A First Look: Carlyle

Industrialism as Progress

A First Look: Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle may have been one of the great prophets of industrialism, but he was hardly its greatest champion. Much of his life was spent declaiming the crass materialism of industrial life, and he is remembered today as much for his fustian reactionism as his early insight. Even in his own time, his name was all-but-synonymous with anti-industrial politics—as in the Frederic Harrison lecture we have already encountered. “Let Mr. Carlyle pronounce anathemas on the steam-engine,” says Harrison. “No latter-day sermons or societies of St. George can get rid of them” (425). Before industrial progress can be properly feted, the one person who must be refuted is Carlyle, and Harrison’s refutation has the pithy completeness of Johnson’s kicked stone; Carlyle, he says, is “all wrong about the nineteenth century” (415). And certainly Harrison himself is not all wrong to think so.

If we wanted to find examples of Carlyle’s overweening skepticism, we would not have to look far—either in his own work or the literary criticism it has inspired. In John Ulrich’s telling, Carlyle (along with Cobbett and Disraeli) saw around him “a historical disruption explicitly marked by the degradation of labor and the body”—the source of which was nothing other than “industrial capitalism” (4). Susan Zlotnick refers, as if in shorthand, to the “massive critique of the industrial revolution that is familiar to readers of ‘Chartism’ (1839), Past and Present (1843), …” (14).

But there is more to Carlyle’s politics than strident reaction; there is also an idiosyncratic engagement with the power and possibility of industrial life. And one reason this other, less nostalgic side of Carlyle has been so-long obscured is because of the narrow way industrialism has been understood. If by industrialism is meant machine labor and the conditions of factory work, then Carlyle was indeed a staunch critic. But when industrialism is more broadly identified with post-Malthusian growth and the discourse of progress, then Carlyle’s response looks far more equivocal. In his own way, Carlyle embraced the promise of industrial progress. Not always in those terms, and not without his own idiosyncratic reservations, but ultimately he too celebrated the vast potential of the future which industrialism had revealed.

In that sense, his response was not altogether different from Harrison’s or Mill’s, Dickens’s or Spencer’s. When Carlyle looked at the world of industrialism, he saw the same, uneven mix of pain and promise. But he saw something else as well: a new model for social and spiritual development (one that would later be called “creative destruction.”) More specifically, an opportunity to gather the energies of industrial change and redirect them towards the production of spiritual, rather than economic goods. Seizing this opportunity required something more than arch resistance to the age of machinery; it required a kind of oblique partnership. So that, ultimately, what distinguishes Carlyle from his contemporaries is not that he opposed industrialism but that he tried to claim it for his own ends.

This is true throughout his work, but it is especially true of his one book of fiction Sartor Resartus (the fact that it’s especially true of that one book is already telling; it speaks to the unique relationship between industrial change and imaginative literature which I described in the introduction).1 For just this reason, Sartor will be my focus throughout. But, along the way, Past and Present will serve as foil, helping to distinguish what is unique to Sartor from what is general to Carlyle.

The Gospel of (Certain Kinds of) Work

Before we can really appreciate Carlyle’s attraction to industrial progress, we have to understand which aspects of industrialism he did, in fact, reject. That is the aim of this first section: to delimit Carlyle’s anti-industrial position so that, later, we can see beyond it.

Like everything else in Sartor, Carlyle’s treatment of industrial life is filtered through the clothes-philosophy, which in its crudest form implies that the material world is nothing other than the manifestation of spirit or, as Carlyle’s eminent alter-ego Teufelsdröckh repeatedly says, “the living visible Garment of God” (44). Spirit is the base and society the superstructure. That is the basic idea, but at different points in the text, the exact relation between base and superstructure does vary. The phrase I have just quoted, in which the world is made “the living visible Garment of God” is the strong, monist interpretation of Spirit, with the world as shadow and the divine as living reality. The obvious problem with this version, however, is that it is difficult to translate into an effective politics. If the problems of industrial society all point back, as it were, to God, then all attempts at redress spiral back to the question: what has happened to God that his reflection should be this rotted?

There is, however, another version of the clothes-philosophy, in which the world is not the shadow of the Divine but rather the shadow of humanity’s relation to the divine. And this allows for a far more direct kind of politics. If the world we know is a reflection not of Spirit but of our own spirituality, than the problems of our world can be traced to faithlessness and unbelief. As Carlyle puts in Past and Present: “When a Nation is unhappy, the old Prophet was right and not wrong in saying to it: Ye have forgotten God, ye have quitted the ways of God, or ye would not have been unhappy” (32). Eras of great stability are, in this framework, eras of strong spiritual conviction; eras of social convulsion, by contrast, must be eras of spiritual decay. The industrial era, as Sartor imagines it, is not just spiritually decadent but truly desiccated.

For the last three centuries, above all, for the last three quarters of a century, that same Pericardial Nervous Tissue (as we named it) of Religion, where lies the Life-essence of Society, has been smote at and perforated, needfully and needlessly; till now it is quite rent into shreds; and Society, long pining, diabetic, consumptive, can be regarded as defunct. (176)

“Religion” is the word Carlyle uses here, but what he means is something less like organized churches and more like the incarnation of faith in everyday life. That kind of religion has, he believes, been suffering under a 300 year assault which has left it “quite rent into shreds.” And with that shredding of religion has come the shredding of its shadow, society, which is now not only sick and consumptive, but truly “defunct.”

The many machines of industrialism are not causes, but rather symptoms of this deeper disease. They are also its most visible symptoms, and for that reason an effective way to measure how far the disease has spread. One way, for instance, to demonstrate the spiritual rot of industrial society is by going to the market and looking for false clothing and sham wares:

But to ask, How far, in all the several infinitely complected departments of social business, in government, education, in manual, commercial, intellectual fabrication of every sort, man’s Want is supplied by true Ware; how far by the mere Appearance of true Ware: …here truly is an Inquiry big with results for the future time, but to which hitherto only the vaguest answer can be given. If for the present, in our Europe, we estimate the ratio of Ware to Appearance of Ware so high even as to One to a Hundred …what almost prodigious saving may there not be anticipated, as the Statistics of Imposture advances, and so the manufacturing of Shams …gradually declines, and at length becomes all but wholly unnecessary! (86)

Here, it is the illusory character of commodities that makes the impoverishment of modern life precise and comprehensible—and they are overwhelmingly illusory. By Carlyle’s estimate, only 1 in every 100 objects in the early Victorian world is a true one. The rest have the “mere Appearance of true Ware.” That means that fully ninety-nine percent of everything he and his contemporaries see on a daily basis is a Sham—whether in business, government, education, philosophy, or literature. Only one percent is genuinely Divine, which gives a nice, round, numerical estimate of spiritual decay.

