Printer Friendly

'Sartor Resartus' and the work of writing.

`MEANWHILE TO IT thou Taugenichts [do-nothing]! Gird thyself, stir, struggle, forward! forward!'(1) During the years of his long literary apprenticeship, Carlyle's private writing (letters and journals) persistently berates itself with exhortations to labour. His two early notebooks cover the period from March 1822, when he was first beginning to publish original critical articles, to June 1832, by which time Sartor Resartus (then titled `Teufelsdreck') was complete in manuscript. During that decade, Carlyle formulated the career of a professional man of letters in both pragmatic and self-consciously ideological terms. The injunctions to effort ubiquitous in the notebooks refer not only to the business of producing `Literature, which is also breadmaking' in order to support himself (and, after 1826, his wife), but also to the transcendental value of labour itself, a precept Carlyle translated from the Presbyterian ethics inherited from his mother into a spiritualised ideology most strongly associated with Goethe.(2) The `dreadful labour' (NB 136) of writing articles for London and Edinburgh periodicals satisfied the material definition of a career: as he noted in November 1827, `I am in fact becoming a sort of Literary Man' (Letters IV 285). Measured by the Goethean gospel of self-realisation through conscientious work, however, writing's value is more ambiguous. Words written in a journal have to admit their merely supplementary status. The notebook jottings frequently castigate themselves for getting in the way of some other, presumably higher, form of labour: `Toil, then, et tais-toi'; `Hang it, try and leave this Grubeln [brooding]!'; `why stand describing how thou shouldst move; forward, and move, in any way' (NB 148, 152, 265).

It is not only in such private jottings that writing describes itself as a debased version of the author's real work. Throughout the decade 1822-32, the business of producing articles on commission appears increasingly inadequate to the ideology of the literary career which those same articles idealise as a prophetic vocation (rather than `breadmaking').(3) Biographical reviews of Schiller, Richter, Burns, Voltaire, Novalis, Goethe, Johnson and Diderot all tend towards the conclusion stated explicitly in Carlyle's 1829 essay `Signs of the Times': `At no former era has Literature, the printed Communication of Thought, been of such importance as it is now'.(4) However, to deduce the sacramental status of writing through a critical account of another writer is riskily similar to affirming it in a private notebook. Both are meta-literary acts, signposting the direction of Caryle's career without actually constituting a step towards achieving it. Review articles may communicate thought, but according to a favourite and much quoted maxim, `The end of Man is an Action, and not a Thought'.(5) In terms of Carlyle's conception of his own `end', his intended vocation, the formula idealises a genuinely prophetic literature, a writing that works. Critical essays sold to the proprietors of periodicals can only embody a more prosaic conception of labour, `but a species of Brewing or Cookery' (Letters V 149). The action Carlyle urges upon himself is to write like Goethe, not merely to translate him or write about him (or fellow-prophets such as Novalis).

It becomes increasingly clear that the only proper `end' of his vocation is a major original production, `a Book, no compilation or biography but a book' (Letters IV 68). Writing to Goethe himself in November 1829, he differentiates sharply between the practice of reviewing and ideal literary endeavour: `I am still but an Essayist, and longing more than ever to be a Writer in a far better sense' (Letters V 29). In the next few months, there are references to a projected life of Frederick the Great, but the work in which these ambitions are transformed into literary action is Sartor Resartus, begun as an article (`Thoughts on Clothes') in September 1830 and extended into book form between January and July of the following year. Not only is Sartor Carlyle's first original book, it also inscribes within itself the progress of a prophetic vocation, through the semi-autobiographical figure of Diogenes Teufelsdrockh.(6) Carlyle authenticates his career by reconstructing it, recalling and reproducing the labour of writing -- Teufelsdrockh's apprenticeship -- in order to identify that labour with its `end', the finished text of Sartor, which incorporates within itself Teufelsdrockh's own first prophetic `printed Communication of Thought', `Die Kleider ihr Werden und Wirken (Clothes, their Origin and Influence)' (p. 6).

The ethical-ideological injunction to productive labour is one of the loudest commandments in Teufelsdrockh's gospel. At the climactic moment of his spiritual biography -- described in the chapter `The Everlasting Yea' -- he reproduces the kind of rhetoric found everywhere in Carlyle's notebooks and letters:

I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos,

but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were

it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product,

produce it in God's name! `Tis the utmost thou hast in

thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth

to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is

called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can

work. (p. 149)

