The Victorian Sage

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

Tag: thomas carlyle

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 Harford 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.

Thomas Carlyle and the Mind as Algorithm

In a recent post I reflected on the notion of human beings as algorithms that Yuval Noah Harari states is the current scientific consensus. Harari sums up this position as follows:

1. Organisms are algorithms, and humans are not individuals–they are ‘dividuals’. That is, humans are an assemblage of many different algorithms lacking a single inner voice or a single self.

2. The algorithms constituting a human are not free. They are shaped by genes and environmental pressures, and take decisions either deterministically or randomly–but not freely.

3. It follows that an external algorithm could theoretically know me much better than I can ever know myself. An algorithm that monitors each of the systems that comprise my body and my brain could know exactly who I am, how I feel and what I want. Once developed, such an algorithm could replace the voter, the customer and the beholder. Then the algorithm will know best, the algorithm will always be right, and beauty will be in the calculations of the algorithm. (383)

[T]wenty-first-century technology may enable external algorithms to ‘hack humanity’ and know me far better than I know myself. Once this happens the belief in individualism will collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms. (384)

You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. (429)

We live in the age of Big Data, in which algorithms – sets of instructions telling computers what to do – are used in all fields, from the medical to traffic control, and Harari demonstrates very easily that the algorithm is central to our experience of the world. Nevertheless, the scientific dogma he cites may be entirely erroneous.

The notion of the algorithm entirely predates the current age of information technology, originating in 1600BC Babylon. Yet it never until very recently seemed to provide a likely basis for human existence. So engrossed are we in algorithmic knowledge that we see ourselves reflected in it. We can no longer conceive of ourself as anything but algorithmic, so dependent are we on algorithms for our technological, economic and social development.

To understand the inherent dangers in such metaphorical thinking, we need to re-examine what happened at the height of the industrial revolution, at a time when the development of the machine was the dominant technological and social fact. Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (1829) is a key reflection on the Industrial Age. Carlyle noted:

It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gama’s. There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.

Note how Carlyle begins with the categorization of machinery into inward and outward. We all know the outward developments of the time – the steam engine, the power loom – but the notion of inward machinery is also worth noting. Carlyle argues that the outward dominance of the machine produces effects within the human psyche and within our conception of what we are. One of the most famous lines of “Signs of the Times” runs: “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” By working constantly with machinery, and by an unquestioning faith in machinery, people were beginning to relate themselves to machinery, to define themselves in relation to machinery.

Through the 19th and early 20th century, developments in science tended to posit the human mind itself as a machine. This metaphor continued at least as far as Freud:

[D]uring much of Sigmund Freud’s life, the dominant technology was steam power. It was as omnipresent a century ago as computers are for us today. Not surprisingly, Freud chose the steam engine metaphor to describe what he called the ‘apparatus’ of the human mind—in which ‘psychic energy’ flows in a ‘psycho-dynamic’ system, and can neither be created nor destroyed.      

The steam engine is no longer a technology of such importance, thus the notion of creating a theory of the mind from it strikes us as extremely odd (though a remnant of this thinking has survived in the use of the figurative phrase “letting off steam” to describe emotional release). Nevertheless, when we think how the rise of the algorithm has affected scientists’ approach to the mind, we can begin to understand Freud’s thought processes. And indeed, reading the mind in terms of dominant or emerging technology is older even than the industrial revolution. The mind and consciousness were then, and to an almost equal extent remain still, a mystery – the last frontier, the one truly hard problem“, faced with which, the enquiring mind resorts to metaphor as a denial of mystery. It may turn out that algorithms have something to tell us about the mind, but the history of mechanical metaphors of mind indicate that this “something” will be far less than all, and that the study that sees algorithms in the mind is unwittingly metaphorical rather than scientific.


Article by Rodney A. Brooks calling for the retirement of the computational metaphor for mind and body

Comparing Dickens and Carlyle using Voyant

My last post did some basic analysis of a selection of Thomas Carlyle’s writings using Voyant. Now I want to use Voyant to compare Carlyle’s writings to those of his contemporary Charles Dickens. Dickens was primarily a novelist, and I am going to use here four novels and one novella for analysis. Specifically:

Oliver Twist (1838)

The Chimes (1844)

Bleak House (1853)

