Adulation or Eggs
- Thomas and Jane Carlyle: Portrait of a Marriage by Rosemary Ashton
Pimlico, 560 pp, £15.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 7126 6634 6
It’s a century and a quarter since J.A. Froude’s Life of Carlyle and his edition of Carlyle’s Reminiscences, a hundred years since Alexander Carlyle’s New Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Froude’s posthumous My Relations with Carlyle, and Alexander Carlyle and Sir James Crichton-Browne’s The Nemesis of Froude. Everyone has long since taken sides, if not with the tactless first biographer or with the vindictive and family-proud nephew then with Thomas Carlyle or with Jane, or perhaps with Carlyle with reservations, or against him with no reservations at all. Froude gets the blame for striking the first blow, directed against the friend who had trusted him to do the right thing by his life and papers, but to put it all on Froude when Carlyle himself was such a master of antagonism has never seemed altogether reasonable. Their contemporaries were shocked by the unseemly discussion of Carlyle’s hypothetical impotence and the scandalous speculations about the origin of the blue marks that appeared one day on Jane’s wrists; later generations were dismayed that Hitler was able to turn to Carlyle’s words for encouragement. But no one who had followed Carlyle from On Heroes and Hero Worship through ‘Chartism’ and The French Revolution to Latter-Day Pamphlets, Frederick the Great and ‘Shooting Niagara’ can have been surprised that brawling and perturbation should have attended his name even after his death.
Is the better response to such a man to erect a statue or to hurl rotten eggs? It is discomfiting to find oneself responding on such a level to a sage whose writing, filled with a passionate concern for the (white, male) working poor (and contempt, it sometimes seems, for nearly everyone else), set the terms in which Victorian Britain debated its social and moral state. It is even more discomfiting (indifference seeming even now not an option) to find the question, adulation or eggs, hard to decide. But it has always been so. There were, to be sure, those among his contemporaries who rejected him, turning back on him his own favourite vocabulary of derision, abusing him as a quack, a sham, a flunkey, a phantasm, a canting charlatan, a crank ‘foaming and gasping, as it were, in one eternal epileptic fit of wonder’, all ‘barking and froth’. And there were others who heard as prophetic wisdom Carlyle’s harangues about the rightness of despotism, the ingratitude of slaves, the desirability of flogging idle paupers, the fraudulence of the thirty thousand notoriously distressed needlewomen of London (who had nothing but their own shoddy seamstressy to blame), and the folly of any particular reform that anybody might urge. But many more were ambivalent, unable to reconcile the stirring rhetoric with the often brutal politics or, as Emerson had it, ‘the magnificence of his genius & the poverty of his aims’. His ideological allies (there were ever fewer of them as he passed middle age) sometimes felt they were in the presence of a man ‘doing the right thing, but kicking you while he does it’. At the same time, many of those who rejected the substance of his rants (‘stuck thro’ with prejudices and bits of injustice, as thick as tipsy cake with almonds’, Harriet Martineau observed) were compelled by his quick and ferocious intellectual energy, his belligerence (‘honesty’) and his histrionics (‘sincerity’) to admire what they could not approve. Perhaps his savageness was really an ‘intolerable sympathy with the suffering’, Martineau thought, as did others. They could not otherwise explain either his manner or their good nature about it, nor did they expect those who did not know him to understand. ‘It will be difficult for the future – judging by his books, personal dis-sympathies, &c., – to account for the deep hold this author has taken on the present age,’ Walt Whitman remarked. ‘I am certainly at a loss to account for it all as affecting myself . . . There has been an impalpable something more effective than the palpable.’
The ‘impalpable something’ could not at first have been (and was never wholly) the appeal merely of force. The almost metaphysically poetic exhilarations of Carlyle’s prose (its offences and tediums too) derive often from incongruity. Intent on the sublime (‘Man . . . has transcendentalisms in him; standing, as he does, poor creature, every way "in the confluence of Infinitudes"; a mystery to himself and others: in the centre of two Eternities, of three Immensities, – in the intersection of primaeval Light with the everlasting Dark!’), he is incapable of resisting the grotesque: ‘I – good Heaven! – have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms . . . and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature.’ Unseemly both in likening and unlikening, his words rampage across scales and orders of being.
