The Victorian Sage

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

Month: August, 2015

A Cultural Role of Power, Comfort and Gratification

When it comes to Thomas Carlyle, perhaps it could be argued that the form and content of his writing is in itself less interesting and less worthy of study than the reception of his writing. How did he attain to such massive influence over his time, such that George Eliot was able to write, in a quote used frequently by Carlyle scholars:

It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence; if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would be only like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.

It is possible to go into infinite detail on the books that owed elements of their content or form, there philosophy of ideology, to Carlyle’s influence, and in my thesis I do go into much of this, though I primarily limit my investigations to the anglophone world. But to study the source of Carlyle’s influence, perhaps not only his works need to be studied, but also his biography, a biography well known to his contemporaries – even more so after his death with the publication of Froude’s controversial account. It is impossible to draw a line between the iconicity of Carlyle himself and the influence of his works, but with the debasement of one, partially via Froude, came the discreditation of the other.

In Norma Clarke’s “Strenuous Idleness: Thomas Carlyle and the man of letters as hero” (Manful Assertions, ed. Michael Roper and John Tosh, 1991), Carlyle’s early life and correspondence is mined for clues to the nature of his work, and to his own emotional and intellectual coming-of-age. Clarke notes that “less well noted and more paradoxical is the way [Carlyle] created, out of the qualities of those he elevated into great heroes, a cultural role for aspiring male writers that was redolent with possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” (40). She goes into little detail on this interesting observation, but it is perhaps a direction in which Carlyle studies needs to move. I hope to add something to this in my own work. Quantitively, I will deal with many instances of literary influence in my “Reception History” chapter, including a focus on the English bildungsroman in which the psychogenesis of the author is laid bare – in this genre in the late 19th- early 20th century, somewhat confirming Clarke’s point, Carlyle is a particularly pervasive presence. Carlylean manhood looms over all the literary men of the age, admonishing and encouraging.

The sense of the cultural role of the writer is something Carlyle could be seen to have had a hand in changing, temporarily at least. Carlyle’s essay on the Hero as Man of Letters – “our most important modern person” – offered a model of heroism to Victorian youth. From a reception point of view, one may wonder how far one can take this influence, how far the thread can be followed. Can one read it into 20th- and early 21st-century work? Not directly, as Carlyle is not widely enough read, but in a mediated form. one possible locus for reading Carlyle as an indirect influence on 20th-century culture is Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s famous Vietnam War film from 1979. And I am looking at this film at the moment. Not just the film itself, but the making of the film – a production famous in itself and inflecting how the film is watched and rated – as seen most notably in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts of Darkness.

Francis Ford Coppola’s main source for the film – apart from John Milius’ script, which provided much material for the early part of the movie, but was discarded for the latter part – was Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Without wanting to give much away, I am trying to suggest that certain Carlylean memes are found in HoD – and in this I am follower several prior sources – and thence found their way in mediated form into AN, and, even, into Coppola as his personality developed during the protracted production of the film. That is, Coppola was, belatedly, a member of that group for whom “possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” were derived from a Carlylean representation of manhood. Thus I’m suggesting that the Kurtz figure owes something to Carlyle, the work and the biographical figure. Kurtz, it should be remembered, is a man of words, a voice, both literary and oral. The narrator’s most intense experience of Kurtz’s power and genius is not through witnessing the vaguely described actions of the Great Man, but through his words:

It was eloquent,vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

I have italicized all of the phrases wherein the effect of Kurtz’s words is described. Conrad tells rather than shows: the only words we are given are the final scrawl that, it is clear, is entirely out of character with the rest of the piece. The content of Kurtz’s piece is irrelevant to the narrator;only the effect is important, and that is considerable indeed. The subject of this passage and perhaps the entire novella is the power of the voice, even divorced from any substantive content. Conrad is questioning the voice, but in the formal terms of the plot, he appears to conclude that the importance of identification with a powerful voice outweighs the fact that what is said may be nonsense – if God is Dead, we need to believe in somebody, even if we know that our belief is based on illusion. Hence Marlow’s (the narrator of the above passage) final decision to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” about Kurtz’s activity, to keep up the illusion. A melancholy lesson indeed.

But the power of the voice of the artist was a live issue in the late 19th century. As late as 1916 Yeats asked in the wake of the Easter Rising: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer to that question was probably No, but the Man of Letters at the time had a power unknown to his 21st-century counterpart. But returning to Eliot’s quote, the next line after the passage quoted is: “The character of his influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have the least agreement with his opinions are those to whom the reading of Sartor Resartus was an epoch in the history of their minds.” This is an element of Carlyle’s reception which needs further elaboration, but his influence, the power of his words, was out of all proportion to the substantial agreement they invoked. His contemporaries credited him with great inspiration, but almost all rejected his central political stance. This is a very complex element of discourse, of theory, of politics, of inspiration, of the movement of mind of large groups of people: the great distance between the power of the voice and the substance of the content. To be wrong is no bar to being influential; to tingle with eloquence, to soar, to create enthusiasm, to set down a magic current of phrases, all of these things are what create social and political efficacy. And none better exemplified this than Carlyle – to fully go into this we would have to consider Froude’s biography and associated publications, which had established Carlyle as somewhat of a fraud, a man obsessed with masculine ideals that he made no effort to live up to, but that he never ceased to prescribe to his readers in peremptory and sometimes bullying tones. But even before going into the author’s personality, we can know from reading the copious reflection on him by other writers that few agreed with him, but they all read him very intently.

