Leaping on Tables

Norman Vance

The contradictory quality of Carlyle’s achievement as intuitive sage, seminal interpreter of German Romanticism, sworn enemy of mechanical and reductive views of life, outrageous ranter and charismatic humbug is already present in the early Sartor Resartus, lively and opaque by turns, a book which inspired the young and bewildered their elders. A devastating social critic over-impressed by heroes and dictators, Carlyle was humane and savage, radical and racist, an agnostic quoted by churchmen and praised as ‘a prophet in the midst of an untoward generation’ in Dean Stanley’s funeral sermon in Westminster Abbey. He was sympathetic to Irish sufferings after the Famine, but almost equally sympathetic to Cromwellian ferocity in Ireland two centuries earlier. In the 1840s he was much admired by Marx and Engels. Both were deeply impressed by Past and Present (1843), his dramatic onslaught on the chaos and inhumanity of industrial England in the hungry 1840s. This text was a powerful influence on Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written in 1844, and contributed to The Communist Manifesto the idea of the cash nexus as the only real connection between master and men in a degraded capitalist society. But Carlyle’s obnoxious ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’ (1849) and his violent, jingoistic and misanthropic Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) seemed to confirm Marx’s conviction that the leading talents of the bourgeoisie were now in decline, morally and intellectually, and prompted a harsh reassessment. Carlyle had earlier translated the whimsical German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, lyrical and discursive by turns, a major influence on Sartor Resartus, and Marx now noted and deplored the pervasive effect on Carlyle’s style of this ‘literary apothecary’. Anthony Trollope and Edward Fitzgerald thought Carlyle had finally gone mad, and former disciples such as Matthew Arnold denounced him as frankly dangerous, a ‘moral desperado’.

Some of the mud stuck. It was soon apparent that he was unwholesomely fascinated by Blood and Iron. In 1874, at Bismarck’s behest, the Kaiser conferred on him the Prussian Order of Merit, mainly in recognition of his hero-worshipping biography Frederick the Great (1858-65), but this kind of recognition, reflected for a time in countless German dissertations, proved something of a liability when Bismarck and Frederick went out of fashion. A century later his work was largely forgotten (or strategically ignored) by most German scholars. Until quite recently his reputation in Germany (and indeed elsewhere) has been deeply stained with guilt by association: in the last days of the war, when Hitler was in the bunker, Goebbels had encouraged him by reading out inspirational bits of Frederick the Great.

Carlyle has usually fared better in North America, where more respectable enthusiasts have never been scarce. He had enormous difficulty in getting a British publisher for Sartor Resartus, his first important book, written in 1831, and eventually settled for serial publication in Fraser’s Magazine in 1833-34, but the young Emerson was so excited and impressed that he arranged for an American edition to be published in Boston in 1836, the first of many. The first British trade edition did not appear until 1838. When it came to scholarly editions, the Americans were again the first in the field: in 1896 a Boston publisher (Ginn) brought out the first annotated Sartor, edited by the Canadian German scholar and essayist Archibald MacMechan, who provided much-needed assistance with the densely allusive text. Even as Norwood was charting the decline and fall of Carlyle’s reputation, an American enthusiast, Isaac Watson Dyer, was completing his comprehensive Bibliography of Thomas Carlyle’s Writings. The multi-volume Duke-Edinburgh edition of the Collected Letters owes a great deal to the American Carlyle scholar and founding editor C.R. Sanders. The new Strouse Carlyle Edition, intended to replace the unsatisfactory and unannotated 30-volume Centenary Edition (1896-99), is also American, administered by the Dickens Project, a ‘multicampus research group of the University of California’. It has been made possible by the richness of the Carlyle materials, including Carlyle’s corrected proofs for the 1841 edition of Sartor, collected by Norman and Charlotte Strouse and donated to UC Santa Cruz in 1966.

