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No–Maybe–Yes

January 10, 2007

If what’s anthologized in the Norton is any indication, I’ve just read the central chapters of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. The Second Book consists of the autobiography of the hero, professor Teufelsdrock; chapters 7-9, “The Everlasting No,” “The Centre of Indifference,” and “The Everlasting Yea,” form the climax of the professor’s tale, as he experiences an epiphany (as a young man) that greatly changes his outlook on life. I think Carlyle’s really onto something in the final section. It will take some explanation (and lots of quotations from Carlyle — which will be delightful) to get there, but I think it’s worth it.

“The Everlasting No” consists of the professor’s journey into unbelief and his attempts to escape from it. He recognizes that the old systems of religion (Christianity in particular) are no longer viable to him intellectually or personally. Faced with the dominance of the scientific outlook and its inability to provide answers to his yearnings (“Soul is not synonymous with Stomach”), the professor sees nothing but meaninglessness:

Thus has the bewildered Wanderer to stand, as so many have done, shouting question after question into the Sibyl-cave of Destiny, and receive no Answer but an Echo. It is all a grim Desert, this once-fair world of his; wherein is heard only the howling of wild beasts, or the shrieks of despairing, hate-filled men; and no Pillar of Cloud by day, and no Pillar of Fire by night, any longer guides the Pilgrim. To such length has the spirit of Inquiry carried him. “But what boots it (was thut’s)?” cries he: “it is but the common lot in this era. […] The whole world is, like thee, sold to Unbelief; their old Temples of the Godhead, which for long have not been rain-proof, crumble down; and men ask now: Where is the Godhead; our eyes never saw him?”

Thus:

To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.

A difficult place, indeed — and one with which I’m sure we’re all more or less familiar. Eventually, after “smoldering in sulphurous slow-consuming fire” (you can see how well Carlyle can turn an unwieldy phrase) the professor has his first of two epiphanies. The language in the paragraph describing it is deeply symbollic; the professor comes to a realization “over pavements hot as Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace,” asking himself what exactly it is that he’s afraid of. He decides that Death is the fearmonger, and to simply deny that he’s afraid — the “EVERLASTING NO”

Death? Well, Death; and say the pangs of Tophet too, and all that the Devil and Man may, will or can do against thee! Hast thou not a heart; canst thou not suffer whatsoever it be; and, as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Tophet itself under thy feet, while it consumes thee? Let it come, then; I will meet it and defy it!’ And as I so thought, there rushed like a stream of fire over my whole soul; and I shook base Fear away from me forever. I was strong, of unknown strength; a spirit, almost a god. Ever from that time, the temper of my misery was changed: not Fear or whining Sorrow was it, but Indignation and grim fire-eyed Defiance.

The language in the passage, and the general fire of his rebellion, make it clear that the the similarity is to Satan’s “non serviam,” famously depicted in Milton (and Joyce). Carlyle is clearly placing his character in this frame, but only as a stepping stone to get to the “Yes” which will come later.

The chapter between “No” and “Yea,” “The Center of Indifference,” is suitably dull. The professor explains that the world, now that he is not afraid of it, is hardly worth his concern. His mood is one of world-weary detachment, watching events pass with great indifference — hence the chapter’s title. I don’t think it’s terribly important to the book’s overall meaning, or to the final epiphany, besides the mere fact that it sits squarely between the “No” and “Yea” chapters. It’s more a formal narrative necessity than anything else.

So onto “Yea.” The epiphany comes, suitably, on a mountaintop. Carlyle begins the chapter by having the professor move back into one of the book’s main concerns, the conflict between the banal desires of the body and mind, which can be explained by science, and the higher yearnings of the human soul. This, I would say, is the prime concern of the book. Carlyle is writing from a decidedly post-Christian perspective, yet he is still convinced that each person has divinity (or the Infinite, or God) in them, and that this part yearns for greater purpose than can be explained materialistically. For example:

Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force: thus have we a warfare; in the beginning, especially, a hard-fought battle. For the God-given mandate, Work thou in Well-doing, lies mysteriously written, in Promethean Prophetic Characters, in our hearts; and leaves us no rest, night or day, till it be deciphered and obeyed; till it burn forth, in our conduct, a visible, acted Gospel of Freedom. And as the clay-given mandate, Eat thou and be filled, at the same time persuasively proclaims itself through every nerve,–must not there be a confusion, a contest, before the better Influence can become the upper?

This is from the first paragraph of “The Everlasting Yea,” setting the stage for what’s to come. A little further on, we have the scene of the epiphany: the professor sits on a mountaintop and gazes upon the towns beneath him. He senses the beauty of his surroundings, and is awestruck by the beauty of Nature: “Or what is Nature? Ha! why do I not name thee God?” This is lovely, but fortunately he doesn’t stop there — it’s only the first pang of beauty that awakes him from his indifference. The yearning for beauty awakens in him an understanding of the “vain interminable controversy” in every soul, which he describes in glowing terms (this passage is gorgeous):

Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two: for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose.

