Tag Archives: Thomas Carlyle

William Morris – News from Nowhere (1891)

Page numbers from Penguin (2004)

Sub-titled “An Epoch of Rest,” which is a polemic to keep in mind, since most of the novel describes scenes of labor.

A socialist fantasy that manages to combine Morris’ spiritual-romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages with his radical political beliefs. William Guest, the main character, falls asleep one night and wakes up in the year 2102. He is led around the new England by Dick Hammond. He gets a long history lesson from “old Hammond.” He takes a boat trip up the Thames all the way to Oxford and beyond, to a harvest party. On the way, he meets Ellen, a fairy-like woman prone to making elegant political speeches. Ellen guesses Guest’s secret just before the final dinner. When Guest sits down, he realizes that no one recognizes him. Despondent, he walks back to town, sees an old, dying, ragged man and everything goes black. He wonders, Was it a vision or a dream?

The bulk of News from Nowhere is a thinly veiled didactic exposition on what socialism could/would enable. But the narrative frame should not be ignored. Morris has to work pretty hard to justify the first person–in short, there is a conflation of the first and third person:

But, says he, I think it would be better if I told them in the first person….which will indeed be the easier and more natural for me, since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world. (45)

This cumbersome “getting over into the I” is matched by the task of getting over into the future, one could say. The possibility of assuming the position of self-narrating narrator depends on a temporal problem, which gets staged towards the end of the novel:

I said, falteringly: ‘I was saying to myself, The past, the present? Should she not have said the contrast of the present and the future: of blind despair and hope?’ (222)

Guest is pulled between despair and hope, as “Nowhere” pulls between past and future. So at times he reminds other characters of a melancholic, “wanting to nurse a sham sorrow, like the ridiculous characters in some of those old queer novels” (217). This is precisely what Morris wants to refuse, and what makes this novel so different…almost not a novel. Do we contrast the present with the past (depressed 3rd person) or the present with the future (hopeful 1st person)? [still trying to work this out….] Perhaps this draws the difference between the creation of myth, or the telling of fictional history. The Golden Age becomes something to anticipate rather than long for. Thus the obvious pastoral nostalgia is paired with a practical politics and sustainable environmentalism.

Specific things to remember:

Art is called “work-pleasure.” It is, in short, consonant with modes of self-preservation and community. (160)

People don’t understand the idea of something’s value exceeding its use (81)…and, in line with Morris’ commitment to beautifying the everyday, there is a commitment to making basic things beautiful: clothing, tobacco pipes, etc. “You have added the utmost refinement of workmanship to the freedom of fancy and imagination” (201).

Children are educated in practical things. “Book-learning” is is casually taken up according to their interests. Contrast this utopian vision with Jude the Obscure. Morris’ portrait of Oxbridge dovetails with Hardy’s critique: the centers of learning are catering to an upper class intent on reproducing the relations of production. (103)

Morris is skeptical of technology and labor-sacing machines in general. He follows the Marxist critique: more extraction of labor, etc. Labor itself is glorified as and end in itself. “The reward for labor is life” (122).

As Guest journeys into the heart of England, his intellectual activity slowly gives way to instinctual desires…those things that have been suppressed or perverted by industrial capitalism.

The idea of the sojourner. There is a disturbing unremarkable quality to Guest’s entry and exit into “nowhere,” which could be read in terms of “open secrets.” The intrusion of the narrative voice that would narrate the perfection of the future is both acknowledge and not acknowledged. [work on this…]

Virginia Woolf – Jacobs’s Room (1922)

[Plot summary impending]

Epistemological constraints overlaid on gendered exclusion: the narrator can only imagine what goes on in the rooms at Cambridge. All particularity (Jacob’s back, for instance) is accessed through a window…the rest reamins thoroughly interrogative. Throughout, then, the narrative toggles between the classificatory systems set by consciousness (necessary for the ordering of the phenomenal world) and the classificatory systems imposed by society.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself. (75, Signet)

The irony should not be missed here. Other forms of exclusion are eluded to in the multiple descriptions of the names etched in the rotunda of the British Museum, sequestered palace of self-improvement dedicated to the “public,” [Cf. new Grub Street, where Marian yule slaves away for her father Alfred], yet symbolizing the “unbroken knowledge” that extends from Plato to the present [Jacob is attempting to write himself into a tradition that the narrator is anxiously attempting to validate], constituting an “enormous mind,” “haroded beyond the power of any single mind to posses it.” [Cf. Mr. Ramsay’s anxiety in To the Lighthouse]. And further, there is the intimation that Jacob’s friend “Bonamy” is gay (“Now he’s a dark horse”) and therefore excluded as well. Jacob himself worries about being excluded from the intellectual aristocracy he tries so ostentatiously to penetrate. “Am I a bumpkin?” he asks.

