This is the transcript by V.S. of Jonathan Bowden’s lecture on Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), which was delivered at the 15th meeting of the New Right in London on July 5, 2008. You can listen to the lecture below or watch it on YouTube here. Please post any corrections below as comments.
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In many of the speeches that I’ve given to the New Right since it commenced the better part of 3 to 4 years ago, one of my roles—a sort of culturally revisionist role, if you like—is to reinterpret and bring back from the past people who have been forgotten, usually, because I’m bringing them back, I think, undeservedly so. For this talk, I’d like to talk about the great sage of Victorian England who was a Scotsman called Thomas Carlyle. Thomas Carlyle, one of the greatest writers, thinkers, and orators in print in British literature and British history.
Carlyle has always interested me because of his rootedness in various forms of British tradition and his melding them linguistically into forms that spoke to his time. The influence that he had over his era is quite extraordinary when one bears in mind that he was trained for the Calvinist ministry but rejected Christian faith in a very complicated and theistic sort of way, but remained a profoundly religious man throughout his entire life and cultural creativity.
Carlyle in his early years didn’t quite know what to do with his life. He thought about the Protestant priesthood, and he’s rooted in the Protestant tradition in a very radical and transforming manner. He also thought about being a mathematics lecturer and indeed was one for a short time. He then looked at literature and what he could contribute to literature. But he didn’t like fictional and poetic forms neat. He wanted to write about philosophical and historical matters, but in a way that was transmuted with a sort of religious energy and an aesthetic zeal. After an early work in mathematics that still exists in an amended textbook form in the United States, he began a long exploration of the cultural channel in the West that was to open up for him his own sensibility, that in turn would ramify with his Scottish and Calvinist roots. This was German literature and German philosophical and idealist literature from the early part to the middle part of the 19th century.
It is not an exaggeration to say that he opened up the British and, in turn, the English mind to Germany and Germanic culture in his era to such a degree that his reputation suffered a great deal during the 20th century because of his Germanophile nature.
He corresponded directly with Goethe. One of his slogans was, “Close your Byron and open your Goethe.” He translated Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, one of Goethe’s novels. He translated four volumes of German literature that were published one after the other and that dealt with writers like Richter and certain of the idealist schools such as Fichte and Schelling and so on.
In these writers, he saw a way to transliterate the spiritual yearnings that he felt in a way that could be communicated, in a manner that could be understood and appreciated by his era. Born, in some respects, conceptually outside his era, like a seer and a prophet, he came in part to dominate it. He has a strange chronology whereby he begins as an absolute outsider and ends loaded with honors, many of which he chose to reject individually, and at the center of his culture, then to be rejected in the early part of the 20th century because of certain of the authoritarian precepts that he would come to adopt politically in the late to middle period and towards the end of his life.
His first great literary work is the Philosophy of Clothes or Sartor Resartus which is designed as an exemplification of idealist thought, an introduction of what otherwise might be an obscure or arcane area to English and British audiences, listeners, and readers. Don’t forget, the number of people who could read fluently then was much smaller than now, and the tradition of one person reading to a group, the oral nature of literature, is extraordinarily important to Carlyle.
Carlyle’s prose style has never really been approximated to by anyone else. There is an extraordinary torrent of allusion and inversion and the use of the dash and the use of epigrammatic insights and a torrent of phrase and of persuasion, nearly always related to a central philosophical idea that underpins the work or lies to one side of it. Carlyle was a religious thinker in a totally secularizing manner in that he spoke to modernity. He spoke to an age of capital and of machines. He spoke to an age of science. But he used the mechanism of the pulpit and the jargon and language of Knox, which he transmuted in his own mind into a living and sinuous and prosodic form of narrative that he made all his own. “Carlylese” it was called at the time, and no one really has ever written in that way since.
In Sartor, he began to satirize nearly all known conditions partly as a way of clearing the ground from what he thought ought to replace them at a later date. He also served, by virtue of that text, to introduce German idealist philosophy to an Anglo-Saxon and British audience. He also sought to play games with texts. Introducing one narrative, one autobiographical fragment, then leaving it, describing religious experience such as the one that he’s believed to have had on the Leith Walk when he had what for him was a mystical experience whereby he saw the interconnectedness of all things.
