Carlyle’s Theory of Imposture

by Mark Wallace

Is it going too far to say that Carlyle had a theory of imposture? Perhaps so, and making such a claim gives one a considerable responsibility to explicate said theory and even to defend it, to some extent. But the idea of imposture in Carlyle is so central that it should be theorized to some extent, to bring it forward in people’s minds when they consider Carlyle’s contribution to the thought of his time. Especially so when we consider that imposture is not a theme we  have much contemporary discussion of. Our postmodern view of truth is that it is an effect of discourse, so imposture has no essential validity – if truth doesn’t exist in itself, neither does imposture. The way we talk about such topics is summed up in the discourse around Imposter Syndrome, which I wrote about earlier. We see such a feeling as a syndrome of external pressures, never asking if we are, in fact, impostors, and, if so, what we can do about it. Such does not have the appearance of an academic question. All the more reason, then, to revisit a thinker who took imposture very seriously indeed.

Carlyle discussed imposture not only at an individual level, but at a societal level. This is the crux of his analysis of the French Revolution: Revolution as a solution to institutionalized imposture. Really? How credible is this? Is imposture unbearable? Carlyle says yes, in the long run, it is. Note here how he is opposed to the conservative Eliotean dictum “Mankind cannot bear very much reality“. Carlyle says the opposite: Mankind cannot bear too much falsity. In our present ideological climate, is this not an audacious and radical claim?

In the context of the French Revolution, imposture had been institutionalized. The two principal ideological state apparatuses were the King and the Church. Carlyle was not opposed to either institution in theory, but felt that both were worn-out symbols that had been created in response to a genuine community need, but had failed to change in response to epistemological, technological and social advances, and had become irrelevancies – but irrelevancies whose power was still institutionalized. This, then, is the ultimate imposture, when institutions are unfit for governance, but are unwilling to jeopardize their privileged position by admitting this. When institutionalized authorities are inadequate, to uphold them can only be “an Imbecility or a Machiavellism” (FR, Modern Library 2002, p. 11). To even take part, with perhaps good intentions, is Machiavellian or Imbecilic. The more these institutions are upheld, the more the return to Nature must be violent and cataclysmic. For Carlyle insists that “a Lie cannot be believed” (FR, p. 14), and that truth will out, for we cannot bear it otherwise. We may think to choose to believe is a viable proposition, but if we don’t actually believe, the imposture will prove impossible, and will call up a rebellion from that part of us that belongs to Nature.

The difficulty is in pinpointing this process: is it at an individual level that we react against lies in this manner? Can we describe it in terms of consciousness, of actions, or what? Is there an empirical historical basis for this view? Don’t people believe lies all the time, and on a long-term basis? From my point of view, the most interesting thing about this theory is that it challenges all dominant theories in contemporary thought. It’s anti-conservative, it’s anti-Foucault, it’s anti-Nietzsche. It’s a theory I would like to able to defend, but it’s one I need to think about, and try and get my thoughts in order.