Space: Could be considered an extended critique of interiors, of the pretensions of the gentry to preserve a sense of classicism despite the ravages of the 20th-century. [Connect this with bertha’s room with Beethoven’s bust.] Further, Jacob’s trip to Greece illustrates his lack of any real connection to the history he so desires to join. He goes to Greece not to be a part of civilization, but instead to protect himself from civilization. He has no connection, ty as he might, to a landscape that is undergoing processes of history. Ironically, Jacob will be violently pulled into history by his death in Flanders. That his last name is Flanders rewrites the rambling impressionistic nature of the small book as a tragedy in the Greek tradition–he was meant to be a part of a history that he refused to see.

Side note: he is working on piece that asks whether history is composed of great men, which connects to Carlyle’s One Heros and Hero-Worship.


George Gissing – New Grub Street (1891)

Jasper Milvain, great Darwinian survivor in the evolving literary market, has two sisters, Dora and Maud (whom he convinces to start writing children’s stories), to whom he constantly spouts out his cynical and frank views on what it takes to get ahead as a writer in the 1880s: ingenuity without integrity. In the country he meets the Yules: John Yule (a somewhat rich  businessman); Alred Yule (a struggling writer); Marian Yule (Alfred’s daughter and assistant, and later Jasper’s almost-wife). Eventually, the patriarch of this family will leave an inheritance to his family. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon, married to Amy Yule (sister to John Yule), is struggling to keep up his repute as a promising author, but is failing to do because he is impractical, unable write down to the commercial demands of the marketplace. His friend, Harold Biffen, who calls his style “ignoble realism” (similar to Zola’s naturalism), is also a commercial failure. Reardon and Amy sink into poverty and eventually separate. Jasper keeps climbing the rungs, and becomes engaged to Marian after she inherits some money. Her father disapproves of the match because of Jasper’s relation to Fadge, an editor of a journal that consistently excoriates Alfred’s works. Amy also inherits money, but her and Reardon don’t get back together until Reardon is on his deathbed. Biffen almost loses his manuscript in a fire, but saves it in a dramatic scene reminiscent of the Gaskell scene in North and South. Jasper breaks off his engagement with Marian after her inheritance fails to come through. His sisters marry folks in the marketplace, and he marries Amy Yule, and soon after becomes editor of The Current, and thus achieving his dream. Biffen commits suicide after losing hope in both his literary future and his romantic future with Amy.

An important novel because of its depiction of the professional author’s position in a social world increasingly controlled by the forces of market capitalism. Indeed, one can think of this as a response to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: author’s may be the guardians of sweetness in light, but this guardianship is premised on a certain amount of material wealth–and more broadly on a system that has inherent class, race and gender disparities. Carlyle had already foreseen this problem in 1840 when  in Hero as Man of Letters he parsed out the double-nature of professional authorship.

The struggling idealists in the novel (Reardon and Biffen) have a complicated relationship to the Arnoldian ideal. Yes, they sight-translate from Homer, but they also aspire to be realistic in a way that is anything but a return to a golden age of Hellenic representation. Biffen calls it “an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent” (144). This is frequently contrasted to both Dickens and Zola: this first turns low class people into absurd tragic-comedic heros, the latter into tragic heroes. This is an emergence of a realism that will be peculiarly modern–and it is reflected by the form of the novel that contains it. Gissing constantly draws attention to the forces of production that allow or disallow the author “to produce,” as Benjamin would later say. This connects New Grub Street with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and with Jacob’s Room.

In borader ideological terms, the book can be read as intervention into the debate over culture’s relationship to society–a late intervention into the utilitarian debate that spans the century. Crucially, this novel (and the novels of Reardon and Biffen) are not mechanical mimetic organs, but rather aesthetic ideals that are worked for and persistently defended. Can relate this to Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel.