The appeal of Carlyle lay in a few aspects, one of which was certainly that figure of the Hero as Man of Letters. To be able to take oneself and one’s doings that seriously – as seriously as Yeats thinking he had provoked a rebellion! – was pivotal in a time of God-being-Dead and rationalist melancholia. That is transcribed in Kurtz, the real Man of Letters, so much a man that he not only spoke and wrote, but also acted. And this is something I will be looking into: watching Heart of Darkness and witnessing the absurd grandiosity of Coppola; hearing him say in the commentary to Apocalypse Now that “Director is one of the few dictatorial posts left”, watching him (or reading in Eleanor’s notes) gorge on power and gratification. Here we have again the Carlylean spirit, kept alive through a handful of memes in Heart of Darkness, from which memes Coppola constructed his own authorial persona – while he adapted Heart of Darkness, it was adapting him, and giving unto the world a new Hero, a creative artist with the courage of his convictions, who courted absurdity, pretentiousness, etc., to create Art – but, after all, I’m not sure that Hearts of Darkness is not a more than Apocalypse Now itself, and that what is depicted so memorably in that documentary is any more than the Art of being a Jerk.

Marx, Early and Late

The problem with disciplinary thinking is that from an original starting point of thinking about, say, social problems that one has observed and been struck by, it soon gives way to thinking about thinkers who have written on the subject, and each of these thinkers is subject to all sorts of biases, blind spots, personal predilections and obsessions. Many of their observations and theorizations may not be very much to the point at all, and the process by which they have attained to disciplinary centrality may be marked by considerations of fashion, right-place-right-time, personal charisma, connections, etc. Disciplinary thinking is, above all, abstract thinking; a certain facet of reality is abstracted from all others, and forged into a discipline. It is because this abstraction is so unrealistic that a great degree of theoretical sophistication and ingenuity is required to bolster up the discipline. The intellectual energies of the proponents of the discipline, then, go into theorizing it in a way that escapes criticism. The definition of key terms, the choice of key terms, becomes worthy of heated debate – this debate can never be settled, because the niceties that are at issue are often basically metaphysical, having no material basis, and not being in any way verifiable. Thus the proliferation of discourse is assured, and the discipline’s existence is justified, on its own terms.

Metaphysical also means in this sense ideological – for ideology was initially a synonym for idealism (see entry for “Ideology” in Raymond Williams, Keywords). This was Marx’s original use of the term; still in The German Ideology that meaning is present, gradually losing ground to the more familiar rationalization-of-existing-power-structure conception (The German Ideology, ed. by C.J. Arthur, Lawrence & Wishart, 1982, pp. 64-68). Even in that more specialized sense, it remains that any idealistic theorizations are ideological, for Marx insists on empiricism – real is his favorite word in The German Ideology, closely followed by actual. Empiricism is about “sense experience” but mostly, I submit, it is about observation. It is atheoretical as it can possibly be. It is rather Sherlock Holmesian, if one may give it an iconic presence, as opposed to a theoretical justification (which is precisely what one doesn’t want to get involved in giving). As the Great Detective said: “The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession” (The Valley of Fear). And Holmes’ solutions to his cases were never theories – on the contrary they were explications of entirely unique sets of factors with no general applicability at all. To be able to come to such explication, not a theory of detection was needed, but an attention to the fact that “[a]ll knowledge comes useful to the detective” (ibid). A full theory of detection would be a theory of life. Similarly, a full theory of sociology, of culture, of gender, of anything, would be a full theory of life. In other words, it’s an impossibility.

The solution, then, is to sideline theorization in favour of attention to detail. This attention to detail, directed towards whatever element of society strikes one as worthy of it, will involve a lot of criticism, without much positing of precisely how things could be different – constructing the future of idealistic and ideological; critiquing the present is not. I recently came across a great early letter by Marx, sometimes called “Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” after an important phrase used therein (phrase actually rendered slightly differently in this translation):

On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be. (“Marx to Ruge: Krueznach, September 1843“)

The anti-idealist and anti-utopian stance is strong here. The notion that criticism is in itself a good, unconnected to anything narrowly constructive. This is a stance that I believe contrasts with academic practice, and even with general lay ideology. Nobody likes a critic who just complains without offering a substantive alternative. But yet, it is worth considering that it is through “ruthless criticism” that we begin to arrive at the possibility of progressivism, and we must perhaps lay waste to current ideologies before we can begin to ask ourselves “What do we want?” For as of now, our wants, our very desires, are deeply implicated in socio-cultural and economic practices, so what we want is an index of our being in ideology.

Marx’s intellectual progress should be noted. In this seminar on Capital, David Harvey notes that Marx was not a disciplinarian in a modern sense; nevertheless, Capital marks a very different phase in Marx’s thought from The German Ideology. Now, he has begun to reduce. He has certain building blocks, basic concepts like “socially necessary labour time” from which an entire theory of human living is to be constructed. But Marx’s concepts are suggestive rather than scientific. As Harvey notes, the concept named above was not properly defined by Marx and never has been in a way agreeable to succeeding economists/ social scientists. Therefore any theory based thereon  may well have moments of insight and suggestiveness, but as a theory it is wrong. Or not even wrong – being based on a concept which has no meaning, it is nonsense, in A. J. Ayers’ sense. But wrong as a theory may be, this does not stop other putative theorists from building on it – in fact, the less empirical weight a theory has, the more ingenuity can be applied to proving it logically. It is, indeed, the perfect challenge for the intellectual. But, ultimately, in constructing a theory, no matter how ingenious, on concepts that are empirically unsound, Marx is falling prey to the very ideological system-building he had denounced in his early works. So maybe Marx was Right, as Terry Eagleton and others insist, but the Marx who was right was not the one who wrote Capital, but the one who called for a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing. 

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