The Victorian Sage

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

Tag: sartor resartus

Armed Eyesight: Metaphor in Carlyle and in 21st-century Economics

One might be tempted to think that the Carlylean figure of the sage or man of letters is no more. That there was a way of knowing the world articulated by 19th-century sages that can no longer be accessed, for good or ill. Yet echoes of the sage mode of discourse can be found among modern intellectuals and academics. Most ironically, economics may be the 21st-century equivalent of sage writing. Ironic because Carlyle famously described economics (then known as political economy) as the “dismal science”, and indeed railed against it at every opportunity.

It was a dismal science to Carlyle because of its reduction of people to productive units. Carlyle noted that the final consequence of this was that people were not valuable in themselves, but only in how they contributed to the overall economic situation. Thus a person who was not economically viable had no personal value, and was better off dead, being a drain on resources rather than a producer. This capitalistic phenomenon of a person being unable to find work was on that struck Carlyle forcefully:

A full-formed Horse will, in any market, bring from twenty to as high as two hundred Friedrichs d’or: such is his worth to the world. A full-formed Man is not only worth nothing to the world, but the world could afford him a round sum would he simply engage to go and hang himself. (Sartor Resartus, III, IV)

Carlyle rejected what he saw as the implicit premise of political economy that human worth was defined by economic factors, and so the calculations political economists made were anathema to him. He valued such systematic thought little, and instead envisioned the true intellectual as one who took a the widest, most inclusive view possible. The intellectual, for Carlyle, was the one who saw everything, and saw through everything. There was no end to the cultural artefacts that could be read by the true sage. In Sartor Resartus, for example, it is clothes which prove to be transcendentally revealing when seen through the eyes of a sage, and which indeed ranks for Carlyle above any more established field of study:

[T]his Science of Clothes is a high one, and may with infinitely deeper study on thy part yield richer fruit: that it takes scientific rank beside Codification, and Political Economy, and the Theory of the British Constitution; nay rather, from its prophetic height looks down on all these, as on so many weaving-shops and spinning-mills, where the Vestures which it has to fashion, and consecrate, and distribute, are, too often by haggard hungry operatives who see no farther than their nose, mechanically woven and spun?

Carlyle’s point was that this superlatively revealing element of our everyday environment was not considered a science, and so he was demonstrating that far beyond scientific disciplines could knowledge of humanity and society be gained. By treating the study of clothes as a science, Carlyle was parodying scientific discourse, but was also making a very serious point about the necessity to learn from and be attentive to everything in our social and natural environment. To insist on a rigidly disciplinary approach was thus, for Carlyle, to very precisely miss the point. And this disciplinary point-missing Carlyle saw exemplified in the dismal science of Political Economy:

It was a matter of vision, of being able to really see things, and see through things:

The beginning of all Wisdom is to look fixedly on Clothes, or even with armed eyesight, till they become transparent. (SR, Bk. 2, Ch. II)

The irony, then, is that contemporary economics sometimes posits itself as exactly the kind of science of everyday life that Carlyle was looking for. In Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, the economist is the person who can look on the everyday and find hidden patterns and meaning therein. On the cover, the following quote from David Bodanis appears:

Reading this book is like spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles.

It would be interesting to know how Carlyle would have felt about the X-ray metaphor. The technology of the X-ray had yet to come into being in the mid-19th century, however, so the metaphor was unavailable to him. Yet his metaphor of armed eyesight is very close. So Carlyle conceptualised the activity of philosophising in a very similar way to Bodanis’ conception of economics.

And in the opening lines of The Undercover Economist proper, Harford again emphasises visual metaphors:

[N]ormal people look remarkable in the eyes of economists. What is the economist seeing? What could he tell you, if you cared to ask? And why should you care? (1)

This is an attractive view of the economist, as one who simply looks upon everyday things, but rather than seeing only what we see, seeing through them to a deeper reality.

Yet, we cannot quite declare Harford to be a neo-Carlylean. Rather than looking on things with impartial curiosity, he brings to bear on them an astounding preconception:

[F]ree markets are just like Fletcher Reede’s son [in the film Liar Liar] – they force you to tell the truth. (60)

Harford believes that nothing that lacks value can survive in a free market, because people will only pay what an object is “worth”. Taxes, he believes, interfere with this “world of truth”.

