Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, June 1, 2015

The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

My copy of Sartor Resartus is a compact but handsome 1891 Frederick A. Stokes publication with an amusing engraving on the title page. As most readers will use a different edition I have adopted the ugly expedient of identifying quotations by not only page number but also with chapter (the part indicated by Roman numerals in capitals and chapter numbers in lower-case).

Like my title, the form of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is peculiar indeed. One might say of it as it itself says of Teufelsdröckh’s manuscript that it is an “enormous, amorphous Plum-pudding, more like a Scottish Haggis.” (256, III, xii) Its elaborate periodic sentences, lengthened further in caricature might seem to some reader well-characterized by the English editor’s comment on his German original “Of his sentences perhaps not more than nine-tenths stand straight on their legs; the remainder are in quite angular attitudes.” (26, I, iv). To make matters worse, the material appears with “an almost total want of arrangement.” (29, I, iv) The book shares its predilection for self-reflective passages with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and with The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft the pretense of presenting someone else’s manuscript to the reader. Carlyle’s novel, however, is extraordinary in the multiple layers that distance its text from any sort of lived experience distance. Further, the details it presents are themselves hedged about with levels of irony that render authorial intention further problematic. It might seem that his assumptions and the practices that proceed from them would lead to a rag-bag hardly more systematic than the parcels of ephemera and notes that represent Teufelsdröckh’s literary remains, yet Carlyle manages to snatch from his “Centre of Indifference” a grand and illuminated finale, well-put enough to carry a very modern sort of conviction in the end, bringing resolution to the quest of the learned professor, his English editor, the author who recorded their words, and the reader, perhaps, as well in some cases.

Carlyle presents the reader with an account of the opinions and some incidents from the life of the professor of all knowledge, often prefacing his direct quotations with cautionary qualifications of the material to follow and urging the reader to come to his own original conclusions. The unnamed English editor of Teufelsdröckh’s papers often complains about the quality and condition of the papers left him and poses the question of whether they contain sense or nonsense. The issue is complex for the reader as well because, while the work is clearly a humorous burlesque, it is also, and indeed through use of the very same devices, a serious and even heart-felt philosophical document. An entire theory of signification, an epistemology that can appeal to the most dubious modern, and a final attitude of enlightened joy are offered in the guise of hare-brained ideas redacted by a somewhat exasperated intermediary.

Teufelsdröckh is himself elusive to the point of nearly vanishing. He is not only deceased and distant, he is a foundling, mysteriously delivered by a “Stranger of reverend aspect” who then vanishes mysteriously. (72, II, i) His history is irrecoverable; he is as slippery as Melville’s Confidence Man. “Hopeless is the obscurity, unspeakable the confusion. He glides from country to country, from condition to condition, vanishing and re-appearing, no man can calculate how or where.” (136, II, vi) His is said to possess an occult “Hindoo” character, seeming “a man without Activity of any kind, a No-man; for the deep-sighted again, a man with Activity almost superabundant.” (88, II, iii) He is several times identified with the Wandering Jew (14, I, iii and with Cain as well 139, II, vi). His life is “”an inexplicable Phantasmagoria” marked “emblematically” by “dim multifarious tokens” while he himself is “spiritualized, vaporized.” (137, II, vi)

The starting point is a concept of “learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany” (3, I, i) taking off from the groundwork on German idealism laid by Coleridge for English readers. Simultaneously evoking and teasing the country’s reputation for high-flown thought, his “Professor der Allerley-Wissenschaft” (the “Science of Things in General”) whose appointment is unfunded and “in name only” (15, I, iii) in fact earns his unlikely title. He delivers on his apparently fanciful promise: “Could I unfold the influence of Names, which are the most important of all Clothings, I were a second greater Trismegistus.” (51, I, ix) The reader rapidly realizes that Teufelsdröckh’s theory of clothes, far from being limited to fashion, is indeed a theory of everything. He notes that “this Science of Clothes Is a high one, and may with infinitely deeper study on thy part yield richer fruit.” (238, III, ix) This naturally follows from the notion that “all Symbols are properly Clothes . . .all Forms . . . are Clothes” as, indeed, are all customs (237, III, ix) and all convictions as well. All told, “there is much, nay almost all, in Names.” (76, II, i) “Terrestrial Life [is] but an Emblem.” (63, I, xi); indeed, “all visible things are emblems.” (62,I, xi) Language is the garment of thought, further, everything inn existence is mere clothing, “a suit of Raiment.” (64, I, xi) It is simply the guise of the prisoner that leads to his condemnation and execution (51, I, ix) Money is also symbolic (34, I, v), and, as if to seal the case, our Herr Professor himself wishes no more than to “go forth before this degenerate age ‘as a Sign.’” (51, I, ix) His desire is now realized by the book under consideration.

