The Victorian Sage

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

Tag: past and present

Žižek , Carlyle and Happiness

One of the concepts that Slavoj Žižek has frequently debunked is “happiness”. In a webchat from the Guardian from 2014, for example, he is asked if happiness is still an important idea, and replies:

Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog, I think we should say something similar about happiness. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.

Zizek citing Gordon Gekko from Wall Street to back up his point is deeply ironic, highlighting the tensions in Žižek’s supposed communist ideals, but his questioning of happiness is worth reflecting on. It’s not something we reflect on spontaneously: we assume that happiness is, by definition, that towards which we should and do strive. Žižek is rather Nietzschean here, however, in his prioritization of the notion of struggle and in his allusion to masters and slaves. Or perhaps we might say he is rather Carlylean here, for Carlyle pre-empted Nietzsche in this area.

Let us consider, for a moment, Carlyle on happiness. Fortunately, Past and Present (1843) has a chapter called “Happy” which provides a convenient subject of analysis. He opens the chapter with the assertion that “All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble”. Work is, of course, for Carlyle the greatest good, and it is against this that the nebulous notion of happiness has to contend.

Does not the whole wretchedness, the whole Atheism as I call it, of
man's ways, in these generations, shadow itself for us in that
unspeakable Life-philosophy of his: The pretension to be what he calls
'happy'? Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has his
head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and
divine laws ought to be 'happy.' His wishes, the pitifulest
whipster's, are to be fulfilled for him; his days, the pitifulest
whipster's, are to flow on in ever-gentle current of enjoyment,
impossible even for the gods. The prophets preach to us, Thou shalt be
happy; thou shalt love pleasant things, and find them. The people
clamour, Why have we not found pleasant things?

This passage admittedly solidifies some of Carlyle’s flaws. He introduces the concept of “wretchedness” and then, bewilderingly, announces that he calls it “Atheism”. Arbitrary and subjective re-definition of words is a common feature of Carlyle’s prose – one of the most annoying of its features, indeed. He appears to give no weight to received definitions: Atheism has a definition; why is he giving it another one that has nothing to do with it? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t actually defend his position. He does state it quite baldly, though, and that is useful, if only to enable disagreement and dismissal.

Then we get into Carlyle’s abusive rhetoric that can, in certain moods, be quite fun to read. The “pitifulest whipster” of this extract is the seeker after happiness. This character has a consciousness of something, but it is an idealistic notion, not one with any material foundation, conceivable but not attainable: thus consciousness of the concept is productive of the very opposite. Carlyle, as he made clear in the classic early essay “Characteristics”, hates self-consciousness, so a concept that focuses us on the pursuit of our own happiness is not likely to please him. The concept of happiness produces self-consciousness, self-consciousness produces misery. Working, on the other hand, protects against self-consciousness, and thus against misery.

It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man, That he cannot
work; that he cannot get his destiny as a man fulfilled. Behold, the
day is passing swiftly over, our life is passing swiftly over; and the
night cometh, wherein no man can work. The night once come, our
happiness, our unhappiness,--it is all abolished; vanished, clean
gone; a thing that has been: 'not of the slightest consequence'
whether we were happy as eupeptic Curtis, as the fattest pig of
Epicurus, or unhappy as Job with potsherds, as musical Byron with
Giaours and sensibilities of the heart; as the unmusical Meat-jack
with hard labour and rust! But our work,--behold that is not
abolished, that has not vanished: our work, behold, it remains, or the
want of it remains;--for endless Times and Eternities, remains; and
that is now the sole question with us forevermore!