Though Carlyle delighted in bringing about conceptual unions too fissile to prosper, perhaps too fissile ever to have been intended to prosper, he allowed himself intervals of belief in ennobling relation. This was true particularly at the beginning of his literary career, while his ambivalence was still fluid, his grotesquerie still quasi-comic. The most ennobling relations involved something that went at times under the name of Fact, at other times under the name of Truth, or Reality, or God: a vague, transcendent something, the effect of whose invocation is to thrill us with the promise of wonders and verities, infinities and eternities which can be glimpsed within or beyond the transient, the mechanical and the mundane. Though undefinable, Fact matters because it tells us that we matter, even the least of us, and so does our smallest action: ‘It is a mathematical fact that the casting of this pebble from my hand alters the centre of gravity of the Universe.’ But the mere Fact that each man contains within him ‘the whole activity of the Infinite, with its meanings’, is not enough to guarantee any particular man’s wisdom. The hero alone sees ‘through the shows of things into things’ and so co-operates with the ‘real Tendency of the World’, deriving his rightness and his power (‘All Power is Moral’) from his alignment with what Carlyle seems to have thought of as necessity. If you could not quite manage to see and co-operate with the real Tendency of the World, you could still recognise and subject yourself to those who did. Heroism and hero-worship enact a similar orientation towards transcendent Fact, and so does self-forgetful labour, that ‘appeal from the Seen to the Unseen’ (‘laborare est orare’), which Carlyle describes as the only way for the unheroic to gain real as distinct from hypothetical knowledge. According to his notion of the feudal loyalty that forms his ideal of class relations, work is the only thing a man may rightfully demand from his rulers, and their provision of it is the only thing that binds him to submit to their power.
Man requires something or someone to be faithful to. If the place of Fact or Truth or the Ineffable should turn out to be empty, it is of no consequence; it is the posture of belief that matters, the intensity and (if the object of belief should prove unexpectedly troublesome) the irrationality of devotion. The object itself is almost irrelevant. As Nietzsche observes, such an attitude necessitates for this ‘atheist who makes it a point of honour not to be one’ a ‘constant and passionate dishonesty towards himself’.
Though vividly and surgically detailed, perfect in the tones of prophecy, and stiff with ecstasies, exaltations, execrations performed or pronounced on the heights, Carlyle’s writing has something essentially unserious about it, as of a man (so Andrew Lang remarked) ‘talking angrily and vehemently to himself’. When he was still young, Carlyle confessed in his notebooks that the world had lost its solidity for him. ‘I attend to few things as I was wont: few things have any interest for me; I live in a sort of waking dream.’ When his belief fails, which means when transcendentalism fails, Carlyle finds himself alone among what on some level he knows to be the creatures of dyspepsia: phantoms, chimeras, obscene and atrabilious spectra, simulacra, voids, abysses, inanities, rags and cobwebs, putrid unveracities, dung, the carcasses of dogs and drowned asses, together with their attendant stinks. These he obsessively denounces, a ‘spectre-fighting Man’ like his Teufelsdröckh, hoping one day to be a ‘Spectre-queller’, but feeling the earth liable to crack at any moment and drop him into the Inane. Seeing nothing but spectres, how can he be certain he is not spectral himself? ‘He who believes no thing, who believes only the shows of things, is not in relation with Nature and Fact at all.’ ‘What am I,’ he asks his notebooks, ‘but a sort of Ghost?’ His shouts, his warnings of coming violence, ostensibly meant to wake England, may have been necessary to prove to himself his own reality: ‘my Conscience like my sense of Pain or Pleasure has grown dull,’ he wrote, ‘and I secretly desire to compensate for laxity of feeling by intenseness of describing.’ Only things and people who either dominated or could be dominated remained fully real to him in a world whose circumference tended uncomfortably to shrink to the dimensions of the self.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.