Why should Americans be so enthusiastic about Carlyle, particularly Sartor Resartus? In part it is because Carlyle, a prose Romantic born in the same year as Keats, is a spiritual godfather of American Romanticism, an apostle of wonder and a point of contact for Emerson and the American Transcendentalists with British Romanticism and with the German Romantics, particularly Goethe. Even before the pseudo-German Sartor Resartus, the subtitle of which is ‘the Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh’, Carlyle had translated Goethe and Richter and had written extensively about German literature. Professor Teufelsdröckh, Professor of Things in General at the University of Weissnichtwo, had a natural appeal in the burgeoning American universities, for which German universities supplied an important model as well as many migrant professors. But the Scottish universities and the distinctive Scottish tradition of philosophy stemming from Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith which had helped to produce Carlyle also represented an older and perhaps even more fundamental influence on American academic and intellectual life. Seventeenth-century Puritanism in England and America and the covenanting Calvinism of Carlyle’s ancestors had much in common, which helps to explain the sympathy animating Carlyle’s commentary in his edition of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845). So it was not surprising that Emerson’s reaction against New England Puritanism and the cerebral Unitarianism which partly replaced it should find common ground with Carlyle’s glummer post-Calvinist earnestness.

Apart from these considerations, America has been naturally sympathetic to a text which is itself a cultural and intellectual melting-pot. To post-Calvinism and a version of German Romanticism Carlyle added Mohammed and Confucius, Persian mythology, classical and Kabbalistic lore, travel-writing, Biblical allusion, British and European literature and philosophy, current affairs and recent history, mathematics and astronomy and newer knowledges ranging from geology to ‘Liverpool Steam-carriages’.

To what end? The question still needs to be asked because, even after extensive critical discussion and scholarly commentary of the kind supplied here, it remains a difficult and elusive text, a maddening, enigmatic extravaganza which alludes to and links itself with earlier literary extravaganzas. It is less savage than Gulliver’s Travels and less frivolous than Tristram Shandy (another study of a ‘life and opinions’). It is, regrettably, less entertaining than either. But it is oddly compelling, a mad patchwork (the Latin title means ‘the tailor’ – or ‘patcher’ – ‘re-patched’) which mingles wild humour with terrible seriousness. The name Teufelsdröckh, originally Teufelsdreck. ‘Devil’s dung’, or asafoetida, is a foul-smelling medicine used as an anti-spasmodic and expectorant, regarded as particularly effective in the treatment of flatulence, catarrh and hysteria. Securing the moral and spiritual health of the individual and of society – Carlyle’s aspiration throughout his writing career – could be an unpleasant process. Ambivalence towards the troublesome book he felt driven to write is revealed in his constant allusions to it as ‘Teufelsdreck’ or ‘Dreck’ (‘filth’).

Sartor is a deliberately chaotic philosophical fiction which deploys darkness and obscurity to disprove its tongue-in-cheek opening statement that nowadays ‘not the smallest cranny or doghole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated.’ It challenges its own half-serious Idealist ‘clothes-philosophy’ and its own fictionality by interposing a sometimes sceptical editorial persona and various not necessarily reliable witnesses between the reader and the life and opinions of the quasi-mythical Teufelsdröckh, incorporating genuine information, remodelled snatches of Carlyle’s autobiography and a simplified version of the practical wisdom of Goethe. Teufelsdröckh is represented as a ‘speculative Radical’, a Kantian critic of Pure Reason. His ‘clothes-philosophy’ is really a philosophy of unclothing, of divesting Man or Mankind of institutional, social and fleshly wrappings to reveal his ‘eternal Essence’. Sartor incites the reader to a kind of philosophical quest, a search for a spiritual reality beyond words, customs, glib formulae and the tumult of appearances, beyond time and space. Carlyle, or rather Carlyle’s text, denounces conventional metaphysics and established philosophical systems as unproductive, mere ‘dream-theorems’, and pours scorn on the rationalism of Descartes: ‘Cogito, ergo sum. Alas, poor Cogitator, this takes us but a little way.’ Science, including mathematics, and the evidence of the senses have their own value, but they cannot assist the Quest: only the Imagination, the sense of mystery and wonder can provide access to the underlying Truth. But neither philosophical exposition nor narrative is ever straightforward, for the world of Sartor is not one ‘where the truths all stand in a row, each holding by the skirts of the other’.