How might this transcendental conception of labour represent itself as being fulfilled by the work of authorship? What Teufelsdrockh produces as the result of his triumphant affirmation is a text, Die Kleider. In Sartor, however, this text is encased within biographical and critical commentary, so that its prophetic revelations are presented as the outcome of its author's private struggles, much as Sartor itself concludes Carlyle's protracted efforts to become what he imagines an author should be. The value of the work produced (Die Kleider, Sartor) depends on its being identified as the result of properly Goethean labour, the sort of energetic activity Carlyle sets himself in his journal and theorises most fully in the 1831 essay ` Characteristics'. Teufelsdrockh therefore figures authorship as the right sort of work. A closer look at this representation of labour may suggest that the doubts hinted at in the notebook are not so easily banished as Sartor likes to assume: that writing might even in this case still be a substitute for or diversion from work, rather than its transcendental apotheosis.(7)

After Sartor, Carlyle's writing no longer makes itself reflect on the effort involved in its production. None of his later monumental works presents itself so self-consciously as a literary labour, not even The French Revolution, which required appreciable Goethean heroism to complete. Installed by the summer of 1834 in Cheyne Row, the `Sage of Chelsea' thereafter promotes himself from apprenticeship to a self-assured professionalism which has no need to recall its origins and conditions. From then on, writing masks labour instead of displaying it. The vocation to authorship is complete when texts can be produced in this way; it achieves its `end' in prophetic publications.

For Teufelsdrockh, Die Kleider is such a work. It is the expression of `a quite new Branch of Philosophy' (p. 8), imparting his secular mysticism to a spiritually barren age. Carlyle likewise envisages this text as a radical and timely new scripture: `the doctrine of the Phoenix, of Nat. Supernaturalism and the whole Clothes Philosophy ... is exactly what all intelligent men are wanting' (Letters V 354). Here, then, is the productive `Action' resulting from the labour of authorship. However, the smooth transition from process (work) to product (text) is interrupted in Sartor by two ironic framing devices: the (auto)biographical account of Teufelsdrockh's Bildung, his apprentice years, and the metatextual commentaries of the nameless English Editor who introduces Die Kleider to the `British Reader'. These two frames create a double perspective on the laborious process from which the prophetic text has emerged. The biographical narrative of Book II describes Die Kleider as the outcome of its author's personal struggle to overcome apathy and despair; the Editor's comically pedantic huffing and puffing accentuates the labour of finding meaning in a text whose obscure Teutonic mysticism and hyperbolic style make it seem to sensibly British tastes `like some mad banquet' (p. 26) or an `enormous, amorphous Plumpudding' (p. 221).(8) By framing Die Kleider in these contexts, Sartor implicates its own Idealist doctrines in the ideology of strenuous authorship, the work of making and understanding a text. The Editor describes his activity in the language of Teufelsdrockh's `gospel of work', indicating that he too is participating in the creation of the new scripture:

If hereby... some morsel of spiritual nourishment have

been added to the scanty ration of our beloved British

world, what nobler recompense could the Editor desire?

. . . Was not this a Task which Destiny, in any case, had

appointed him; which being now done with, he sees his

general Day's-work so much the lighter, so much the

shorter? (p. 221)

He is clearly echoing Teufelsdrockh's Goethean maxim (quoted above), `Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might' (p. 149).(9) For all its distancing ironies, Sartor converges with Die Kleider in its multiple appeals to the transcendental value of literary labour.

Nevertheless, the figures of the Editor and Teufelsdrockh articulate this value in different ways. The labour of the Editor is analytic, or critical: he is making meaning out of a given text, whether it be `the Clothes Volume itself' which before his attentions is `too like a Chaos' (p. 61), or the `six considerable PAPER-BAGS' (p. 60) of documentary scraps from which he has to construct Teufelsdrockh's biography. But Teufelsdrockh's own labour is authorial: he is making text out of personal experience. This division -- manifested in Sartor's problematically divided form -- models the interpretative choices confronting the book's readers. Is Sartor to be understood as a work about critical practice or a statement of its author's personal faith?

Later Victorian readers had little difficulty in setting aside the ironic metatextual clutter and adopting the latter interpretation, reading Sartor as if it were Die Kleider, the Bible of Carlylean machine-age mysticism. The introduction to the relevant volume of the Centenary Edition is in no doubt about the book's value as a testament: `It is unquestionably a minute and faithful history of Carlyle's intellectual and spiritual experiences, which, of course, is the main thing' (I xviii). By contrast, modern critics have in general fastened eagerly on the former approach to this most self-consciously `literary' of texts, finding in the Editor's doubts and queries a mirror of critical activity itself. From Janice Haney's promotion of the Editor over Teufelsdrockh as the agent of `the possibility of making meaning' to J. Hillis Miller's description of Sartor as `a hieroglyphical work about hieroglyphs', the content of Die Kleider has been superseded by concerns with method and process.(10) Sartor's most immediate problems -- its extravagant style and its ironic method -- have prompted readers to repeat the Editor's anxiety over hermeneutic activity itself. Many critics accordingly interpret the book as an attempt to redefine acts of reading. The argument has been brought to its logical extreme with a claim that Sartor is the opposite of a dogmatic text: it not only contains no definite meaning, but intimates the impossibility of texts having a fixed meaning at all.(11) Teufelsdrockh and Die Kleider are all but forgotten in this extreme enthusiasm for understanding the work of writing in terms of critical acts.

