Introduction: Thomas Carlyle and the Totalitarian Temptation

By Toremans, Tom; Gosta, Tamara | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Thomas Carlyle and the Totalitarian Temptation


Toremans, Tom, Gosta, Tamara, Studies in the Literary Imagination


This thematic issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination brings together both established and emerging scholars in the field of Carlyle Studies to address Carlyle's paradoxical and often controversial politics from a variety of angles. A reconsideration of the political and ideological views permeating Carlyle's work--ranging from his early aesthetic and social criticism to his historiographies and biographies--presents itself as a highly timely intervention, not only in the field of Carlyle studies, but in the study of nineteenth-century literature as such. Far from a belated attempt at apologetic restoration, the issue results from a shared conviction among the contributors that there is at present an acute need to re-examine critically Carlyle's politics after the often uncritical assumption of his adherence to a totalitarian ideology that dominated the twentieth-century reception of his work. The articles included in the volume span Carlyle's career from his earliest writings to his biography of Frederick the Great and re-examine Carlyle's politics from rhetorical, historical, biographical, discursive, and philosophical/theoretical angles.

The narrative that has persistently determined Carlyle's twentieth-century reception is that of the degeneration of a promising "Romantic" prophet into an altogether tragic and ultraconservative "Victorian" sage. This narrative is familiar enough and was most economically articulated by Harold Bloom in his introduction to the 1986 volume of Modern Critical Views on Carlyle:

    In his profound anxiety to overturn the empirical view of the cosmos
as a
   vast machine, Carlyle divinised nature and debased man. It is
Carlyle,
   and not his critic Nietzsche, who is the forerunner of
twentieth-century
   fascism, with its mystical exaltation of the state and its
obliteration
   of compassion and the rights of the individual. That shadow cannot be
   removed from the later Carlyle, author of such efforts as "The
Nigger
   Question" (1849) and "Shooting Niagara: and After?"
(1867), and
   uncritical idolater of those iron men, Oliver Cromwell and Frederick
the
   Great. It is the Carlyle who wrote during the fifteen years from 1828
to
   1843 who still matters to us. The author of "Signs of the
Times" (1829)
   and "Characteristics" (1831), of Sartor Resartus
 (completed 1831)
   and Past and Present
 (1843) remains the sage who fathered Ruskin,
   inspired Emerson, and stimulated the social prophecy of William
Morris.
   If time has darkened Carlyle, it has shown also that there is a
perpetual
   remnant of vision in him, a voice that still rises out of the
wilderness.
   (14-15) 

This "perpetual remnant of vision" has consistently been located in Carlyle's early critical engagement with German Romanticism and idealism, from which he derived the poetic insights and rhetorical means to effect his own highly singular late-Romantic critique of British utilitarianism. In his History of Modern Criticism, for example, Rene Wellek claimed that

    From a strictly literary-critical perspective, one must deplore that
   Carlyle chose the path of virtue: the shift to biography,
didacticism,
   moralism, and the criterion of "sincerity" have not
advanced the cause of
   criticism. Carlyle's temporary adoption of the creed of
historicism and
   of German romantic symbolism brought him much closer to an
understanding
   of poetry. But on the other hand, one should recognise that
Carlyle's
   moralism was basic to his personality.... Carlyle's harsh
dualism between
   good and evil in man, his recognition of catastrophes and cataclysms
in
   history, and even his worship of lived experience as "fact"
represents a
   view of the world (and thus of art) that must be faced in order to be
   refuted. (110) 

A brief look at the history of Carlyle's reception since the early twentieth century demonstrates that his work has been systematically refuted on the basis of ideological bias or too hasty reading, rather than critically examined or, for that matter, "faced. …

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