Sunday, June 27, 2010

Intro to Sartor Resartus by Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor

While Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus has little in common with the realistic tradition of verisimilar representation of human situations in their social and moral contexts, it does have affinities with another fictional tradition, one that is well described by Robert Alter. This tradition includes the kind of prose fiction that 'expresses its seriousness through playfulness, that is acutely aware of itself as a mere structure of words even as it tries to discover ways of going beyond words to the experiences which words seem to indicate'. The fully conscious novel is 'one in which from beginning to end, through the style, the handling of the narrative viewpoint, the names and words imposed on the characters, the patterning of the narration, the nature of the characters and what befalls them, there is a consistent effort to convey to us a sense of a fictional world as an authorial construct set up against a background of literary tradition and convention'. ( Partial Magic, Berkeley, 1975) For Alter, prime examples of fully achieve self-conscious novels include Cervantes' Don Quixote, Fielding's “Tom Jones”, Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist, Sterne's Tristam Shandy, and Nabokov's Pale Fire; and others would want to add works like Melville's Moby-Dick. . .

The key feature of Carlyle's 'modus operandi' is that the text is about both itself and the experience of reading it. Sartor its own commentary and has within itself a fully developed model of a reader grappling with a difficult text. . . On behalf of the reader, the Editor attempts to find useful meanings in materials that fascinate him and compel his attention even while he suspects their authenticity, doubts the intentions and sincerity of their author, and comes to realize that none of his doubts can ever be settled with certainty.

In her English Romantic Irony (Cambridge, MA, 1980), Anne Mellor presents Sartor as a 'self- consuming artifact' that does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves'. Sartor Resartus is a fictional work 'designed to consume itself by revealing the limitations of both its symbolic language and of language as such. It is not intended as a monument of truth but as a goad to action.'

Janice L Hanley has argued that the last three chapters of Sartor show a turning away from an outmoded Romantic vision towards a Victorian social actuality, 'an emerging Victorian mode of making meaning which pits 'an empirical self' against a metaphysical and aesthetic self; together they compose a book about the quest for meaning.” ( Shadow Hunting, Studies in Romanticism, xvii (1978).

In Sartus Resartus it is important to realize that Teufelsdrockh's philosophical belief's are essentially a simplified version of the leading themes of eighteenth-century German Idealist philosophy, especially as it contrasts with an equally simplified version of eighteenth-century British empirical philosophy, the nineteenth-century name for which was Utilitarianism. The fundamental premise of Teufelsdrockh's thought is the epistomological distinction between the understanding (Verstand) and Reason ( Vernunft). The former mental faculty is essentially passive, containing impressions ultimately derived from sense experience. Such empirical knowledge is strictly bounded by the containers of time and space, by WHERE, with its brother, WHEN, as Teufelsdrockh ( aka 'The Devil's Shit') puts it, and can supply knowledge only of the appearance of things, never of things in themselves. Such knowledge can be objective and accurate, even scientific; and it can certainly be useful; but can never tell anyone about the noumenal ( as opposed to phenomenal) objects of thought. The existence of God, an after-life, or the soul can never be established by the empirical understanding.

Noumenal knowledge is supplied by the intuitive faculty of Reason ( or the Fantasy, as Teufelsdrockh sometimes calls it). Reason, the organ of spiritual and imaginative insight, can reveal to man supersensible realities undetectable by the understanding. 'To the eye of vulgar Logic', Teufelsdruckh asks, 'what is man? An omnivorous Biped that wears Breeches. To the eye of Pure Reason what is he? A Soul, a Spirit, and a Divine Apparition... Reason can pierce through the Where and When to the celestial EVERYWHERE and FOREVER, to the universal HERE and the everlasting NOW'.