Carlyle believed in the reality of God in all areas and at all times, and he believed that all things are interconnected with each other. But in a way, of course, he’s reaching way back into the Western and the Greco-Roman tradition. Heraclitus in his lost book On Nature two-and-a-half thousand years ago believed that energy was the basis of all life and of all being and of all becoming and that that energy was in some respects flame. The idea of the interconnectedness of all matter and that which describes it and that which psychologically alludes to it and that which could be said by certain human values to be above it was part of Carlyle’s vision. This is why he could write about cultural heroes, he could write about Chartism, a movement of mass democratic and trade union related reform in the 19th century which convulsed the masses of that era and ultimately led, in part, to the democracy we now have in the British Isles.
He could also write about the slave trade. His most controversial text in many ways, which is not reprinted in the Penguin condensed Carlyle, which people are very dubious about in certain respects, laws have been passed which means that even the title of that work I can’t mention in a meeting like this, but suffice it to say, John Stuart Mill, his old friend and rival later on, wrote a riposte to it called The Negro Question, and so you can sort of adumbrate from that what Carlyle was saying and indeed what the title of that work was.
Carlyle believed that life was hierarchical, but that hierarchy had to be based upon the principle of justice. This is why he’s uncomfortable reading for the mainstream conservative tradition and for all forms of liberalism and accredited reform. His greatest work after Sartor was the multivolume French Revolution, the first volume of which was burnt by John Stuart Mill’s servant. She was illiterate and thought it was just trash that had been sent to her master, so she said, “Well, this is sorta interesting . . .” and put the whole lot on the fire. You have to understand what that means for a writer in the 19th century. There are no word processors. There are no “I’ll stick it in this window and give this chap a disc to see what he thinks of it.” The whole first volume was burnt. This was a blow to Carlyle, it really was. When Mill came to see him he was white, white as a sheet. And he should have been, to be frank. He offered Carlyle a hundred pounds, which was a lot of money in the 19th century, to rewrite the first volume, and for a while Carlyle was stuck, but he soon got into the nature of the work.
The French Revolution is one of the most extraordinary books of the 19th century. For a moment, we have to reposition ourselves in that time. For people towards the middle of the 19th century the French Revolution was an unbelievable experience, which had not, never mind revisionism, been assimilated into the knowledge of the middle of the 19th century. The terms Left and Right, most of the language and discourse that we use in contemporary politics all over the West, originates from these extraordinarily tumultuous events which began with quite mild origins towards the later phase of French monarchicalism in the 18th century. The 19th century remained deeply worried by the chaos and revolutionary ardor and violence that was released at the end of the previous century.
Carlyle, unlike almost all other historians who tend to adopt a prosaic, measured, stoical, Johnsonian period in language and in sensibility . . . History should not be written in white passion. History should not be written in a committed way, committed not to one side or the other, but committed to the virility and vitality of the thing itself. History, in a sense, should be rather like Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It should be judicious. It should be slightly acidic. It should be neutral. Carlyle is never neutral! Carlyle speaks with radical Protestant and even re-Aryanized Old Testament fury! Carlyle is always right. And he was an ideologue and in some ways a literary demagogue, and the Victorians were dying for it. Because internally, under all their progress and all their science and all their industrialism and their vouchsafed Christianity, they were uncertain. They wrote enormous encyclopedias to docket in a taxonomic way everything, so that everything could be secured and put in its place. But deep down, as Nietzsche analyzed at the end of the 19th century, there was a great subconsciousness of doubt.
Carlyle never had any doubt, but he was not a prater who reached any opinion whatsoever like a barrack room bore. He believed, actually, in the dialectic of silence for long periods before you spoke.
In The French Revolution, he believes that the ancien régime was rotten and that divine judgment was given on France in relation to the revolutionary period. Not a conservative or a sort of Right-wing reactionary or monarchical viewpoint. There’s a review in France called Rivarol, which dates from before the Revolution and which later became submerged in the literature of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s movement, and this is a sort of Whiteist or counter-revolutionary documentation that straddles 200 years. These were people who were to the Right of the Right before the concept of Right was thought of.
