Friday, September 16, 2016

A French View of Mr. Carlyle

Review of:
“L'Idealisme Anglais. Etude sur Carlyle” (by Hippolyte Taine)

M. Taine whose essay on Mr. Mill as the representative of English Positivism we lately noticed, has published a companion sketch, in the shape of an essay on English Idealism as personified in Mr. Carlyle. Mr. Carlyle enjoys the distinction of having produced as much controversy in his own country as any living writer, if not more, and it would be no easy matter to mention any living author who is better fitted to bewilder foreigners of all kinds. Whatever else he is, he is before all other things national. Indeed, he is so radically national that he perceives, and always recognizes, the fact that between an Englishman and a Scotch Lowlander there is no substantial difference. To this it must be added, that he belongs emphatically to the humorous and enthusiastic type of Englishmen; and if there is in all nature a being utterly unlike Frenchmen, and altogether unintelligible to them, it is an Englishman of this character. This gives special interest to the criticisms of M. Taine, who has tried his very best to understand England in general and Mr. Carlyle in particular; and who certainly has studied his subject with great diligence, and with as much intelligence as is consistent with an absolute want of sympathy with the object of his criticisms. He begins by observing that when Englishmen, especially if they are under forty, are asked which of their countrymen think, they begin by naming Mr. Carlyle, "but, at the same time, they advise you not to read him, saying that you will not understand a word of what he says." M. Taine, however, determined to try. At first he found himself in a sort of nightmare. He did not know what to make of a man who headed chapters in the history of the French Revolution with "charades." He found, moreover, that these charades were at times altogether inconsistent with dignity and propriety. What are you to think of a grave historian who compares his country to an ostrich with its head in the sand, likely to lie wakened "in a terrible a posteriori manner," or a politician with a newspaper reputation to a dead dog drifting up and down the Thames, and stinking as it drifts. At last he finds out that "cette disposition d'esprit produit l’humeur; mot intraduisible, car la chose nous manque." Humor may suit the German races, but "nos nerfs le trouvent trop âpre et trop amer." He illustrates the meaning of this strange "disposition d'esprit" by various extracts, not particularly well chosen, and goes on to say that a man with such wild tastes might be expected to be capable only of wandering and nonsense, but that this is not so. He has been kept in order by two barriers "tout anglaises"—" le sentiment du reel qui est l'esprit positif, et le sentiment du sublime qui fait l'esprit religieux." Hence, instead of being a sickly visionary, he is a philosopher and an historian. The union of these two sentiments leads him to respect facts, as being the only vehicle by and through which it is possible for us, not indeed to understand, but at all events to contemplate, the sublime and sometimes tremendous mysteries from which facts derive their significance and value. Hence comes, on the one side, Mr. Carlyle's passion for the investigation of details, even if they do not happen to be obviously important, so long as they are true; and, on the other, his constant habit of breaking out, as he would say, into the eternities and immensities. M. Taine quotes, as an illustration, the well-known passage in" Past and Present" about King John's visit to St. Edmondsbury in the Chronicle of Jocelyn de Brakelond ; and he says, with justice, that the whole account of Jocelyn and the Abbot Sampson deserves to be considered as a wonderful feat of strength in this sort of writing.

Having thus described the general temper of Mr. Carlyle's mind, M. Taine goes on to discuss his doctrines. He is a philosopher and an historian. His great work as a philosopher has been, according to his critic, to transplant German theories into England, and to throw them into an English shape. He traces this through "Sartor Resartus," "Post and Present," the lectures on "Hero Worship," and other works, and arrives at the conclusion that Mr. Carlyle gets out of his German studies a practical mysticism well suited for English understandings, because it combines the energetic pursuit of the common objects of life with a belief in something lying beyond sensible experience, which something is sought out, and valued when discovered, because it affords a practical rule of conduct. M. Taine quotes (again with good judgment) a well-known passage from "Past and Present:'' "All true work is religion, and whatsoever religion is not work may go and dwell among the Brahmins, Antinomians, spinning dervishes, or where it will; with me it shall hate no harbor." M. Taine's own remark upon this is perhaps the most characteristic sentence in his whole "Etude:" Perhaps it will not harbor, with you; but it will elsewhere. Here we come upon the narrow English side of this broad German conception. There are many religions which are not moral, and there are still more which are not practical. Carlyle wishes to reduce the human heart to the English sentiment of duty, and the human imagination to the English sentiment of respect. Half of human poetry escapes his grasp. For if one part of us raises us to self-denial and virtue, another part drawn us to pleasure and enjoyment. Man is pagan as well as Christian. Nature has two sides; many races—India, Greece, Italy—have comprehended one side only, and have had no religions except the admiration of monstrous force and the ecstasy of wild imagination, or the admiration of harmonious forms and the worship of pleasure, beauty, and enjoyment."