Virtually all modern readers, then, interpret Teufelsdrockh as the author of a text which is rewritten into significance through the ironic glossing of the Editor: the author reauthored, the tailor retailored. The Editor illustrates the economy of reading. It is he who demonstrates that a certain amount of virtuous effort is repaid by the reward of understanding. In this view, Teufelsdrockh stands for a latent significance waiting to be unfolded or (a phrase found everywhere in Carlyle's writing) `bodied forth' into actual value through hermeneutic labour, even if that labour is the self-negating work of Romantic irony, as in the sophisticated readings of Haney and Anne Mellor. Under this general scheme, Sartor's autobiographical reflections on Carlyle's career constitute a moment of transition, when the profession of writing is subjected to a new (metatextual) force that will translate it into an achieved prophetic mode, whether the meaning it prophetically reveals is historical action (Haney), new critical practices (Rundle) or the indeterminacy of signs (Felluga). Sartor thus looks forward to the unironic, autarchic monuments of Carlylese that followed it, in that it submits an exuberantly Romantic fiction to the pressures of a critical stance which ultimately requires that text -- Die Kleider, but also Sartor itself -- to gain appreciable, concrete meaning. As the Editor tells us in his second chapter, `Professor Teufelsdrockh the Discloser' is himself to be `disclosed' (p. 8) by supervening critical procedures.

What, though, if we turn away from the meaning of Teufelsdrockh's writing and revert to the value of the mere act of writing itself? Beneath all Sartor's intricate hermeneutic games lies the Goethean conviction that authors genuinely consummate their vocation in the completed work. Carlyle's many pronouncements on his sense of vocation in his private writing make it clear that value can be located in writing rather than reading (or editorial rewriting). The disconcerting quality of his paeans to labour can be traced to precisely this ideological self-sufficiency: labour appears as its own reward, banishing complex questions about its effects and consequences by insisting that what matters is the sheer exercise of `Voluntary Force' (p. 140). This is clear in the final paragraphs of `Characteristics', where Carlyle counsels his readers to identify `what is to be done' and then `do it like Soldiers; with submission, with courage, with heroic joy' (XXVIII 43). Soldiers aren't meant to think about what they are doing; they just follow orders. It is not difficult to apply this idiom to literary practice. In his 1832 essay on `Boswell's Life of Johnson', Carlyle overcomes his distaste for what he sees as the prosaic and anti-idealist tenor of Johnson's work by presenting him as a hero of toil: `the nobler was that unavowed ideal which lay within him, and commanded saying, Work out thy Artisanship in the spirit of an Artist!' (XVIII 126). His worth is defined by his unfailing obedience to the transcendental impulse to write, rather than by the meaning of what he writes. As a letter of August 1827 declares, `The sweat of the brow is not a curse, but the wholesomest blessing in life' (Letters IV 246). After completing Sartor, Carlyle declared himself `perfectly contented' with the work, despite the apparent impossibility of finding a publisher. `What I have written I have written', he says, in a curious allusion: `the reading of it is another party's concern' (Letters VI 29). The fact of achieved labour overrides any anxiety over its possible efficacy.

In this sense, Teufelsdrockh's significance as an autobiographical figure would be cognate with his triumphal achievement of a literary act. He stands not so much for the meaning disclosed as for the work done. It is the Editor whose introduction and translation cast him as a proselytizer; Teufelsdrockh declares himself to `sit above it all' (p. 18), and his evident disregard for making himself intelligible simply confirms -- despite all the Editor's ironising speculations -- that Pilate's dismissive motto will do as well for him as for Carlyle. Both of them, we might argue, are surprisingly indifferent to the business of converting readers to the Clothes-philosophy and its associated Romantic tenets. That herculean task is left to the Editor; and his evidently uncertain grasp of the material would thus indicate not the importance of hermeneutic effort but its irrelevance to the real work of authorship.

