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!