Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Sartor Resartus’s influence on Transcendentalism

Below is the first paper for my English 562 class. I like it enough to include here, but unless you're a religious history, Victorian prose or back-to-nature freak like me, you may not find much interest in it, so be warned.

American Transcendentalism became a mainstream cultural phenomenon with the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature in 1836. But the unique, almost reactionary tone of American Transcendentalism is strongly influenced by German Transcendentalism, particularly the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), a German philosopher who developed a transcendental philosophy called Wissenschaftslehre, which, loosely translated, means “doctrine of science,” a strange word to inspire an American philosophical belief system that rejected pure reason, a requisite of scientific thought. The conduit of this German philosophy was through none other than a Scotsman, Thomas Carlyle, and his first major work, Sartor Resartus (1831).
This paper will examine quotes from Sartor Resartus and juxtapose them with the tenets of Transcendentalism as outlined by Emerson in his paper, “The Transcendentalist.” Of course, the relationship between Carlyle and Emerson must be taken into consideration, and quotes from their 38-year correspondence (1834-72) will interpose into this context. This paper does not argue that Carlyle was a Transcendentalist, or that he even allied himself with the movement. In many instances, the views of the Transcendentalist movement, especially regarding work, contradict Carlyle’s views. Sartor Resartus had a long-lasting influence on the American Transcendentalist movement and many key phrases proved particularly influential.
Carlyle writes that Herr Teufelsdrockh was above society and looked at men with a “strange impartiality” and “at all Matter and Material things as Spirit; whereby truly his were the more hopeless, the more lamentable” (Carlyle 23). This quote corresponds with Emerson’s tenet that a Transcendentalist must “shun general society” and “accept spiritual doctrine” (Emerson). Teufelsdrockh’s philosophy of clothes is based on the idea that society is a false construct based solely on outside dress. “The world, with its loud trafficking, retires into the distance… and you are alone with the Universe, and silently commune with it, as one mysterious Presence with another” (Carlyle 40). Carlyle believes that once clothes are removed, society, and particularly its class system, falls away.
Emerson’s Transcendentalism shunned general society and placed greater emphasis on the idea that reality “originates from an ‘unknown center’ inside” oneself (Emerson). Contrast this with Teufelsdrockh, who says that “Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some Idea, and body it forth… what is Man himself, and his whole terrestrial Life, but an Emblem; a clothing or visible Garment for that divine Me of his, cast hither, like a light-particle, down from Heaven?” What does Emerson mean by “unknown center?” Is it the same as Teufelsdrockh’s “divine Me?” Both phrases contend that the external reality is merely a manifestation of divine will, though the nature of that divinity is unclear.
Carlyle’s Teufelsdrockh shares an affinity with Transcendentalism regarding the concept of wonder. Emerson says that Transcendentalism is “childlike, joyous, affectionate, susceptible” (Emerson). Carlyle writes: “The man who cannot wonder… is but a Pair of Spectacles behind which there is no Eye” (52). Carlyle criticizes pure reason as a dead analytical tool, and that under Logic “man’s mind becomes an Arithmetical Mill, whereof Memory is the Hopper… Thought without Reverence is barren, perhaps poisonous…” One must be mindful, though, that while Emerson seemed to reject pure reason for an almost pure intuition, Carlyle doesn’t seem to step so far to one polar extreme or another. Reason has its place, but it must be reason with heart. Both seem alarmed at the mechanistic bent of a growing industrial revolution and cling to their own semblances of divinity in favor of humanity over machinery. But while Emerson, and, more famously, Thoreau, rejected society for a retreat in nature’s solitude, Carlyle’s Teufelsdrockh returns to civilization after his mountaintop retreat, where he gazed “over those stupendous masses with wonder, almost with longing desire…” (117).
In a letter to Emerson, dated May 13, 1835, Carlyle wrote that “Transcendentalism evolve itself (if I construe aright) as the Euthanasia of Metaphysic altogether. May it be sure, may it be Speedy.” Carlyle calls Emerson’s Boston Transcendentalism “an interesting symptom” and “I shall cordially wish well to this thing.” But despite numerous entreaties by Emerson, Carlyle never ventured overseas and never gave open consent to a movement he never saw firsthand. He begged off overseas travel, citing the health of his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle, and that she did not even fare well crossing the English Channel.
Later, in a letter dated August 30, 1840, Emerson comments on the first issue of the “Dial,” which is being attacked by numerous newspapers and magazines. Emerson asks for Carlyle’s endorsement: “But they would hardly be able to fasten on so huge a man as you are any party badge. We must hear you for ourselves.” Carlyle responds, in a letter dated September 26, 1840, that the “Dial” is too “ethereal, speculative, theoretic: all theory becomes more and more confessedly inadequate, untrue, unsatisfactory, almost a kind of mockery to me!” But he later writes that the voices in the “Dial” are “worth listening to among the rest.” Surely, not a ringing endorsement of the primary publication of Transcendentalism, but neither a stinging rejection. The fit between Carlyle and Emerson’s Transcendentalism is never as tight as Emerson would like.
Though Carlyle was only seven years older than Emerson, he was a spiritual mentor to the American philosopher. Did Emerson fawn over Carlyle to get his endorsement and add continental legitimacy to his movement? The quote from Sartor Resartus that most allies itself with Transcendentalism and also delineates Carlyle’s cling to some semblance of scientific reason is: “It is a mathematical fact that the casting of this pebble from my hand alters the centre of the Universe” (Carlyle 186). Everything about this quote falls into Emerson’s philosophy, but that one stinging word, “mathematical.” This is emblematic. Sartor Resartus is so close to being a Transcendental text. Its idea that man has the will the reject evil has also labeled it an existential text. But Sartor Resartus, like its enigmatic, shape-shifting protagonist, Teufelsdrockh, refuses such easy classification.

Works cited

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. Boston: Dana Estes & Company. 1901. (1831).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Transcendentalist.” From http://www.wikipedia.org/.
Correspondence between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle at http://www.rwe.org/ under “Old Friends: The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872: Volune I and Volume II.”