Now you can begin to see why I say that prices “tell the truth” and reveal information […].[T]he value of the product to the customer is equal to or higher than the price; and the cost to the producer equal to or lower than the price. (62)

There are innumerable problems with this theory: what about alcohol to the alcoholic, a bet to the gambler, junk food to the unhealthy? Are these “worth” their price, or is their value actually negative? That is, these people appear to be paying to harm themselves.

Again, if the value of something is intrinsic and equal to price, why would a multi-million dollar advertising industry exist to convince people to buy, while also pushing up prices to pay for itself. Would not a true world of market truth abolish all advertising except the strictly informational?

Harford admits that the pure market as world of truth does not exist, yet insists on using it as a justification for the free market throughout the book. He does not address the issue that one could just as easily imagine a perfect socialist society, say, or a perfect anarchist society or any such arrangement. Why is it valid to imagine free market perfection and not those others?

In short, it is ultimately clear that Harford is looking at things through a very restrictive lens, seeing things not as they are but as they would be in a perfect free market. This is in line with an economist’s training, but seeing things from a Carlylean perspective, it is far from acceptable, and such a thinker runs the risk of becoming what Carlyle called “a Pair of Spectacles behind which there is no Eye” (SR, I, X). To really see through the phenomena of everyday life, as Hartford nobly attempts, would take a far lesser attachment to any such politico-structural ideal without a real-world existence. Sometimes, in short, an excess of theory is a greater epistemological flaw than no theory at all.

A Black Spot in our Sunshine: Happiness in Mill, Carlyle and the Present Day

Happiness is a concept around which we orient much of our activity, and much of our self-reflection: ultimately, our feeling about an aspect of our lives is often determined by asking ourselves the question: does it make me happy? Sometimes, it is very difficult to answer this question. Happiness, a seemingly simple concept, is actually a complicated abstraction that is very difficult to identify and to measure.

Many 19th-century thinkers left accounts of their formative years, and these tended to be years of turmoil, confusion and unruly emotions. One of the concepts individuals were increasingly using to analyse and evaluate their experience was that of happiness. A famous example comes from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, (published posthumously in 1873) in a passage where he is talking about himself at the age of 20 (in 1826), a time at which he devoted most of his energy to crusading journalism and political activism:

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent […]. In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

This was the start of what Mill called a “mental crisis”. It is striking the central role that happiness played in Mill’s thinking. The worthiness of his aims – which he did not doubt – was of no worth when his own personal happiness did not result therefrom. So, for Mill, ultimately much of his intellectual life’s work became about developing ideas about increasing happiness individually and collectively.


John Stuart Mill in 1870.

At around the same time, a famous contemporary of Mill, Thomas Carlyle, was undergoing a mental crisis of his own, one described with powerful intensity in the semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus (1833-34). Carlyle called his time of distress, confusion and alienation the “everlasting no”. A realization of his own unhappiness is central to the crisis:

“Reasonably might the Wanderer exclaim to himself: Are not the gates of this world’s happiness inexorably shut against thee; hast thou a hope that is not mad? Nevertheless, one may still murmur audibly, or in the original Greek if that suit thee better: ‘Whoso can look on Death will start at no shadows.'” (SR, II, 6, “Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh”)

Carlyle recognised in himself an inability to experience anything similar to the happiness he had been introduced to as a concept. He concludes that happiness is definitively denied to him – its gates inexorably shut against him. His response, though, is very different to Mill’s – diametrically opposed, even. He rejects the concept of happiness and the pursuit of happiness completely:

What then? Is the heroic inspiration we name Virtue but some Passion; some bubble of the blood, bubbling in the direction others profit by? I know not: only this I know, If what thou namest Happiness be our true aim, then are we all astray. (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”)


Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two: for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that of Ophiuchus: speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men.—Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.  (SR, II, 9, “The Everlasting Yea”)

Carlyle considers that man is incapable of happiness, because the concept of happiness, as he understands it, is based on sensual satisfactions. Man is not primarily sensual for Carlyle: rather he is filled with a void of longing that is more than sensual, something Infinite that Carlyle doesn’t quite have a name for here. Once an individual begins to think in terms of what can make him happy and satisfy him, the only real answer is God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself. And that is not very practical! So Carlyle turned away from the concept of happiness and insisted in Sartor (and thereafter) that the summum bonum was to Know what thou canst work at (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”), and to work on with a minimum of self-consciousness, and a minimum of considering of one happiness.