If we really want to appreciate the decline of spiritual life—and reach the roots of Carlyle’s reactionism—we need to go beyond the market and follow, instead, the familiar Marxist path into the hidden abode of production. For Carlyle as for Marx, production is not just a crucial human activity, but perhaps the most fundamental one. It is the process by which men take immaterial thoughts and transform them into physical things.2 Behind every piece of work is an Idea, something that exists in the mind and nowhere else; when we produce, we transform that Idea into a physical thing. This makes work the very hub of Carlyle’s clothes-philosophy, the place where Spirit becomes matter and divine creation finds its truest human analog. As Teufelsdröckh says “Our works are the mirror wherein the spirit first sees its natural lineaments” (126).

And not only does work stand at the center of the clothes-philosophy, it also stands at the very climax of Carlyle’s book, in the final paragraph of Teufelsdröckh’s “Everlasting Yea”:

I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. (149)

Think of all the things that Carlyle could have written at this pivotal moment, but did not. He could have exhorted us to “Pray! Pray!” or “Worship! Worship!” or “Love! Love!” And in a book as committed as Sartor to privileging Spirit over materiality, any one of them would have made good sense. But instead of these he wrote “Produce! Produce!” and in that way he makes clear that redemption will require something more vigorous than thought and more palpable than feeling. “Laborare est Orare,” as he says repeatedly in Past and Present.

Even then, there is something telling about “Produce! Produce!.” It is not only different from “Pray! Pray!” and “Love! Love!,” it is even different from “Work! Work!” That word—work—is a much more generic term, a term which gets applied to all sorts of activities that do not involve the creation of new physical things. Produce is far more specific, and also much more closely connected to the pressures of industrialism. One way, in fact, to respond to Carlyle’s exhortation is by asking a simple, historical question: produce how? In the way that artisans and laborers had been producing for thousands of years? Or according to the radically new techniques introduced by Boultons and Arkwrights? These are very different modes of production, and it is not clear which, exactly, Carlyle has in mind—assuming he even acknowledges such a distinction. After all, he may not. At times, he does seem to promote the idea that all work is essentially the same, all of it good and all of it noble. “For there is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in Work” (196) Carlyle tells us, in the opening sentence of a chapter from Past and Present called “Labour.” “All true Work is sacred,” he says elsewhere, “in all true Work, were it but true hand-labour, there is something of divineness” (202).

What could it matter, then, whether you work in a factory or an office, as a spinner, a manager, or a writer? Each one is a kind of work; each frees us from idleness; and each brings us closer to worship and to God.

Except that it does matter—to Carlyle, I mean. It matters whether you are free to produce the way laborers have produced in the past or whether you are constrained by the workings of industry. Too often, this distinction has been overlooked by Carlyle critics.3 Breton, in his book, Gospels & Grit, accuses Carlyle of ignoring the real conditions of production and valorizing an idea of work that has no material existence. “Carlyle’s frequent failure to distinguish between labour and Work,” he writes, “suggests a refusal to acknowledge industrial working conditions” (40).

But, really, there is no such refusal, and no such failure. Carlyle does distinguish between labor and work, albeit not in those terms. For Carlyle, there is work and then there is “noble work”—a recurrent phrase in his writing. And little question where industry belongs:

All men, if they work not as in a Great Taskmaster’s eye, will work wrong, work unhappily for themselves and you. …Industrial work, still under bondage to Mammon, the rational soul of it not yet awakened, is a tragic spectacle. Men in the rapidest motion and self-motion; restless, with convulsive energy, as if driven by Galvanism, as if possessed by a Devil; tearing asunder mountains, –to no purpose, for Mammonism is always Midas-eared! (PP 207)

Or, again:

Your cotton-spinning and thrice-miraculous mechanism, what is this too, by itself, but a larger kind of Animalism? Spiders can spin, Beavers can build and shew contrivance; the Ant lays up accumulation of capital, and has, for aught I know, a Bank of Antland. If there is no soul in man higher than all that, did it reach to sailing on the cloud-rack and spinning sea-sand; then I say, man is but an animal, a more cunning kind of brute: he has no soul, but only a succedaneum for salt. (PP 220)

For work to be noble, dignified, and human it must be done right. It must be done in the eye of the “Great Taskmaster” and not in the service of “Mammon”; and it must involve a kind of daily transubstantiation, the turning of an immaterial idea into a physical thing. Industrial work, with its “cotton-spinning and thrice-miraculous mechanism” is something else: devil’s work, undirected energy, mere animal activity. Work without soul, which may be better than idleness (everything is, in Carlyle) but which falls far below the level of real, noble work.

The same distinction is already present in Teufelsdröckh’s “Produce! Produce!,” with the phrase “produce it in God’s name!” This is not a simple rhetorical flourish, for which any oath would do: “produce it I tell you,” “produce it you ninny,” etc. It implies, more literally, that some production is done “in God’s name” and some in the Devil’s. Regardless of how many pins he helps make, the factory hand is barred from fulfilling the call to “Produce! Produce!” because he produces in the wrong way.

And because this “wrong” work is so strongly associate with industry, machines serve as the governing metaphor of false production and barren existence in Sartor, the truest figures of our fallen state. A universe “all void of life,” as Teufelsdröckh puts it at one point, is like “one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb” (127). By contrast, true production—the kind that is done “in God’s name”—has a decidedly pre-industrial cast.