Though the details of Teufelsdröckh’s birth and (possible) death are unknown, his life and experiences give a certain authority to his teaching. This provides a thin narrative thread, more fragmentary legend than biography. It is mainly embedded in the second of the book’s three sections. Diogenes Teufelsdröckh is a mysterious foundling, identified only by his preposterous name, brought up by elderly foster-parents in the village of Entepfuhl (based on Ecclefechan where Carlyle was born). Details of his early life, before acquiring his post at the new University of Weissnichtwo, are represented as sketchy and possibly unreliable, but we understand that the happiness of early childhood was succeeded by misery, loneliness and lifelessly pedantic instruction at school, and poverty and profound dissatisfaction at an unnamed, hyper-rationalist, university (suggested by Carlyle’s experience of the University of Edinburgh). Temperament and circumstances made it difficult for him to follow a profession or get a start in life; he fell in love with the fair Blumine; was rejected and wandered the world like the Wandering Jew or the Biblical (and Byronic) Cain, half-mad, nursing his sorrows and discontents. A spiritual crisis in Paris was eventually succeeded by a life-renewing conversion experience.

The point of all this is not so much the detail of what it says but how it says it. There is a kind of linear progression from negation to affirmation, from the ‘Everlasting No’ of the crisis in Paris to the ‘Everlasting Yea’, but mystery and unresolved tensions remain right to the end of the book, to the concluding question mark. The narrative, if that is what it is, conveys a pervasive Romantic-religious sense of wonder which survives Romantic misery (the Werther-like ‘Sorrows of Teufelsdröckh’), the collapse of self-sufficiency and romantic love and dogmatic certainties. The bewildering experience of almost drowning in Teufelsdröckh’s self-consciousness, reading one’s way past confusion, uncertainty and Byronic despair to hard-won intuitions of some kind of practical wisdom – not ‘know thyself’ but ‘know what thou must work at’, ‘Do the Duty which lies nearest thee’ – mimes the disorienting experience of spiritual and moral crisis and the dawning possibility of renewal. In parody of Evangelical conversion-narratives Carlyle offers a kind of secular conversion-experience, underscored by ironic reference to ‘your Zinzendorfs, your Wesleys … Pietists and Methodists’. For that reason Sartor became an agnostics’ bible and a model for Victorian narratives of agonised religious doubt and post-religious recovery, ranging from The Nemesis of Faith (1849) by his disciple and too frank biographer J.A. Froude to Mary Ward’s Robert Elsmere (1888).

The German setting and European (and occasionally Asian and African) frame of reference seem to make this a cosmopolitan rather than an English or Scottish text. It was translated into Dutch in 1880 and into German and Polish in 1882. French, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian and Danish translations soon followed, in that order. But Carlyle’s narrator’s mocking sense of how strange it would all seem to an English audience – ‘What English intellect could have chosen such a topic, or by chance stumbled on it?’ – perhaps reflects the author’s indomitable Scottishness. The Scots were already acutely aware of their linguistic distinctiveness, signalled in the first edition of the Rev. John Jamieson’s influential Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, published in 1808-09. Carlyle, the sage of Craigenputtock, had not stayed there, but in literary London he retained and exploited his outsider’s sense of his own alien speech and idiom, already carefully cultivated into a prophetic dialect with which he would continue to assault and denounce complacency and intellectual folly, particularly among the English.

The sense of critical distance from England and Englishness is perhaps compounded by his attitude towards the English novel. An occasionally lyrical epic fantasist in Sartor, Wordsworthian, Byronic, Homeric, Virgilian and Miltonic by turns, he poked fun at the dandified world explored in the novels of Bulwer Lytton and took little interest in contemporary English fiction (except for Kingsley’s Carlylean novel Alton Locke), though leading English novelists including Dickens and George Eliot acknowledged his influence.