Happiness is only allowable, then, as a function of work. And the worker cannot recognize himself as happy, for if he becomes conscious of it, that’s where his problems begin. Still less is happiness applicable to the superior persons, the “masters” as Žižek might say. Rather than happiness, then, we have two options: to prioritize the element of struggle in our existence, to always ensure that we are struggling against ourselves and the world; or to lose ourselves in work. The first is Žižek’s remedy, and it demands self-consciousness; the second is Carlyle’s, and it forbids it. By the time one has gotten far enough to actually reading 19th-century politico-moral reformers like Carlyle, one is already mired in consciousness of the plight of this world and of oneself. Forgetting oneself is out of the question. But we can still use Carlyle to question those parts of ourselves that we can’t eradicate. Maybe, even by reading him, we are keeping open a space for the possible radical transformation of the self in a post-self-conscious age. That’s something that even Žižek could get behind.


21st-century Sage: Niall Ferguson and the Western Malaise

Niall Ferguson wrote a book in 2000 entitled The Cash Nexus, the phrase derived from Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), and it seems the influence of the prototypical Victorian Sage is strong in the right-wing historian/ economist. In his article “Rue Britannia: Debt used to make us Great” in the Sunday Times of last week (17 June 2012), he was in full neo-sage mode as he identified the “malaise” at the heart of western society, and issued dire warnings for the consequences of our current recklessness.

                            Niall Ferguson

Thomas Carlyle                                                                  Niall Ferguson

The sage approach is characterized by first referencing a current social issue: for example, worker unrest in Chartism; for Ferguson, the issue is, of course, the economic difficulties engulfing various western states. Then, he makes the classic sage move: considering the problem not in itself, but as a symptom of a society rotten to the core. Financial problems are “nothing more than symptoms of an underlying instittutional malaise”. Like Carlyle, Ferguson harks back to a time when society was well-ordered: for Carlyle, it was feudalism; for Ferguson, it seems to be any time between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the dusk of the British Empire. This was a time of “legislating for economic development” and when “even war became an increasingly profitable activity […] There was no default. There was no inflation. And Britannia bestrode the globe”. But now, Ferguson repeats, we have arguments over austerity and stimulus as “a consequence of a more profound malaise”.

But the sage must not only condemn, he must also make clear the dangers of our path. For Carlyle, that lay in class antagonisms, which would end in revolution and anarchy if not appeased by the prophesied “Aristocracy of Talent”. For Ferguson, the fear is that the west is on the way to being overtaken by China. He informs us that the average American was 20 times richer than his Chinese counterpart in 1978, but is now only 5 times richer. Truly a sobering statistic. The dangers of Chinese economic power are not expressly identified, but that it is not desirable is clear (he has been more explicit on this elsewhere).

There is always blame that must be apportioned by the sage. Carlyle lambasted the Idle Aristocracy, characterized as “Sir Jabesh Windbag”. This class had  abdicated its responsibility to lead, and had to be overthrown, for the real aristocracy to take over, or mob-rule and another French Revolution would be the outcome. For Ferguson, the blame also falls on the acting aristocracy of our time, the governments and financial decision-makers who have broken the covenant between the generations and are in the process of leaving the coming generations in financial ruin.

There is one desirable way out for Ferguson: “a heroic effort of leadership”, one that would persuade “not only the young but also a significant proportion of the parents and grandparents to vote for a more responsible fiscal policy”. That word, heroic, how evocative it is in a Carlylean context! (See On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (clue’s in the title), or pretty much anything else he wrote). Who Ferguson is talking about is not quite clear, though he does at one point observe: “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be in the Tea Party.” They’re not, though, rather they are still in thrall to the cash nexus, but perhaps, even still, they are only holding out for a hero, and when such a person appears above the political horizon, the western world will bends its collective knee before him and pay due homage. Carlyle would certainly have liked to think so.

In summation, this post has simply tried to pick up on some similar rhetorical devices in use in Ferguson and Carlyle, as part of our ongoing attempts to trace Carlyle’s influence, such as it is, from the 1830s to the present day. In his appeal to national pride and his idealization of the British national past, his appeal to morality (implied in his description of “the present system” as “fraudulent”), his diagnosis of a sickness in our present condition, his apparent nostalgia for warfare and his investment in the idea of heroic leadership, he gives us ample reason to believe that there is at least one neo-Carlylean amongst the celebrated intellects of our time.

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