For those not entirely in the know, in the French Revolution, when you formed an assembly the center would be the chairman and those who stood in the middle or sat in the middle. Those to the right of them were those who wanted to conserve the status quo that revolutionary change had reached. Not the status quo of the prior monarchical arrangement! But the status quo that the revolutionary spasms had reached. Those who were to the left of the chair, the destructive side, as Carlyle calls them, wanted reform. All of our terminology of Left and Right, even though they relate to certain metaphysical and occultistic ideas that predate modernity, nevertheless originates here and the belief that the French Revolution is cardinal to Western history. Carlyle achieved a great work, a work of art which is a work of historical science, a work of scholarship, yet a work of passion, the bringing together of things which are thought never to go together properly.
If you read Carlyle now, you sense an explosion of sensibility, particularly when he’s dealing with The Terror, dealing with the march of the women to Versailles, when lots of revolutionary men dressed as women go to Versailles to bring back the king, the extraordinary bread riots in the early years of the Revolution, and the storming of the Bastille. Carlyle always uses the present tense, always hammers away! You’re there! You’re right in the middle of it! History’s real! Men are being slung to one side; the tumbrel is rolling; heads are off and on pikes. It’s happening before you.
If you’ve ever seen the silent film from the 1920s, which has significantly fascistic undertones, called Napoléon by Abel Gance, you almost get in those seething crowd scenes and the split use of the screen, which splits into three by the tricolor at the end, you sense the dynamism and movement of Carlyle’s prose. It’s the belief that literature isn’t a dry, academic discourse that’s shut off with nerdy people to one side of life. It is living and cauterized and molten and ferocious! Because, in a way, his view of the divine is a sort of Protestantism that reaches to a pagan conclusion in spite of itself.
The radical nature of Protestantism and its intellectual impact on Anglophone societies, such as Britain and the United States, the reason why culturally we are differentiated from much of continental Europe is because of this intellectual inheritance. One of the interesting things about Carlyle now is that we often think of elements of the post-Protestant tradition which has led to the liberalism that’s all around us as a burden. Many people in Britain who have radical Right views are often Roman Catholics or lapsed ones or extremely authoritarian ones. Or they’re pagans. Or they have no faith at all. Interestingly, that Protestant middle, that Anglican soft middle, if you like, is often radically underrepresented. And yet in a way, although it is Calvinistic in origin, Carlyle’s diction and attitude and mentality enables us to look in a positive way at elements of the radical individualism and granite-like metaphysical objectivism and authority of purpose that a profound individual mind can have.
Protestantism, in a sense, has two distinct roads to travel from his day to ours. One is the liberal modernity that exists all around us. If you want to see it, you just go out into [unintelligible] now. The other is a reconnection with the Greeks and the world that existed even before Christianity. You explode into Carlyle and Kierkegaard. You explode out into Nietzsche. You explode out towards the end of the 19th century. You explode outside of Christianity itself.
But these essentially were constructive men. Carlyle loathed the destructive in the human mind and in society. That’s why he’s deeply an anti-Leftist thinker if he is anything. The Revolution revealed an enormous panoply of destructive energy. But he believed that it’s the purpose of leadership to galvanize, to straddle, and to direct those energies when they occur.
One of the criticisms that’s been levelled against Carlyle’s books as they go on after The French Revolution to reposition, reevaluate historical figures, to write about the movements and social ideologies of his time, to engage in a form of revisionism in relation to Mohammed, in relation to Oliver Cromwell, in relation to all sorts of figures who in some ways were minor cultural hate figures in his era that he got people to look at again in another way in the teeth of much cultural opposition. Gradually, he split from many of his liberal friends, such as John Stuart Mill, with endless denunciations of utilitaria, as he called it.
One of Carlyle’s great strengths is his belief that language is a new thing. You don’t necessarily go against the order of grammar. But a genius reinvents in the crucible of creation. He developed more words, more neologisms than almost anyone in his time.