Hard Times (1854)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Dickens is, then, generically different from Carlyle. Carlyle was not a novelist or fiction writer. Indeed, from our point of view, it is difficult to place him generically at all. However, to his contemporaries he was a Sage. I have earlier noted that the Sage exhibited features of both the novelist and of the philosopher. Like the philosopher, he was concerned with life in the widest sense, but unlike the philosopher, the Sage did not employ logical argument to prove his validity as an interpreter of life. Rather, he used a myriad of techniques, including several from the novelist’s toolbox: narrative, characterization, dialogism, irony, sarcasm, parable, exhortation, sermonizing, and, in Carlyle’s case, sheer abuse. The abusive mode is one that is now rarely used, but it is not without power. Take this example from Carlyle:

Get out of that, you ugly and foolish windbags: do you think the Eternal God of Nature will suffer you to stand in the way of His work? If you cannot open your eyes and see that this is a thing that must be done, you had better betake yourselves elsewhere – to the lowest Gehenna were fittest – there is no place for you in a world which is ruled, in the long run, by fact and not by chimera. (Latter-day Pamphlets)

Carlyle is here contemptuous of his readers, the “foolish and ugly windbags” referred to. He does not try to convince through logic, but by the strength of his contempt for any opposing position. He almost orders the reader to convince themselves: If you cannot open your eyes… His position holds little logical authority, but its intensity is often effective. Ruskin, Carlyle’s disciple, also used this mode, as I have discussed elsewhere.

Dickens is an interesting comparison with Carlyle, both because he is the pre-eminent novelist of the time (in the Anglophone world, at least), and because his debt of influence to Carlyle is well established. He inscribed Hard Times (1854) “To Thomas Carlyle” and claimed to have read Carlyle’s French Revolution five hundred times. They had certain of the same social and perhaps even artistic aims, yet they were received very differently by the public and the press. Perhaps by comparing Carlyle with the great novelist, we can get a better idea of what the Sage was doing, and how he was doing it.

Most frequent words:

In the selective corpus inputted to Voyant, the most frequently used word is Mr, and it is followed by said, little, sir and know in that order. Remember Carlyle’s most used words were man, men, world, like, and shall. A major overlap appears to be the overwhelming male bias in their lexica. Both authors are far more interested in a specifically male experience of the world, with the female equivalents being far less commonly used. This bias is more pronounced in Carlyle, though, as woman, Miss and Mrs do also feature fairly high in Dickens’ list. The most surprising word on Dickens’ list is little, which appears 1959 times (for comparison, large is at 237; and big at 22).There is probably no other writer in whose corpus this adjective would be so prominent – and the books analyzed don’t even include Little Dorrit or The Old Curiosity Shop (protagonist: Little Nell), so the results could have been even more striking. The concept of littleness, then, is clearly central to Dickens’ work. Other than that, Carlyle’s choices are more distinctive and revealing than Dickens’. I will not repeat what I have already written about Carlyle, but regarding Dickens it is really striking how commonplace and unliterary are all of his most frequent words. Forty of the top 50 words are monosyllables, and the only entries of more than two syllables are the trisyllabic gentleman and Oliver (as in Twist, the only character name in the top 50).

Word cloud on Voyant showing Dickens’ most frequent words.

Vocabulary density:

Carlyle’s most dense text was Sartor Resartus at 0.137, with French Revolution the least dense at 0.073. With Dickens the range was from The Chimes at 0.138 to Bleak House at 0.065. Even from my few initial Voyant analyses, I can see that this measure is rather misleading if taken in isolation, as a shorter text will almost always have a higher density than a long text. So the two authors’ longest works are also the ones with the most repeated words and the lowest density. At the other end, the comparison is more revealing, as Chimes and Sartor have almost equal density, though the latter is much longer: 85251 words as opposed to 34124. So Carlyle actually demonstrates a much higher vocabulary density than Dickens, and a much larger vocabulary. In total Carlyle uses 32294 unique words, Dickens 22432. This is a strikingly large gap. Carlyle has a significantly larger vocabulary than Dickens.

Words per sentence:

I noted in the last post that Carlyle’s average wps ranged from 22.6 to 31.5 across the selective corpus. Dickens’ wps ranges from 15.7 in The Chimes to 18.6 in A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. In fact, apart from Chimes having a noticeably lower wps, there is little variation across Dickens’ texts. But they all have much lower wps than Carlyle. Carlyle was particularly fond of long sentences and complex structures. At the same time, there may be a generic reason for the big difference here: Dickens’ fiction has a lot of dialogue, and this will generally be comprised of much shorter sentences, including one-word sentences (replies like “yes”, “no”, etc.).

