Pale Fire

Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern

by Albert J. LaValley
Yale, 351 pp., $8.50

Sartor Called Resartus

by G.B. Tennyson
Princeton, 354 pp., $8.50

Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle; drawing by David Levine

For Thomas Carlyle, the feast on the Champ de Mars during the French Revolution came to little more than “an effervescence that has effervesced….” And Carlyle himself, that effervescer? After his death, his friend Alfred Tennyson celebrated him—and repudiated the biographical revelations made by J. A. Froude—in a poem called “The Dead Prophet.” Is that prophet now doubly dead? Albert LaValley’s Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern is an attempt to show that Carlyle still lives: “Studies in Carlyle’s Prophetic Literature and Its Relation to Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, and Others.” It is a good book—sane and firm, not palliating the fascistic implications of some of Carlyle, and not stretching “the idea of the modern” into a mere rubber-band for its index cards. By reassessing Carlyle’s late Life of John Sterling, and by relating Carlyle’s stylistic hysteria to his increasing sense of powerlessness, it should do much to win readers for the least companionable of the Victorian sages. In only one important respect does Mr. LaValley fail: his style is—in Beckett’s uncompromising word—corpsed. “He argues for a breakthrough of surfaces”; “how closely he weighs his insights by Christian touchstones”—such stumblings are disconcerting in the vicinity of a sage himself no sure-footed stylist. But Carlyle would have liked the unwitting tribute to the pervasiveness of clothes in Mr. LaValley’s remark about Sartor Resartus: “An overall view of the book reveals clearly that the movement of the Clothes Philosophy is organic.”

Yale’s advertising men have done Mr. LaValley a disservice, though, in sloganizing his book with the words “Carlyle Modernized.” After all, to modernize Carlyle would be a very different thing from showing that he is importantly modern. Mr. LaValley is aware of a difficulty here—for Carlyle to be of interest, he had better be modern, but not too much so. It seems a good idea to quote Paul Tillich, but if Tillich were already doing the job, why call in Carlyle? Carlyle’s Teufelsdröckh promulgates his “nebulous disquisitions on Religion”—but do we really need them if we already have Teufelsdröckh de Chardin? Even “the idea of the modern” can pall into a bored consent, and perhaps it is no longer the Everlasting No which is the real enemy of the Everlasting Yea, but the Everlasting Yeah.

One of Mr. LaValley’s best analyses is of Carlyle’s respect for Voltaire, whom he styled “greatest of all Persifleurs.” With Carlyle himself, the banter is darker, more guilt-ridden. Greatest of all Persifleurs du Mal? Certainly Sartor Resartus has its own kind of somber persiflage, and by concentrating on it (and its juvenile predecessors) in his Sartor Called Resartus, G. B. Tennyson has shown that “The Humor of Sartor” does not have to be taken exclusively as humor: “a morbid fluid.” Mr. Tennyson’s study (which was published in 1965) has become recognized as a valuable illumination of ne of Carlyle’s best books—indeed, Mr. LaValley makes generous acknowledgement. The absurd…

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