David Riede has drawn out in careful detail the paradox of Carlyle's early career: his compulsion to consolidate Romantic models of authorship into an authoritative ideology, so that he ends up as `an antiromantic dogmatist with a lecturing platform built almost entirely of romantic planks'.(12) To say that the ironic indeterminacies of reading are necessary supplements to the text of Die Kleider overlooks (as Riede suggests) the prophetic writer's real claim to authoritative self-sufficiency. Following on from this argument, it becomes possible to see the figure of authorship -- Teufelsdrockh/Carlyle -- as one whose concern is simply to get writing done. Hence Sartor's reflexiveness: the achievement of vocation is the text itself. Die Kleider translates Romantic yearnings and strivings for an ideal into the startlingly dogmatic assertion that the ideal has been attained simply by being written down. In this case, the framing apparatus which incorporates Teufelsdrockh's work into Sartor serves to show us that this achievement is not (as it might appear) a kind of mystical transubstantiation, but simply the result of persisting in good hard work -- the `sweat of the brow'. The question of what it actually means, which is the problem the Editor fusses over, can be left for time to deal with. As Carlyle writes in `Goethe's Helena' (1828), `the grand point is to have a meaning, a genuine, deep and noble one; the proper form for embodying this ... will gather round it almost of its own accord' (XXVI 149). The Carlyle of the late '20s and early '30s felt himself to be part of an age of unprecedentedly radical change, but was content to leave the outcome unguessed at: `Society... is utterly condemned to destruction, and even now beginning its long travail-throes of Newbirth' (Letters VI 85).(13) The Editor makes the same point about the clothes-philosophy. It is obviously important, but it is `leading to as yet undescried ulterior results' (p. 8). Europe's regeneration is to be enacted in Teufelsdrockh's next book, anticipated but unwritten, the `Palingenesia or Newbirth of Society' (p. 164). Die Kleider, meanwhile, is a prophetic text which doesn't prophesy anything. It is simply the achievement of the labour of authorship in its fully idealised and ideologised sense, raising the lowly hack to the office of oracular literary priest.

The question then arises: in what sense is writing a form of labour? The Editor ignores the problem, since he (and the critics who follow him) are more concerned with what you do with writing's product, the text itself. But if the value of the text resides not in its meaning -- how you read it -- but in its evidence of the work achieved in it -- how it came to be written --, then Sartor has to present itself as the right sort of achievement. Teufelsdrockh has to be like Dr. Johnson, someone obeying a divine imperative to write, so that he can autobiographically figure Carlyle's transition from competent professional pieceworker to author-prophet. In 1832 Carlyle was contemplating an `Essay on Authors',

whom I look upon as the most stupendous characters of

this age. They are truly the Church; a peace will never

be till they are recognised as such and sanctioned

and solemnly obligated to the functions thereof ...

(Letters VI 270)

How does the work of authorship in Sartor align itself with this august commission?

The Goethean gospel of work provides only a partial answer. Its creed is admirably straightforward: `Do the Duty which lies nearest thee' (148, quoting Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship); `discharge the duty well that is among our hands, and be ready to discharge the next that comes to hand' (Letters IIX 169); or, in a phrase from Fichte which was placed as an epigraph to the first English edition of Sartor, `Nicht blosses Wissen, sondern nach deinem Wissen Thun ist deine Bestimmung' (`Not mere knowledge, but according to your knowledge Doing is your commitment').(14) In this model, writing becomes the translation of thought into a form of action. Even so, the material fact of publication is not itself sufficient to guarantee worth in early Carlylean ideology. Quite the opposite: throughout the decade in question, Carlyle condemns almost every instance of publication he comes across (in Britain at least) as wasted effort. Letters written during his first trip to London in 1824-5 express his increasing disgust at the whole literary trade and all its practitioners, including perhaps himself: `they are only things for writing "articles"' (Letters III 234). Teufelsdrockh refers to authorship as `this Art, which whoso will may sacreligiously degrade into a handicraft' (p. 151). Clearly, work in its redemptive Goethean sense is something other than the mere practice of a profession; Carlyle sees most of his fellow-writers as moral failures, not heroes of active labour.

His lengthy diagnosis of one of these failures reveals the grounds on which literary labour claims to spiritualise itself. The younger Carlyle's favourite icon of wasted authorial power was Byron, but, although he planned an essay on the subject late in 1830, the project was never begun.(15) His verdict on Byron is instead transferred to the 1828 essay `Burns', in which the two poets are said to have failed in the same way. The wealth of the one and the poverty of the other are for Carlyle equally irrelevant to the `divine behest' (XXVI 316) of poetry, which commands only that the writer express his unique consciousness of `the Infinite and Eternal' (XXVI 315) through the medium of `clear poetical activity' (XXVI 307). Burns, he argues, never turned his full capabilities towards this effort to render `the Ideal world' in `the Actual' (XXVI 272); distracted by his ambitions and his sense of injustice, his real vocation was betrayed by `the want of unity in his purposes' (XXVI 311). The critical weight of the essay thus turns not on Burns's `written works', which Carlyle is content to admire, but rather on his `acted ones' (XXVI 290-91), his biography. It is here that the disparity between vocation and achievement exposes itself. Burns cannot be saved by writing poetry; his work is misdirected because `he never ascertains his peculiar aim' (XXVI 291). The notion of a transcendental purpose underlying pragmatic labour subtly but crucially modifies the apparent self-sufficiency of the gospel of work. Burns's error is measured by the qualification Teufelsdrockh adds to one of his statements of the creed: `Hence also our Whole Duty, which is to Move, to Work, -- in the right direction' (p. 99). Sidetracked by `worldy Ambition' (XXVI 301) -- the equivalent in this case of Byron's apocalyptic self-pity -- Burns lacks the `moral manhood' (XXVI 293) which would enable him to know how to direct his efforts.

