Thomas Carlyle's "Real-Phantasmagory": The Historical Sublime and Humanist Politics in Past and Present

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

Thomas Carlyle's "Real-Phantasmagory": The Historical Sublime and Humanist Politics in Past and Present


Gosta, Tamara, Studies in the Literary Imagination


... the dead continue to live on, to survive beyond life, in the afterlife that we call reading.

--Julian Wolfreys (185)

In a 1964 article appearing in PMLA, David DeLaura mapped out the intricate influence Thomas Carlyle had over Matthew Arnold, demonstrating Arnold's tenacious and ambivalent attitude towards the Sage of Chelsea. The ambivalence Arnold harbored towards Carlyle, according to DeLaura, led Arnold to "persistently misrepresen[t] the larger shape and effect of Carlyle's writings" (129). In 1971, D. R. M. Wilkinson responds to what he understands as DeLaura's and the overall academic community's propensity to "being just to the past," or in other words, to being just to Carlyle (225). For Wilkinson, scholars have been too forgiving of Carlyle's all-but-unforgivable style and rhetoric, not to mention questionable ideologies. The main problem with Carlyle, Wilkinson claims, is a certain naivete as he "invites a True/False attitude in his readers that is difficult to sustain for a lifetime" (226). Wilkinson posits that Carlyle's weakness is "not simply that his divinity is vague and sometimes merely a rhetorical phantasm, but that in blending the unblendable--Jehovah, Odin, Destiny, and even 'Nature'--he was unwittingly damaging the cause of morality and faith by blurring it" (227-28). Carlyle is not only deluding his readers with a phantasmal rhetoric bordering on the irreligious and of questionable morality, but also, Wilkinson suggests, with "his technique" designed "to win assent less by argument than by an attack on the heart," adding "that in most cases the effect is enhanced in direct proportion to the solemn naivete of the heart in question" (226). The Sage has been handled roughly by many a literary critic, but Wilkinson's evaluation of Carlyle underscores the critical atmosphere that surrounds Carlyle well into the twenty-first century.

Perhaps my heart exhibits a solemn naivete, but like the phantasms that haunt the pages of his works, Thomas Carlyle haunts me. The Carlyle who haunts me is the Carlyle who looked humankind in the face in Past and Present, pleading: "Human faces should not grin on one like masks; they should look on one like faces!" (153). As one of the work's first reviewers, Friedrich Engels noted a strikingly "human chord." Staging Carlyle as a reluctant socialist, Engels nevertheless sympatheticaIly judged the book as the only one worth reading in the English language and one "which strikes a human chord, presents human relations and shows traces of a human point of view." Later critics have been less enthusiastic about the work. Raymond Williams, for example, argued that Past and Present demonstrates Carlyle's "steady withdrawal from genuinely social thinking into the preoccupations with personal power" (83). Tom Toremans has aptly pointed out that throughout the body of Carlyle criticism, Past and Present and its year of publication--1843--have been persistently identified as "the decisive locus of transition from promise to decline" (204). Past and Present, then, figures a Carlyle representing at once the fading of his humanist ideas and emergence of his ultraconservative or allegedly proto-fascist ideology. (1) But the primordially ideological criticism of Past and Present tended to iron out the complex wrinkles in the formal and rhetorical structures of the work. Ralph Waldo Emerson's review of Past and Present should invite us to read Carlyle more closely: "whatever thought or motto has once appeared to him fraught with meaning, becomes an omen to him henceforward, and is sure to return with deeper tones and weightier import, now as promise, now as threat, now as confirmation" (224-25).

Past and Present is a promise and a threat. Carlyle perhaps best summed up his estimation of the work in a letter to Emerson: "it is a somewhat fiery and questionable 'Tract of the Times'" (CLO 16: 76-77). Formally, the text is divided into four sections, which subtly threaten the binary structure promised in the title. …

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