The Magazine


How to Read a Provocateur and Why We Should;

Feb 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 23 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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More than half a century ago, Lionel Trilling wrote an essay on T. S. Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society, calling upon his liberal and Marxist friends to be more appreciative of a mode of "religious politics" that was familiar in Victorian times but that was now regarded as reactionary. "When he [Eliot] says that he is a moralist in politics," Trilling explained, "he means most importantly that politics is to be judged by what it does for the moral perfection, rather than for the physical easement, of man." Trilling's essay, "Elements That Are Wanted," took its title from that Victorian eminence Matthew Arnold, who had said that the function of criticism is "to study and praise elements that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent."

It is in this spirit that we should read Thomas Carlyle today, prepared to study and praise him for those elements that "for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted" -- yet in full recognition of their possibly " maleficent" effects when put in practice. And it is in this spirit that his contemporaries read him. We tend to think of the Victorians as conformist, complacent, self-serving. Yet the most eminent of them were highly individualistic, even eccentric, self-questioning, and remarkably self- critical. Thus the most conventional and liberal of them could appreciate, even revere, so iconoclastic and reactionary a thinker as Carlyle.

Thomas Carlyle is a biographer's dream. His life was uneventful in the usual sense; he never had a regular job, or held office, or engaged in any notable activity apart from writing. Yet by sheer force of character he conveys a sense of drama that few public figures could match. The biographer has ample materials to draw on in his personal life: his marriage (probably unconsummated); his tormented relationship with Jane, his intelligent, quick- witted, and sharp-tongued wife (the one much-publicized episode of violence, leaving her with bruised wrists, was less traumatic than years of emotional neglect); his lifelong devotion (platonic, but nearly obsessive) to Lady Ashburton, causing much misery to Jane (although not, apparently, to Lord Ashburton); the constant complaints about household problems, servants, noises (a crowing rooster or piano-playing neighbor), each of which took on the proportions of a major crisis; the chronic ailments (with their evocative Victorian names -- dyspepsia, colic, biliousness, bowel troubles, lumbago) which somehow did not interfere with travels abroad, visits to family in Scotland and friends in the country, and a regimen of exercise that included twenty-mile walks and many hours on horseback; an aversion to socializing, in spite of which he managed to see a multitude of friends and to meet almost everyone of any importance in England and visitors from abroad.

All the while it was "scribble, scribble, scribble," as was memorably said of Gibbon. And, like Gibbon's, Carlyle's scribbling involved strenuous research. The three volumes on the French Revolution (the first of which had to be rewritten after the manuscript was accidentally burned by John Stuart Mill's housemaid), four on Cromwell, and six on Frederick the Great may not measure up to modern scholarly standards, but they did represent, for their time, impressive feats of archival research. And they all had respectable sales, in America as well as Britain.

That multivolume works on these subjects, representing views as unconventional as Carlyle's and in his unique style, should have been so well received is itself remarkable. Only Carlyle could have made heroes of Marie Antoinette, Cromwell, and Frederick, and persuaded the public to give them a sympathetic hearing. But his shorter writings were no less unconventional and were even more enthusiastically received. In many circles Carlyle himself was seen as a hero -- or, better yet, a prophet.

Carlyle was thirty-six when his first book appeared in 1831. (He had published several essays earlier.) Sartar Resartus might have been expected to kill his career at the outset. If the educated reader of his day understood the meaning of the title ("The Tailor Repatched," for the benefit of the present-day reader), he probably missed most of the German allusions. But he could not have mistaken the laboriously satirical intent of the account of Diogenes Teufelsdrockh ("Devilsdung"), professor at the University of Weissnichtwo ("Know-not-where"), author of a book on the "Clothes Philosophy," published by Stillschweigen ("Silence") and Co. In a style as bizarre as the story itself, the clothes philosophy emerges: All the externalities of civilization are nothing more than the "cloth rags" that conceal the inner reality, the immanent God. Teufelsdrockh himself is said to have come to that reality (as Carlyle did) in the course of a journey from the "Everlasting No" through the "Center of Indifference" to the final revelation of the "Everlasting Yea."

If the God that appears at the end of that journey, a transcendental God stripped of the "Hebrew old clothes" of orthodox Christianity, remains amorphous, there is nothing vague about the other passions that engage Teufelsdrockh along the way: his revulsion against materialism, utilitarianism, and mechanism, against a false democracy that cannot give proper reverence to leaders and heroes, against the gimmickry of political reform and the callousness of Malthusianism, and above all, against the prevalent spirit of Unbelief that denies not only the spirit of God but the spirit -- the soul -- of man.

