John Pistelli


Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

Sartor ResartusSartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What does the Latin title of this novel mean? The Tailor Retailored. Who is the tailor? Humanity, or, in the old style, Man. Why is he not only a tailor, but a retailored tailor? Because Man is a spiritual being that can recreate himself through use of spiritual signs, such as words, pictures, and material artifacts, thus bringing himself into line with concepts of perfection and godliness—all of which means that God is an idea whose time has not yet come because we have not yet realized or actualized Him through our world-creating abilities to re-tailor ourselves in His ideal image. Why are metaphors drawn from clothing and fashion so helpful in understanding this philosophy of Man-as-God-Recreator? Because we use clothes to cover and thus to transfigure the naked state we share with the brutes; clothes are a special case of all human acts of perception and creation, because the universe itself is clothed (tailored) in divine signs that Man needs to interpret and manipulate (retailor) in order to materialize his potential perfection. And that, in answer to a question I have not yet asked, is why life can only be comprehended through metaphor: metaphor, the linking of concepts across their apparent differences, is the foundation of all thought, because to think at all we must apprehend the universal idea in which all things participate.

The above paragraph is the summed-up philosophy of the fictional German thinker—Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Professor of Things in General—who is the protagonist of this 1833-4 novel by Thomas Carlyle, a man better known not as creative writer but for his later career as Victorian Sage, secular prophet, historian and pamphleteer, public intellectual.

That Diogenes was a famous cynic, that “Diogenes Teufelsdröckh” means “God-born devil’s excrement” in English, that Teufelsdröckh’s ideas reprise those of the German Romantic and Idealist philosophers (Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, etc.), and that metaphors drawn from fashion are an unusually low and homely way to exemplify such philosophies should all alert us that this is a work of satire and irony, as much a play of language as an earnest novel. The back cover copy of my edition draws appropriate comparisons to Swift, Sterne, Melville, and Joyce; it also calls the novel “enigmatic.” Given that I was able to provide a synopsis of the protagonist’s philosophy pretty easily (albeit with the help of hindsight and of having read some of the German philosophers alluded to), what makes the novel so mysterious?

The answer is its metafictional form. Carlyle presents his narrative as a long summary work for the British magazine-reader of Teufelsdröckh’s masterpiece, Clothes: Their Origin and Influence. Our English narrator portrays himself as a long-suffering annotator to an endless book of philosophy, written in a sometimes impenetrable style; to compound his challenges, he has also been sent, for the purposes of writing Teufelsdröckh’s biography, bags of seemingly haphazard scraps from the philosopher’s writings and wanderings. Thus, the text we read is, within the novel’s fiction, a necessarily arbitrary assemblage of the philosopher’s writings by a sometimes hostile or mocking editor. (Perhaps a modern analogue would be less Ulysses than Pale Fire.) Moreover, one of the editor’s most characteristic comments is a statement of uncertainty, before or after quoting Teufelsdröckh, as to whether the German thinker is being ironic or straightforward.

Note, then, at least four layers of irony (defined simply as double-meaning) in Carlyle’s novel: 1. we encounter serious philosophy presented as a joke (its author is named Devil’s Shit and is obsessed with clothes); 2. we read this supposedly coherent and total philosophy in a bewilderingly fragmented form; 3. said form is arranged by an uncomprehending and resentful editor; 4. finally, the text of the philosophy itself may or may not be self-undermining through an ironical tone. This makes for a dizzying and dazzling readerly experience, and should remind us that so-called postmodernism was just a further, and often less sophisticated, pursuit of Romantic irony.

Given all this abyssal irony, can the reader find any stable ground in this novel? I think so, at least in part. Here is my theory: I suspect the novel overall is sympathetic to Teufelsdröckh’s ideas—his passionate wanderings, described so lyrically in the central section of the three-part narrative; his furious sarcasm, often completely misunderstood by the editor, at the world’s injustices of war and poverty; his awe before the beauty of nature and the capacity of man to participate in its becoming. While I am not one for biographical interpretations, neither am I dogmatic on the subject, and there is no point ignoring Carlyle’s well-known apprenticeship to German Romanticism and attempt to popularize it in England. The editor, then, stands for the crudity of the English imagination, its inability to think beyond the merely existent because of its thrall to nihilistic anti-metaphysics such as utilitarianism, empiricism, and capitalism. (The English type the Scot Carlyle sends up here remains very much with us: think of Richard Dawkins, John Carey, Ian McEwan, and that whole ilk of aging intellectuals who scorn so much that is beyond their own insular tradition; and have George Steiner and Gabriel Josipovici not operated as latter-day Carlyles, if only as the Continental opponents of such island-thinking?)

