Saturday, March 01, 2014

`By Any Man in Virtue of His Badness'

I came to Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) indirectly, by way of a more interesting writer, Herman Melville. I had never read Carlyle in school and he seemed more remote and alien, as many Victorians and late Romantics do, than the great writers of the previous century. But Melville had read Sartor Resartus (1831), and its thick rhetoric added a pinch of ponderous humor to the recipe that eventually became Moby-Dick (1851). According to his biographer Hershel Parker, Melville also read On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841) “for a sardonic verbal playfulness and a depiction of the physical universe as emblematical, but also for the depiction of Cromwell, which gave him hints for his tyrannical captain.” One of this blog’s readers thought I might be interested in what Carlyle had to say about another Scotsman, one I admire, James Boswell, and he sent me an excerpt from Carlyle’s 1832 review of a new five-volume edition of the Life of Johnson, edited by John Wilson Croker. My reader writes: 

“…the usually fulminating Carlyle admits that Boswell’s book about Johnson is a masterpiece in spite of Boswell’s flaws, not because of them. In the end Boswell possessed talent and skill (always a good thing for a writer to have), and he had what Carlyle called the most important virtue: Reverence. In this case reverence for Johnson. We know how gnarled and knotted Carlyle’s prose can be, though, to me, a short excursion into Carlyle land can be invigorating. I actually laughed when I read some of the words and phrases Carlyle uses to describe Boswell, his description having a Shakespearean rowdiness about it, as Hal having a go at Falstaff.” 

“Fulminating” is apt. Carlyle could be disproportionately ferocious. Consider this, from a Nov. 2, 1831, entry in his Notebooks: 

“Charles Lamb I sincerely believe to be in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, ricketty, gasping, staggering, stammering Tom fool I do not know. He is witty by denying truisms, and abjuring good manners. His speech wriggles hither and thither with an incessant painful fluctuation; not an opinion in it or a fact or even a phrase that you can thank him for: more like a convulsion fit than natural systole and diastole. Besides he is now a confirmed shameless drunkard: asks vehemently for gin-and-water in strangers' houses; tipples until he is utterly mad, and is only not thrown out of doors because he is too much despised for taking such trouble with him. Poor Lamb! Poor England where such a despicable abortion is named genius!” 

One can hardly imagine two specimens of Homo sapiens less compatible. Carlyle turned sputtering rage into an art form, while Lamb boasted: “Anything awful makes me laugh.” On another occasion, Carlyle referred to Lamb and his sister Mary as “a very sorry pair of phenomena” and characterized Charles’ conversation as “diluted insanity” and the man himself as an “emblem of imbecility bodily and spiritually.” Interesting that Melville acknowledged his fondness for both writers. Of course, Carlyle may have known that Lamb affected to hate Scots, rather in the manner of Dr. Johnson. Three months before his first meeting with Carlyle, in 1821, Lamb had published “Imperfect Sympathies,” later included in Essays of Elia (1823). In it he writes: “I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.” Elia/Lamb maintains that all the “Caledonians” he has known are what we might call “black-and-white thinkers”: 

“Between the affirmative and the negative there is no border-land with him. You cannot hover with him upon the confines of truth, or wander in the maze of a probable argument. He always keeps the path. You cannot make excursions with him--for he sets you right. His taste never fluctuates. His morality never abates. He cannot compromise, or understand middle actions. There can be but a right and a wrong.” 

Sound familiar? Lamb could be a shrewd judge of character. But then, so could Carlyle, if the subject was right. Here he is on Boswell, mixing brimstone and honey, but acknowledging his gift as a writer, author of the supreme biography in the language: 

“His sneaking sycophancies, his greediness and forwardness, whatever was bestial and earthly in him, are so many blemishes in his Book, which still disturb us in its clearness; wholly hindrances, not helps. Towards Johnson, however, his feeling was not Sycophancy, which is the lowest, but Reverence, which is the highest of human feelings. None but a reverent man (which so unspeakably few are) could have found his way from Boswell's environment to Johnson's: if such worship for real God-made superiors showed itself also as worship for apparent Tailor-made superiors, even as hollow interested mouth-worship for such, the case, in this composite human nature of ours, was not miraculous, the more was the pity! But for ourselves, let every one of us cling to this last article of Faith, and know it as the beginning of all knowledge worth the name: That neither James Boswell's good Book, nor any other good thing, in any time or in any place, was, is, or can be performed by any man in virtue of his badness, but always and solely in spite thereof.” 

A wise reminder. Our natures are contradictory. The best among us may produce nothing of worth and some of the worst are touched by genius.

2 comments:

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

All the quotes are hilarious! Thanks for sharing them. If Carlyle is such a wonderful hater, I may just have to read Sartor Resartus.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Some more quotes...

Carlyle is a poet to whom nature has denied the faculty of verse.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, letter to W. E. Gladstone, c.1870

Art is not the same thing as cerebration. I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English.
- George Orwell, in _Tribune_, 2 November 1945

The dynasty of British dogmatists, after lasting a hundred years and more, is on its last legs. Thomas Carlyle, third in line of descent finds an audience very different from those which listened to the silver speech of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the sonorous phrases
of Samuel Johnson. ... We smile at his clotted English.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Scholastic and Bedside Teaching

It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence: if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would be only like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle's writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had
not lived.
- George Eliot, in _Leader_, 27 October 1855