The Victorian Sage

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

Month: March, 2015

Carlyle and Confused Young Men

The scope of Carlyle’s influence is something I’ve touched upon before, but I’m struck again and again by just how much personal importance he attained to various individuals, how his writing was not just literature, but a practical solution to life. The following passage from a 1903 book that I’ve just come across, Living for the Best by James McClure. is a good example. The book, from a quick glance at it, also seems to show how for many Carlyle ultimately became a gateway to a renewed faith in Christianity – a repatching of the ragged old clothes of traditional religion. Arguably a dubious achievement, but I never cease to be intrigued and moved by such personal reminiscences as the one below:

Soon after the death of Carlyle two friends met: “And so Carlyle is dead,” said one. “Yes,” said the other, “he is gone; but he did me a very good turn once.” “How was that,” asked the first speaker, “did you ever see him or hear him?” “No,” came the answer, “I never saw him nor heard him. But when I was beginning life, almost through my apprenticeship, I lost all interest in everything and every one. I felt as if I had no duty of importance to discharge; that it did not matter whether I lived or not; that the world would do as well without me as with me. This condition continued more than a year. I should have been glad to die. One gloomy night, feeling that I could stand my darkness no longer, I went into a library, and lifting a book I found lying upon a table, I opened it. It was Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle. My eye fell upon one sentence, marked in italics, ‘Do the duty which lies nearest to thee, which thou knowest to be a duty! The second duty will already have become clearer.’ That sentence,” continued the speaker, “was a flash of lightning striking into my dark soul. It gave me a new glimpse of human existence. It made a changed man of me. Carlyle, under God, saved me. He put content and purpose and power into my life.” (62-63)

Perhaps it is the recent news about the  depressed and suicidal/murderous German pilot that has contributed to how I have responded to this, as well as my own travails and trials. The thought that there is a duty that lies near and that one can do it is, of course, attractive, but I’m not sure how tenable it is. Carlyle’s relevance for me does not stem from the simple injunction of that famous line, but from the depth of alienation in Sartor, and the eloquence with which it is described. It’s not that he has an answer to depression/ alienation, but that he has an understanding of it. That he didn’t really have an answer to that, or any of the things he pontificated upon for that matter. is attested to both by study of his biography and of the later course of his writings. But that, too, his degeneration into a world-class bigot and monumental self-pitier, is moving in its own way, as well as salutory.

Ideology, Psychoanalysis, Narrative

Perhaps the most fascinating of intellectual movements of the last 100-odd years is psychoanalysis. Fascinating not just in its substantive content, but also in its place in modern culture. It has by now managed to inflect so many corners of our lives that we really figure ourselves out partially through certain concepts from psychoanalysis – so if psychoanalysis is, as a hermeneutic of humanity, possibly essentially flawed, it has managed to go about making itself true. It is much truer now than it was over a century ago when Dr Freud began to publish his theories.

This has become relevant to me as I read on the theory of ideology. Ideology is – or most commentators take it for granted that it is – a Marxist concept. Thus, the central thread of Freudian psychoanalysis which sees the individual psyche as composed of instinctual drives at the bottom of all human behaviour doesn’t mesh that well with a concept believed to be implicated in the Marxist base-superstructure model of society. If economics is the base, then Freud’s pleasure principle* can’t be, and vice versa. In other words, one could see it that Freud makes a pure Marxism impossible. And Michele Barrett deals with this in a very cogent and readable book called The Politics of Truth (Polity, 1991). The book is basically a conceptual history of ideology, balancing it against post-modern ideas and assessing how ts relevance can be defended against the critiques of Foucault, et al., but concluding that it can’t be, and resting on the need for “new and more precise concepts”. Yet the analysis of her book had seemed to me to suggest that the term had great advantages over competing concepts like Foucault’s power, Gramsci’s hegemony, etc. I also suspect “new and more precise concepts” are only new for a while, and only precise until somebody goes to the trouble of critiquing them. No critical term will ever be immune from criticism, so part of the value of a storied term like ideology is that it provides a way in to so many thinkers of the past 200 years. One finds oneself working through Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Althusser, Williams, Hall, Eagleton, etc. – now that’s a motley bunch, some evidently more significant than others, and some who I really have no time for (Althusser, notably), but they form a wide historical spectrum, and that only scratches the surface.

On psychoanalysis, Barrett has this to say:

[T]he insights of psychoanalysis with regard to the unconscious, repression, fantasy, sexuality and so on are not merely ‘within the true’ of psychoanalytic discourse but play an important part in the way in which people in contemporary western societies now understand themselves. Giddens has referred to the “double hermeneutic” in which members of a society use sociological knowledge in their decisions and activities, and this idea can be illustrated in terms of the use that people make of psychoanalysis in their lives. To say that we live in the west in a therapeutic culture, where people interpret, reflect upon and to some extent change their behaviour in the light of psychoanalytic ideas (and, for some, therapy) is not to say that these ideas are not true; it is to understand the contextuality of their truth. (115)

Psychoanalysis has escaped being simply a discourse, and has been elevated to a part of the human condition. This condition is of course spatially and temporally specific, and the point is that here and now we think psychoanalysis is true. Not as a science but as an essential ingredient of the stories we tell about ourselves. This is where narrative comes in, or could come in. And not just narrative, but, even more so, adaptation. Why adaptation? Because it is narrative moving through time and space. Examine a narrative as it appears in different spaces/ epochs, and one can find points of interests in the way we story ourselves.