He also, in his book about slavery, pointed it out that half of the white children who lived in Britain at that time died before they were five. And yet moralists and idealists, many of them factory owners, were concerned about the West Indies. In some ways, that tactic of textual refusal and aggression is part of an old Tory satirical tradition.
The text that most reminds me of his book about slavery—which I think was published in Edinburgh’s Fraser’s Magazine in 1849, I’m remembering from memory here—is Swift’s Modest Proposal that the Irish, in relation to the prospect of famine, should eat their own young cannibalistically. That is often interpreted in a literal-minded way when, of course, these writers are often extremely metaphorical and wish to throw ideas upon a canvas in order to bring things out more starkly and with greater aesthetic virility.
It was quite funny actually, because in the 1970s RTÉ, which was the broadcaster in the south of Ireland, broadcast Swift’s A Modest Proposal, and it led to a fist fight among literati in the studio as they rolled around. Because they interpreted it as a literal insult against the Irish people. When in actual fact it’s an attack on British policy in Ireland. That’s the danger that you get into when you use politics as metaphor and as extreme literary statement.
But Carlyle loved being incendiary. He loved dialectic, divisiveness in debate. He, in a sense, luxuriated in conflict. In the latter stages of The French Revolution, you sense a tension, particularly when he deals with the late period of the Terror, which he sees always as a judgment upon France and upon the French and in extenso upon the West.
Many of his phrases that historians use now were coined then. The notion that Robespierre is sea-green in his incorruptibility. When Robespierre was dragged to the guillotine with a smashed mouth and with his brother in tow and with the other terrorists with him, the terroristic adolescent Saint-Just, a crippled Couthon who wanted to guillotine everyone else, and when they were all dragged by the Thermidorian Reaction to the scaffold, the tumbrels were beating, Robespierre went under the guillotine, the mobs that had cheered the ones that he’d done down, including his own revolutionary colleagues Camille Desmoulins slightly to the Right of Robespierre’s factions, the Hébertists of the Paris Commune and town hall slightly to the Left. Carlyle is there as real novelistic presence in history.
Contemporary academicism, which in a strange way, because of various postmodern ideas which have been current in the West for the last 30 years, now elevates Carlyle to a new status, has always feared his partiality, the fact that there is no neutrality in his view of creation, because he believes that all creation is divine, that it is all interconnected and that it all has a meaning and purpose. The problem, as Nietzsche would have pointed out later, is perspectivalism. It may all have a meaning and purpose, but almost each coherent and literate historian will attribute a different one to it.
Carlyle leaves many of those problems unresolved. But in his idea of open-mindedness towards the text and towards history and towards historical documentation there is something extraordinarily liberating. History is regarded as a subject, by many people, as a bore, something to get through, something that isn’t really alive, something that doesn’t relate to them. The interesting thing about him is his belief in its living quality. These people are speaking ethical lessons to us from the past, but they’re as alive as we are now.
As he became the sage of Victorian England, and as he excoriated Victorian capitalism and laissez-faire individualism more and more, many of his more liberal-minded friends from the early days began to move away from him. It’s important also to realize that by the middle of his life he was a cultural lion. He knew virtually everybody who was of any significance in the culture of his day. Dickens used to carry around a multi-volume set of The French Revolution and once told a friend, “When I want to think something, I just fish it out and have a look at one of the volumes.” It had a totemic effect on many people in the era in which he was alive. Bearing in mind, this is a man who would later be cynically put down by the Bloomsbury group at the beginning of the 20th century as an uneducated Scotch peasant lecturing to the rest of us on the basis of extreme Protestant morality.
Carlyle became a partly demonic figure in the 20th century because he’s regarded as proto-fascistic. The last book Hitler ever read was his six-volume history of Frederick the Great and Frederick the Great’s ability amidst chaos on the battlefield to construct endless forms of order. The interesting thing about Carlyle is he thinks micrologically and at the lowest possible level and in a grain of sand the universe entire is revealed. So, an individual decision made by a general or monarch on the battlefield has relevance to the way in which you make decisions about the ordering of energy in society way outside of the area of the battlefield or even the war that they are actually fighting, the result of which to his way of thinking is often less important than the cardinal or ordinating or prior principle which an authoritarian leader of genius brings to the chaos of creating new forms.