The ideological construction of labour in Carlyle's thinking here becomes plainly visible. Work depends for its value on a potentially contradictory pair of formulations: on the one hand, the Goethean notion of simply doing whatever is to be done, and, on the other, the requirement that such spontaneous activity be governed by an instinctively providential destiny. Reconciling these positions is the burden of `Characteristics', the younger Carlyle's most explicit essay in ideological polemic. It is an attempt to define the `right direction' for those who conceive of themselves as prophets of `the grand Course of Providence' (XXVIII 37), and it therefore desires a systematic differentiation between a deficient career like Burns's and authentically spiritualised labour; or, as the opening paragraph puts it, between `working right' and `working wrong' (XXVIII 1).

`Characteristics' achieves its reconciliation by collapsing the distinction between activity and its purposes. It defines the `right direction' as an innate and transcendental presence in history: `the grand vital energy' (XXVIII 10), `the great, the creative and enduring' (XXVIII 18), or -- most distinctively, in another favourite phrase taken from Fichte -- the `Divine Idea of the World' (XXVIII 31).(16) The key manoeuvre is to define this presence not as an object of knowledge or reflection but a principle of action. Rather than a conscious use of `vital force' (XXVIII 5), labour in its ideal form is the unconscious outward epiphany of that inward principle. It `acts from within outward in undivided healthy force' (XXVIII 22). To try and understand the `Divine Idea' as anything other than this substrate of manifest expression is for Carlyle the symptom of `the dyspepsia of Society' (XXVIII 20), the peculiarly modern disease of introversion and metaphysical ratiocination. Any potential conflict between mere work and its `right direction' is negated by sheer rhetorical force. Those who wonder what to do or why they should do it are in Carlyle's formulation breaking the necessarily instinctive connection between action and its transcendental source: `the sign of right performance is Unconsciousness' (XXVIII 13). In the purified semiology of `Characteristics', this sign becomes by implication reversible: spontaneity guarantees right action, but action is equally the sign of the interiorised rightness which the essay later calls `Faith' (XXVIII 29). Goethean ethics here receive their spiritual benediction. Professional labour -- writing for periodicals, for example -- falls short of the ideal model because it is `merely manufactured and communicated' rather than spontaneously `created': `Manufacture is intelligible, but trivial: Creation is great, and cannot be understood' (XXVIII 5). Authentic labour is authentic simply in that it is the proper expression of the `Divine Idea', and this relation between signifier and signified is hermetically (and hermeneutically) sealed by the essay's rejection of secondary processes of understanding and interpretation. The true nature of things `cannot be understood': it can only be done.

In the case of authors like Burns, Byron, Teufelsdrockh or Carlyle himself, this rhetoric suggests that the true value of poetic labour is found not in actual produced texts but rather in some purely interiorised commitment to the principle which writing figures or stands for. To be a good writer is essentially to be a conduit for the Fichtean `Idea'. This definition seems to have far less to do with what one actually writes than how one goes about the business of writing: an interpretation confirmed, as we have seen, by what Carlyle says about Johnson (and every other author he discusses). And yet the business of writing cannot itself be understood simply as labour: if so, it becomes `Manufacture' or `handicraft' rather than prophetic `Creation'. Carlyle's attempt to represent his own activity as a transcendental vocation wants to have it both ways. He invokes the rhetoric of active struggle -- the language of the notebook entry I began with -- while at the same time imposing an ideological framework in which that struggle is valued as the sign of some other `vital force', a quasi-religious innate quality clearly more complex than mere toil.

The relation between action and its impulses is a central theme of Sartor Resartus, and of all of Carlyle's writing. Teufelsdrockh echoes the tone of `Characteristics' when he urges `Performance' as the necessary expression of an individual's interior `Capability':

Between vague wavering Capability and fixed indubitable

Performance, what a difference! A certain inarticulate

Self-consciousness dwells dimly in us; which only our

Works can render articulate and decisively discernible.

(p. 126)

These instructions might as well be directed at Burns, or Byron, or any of the other impotently half-hearted moderns whom Carlyle castigates so consistently. Performance, it seems, is the best possible authentification of personal worth: by their works shall ye know them. And yet performance can itself only be worthy if it is aimed in the `right direction', and the rightness of its impulse can only be established by the capability of its author, the degree to which he embodies the `Divine Idea'. Performance is the criterion of the gospel of work, but labour itself needs to be defined in the transcendentalist idiom of `Characteristics' before it can guarantee its self-sufficient value.