These are the motifs of all of Carlyle's later work, and it is thus that they were first presented to an unwary public: enveloped in metaphor upon metaphor, in archaisms, solecisms, neologisms, compound words, and obscure foreign expressions. Publishers were understandably reluctant to take on the book, and it eventually appeared serially in Fraser's Magazine, which promptly lost some subscribers. Yet a modest American edition quickly sold out and a second one was issued, and it was republished in England a few years later. It won the admiration not only of Emerson, who wrote a glowing (anonymous) preface to it, but of John Stuart Mill and George Eliot, was read avidly by Matthew Arnold's coterie in Oxford in the 1840s, and continued to be read, talked about, and reprinted; in 1900 alone, nine editions were published.

The publication of Chartism (1839) ushered in Carlyle's great decade. It was followed by some of his most influential works: Past and Present; On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History; and the annotated edition of Cromwell's letters and speeches (in effect, a biography). Their common denominator was a radical critique of society -- radical not as most of his contemporaries understood that word, as a call for liberty and equality, political reforms, and material progress. What was wanted, Carlyle insisted, was precisely the opposite: a restoration of authority to bring order out of chaos and give spiritual and social direction to the mass of men. Those exercising this authority must do so by "divine right" -- which he took to be the opposite of "diabolic wrong." As he wrote in On Heroes, "There is no act more moral between men than that of rule and obedience. Woe to him that claims obedience when it is not due; woe to him that refuses it when it is!"

Carlyle's critique was directed not against those who mistakenly demanded the "right to rule," but against the ruling classes who had participated in the farce of political reform, thus abdicating their obligation to rule and depriving the people of their true right, the "right to be ruled." In clamoring for the vote, Carlyle said, the Chartists were in fact giving voice to the inarticulate prayer: "Guide me, Govern me! I am mad and miserable, and cannot guide myself."

It is extraordinary that such sentiments were welcomed by those who had acclaimed the reform of the franchise only a few years earlier and who were later to favor its extension. Mill, for example, declared it "a glorious piece of work," and tried to persuade Carlyle to let him print it in the last issue of the journal he was editing as his valedictory statement.

The year 1850 is generally thought of as the turning point in his life and career, marking the emergence of an even more reactionary Carlyle who was even more dramatically out of tune with his times. It was then that his Latter-Day Pamphlets were published, the first of which was the " Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question." The essay had originally appeared in Fraser's as "The Negro Question"; Carlyle changed the title to be more provocative. He had always opposed the anti-slavery movement on the grounds that it distracted attention from the condition of the working classes at home. The repeal of the Corn Laws, he argued, was more important than the abolition of slavery in the colonies. But in this essay, written long after slavery had been abolished, his diatribe against the "rosepink sentimentalism" of "nigger philanthropists" was calculated to give maximum offense.

Carlyle insisted that he was not defending slavery, which he declared to be a "contradiction of the laws of the universe." The issue, as he saw it, was much larger than that. It was the soul-destroying "dismal science" of political economy, which "finds the secret of this universe in 'supply and demand,' and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone. " What all people required -- slaves, serfs, and workers alike -- was the right to work and the right to be ruled. And no act of Parliament could provide them with these elementary rights.

There was little in this essay that was not in Carlyle's earlier writings. But it was put so harshly here that Mill was moved to write a sharp (although anonymous) reply in Fraser's, which effectively broke off their friendship. Carlyle's response was to go on the offensive against other liberal "sentimentalisms," as he saw them. In subsequent pamphlets, he criticized the movement against capital punishment and satirized the "model prisons" that treated criminals better than paupers, proposed putting beggars and the unemployed to work in compulsory "regiments," deplored petty statesmen and mocked parliament as a "talking shop," and reviled not only Catholicism but all organized religions that were prone to "Jesuitism," the sin of cant.

The Latter-Day Pamphlets were not as well received by reviewers as the earlier writings. Yet they sold well, as did most of his later work, which was no less provocative. His last essay, "Shooting Niagara," written immediately after the Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised most of the working classes, described an England in a state of social and spiritual anarchy, betrayed by its natural aristocracies: the "speculative" aristocracy (literary and artistic) that was wasting itself on trivia, and the "practical" or "industrial" aristocracy that was mired in the "cheap and nasty." Reprinted as a pamphlet, it sold 7,000 copies within weeks. At the same time a new edition of his collected works was being issued. By now his writings earned him a substantial income, so that he found, much to his surprise, that he was no longer the impoverished writer he had always thought himself. (He had also received a handsome bequest from Lord Ashburton.)