In a way, he has a sort of titanic and alluvian view. He’s less concerned with the ideological niceties of Oliver Cromwell, of Mohammed, of Shakespeare as a cultural leader than their ability to corral and give energy to certain circumstances, to bring energy into fruition in texts and human behavior. One of the reasons the postmodernists and post-structuralists, who were a school in late 20th century academicism, particularly in the arts, like him is because of his open-mindedness to the interconnections between texts and life and the ability to see texts as living and volcanic documents.
During his high middle period, he produced is a whole series of texts such as Past and Present and his Heroes and Hero Worship and Latter-Day Pamphlets in which he looked at almost every element of contemporary Victorian life; he looked at slavery; he looked at democracy; he looked at imperialism; he looked at the emancipation of women; he looked at extremities of poverty and wealth, he look at industrialization and laissez-faire economics, which was then becoming de rigueur. He believed that the modern world would become atomized, would become spiritless, would become falsely individualist, would become completely material, and would lose its connection with what he perceived of as the divine.
His attitude towards religion is complicated, deeply personal, rooted, and idiosyncratic. He does believe in a spiritual dimension beyond life, which he believes he’s actually experienced in a personal revelation. He could have only experienced his personal revelation, because in a sense such a viewpoint is so personal that it’s truth-positive, can’t really be communicated. The effects of that experience on Carlyle, the belief that everything is interconnected, means that the smallest and the highest moment are of equal significance to the possibility of the whole, even in their inequality. He believes that unfairness and inequality are rooted as part of nature and natural becoming. Does he believe that God is nature? Not entirely. He’s not totally pagan in that way. His conception, as far as I can see it, is a metaphysical objectivism where there are certain criteria (beauty, truth, justice) that lie outside man and prior to man. And, like most of the religious thinkers of the past, these are objective in that they are not perspectival and they can’t be reduced to contemporary human standards. But, very like Nietzsche in a way, the way in which we perceive these absolutes, the foreknowledge of which we can’t have any idea of in our own personhood, our own individuality, is to strum towards truth and becoming in the moment in which we find ourselves.
When the peasant demands bread at the height of the riots when the physiocratic economic system was collapsing just prior to the Revolution of 1789, he is demanding, in Carlyle’s view, justice in his society. The point of aristocracy is to rule in accordance with laws and the development of the creative evolution of human society. If a ruling group fails in its obligation to rule, all the privileges and the flummery that go with it, which means very little to a Spartan conscience like him, goes by the way and they’re cast aside by history, and a new group is brought in. Carlyle is not a conservative, but in some respects a revolutionary conservative of a sort. So, the idea that a leadership can fail and needs to be dispensed with is the opposition in a sense to what you might call an English Tory view that no matter how bad it is a leadership should always be kept going because it is bound to be slightly better than what might replace it: Tolstoy’s view that revolutions are always the worst because they come to power new and hungry and you don’t quite know what they’re going to do.
Carlyle believes in the prospect of absolute change, but it is change rooted in tradition, which if it devours its own children like the Greek titans will prove to be worthless in the way that the Montagnards were worthless in his opinion at the end of the French Revolution.
The Montagnards were The Mountain in the convention, the most revolutionary of the French revolutionary assemblies. The first was the monarchical regime, the ancien régime, with its estates. The Third Estate was the first assembly. Then you had the Constitutional Assembly morphing into the Legislative Assembly. The French Assembly to this day is called the National Assembly, of course, and is rooted in the ideas of this period. Then you have the Convention, the one that all students of this period, if they ever read this period at school, understand. The Convention consists of the moderate revolutionists to one side of the chair, the Right, the center sweeping into the Left and the extreme Left. They were called The Mountain because they had the highest seats. In the highest seats there was Maximilien Robespierre, there was Danton, there was Desmoulins, there was Couthon and there was Saint-Just. There were the others. The terroristes.