In Sartor, it is the language of selfhood that supplies the rhetorical basis for Carlyle's idealising of labour. The `certain inarticulate Self-consciousness' may appear to be merely the latent possibility which the work of writing renders actual, but in fact this interiority has to be refigured as a transcendental essence in order to authorise the writing that flows out of it. Hence Teufelsdrockh's ecstatic restatement of a recognisably Fichtean conclusion:

So that this so solid-seeming World, after all, were but

an air-image, our ME the only reality: and Nature, with its

thousandfold production and destruction, but the reflex of

our own inward Force ... (p. 44)

The clothes-philosophy is intended to redirect this brand of Idealism into the everyday workings of history, but the real worth of Die Kleider devolves on its expression of one particular `ME', the autobiographical figure of Teufelsdrockh himself. As the Editor comments, `does not his Soul lie enclosed in this remarkable Volume... ?' (p. 21). Without this ineffable content, both Die Kleider and Sartor would merely be mechanical productions of the lowest form of literary labour, indistinguishable from the `pitiful employment' (Letters IV 350) of the article-writers. The texts gain their prophetic value by representing themselves as the spontaneous (though hardwon) exhalations of their authors' `divine ME' (57).

For all Carlyle's invocations of the redemptive value of hard labour, authorship finally describes itself in mythological terms, as the fulfilment of an entirely private destiny. The paradox uncovered by Riede is particularly pertinent here, since what Sartor hints at is a model of authorial vocation which is surprisingly close to those Romantic ideologies of self-expression usually excoriated in Carlyle's writing as unprofitable narcissism. Yet the distinction between Byronic self-indulgence (as Carlyle reads it) and Teufelsdrockh's discovery of his `maximum of Capability' (p. 93) appears less clear-cut than it ought. In Carlyle's own system, the difference is marked by the certain criterion of `fixed indubitable Performance'. Performance of what, though? The end of man may be an action (as in the Aristotelian maxim), but the beginnings of that action in the will of the self are the grounds on which activity finally has to be judged. The task of writing as Sartor represents it can only be to reveal the `Divine Idea of the World' at the individual level, as the individual writer grasps it. As the Editor intimates, Die Kleider must in essence be the same thing as the spiritual biography of Teufelsdrockh which he patches together out of the paper-bags in volume II. Where he misleads us is by presenting both `texts' -- the clothes-volume and Teufelsdr6ckh's exemplary career -- as accounts of the shift from capability to performance. His labour in reassembling the texts, his `unheard-of efforts' (p. 61) of suitably pragmatic `Diligence' (p. 62), make him interpret Teufelsdrockh's work in the image of his own. Carlyle likewise has a heavy investment in portraying the figure of authorship -- of vocation achieved -- in terms of proto-Victorian values of industry, perseverance and single-mindedness. But the effort to measure the transcendental capability of the self according to the functional performance of public duty fails to account for the value of writing as an act. Authorship threatens to reverse the `right direction' of labour, flowing back from the text into its Romantic origins rather than forward into its prophesied effects.

What looks like a manifestation of achievement might in fact be a mystification of the idea of vocation. Sartor's autobiographical force derives from its reinscription of the process of making a book: that's how it announces the attainment of authorship. However, while it draws attention to the oracular power of the produced work, and celebrates the labour of production, it reimagines the author as `a most involved, self-secluded, altogether enigmatic nature' (p. 25): no hero of honest toil but an apostolic emissary, `cast hither, like a light-particle, down from Heaven' (p. 57), figuring in his own person the secret spiritual renewal which actual historical events seem less inclined to enact. His obscurity is the condition of his action, in the same way that `the grand vital energy' of `Characteristics' is `an unseen unconscious one' (XVIII 10). Nothing is known about Teufelsdrockh's origin and parentage; all the events and persons he tells of in his fragmentary autobiography prove impossible to confirm or identify. In the Editor's clumsily literal eyes, his biography is so sketchy as to seem `partly a Mystification', or at least meant to be read `hieroglyphically' rather than `literally' (p. 153). The terminology is significant. Hieroglyphs are as much a form of writing as ordinary letters. But whereas a literal production makes itself available for reading, hieroglyphic writing claims to stand for some meaning that remains secret and sacred. Authorship of this sort encodes rather than decodes: superficially translating capability into performance, its real purpose is to interpret performance (the text) as the symbol of sacramental intent. It manifests the `Divine Idea' through dynamic, dogmatic rhetoric, but at the same time it insists that acts of writing gain their real value by preserving the hierophantic secrecy of that which they apparently express.