The Museum Reading, “the valley of the shadow of books,” is a crucial image that connects this book to both Jacob’s Room and A Room of One’s Own.  It represents a literature that is dead–fit for copying and recopying….

Key Passages:

Art must be practices as a trade, at all events in our time. This is the age of trade. Of course, if one refuses to be of one’s time, and yet hasn’t the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown and wretchedness? (51)

Connect this idea of untimeliness to Arnold’s idea of the untimely, penultimate critic. Gissing, again, giving material flesh to Arnold’s thoughts.

For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration. A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings.  (123)

Connect this to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where Eliot talks about the arbitrariness of making a beginning. Gissing gives on more turn to the problem of beginnings (use Copperfield as an example, and before that, Pride and Prejudice), by showing the physicality the process of writing. Reardon’s investment in his story backfires onto his psyche. New Grub Street, however, starts with ease–but with Jasper Milvain, cracking an egg as a man gets hung and bell tolls–the convergence of the political, personal, etc.–the fiction of freedom, the tightness of the ISA–is the condition of all beginnings. Also, the idea of “the abyss” is picked up by Forster in Howard’s End, when talking about Leonard Bast. That narrative similarly describes the precariousness of the petty-bourgeois existence.

You have to become famous before you can secure the attention that would give you fame. (385)

A motto coined by Jasper Milvain, which spell out clearly the Catch-22 structuring the lives of just about every author. Marks out the (now-legible) relationship between fiction and the critics as overdetermined.

It was an excellent piece of writing (see the Wayside, June 1884), and in places touched with true emotion. (462)

A bid on realism by way of extra-diagetic empirical verification.

 I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to day, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention…bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bit sof statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be short, two inches at utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat. (460)

This vision of bite-size prose comes toward the end of the novel, and has an obvious historical referent in Tit-Bits. An interesting commentary on the size of writing (contrast to the sheer bigness of the Victorian long poem), the time of reading (cf. I.A. Richards and Quiller-Couch), the fragment now reified as that best suited to the demands of industrialized consciousness: the quarter-educated.




Thomas Carlyle – Heroes and Hero Worship (1840-41)

The theme of this lecture series is: “Universal History, the history of what man  has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Only a hero can resolve the tangled contradictions that belief in utilitarianism has led to.

The Hero is her who lives in the inward sphere of things, in the True, Divine and Eternal, which exists always, unseen to most, under the Temporary, Trivial: his being is in that; he declares that abroad, by act or speech as it may be, in declaring himself abroad. (236)

There is an expressive rather than communicative aspect to these men of letters., that can nevertheless tip over into the didactic:

Men of Letters are a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age, teaching all men that a God is still present in their life; that all ‘Appearance,’ whatsoever we see in the world, is but as a vesture for the ‘Divine Idea of the World,’ for ‘that which lies at the bottom of Appearance.’ (237)

Men of letters are not “the momentous one,” but they are individuals, “an infinitesimal fraction of the great body; they can struggle on, and live or else die, as they have been wont. But it deeply concerns the whole society, whether it will set its light on high places, to walk thereby; or trample it under foot, and scatter it in all the ways of wild waste (not without conflagration), as heretofore. Not only societal disuse poses a threat to men of letters, but the whole culture of skepticism that claims mechanism as the secret of the universe. Men of letters fight against this claim…this is their mission.


Thomas Carlyle – Signs of the Times (1829)

Can be read as prototypical critique of the acceptance of utilitarian values (anticipating both Ruskin’s Unto this Last and Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy). Focuses on the fact of transition: “All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has become so…Those things that seemed fixed (like the church) and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world and lo, in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more” (62)! Carlyle is intent, however, on giving a program for action, which entails a robust Understanding of the Present as the convergence of Past and Future:

The poorest Day that passes over us is te conflux of two Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us,  for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our own true aims and endeavors in it, may also becomes clear. (64)