“Not so,” Kathleen Blake says, in her Pleasures of Benthamism. At least not “when the Philosopher [Teufelsdröckh] is in a better state of mind. “Elsewhere,” she insists, “he salutes Iron Force and Coal Force in a breath with the force of Man. He salutes magic in Watt’s invention of the steam engine” (97). And to back up her claim, she quotes the following passage from Sartor, which is indeed an encomium to James Watt’s invention of the steam-engine:

but cannot the dullest hear Steam-engines clanking around him? Has he not seen the Scottish Brassmith’s IDEA (and this but a mechanical one) travelling on fire-wings round the Cape, and across two Oceans; and stronger than any other Enchanter’s Familiar; on all hands unweariedly fetching and carrying: at home, not only weaving Cloth; but rapidly enough overturning the whole old system of society; and, for Feudalism and Preservation of the Game, preparing us, by indirect but sure methods, Industrialism and the Government of the Wisest. (92)

Unfortunately, though, this passage doesn’t prove what Blake wants it to prove. It doesn’t show Carlyle’s embrace of industry. To the contrary, it shows just how much work must be done to make Carlyle even remotely sympathetic. All the machine-workers must be swept away and only the machine-creator left standing. Watt, after all, is not a user of machines but a maker of them, not just one of the hands but one of the minds behind industry. This is what makes this “Brassmith” a truly noble worker: the fact that he took an idea and turned it into a machine. Those who are condemned to use his machine, on the other hand, do no such thing.

This, incidentally, helps explain Carlyle’s famous appeal to the “master-workers” and “Captains of Industry,” in Past and Present–which should not be understood as a celebration of industry per se. Rather, it express a distant hope that certain, powerful figures in the world of industry might help to undo industry, or at least change it beyond recognition. It draws its force from Carlyle’s lingering attachment to the notion that even within the world of industry there are still people who work like artisans; industrial artisans like Watt. And more, that these few—being artisans and industrialists both—are uniquely positioned to reshape the world of industry into a new kind of craftsmanship, with due purposefulness restored.

Even here, in other words, the ideal of work is still overwhelmingly a pre-industrial one, centered around the independent artisan-worker. And its real paragon in Sartor is not Watt but the great dissenter, George Fox. Fox appears in Sartor as a cobbler, rather than a preacher. And he is working, as the scene opens, simply to stave off hunger and satisfy his wants:

What binds me here? Want! Want!—Ha, of what? Will all the shoe-wages under the Moon ferry me across into the far Land of Light? Only Meditation can, and devout Prayer to God. I will to the woods: the hollow of a tree will lodge me, wild berries feed me; and for Clothes, cannot I stitch myself one perennial suit of Leather! (159)

All this piece-work, Fox realizes, is getting him nowhere. He is producing like a machine, following the endless circle of desire and fulfillment, want and wages. If he wants to reach the “far Land of Light,” he is going to have to find a different path. And that means two things: first, a different spiritual path and then a different mode of production.

The spiritual path he chooses is the familiar one of ascetic simplicity and self-abnegation. No more shoe-making for shoe-wages; meditation and prayer, rather than tanned hides, will be his new life. Only there is one last thing Fox must do before he can start his new life: he must stitch a final piece of clothing, “a perennial suit of Leather” that he can wear for the remainder of his days. In this final act of workmanship, Fox finds a less mechanical method—and Carlyle finds his own paradigm for true production. This is how the scene closes on Fox. His new spiritual life we must imagine; his new mode of production we get to witness.

Let some living Angelo or Rosa, with seeing eye and understanding heart, picture George Fox on that morning, when he spreads out his cutting-board for the last time, and cuts cow-hides by unwonted patterns, and stitches them together into one continuous all-including Case, the farewell service of his awl! Stitch away, thou noble Fox: every prick of that little instrument is pricking into the heart of Slavery, and World-worship, and the Mammon-god. Thy elbows jerk, as in strong swimmer-strokes, and every stroke is bearing thee across the Prison-ditch, within which Vanity holds her Workhouse and Rag-fair, into lands of true Liberty; were the work done, there is in broad Europe one Free Man, and thou art he! (160)

There is a touch of irony, no doubt, in a phrase like “Stitch away, thou noble Fox,” but most of that irony is smothered by Carlyle’s familiar brand of insistent masculinism. The tone of the passage is chiefly ecstatic, and the image of Fox overwhelmingly heroic. This is Fox’s apotheosis, and it takes place inside the workshop, rather than out in the woods. His escape from the prison of material life into the spiritual world of “true Liberty” is sealed by the very vigorous, very powerful labor of Fox’s final act of production. It is not his prayers that carry him into a higher realm but rather his jerking elbows and stroking arms. Here, Carlyle insists, is production at its most divine, with the cloth firmly in the hands of a craftsman (rather than a power-loom) and that craftsman just as firmly committed to an immaterial Idea.

The truest production, in this labour theory of God, is still pre-industrial production, and from there flows the great bulk of Carlyle’s reactionary sentiment. His real aversion to industrialism is best understood as an aversion to the spiritual degradation wrought by the new techniques of industry. Which was turning the one thing most noble and needful—work—into devilish mammonism and mere pointless activity.

Creative Destruction

This nostalgia, however, is only part of the politics of Sartor Resartus, and not the most important part. It may be that machine labor is, for Carlyle, degraded labor; and it may also be that craftsmanship constitutes, for him, a higher kind of production. But, as I argued in the introduction, industrialism is as much about the horizon of economic change as it is about industry. Machines do not industrialism make, and the distinction Carlyle develops between machine labor and workshop labor hardly suffices to compass his full reaction to the growth that industrial change unleashed.

To begin to understand how Carlyle reconciles his attachment to preindustrial craftsmanship with his investment in industrial progress, it is worth starting with just one of his many peculiar images, that of the pengun. Pens, themselves, are cherished tools for Carlyle, instruments of true production in much the same way as the awl, the pincer, or the paste-horn. Indeed, they may be the truest, and most divine of all instruments:4

Never since Aaron’s Rod went out of practice, or even before it, was there such a wonder-working Tool: greater than all recorded miracles have been performed by Pens …The Word is well said to be omnipotent in this world: man, thereby divine, can create as by a Fiat. Awake, arise! Speak forth what is in thee. (150-1)

Teufelsdröckh is thinking, principally, of the awkward translation of John 1:1, which begins “In the Beginning was the Word …” Just as God himself created the universe with a word, each time that man picks up his inky pen and writes, he imitates God’s creative power and becomes “thereby divine.”

