutterably shriek and write about them.” To restore him to good humour, it is necessary he be given some business to do, something suitably Heroic. Smelfungus notes that the national hangman, identified as one Calcraft (actually the hangman at the time) had bungled lately, and a change was perhaps in order. To appoint Sauerteig was the best of all worlds:

How would a Hero-Sauerteig go with his whole soul into the work, and emulate the Grimwolds whom he worships! How nicely would he handle his criminal, “using him as if he loved him!” […] A Sauerteig by whom it would almost be a happiness to be hanged; to whom surely no sufferer of proper feeling, principle, could grudge his little perquisite of the body clothes. To the public, the services of a Hero-Sauerteig would be priceless. And to Sauerteig himself – now doing the Hero-work, and not merely shrieking and writing about, and about, and about it – surely the spiritual benefit would be much.

The diligence with which Alexander sets out his case is impressive. His account of Grimwold well sets up his later conclusions, which anticipate psychoanalytical approaches to Carlyle (especially James Halliday’s Mr. Carlyle My Patient (1950)), making implications against Carlyle’s character which give a clear idea of why he “didn’t quite appreciate” the work. Stylistically, though, Discourse on Sauerteig shows Alexander’s deep familiarity with all of C.’s work, not just the recently published Frederick, but also Past and Present, the Latter-Day Pamphlets, and other works. As well as being a technically good parody (or so it seems to me; G.B. Tennyson was obviously less impressed), this is also a funny piece of work. It made me laugh. Out loud. Several times. And it is not often that a piece or writing can do that. But as noted at the outset, this work seems at this point destined to remain in obscurity: Carlyle is not popular enough for a parody of him to make any sense; and those who do admire Carlyle are unlikely to appreciate it, as he himself did not. But let it be here recorded, there is at least one admirer of the Discourse on Sauerteig in the year 2013.