Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern
Sartor Called Resartus
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 claim that “Carlyle’s merit as a literary artist must stand or fall on Sartor” (most of us still think The French Revolution his greatest work) turns out fortunately to be merely Mr. Tennyson pawing the ground before charging. Thereafter, what he claims he substantiates.
“SHAME ON US degenerate Editors!”—Mr. Tennyson brings out how crucial that cry of Carlyle’s was, in discussing “the importance of the constantly recurring situation of Carlyle as editor.” Carlyle’s apprenticeship as reviewer and encyclopaedist was to be transformed into his persistent “role as editor-translator.” In an essay on Jean Paul Richter, he was happy to quote his own earlier words as those of “one of Richter’s English critics.” The culmination was Sartor Resartus—Mr. Tennyson shows that the title means not only “the tailor retailored” and “the patcher patched,” but also “the clothes volume edited.” The Editor wrestles with the problems of Teufelsdröckh’s manuscript, scattered through the paper bags marked with the signs of the zodiac. The fictitious Editor’s “critical endeavors are less important than Teufelsdröckh’s creative ones,” but Carlyle’s creative endeavors encircle it all: “Carlyle can create any materials he wants, but the Editor has no such power.” Mr. Tennyson, who is a scrupulous literary historian, has some striking examples from Blackwood’s of “the practice of creating authors and titles”; he shows how much Carlyle took from Blackwood’s, and yet how much more serious was his practice. And how much more thoroughgoing: the list of the fictitious documents quoted within Sartor Resartus has to be supplemented by another list of fictitious works simply mentioned there.
It is this exploration of Carlyle’s role as “editor” which is at the center of Mr. Tennyson’s book. Mr. LaValley carries the exploration forward, and he shows that Carlyle was ultimately broken by this very obsession. His “Cromwell marks the failure of the interpretive editorial role.” Instead of Sartor Resartus, that trap for the credulous, we have Carlyle himself becoming the credulous victim of a literary hoax, and slumping too gratefully on to some spurious letters attributed to Cromwell. Both Mr. Tennyson and Mr. LaValley tell us much about Carlyle as “editor,” but neither is very adventurous about a larger question: is there any relation between such “editing” and the other crucial fact about Carlyle: his inability to live either with or without religion?
To Nietzsche, Carlyle was an “atheist who makes it a point of honor not to be so,” “constantly lured by the craving for a strong faith and the feeling of his incapacity for it.” Carlyle began by writing sermons—did he ever stop? As Mr. Tennyson insists, “Carlyle anticipated Arnold in seeing literature replace religion in the new age”: “He saw the destiny of literature in its replacement of organized religion.” Carlyle could quote Novalis on Spinoza as “a God-intoxicated man,” but if Carlyle himself was God-intoxicated, this was usually laced with the grim suspicion that such intoxication could be self-induced, that a spiritual placebo might work just as well as the real thing even should there indeed be a real thing.
No doubt it is very much part of “the idea of the modern” that the only truly religious people should turn out to be the honest doubters, but Carlyle pressed his inquiries with characteristic obduracy Mr. Tennyson gets daunted at one point, and falls back on parsonical good cheer: “Carlyle was doctrinally no Christian, but spiritually he was perhaps a better Christian than most of the writers and artists of the age.” But to put it like this is to diminish Carlyle to the comfortable rubberiness of our own latter-day Carlyle, the man you love to hate you: Malcolm Muggeridge, with his Carlylean allusiveness (“the dim irreligious light”), his Carlylean excoriations of Mammonism, and his rich role as “a Savonarola manqué.”
Carlyle was a prophet, but John Simon has recently reminded us (in his essay on Norman O. Brown) that prophets stand in an equivocal relation to gods:
The prophets of the Lord were stoned. In an age that had a God, or batches of rival gods, prophets were a luxury if not a downright redundancy. But in an age that has no God, and that is afraid, prophets are something to fall back on.
And what about the prophet himself, since even he must sometimes need something to fall back on? Carlyle could insist that “The fearful Unbelief is unbelief in yourself,” but he too needed tutelary gods. “Shakespeare seems to have had no religion, but his Poetry.”
BUT IS THERE any relation between Carlyle the restless godsmith and Carlyle the fictitious editor? It seems to me that if we scan the writers who have most powerfully been drawn to the fictitious edition as a literary form, we find that one of the few things which they have in common is an equivocal fascination with religion. They may not be simply irreligious; they may indeed possess that exacerbated spirituality which Lionel Trilling has seen as especially characteristic of modernism; but at any rate they are not staunchly devout. Jonathan Swift, with both A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels invoking the idea of the fictitious editor, and both—to say the least—religiously disconcerting. Alexander Pope, creating a monstrous parody of the learned edition in The Dunciad and concluding it with his own creative parody of the apocalyptic uncreation. Pope was willing to outrage the conventional religionists by speaking of textual cruces in the same breath as the Crucifixion; not satisfied with his first try (“And crucify poor Shakespeare once a week”), he tried again: “The frippery of crucified Molière.” It is no surprise that Pope’s Dunciad Variorum includes in its prefatory material a fierce accusation by John Dennis about Pope’s being a professing Roman Catholic: “Though he is a professor of the worst religion, yet he laughs at it.” And the poet who “edited” The Dunciad was the poet who could meet the accusations of godlike arrogance with godlike arrogance:
Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me.