Thomas Carlyle: What are you looking at? Get back to work!


This contrasting attitude to happiness was one of the key differences between Mill and Carlyle. It would appear that Mill was on the right side of history here (and in most of their other areas of dispute). Happiness is both a crucial concept in our everyday analysis of our lives, and is used on a larger scale as a scientific term. We have, for example, the World Happiness Report, commissioned by the UN, wherein happiness levels in each country are prepared. These are completed simply by asking people how happy they are, with details of GDP, freedom, life expectancy, etc. of each country provided in the Report to allow correlations to be drawn. The UN also established “Happiness and Well-Being” as “A New Economic Paradigm” in 2012. Academically, we now have a Journal of Happiness Studies. There is no escaping the pursuit of happiness. We must pursue it if we wish to align our ideals with those of the academic and economic establishment.

Our consciousness of happiness is thus being perpetually reinforced. As we ponder the concept, then, we cannot fail to consider its lack or opposite. What if you don’t have happiness? What if you are not happy? Then you are unhappy, sad, or perhaps depressed. The latest World Happiness Report finds that depression is one of the three greatest threats to happiness. Insofar as depression is synonymous with sadness – or at least deep sadness – and sadness is an antonym of happiness, this is a tautology. The biggest threat to happiness in today’s world is the absence of happiness!

Therein lies the dialectical bind of happiness: the more conscious one becomes of it, the more conscious one must also become of its absence. The more one must ask oneself if one is happy and, if not, why not. This activity of ceaseless questioning is in itself not a pleasant one, and conducive to anxiety. Happiness is an essentially abstract concept centralized by utilitarian philosophy and economics. We can no longer unthink it, or remember that not all societies have prized it. Aristotle’s eudaimonia, remember, was an activity, not a state. As such, it was as close to Carlyle’s ideal of work as to Mill’s happiness.

So, as our notions of happiness get more and more sophisticated, and our economic structures become more and more entwined with this utilitarian abstraction, we will experience more and more depression, more anxiety, more and more the absence of this concept of happiness, which has moved from a mere abstraction to a materialized abstraction, build into the economic and ideological framework of our society. The felt absence of happiness is now one of the central facts of our experience. This is why we should go back to Carlyle and get a new perspective on this, because to us the idea that you don’t need to think about happiness is an alien one. Carlyle’s style is antiquated. The message, too, seems at first antiquated, but, if we wish to escape the clutches of happiness, it must be renewed:

[M]an is actually Here; not to ask questions, but to do work: in this time, as in all times, it must be the heaviest evil for him, if his faculty of Action lie dormant, and only that of sceptical Inquiry exert itself. Accordingly whoever looks abroad upon the world, comparing the Past with the Present, may find that the practical condition of man in these days is one of the saddest; burdened with miseries which are in a considerable degree peculiar. In no time was man’s life what he calls a happy one; in no time can it be so. (Characteristics, 1831)


The Post-Victorianism of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959)

Wilfred Thesiger was a writer-explorer in the tradition established in the Victorian period. In his introduction to Arabian Sands (Penguin 2007; book first published 1959), Rory Stewart writes of Thesiger:

His writing, therefore, often echoed the reports of nineteenth-century British travellers on the North-west frontier: matter of fact, understated, replete with precise information, useful for Imperial projects. (ix)


Thesiger and Salim Bin Ghabaisha, one of his Bedu companions in his travels across the Empty Quarter.

Given that the travels documented in Sands took place in the late 1940s, Thesiger was too late to contribute to imperial projects. At the time, Britain did have a presence of sorts on the so-called Trucial Coast (modern-day UAE), but they had little real power, and they pulled out amicably in the late 60s. And Thesiger would not have wanted to contribute to imperialism. For all the Victorian pluck, reserve, tolerance of hardship and uncomplaining perseverance in evidence in his writing, Arabian Sands is more in the tradition of Rousseau’s Noble Savage than British imperial literature.

Thesiger admired without reservation the Bedu desert nomad tribes of Southern Arabia. His was not a “civilizing mission” in the Victorian tradition, but consciously the reverse. Thesiger was desperate to escape modern western living and find purity in the austerity of the desert. He notes with regret the imminent coming of the oil companies to Arabia, and foresees the dying out of the Bedu way of life:

I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe


I knew that for them the danger lay, not in the hardship of their lives, but in the boredom and frustration they would feel when they renounced it. The tragedy was that the choice would not be theirs: economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street-corners as “unskilled labour”. (329-330)

Hardship over boredom and frustration was the choice Thesiger made throughout his life, and the reader of Sands is compelled to consider the same choice. It’s not only material comfort Thesiger gave up. He was also apparently celibate throughout his life. Whether he found this a burden or not he does not say. This is not surprising, for in Sands, there is very little self-analysis or self-psychologizing. The point was not to have a rich emotional life, nor even to know thyself. In crossing the world’s largest sand desert, the Empty Quarter of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, there was no space for such luxuries. There was so much less self to know.

So the really Victorian thing about Thesiger is, perhaps, his commitment to the annihilation of self. This is Thomas Carlyle’s rather violent term from his extremely influential work bildungsroman Sartor Resartus (1833-34):

“Here, then, as I lay in that CENTRE OF INDIFFERENCE; cast, doubtless by benignant upper Influence, into a healing sleep, the heavy dreams rolled gradually away, and I awoke to a new Heaven and a new Earth. The first preliminary moral Act, Annihilation of Self (Selbst-todtung), had been happily accomplished; and my mind’s eyes were now unsealed, and its hands ungyved.” (Bk. 2, Ch. 9)

Sartor’s protagonist Teufelsdrockh is, like Thesiger, a ceaseless traveller, and the image of the desert is one Carlyle often invokes:

In strange countries, as in the well-known; in savage deserts, as in the press of corrupt civilization, it was ever the same: how could your Wanderer escape from—his own Shadow? Nevertheless still Forward! I felt as if in great haste; to do I saw not what. From the depths of my own heart, it called to me, Forwards! The winds and the streams, and all Nature sounded to me, Forwards! Ach Gott, I was even, once for all, a Son of Time. (2, 6)

For Carlyle, any exceptional person must pass through the desert, but it is only a passing through. The point is to emerge out the other side. This is where Carlyle’s deism comes in. The only way out of the desert is through religious faith.

Product of a later age, Thesiger’s is a godless universe. There is only desert. One doesn’t simply pass through, but returns to it again and again, experiencing hardship upon hardship without end. The journey is the goal. To a Victorian like Carlyle, this would be a nightmarish and unacceptable conclusion. But to Thesiger, there is nothing to regret and nothing to complain of. Having experienced that new modernist dawn that the Victorians anticipated with some ambivalence, Thesiger is absolutely convinced – so convinced that he rarely mentions it in Sands – that the desert itself is the answer, is as close to Carlyle’s Everlasting Yea as one is going to get. This is a certainty Thesiger seems to hold beyond the need for dogmatism, and it is the undogmatic ease of Thesiger’s philosophy that is one of the merits of this great book.

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.


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… it illustrates in nuce the current state 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” A corollary of this for 21st-century man and woman is that powerlessness sanctifies, or at least prevents corruption. Homer encounters a victim, Timmy, and sees a hero. Ironically, it is the über-woke Lisa who rejects the ascription of heroism to Timmy. I think this places this episode of The Simpsons firmly in the 90s: 21st-century Lisa would not denigrate the claims to heroism of a true victim.

I have written on this thorny topic elsewhere, in an essay on the BBC Oliver Twist (2007):

Fagin’s demeanour at his trial in the face of the obscene and sadistic injunctions of the symbolic authority (Fang) demonstrates par excellence “the gaze of a perplexed victim” that Slavoj Žižek sees as being the central image of contemporary ideology. The representation of such a gaze neutralizes the threat of the other, but at the same time deprives him/her of the possibility of agency. Such an ascription of victimhood functions to render the other tolerable. Following Žižek’s analysis, we can see the contemporary quest for tolerance as the source of the emphasis on the victim-figure, and its imposition on pre-existing characters bearing a relevant identity, whether it be ethnic, religious or other. [“Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)”, in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, Ed. By Le Juez, Shiel and Wallace, Common Ground Research Networks, 2018]

Fagin, the ostracised criminal, is not a force of evil as in Dickens. Rather, in his ultimate downfall and the shades of racism that haunt it, the makings of a 21st-century victim-hero are found.

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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