Tuesday, May 24, 2005

For Roy

Roy Edroso wrote a nice lengthy post on Thomas Carlyle's not quite so reactionary as supposed but still, evidently, pretty fucking reactionary History of the French Revolution, in which Roy asserts:

Oh, have I mentioned that this is among the most gorgeous English prose ever written? And that it defies comparison to anything, literary or political, in our own poor, benighted age

I admit it's purpley, even genius. But -- such is individual taste -- it's not pleasing to me like, say, Oscar Wilde's; it's too dense, like Henry James's. I admit that this is not a "fault" of such Masters, but my own.

Anyway, there's something I can lean on, since I'm a lightweight in such matters. This is from an A.J.P. Taylor lecture on Carlyle and Macaulay:

His style is like nothing else in English. Carlyle acquired it by translating Goethe, and his writing is, in fact, German put into English word for word. If put back into German, it appears simple and unaffected. It sheds a quaint light on the two languages that Goethe, the most classical of German writers, should have inspired the most uncouth writer of English. His ideas are those of a man of the people who has suddenly become articulate -- if only in Anglo-German: ideas spluttering and half-formed, ideas of revolt and rejection with nothing constructive to follow, but rooted in humanity, not in class feeling or good taste.

Regarding Carlyle's point-of-view, also of some interest to Roy, Taylor says:

Carlyle was Macaulay's opposite. He was the greatest master of English prose to spring from the people. This does not mean that he admired the people or got on with them. He despised the class to which he belonged and ran after Lady Ashburton as eagerly as D.H. Lawrence, his twentieth-century equivalent, cultivated Lady Ottoline Morell. Yet there was no escaping his origins...

Carlyle sensed the masses as no other writer has done. He expressed their outlook, against his own conscious convictions. He was shaped in the turbulent years when the masses of England straightened their backs and shook off respect, the great age of the Chartrists. Carlyle had all the Chartrist hatred of privilege, their contempt for 'the grouse-shooting aristocracy'. He knew what was at stake in 'the Condition-of-England question'. But when Chartism really stirred, Carlyle backed away. He should have been the greatest of the Chartrists. Instead he went sour. Betrayal is too common to need an explanation, but few have paid so high a penalty. Emerson once asked an anti-slavery agitator in prison: "Friend, why art thou here?' The other answered: 'Why art thou not here?' The question rang through Carlyle's mind. Why was he not there?

Taylor goes on to mention that Carlyle valued everything that he personally was not, "denouncing things that he did well". Then he gets into his real appraisal:

He was a nihilist, a destroyer, despite his doctrine of toil and the heroic virtues. He once found a perfect subject, the French Revolution. That really was the end of the world, and Carlyle wrote of it like a man possessed. There is little narrative; a great many innacuracies; none of that simplifying that we expect from the ordinary historian. Though he worked hard before he wrote it, he did not even keep up with the scholarship of his time, and Darwin was no doubt right when he said: 'As far as I could judge, I never met a man with a mind so ill adapted for scientific research.' No matter, The French Revolution is the only work in which the past is not merely narrated, but re-created. Carlyle has no gift for historical movement; he never describes how one situation developed into another. There is the lightening flash of genius, in which every detail stands out to remain vivid in the memory for ever. And, after it, new darkness, until broken by another vivid flash. The French Revolution is the most frightening of all works in history; and Carlyle was as frightened as any of his readers. He had meant to escape from Chartism into history; instead he found a Terror worse than before.

It needed the end of the world to find a use for Carlyle's gifts. There is nothing more impressive than a prophet who comes off; nothing more absurd than a prophet who does not. And for most of the time Carlyle did not come off. The world he lived in was not coming to an end. It was not being ruined by democracy and materialism. On the contrary, it was becoming more sensible, more tolerant, a better place to live in -- and no thanks to Carlyle... [He] regarded liberty as an aristocratic fad which would be blown away when the people came into their own. Liberty is indeed the touchstone of every man's career. Do you respect the judgements of others as much as your own? Or are you so confident of your own judgement that you would trample that of everyone else under foot? Macaulay gave the answer for liberty, Carlyle for tyranny. The worse cause had the more powerful advocate. All the same, it was the worse cause.

I have a soft spot for snotty reactionaries who write well and who remain human (two caveats -- possibly one? -- that cull 99 percent of the contenders); I suppose Roy does, too. One can find things to admire in the Carlyles, Menckens, even the John Simons of the world.