Of course what we call this study today is semiotics (or semiology) though Carlyle predates Pierce and Saussure. “We inherit not Life only, but the garniture and form of Life” (216, III, vii), but we are unconscious of the separation of signifier and signified (as of clothes and self). (49, I, viii) The consequence of his semiotics parallels the decay of both subject and object in post-modernist thought. It implies no apparent possible result apart from the most radical skepticism. Since the observer views not things in themselves but rather the signs of things, or, more likely, the signs of the signs of things, the evidence will never go beyond the shimmering surface of appearance, what Hindus call Maya, or what might be identified in different terms as Derrida’s “always under erasure.” Thoughts (including the principles of science) are simply passed from one to another with no reference to an absolute or knowable truth. (See 216, III, vii) Thus “in the end one can only conclude that the Universe can only be described as ‘a mighty Sphinx-riddle.’” (112, II, iv) People habitually mistake “the Appearance of true ware” for the reality. (98, II, iii)

Unable to locate a solid foundation for knowledge, some find no motive but the basest egotism and thus “to all spiritual intents become dead” while “the better sort” ends up in “sick, impotent Scepticism.” (99, II, iii) In his “shivered Universe” compounded of his philosophic cul-de-sac reinforced by a disappointed love explicitly connected to Goethe’s Werther (which Carlyle had translated), he sees no options but madness, Satanism, and suicide. He is wise enough to set out traveling in preference to any of these options. (131, II, vi)

Teufelsdröckh’s vision has led to a vision of the absurdity of everyday life where nothing can even be expected to make sense. “We looked on Life, with its strange scaffolding, where all at once harlequins dance, and men are beheaded and quartered” (103, II, iii) He figures humanity and himself as a first instance as dog with a can on its tail. (90, II, iii) Surely there is little difference between the visions of naked humanity going about ordinary business defamiliarized by their lack of clothes (52-3, I, ix) and the image in Camus Myth of Sisyphus. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man's own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this "nausea," as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd.” Teufelsdröckh is capable at times of “a certain horror at myself and mankind; almost as one feels at those Dutch Cows, which, during the wet season, you see grazing deliberately with jackets and petticoats of (striped sacking) in the meadows of Gouda.” (49, I, viii) Yet how spirited the image! How delightful the parentheses enclosing the material’s name and then the mention of Gouda whose cheese the author doubtless liked! Here I would infer a gleam of Teufelsdröckh’s mystic-aesthetic deliverance. As the commentator notes at the outset, “even a Russian steppe has tumuli and gold ornaments.” (4, I, i)

Well before (and after, for time and space are, after all, mere symbols as well) the “Everlasting Yea” Teufelsdröckh had been dropping clues, like a trail of bread-bits through the forest. Words are indeed indicted, but words are not the only evidence. Though speech is said to often amount to “the art of concealing Thought,” of “quite stifling and suspending Thought,” our scholar admits that “symbols possess “concealment and yet revelation” as “Thought will not work except in Silence.” (192, III, iii) He hopes to have led the reader to a “Land of Dreams” “through a magical Pierre-Pertuis” into “the realm of the Wonderful.” (237, III, ix) Here everything is changed though nothing whatever seems any different. Out of the abyss of absolute skepticism arises “the Everlasting Yea,” a new apprehension of the same old world, now lit with a numinous glow. This novel conviction is born of direct experience, the one source that cannot be gainsaid by skeptic or nihilist. In fact the sensation of identity with the cosmos, is not with the void or the absolute Godhead but rather with nature itself sufficiently more glorious and mysterious. We realize then that people are “we know not what – light-sparkles floating in the ether of Deity.” (47, I, viii) The wise man a will be a “delirious Mystic” (60, I, xi) who can see the world as “Living Garment of God.” (165, II, ix as well as 47, I, viii) To the adept of such Descendentalism “The true Shekinah is Man.” (56, I, x) In the “meanest Tinker” he finds a “venerable Mystery” and in wonder the basis for worship. To such an opened eye the phenomenological world will seem a marvel illuminated everywhere by “natural supernaturalism.” (58, I, x) Whereas earlier the description of the world as “a boundless Phantasmagoria and Dream-grotto” (45, I, viii) had seemed to certify one’s irredeemable ignorance, it now appears that such phantoms and dreams can be the stuff of delight. The ego itself, the source of such grave error is now revealed as insubstantial, a ghost, a mere illusion. (232, III, viii) The bipolar oppositions to which we have become accustomed, for instance the divine and diabolical elements in our main character’s name, are exploded.

Teufelsdröckh’s passage through semiotics and skepticism to a mystic affirmation duplicates though with greater enthusiasm the path of the ancient skeptics to ataraxia. His conclusions parallel as well elements of Buddhist thought – the comparison to the Dalai-Lama (22, I, iii) is well-founded though Carlyle could have had only a vague notion of Tibet. He must undergo the “Annihilation of Self” to “unseal” the “mind’s eyes” and “ungyve” his hands. (164, II, ix) While the “Cause-and-Effect” philosophers (30, I, I, v) and the too-practical utilitarians (204, III, v) can offer the soul little, love had led even Teufelsdröckh to the point that ego melted and “the poor claims of Me and Thee, [are] no longer parted by rigid fences.” (126, II, v) He learns then that Fantasy is “the true Heaven, gate, and Hell-gate of man: his sensuous life is but the small temporary stage (Zeitbühne) whereon thick-streaming influences from both these near yet far regions meet visibly.” (127, II, v) Surely the most potent form of fantasy is art, and Carlyle has fashioned a new sort of narrative that claims to trump philosophy and to establish a new sort of vision for his age, a vision that resolves his experience of “the strangest Dualism” (164, II, ix) the separation of heaven and hell, self and other, the material and the ideal to rise triumphant over these contradictions like his own figure of the phoenix.

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