Or there is Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy (like The Dunciad, a book often mentioned by Carlyle) is at once one of the important precursors of Sartor Resartus and a work which persistently—and, some would say, blasphemously—juxtaposes God’s creative powers, the writer’s creative powers, and everybody’s procreative powers. Or, if we leap over Carlyle into the modern, there is Jorge Luis Borges. In his Preface to Fictions, Borges discusses fiction-within-fiction: “A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary. Thus proceeded Carlyle in Sartor Resartus.” Borges is perhaps the greatest of those modern writers who are fictitious editors or commentators, whether of the complete history of an unknown planet, the works of Herbert Quain, the bibliography of Menard (author of Don Quixote), or The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim. And just as Borges is the most insatiable commentator on fictitious books, so is he the most skeptical of religious devotees. Quain’s imagined book is called The God of the Labyrinth. Biblical scholarship illuminates “Three Versions of Judas.” The spurious (not just fictitious) history of Tlön was the creation of a nineteenth-century irreligious maniac: “Buckley did not believe in God, but nevertheless wished to demonstrate to the nonexistent God that mortal men were capable of conceiving a world.”
A last example of the fictitious edition might be a book noted by Mr. LaValley, along with Tristram Shandy, as related to Sartor Resartus: Pale Fire. (Far-fetched? But Nabokov has for Carlyle one of his rare kind words in his edition of Eugene Onegin.) Whatever else it may be, Pale Fire is obviously a glittering example of the fictitious edition—and of the fictitious edition as especially concerned with the absence or presence of God. “While snubbing gods, including the big G”: Shade’s line receives Kinbote’s imprimatur: “Here indeed is the Gist of the matter.” The characters of Pale Fire are mostly people who think they are God or who have what is charmingly called a religion of their own.
My God died young. Theolatry I found
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
But what then of the Author of our being?
Man’s life as commentary to abstruse
Unfinished poem, Note for further use.
Which note Kinbote has to annotate: “If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.” Nabokov’s fictitious edition has evident affinities with Sartor Resartus, and with the refrain of Carlyle’s poem “Peter Nimmo”: “Life’s a variorum.”
YET why should “snubbing gods, including the big G” be so much a concern of the fictitious edition? Because God may indeed be our Author, but there is one person who can (with guilty pride) trump even authors: an editor. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God—and I edited it, cackles the lunatic editor. The godlike pride of the real-life editor can be evident enough—is it a coincidence that so great an editor as A. E. Housman should have been so somber an atheist? Housman himself (as Edmund Wilson has said) exhibits an almost Swiftian pride. Or take those other real-life editors whom Lewis Mumford has berated for their assumption “that Emerson’s own intentions need not be respected, and that he has no right to have the final word.” Their assumption is godlike in the way it overrides; they, like God, have the right to the final word. Man proposes, his editor disposes.
Coleridge said of the imagination that it was “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” But if it is natural for us to worship creators, it is no less natural for us to fear and snub them, and the editor can embody the revenge of the uncreative. The antagonism between the Editor and Teufelsdröckh is quite as real as their cooperation—and the same is of course true of Shade and Kinbote. Kinbote’s Preface ends with the classic Olympian hauteur of the editor, who may suspect that he is only a living dog, but who knows that his author (like his God, perhaps) is only a dead lion:
Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.
Instead of the infinite patience of God, we have come to “a commentator’s infinite patience and disgust.” God may be the author; he may even be the papermaker (“every page in the book of one’s personal fate bears His watermark”), but he isn’t his own editor and bibliographer. So that when Borges says of the invention of the planet Tlön, “we have unanimously rejected the idea of a single creator,” the point about fictions is a point about gods. And when in his “Three Versions of Judas” Borges discusses the thirty pieces of silver, we may be reminded of what Alfred Tennyson apparently said of Froude’s biography of Carlyle: Froude has sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. Carlyle as prophet is one thing; Carlyle as Christ, another.
Carlyle described Tennyson as “carrying a bit of Chaos about him, which he is manufacturing into Cosmos”—the poetic power is analogous to the divine one, and Nabokov’s Shade wished to “plunge back into his chaos and drag out of it, with all its wet stars, his cosmos.” But if the sun’s a thief, and “the moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun,” then the editor is the arrantest thief, snatching his Pale Fire. (Not that the thievery can stop—Pale Fire is even now being edited by some Botkin, who will stand to Nabokov as Kinbote stands to Shade.)
It is to the point that when Nabokov cited his favorite and non-existent writer, Pierre Delalande, for the epigraph for Invitation to a Beheading, Delalande’s words should have been these: “Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons mortels.” Or comme un éditeur? And what exactly is Nabokov’s relation to Pushkin in that extraordinary edition which at once aggrandizes and dwarfs Eugene Onegin?
Carlyle made up his Delalandes too. Diogenes Teufelsdröckh was God-Born Devil’s-Dung, and Gottfried Sauerteig was God’s-Peace Sour-Dough. For G. K. Chesterton, Carlyle’s jokes about God were evidence of his profound security of faith; and yet Chesterton was unable to say so without a bizarre ambiguity: “A man must be very full of faith to jest about his divinity.” But whether “his divinity” means God or whether it means man’s divineness is exactly the core of Carlyle’s apple of Good and Evil. Not that we can expect a definitive Genesis until we hear from the Almighty Editor, busy through all eternity with his Hingod Collating Machine.