Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

While I--Good Heaven!--have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beats; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! ... Am I a botched mass of tailors' and cobblers' shreds, then; or a tightly-articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?

I really enjoyed Stanislaw Lem's collection of review of books that do not exist, A Perfect Vacuum, when I read it earlier this year.  Lem's book comes from a larger tradition of fake literary treatment that is traced back through Borges to Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, which claims to be a commentary on a book by one Diogenes Teufelsdrockh called Clothes, their Origin and Influence.  The whole exercise, like in Lem and Borges, is inherently silly: Teufelsdrockh is a "Professor of Things in General," and his name means "Devil's Turd."

The effectiveness of the genre comes from the author's ability to discuss ideas without wholly committing to them.  There's a lot of tension between the unnamed Editor, who only dimly seems to understand Teufelsdrockh or his clothes-philosophy, and Teufelsdrockh himself.  Are we supposed to agree with the Editor that Teufelsdrockh is stylistically obscure, and philosophically extreme?  Or are we supposed to reject the Editor's (relative) literalism and shortsightedness?

The Editor hopes that having some biographical information about Teufelsdrockh will help; so he writes away to the Professor for any relevant information.  What he gets is a mess of receipts, scraps, and notes, organized for no apparent reason into six bags labeled with the signs of the Zodiac.  Teufelsdrockh's life, as the Editor sorts it out, is a kind of parody of the hypersensitive young hero of The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose trouble in the sensual world leads him to embrace the life of the mind.  Teufelsdrockh doesn't kill himself, like Werther; instead he writes a philosophy about clothes.

For Teufelsdrockh, and perhaps Carlyle, clothes represent the symbolic order of things: a monk is made by his cowl, a king by his crown, et cetera.  But the symbolic order of things is very important, and in fact, may be the closest language we have to the divine.  I really liked this passage, which I'm going to use in the future when my students wonder if an author really meant to include that symbol in her novel:

Have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crows' meat, for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three groschen?  Did not the whole Hungarian Nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown; an implement as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value, little differing from a horse-shoe?  It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounting the noblest which can the best recognise symbolical worth, and prize it to the highest.  For is not a Symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the Godlike?

Sartor Resartus, beneath its silliness and floridity, is an investigation into what it means to be a human being.  Carlyle ends up endorsing a mind-body dualism that embraces man's spiritual nature without really attaching to any programmatic religion.  Teufelsdrockh moves from a Wertherian despondency and separation from religious ideals he calls the "Everlasting No" to an affirmation of the spiritual nature of the world called the "Everlasting Yes."  For the Professor, what seems to matter is a willingness to see the world as properly spiritual, rather than sensual.  But then again, the book is so difficult, and the "clothes-philosophy" so removed from Carlyle himself that I could be completely wrong.

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