Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle's Sartor Resartus was published initially as eight serial parts in Fraser's Magazine (a literary magazine generally known for its Tory politics) from 1833-1834. It's success led to several limited reprints in 1834, but the first book edition was actually issued in America, in 1836. Finally, the first British book edition appeared in 1838.  

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of this rather unusual work (essentially, a fictional editor presents bits and pieces of a German professor's Philosophy of Clothes alongside a fragmented biography and fragmented critical remarks). Carlyle was a crucial figure for his fellow Victorians--George Eliot described him as an "oak sowing acorns." Indeed, Carlyle's influence continues beyond the Victorian era and finds echoes in the works of the late nineteenth-century Symbolists, Joyce, Woolf, and T.S. Eliot. Most famously (and most immediately), Carlyle's Sartor Resartus largely inspired American Transcendentalism: for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sartor Resartus was his introduction to German idealism, which would become a continuing influence in Emerson's life and thought.    

Concentrating on the widespread influence of Sartor Resartus, however, should not obscure its clear indebtedness to core principles of the Romantic poets as well. In particular, form, allusion, and above all, symbol are controlling themes.    

As mentioned brief above, Sartor Resartus is a peculiar work and difficult to describe: in a nutshell, I have given that the work consists of this fictional editor (which at once seems to perhaps be Carlyle, since this editor writes that he applies to Fraser's for publication, but throughout, seems mostly a persona), who becomes fascinated with a German professor by the name of Professor Teufelsdrockh. This editor manages to make the Professor's acquaintance and secure a number of papers he has left; these two sources form the fragmented biography, which along with the editor's critical remarks, frame (or perhaps more aptly, weave throughout) Teufelsdrock's magnum opus, his Philosophy of Clothes.

Book I: The editor begins by telling his readers about his motives behind presenting the professor's work (that the work will prove some yet unforetold benefit to British readers), and also notes some of the editorial problems which he faced in handling and submitting such a disorganized work for publication. The editor also reminisces on his brief encounters with the professor, describing him as rather melancholy and serious, and only laughing once.

The editor presents excerpts from the professor's philosophy, including his sentiments on how clothes originated from a decorative rather than survival impulses. While presenting excerpts from the professor's work on aprons and an excerpt containing a fancy on the leveling of humanity that would occur if royalty were to lose all of their clothes and accoutrements of wealth, the editor is suddenly critical, thinking the professor ludicrous and crude (Yet, the editor seems caught in his own prurience when he reveals, in a list of things he wishes not to reveal, a number of such images as "Kings wrestling naked on the green," or kings "dissected" into "the same viscera, tissues, and livers" which we all share).

Book I closes with Teufelsdrockh's expansion on the metaphor of clothes: language is a garment of thought, and the body is a garment for the spirit. In a word, the "essence of all science lies in the philosophy of clothes." At the very end of the book, the editor tells of how he has received a number of promises papers from a friend of Teufelsdrockh's, the Herr Hofrath, but to his disappointment, they are not an autobiography, but a collection of his various, disorganized observations on life. The editor's hopes for stitching together a factually based, conventional biography are foiled.

Book II: Nonetheless, some tidbits of biography are recovered: a stranger delivers him in as a baby in a basket to kind foster-parents, Gretchen and Andreas Futteral. The professor muses on his own name, written on a card accompanying his basket, as kind of like clothing, to the extent that it becomes constitutive of his identity even if he was unable to discover any historical or social connections through it. Teufelsdrockh's childhood his idyllic, as he passively views the "terrestrial workshop," of which he is not yet a participant. Unfortunately, his schooling affords him little pleasure; learning is rote, mechanistic, and academic (in the bad sense of the term). His university he describes as a regulatory, unthinking system. His saving graces are a friendship with an English colleague by the name of Towgood, and "rebellion" through reading voraciously on his own. 

Soon, Teufelsrockh must seek a vocation (the editor paraphrases this tritely as the British notion of "getting under way"): he tries law, but soon finds that it is not a good fit for his idealistic temperament. He meets a girl (unnamed, but referred to poetically as Blumine), who then runs away and marries his friend Towgood for money. His heart dashed to pieces, Teufelsdrockh becomes a wanderer, as miserable, certainly, as the wandering Jew. With a somewhat ironic tone, the editor gives that his travels all over the earth must have been like the writings of the Sorrows of Werter except written on the earth by his footprints (Teufelsdrockh's romance and its aftermath are mediated all through by the editor's voice of superiority and all-knowningness about such rites of passage experienced by all young, idealistic men uninitiated in the ways of the world). 

Amidst such throes of struggle, Teufelsdrockh goes through this famous "Everlasting No" (an "indignant" and "defiant" rejection of pretty much all beliefs and all of existence), followed by his neutral stance at the "center of indifference," and finally his emergence into his "Everlasting Yea" which comes up with a new affirmation of life based not on a quest for happiness but an acceptance of "love" and "blessedness." He offers an interesting metaphor for the eradication of desire: if the denominator of a fraction which signifies one's view of what he deserves out of life is 0, then life becomes infinite. The editor, however, thinks all of this is a bit too mystical and unclear, and tells the reader that he must be patient. At the same time, however, the editor expresses some doubt about his own endeavors: could it be, that all of the "facts" of his biography are in fact symbolical, "hieroglyphic" facts and is he perhaps Teufelsdrockh's dupe?