It’s not about our actual material reality, but how we, in a more generalized sense, see ourselves. Narrative is for general consumption, it depends on The Reality Effect; it is thus a manner of examining how we see ourselves. And adaptation, in which the palimpsest of narrative is overwritten in two distinct styles, is a great, and rather untapped, source for speculation and analysis on this point. And the psychoanalytic story of the human self is one that has fascinated me of late. I won’t give any examples now as I’m currently working through my main example for my thesis. But think about it. Think of an adapted narrative, and how the presentation of character changes, how a 19th-century character is depicted in a 21st-century text, for example. A change is especially apparent in those adaptations which are updated in setting: the setting doesn’t change alone, but the character, too, cannot be themselves in the new setting. What changes? Things like a repressed always returning, a childhood key to present trauma, an underlying neurosis in the most capable and ostensibly together, a centrality of the sexual. in adaptation, we find all of these things demonstrating that, yes indeed, we are psychoanalytic beings, and, no, it was not always so.

*In later Freud, there’s also a mysterious and speculative Death Drive

A Non-methodological Space

Now method is all very well, but if one can’t life one’s life entirely by method, one may posit that within academia there should also be a non-methodological space. In the methodological space of most of academia one can only write in response to a previous authority, whether to agree with or dissent from, but, I repeat, one doesn’t arrange one’s thoughts as a response to a previous authority, so the need to keep an open mind with regard to methods of intellectual discovery needs to be acknowledged. What, first of all, is the point of intellectual discovery? In Against Method, Paul Feyerabend writes:

The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man entails therefore, the rejection of all universal standards and of all rigid traditions.

Feyerabend calls for an anarchistic approach to scientific investigation. And he’s talking about the hard sciences. Against Method is a very bracing, well-written and engaging account of how scientific progress is made. It’s an entirely unpredictable and patternless progression, in which the material effect of an argument often has little to do with its logical force (25). Therefore, to make real progress, it may well be necessary to ignore those theories which have “material effect”, which are the reigning theories in the field. Ignore them! That sounds wonderful. Similarly, it may be necessary to renew old, discredited theories for the purpose of stimulating new thought.

In the context of a literature PhD such as though undertaken by the present author, it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what could be ignored under a Feyerabendian approach. Most of the suppositions of postmodern/ poststructuralist thought would be at the top of the list. These provide the bedrock assumptions of modern academia in the humanities and social sciences. I am increasingly unable to accept “the posts”‘ position on the individual, and most of the other main positions fall with that. The posts don’t talk about individuals. but subjects. The individual is so 19th century. I question to what degree my own personal intellectual history comes into play here. Is it the (il)logicality of the position I object to, or is it down to the fact that before I became a postgrad I knew little to nothing of post thought, and my intellectual formation was a product of the assumptions of liberal humanism? It’s also down to personal experience. My experience has never been adequately reflected in any systematic theory of personhood I have ever encountered, ergo I must be an individual. I don’t fully (or hardly at all) relate to the theories or the assumptions of those around me, so I’m loath to accept that I am a product of them.

If there are, in fact, individuals, then the methodological project cannot survive in anything approaching a pure form with regard to human beings. An individual, by definition, cannot be accounted for by a general methodology. And a methodology, by definition, must have general applicability. So my aversion to method is inextricable from my sense of self as an individual. To apply method in a manner satisfactory to myself, I would have to experience myself as a generic construct. Which I don’t.

But I don’t mean individual in a pure sense. Of course, we are conditioned by our environment, family, ideological state apparatusses etc. Duh. but there’s no way yet to account for the entirety of an individual’s mental processes by adding up the sum of these conditioning elements – if there was, it would be like Minority Report, we’d be able to know people’s future actions, including criminal ones, by feeding the data into a computer. But in practical terms we cannot understand people in this way – people are not wholly theorized, wholly made subject to external things, and so until that is done, we are left with the individual as a hypothesis. If we really believe that will ever be done, we should orient all our action toward that end. If we are not so sure, we need a de-theorized space, a non-methodological space, a space for intellectual engagement with products of the human imagination on a singular basis. This space is the humanities, for if not they, then what and where?

If I may conclude by quoting Carlyle, an 1830s reflection on the times:

Fantastic tricks enough man has played, in his time; has fancied himself to be most things, down even to an animated heap of Glass: but to fancy himself a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on, was reserved for this his latter era.

A Dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on: he’s getting at the Utilitarians, but one sees, I think, how the modern critical theorists are the successors to the utilitarians, oddly enough. Utilitarianism (though not without merit) failed: there was something else that didn’t fit onto the Iron-Balance. What? Freud, a utilitarian thinker in his “economic” model of the mind, came around to calling it the Death Drive, but that hypothesis pretty much failed to. To name it misses the point, and is the flaw of all those theorists of human consciousness. Analysis of that which escapes theorization cannot be done via one single concept which contains this something else, or even a confluence of concepts adding up to a single hole. That whole, I suggest, will never be found. One can only take instances: analyze at the level of the irreducible, unrepeatable instant, without any sort of guarantee that these instances will add up to anything more than the endlessly necessary practice of self-examination on a collective level.

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