In Sartor, however, pens come paired with a less-obviously divine instrument, penguns. And yet, despite the contrast, penguns too are cherished things in Carlyle. Sometimes, it happens that the best way to produce in God’s name is not to make but to unmake:

In all the sports of Children, were it only in their wanton breakages and defacements, you shall discern a creative instinct (schaffenden Trieb): the Mankin feels that he is born Man, that his vocation is to Work. The choicest present you can make him is a Tool; be it knife or pengun, for construction or for destruction; either way it is for Work, for Change. (71)

By some divine instinct, Children seem to know that their foremost duty on this earth is to Work. But they also know something else, something that adults too often forget, namely that in the right circumstances, even destruction can be a form of production. “Breakages and defacements,” too, are aspects of the “creative instinct”: the “knife” as much a tool as the awl, and the “pengun” cousin to the “pen.” Each works by helping to give material form to an immaterial Idea. The fact that sometimes this involves destruction, and other times creation, is a secondary distinction. Whenever human labor takes an Idea and makes it a reality, it furthers the cause of Spirit and promotes the divine in man.

For those who do not know, penguns are just what they sound like: guns made out of pens, usually of the simple air-gun variety. They are instruments of violence fashioned out of that most divine and miraculous of tools. And, for that reason, they might in other hands be emblematic of violence and the perversion of “the Word.” But in Carlyle they are no such thing. There is simply no tension between the pen as tool and the pengun as weapon. Each, in its own way, is an instrument for creation and for work. Nor does this easy affinity of pen and pengun depend on the ineffectuality of the latter—the fact that a pengun is as much a toy as a weapon. Real guns are afforded much the same treatment. When Teufelsdröckh is threatened by a Russian smuggler, for instance, he heroically scares him off with his “Birmingham Horse-pistol.” Even pure gunpowder is, for Carlyle, a force for good in the universe:

The first ground handful of Nitre, Sulphur, and Charcoal drove Monk Schwartz’s pestle through the ceiling: what will the last do? Achieve the final undisputed prostration of Force under Thought, of animal Courage under Spiritual. (31)

Those of us born into a nuclear age might imagine a different conclusion to the history of violent explosions, and to be fair some of Carlyle’s contemporaries winced at this naked celebration of force.5 But Carlyle’s tolerance for violence was notoriously high, and what he is trying to suggest here is that there is a divine element to even the most destructive explosions.6 Gunpowder has helped exert his will on the dumb stuff of the material world, and its more powerful successors will only further the triumph of “Thought” over “Force” and “Spirit” over “animal Courage.” As with knife and pengun, all that matters is that these destructive agents provide additional tools for giving material form to immaterial ideas.

There are, in other words, two different ways to produce “in God’s name”: one constructive and one destructive: the pen and the pengun; George Fox, with his vigorous and sanctified workmanship, and Berthold Schwartz with his cascading explosion and his impaled pestle. The first type is grounded in artisanship and linked imaginatively with the master craftsman; the second thrives on breakup, dissolution, and disorder and might more closely be affiliated with the luddite. Despite the obvious differences, both are treated as modes of true production, and they are linked in a way that would have been totally foreign to even so close an intellectual counterpart as John Ruskin. As Catherine Gallagher has shown, Ruskin “ranged all activities on a continuum from death enhancing to life enhancing, or from negative to positive work” (66-7); or, to quote from Ruskin himself, “My principles of Political Economy …were all summed in a single sentences in the last volume of Modern Painters—‘Government and co-operation are in all things the Laws of Life; Anarchy and competition the Laws of Death.”‘ (202). Carlyle, obviously, did not. For him, the creative and the destructive were far more intimately connected, so intimately connected, in fact, that even the deadly could be leagued with the divine.

We might still ask, however, exactly how these things are related. Does Sartor envision some dualist, or even Manichean, relation between creation and destruction? Are they perhaps dialectic, paired in the name of an as-yet-unrealized tertium quid? Is the arrangement something new to Carlyle, an innovative philosophical construct? What I am going to argue, essentially is that the key to their relation is not philosophical, but historical. The play of destruction and creation in Carlyle reflects the mix of pain and promise which was so central to the idea of industrial progress—or, more accurately, it is what drives Carlyle’s own, adapted engine of spiritual progress.

Of course, if Carlyle needed to build his own engine of progress, he must have felt uncomfortable with the options on offer. Not, I should say, that he doubted the gains of industrialism; he recognized that his age was, in many ways, improving. Yet the dominant idea of industrial progress was too secular, too frenetic, and too arbitrary for his taste. Being propelled forward by an indifferent force towards an unknown but promising endpoint was not a scenario he could easily stomach. “Such a marching of Intellect is distinctly of the spavined kind; what the Jockeys call ‘all action and no go,”‘ he wrote, not in Sartor but in another essay of the early 30s. “Or at best, if we examine well, it is the marching of that gouty Patient, whom his doctors had clapt on a metal floor artificially heated to the searing point, so that he was obliged to march, and did march with a vengeance—nowhither” (Works IV.16). The personification of England as a sick patient was practically a cliché at the time, but the hot-footed marcher is all Carlyle. And it neatly captures his disdain for the pointless, misdirected marching he saw all around him.7

Still, there were things about progress that appealed to Carlyle: its future-orientation, for instance. Like virtually all of his contemporaries, Carlyle believed that “only in resolutely struggling forward, does our life consist” (Selected 83). And he thought that if there was going to be any kind of human fulfillment, it would belong to the future, rather than the past. In that regard, Carlyle’s nostalgia for the craftsmanship of Foxes and Watts was more lament than politics. He certainly saw in the past a lost kind of dignity, but he was still sanguine enough to believe that the future held something better. What Sartor shows, in fact, is that far from dismissing progress as a dangerous fantasy, what Carlyle wanted was to make it real. He wanted to take the energies of industrialism and make them serve the spiritual needs of society. And that meant, among other things, intensifying that combination of pain and promise which was so central to the idea of industrial progress. For Carlyle, as for so many Victorians, progress was always dangerously mixed, but Carlyle sought to heighten the danger. He pushed the dark symmetry of industrial progress to its effective limit, making the pain more painful and the promise more absolute. Ultimately, what Carlyle envisioned was something more than the imbrication of advancement with unease; it was the complete economic, moral, political, and spiritual regeneration of society by way of the complete economic, moral, political, and spiritual destruction of society.8

