Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cease to be a hollow sounding-shell of hearsays, egoisms, purblind dilettantisms - Carlyle in The Chimes

One reason I haven't mentioned for reading Carlyle's Past and Present is that it is about Hard Times, and since we are in the middle of some Hard Times now, I thought the perspective would be interesting.

Our Hard Times are certainly nothing like those of mid-19th century England - massive unemployment with a minimal safety net, riots, and then, in 1845, the beginning of a true disaster, the Irish Famine. Remember that Carlyle was writing in 1843. Things got worse, and in some respects, he must have seemed prophetic.

What I really wanted to know, being a practical, utilitarian sort of fellow, was, what does Carlyle want people to do, what's his solution to it all. Well, how about this (the Morrison's Pill is a cure-all, of which, says Carlyle, with wisdom, there is none):

"If thou ask again, therefore, on the Morrison's-Pill hypothesis, What is to be done? allow me to reply: By thee, for the present, almost nothing. Thou there, the thing for thee to do is, if possible, to cease to be a hollow sounding-shell of hearsays, egoisms, purblind dilettantisms; and become, were it on the infinitely small scale, a faithful discerning soul. Thou shalt descend into thy inner man, and see if there be any traces of a soul there; till then there can be nothing done! O brother, we must if possible resuscitate some soul and conscience in us, exchange our dilettantisms for sincerities, our dead hearts of stone for living hearts of flesh." (Ch. 4)

This is probably wise advice whether Times are Hard or Soft. I'm not sure it would have the salutary effects Carlyle expected, though.

Not just Carlyle. If I understand this correctly, and if I understand The Chimes correctly, this is exactly the lesson Dickens has poor Trotty learn after his ghostly vision of the future. I was puzzled by what Trotty was supposed to learn. Scrooge, after all, is rich and powerful. When he reforms, he can actually do something, like buy a big turkey for his clerk. Trotty is powerless. Well, Trotty ceases to be a hollow-sounding shell and resuscitates his soul and conscience. No small thing.

The Chimes is in some ways a direct response to Carlyle. The red-faced gentleman who was nostalgic for the Middle Ages was actually my first clue, since the first half of Past and Present is an examination of life in a medieval abbey. By the end of The Chimes, though, there seems to be some direct connection to Carlyle's ideas.

I'll have to pay more attention to this in the future. I have been detecting a Carlylean strain in some of Dickens' writing, but since Dickens employed such a wide range of rhetorical moods and was a gifted mimic, I had thought it was parody. Which it may well be, but there is more contact with at least a certain strain of Carlyle than I had imagined.

I clearly need to read Hard Times. And Elizbeth Gaskell. And William Morris. And...


  1. Did you already mention that Hard Times is dedicated to Carlyle? Carlyle sounds sort of crazy, I know, and sometimes worse--but he makes more sense if you think of the 'condition of England' as a spiritual (rather than material, social, economic, or political) condition. Dickens tends not to propose material or political solutions either. Carlyle sees these as what we might now call 'band-aid' solutions. And the 'gospel of work' thing, at least in his earlier stuff, reflects an impatience with the morbid self-consciousness he thought was infecting the world--if people would just turn their hands to some honest work, instead of moaning about how nobody understands them, they would end up back in touch with nature, or the divine, or the best in themselves. "Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe!" as he proclaims in Sartor Resartus. Adam Bede reflects a 'Carlylean' ethos in many ways, as does Caleb Garth in Middlemarch.

    Carlyle's French Revolution is an astonishing book. Some years ago (ahem) I wrote my undergraduate honours thesis comparing it to Middlemarch (works of history vs. works of fiction etc.). Though many of his contemporaries (most famously, Mill) couldn't stand him eventually, George Eliot famously remarked that there was no major mind of their day that had not been influenced by him.

    Your comments on "The Chimes" have been very helpful! I too couldn't figure out why poor Trotty needed to be put through all of that. I suppose one way to think about it is that it's not about Trotty and what he needs to know, but about us and what we (the 19thC readers, mostly) need to know.

  2. So much to read! I like the bit of Carlyle you quoted. It would do a lot of us good "resuscitate some soul and conscience" but most particularly the greedy CEOs and Wall Street traders who find living on anything less than a few million dollars a year an impossible hardship.

  3. What a rich response.

    I barely mentioned Hard Times for two reasons. One is that I ain't read it; the other is that it is post-crisis, by which I mean the condition-of-England had greatly improved (higher employment, growing wages, cheaper food) by 1854. That's pretty poor consolation if you live in Coketown, though.

    Reading Carlyle - actually reading him, not reading about him - it has finally sunk in how enormous his influence was, in England, in America, on Marx and Engels. I was coming around to G. Eliot's point of view. What confused me before, I suspect, was that there is not a Carlyle -ism, like Marxism or Darwinism. So I thought of Carlyle as more of an oddity (admittedly, he is pretty odd).

    I completely agree with you about The French Revolution. It has become my standard Carlyle recommendation, despite its length, even over Sartor Resartus. It's funny and furious and it doesn't hurt that there's an extremely strong narrative. Stefanie, if you don't mind the 600 pages (it's like, a sixth of Clarissa), that's the one!