The Victorian Sage

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

Tag: sartor resartus

Defending Lost Causes and the Redemptive Moment in Carlyle

Žižek’s premise in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009) is one of my favorites. With reference to Hegel, Lacan, the French Revolution and Stalinism (!) among other things, he tries to isolate ‘the redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection’ (7). It’s not the arguments against these things are not valid, but that ‘this is not the whole truth’ (7). Žižek is careful to point out that he’s not defending Stalinism, et al., but ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6). I hadn’t read this book before completing my thesis, but it would have fit Carlyle like a glove. Indeed, I used quotes from Feyerabend that make almost the same point as Žižek here. Mill makes similar points about the need to defend unpopular arguments in On Liberty, as well. Of course, I couldn’t delineate and theorize the ‘redemptive moment’ in Carlyle with the panache or theoretical acumen of Žižek, and I didn’t really try, as, in the end, I felt the need to reject any limiting of Carlyle’s work or influence to a ‘moment’ – or at least, I couldn’t come up with one moment that encapsulated enough to make it central. But, ok, one moment from Carlyle that sums up his radical potential (probably unrealized in his corpus overall), here is one that does it for me, from the great Sartor Resartus (of course):

“You see two individuals, […] one dressed in fine Red, the other in coarse threadbare Blue: Red says to Blue, ‘Be hanged and anatomized;’ Blue hears with a shudder, and (O wonder of wonders!) marches sorrowfully to the gallows; is there noosed up, vibrates his hour, and the surgeons dissect him, and fit his bones into a skeleton for medical purposes. How is this; or what make ye of your Nothing can act but where it is? Red has no physical hold of Blue, no clutch of him, is nowise in contact with him: neither are those ministering Sheriffs and Lord-Lieutenants and Hangmen and Tipstaves so related to commanding Red, that he can tug them hither and thither; but each stands distinct within his own skin. Nevertheless, as it is spoken, so is it done: the articulated Word sets all hands in Action; and Rope and Improved-drop perform their work.

“Thinking reader, the reason seems to me twofold: First, that Man is a Spirit, and bound by invisible bonds to All Men; secondly, that he wears Clothes, which are the visible emblems of that fact. Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown; whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE?—Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth. (Part 1, Chapter 9)

This, presented as a pseudo-quote from Teufelsdrockh, is a powerful thought-experiment which brings to the reader’s attention the fact that the law is, as Žižek said, grounded on a lie. The life and death of one are in the hands of another who is in no way essentially other, but has merely adopted or been given certain clothes which have the magical effect of producing obedience to instructions he may give in certain forms and in certain situations. Thus Carlyle is quite openly and with shocking frankness (this was mid-19th-century England) putting forward the Žižekian point that ‘the law is grounded on a lie’, that ‘its authority is without truth’ (Sublime Object of Ideology, Ch. 1). It is simply a matter of ‘clothes’: the essence of the judge and the criminal are no different; they are ontologically equal, yet one can casually bring death to the other, and employ the whole machinery of society to do so. This is a passage calculated to foment revolution in the minds of ordinary men and women, to inspire commitment to anarchism, the levelling of all persons and symbolic denuding of all. How could respect for legal and political authorities survive if this passage were taken to the popular heart? Impossible. Here, then, we have a radical core that should be kept in mind when we consider Carlyle’s reputation in the 19th c., one which invited us to look at all constituted authorities with a critical eye – to look at the people, not the symbolic authority with which they are invested.

 

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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.

Morality and Criticism

I was perusing the pages of the latest New York Review of Books today and found a review of a collection of essays by a critic named Daniel Mendelsohn, of whom I had never heard. The review was by one Edward Mendelson (no relation?). The headline is “Triumph of a Moral Critic” – meaning in this case not a critic of morals, but a critic whose work is informed by a moral position. The great moral problem of our times, says Mendelsohn, is the “reality problem”: “the blurring between reality and artifice” that he attributes to new technologies and that permeates all our conduct; a problem called post-modernism. This problem, I would suggest, is hardly a necessary consequence of technology. That post-modernism has seeped its way into intellectual discourse in our culture was not inevitable, yet now it is a myth, in Barthes’ sense, depoliticized, just there, natural, as if no one in there right mind could say No, existence isn’t just a simulacra. That’s just one way of talking about it. And at this point, not a helpful way. In the terms of Thomas Carlyle, post-modernism seems to me to be an old coat going out at elbow, and one which may now be safely cast off, even at the risk of going naked for a while as we try to retailor our ways of thinking.