Destruction and creation, in other words, combine to produce progress—though they are not combined in equal parts. In fact, they are constitutively unequal, sun and moon rather than yin and yang. To borrow one of Carlyle’s own phrases, the one is shadow, the other real substance (rpt in Sigman 217). Destruction serves creation, in ways that are central to Carlyle’s politics, his theology, and especially his vision of the future (everywhere, that is, except at the level of style, which is something we will have to bracket for a moment).9 The whole effect is beautifully captured by the paradoxical name of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, which means God [Dio] and Devil [Teufel], birth [genes] and shit [dröckh was originally dreck], the quest for truth [Diogenes] with the diuretic power of laxatives [Teufelsdröckh was a powerful laxative].10 Yet, despite being all of these things, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh is not all of these things equally. He is painted the hero far more often then he is painted the devil, and his quest is always far more prominent than his waste. However liable his infernal side may be to strike up and work a bit of mischief, it has a decidedly subordinate role to play. And the surest evidence of this is the ease with which critics and readers have associated Teufelsdröckh with Carlyle. Had he been more of the devil, he would have been less the champion of Carlyle’s views.

Pen and gun are imbalanced in much the same way. Explosions may be essential as a means for clearing the ground, but only for clearing the ground. The real work of creation happens afterwards, and its power is lodged in a completely different set of tools. If some things must be trodden down, they should be “trodden down, that new and better might be built!” (179). We destroy, so that we may enhance the possibilities of artisanship. The converse of this simply is not true. We do not produce so that we can better destroy, any more than Fox sews his suit in order to store gunpowder. To minimize creation and choose destruction as its own proper end is to misunderstand the importance of this imbalance. It is to become like Voltaire, Carlyle’s favorite example of an excessive destroyer: “Wilt thou help us to embody the divine Spirit? …What! thou hast no faculty in that kind? Only a torch for burning, no hammer for building? take our thanks, then, and—-thyself away” (147). The torch, like the pengun, has its role to play, but it is a supporting role, something Voltaire failed to understand. Its value depends on how effectively it sets the stage for the pre-industrial artisans and their hammers.

The other place where this imbalance is important is Carlyle’s style—which comes with its own, matchless mix of chaos and meaning. Without question, Carlyle was one of his century’s most innovative prose stylists, a writer with a very distinct and very daring approach to the craft.11 Few, however, have thought the results particularly admirable. George Meredith called Carlyle’s “a style resembling either early architecture or utter dilapidation” and Matthew Arnold urged others to “Flee Carlylese as the very devil” (rpt in Tennyson 238). Speaking of Sartor Resartus, more particularly, J. Hillis Miller has called it “one of the noisiest books among the classics of English literature” (3). Others describe it as “so dense and chaotic as to be almost unreadable” (Elliot 432) and also so convoluted that readers “struggle as the fly in marmalade” (Tennyson 246). In Henry James’s terms, Carlyle may have “invented a manner” but more often it seemed as if “his manner had swallowed him up.”12

Why Carlylese should be so noisy and convoluted is a difficult, and longstanding question—a question that bedeviled even Carlyle himself. Writing to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he humbly claimed that it was “only the best that I in these mad times could conveniently hit upon” (VII.265).13 In Past and Present, he wrote more insistently: “Literature, when noble, is not easy; but only when ignoble. Literature too is a quarrel, and internecine duel, with the whole World of Darkness that lies without one and within one;rather a hard fight at times, even with the three pound ten secure” (107).

If we set that last metaphor (of writing as battle) beside Carlyle’s account of pen and pengun, then we can begin to see our way to an explanation. You can think of the chaos of Carlylese as the remnant of a literary struggle. The pen crafts, the pengun demolishes, and the pen crafts atop—writing, striking, and writing in a way that might seem antagonistic but which is in fact joined under Carlyle’s philosophy of disorderly progress. Even writing—noble writing—requires this energy of creative destruction; Carlyle’s prose is either the proof, or the cost.14

There is no favored word or phrase in Sartor for this overarching vision of progressive destruction, but there are a host of competing descriptions. “Benignant fever-paroxysms” is one of the them. “Melodious deathsong” is another, along with “Baphometic Fire-baptism” (185, 129). Whimsical though these phrases may seem, their logic is quite rigid and quite consistent: only a “paroxysm,” even unto “death” will produce a “benignant” and “melodious” result. Before you can end the reign of unbelief and sham wares, you have to kill the social body and shatter its corpse into myriad fragments. This is true, moreover, of every field of human endeavor. Of spirituality, for example, Carlyle writes: “first must the dead Letter of Religion own itself dead, and drop piecemeal into dust, if the living Spirit of Religion …is to arise on us, newborn of Heaven” (89). Of international relations, something similar: “All kindreds and peoples and nations dashed together, and shifted and shovelled into heaps, that they might ferment there, and in time unite” (135). In both cases, what exists must not only be killed but actually reduced to heaps of dust before it is ripe for spontaneous regeneration. “Creation and Destruction proceed together,” Carlyle says of history in general, “ever as the ashes of the Old are blown about, do organic filaments of the New mysteriously spin themselves …” (185).

