Wednesday, September 26, 2007

His rejected screech-owl Oration

Why read an antique, long, semi-accurate history of the French Revolution? Because Carlyle was a great writer.

A great stylist, really. He wrote at a very high rhetorical pitch, full of epic similes and exclamation points. Some passages sound like they should be declaimed. Except the weight is undercut by his irony and humor, to the extent that it’s often hard to tell if he means to be taken entirely seriously. (Or, as I suspect is the case with Sartor Resartus, it’s all meant seriously, and the irony is meant not to undercut the ideas but to conceal their outrageousness). Carlyle’s essay on Mirabeau, written around the same time as The French Revolution, is an extreme example of his style – one does not so much read as decode it.

An example of Carlyle at his best. It is the evening of the 8th of Thermidor. Robespierre and most of his allies will be dead within 48 hours. Here’s Carlyle:

“Robespierre, for his part, glides over at evening to his Jacobin House of Lords; unfolds there, instead of some adequate resolution, his woes, his uncommon virtues, incorruptibilities; then secondly, his rejected screech-owl Oration; - reads this latter over again; and declares that he is ready to die at a moment’s warning. Thou shalt not die! shouts Jacobinism from its thousand throats. ‘Robespierre, I will drink the hemlock with thee’, cries Painter David, ‘Je boirai la cigue avec toi’; - a thing not essential to do, but which, in the fire of the moment, can be said.”

Why look, there’s everything I mentioned. E.g., the epic similes: the “Jacobin House of Lords” in place of the Hall of the Jacobin Society, and “Jacobinism”, not an –ism at all but some group of assembled Jacobinists, certainly with fewer than 1,000 throats. The novelistic characterization is good, with Robespierre’s pettiness, ego, and self-pity deftly sketched. The last line is unusually zingy, almost an aphorism. Or a punchline.

I can read this sort of stuff at length with great gusto.

Modern Library edition, p. 692.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree with your sentiment here -- it's practically impossible to convince most people I know that it's this kind of thing that exists in the Classics, much less in a writer of the era and style embodied by Carlyle. I reread Herodotus whenever possible for those wonderful little snap- lines, like where he describes Artemisia as (and this is a losse translation, mind, you -- it's much funnier in the original) "really quite pretty, though that kind of sentiment would be likely to get you killed if you mentioned it to her." It's those little moments that make you feel, when you're reading Carlyle or Suetonius, Alcott or Catullus, that you're the holder of the most amazing secret...a secret that no one else particularly cares about...and it gives you a completely different relationship to books than you ever had while you were dutifully slogging through them in school.