To ascertain the role played by such factors as genre on wps would of course require analysis of a much wider range and larger number of texts. This initial analysis does raise several interesting points about the differences between Carlyle and Dickens. The biggest surprise for me is the degree to which the statistics seems to suggest a greater sophistication in Carlyle’s works. I may perform further comparisons using other Victorian writers – novelists, Sages and other – to get a more nuanced understanding of this.

Dickens Voyant analysis:

Carlyle Voyant analysis:

Voyant analysis of my PhD thesis

Analyzing Thomas Carlyle’s Writings with Voyant

A useful and user-friendly tool for basic digital analysis of texts is Voyant. I used it to analyze five works of Thomas Carlyle, taken from Project Gutenberg. The works chosen were:

Sartor Resartus (1834)

The French Revolution (1838)

On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History (1841)

Past and Present (1843)

Latter-day Pamphlets (1850)

These were partly chosen as they are perhaps Carlyle’s most important works, but also because Gutenberg doesn’t have all Carlyle’s works. For example, I would have considered Chartism (1840) had it been there, but it wasn’t (though it can be accessed online via Google Books). Similarly, the massively influential Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1838) were not there.

There are a couple of other minor caveats:

1) The version of Latter-day Pamphlets used was not the complete version. Like many versions, it consists of only five essays, omitting the final three.

2) The Gutenberg pages analyzed contained not only the texts of the works, but also various paratexts: title and publication details, Gutenberg’s copyright statement, and so on. This is most important regarding Past and Present, which contained an introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson from the first US edition of the work. For a proper academic analysis, one would have to work on finding or creating a webpage or file with no such paratexts, but for the purposes of this blog, the superfluous material wasn’t enough to seriously upset the findings.

So, I simply copied and pasted the five links to the relevant pages on Gutenberg, then Voyant did the rest, returning a page filled with analysis of Carlyle’s works. First is a word cloud:

This can be adjusted to include from 25 words up. The adjustment bar, however, is very fiddly (at least on my iPad), and it’s hard to adjust the number of words with accuracy or tell what number of words are being shown. The cloud above has about 100 words, the 100 most common words across the texts. The larger the text, the greater the frequency. A quick look tells you that the most frequent word across all the texts is man. Still more pointedly, the second most frequent word is men. By clicking on the words in the cloud, we find that man gets 2293 mentions, men 1815. This tells us already a lot about Carlyle’s writing: he was interested in the male experience, he was troubled and obsessed by ideas of manhood, constantly working through these ideas. The words women and woman get only 182 and 56 mentions respectively. Already we see how Carlyle’s thought is out of kilter with these times.

We can toggle between cloud view and list view of most popular words, and while the former is perhaps more immediately striking and certainly more redolent of digital humanities, the latter view is better for a more exact picture. It allows us to ascertain for certain that he third most popular word is world. This presence illustrates the grandeur of Carlyle’s ambitions. He was a wide-gazing sage, not the narrowly focused expert that is valued in the 21st century. The frequency with which the word world occurs defines perhaps the most important difference between the Victorian intellectual and the contemporary scholar: he is not an expert an any particular thing, but rather strives to comprehend the world as a totality.

Shall is also in the top five. By clicking on the word, we can also see which work it is most popular in. In this case, it’s The French Revolution by quite a distance. So Carlyle is using shall to slip back and forth in time, to predict the future of the past, such as in the word’s very first appearance. This comes in a passage which is very typical of Carlyle, an address to the poverty-stricken masses of pre-revolutionary France on the occasion of a police crackdown on public protests/riots:

O ye poor naked wretches! and this, then, is your inarticulate cry to Heaven, as of a dumb tortured animal, crying from uttermost depths of pain and debasement? Do these azure skies, like a dead crystalline vault, only reverberate the echo of it on you? Respond to it only by ‘hanging on the following days?’—Not so: not forever! Ye are heard in Heaven. And the answer too will come,—in a horror of great darkness, and shakings of the world, and a cup of trembling which all the nations shall drink. [My italics and underlining]

The cup of trembling was of course the French Revolution itself, which struck fear into the rich and privileged of all countries, and Carlyle is here tapping into the fear among his British readers that the Revolution could spread. So the use of shall here and in other parts of this work is a function of Carlyle’s particular mode, which might be called retroactive prophecy. It harnesses the power of the prophetical voice, with little of the epistemological risk (that is, it can hardly be wrong, because the things prophesied have for the most part already happened)

Table in Voyant showing relative frequency of “shall” in Carlyle’s works.

