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Booklog: Sartor Resartus

February 20, 2007

Sartor Resartus
Thomas Carlyle
Read: 2.20.07
Rating: Good

While reading the TLS recently, I was very amused by one reviewer’s critique of a book of popular philosophy, in which the book’s author was accused of “chewing off more than he can bite.” This succinctly sums up how I feel about Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. I began reading it with great expectations, and continued reading with some patience despite my curtailing interest, held off by some excellent passages and chapters. However, once I reached a certain point I realized this book wasn’t going to be what I wanted it to be, and no longer felt like it was worth the effort I had to invest to understand its meaning and purpose — a meaning that was simultaneously twisted and repetitive. It took me two weeks to read the last ten pages.

This being said, Sartor Resartius is inspiring at intervals, and certainly humorous. Carlyle’s goal is to poke fun at, overcome, and offer an alternative to what he considers the excessively materialistic and mechanistic spirit of his age. Carlyle is writing at a newly post-Christian point in intellectual history, and his hope is that man’s old religious longings will be filtered into a newfound wonder at the joys of life, as opposed to utilitarian “motive-grinding.”

Sound’s great, right? That’s what I thought.

However, Carlyle’s method is overly ornate, especially to those reading this text 175 years later. The conceit of the book is this: the narrator, an Englishman, is presenting to the English public the contents of a collection of notebooks composed by a German professor, Teufelsdrock, who has developed an all-inclusive “clothes-philosophy” that covers all of life. Sartor Resartus alternates between the professor’s high-flying, poorly organized missives, and the explanations and apologies of the book’s narrator/editor. Typically, I love this type of indirection — Kierkegaard is one of my favorite writers, and the approach Carlyle takes is eerily similar. Sadly, Carlyle is simply not Kierkegaard, and his indirect style is not as rewarding or as enjoying as Soren’s. The result is that the point’s central point, that Man is a spiritual animal, and yearns for the infinite beyond the finite, is prepared, danced around, repeated, and summarized throughout the text. I’m sure that if I was reading this text 150 years ago, I would find its style more charming and original, and its points more revolutionary — but the essence of a classic is it’s ability to re-present seemingly obvious truths in exciting new ways, and I don’t think Sartor Resartus comes close to meeting this mark.

That being said, some passages are lovely, and do translate across the years in a fresh, dynamic way. Here are three which nicely encapsulate the book’s overall scheme and act as good examples of Carlyle’s fanciful style.

1 – on the “motive-millwrights” and their mechanistic philosophy:

Fantastic tricks enough man has played, in his time; has fancied himself to be most things, down even to an animated heap of Glass: but to fancy himself a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on, was reserved for this his latter era. There stands he, his Universe one huge Manger, filled with hay and thistles to be weighed against each other; and looks long-eared enough. Alas, poor devil! spectres are appointed to haunt him: one age he is hag-ridden, bewitched; the next, priest-ridden, befooled; in all ages, bedevilled. And now the Genius of Mechanism smothers him worse than any Nightmare did; till the Soul is nigh choked out of him, and only a kind of Digestive, Mechanic life remains. In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else: the world would indeed grind him to pieces; but cannot he fathom the Doctrine of Motives, and cunningly compute these, and mechanize them to grind the other way?

2 – on those who think they understand the “system of nature”

To the Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident, of its little native Creek may have become familiar: but does the Minnow understand the Ocean Tides and periodic Currents, the Trade-winds, and Monsoons, and Moon’s Eclipses; by all which the condition of its little Creek is regulated, and may, from time to time (unmiraculously enough), be quite overset and reversed? Such a minnow is Man; his Creek this Planet Earth; his Ocean the immeasurable All; his Monsoons and periodic Currents the mysterious Course of Providence through Aeons of Aeons.

3 – on the sense of wonder we should have in the face of life-itself, despite our ability to categorize and understand its mechanisms:

That the Thought-forms, Space and Time, wherein, once for all, we are sent into this Earth to live, should condition and determine our whole Practical reasonings, conceptions, and imagings or imaginings, seems altogether fit, just, and unavoidable. But that they should, furthermore, usurp such sway over pure spiritual Meditation, and blind us to the wonder everywhere lying close on us, seems nowise so. Admit Space and Time to their due rank as Forms of Thought; nay even, if thou wilt, to their quite undue rank of Realities: and consider, then, with thyself how their thin disguises hide from us the brightest God-effulgences! Thus, were it not miraculous, could I stretch forth my hand and clutch the Sun? Yet thou seest me daily stretch forth my hand and therewith clutch many a thing, and swing it hither and thither. Art thou a grown baby, then, to fancy that the Miracle lies in miles of distance, or in pounds avoirdupois of weight; and not to see that the true inexplicable God-revealing Miracle lies in this, that I can stretch forth my hand at all; that I have free Force to clutch aught therewith? Innumerable other of this sort are the deceptions, and wonder-hiding stupefactions, which Space practices on us.

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3 comments

  1. Two weeks to read the last ten pages sounds painful. Too bad it wasn’t up to your expectations. I’ve not read Carlyle before but he and Emerson were great friends and supposedly have a fantastic collection of letters I hope to get to someday.


  2. Too bad indeed — especially since Carlyle shows flashes of pure brilliance. The bit about the minnow is spectacular.


  3. I just finished an old, old copy of this book. It sort of reminds me a bit of Melville’s Pierre for some reason. Turgid and sometimes befuddling but punctuated with lines of brilliance. It seems existentialist to me. A reflection on the absurdity of the materialistic rat race. Disturbing reflections on our institutions and society. I like this line: “Thus, like a God-created, fire-breathering Spirit-host, we emerge from the Inane; hast stormfully across the astonished Earth; then plunge again into the Inane.” A heretical read from nearly 200 years ago!



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