He makes the argument that the “Soul-Politic” is being ignored while the “Body-Politic” is “more than ever worshipped” (71). This is the result of a focus on the mechanical rather than dynamical aspects of life. The dynamical refers to those spontaneous, unsolicited gifts of nature: art and science. the point here is that the logic of “Profit and Loss” has no place in the realm of art, since it is completely unable to either produce or regulate its movements. Via art and science, so does “man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright” (75). Carlyle argues for a proper balance of the dynamic and the mechanic, and locates the process of this balancing act in the individual perfection of the self. That’s the conclusion: but he gets there by way astronomical predictions. (85)

Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1833-4)


From the Introduction to the Oxford edition (2008):

The fundamental Carlylean doctrines are all articulated, or at least, adumbrated here: the horrors of Utilitarianism; the religious base of society; the pattern of conversion–from everlasting No, through the Center of indifference to the Everlasting Yea–which showed that, in the the words of Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology’; the importance of vocation; the superiority of renunciation to the pursuit of happiness; the moral imperatives of work, duty, and reverence; the need for heroes; and the social vision that saw Britain divided into the two nations of rich and poor.

Anne Mellor presents Sartor  as a ‘self-consuming artifact’ that ‘does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves.’ Sartor Resartus is a fictional work ‘designed to consume itself by revealing the limitations both of its own symbolic language and of language as such. It is intended not as a monument of truth but as a goad to action.’ (English Romantic Irony (1978)

Much depends on whether we share the doubts of the Editor or whether we read those doubts as the result of his miscomprehension of Teufelsdöckh’s system. That system is a paired down version of German Idealism, meant to counterpoint English utilitarianism. Teufelsdröckh distinguishes in Hegelian mode between Understanding (phenomenal, sensory experience) and Reason (noumenal, synthetic thought), which is able to somehow pierce through the mere facts of everyday an understand the Everlasting:

To the eye of vulgar logic,” syas he,” what is man? An omnivorous Biped that wears breeches. To the eye of Pure Reason what is he? A Soul, a Spirit, and a divine Apparition. Round his mysterious Me, there lies, under all those wool-rags, a Garment of Flesh (or of Senses), contextured in the Loom of Heaven; whereby he is revealed to his like, and dwells with them in Union and Division; and sees and fashions for himself a universe, with azure Starry Spaces, and long Thousands of Years. Deep-hidden is he under that strange Garment; amid Sounds and Colour and Forms, as it were, swathed in, and inextricably overshrouded: yet it is sky-woven, and worthy of God. (51)

Throughout, Carlyle is anxious about the soul converging with its digestive counterpart, the stomach. “if man’s soul is indeed…a kind of Stomach, what else is the true meaning of Spiritual Union but an Eating Together? Thus we, instead of Friends, are Dinner-guests; and here as elsewhere have cast away chimeras” (91). So this begins to mark  fine line between the daily requirements of the omnivorous biped and the insatiable consumption (and production) that conditions Industrial Capitlaism:

To me the universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-Engine, rolling on, in its dead insignificance, to grind me limb from limb. (127)

Here the utilitarian outlook converges with nihilism in the section devoted to the Everlasting No. From here Teufelsdröckh undergoes his “Baphometic Fire-baptism”  which leads to him becoming a Man. The center of Indifference, strangely, takes up the subject of nascent democracy “in its birth pangs” and “Great Men.” This can be read as moment of historical transition condensed into psychological transformation. The Everlasting Yea is something very much like a full sublimation, wherein “contradiction is solved,” yet the process of completion is strictly negative: “the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not by increasing you Numerator, as by lessening you Denominator” (145). Further, this subtraction seems centered on the subject: “a black spot in our sunshine: the Shadow of Ourselves.” This the is a giving account of one’s investment (and position) in a world that is experiential from the start.

This will all conclude in the tour de force “Natural Supernaturalism” chapter that posits God’s in(ter)vention of Time and Space as natural clothing to all noumenal existence. Basically acknowledges limits as the very things that give us a capacity to experience the world at all (time, space, etc.)…interesting bridge to talking about Hegel and, later, Gadamer.

There is also a parallel between the editorial attempts to gather together Teufel’s papers and any attempt to reconstruct history:

History in authentic fragments lay mingled with Fabulous chimeras, wehre also was reality; and the whole not as dead stuff, but as living pabulum, tolerably nutritive for a mind as yet so poetic. (79)

Also refers to orphan as a loan that needs to be made good on (read as critique of hoe Victorian novels would end up treating the orphan as a means to an end of narrative denouement….