The entire universe, in Sartor, observes the life-and-death cycle of the mythical phoenix, and if there is a leading figure for this dynamic it is that self-immolating and self-reproducing bird:

Thus is Teufelsdröckh content that old sick Society should be deliberately burnt (alas! with quite other fuel than spicewood); in the faith that she is a Phoenix; and that a new heavenborn young one will rise out of her ashes! (180)

Teufelsdröckh believes that society “is a Phoenix,” and being also “old” and “sick” she must do what all old, sick Phoenix’s do: destroy herself so as to be reborn. To that extent, the analogy is perfectly clear, but there are other aspects of Carlyle’s Phoenix worth noting. For one thing, Carlyle gives new emphasis to the irreversibility and death and birth. There is not, and cannot be, a Phoenix birth-death. The Phoenix is a bird that lives for hundreds of years, dying and renewing itself at the end of that long lifespan. It is not a bird that lies dormant for hundreds of years, only to emerge and soar for one brief moment. It is easy enough to imagine a bird of this second type—one that comes to life so that she can immolate herself the more gloriously and spend centuries in ash-form—but she would be something other than a Phoenix, and she would no longer be fit for Carlyle’s philosophy.15 Carlyle’s phoenix does not live to die; she dies to live, in keeping with the imbalance that reigns throughout Sartor. Creation may rely, symbiotically, on the force of destruction, but it uses destruction for its own ends.

Even more important, however, the life-cycle of Carlyle’s Phoenix is no longer cyclical—and this Phoenix no longer fit to serve as a figure for the periodic rise and fall of societies or civilizations. She has become, instead, a figure of syncopated progress:

Find Mankind where thou wilt, thou findest it in living movement, in progress faster or slower: the Phoenix soars aloft, hovers with outstretched wings, filling Earth with her music; or, as now, she sinks, and with spheral swan-song immolates herself in flame, that she may soar the higher and sing the clearer. (187)

This Phoenix doesn’t “immolate herself in flame” so that she can be reborn. She “immolates herself in flame, that she may soar the higher.” There is a developmental crescendo at work, as each new Phoenix, emerging from its own ashes, finds itself not only rejuvenated but endowed with greater vitality, able to soar higher and sing clearer than ever before. Forever strengthening herself through destruction, this Phoenix enjoys something more than eternal life: eternal progress.

And that, essentially, is how Sartor imagines history: as a long, episodic, destructive, and violent process of improvement. Only the immolation and utter destruction of society can propel the future to new spiritual heights—after which the cycle can begin again, with further destruction providing the engine for further development. This is a far cry from the old, gradualist conception of progress—made famous in phrases like the march of mind or standing on the shoulders of giants—where each individual contributes his small part to the work of the whole, each generation builds on the accomplishments of the former, and each snowflake adds to the accelerating avalanche. It is the ne plus ultra of industrial progress, where development is always accompanied by distress and growth always shadowed by unease. If we are to cure the sick patient that is England, Carlyle insists, it is not by stimulating him to work but rather by killing him, torching his remains, and then giving those remains time to flower.

It is worth adding, moreover, that this vision of history is fairly unique to Sartor; it is something Carlyle developed for his first, most fanciful work, but not something he held on to. Indeed, it’s quite antithetical to the vision of history laid out in Past and Present. There, the guiding metaphor is not a Phoenix death-birth but the “LIFE-TREE IGDRASIL,” which “has its roots down deep in the Death-kingdoms, among the oldest dead dust of men, and with its boughs reaches always beyond the stars; and in all times and places is one and the same Life-tree” (42). Continuity of past, present, and future—that is what the life-tree Igdrasil stands for. And one consequence is that in Past and Present the whole entanglement of creation and destruction settles back into duality. Either the tree will stand or it will collapse; those are the two possibilities. The idea that it might have to collapse in order to stand taller is gone. Thinking of his nation’s future fate, for instance, Carlyle writes “Nature has appointed happy fields, victorious laurel-crowns; but only to the brave and true; Unnature, what we call Chaos, holds nothing in it but vacuities, devouring gulfs” (145). The people of England will find one or the other—not both.

That more tumultuous vision was limited to Sartor—for a reason I noted in the introduction: because works of imaginative literature were especially fitted to capture the energies of industrial progress. And that is very much where Sartor‘s death-births and fire-baptisms come from: industrialism.

To be sure, there are a variety of other paths which might have led Carlyle to this same vision of history (as perpetual death and ever-higher rebirth.)16 The bible, which Carlyle knew well and trusted intimately, is full of stories which pair God’s destructive and creative powers—as in the early flood or the late revelation. And Georges Cuvier’s biblically-inspired theory of geological catastrophism—which posited, against gradualist and uniformitarian accounts, that the world had been shaped by a series of catastrophes and mass extinctions—offered a more scientific version of the same. To this list, we could add a far more contemporary catastrophe, the French Revolution, whose combination of destructive and progressive forces Carlyle so evocatively re-created in his later history of that event.17 And, from the philosophical side, we might adduce the German idealism that Carlyle absorbed during his long apprenticeship—whether of Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, or Schlegel—or for that matter the Saint-Simonian tradition which also attracted his youthful attention.18

More than any of these, however, the experience that most influenced Carlyle’s conception of progress and most insistently wrote itself into the texture of his prose was industrialism. Even as Carlyle was writing, a whole world of social roles and economic relations was being dismantled in the name of a new, more volatile and yet more powerful one. It was well over a hundred years before Joseph Schumpeter actually coined the phrase “creative destruction,” but from the beginning Carlyle recognized the power of this self-consuming and self-regenerating process which lay at the heart of industrial capitalism and which was so visible in fates like those of William Huskisson. Not only, in fact, did Carlyle recognize the imbalance, but he made it the central paradigm of his work. Sartor Resartus is built around an idea of creative destruction that Carlyle himself gleaned from the operations of industrial progress.19

Industrial Spirituality

The test of this conclusion—as indeed of any theory—is its ability to make sense of that which, otherwise, does not make sense. And the otherwise refractory conclusion to Carlyle’s text will suit that purpose. Those chapters have long been a source of controversy among critics.20 To many, they have seemed tacked on, and strangely disconnected from the whole. As I will show, however, they provide something like a case study of the relationship between industrialism, true and false production, creative destruction, and spiritual progress—welding together the pattern of figures and images that have been sewn through Carlyle’s text. The Dandies, Drudges, and Tailors who populate the final sections help to render, as allegory, the whole, elaborate mechanism for distilling spiritual gains from material ones: and the key, it turns out, is to let industry do the work of destruction and artisans that of creation.

Those Dandies, Drudges, and Tailors are something more than what the editor calls “Cloth-animals”; they are over-literal devotees of the clothes-philosophy, men who organize their lives around rituals of cloth-making, cloth-purchasing, and cloth-wearing. Teufelsdröckh, himself, likes to think of them as competing sects in the recondite world of clothes-religion, each with its own dogma and liturgy. The Dandies he characterizes as a cult of self-worshipers: London’s social clubs are their temples, fashionable novels their sacred books, and the trendiest among serve as ersatz priests. The Drudges—a.k.a. Poor-Slaves—are for Teufelsdröckh just another sect. Their muddy search for subsistence he interprets as veneration for the earth, their daily suffering becomes a vow of poverty, and their lack of finery a commitment to asceticism.

Even the usually myopic editor recognizes that there is something wrong with this analysis, something truly grotesque about confusing poverty with asceticism. And he concludes that “the Professor’s keen philosophic perspicacity is somewhat marred by a certain mixture of almost owlish purblindness, or else of some perverse, ineffectual, ironic tendency …” (208). It is hard to say which of the two is more likely—myopia or irony—but the effect is actually the same. Watching Teufelsdröckh’s blindness turns out to be the best way to see what he cannot. His obtuse treatment of life’s depredations is so dazzlingly out of touch that it returns us quite jarringly to the level of materiality, reminding us—by its very indifference to this fact—that ours is not only a world of sects, beliefs, and practices but also a world of poverty, inequality, and industrial havoc. The more he insists that he is discussing transcendental homelessness, the clearer it becomes that what is at stake is more like poor law homelessness.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the end of Teufelsdröckh’s account, when he describes what looks to him like a bubbling religious conflict, but which can only look to us like a raging class war:

I could liken Dandyism and Drudgism to two bottomless boiling Whirlpools that had broken out on opposite quarters of the firm land: as yet they appear only disquieted, foolishly bubbling wells, which man’s art might cover in; yet mark them, their diameter is daily widening; they are hollow Cones that boil up from the infinite Deep, over which your firm land is but a thin crust or rind! Thus daily is the intermediate land crumbling in, daily the empire of the two Buchan-bullers extending; till now there is but a foot-plank, a mere film of Land between them; this too is washed away; and then—we have the true Hell of Waters, and Noah’s Deluge is outdeluged! (216-7)

The metaphor here is rather confused: why a Whirlpool should become a hollow cone and a thin crust of land a mere film is hard to say. But it is difficult to deny the power of Carlyle’s prose when he waxes eschatological, and this is one of his finer efforts. What Carlyle envisions—here, through the cloudy lens of Teufelsdröckh—is a class war between rich and poor, Dandy and Drudge. Not just a skirmish, either, but a conflict so violent that its destructive force will raze the earth and summon a flood whose only analog is “Noah’s Deluge.” Bit by bit, every last speck of earth will be absorbed by the growing maw of these “two bottomless boiling Whirlpools.” Apocalyptic language runs thickly through the passage, from the “infinite deep” to “the true Hell of Waters,” but it is important to recognize that the catalyst of this apocalypse is human, not divine. God will not unleash this flood. Class antagonism will—precisely that antagonism that the rise of industry had so massively exacerbated. The destruction of the universe—and, presumably, its Phoenix-like regeneration—is not so much a spiritual as an industrial calamity. If the world must be destroyed before it can be reborn, it is class struggle that will provide the charge.

Charge, incidentally, is exactly the metaphor Carlyle has in mind. These twin whirlpools are but one approximation, and they are quickly get superseded by another, “better” image for the struggle between Dandies and Poor-Slaves, one with a more explicit industrial resonance:

Or better, I might call them two boundless, and indeed unexampled Electric Machines (turned by the “Machinery of Society”), with batteries of opposite quality; Drudgism the Negative, Dandyism the Positive: one attracts hourly towards it and appropriates all the Positive Electricity of the nation (namely, the Money thereof); the other is equally busy with the Negative (that is to say the Hunger), which is equally potent …The stirring of a child’s finger brings the two together; and then—What then? The Earth is but shivered into impalpable smoke by that Doom’s-thunder-peal; the Sun misses one of his Planets in space, and henceforth there are no eclipses of the Moon. (217)

This time, it is a grand explosion, rather than a biblical flood, that destroys the world. The earth is shivered into a cloud of dust—and the solar system deprived of its most fertile planet—by the sudden, overwhelming release of the blocked antagonism between rich and poor. Once again, in other words, it is class antagonism, stoked by the rise of industry, which ushers in the apocalypse and rends the world in two. Only this time, the driving metaphor has been replaced: the machine has returned to claim its rightful place as the figure for all that is false, infernal, and inhuman in Sartor Resartus. In this, second version of the parable, the destruction of the planet is not only triggered by industry; it is imagined through industrial metaphors.

At the same time, the tone of this second parable is strangely softened. Gone are the insistent exclamation points, and in their place is a distant, ironically touching, and mildly condescending voice that seems to see the end of the world as little more than child’s play. “The Sun misses one of his planets,” is a rather sweet, and not particularly hortatory, piece of description. It is also a fitting piece of description, given that for Carlyle the destruction of the world is a sad, but still temporary event—soon to be followed by an even grander rebirth. If, that is, the shivering of the earth deprives us of our only planet, it also makes room for a new one; the fragments and shards of this shivered world will be seamlessly restitched: tighter, stronger, and more beautiful.

It is the Tailors who will do the restitching. Any good clothes-philosophy needs its tailors, those who would hem and weave the material world in the pattern of the Divine. And in the wake of industrial destruction, it is these tailors who complete the work of reconstruction:

…is not the fair fabric of Society itself, with all its royal mantles and pontifical stoles, whereby, from nakedness and dismemberment, we are organised into Polities, into Nations, and a whole co-operating Mankind, the creation, as has here been irrefragably evinced, of the Tailor alone? (219)

Irony and grandiloquence aside, Teufelsdröckh’s point here is that Tailors not only make the mantles that make royalty and the stoles that make pontiffs, they make the fashions and symbols that shape whole nations and indeed the very “fabric of Society.” Even more to the point, they do so in a decidedly pre-industrial way. There is more to this story of planetary breakdown and social regeneration than an final exemplar of creative destruction. There is also a new division of labor. What the arrangement of Dandies, Drudges, and Tailors shows is that for creative destruction to serve the interest of spiritual progress, the destruction must be of a certain type—machine-destruction—and the creation, by contrast, must be machine-free; what industry’s machines destroy, tailors piece together in God’s name. No power looms will be used in this process of retailoring—despite the advantages in speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. For Carlyle, they are still the tools of false production, dehumanizing in their demands and deadening in their effect. No cost-savings can justify such a loss. The tailors will do the job, and they will do it in the right way—as artisans who employ simple tools along with large amounts of human power and human ingenuity to give material form to immaterial ideas. That is what makes them the ultimate emblem of divine creation and the real, spiritual counter to infernal industry.

It is also what most distinguishes Carlyle’s idea of progress. Although he may have borrowed from industrialism the basic dynamic of creative destruction, he adjusted that dynamic to suit his own ends, setting industry on one side and artisanship on the other. And that is something novel. For the Victorians, more generally, industry seemed at the very least a necessary accessory to industrial growth (which is why those terms became entangled to begin with.) The same railway that kills can be the railway that innovates, just as the machines that rends is cousin to the one that sews. Not so for Carlyle. In Sartor, Machines have one, strictly limited function: they undo. Electric machines, class warfare, and the other varied forces of industry have their role to play, but it is a limited role: they get to do the ground-clearing work of destruction and dissolution. Creation, for its part, remains solidly in the hands of independent artisans and craftsmen, like the tailor.

This different division of labor points progress towards a different goal. Much as Carlyle admired—and sought to emulate—the vigor of industrial growth, he distrusted the ends. And part of the ambition of Sartor is to introduce new ones, to take the energy of industrialism and make it generate spiritual, rather than material progress. “The commerce in material things,” he says in one of his essays, “has paved roads for commerce in things spiritual.” (Works 1.25). Sartor attempts to travel these newly paved roads, to redirect the real and irreversible force of industrial progress away from machines and towards Spirit itself. And what the final sections show is that this whole operation is underwritten by Carlyle’s association of true production with artisanship (whether industrial artisans, like Watt, or pre-industrial ones, like the tailors). Placing the responsibility for creation in the hands of workers who produce “in God’s name” is what turns progress in a divine direction. And however little we may be convinced by this solution—whether because we find it eccentric, apocalyptic, or unmanageably elaborate—it has the not inconsiderable virtue of being among the first to try to resist industrialism by redirecting its energies.


1 It also helps explain why I treat Carlyle, but not Ruskin. So much of what matters in Carlyle—especially in terms of his relation to industrialism—happens at the interchange between form and content, palpable fiction and pressing fact; nothing similar can be said of Ruskin because with limited exceptions Ruskin didn’t produce imaginative literature.

2 See Capital, Chapter 7, section 1. Breton too argues that “Both Carlyle and Marx conceive humankind in relation to material activity: in willed work human beings objectify or project themselves onto a creation and thus become real and knowable to themselves in a sense that exceeds basic materiality (corporeality)” (37).

3 Treadwell is one of few to note the slight but persistent distinction between productive work and purposeful work.

4 This is what Carlyle felt in his more confident moments. At other times, though, he doubted whether intellectual work were really vigorous enough to count at all. For more, see Treadwell and Kaplan.

5 It was this kind of passage that drew the quizzical complaint of an American reviewer, who thought fit to remind Carlyle that “spiritualism degrade[s] itself by the use of weapons so foreign to its own nature, so akin to savage animalism” (Southern Literary Review 7).

6 In another piece, he listed as the three great elements of civilization “Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant Religion” (Works I.24)

7 Or, again: “Mount into your railways; whirl from place to place, at the rate of fity, or if you like of five hundred mils an hour; you cannot escape from the inexorable all-encircling ocean-moan of ennui” (Kaplan 359).

8 Schlegel has an epigram which surely would have appealed to this side of Carlyle: “Only such a confusion may be termed a chaos out of which a new world can be shaped” (Qtd. in Vida 11).

9 The precise nature of this (im)balance has long divided critics. Brooks and Levine argue that the destructive energies are not just subordinate, but largely spurious—designed to make the triumph of creation seem more thorough. Others, like Dale and Hillis Miller, would celebrate the reign of chaos and the futility of all construction.

10 Vida offers a very thorough reading of the name (137). See also Tennyson (220)

11 G. B. Tennyson offers the most complete description of the formal characteristics of Carlylese, from the convoluted sentences to the surging capitalizations, unmatched dashes, obtuse neologisms, and tangled metaphors (246).

12 Kaplan argues throughout his biography of Carlyle that a more tempered and nuanced style animates the letters and the travelogues.

13 In the same letter to Emerson, Carlyle makes the related argument that all other styles have been “broken and abolished” and that his is simply the best way he knows “of being sincere” (Letters).

14 For competing answers, see Findlay and Brookes.

15 I don’t think it productive to argue the point at any length, but I should note that J. Hillis Miller makes precisely this misreading, turning Carlyle’s Phoenix into a death-drive minister who can signal the death-driven force of Sartor at large.

16 In addition to the ones I list, Levine has attributed it to Carlyle’s personal ambivalence while G. B. Tennyson holds to the more universal idea that this is simply how man is: a churning mix of chaos and cosmos.

17 In my reading, it is not that Carlyle’s work on the French Revolution introduced him to the dynamic of creation and destruction, it is rather that his preexisting interest in creative destruction drew him to write on the French Revolution.

18 Vida’s is the best account of Carlyle’s German influences, but Metzger, Haney, and Mellor also discuss the affinities with German Romanticism and especially Romantic irony. I should add that while it is hard not to think, also, of Hegel’s possible influence, Carlyle was relatively unfamiliar with his work.

19 LaValley has made the most concerted effort to explain Carlyle’s work by way of its involvement with the energies of modernity.

20 Tennyson argues that these chapters all but mar the whole (302), Metzger thinks that they abruptly the end the reign of natural supernaturalism (328), and Mellor finds them symptomatically unsatisfying (133).