The world of Sartor is both ancient and modern. It attracts Biblical idiom and resists the securities of realist prose narrative, the confidence that one can tell it like it is. It is an essentially poetic world of myth and symbol. References to the Wandering Jew legend and the sceptical editor’s lack of concrete evidence about Teufelsdröckh’s origins and ultimate fate ensure his mythic status. A chapter on symbols insists on a non-narrative world of fitfully perceived disclosures where ‘the Infinite is made to blend itself with the Finite.’ As usual, Carlyle avoids direct statement, but his professor has a modern sense of cultural crisis and insists that new symbols are needed to replace ‘the tatters and rags of superannuated worn-out Symbols (in this Ragfair of a World)’. Modern critics have demonstrated how this supplied an agenda for Victorian poetry, but a century ago Arthur Symons also quoted a sentence of Sartor as his epigraph for The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) and in doing so motivated T.S. Eliot and Modernist poetry.

Modern readers and literary scholars will be grateful for this large-scale computer-assisted edition of such a seminal text. Though the copy text is, sensibly, the original version published in Fraser’s Magazine, the subsequent printing history has been meticulously documented, variants have been scrupulously noted and sometimes adopted for stated reasons, and a comprehensive textual commentary is supplied. The annotation is much fuller than that in the World’s Classics edition which is its only rival.

In the face of all this it seems ungracious to grumble at Carlyle’s Dryasdust editors or to poke fun at the triumph of computerisation in producing a new edition of this supremely anti-mechanist text. But the editors occasionally nod. There is an extremely full and useful bibliography which includes relevant, or arguably relevant, articles from Fraser’s Magazine and from Blackwood’s Magazine. Several of these, unsigned at the time, are, however, treated as if they were still of unknown authorship even though the indispensable Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals has reliably identified most of the contributors. Occasionally, the editors provide inadequate information. There is, for example, a stubborn ecclesiastical politics underlying the ‘Burgher’ churchmanship of the Carlyle family, referring back to disputes in the 18th-century Scottish kirk, but ‘the conservative Burgher sect’ mentioned in the introduction is never properly explained. More often, though not very often, the notes supply so much detailed information that it is difficult to see what is really important. In the opening chapter, when the text airily illustrates ‘our present advanced state of culture’ by mentioning, amid much else, a ‘Doctrine of Rent’, it is positively unhelpful, indeed misleading, to gloss this as ‘An allusion to John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1690)’ and then briefly mention Malthus and Ricardo: Carlyle’s already developing hostility to the ‘dismal science’ of political economy derived not from the prehistory of the subject but from reading contemporary economists – it would have been more helpful to be informed that both Malthus and Ricardo had published treatises on rent in 1815. While it is interesting to learn about the earliest written sources for the medieval legend of the Wandering Jew, the Romantic uses of the legend are more immediately relevant, including that in Charles Maturin’s perfervid Gothic fiction Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), which is not mentioned. The phrase ‘Holy of Holies’ is explained as ‘An allusion to the ark, the “most holy”, in the tabernacle’. The allusion is not in fact to the Ark of the Covenant, but to the place where the Ark was kept, which the Vulgate describes as the ‘Sanctum sanctorum’, literally the ‘Holy of Holies’.

These are trivial matters. More serious is the confident identification of ‘O.Y.’ or ‘Oliver Yorke’ (occasionally misprinted here as ‘Oliver York’), to whom Carlyle refers several times, as the Irish journalist William Maginn, editor of Fraser’s Magazine and one of its principal contributors when Sartor was appearing in it. Other editors of Sartor have made the same simple identification, and there is some truth in it, but it is not the whole truth. ‘Oliver Yorke’ was not a person but an editorial persona, grandly if self-mockingly proclaimed as a literary Cromwell, ‘Lord protector of the world of letters’. The Wellesley Index indicates that the name was used by many of Fraser’s contributors as well as Maginn, including on occasion Carlyle himself, particularly when they wanted to set up some notional dialogue between an imagined editorial voice and the voice of the contribution. ‘Letter from a Tory from principle, not prejudice, to Oliver Yorke, with a reply from Oliver Yorke’ (published in the magazine in May 1831) is a good example, though the actual authorship of the piece remains unknown. Another Irish journalist, Sylvester Mahony (‘Father Prout’), contributed a series of ‘Prout papers’ to Fraser’s and when these Reliques of Father Prout were published as a separate volume in 1837 he wrote a pseudo-editorial preface for them as ‘Oliver Yorke’, beginning: ‘It is much to be regretted that our Author should be no longer in the land of the living, to furnish a general Preamble, explanatory of the scope and tendency of his multifarious writings.’ If this sounds a little like the fictitious editor of Sartor the explanation lies in the shared Fraser’s connection. The magazine deployed other personae as well, including ‘Morgan O’Doherty’, ‘Timothy Tickler’ and indeed ‘D.T.’ or Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, used by Carlyle in 1832, before Sartor began to appear, for a translation of Goethe which was also introduced by Carlyle writing in editorial mode as ‘Oliver Yorke’.