`In a Symbol', Teufelsdrockh explains, `there is concealment and yet revelation' (p. 166). Carlyle wishes to press this ambiguity into the service of his new church of mysticism, reverencing both the obscurity of the divine and the immediacy of its incarnation in history. Without pursuing this structure, which has been impressively elucidated by Hillis Miller, we might interpret Teufelsdrockh himself as a two-faced figure.(17) Revelation is his appointed task. `[N]ow does the spiritual, eternal Essence of Man, and of Mankind ... begin in any measure to reveal itself?' (p. 203), prompts the Editor, after having conducted us through Teufelsdrockh's life and opinions. Like other readers, however, the Editor is baffled by the problem of Teufelsdrockh's illegibility, the concealment that is inseparable from his prophetic urgings. Carlyle represents this evasion as the indispensable image of `the infinite deeps of the Invisible, of which . . . Life is properly the bodying forth' (p. 165). In doing so, however, Sartor begins to suggest a tension between the transcendent `Invisible' and its embodied products. The idea of writing as work is the fault-line along which this opposition begins to appear, because writing seems to depend more on its figurative capacity per se than on the content it actually communicates. Hence Teufelsdrockh himself exults in exotic ambiguities of figuration; to the frustrated hermeneutic efforts of the Editor, this reads as ` underground humours, and intricate sardonic rogueries, wheel within wheel' (p. 153). However many reasons might be (and have been) given to explain why Teufelsdrockh and Carlyle refuse to commit themselves directly to the work of revelation, the fact remains that writing appears in Sartor as a resistance to such work. The autobiographical figure of authorship refuses to allow itself to be explained by its actions.

Resistance is the crucial gesture of Teufelsdrockh's apprenticeship. It defines the transition from Byronic or Wertherish `whining sorrow' to ` grim fire-eyed Defiance', as in the narration of what is effectively a conversion experience:

Thus had the EVERLASTING NO (das Ewige Nein)

pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my being,

of my ME; and then was it that my whole ME stood up,

in native God-created majesty, and with emphasis

recorded its Protest. (p. 129)

Resistance appears again in the climactic moment of the following chapter, when Teufelsdrockh defends his solitary philosophising from the incursion of a `Russian Smuggler' (p. 137) with a firm threat. Heroic defiance of the kind portrayed here is common enough in Carlyle's private writing of the years leading up to Sartor, where it is associated with the single-minded determination to be `an honest "striver after the Idea"' (Letters IV 271). In Teufelsdrockh's case, though, it extends from the ethical sphere to the literary in a rather different fashion. His assertion of his vocation becomes a resistance to reading, to anything which might undermine the self-sufficiency of his achievement. The Editor is convinced (in his second chapter, before he even starts translating Die Kleider) that the clothes-philosophy and Teufelsdrockh's biography will be mutually illuminating: that one cannot be read without the other. This is an orthodox Carlylean view -- see for example the 1830 essay `On History' -- and Sartor bears it out, but not in the way the Editor implies. Instead of providing the keys to each other, the two texts join forces to obstruct any such model of signification, hinting instead that Teufelsdrockh's capability -- his `ME' -- is what they are really about, what they are `symbolically... shadowing forth' (p. 153). By translating it into the `visible... Emblems' (p. 56) of printed writing, they express the moral and ethical striving of the author in a world of work; but in doing so they also expose their own emblematic character. Rather than unifying life with opinions, the paired texts together gesture obscurely towards a transcendental figure of selfhood whose value is measured by its resistance to direct expression. The meaning of writing is that which it stands for, hieroglyphically, not that which it reveals; the meaning of authorship is to be found in capability rather than performance.

These implicit shifts towards a thorough transcedentalism turn Teufelsdrockh into a figure resisting Carlylean ideologies of pragmatic labour. The supposedly autobiographical relation between them loosens the very juncture it is meant to reinforce, the achievement of vocation. For Carlyle, as for the Editor, Teufelsdrockh represents the strenuous attainment of prophetic writing, but the authority of this final discourse comes from an elusive, interiorised sense of its mysterious origins. The Professor's writing evades finality; Die Kleider shows rhetoric at play rather than being put to work. In the last pages of Sartor, the Editor reports that Teufelsdrockh has disappeared, shortly after hearing news of the July Revolution in Paris. The implication is that his next volume, `this grand and indeed highest work of Palingenesia' (p. 204), will be written in history rather than text. After 1832, Carlyle also turned his attention to French revolutions, abandoning fiction for history and so defining himself as a writer whose task was to interpret and express what `On History' calls the `inward and spiritual' significance of facts (XVII 92). At first sight, this would appear to be an appropriately Teufelsdrockhian ambition, but the labour of reformulating history in text denies the self-sufficiency of writing which Sartor secretly figures. By defining writing itself as work, Sartor frees Teufelsdrockh to indulge in the dangerously Romantic notion that writing displaces or even replaces labour, substituting symbolic figuration for action, and the glittering language of the `divine ME' for Goethean self-discipline. Might his disappearance in the last chapter of Sartor actually be an expulsion?