Teufelsdröckh’s writing, as relayed by the editor’s selections, is so copiously generative—tenderly imagistic in descriptions of nature, full of eloquent and sarcastic invective when assaulting injustice, almost epic in its range when describing the nature and purpose of man’s place in the universe. And the editor’s comments on it, if occasionally refreshing in their common sense, seem mean-minded and cheap. It is no wonder that Emerson loved this book, for Teufelsdröckh writes not a little like Emerson in full visionary flow, whereas our editor sounds, does he not, like some carping critic biting at the great man’s ankles.

“Great man.” A worrying phrase. Also worrying is Teufelsdröckh’s endorsement of “hero-worship,” which Carlyle too will later praise in a book described by no less than Borges as a forerunner of Nazism. And let us not neglect that Teufelsdröckh’s ideology is consistently described as sansculottism*, thus associated with the terroristic phase of the beautiful revolution idealist philosophy prophesies. At one point in the novel, Teufelsdröckh writes a Swiftian proposition that the poor should simply be gunned down to thin their numbers in line with Malthus’s fears of overpopulation; now I read his tone as unambiguously ironic, a satire on what the rich think of the poor, but the editor takes the proposal literally and is shocked. Another joke at the expense of the stupid English bourgeois? Well, maybe, but the novel also clearly shows Teufelsdröckh’s German disciple, Hofrath Heuschreke, taking it very seriously, even to the point of writing a dead-serious Institute for the Suppression of Population. Is it really so easy to separate idealism from contempt for the material? Are we sure we can tell the difference between revolution and reaction, between Jacobinism and fascism?

If we do take Teufelsdröckh’s beautiful idealism as having dangerous implications, as potentially tailoring not a new man but a straitjacket for man-as-he-is, then the novel’s irony becomes its most redemptive aspect, not a quality to be read around in hopes of finding Carlyle’s “real argument,” not even if it allows us the facile fun of mocking some of today’s small-minded Englishmen. For the empirical English imagination in this book may function as a corrective, something like Sancho Panza in relation to Don Quixote, a real ground-level view of things as opposed to the intellectual’s assumed stance of revolutionism. Teufelsdröckh, we are told, lives in building from which he can survey his whole city; but this godly perspective neglects the view from the street. The purpose of irony, it seems to me, is to allow us both perspectives at once—the tower and the ground, Sancho and Quixote—so that we have as much knowledge as possible in our attempts to fashion the future. Such irony is the essence of literature, of the novel, of the essay, and I suspect this is why Carlyle mocks the philosophical treatise, which aims at an intellectual closure that irony forbids and fiction—with its multiple perspectives—formally disallows. This is no doubt also why the older Carlyle threw over fiction for more closed forms; I would be lying if I denied that I too sometimes tire of these defenses of literature as that which allows us no conclusions. It all seems so weak, so foolish, the CIA-funded self-congratulation of the naïf, especially now, when we are surrounded by neo-Carlyles left and right urging that we worship new heroes in the hour of crisis. Nobody wants to hear that devil’s shit is what we are, and I have no counsel of romanticized weakness, à la Malcolm Bull, to offer, because that too is an arrogant philosopher’s pose (vanguardism in assumed rags is still vanguardism). The proper conclusion, if we can come to one, is that whatever else we are or may be, including God-born, we are also devil’s shit—and don’t you forget it. That is the pedagogy of the essay, of the novel, of irony, of literature.

I have committed a great sin here, a lapse I hypocritically would not tolerate in undergraduate writing, by not quoting from the novel! But it is so complex I thought it best approached at first with a telescope rather than a microscope. In any case, the whole thing can be read at Project Gutenberg, and I recommend dipping in to see if its intensities—which move in very long rhythms and so do not lend themselves to brief quotation—suit you. See especially the grand trinity of chapters at the heart of the novel: “The Everlasting No,” “Centre of Indifference,” and “The Everlasting Yea.” Speaking personally, I loved this novel, but I allow that it is not for everyone. I spent my time in graduate school trying to understand the Marxist theory of the novel, which entailed a lot of mostly unsuccessful attempts to grasp the German Romantic philosophy that underlies Western Marxism and also a lot of worry over the potentially totalitarian nature of this intellectual tradition. For this reason, I very much appreciated Carlyle’s intentional burlesque of this philosophy’s more rarefied aspects, and his perhaps unintentional warning—a warning that seems to be embodied in his later career—of where it all may lead, of what trouble you may find yourself in, and not only intellectually, if you do not use the shears of irony to tailor your idealism to the human figure’s so-far intransigent actual shape.

*A joke from Kafka, quoted from memory because I don’t remember where I read it and Google doesn’t bring it up, which means I have possibly invented it or am misattributing it to Kafka: “It is said that the members of the sans-cullotes met secretly in the night for the purpose of wearing cullotes.” There is a whole theory of politics in that sentence, whoever wrote it.

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2 comments on “Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

  1. Pingback: Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus | Inko

  2. Pingback: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick | John Pistelli

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