Robespierre began with a pamphlet saying he abhorred the death penalty and ended up synonymous with its use. At the highpoint of The Terror, 1,200-1,400 were being physically guillotined in the center of Paris, including many of his old revolutionary colleagues. And he would stand there with a perfumed handkerchief and mop his brow and mop his mouth and say, “It’s for progress! It’s for liberation! It’s for France!” Because don’t forget, many of the forms of extreme Leftism that existed at that time were infused with nationalism and with national power. So, until the middle of the 19th century, certain liberal ideas and nationalism of course went together against traditional, conservative, monarchical forms of order. Within decades, nationalism and liberalism would become dire political enemies.
Carlyle is writing at a time not of confusion, but of voltaic energy and becoming. His revisionism about Cromwell is truly extraordinary, because Cromwell was unbelievably hated at the time that he began on Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches and his attempt to exemplify them.
It’s interesting the way he often deals with texts. In Sartor Resartus, there’s the sort of text which he stands to one side of, plunges into the middle of. His transubstantiatory religious experience at the Leith Walk is actually deeply embedded in the middle of that text, but it’s presented in some ways as though it’s happened to somebody else. In his book on slavery, it’s a document that’s left for somebody else to find. These are extraordinarily modernist and postmodernist experiments in using your own voice, throwing your own voice as a form of cultural ventriloquism, speaking through other people. In The French Revolution, he allows everyone to act.
Do you remember those old films of the Soviet revolution by Eisenstein and these sort of people. They’re almost like puppet films. They’re amazing and silent. You have the masses speak, and they wave their fists in the air, and then they run in one direction. In Battleship Potemkin, the sailors run to one side and then run in another area. It’s almost as if there is an attempt to make Marxist theory and the idea of historical progress real at the point to which masses move and act. There’s this extraordinary moment, just as cinematography, where the nurse, holds up the dead child and she herself is shot by the White troops in Battleship Potemkin on the steps as the soldiers come down with their bayonets. I always sense there is something pre-cinematic about Carlyle’s writing about history.
In the repositioning of Cromwell, he’s not concerned about certain ideological matters that might interest people here about Cromwell. He’s interested in the idea of a man, particularly one that comes out of an extreme Protestant dispensation, an Englishman, of course, an English revolutionary, who changes the reality of his society and his time through an act of will and does so in relation to foregrounded moral ideas. Political action that is not based upon personal conviction, to Carlyle, is always worthless and better not to try.
As his career goes on, he becomes more of a sage, more looked to, more hostile to the extreme forms of capitalism that are developing all around him in England. One of the most extraordinary things about him, although Dickens does it as well to a degree, is he’s so aware of the raw energy of England then like China now. Pollution everywhere, exploitation everywhere, enormous amounts of wealth everywhere, extreme poverty everywhere. The radicalism of that society and its sort of striving and creation of gold out of the ground and new classes of men, tough-faced men from the north of England and elsewhere, who were titans. Theodore Dreiser wrote a book in the early part of the 20th century in America called The Titan about these entrepreneurs and factory owners who almost come from nothing and within one generation they’re sitting in Parliament, peers, calling the shots for the entire society and its empire.
Carlyle was an imperialist, but he believed it should be based upon certain moralities of form. He was a nationalist in certain respects. Yet at the same time his feeling for nationality was very complex and aesthetic, very much like Kipling’s in Recessional in many ways. A profound reactionary, and yet rebellious, spirit whereby you looked at things, sought to meld them and move them in accordance with the energy of the hour, and always sought to find divine purpose in the actions of men. When he found that there wasn’t such, he moved away, or he didn’t give it cultural endorsement.
A great talker, a great raconteur. A great celebrity in a period where celebrity meant something slightly different than what it means today. There’s a famous incident he once shared. A woman in a salon said to Carlyle, “I do believe, Mr. Carlyle,” she said, “in the idea of the interconnectedness of the universe.” And Carlyle rumbled in reply, “You better,” in a Scotch accent, because he was quite a character. He was the most extraordinary religious and literary incendiary that this society produced in the 19th century.