(1) C. E. Norton, ed., Two Note Books of Thomas Carlyle, (New York, 1898), p. 225. Hereafter cited in the text as NB.

(2) C. R. Sanders and Kenneth J. Fielding, eds., The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, 21 vols., (Durham, NC, 1970-), IV 335. Hereafter cited in the text as Letters. On the Goethean `gospel of work' and its influence on Carlyle's early writing, see C. E Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought: 1819-1834, (New Haven, 1934), 208-214; G. B. Tennyson, `Sartor' Called `Resartus', (Princeton, 1965), 71-2.

(3) On Carlyle's idea of the writer as hierophant or sage, see John Holloway, The Victorian Sage, (1953; repr. Hamden, CT, 1962); David Riede, `Transgression, Authority, and the Church of Literature in Carlyle' in Jerome J. McGann, ed., Victorian Connections, (Charlottesville, VA, 1989).

(4) Thomas Carlyle, Works, ed. H. D. Traill, 30 vols, (1896-9), XXVII 77. Hereafter cited in the text by volume and page number only.

(5) Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, ed. Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor, (Oxford, 1987), p. 120. Hereafter cited in the text by page number only. This edition is the first to present Sartor as it appeared in serialised form in Fraser's Magazine between November 1833 and August 1834, rather than in the revised one-volume edition of 1838. The phrase quoted is adapted from Aristotle's Ethics, and appears on many other occasions in Carlyle's writing of this period.

(6) `Teufelsdreck' became `Teufelsdrockh' early in 1833. For a full account of the book's history, see Tennyson, `Sartor' Called `Resartus', ch. 3.

(7) An interesting exploration of writing as an alternative to labour in poetic contexts may be found in Kurt Heinzelman, 'The Uneducated Imagination: Romantic Representations of Labor' in Mary Favret and Nicola J. Watson, eds., At the Limits of Romanticism, (Bloomington, 1994).

(8) On British prejudice about German mysticism and unintelligibility in this period, and Carlyle's response, see Rosemary Ashton, The German Idea, (Cambridge, 1980), ch. 2. Carlyle attacks these prejudices at length in his 1827 article `State of German Literature'.

(9) The phrase is adapted from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Carlyle's translation (1824) of this exemplary Bildungsroman was among the first events of his literary career.

(10) Janice L. Haney, `"Shadow-Hunting": Romantic Irony, Sartor Resartus and Victorian Romanticism', Studies in Romanticism 17, (1978), p. 327; J. Hillis Miller, `"Hieroglyphical Truth" in Sartor Resartus: Carlyle and the Language of Parable', in John Clubbe and Jerome Meckier, eds., Victorian Perspectives, (1989), p. 8.

(11) The argument that Carlyle is a post-structuralist avant la lettre is made in D. Franco Felluga, `The Critic's New Clothes', Criticism 37, (1995). For other accounts of Sartor as a book about reading methods (versions more sensitive to the ideological programme indicated by Die Kleider), see Anne K. Mellor, English Romantic Irony, (Cambridge, MA, 1980), ch. 4; Peter Allan Dale, `Sartor Resartus and the Inverse Sublime', in Morton W. Bloomfield, ed., Allegory, Myth and Symbol, (Cambridge, MA, 1981); Vivienne Rundle, `"Devising New Means": Sartor Resartus and the Devoted Reader', Victorian Newsletter 82, (1992), 13-22.

(12) Riede, `Transgression, Authority, and the Church of Literature', p. 89.

(13) C.f.C.R. Vanden Bossche, Carlyle and the Search for Authority, (Columbus, 1991), ch. 1.

(14) G. B. Tennyson, ed., A Carlyle Reader, (Cambridge, 1984), p. 124.

(15) See Letters V 196. On Carlyle's attitude to Byron, see C. R. Sanders, `The Byron Closed in Sartor Resartus', Studies in Romanticism 3, (1963), 77-108; Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians, (Cambridge, 1995), ch. 3.

(16) Carlyle's tendency to echo Fichte's extreme idealism is discussed in Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, 13-15, 82-7. Compare the reference to the `Divine Idea' in `State of German Literature' (XXVI 68).

(17) Miller, `"Hieroglyphical Truth" in Sartor Resartus', 11-19.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Thomas Carlyle
Author:Treadwell, James
Publication:Essays in Criticism
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Previous Article:John Clare: the poet as raptor.
Next Article:Mastery and slavery in 'The Lifted Veil.' (George Eliot)

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |