Monday, August 23, 2010

Produce! Produce! - Thomas Carlyle and the slogan of Wuthering Expectations

Since I started Wuthering Expectations, I’ve had this mass of overheated gibberish dragging along at the bottom of the blog:

I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin.  Produce!  Produce!  Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God's name!  'Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then.  Up, up!  Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might.  Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.

This is Thomas Carlyle, the end of Book 2, Chapter 9 of the literary staple Sartor Resartus (1833-4).  It’s the, or a, climax of the book, the point where Herr Teufelsdröckh, having said No! to the EVERLASTING NO, says Yea! To the EVERLASTING YEA.

As with any writing by Carlyle, this passage is at once serious – I mean, I think it contains some genuine wisdom – and ridiculous, self-mocking.  A Worldkin?  Or that “Produce! Produce!”  Laughable.  And the wisest wisdom is borrowed:

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work (John 9:4, both from the King James Version)

The red ink in my Bible reminds me that the last line is spoken by Christ himself, so Carlyle has bent the idea just a bit.  Or perhaps not.  Carlyle’s favorite rhetorical methods in Sartor Resartus are paradox and, his own word, nonsense.  The book is deliberately packed with joyous nonsense.

Stefanie at So Many Books has just written about Sartor Resartus, as a Scottish challenge book, and as part of her continued study of Emerson and his world.  Her description of the book is exactly accurate.  She provides a list of predecessors – Sterne, Goethe – which is also correct, and a logical place to look for help with such a strange, difficult book.

I’ve now read Sartor Resartus twice, and parts of it several times.  Thirty pages or so were assigned in my Brit Lit II class, many years ago, the pieces in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, Fifth edition.  I’m looking at them now.  I dutifully read each word and turned each onion-skin page, and was surprised, irritated, to discover, at the end, that I had understood nothing at all.  An insight, a new one to me: I began again.  I reread the assignment.  Ah – a young man has a spiritual crisis, but is somehow able to rouse himself enough not to discover meaning but to reject meaninglessness:

‘What art thou afraid of? Wherefore, like a coward, dost thou forever pip and whimper, and go cowering and trembling? Despicable biped! what is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee? Death?” (Book 2, Ch. 7)

Meaning follows, but slowly, imperfectly, always imperfectly.  Produce!  Produce!  I really do say that to myself, on the days when I’m wondering not just what to write, but why.  So I produce something now, my pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, and save the meaning of it all for later.  The struggle against Chaos is never-ending.


  1. I never noticed the quote on the bottom of your blog! Guess I have never scrolled down that far, I say with chagrin. Your comment about being irritated reminded me of a bit at the end of the book where the Editor (I think it's him, don't have the book with me so I don't know for sure) releases the "irritated readers". That made me laugh because yes, I was irritated by that point!

    The book is packed full for its small size and I wonder that Carlyle chose to write his philosophy as "fiction" instead of an outright philosophical treatise. He continually makes fun of and casts doubt on Teufelsdrockh and even the Editor thinks him a bit goofy sometimes which begs the reader to discount the philosophy too. Perhaps it is the power of Carlyle that in the end we really can't discount Herr T or the book.

  2. That quotation has gotten a little dusty.

    You've got it - the form is designed to undermine the argument. What's real and what's just clothing? The reader can't take anything for granted.

    Plus, it's fun, it's enormously fun. Carlyle is cocking his snoot at good 18th century prose. He's declaring his freedom.

    Plus plus, he has some models. Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, which Carlyle had translated earlier in his career, is a similar hybrid, although the tone is different. Or think of the Walpurgisnacht scenes in Faust.

  3. I really love this blog post. I've had Sartor Resartus on my bookshelf for years. I need more joyous nonsense in my writing and in my life. Glad I ran across your writing! Best wishes to you and your craft. -Hunter