Alas, until someone comes up with some system, some way of thinking that has a name, we may be stuck with post-modernism. Carlyle says at the beginning of Sartor Resartus: “Surely the plain rule is, Let each considerate person have his way, and see what it will lead to”, and in the same passage quotes from Daniel 12:4:

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

Unfortunately many won’t run to and fro. They’ll form a line and run after each other! And they won’t increase knowledge at all! They need, as Carlyle knew better than anyone, a flag or banner to run after, then all will be well:

It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being; those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolic worth, and prize it the highest.

While I don’t quite agree with the last part, and would account an age that managed to see symbols as only symbols as the noblest, I don’t doubt that Carlyle is practically right in this case. Yet all Daniel Mendelsohn and the rest of us can do is sit and wait the Rise of the New God, or the new intellectual paradigm, before which, I perceive, post-modernism will crumble into dust.

A Reflection on Hero-Worship

Thomas Carlyle, such a pervasive influence on mid-19th century thought, was a great believer in the power of exceptional individuals to shape collective human destiny: “The History of the world”, he once wrote, “is but the Biography of great men” (On Heroes 34). And what must we do when we recognize one of these great men in our midst? Why, we must worship him, of course. Carlyle was also a great believer in the importance of worship. What one worships, it could almost be said, is a matter of secondary importance, primary importance being given to the fact that one does, at least, worship something: “[W]hoso cannot obey cannot be free […] [O]nly in reverently bowing down before the Higher does [man] feel himself exalted”, insists the Carlylean avatar Professor Teufelsdrockh (Sartor Resartus 189-190).

Thomas Carlyle, engraving from a photo taken in 1874, when Carlyle would have been about 78 (Wikimedia Commons).

How one recognizes the fit object of worship is something Carlyle wasn’t altogether clear on, though often his stance seems reducible to the formula “might is right” (i.e. he who has managed to secure physical power is he who has proved himself worthy of obedience), and, indeed, in analysis Carlyle’s philosophy often has been reduced to this formula.

But whatever one may think of Carlyle’s social and political philosophies, he was surely on the button when he asserted the apparent psychological importance of worship for the “omnivorous biped” that is man (Sartor Resartus 51). Though we no longer tend to engage in the open power worship of a Carlyle, we yet have a need to make heroes. If one was to make a massive generalization, the Victorian era was the time of power worship and the late 20th/ early 21st century is that of victim worship. The wittiest and most succinct illustration of this I can recall, and one that often reoccurs to me when I witness the phenomenon, is from an early episode of The Simpsons:

Homer: That Timmy is a real hero!

Lisa:  How do you mean, Dad?

Homer: Well, he fell down a well, and… he can’t get out.

Lisa:  How does that make him a hero?

Homer: Well, that’s more than you did!

(Season 3, Ep. 13, “Radio Bart”)

It’s perhaps funnier seen in context than read, but nevertheless… On such flimsy evidence is this blog basing the thesis of the present post regarding the evolution of hero-worship in western culture. We no longer draw our heroes from among the powerful; indeed, they tend to becomes scapegoats and objects of opprobrium in times of trouble – we now tend to believe implicitly the dictum that “power corrupts”. Perhaps a corollary of this for 21st-century man and woman is that powerlessness sanctifies, or at least prevents corruption. Who, though, would wish to be a hero on such terms? In the process of becoming recognized as “heroic”, heroism itself is inevitably sacrificed, leading inexorably to the fall from grace.  Thus is the state of hero-worship in the 21st century, in this blog’s humble (or is it, in fact, heroic?) opinion.

On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (Chapman and Hall, 1869).

Sartor Resartus, ed. Kerry McSweeney  and Peter Sabor (OUP, 1999).

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