According to Teufelsdrockh [ sounding remarkably like Kierkegaard-J.S.] the progress of science, that is, the increasing power and dominance of the faculty of understanding, has led to the destruction of wonder and its replacement by mensuration and numeration. The more this power waxes, the more the intuitive power of Reason wanes. In the wintry light of understanding, the soul has become synonymous with the stomach, and happiness has become the aim of man, who, in the hedonistic calculus of the Utilitarians ( the Motive-Millwrights), has become 'a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on.' What is needed is a restoration to its rightful kingly place in the human personality of Reason, Fantasy, Intuition, and Wonder. Love, Duty, and a sense of the sacred nature of social bonds can only flourish in the light of Reason, which can give a saving sense of the infinite within the finite, of the religious nature of human life, and of the miraculous potential of any aspect of creation.

There are certain features of Teufelsdruckh's thought, however, which are bound to give careful readers pause. One of them concerns the extraordinary number of Christian and biblical allusions embedded in his utterances. This suggests a deliberate attempt to blur the differences between traditional Christian beliefs and the subjectivity of Romantic regeneration. A second trouble spot is Teufelsdruckh's insistence on the moral imperative of duty: 'Do the Duty which lies nearest thee', which he says cannot be grounded in Speculation, only 'felt' in experience. But in the highly schematized and rhetorical account of Teufelsdruckh's conversion experience in Book II, one is only told about, never convincingly shown, his inner transformation. As a result the reader cannot feel with Teufelsdrockh. At best he can give only a notional assent to the professor's moral injunctions, at worse he may come to find them factitious.

An overemphasis on moral conduct, triggered by the breakdown of traditional religious beliefs, was a leading feature of the Victorian temper. The syndrome was memorably encapsulated in George Eliot's solemn observation that while God was inconceivable and immortality unbelievable, Duty was 'peremptory and absolute'. What Nietzsche said apropos of George Eliot in Twilight of the Idols could be well applied to Teufelsdruckh: 'They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all he more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality...We other hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident... it stands and falls with faith in God.”

Teufelsdrockh also tries to finesse the question that was to become of pre-eminent concern to many Victorian writers: the question of immortality, of life after death. His answer is that only the 'Time-shadows' have perished and that 'the real Being of whatever was, and whatever is, and whatever will be, is even now and for ever. . . believe thou must; understand it thou canst not.' It is hard not to regard this passage as rhetoric in the pejorative sense of the term, as an attempt to substitute the wish for the deed. Why must we believe? Not because one is assured of a life after death; but precisely because one is not. One must believe because it is to demoralizing not to. “Better an ignis fatuus/ Than no illume at all' as Emily Dickinson wryly remarked in her little poem on the breakdown of traditional Christian beliefs. In this passage, as in other utterances of Teufelsdrockh, one is once again reminded of Twilight of the Idols, this time what Nietzsche said about Teufelsdruck's creator:

"Carlyle: a man of strong words and attitudes, a rhetor from need, constantly lured by the craving for a strong faith and the feeling of his incapacity for it (in this respect, a typical romantic!). The craving for a strong faith is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of scepticism: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that. . . (Carlyle) requires noise. A constant passionate dishonesty against himself – that is his proprium; in this respect he is and remains interesting. Of course, in England he is admired precisely for his honesty. Well, that is English. . . at bottom, Carlyle is an English atheist who makes a point of honor not to be one.”

Recent critical reorientation to Sartor Resartus is a welcome reminder that when he wrote it Carlyle had not yet become Carlylean, had not yet successfully substituted biography, history, and social prophesy for imaginative fiction. It was perhaps for this reason that John Stuart Mill always regarded Sartor Resartus as Carlyle's 'best and greatest work'. It's distinction, however, was not immediately apparent to Mill any more than to most first-time readers, who may take heart from Mill's experience. When first shown the manuscript by Carlyle, he 'made little of it'; but by the time it appeared in Fraser's Magazine two years later he had grown sufficiently advanced in 'new modes of thought' to read Sartor Resartus 'with enthusiastic admiration and the keenest delight'.

1 comment:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881); Sartor Resartus; Oxford World Classics, 2008 reissue
    Edited with Introduction and Notes by Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor

    On Nietzsche ( a modest corrective on popular notions of Nietzsche):