Voyant also supplies word count for each text. The French Revolution is the longest; Latter-day Pamphlets the shortest – though it is, as noted above, missing part of the originally published material. Not much to analyze there. Potentially more interestingly, there is considerable variation in vocabulary density across the works. Vocabulary density refers to the ratio of different words used to total word count. Carlyle’s highest vocabulary density occurs in Sartor, indicating that it is a more linguistically varied text, perhaps a more demanding and difficult text. As a particular admirer of Sartor, I think it also indicates that this work is the product of a more supple and questioning mind than the other works. The least vocabulary density is found in On Heroes. When one remembers that this work began as a series of lectures, this seems a deliberate choice by Carlyle, streamlining his vocabulary to make his ideas more accessible to a listening audience without the possibility of going back and reading over difficult parts.

Average words per sentence is another indicator of complexity. Here On Heroes has lowest wps, showing it again as the least complex text. The highest wps, though, is Pamphlets. This is an interesting development, as Carlyle’s wps had previously fallen from the heights of Sartor, but here hit a new peak. This anomalous situation warrants more developed study than I can give it here.

In the screenshot above, the final category is Distinctive Words. This means the words which characterize individual works but rarely or never appear in the other texts analyzed. Most of the words involved are proper nouns, generally the names of the works’ main characters: so Teufelsdrockh is the most distinctive word in Sartor, because Diogenes Teufelsdrockh is the book’s protagonist; abbot is the most distinctive word in Past and Present, because Abbot Samson is that book’s focus. Thus, this category seems too predictable to be really insightful, at least in the examples here.

I have only scraped the surface of the many possibilities of Voyant, not only for studies of a single author, but also, and perhaps especially, for comparison between authors. Thus I will undoubtedly return to this tool sooner rather than later, perhaps to compare Carlyle’s texts to those of some of his contemporaries. The most impressive things about the tool, in my opinion, are its astonishing ease of use (fiddly bar accompanying word cloud aside) and user-friendliness, and the fact that it is, as of now, totally free.

The Carlylean Hero and Zero Dark Thirty

The Carlylean type of hero is not a major presence in our society. There are certain aspect of contemporary heroism that don’t fall in with Carlylean ideals. The 21st-century Hero is much more domesticated. This is a contemporary trait that is often seen in adaptations of 19th-century fiction, most clearly, perhaps, in North & South, wherein Thornton as Carlylean Captain-of-Industry type enters into dialogue with contemporary conventions and emerges a gentle, father-type figure more interested in his children than in organizing and subduing the urban proletariat. Or just think about the recently anointed best-selling movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame, whose central hero, Tony Stark, has to balance the needs of the universe with those of being a father – and puts the latter first, though still managing to save the universe. The male hero, then, is far more domesticated and indulgently paternal than he used to be. But if we want to understand the Carlylean hero, there are a small number of contemporary narratives that provide suitable protagonists.

The single most Carlylean figure in contemporary Hollywood is Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). There are many similarities. In discussing Sherlock Holmes in an upcoming publication I noted three elements of the Carlylean Hero that Holmes displayed. In short:

1 The Hero evinces an absolute dedication to work in a cause which transcends him or herself as an individual

2 The Hero possesses an immediate and infallible insight. Insight truly Heroic, and is always superior to knowledge:

The healthy Understanding, we should say, is not the Logical, argumentative, but the Intuitive; for the end of Understanding is not to prove and find reasons, but no believe […]. [T]he man of logic and the man of insight; the Reasoner and the Discoverer, or even knower, are quite separable — indeed, for most part, quite separate characters. (Carlyle, Characteristics, 1831)

A Hero, as I repeat, has this first distinction, which indeed we may call first and last, the Alpha and Omega of his whole Heroism, That he looks through the shows of things into things. (On Heroes, 1841)

3 The Hero is not prone to self-consciousness. Carlyle posits it as a maxim that: “The sign of health is Unconsciousness” (Ibid.)

So work, insight and the absence of self-consciousness. These are three of the central traits of Carlylean Heroism, and the three I found most applicable to the figure of Sherlock Holmes. They are dealt with in more detail in the essay linked above. To begin with, we can map these onto Maya:

1 Maya is dedicated to her work at the expense of all else. Interestingly, though this is a perfectly obvious observation to make regarding the film, there is no explicit textual reference to Maya’s attitude to work in the film. However, she is almost never seen doing anything other than work, and the attitude of focused intensity she shows at work contrasts with the lethargy and disinterest she displays on other occasions (e.g. when having dinner with Jessica). In the film’s shooting script, there is a direction that sums it up: “Maya is here too, working. She’s always working.”


Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. (IMDb)

2 Maya brings about the death of Bin Laden (according to the movie) through her irrational confidence that she is right about his whereabouts in Abbotabad, Pakistan. As one of the soldiers’ about to undertake the mission says: “Her confidence is the one thing that’s stopping me getting ass-raped in a Pakistani prison. I’m cool with it.” As this soldier knows, there is no sufficient proof that Bin Laden is in there. As the committee approving the mission note, there was better evidence for WMD in Iraq than for this mission. It, and several previous steps in the process, is based on an insight of Maya’s rather than concrete proof. An insight that transcends rationality is the pre-eminent characteristic of the Carlylean Hero.

3 The theme of self-consciousness is not dealt with directly in Zero Dark Thirty. Of course, a person who is not self-conscious does not talk about their lack of self-consciousness; they are, by definition, not conscious of it. But that is the whole point. Unselfconsciousness does not know itself. That is its strength and its Heroism.

Aside from these elements Maya holds in common with Sherlock Holmes, there are several further points that link Maya to the Carlylean Hero:

4 The lack of importance of personal relationships in her life. This is something of a corollary to Point 1, and is central to a number of Carlyle’s portraits, from the fictional Diogenes Teufelsdrockh (Sartor Resartus) through Abbot Samson (Past and Present), Dr Francia and Frederick the Great. It is almost unheard of for a modern Hollywood film to show its protagonist as friendless, sexless, family-less and unconcerned about this state of affairs. Even Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films rely heavily on his friendship with Watson and give him a sexual life of sorts. But Zero Dark Thirty is truly radical is this sense: Maya never speaks to or of any friend, partner or family member. In a scene with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Maya is gently prodded about her love life:

Jessica: Little fooling around wouldn’t hurt you

Maya: [Sigh]

J: So no boyfriend

M: Mmm-mmm

J: You got any friends at all?

This last question is greeted with a long silence, mercifully broken by Jessica’s phone ringing. The implication is No, Maya has no friends, and this is borne out throughout the film.

5 The dissociation from the concept of happiness. Carlyle was very big on this idea, that happiness was not the goal of man. It was not something that could be attained, or should be striven for. Historically, he felt mankind had never been motivated by happiness, but rather the opposite: “They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death are the allurements that act on the heart of man” (On Heroes, Lecture II). Maya’s refusal to ever show or, it appears, feel happiness or contentment is of a piece with the Carlylean conception of heroism rather than that of our culture, which almost invariably ends with the Hero in domestic bliss. Maya doesn’t end in domesticity, or in bliss. At the end of the film, in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Bin Laden, as the men congratulate each other, Maya stands aloof and inscrutable, physically present but emotionally inaccessible. Just after this, in the final scene of the film, she takes a seat alone in a cargo plane. The pilot enters and asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t answer but her eyes well with tears as she gazes into the empty distance. It is at this moment that Maya becomes truly heroic in the Carlylean sense. Nothing could be more Carlyleanly heroic than to meet with total triumph and to be unable to enjoy, unable to feel happiness for even the briefest moment, a moment of absolute triumph over one’s greatest foe.

It this point it would have been easy to show Maya overcome with happiness, or returning to the bosom of a loving family. That Zero Dark Thirty does not do this removes it from mainstream contemporary depictions of heroism.


6 The willingness to indulge in violence in the name of the great goal towards which one is working. This was the most contentious element of Zero Dark Thirty – not violence per se but more specifically torture. Zizek, among others, has had much to say on this topic. Maya was readily prepared to participate in torture, to Zizek’s chagrin:

When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms.

Maya looks on while her colleagues torture their detainee into submission, and (according to the film) important information leading to Bin Laden is attained thereby.

In sum, in her attitudes to work, relationships, self-consciousness, happiness and violence, Maya is the closest thing contemporary Hollywood has to a true Carlylean hero. The distinguishing feature is that she is a woman. Carlyle never conceived of a female hero in On Heroes. Yet in a 21st-century when male heroism has moved away from the Carlylean vision, the Carlylean Hero as Woman is finally born.

Exceptional Violence and the Hero: Todd McGowan on Nolan’s Batman Trilogy

The age of heroes is past. In Heroes: Saviors, Traitors and Supermen (Harper Collins, 2013, kindle version loc 76), Lucy Hughes-Hallett reflects:

It is fashionable to lament the littleness of those accorded celebrity within our culture – so many footballers and rock stars and models, so few great spirits – but such collective frivolity should be cherished as one of the privileges of peace. It is desperation that prompts people to crave a champion, a protector, or a redeemer and, having identified one, to offer him their worship.