Here we have the first kernel of the construct: man is unhappy because he is Great, and longs for nothing less that perfect happiness. The infinite nature of the longing means that it cannot be satiated.

This leads man to believe that the Universe, and therefore his Life, owes him something: he wants perfect happiness, and thinks that it can be attained. “By certain valuations, and averages, of our own striking, we come upon some sort of average terrestrial lot; this we fancy belongs to us by nature, and of indefeasible rights.” We want more things, in the hopes that acquiring more with lead to greater happiness. This goes beyond mere materialism and the accumulation of goods; we also want more of the less tangible qualities — love, contentment, happiness. This leads to envy, as man is lead to believe that there is a certain amount of happiness in the world, and that when others get some that means there is less for him. The professor’s answer to this is simple, but I think it’s quite striking the context Carlyle has created:

“So true is it, what I then said, that the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator. Nay, unless my Algebra deceive me, Unity itself divided by Zero will give Infinity. Make thy claim of wages a zero, then; thou hast the world under thy feet. Well did the Wisest of our time write: ‘It is only with Renunciation (Entsagen) that Life, properly speaking, can be said to begin.’

“I asked myself: What is this that, ever since earliest years, thou hast been fretting and fuming, and lamenting and self-tormenting, on account of? Say it in a word: is it not because thou art not HAPPY? Because the THOU (sweet gentleman) is not sufficiently honored, nourished, soft-bedded, and lovingly cared for? Foolish soul! What Act of Legislature was there that thou shouldst be Happy? A little while ago thou hadst no right to be at all.

First of all, I love how this is formed as an equation — what an indirect way of saying: “stop thinking about being happy!” The professor then moves on to explain how the key is to focus on what you’re doing, mind the actuality, etc:

Yes here, in this poor, miserable, hampered, despicable Actual, wherein thou even now standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal: work it out therefrom; and working, believe, live, be free. Fool! the Ideal is in thyself, the impediment too is in thyself: thy Condition is but the stuff thou art to shape that same Ideal out of: what matters whether such stuff be of this sort or that, so the Form thou give it be heroic, be poetic? O thou that pinest in the imprisonment of the Actual, and criest bitterly to the gods for a kingdom wherein to rule and create, know this of a truth: the thing thou seekest is already with thee, ‘here or nowhere,’ couldst thou only see!

These words are very similar to a passage — also an epiphany — from J. S. Mill’s Autobiograpy, which I posted a while back on my other blog.

What Carlyle is advocating here, more or less, is that being Blessed (namely, being alive at all) is more important that being Happy. This sentiment is awfully close to platitudes we hear often in our lives: make the best of what you have, you only have one life to live, be present in the moment, etc. One of my favorite aspects of “existential” literature of the sort Carlyle is writing in Sartor Resartus is that it turns thoughts that would otherwise feel banal into epiphanies — by telling it well, by telling it new, by making it deeper, wider, and more beautiful. The professor’s path through defiance, indifference, and affirmation is one which seems hardwired into human life. Some of us may go through it once, some us may go through it every day. Many of us read books like Sartor Resartus just to remember.

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3 comments

  1. Sir, my first ever comment on your esteemed blog.

    In my humble estimation (I believe I am no longer a man of any serious ideas) the loss of faith in Carlyle’s era requires no “non serviam” but is sort of a solace. When he mentions the absence of an answer, but instead an echo, that’s just the comfort and danger of autonomy, no?

    And autonomy’s a lot easier to swallow if you can point a finger at it and call it evil, I think.

    The following generation(s), because this business tends to be serially reactionary, require a “non serviam” because the absence of answers is no longer comforting, esp. after a world war.

    Some blog.


  2. Wonderful bit.

    Yesterday I was walking along and wondering “what is the point of living?” [because this is the kind of lighthearted thinking i do on walks and also because, now that I have jettisoned all prior assumptions (which were all answers and no questions) now i am left with only the question.] And the affirmation (because now i can find no answers, only affirmations) came back “The business of living is being alive.” To my surprise, it satisfied.
    Anyway, Carlyle says it better.
    Thanks for this.


  3. I think the Professor’s call into the cave and hearing nothing but his echo is indeed an example of autonomy. But the larger issue is meaninglessness, not only in that meaning is no longer provided by religious belief, but that there’s nothing to replace it with.

    The absence of an answer is certainly not comforting to the Professor, in fact it’s terrifying, so he decides that he (1) will not serve and (2) doesn’t care if he dies.

    I think my post is a little muddled in this regard. The “non serviam” and the “everlasting no” are distinct, but the hell-fire language of the passage bridges the gap to create a similarity, at least in my mind.



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