The Magazine

THE PARADOX OF THOMAS CARLYLE

How to Read a Provocateur and Why We Should;

Feb 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 23 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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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.