But while we might not talk about the role of heroism in public life, fictional narratives about heroic figures are enduringly popular. The superhero genre is one that is often seen as being divorced from realistic concerns, but some such narratives do indeed have their heroes deal with dilemmas recognizably drawn from contemporary political situations. The possibility of real heroism is still alive in the imagination of storytellers and their audiences.

One of the more interesting analyses of what heroism looks like in a contemporary narrative context comes from Todd McGowan’s The Fictional Christopher Nolan  (University of Texas, 2012). In this book, McGowan analyses in some depth all of Nolan’s films up to Inception, but here I will look briefly at his chapter on The Dark Knight, the second in Nolan’s massively successful Batman trilogy. The Dark Knight is an interesting film in the context of contemporary political thought, a film that provoked much critical debate and has proven good to think, as Lévi Strauss would say. McGowan introduces the various debates in initial reaction to the film. He notes that several conservative commentators saw it as a clear vindication of G.W. Bush’s “War on Terror”, while others took an opposite view. The film does not yield up its position lightly, but provides plenty of fodder for considering war, evil, heroism and terrorism in the contemporary context.

One reason why it might not yield up a position lightly is that it doesn’t have one. Indeed, Jonathan Nolan (co-screenwriter of the films with Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer) in an interview included in The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Complete Screenplays dismissed the idea of political relevance: “[W]hen The Dark Knight was released, there was a lot of talk about the echoes and resonances with the global war on terror. He has nothing to do with that” (xiii). Nolan’s dismissal seems slightly arrogant. He didn’t write the entire screenplay for one thing, so he cannot speak for his co-writers’ intentions. And, in any case, the author does not have control over how his film is to be read. One doesn’t need to go full Barthes “Death of the Author” to affirm this. Meanings proliferate and the opposed readings of TDK confirm this. It is also rather obtuse to believe that one can create a complex narrative that somehow floats free of all surrounding political structures, cultural conditions and ideas and ideologies. In fact, if TDK did somehow manage to do this, it would be a much less interesting film.

With regard to TDK, the portrayal of the figure of the hero and this figure’s relation to the surrounding society has a distinctly contemporary twist. McGowan argues that TDK “takes as its overriding concern the problem posed by the hero and the hero’s exceptional status in relation to the law” (125). That is an ideologically problematical and dangerous feature of superhero films in general: the hero is above the law. He or she behaves like a criminal in order to protect the good as they define it. This is a large part of the reason for the persistent arguments that the superhero genre inherently tends towards fascism. McGowan males a good argument that Nolan escapes this generic trap:

As the film portrays it, the form of appearance of authentic heroism must be that of evil. Only in this way does the heroic exceptionality that the superhero embodies avoid placing us on the road to fascist rule (127).

Thus at the close of TDK, Batman is denounced as the murderer of Harvey Dent, while the evil Dent is presented as a hero. This strategy is put into play by Commissioner Gordon, who believes that a fragile Gotham couldn’t handle the truth that their beloved Dent is a murderous psychopath. Batman, on the other hand, is an already ambivalent figure, so an appropriate figure for the populace’s hate to be directed towards. Batman’s truly heroic act is not in violently punishing criminals, it is in embracing the appearance of criminality, for this is what prevents the slide into fascism and this is what ensures that the violent act remains exceptional. Gordon watches Batman flee into the night, and memorably intones: “[H]e’s the hero Gotham deserves… but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero.”(323)

Image result for harvey dent dark knight

Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Night, In TDK (from here)

McGowan offers a novel and convincing reading of TDK. The only problem with it is, from this vantage point, that TDK was the second in a trilogy and now cannot really be read in isolation. The ending of TDK must be read as merely provisional. The film’s sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, makes a few things clear. First is that rebuilding Gotham on the lie of Batman’s evil/Dent’s heroism is a catastrophic failure. As Carlyle would say, A Lie Cannot be Believed (I discuss this elsewhere here; I also discuss the ending of TDKR in more detail here) and beneath the veneer of Dentian heroism (the necessary counterpoint to Batmanian evil), the city-state rots. Nolan’s vision in TDKR is puritanical and violent: lies must be purged, and they go so deep that the city must be destroyed. In the final act of the film, we see ranks of blue-shirted policeman take over the streets as the politicians have already been expelled from the city. The denouement of this film, and of the trilogy, is by no means so sophisticated and intellectually satisfying as that McGowan reads into TDK. But it is the real ending of this Batman saga. To adapt one of the trilogy’s most famous lines, it’s not the ending we wanted or needed, but maybe it’s the ending we deserved.