So far from becoming a pariah as a result of these "infamous" writings, as some later biographers would call them, Carlyle counted among his friends and admirers Emerson, Ruskin, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Macaulay, Browning, Henry Adams, and a host of others. He was elected to the Athenaeum and, later, to the honorary position of rector of Edinburgh University, succeeding Gladstone. (The unsuccessful candidate was Disraeli.) Turning down other invitations from royalty, he reluctantly agreed to an audience with the Queen, taking the occasion, she noted in her journal, to declaim upon "the utter degeneration of everything." He refused the offer of a knighthood from Disraeli (that "superlative Hebrew conjuror"), but accepted a doctorate from Harvard. When he died, in February 1881, the Dean of Westminster tried to persuade his niece, who had lived with him, to have him interred in Westminster Abbey with the other eminences of England. But she would not go against his expressed wish, which was to be buried in the small Scottish town where he had been born.

"No man else," Walt Whitman said in his eulogy, "will bequeath to the future more significant hints of our stormy era, its fierce paradoxes, its din, and its struggling parturition periods, than Carlyle." The Dean of Westminster, in his sermon in the Abbey, endorsed the title of "prophet" that was often bestowed on Carlyle -- a prophet, he said, for an "untoward generation," resisting the modern tendency of "exalting popular opinion and popular movements as oracles to be valued above the judgment of the few, above the judgment of the wise, the strong, and the good."

Some of the obituaries, like many later commentators, rebuked Carlyle for being overly critical of the existing institutions of society and insufficiently constructive in proposing alternative ones. But this is to misunderstand the function of the prophet, which is precisely to criticize rather than to construct. Indeed, it can be dangerous, as Trilling intimated, to apply the exhortations of the prophet to the practical sphere, where they may well prove to be "maleficent."

This is why Carlyle, like all prophets, had many admirers but few disciples. The Victorians, or at least the most eminent of them, did not make the mistake of confusing the prophetic mode with the practical. They could appreciate the spiritual force of Carlyle's teachings -- his criticisms of the "pig-philosophy" of utilitarianism, the "mammonism" of materialism, the " sansculottism" of democracy, the "cash-nexus" of laissez-faire, and all the other "soul-murdering Mud-Gods" that governed their lives -- while retaining the safe and familiar institutions and practices that were, if not entirely beneficent, at least not maleficent.

The economist and social critic Harriet Martineau, herself a firm advocate of laissez-faire, arranged a lecture series for Carlyle in which he attacked that doctrine, among other things. He was an "original," she explained, a messenger come with tidings from "the Infinite Unknown," the "primal reality of things." After the publication of his most provocative pamphlets, George Eliot paid tribute to him: "There is hardly a superior or active mind of his generation that has not been modified by Carlyle's writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived."

Carlyle was the conscience of an age that was conscience-ridden and guilt- stricken, not only about its vices but about its virtues as well. Matthew Arnold, in the passage that gives the title to Simon Heffer's new biography, confided to his friend:

These are damned times -- everything is against one -- the height to which knowledge is come, the spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones, newspapers, cities, light profligate friends, moral desperadoes like Carlyle, our own selves, and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties.

But then, he continued, as if to caution against such moral desperadoes: " For God's sake let us neither be fanatics nor yet chaff blown by the wind but let us be 'virtuous as the man of practical wisdom would define it.'" (The quotation from Aristotle was, of course, in Greek in Arnold's letter.)

A hostile commentator might interpret this kind of self-criticism as moral posturing, a typical bit of Victorian hypocrisy. Heffer happily does not. He takes seriously the title, Moral Desperado, addressing the moral as well as the desperate aspect of his hero. This is both the merit of the book and its inevitable shortcoming. If Carlyle is, in his life and mind, a biographer's delight -- passionate, contentious, melodramatic -- he is also a biographer's despair. How does one convey, in the cold, rational format of the conventional biography, proceeding in an orderly fashion from month to month, year to year, the inner turmoil that is rarely reflected in external events? And how does one avoid the discordance between commentary and quotation -- between the lucid prose of the biographer and the eccentric, chaotic, often manic style in which Carlyle's ideas were embodied, and which was so appropriate to those ideas? (Henry James, himself not the most crystalline of writers, said of Carlyle's style that "it is not defensible but it is victorious.")

Yet for all of that, any biography of Carlyle, and especially one as judicious as Heffer's, is to be welcomed. For if we have even better reason today than his contemporaries did to be wary of the practical consequences of his reactionary ideas (about slavery, most notably), we also have good reason to be wary of the consequences of some of the more liberal ideas of our own time. Even so seemingly benign an idea as welfare, we now realize, can have maleficent effects -- and not only in the practical realm of economics, but in the spiritual and moral ones of family, work, and individual responsibility.

Carlyle is assuredly not our prophet. But he does remind us of the need for prophets who will keep in the forefront of our imaginations those "elements that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted."

Gertrude Himmelfarb's most recent book is The De- Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf).