Carlyle and Confused Young Men

by Mark Wallace

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.

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