Cops ready for battle at the climax of TDKR

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.

The Last Monarchist and Elementary

I still like to check in with Elementary from time to time, as it continues on its relatively unheralded way. It’s just finished screening season 5 (and season 6 is on the way), but I’ve just started watching season 4 on DVD. They certainly know how to churn them out: 120×40(-ish) minute episodes since it first aired in 2012; Sherlock only managed 13×90 minute episodes between its 2010 inception and its 2017 finale. That equates to about 960 minutes of airtime per year for Elementary; 167 minutes for Sherlock. That’s quite a contrast.

So the fever of speculation that surrounded Sherlock hasn’t had time to develop around Elementary, as they churn out episode after episode. There is little chance of a mystique developing around the show. Indeed, just keeping up with watching each episode can come to seem like a Sisyphean chore in itself.

One thing these two adaptations of the Holmes mythos have in common is their interest in Holmes’ family backstory, one which manifests itself in the invention of family members unknown to Doyle’s tales. Doyle’s had a mostly absent brother, Mycroft, but he had no other siblings, nor did he have any parents, in so far as Doyle’s writing gives any clue. Sherlock centralizes Mycroft from the start, creating a complex dynamic between him and Sherlock; later Sherlock brings in the detective’s parents, and later still a certain hitherto unsuspected family member who plays a large part in season 4. Elementary also works Mycroft hard in season 2, and in the season 4 that I am now watching, the detective’s father Morland enters, and some predictably complex interfamilial dynamics are explored.

The 21st-century detective cannot escape complex relationships, and much of his energy and that of the scriptwriters go into the exploring of said relationships, invariably culminating with revelations of the deep love between Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock and Watson (whether John [Sherlock] or Joan [Elementary]), Sherlock and Morland, etc. There is an ultimate idealization of all such relationships in the two contemporary series. A truly subversive Holmes would at this stage be one who genuinely subordinated his personal relationships to other factors, whether that be the work of detection or simple self-interest.


Morland Holmes (John Noble) in “Evidence of things not seen”

But this hypothetical subversive Holmes is not the one we get in Elementary. In episode 2 of season 4, “Evidence of things not seen”, he is preoccupied and troubled by his relationship with his father, even while the standard detection plot progresses. This detection plot takes Sherlock and Joan into some unexpected corners, the most interesting of which to the current blog is the visit they pay to a “neo-reactionary monarchist” (as Sherlock calls him), or a “kook” (as Joan calls him).

Maurice Antonov is a blogger calling for the return of a Tudor-style monarchy. He admits that his political orientation is “not very socially acceptable at the moment”. He quotes Plato to the effect that the king and the philosopher should be one. Sherlock then declares his own orientation: democrat (citing Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all of the other ones). As the conversation progresses and Sherlock and Joan ask Mr Antonov about the crime in question, he reveals that he was giving a seminar at the time. A seminar on Thomas Carlyle. “There are over a dozen witnesses who will vouch for me”, he says. (This number itself a sly joke at the expense of Carlylean monarchism and its popularity or lack thereof.)

What is striking is the lightly mocking tone with which our Carlylean friend is treated. He’s a bookish individual, bespectacled (thick black frames), bearded and bald. We meet him in a wood-furnished, dimly lit library, where he wanders among the shelves picking up hard back books of obviously antique vintage. Though he’s an ex-partner of the murder victim being investigated, once he has appeared, his possible guilt is never discussed. He is not a threat.


The first shot of Maurice Antonov (Geoffrey Cantor), clutching his dusty hardback tomes and peering over his thick glasses.

So the Carlylean philosophico-political beliefs of Mr Antonov are a signifier of his redundancy in the detective plot. His ideas are not presented as in any way objectionable, but rather as being humorously erroneous and anachronistic. The indulgent way in which they are treated is a measure of Carlyle’s current reputational standing in our culture: simply an irrelevance rather than a thinker of note.

Of course, it’s fitting that Elementary should be the show to register this. This is because Doyle’s very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, references Carlyle:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

The point Doyle/Watson is making here is that Carlyle is so famous, so relevant, that for an intelligent person not to have heard of him is preposterous. Of course, adaptations invariably retain the Copernican reference and dump the Carlyle one, because Copernican remains a touchstone of our intellectual progress and Carlyle, well, less so. Elementary goes a step further and reintroduces Carlyle, but now as a signifier of irrelevance.