Book III: In Book III, what is given of Teufelsdrockh's excerpts are increasingly religious and spiritual. In his section on symbols, for example, he explains how symbols generally have both intrinsic and extrinsic properties, and those who have only "extrinsic" properties are akin to blind customs which no longer possess any living meaning. Symbols with intrinsic properties, however, continue to gain meaning as they pass through human lives. Teufelsdrockh believes that such "superannuated symbols" ought to be discarded. In a word, symbols are an expansion of what he means by the "clothing" through which man experiences the world: "It is in and through symbols that man consciously or unconsciously lives, works, and has his being."  

In Teufelsdrockh's margin notes on a tract on population by Herr Hofrath, Teufelsdrockh, taking a rather anti-Malthusian stance, expresses that by fully "forming" every man, rich or poor, by educating him in the loftier concerns of existence as well the so-called practical actions of industry, population problems would "solve" themselves because such men would be able, through ingenuity, to sustain society. In a following section, Teufelsdrockh rejects a world conquered by mindless utilitarianism and laissez faire doctrine, critiquing methods of action and liberal reform in a way which would later be echoed by such different men from Dickens to Arnold. The professor thinks that despite this bleak vision of the world today, a phoenix will soon rise from the ashes of this society's old, worn-out raiments/symbols/doctirines. 
The editor pragmatically chastises Teufelsdrockh for not being more grateful to society for raising, clothing, and feeding him in order that he might be in such a position as to make such criticisms. 

The "new light" that will be the phoenix, Teufelsdrockh holds, is being cultivated in literature, specifically, that of Goethe (in contrast, the newspapers embody worn-out doctrines). Teufelsdrockh's philosophy of "natural supernaturalism" fully explores his belief in nature as a book of "celestial hieroglyphics," a full embrace of wrestling with symbols as the divine way of living. Even "space and time," the professor explains, are perceptions which are mere "thought-forms" and once one apprehends this, the significance of eternity and infinity unfolds itself. The editor approves of these articulations as his most coherent expression of his philosophy.

At the close of Sartor Resartus, the editor ends with a metaphor of how he has constructed a number of "rafts" for the British reader to jump upon in order to get to some sense of a new understanding of his own life via the exploration of Teufelsdrockh's philosophy. At the same time, the editor admits to being "infected" by Teufesldrockh's use of metaphors, he remains derisive of his "mystical" and disorganized means of expression. At the very end, the editor tells how Teufelsdrockh (referred throughout by the editor as a "sanscullotist") disappeared around the time of the "Parisian Three Days" revolution on July 26-29, 1830. "Es geht an," Teufelsdrockh is reported to have said, "It is beginning," signifying, perhaps, that he has joined in the revolution. 

For me, the most interesting critical question is how we are to read the relationship between Carlyle, the editor, and Teufelsdrockh. Conclusions about Carlyle's political and moral beliefs seem utterly mired in the obscurities created by such entanglements. I argue that the editor is supposed to be a stand-in for a typical British reader--generally "pragmatic" and non-mystical, but nevertheless able, on some level, to appreciate that an overly pragmatical (rather, doctrinally pragmatic) character might benefit from an infusion of spirituality. 

The consideration of metaphor provides one particular example of this nascent dualism which Carlyle envisions as part of the British subject: while rejecting metaphorical language as imprecise, the editor yet is able to acknowledge that it has "infected" his own language. In fact, metaphor (knowingly or unknowingly) is part and parcel of Sartor Resartus as a whole: the whole is a weaving or interlacing of biography, critical comments, and the cut apart text of another--in a word, Sartor Resartus itself is clothing. 

It is, however, a new sort of clothing made of hybrid cloths of British pragmatism and German idealism. The work suggests a kind of synthesis of these two spirits in order for the full-formation of the human. In this sense, Carlyle might be basically expressing what Arnold would express nearly a generation later: that the modern British subject had become too rigidly enamored with ossified notions of what constituted action, the practical, industry, and progress, and therefore the British subject needed to adopt a more critical stance at the level of ideas. For Carlyle, however, it is not so much a "critical" light but simply a spiritual light, a "new mythus" which could invigorate and revolutionize British society through the transformation of individual hearts. Symbols would then be revitalized, and the "raiments" would no longer be old, tattered, and merely extrinsic. 

Ultimately, even though there are many moments where it seems that the reader is to sympathize more with Teufelsdrockh than with the interruptive, and often square editor, I think the editor's humility and self-awareness saves him and forces the audience not to look disdainfully on him from high, but to recognize in him their own follies and limitations. The editor often questions whether or not he has been duped by Teufelsdrockh (such as when he asks whether the facts of his biography were in fact "hieroglyphics" or symbols), or when he is not sure (as in Teufelsdrockh's discussion of dandies and the Irish poor) whether the professor is being ironic or not. The editor seems open to the possibility of his own limits, and in this, he prevents himself from being cast off but rather embraced by readers as one of their own. As the editor himself gives, he felt a "mingled feeling of astonishment, gratitude, and disapproval" at professor Teufelsdrockh--though contradictory feelings are given, this really seems to be the point that opposing forces make up the fully human.  

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