The idea was not new. It had been used on Blackwood’s Magazine, for which Maginn had written extensively, and although the Blackwood editorial persona ‘Christopher North’ often referred to John Wilson, other contributors – Maginn was one – had used it. When Carlyle alludes to ‘the famed redoubtable OLIVER YORKE’ as ‘that singular man’ the joke is that Yorke was plural. When he manipulates an editorial persona of his own making in Sartor as a distancing device and then raises questions as to the identity of the editor (‘Who or what such Editor may be, must remain conjectural, and even insignificant’) he is prolonging the joke while simultaneously hinting that grudging magazine editors of the kind who had given him trouble in the past were essentially nobodies. In a final twist, Carlyle includes a footnote, editorially signed ‘O.Y.’, reporting that the ‘Editor of the Book’ ‘communicates in some sort of mask, or muffler; and we have reason to think, under a feigned name!’

Fraser’s and its protean editorial spokesman ‘Oliver Yorke’ had more influence on the eccentric shape and substance of Sartor than is usually acknowledged. Though Carlyle was becoming increasingly exasperated with the constraints of periodical publication and the attitudes of editors, Sartor started out as a periodical essay, ‘Thoughts on Clothes’, originally intended for Fraser’s. It was well-targeted. If Sartor was an intellectual melting-pot so was Fraser’s. The running dialogue between the wild speculative Radicalism of Teufelsdröckh and the Burkean Conservatism of his sometimes sceptical editor, ‘animated with a true though perhaps a feeble attachment to the Institutions of our Ancestors’, speaks not only to Carlyle’s ambivalences but to Fraser’s Coleridgean radical Toryism. Partly because the articles were shorter than those in the more heavyweight Quarterly and Edinburgh Review, Fraser’s could pack an amazing range of discussion into a single issue. Carlyle was not its only commentator on German literature. A review article by Maginn on Bulwer Lytton almost certainly lies behind Sartor’s chapter on dandyism, ‘The Dandiacal Body’. Byronic Romanticism is interrogated in Fraser’s as well as in Sartor. Economics and travel-writing, classics and current affairs, astronomy and mathematics appear side by side in the magazine and stimulate and license the whirling eclecticism of Carlyle’s first important book.

But there is a downside to this. Magazines succeeded by cultivating a readership, and Maginn and other journalistic ‘Micks on the make’, to use Roy Foster’s phrase, were brilliant opportunists, good at giving readers what they wanted. The early Carlyle was not. Catchpenny populism never came easily to him, and his natural mode was denunciation, including the denunciation of journalists, rather than winsomeness, but he needed to publish because he needed to eat. This contributes to the contradictions and evasions of his text, which makes Teufelsdröckh both an incendiary who was ‘content that old sick Society should be deliberately burnt’ and ‘probably the politest man extant’. There had to be an element of humbug in the book if it was ever going to get published, and some attempt to amuse as well as instruct a periodical readership. But it is difficult not to have at least some sympathy for the opinion of the patrician poet and historian H.H. Milman, later Dean of St Paul’s, who as a ‘bookseller’s taster’ for John Murray observed that ‘the Author has no great tact: his wit is frequently heavy; and reminds one of the German Baron who took to leaping on tables, and answered that he was learning to be lively.’