Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An almost total want of arrangement - all courses had been confounded - tasty Sartor Resartus

As I plan out my writing, I realize I’m working with a concept: it’s Books Few People Should Read Week.  Thank goodness it’s not Blog Sweeps Week, or I’d be sunk.

I’m not sure about Friday’s entry, but Sartor Resartus is a great Book Few People Should Read.  The reader has to care about prose, though, about prose and rhetoric.  The argument of the book is, roughly, an attempt to bring Kant’s ideas into the English-speaking world.   Who cares.  I’ve learned plenty from Carlyle, but why do I really value him?  It’s how he writes.  How does he write?

Considered as an Author, Herr Teufelsdröckh has one scarcely pardonable fault, doubtless his worst: an almost total want of arrangement.  In this remarkable Volume, it is true, his adherence to the mere course of Time produces, through the Narrative portions, a certain show of outward method; but of true logical method and sequence there is too little...  Many sections are of a debatable rubric, or even quite nondescript and unnamable; whereby the Book not only loses in accessibility, but too often distresses us like some mad banquet, wherein all courses had been confounded, and fish and flesh, soup and solid, oyster-sauce, lettuces, Rhine-wine and French mustard, were hurled into one huge tureen or trough, and the hungry Public invited to help itself. (1.4)

If everyone wrote like this, I would give up literature for scrimshaw, but with books as with food, I am a gourmand.  Variety, please.  But this dish may be too rich for some diets.  It is fat-full, gluten-full, and was processed in a facility that contained at least one nut.

The passage is immediately preceded by the scene where Herr Teufelsdröckh laughs, the single time the editor observes his laughter “tears streaming down his cheeks, pipe held aloft, foot clutched into the air.”  The editor continues with the theme, anatomizing laughter – some do not laugh but “wear an everlasting barren simper,” others “produce some whiffling husky cachinnation, as if they were laughing through wool: of none such comes good.”  I believe Carlyle is defining his ideal reader.  He wants readers whose laugh is “not of the face and diaphragm only, but of the whole man from head to heel.”

The book ends with – Stefanie noted this yesterday – a "friendly farewell" to Carlyle's “irritated readers.”  Yes and no.  How many other writers wrote with such a wild spill of words, such wastefulness, even?  How many wanted to make sure there was something interesting in every sentence he wrote?*  How many vowed to exterminate the prosaic?

I’ll bet bibliographing nicole can think of one more.  Tomorrow, Books Few People Should Read Week joins up with the Clarel pilgrimage.

* I mean, to be clear, how many writers of Carlyle’s time.  Rabelais, The Anatomy of Melancholy, A Tale of a Tub, Sir Thomas Browne, Tristram Shandy, a number of Germans – Carlyle has predecessors.  And what predecessors!


  1. Very lucky it isn't Blog Sweeps Week!

    I bet you can answer this. Carlyle did not like Utilitarianism and I can't say I blame him, but yet John Stuart Mill was in possession of his manuscript for the first volume of his book on the French Revolution which met with an unfortunate accident. Were Mill and Carlyle friends? If they were it is astonishing, considering the battering Utilitarianism takes in Sartor. There must be story there and I'm betting you know it :)

  2. I think I know the answer.

    J. S. Mill and Caryle were friends, yes. The Utilitarianism Carlyle attacks so ruthlessly is that of Jeremy Bentham and John Mill. John Stuart Mill, by this point (mid-1830s), was not a Benthamite. His own Utilitarianism was a much more subtle and humanistic set of ideas, influenced partly by Carlyle.

    That Mill and Carlyle later fell out over slavery is thus an irony.

  3. You and Stefanie and totally talking me into considering reading SR. Not anytime soon, but it's now a possibility instead of the highly unlikely thing it was. But how can I resist the challenge of "books few people should read"?

  4. Brief mentions of Sartor Resartus already had it on my list, but now you've got me wanting to read it beyond what any reasonable person should want. Because I really, really need another book that I'll read over and over and still not understand, and all.

    But it certainly does sound like my thing, doesn't it?

  5. I'm maybe just a little too attracted to books few people should read. Machismo. Or masochism.

    How strong is your taste for 17th century English prose? Carlyle is the anti-Johnson here, anti-18th century. No more perfectly balanced sentences and smoothly ordered thoughts. Instead, nonsense, chaos, digressions from digressions, cheap jokes and depthless irony.

    I was just looking at the Cambridge Companion, and it has Melville reading Sartor Resartus during the composition of Moby-Dick, which makes sense. But what about the chaotic Mardi? Melville didn't need Carlyle's example to write a wandering book.

    So, nicole, yes! There's the Melville connection, plus Carlyle is the man bringing the German Romantics into English. Sartor Resartus is cousin to E.T.A. Hoffmann and Goethe.

  6. Ah, 17th and 18th century English prose...ahem...yes...you see...that would be Ultimate Humiliation Time. Have not read...anything? Except for what you've seen on my blog, I think. I am way ahead of myself doing so much 19th century biz, let alone 20th (and 21st). This is why I'm always saying I need to go back to the "beginning."

    I think I would fall more on the masochism than machismo side, except that it's fun. I guess masochism is fun for masochists, though.

  7. I love 17th-century prose! Or at least I did in that college class I took way back a long time ago. I'm hoping to read some Sir Thomas Browne in the not-too-distant future. I guess SR is for me, eventually.

  8. Moby-Dick has really made me want to revisit Sir Thomas Browne. Soon, maybe. Who knows.

    Mostly, you read the books you ought to be reading.

  9. I knew you'd be able to answer my question! I had no idea there were diferent sorts of Utilitarianism. It makes sense of course but whenever in school days it would come up it was always JS Mill. Carlyle's take on slavery is rather disturbing and surprising. It also bothered Emerson very much

  10. I loved the way this post was written, and that evidently carries over even to the comments--Carlyle the "anti-Johnson"! Indeed!

  11. Thanks, Jeanne. I had good collaborators this week.