That Holmes himself is a character whose popularity now is the same as it was in a substantially different ideologico-cultural climate, one wherein Carlylean monarchism was a serious political position, is a noteworthy fact in itself, even if he has had to trade in his steadfast individualism for a more symbiotic relationship with his family and associates in recent adaptations.


Carlyle and Foucault?

So, how does Thomas Carlyle map onto contemporary critical theory? Not an easy question, but one abstract of an essay attempting to explore this came to my attention this week.

This paper argues in favour of the beneficial currency of Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History in three ways, each of which finds the basis of its critique in aspects of Foucault’s theories of discursive practice, as explored in Foucault’s theories of historical discourse; 1) that Carlyle’s terminology connects with his discursive practice in an ambiguous manner, as his concept of worship is more akin to study than devotion, if we take the text of his lectures as evidence of his perception; 2) the sources of enlightenment Carlyle offers us, based on these studies of heroic individuals, may provide an exemplar for interdisciplinary scholarship centred around biographies of notable individuals, and finally; 3) we challenge the notion that heroes such as those Carlyle offers us can be manifest in the present and argue that the depth of insight Carlyle demonstrates into his subjects is only possible by means of a lengthy temporal transition: the historicity of these narratives, and the narratives of social codification, cultural development and long-term impact witnessed and described over generations, is what makes them feasible at all.

Louise Campbell, “The Archaeology of Heroes: Carlyle, Foucault and the Pedagogy of Interdisciplinary Narrative DiscourseJournal of Philosophy of Education (2017) Wiley Online Library

Three interesting points here. Point 1 I am, on first glance, somewhat sceptical of, for, though there is obviously an element of the scholarly to Carlyle’s work, his rapturous and forceful tone mean reading him is very different to reading a standard “study”. The Victorians called him a “sage” and this does get across the intensity of his work better than the notion of “study”. There is an ambiguity there about Carlyle’s relation to worship, but I don’t think it’s resolved by seeing his work as a “study” or him as simply a scholar.

Point 2 is promising, looking to Carlyle as an early interdisciplinarian, and trying, it seems, essentially to rehabilitate the “Great Man” approach to history and humanities. Of course it will be under a different name, and it will cast a wider net to find its subjects, in terms of gender, geography, class, etc., but we could learn certain things from the “Great Man” writers like Carlyle. In a sense this is being done by the nascent discipline of Heroism Science, but Carlyle wasn’t a scientist. He was closer to a humanist in his sense of the importance and power of the individual, and his interest in the psychological make-up and state of his heroes. This broad humanism may also be worth recovering.

Point 3 is difficult. As I understand it, it says we can acknowledge and study heroes, but they must be in the past. This is a fairly unorthodox point to which it is different to respond here. On a political level, at any rate, it seems sensible. Elevating a dead person to godhead seems less dangerous than elevating a live one. Yet, even here, is it not our worship of dead or non-existent persons/entities that gets us into most trouble? We find it hard to unequivocally worship the living being, but the non-corporeal symbol, less so. This, indeed, was a central point in Sartor Resartus, according to the reading of it in the Dark Knight Rises Chapter of my thesis, from which I quote:

In the moment of attaching the nuclear core to the Batmobile and carrying it away from the city, Batman becomes a realized ideal, emblematic of true heroism and sacrifice for the citizens he has undertaken to protect. His physical absence lends itself to a more manageable symbolic presence, now finally incorporated into the structures of power of Gotham – indeed providing the iconographic base around which they can rebuild themselves, and finally regain credibility. It is his almost total emptiness as a political symbol, aided by his physical absence, that renders him so suitable for the role.

The point is, it is an absence that the people of Gotham worship, rather than a presence. That is the Batman paradox; it is only when he leaves that he is appreciated. Were he to return, they ambivalence towards him would likewise reappear. It is a complicated dynamic, and the difficulties of thinking about worship and heroes, and their place in human history is apparent. Nevertheless, their importance remains, so one must welcome the debate this paper should engender, if the interesting abstract is anything to go by.

My position remains roughly that we need to encounter Carlyle in his exemplary otherness. Progressive thought in our societies has almost lost the ability to engage with the other side. We can find in Carlyle plenty of hooks that will provoke our engagement: his anger at shams and dishonesty, his dismay at the mechanization of thought and society, his proto-anti-consumerism. We can use them to understand better the roots of much contemporary anti-liberal thought, and learn to see that it does not wholly spring from simply base or stupid motives. Now is not a time for agreeing amongst ourselves, now is a time for (as Žižek recommended) defending lost causes to ourselves, so we can come up with a common solution.

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