Towards the end of his life, he wanted to find one ruler in relation to the chaos of Victorian modernity who he could posit as a counter-balance and weight. Frederick the Great of Prussia was, for him, in his ideological way of looking at the literary texts of his own of that monarch’s life, a way of exploring the idea of benevolent dictatorship. Carlyle is opposed to democracy. Carlyle doesn’t believe in rule by majority. Carlyle doesn’t believe in coherent, stratified, old style rule by aristocracy, certainly not an aristocracy that does not reform and certainly no aristocracy that has no concern paternally for the plight of the people, particularly at the bottom. His sort of socialism, socialistic and solidarist beliefs are inegalitarian and always elitist, because morality and will and vigor and power come from above to below in all areas of life. But those at the top have to be worthy of ruling those at the bottom. Otherwise, in his opinion, they will be judged by history.
As he got older, he became, in contemporary terms and in terms that he used himself, more and more Right-wing. And he prefigures some of the authoritarian social movements of the 20th century, for whom in many ways he was an illuminating character. It’s interesting to note that many of the great figures (Arnold, Ruskin, Morris), many of them alleged champions of the Left (many a faceless tower block called Morris Block or something was put up by old Labour in the 1960s and so on), yet in many ways these Romantics, these socialists, these conceptual pre-Raphaelite types, these neo-Medievalists were actually looking back to past orders of social organicism. They weren’t looking forward to the modern Left. They were actually, in some ways, quasi-Right-wing individuals who have been falsely positioned as neo-Leftists in the early part of the 20th century.
Carlyle is part of the authoritarian, Right-wing tradition. He’s also a figure that uniquely can be used in British terms, in British circumstances. Many people who are just concentric to these islands wonder where our “Nietzsche” is, where our figure of indomitable literary power and glory might be, where is our combination, if you like, of Jack London and Nietzsche in certain respects, where our figure is.
As a modest proposal of mine, unlike Swift’s, would put forward the idea of Thomas Carlyle as a man who in the translations of German idealism, in his book upon the philosophy of clothes which rips them away and shreds utilitaria and demands a spiritual dimension to the complications of early 19th century life, to his analysis of the French Revolution as the climacteric of that period, of the period in which his sensibility was formed, in his relation to his desire to even preserve the existence of slavery whereby he looked back to the ancient world and analyzed the enormous numbers of forms (don’t forget, serfdom in Russia wasn’t abolished until the 1860s) that inequality and service takes in all forms of society (ancient, modern, and Medieval), in his attempt to explicate the Medieval world, where he sees in a Medieval abbey a sort of integratedness of life, a solemnity and a stoicism of purpose that moderns lack.
The modern society for many is alienated, is broken down, is inorganic, is increasingly meaningless. The great thing about a lot of these 19th-century sages is that they’re talking to us. They are talking to what internally the modern West has become even though they are 100, 150 years “out of date.” The interesting thing is the most advanced European intellectuals realized many of the crises that were going to come for our civilization long before it began to dawn on mass consciousness: that our old religion would collapse, that, as Nietzsche said at the end of the 19th century, that will be a liberation, certainly for certain elite spirits, but it will also be a great burden for the majority, because it has left them bereft. It’s left them with nothing. It’s left them in the culture of the ruins and the ruins of culture.
The extreme Right in the 20th century was one of the formulations whereby we attempted to reconstitute certain of the wholeness that existed in the modernity which has come down to us. An extreme alliance of bedfellows, who were completely at variance with each other as their subsequent warfare showed, namely the ultra-capitalist, most Western powers of all and Communism, combined to destroy it. We are in some ways culturally amidst hyper-modernity living in the ruins.
But Carlyle’s work, from his analysis of the stoicism and mental and moral and linguistic integration of the Medieval abbot in comparison to a modern factory owner, to his hostility to modern democracy where the masses are bought and sold shoddy packages and lied to perpetually by politicians who change their opinion in an instant, in Parliaments that have little or no moral integrity and are based upon no philosophical precepts at all, in relation to an aesthetics and an architecture which even in his era he perceived as inferior to the past, he speaks to us now through his revolutionary energy, through his use of Protestant diction, for his respect for the individual.
The Western culture begins and ends with a supreme individual mind. It’s partial. It’s nominalist. It’s perspectival. It looks at life from the perspective, hopefully heroic, of a coherent individuality. It often doesn’t say it has the whole truth, but it is participatory to the explication and evolutionary revelation of the prospect of the truth. These men are the great geniuses of our civilization. They don’t have every answer, but they open up a plenitude of partially answered questions the nature of which you need to completely resolve before you can step on to something more.
All of our great thinkers are shooting arrows into the future. And Carlyle is one of them. Thirty books, not including the reminiscences of his wife, Jane Carlyle, not including paraphernalia and the biography he never wanted to have written, not including the notes, Apocrypha, and letters. The enormous Herculean energy to produce that in the teeth of much cultural opposition of the time. Don’t forget, he was denouncing what liberal Victorian values were: industrialization, ugliness, contempt for the environment, contempt for what he perceived to be the spiritual dimension of man.
He’s not concerned with suffering, because suffering can ennoble. But it’s the meaning that’s attributed to it and the feeling that industrialization has somehow rendered the suffering of the masses meaningless. It’s the sort of aesthetic squalor with its attendant moral bankruptcy which appalled him. He is a moralist, but the interesting thing about the great thinkers in our tradition is he’s not a moralizer. He’s not wagging his finger. He’s excoriating! He’s a sort of man on the mountain who is telling you what he thinks.
At the end of Zarathustra, Nietzsche says this Persian sage of old comes down from the mountain and walks in the valleys prior to going up into the mountains again. Why does he choose Zarathustra? Because he’s a dualist and because Nietzsche wants to overcome dualism. So, he uses one of its oldest Aryan spokesmen to overcome that particular rigidity in thought. Zarathustra has two pets: a snake and an eagle. The eagle is courage, and the snake, sometimes a synonym for sexuality in most cultures, stands for knowledge.
Knowledge and courage! What does a man need in this life but knowledge and courage? And then he goes out into the morning to experience a great noontide. Not the end of the day, not the sorrow and the tiredness of the dark, not yet the beginning, but the noontide when the sun is up and life is golden and there is a future. Many of our great thinkers contribute, step by step, to the nature of that future.
All of Carlyle’s texts now exist on the internet and other forms. There are American paperback editions of nearly all of them bound together, from the translations of the Germanic idealists through to an analysis of John Knox and the Norwegian kings, through to his analysis of the people that he knew in his own life, to his own personal relationships and to the nature of the French Revolution, an extraordinary text.
When I did A level history, you were taught [unintelligible], who is a Trotskyist, and you were taught Lefebvre, who is a Marxist, and you were taught Jaurès, who is a 19th-century socialist, occasionally some conservative, Burke or whatever he was called, would be allowed in to sort of wave a white flag for the ancien régime before being silenced. But nobody even mentioned Carlyle and his revolutionary and impressionistic work, The French Revolution. It exists in paperback in Cambridge University Press, in the Oxford University Press Classics. Sartor does as well. All of the books are available. There’s an excellent hardback bibliography by that uniquely American school of the sort of Oxford University Press where a German-American scholar with extraordinary refinement and passion and attention to detail details every book that was ever published under Carlyle’s name and/or in print in the 19th century. This work is all available and it’s heroic and vitalist literature.
He’s too opinionated for anyone to agree with and he’s the sort of person that you will occasionally read and you will want to throw the book across the room. But that doesn’t matter, because he wants that response. He would prefer radical negation than indifference. Because in his way of looking at things, pantheistically up to a point, indifference is the worst form of hatred.
So, I give as an Englishman the great Scottish genius Thomas Carlyle. Read him and know more.
Thank you very much!
Forthcoming from Counter-Currents:
Jonathan Bowden’s Reactionary Modernism
Remembering Jonathan Bowden (April 12, 1962–March 29, 2012)
Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Six: G. W. Leibniz’s Will-to-Power
Mihai Eminescu: Romania’s Morning Star
A Clockwork Orange
When They Destroy Memorials, We Raise Our Own to the Fallen
Mrs. America Redux