Mr. Carlyle's criticism appears to M. Taine to be animated by the same spirit as his philosophy. It is, he says, harsh and vehement. He cannot understand French writers. Their merits appear to him faults. He cannot do justice to Voltaire. He says that "there is not one great thought in all his thirty-six quartos," and much more of a blasphemous character: "Voilà d'assez gros mots, nous n'en emploierons pas de pareils. Je dirai seulement que si quelqu'un jugeait Carlyle en Français comme il juge Voltaire en Anglais, ce quelqu'un ferait de Carlyle un portrait différent de celui que j'essaye de tracer ici."

From considering Mr. Carlyle's criticism M. Taine passes to his historical writings. He observes, with much truth, that the characteristic peculiarity of them is to be found in the importance which they attach to individuals,—that is, to their hero-worship, and to the notion, of which they are full, that the hero expresses the highest conception of which the age in which he lives is capable. Cromwell, he says, is Mr. Carlyle's great and favorite hero. The other Puritans are his spiritual ancestors,-—subject, however, to the rights of our old friends the Vikings and Beserkirs, whom M. Taine considers to be in various respects the spiritual fathers of the existing English nation. The religious gloom and practical turn of the Puritans, the capacity of getting into a desperate rage—a gift, by the way, of which the Parisian mob is not altogether devoid—seem to M. Taine to supply the governing principles of Mr. Carlyle's historical works. His view of life is solemn, pious, energetic, and exceedingly practical. For this reason he has failed to understand the French Revolution, which was certainly neither solemn, pious, nor practical, in the Puritan sense; but lively, joyous, sentimental, and generously impatient of all existing facts and established institutions. On the whole, M. Carlyle appears to his critic to be more or less of a demoniac, and too extravagant by half. The essay concludes as follows: "There is, perhaps, less genius in Macaulay than in Carlyle; but after living for some time upon this exaggerated and demoniac style, this extraordinary and unhealthy philosophy, this grimacing and prophetic history, these sinister and mad political theories, we return with pleasure to"—Lord Macaulay described in complimentary amplifications.

It is not easy to express in a few sentences the impression made by M. Taine's étude. It is so courteous and neatly balanced, it has obviously been written with so much trouble, and with such a wish to be just, that it would be wrong to speak harshly of it; but to most English readers who are already acquainted with the writings of Mr. Carlyle, it will convey no conclusion at all, except, indeed, that between France and England there is a great gulf fixed, far wider and far deeper than the Channel, and infinitely more difficult to cross. It is not easy to say exactly why this is. Every one of M. Taine's criticisms is plausible, and in a sort of way true; but somehow, it does not satisfy the English reader. When we have been told that this bit of a man's mind came from Germany, and that from English newspapers; that he is partly a Puritan and partly a Berserkir (which seems to be meant as a sort of compliment); that this is a strange thing which English people call humor, and that a piece of bad manners which M. Taine will not condescend to imitate, a certain weariness steals over the mind. It is so (according to our experience, at least) with almost all French criticism. It would suit English tastes far better if it were less descriptive, less sympathetic, and less polite. It should be ruder and more controversial. We should like to see the picture which M. Taine's quelqu'un would have drawn of Mr. Carlyle if lie had not been altogether too fine a gentleman to use such gros mots as Mr. Carlyle applied to Voltaire. What Mr. Carlyle thought of Voltaire no human creature can doubt. He says plainly what he likes and what he dislikes, and why; but M. Taine does not behave in this way to Mr. Carlyle. He assigns him his place in the scale of creation with smiling courtesy, but with less genuine heartiness than might be shown by vigorous fault-finding.

The fundamental defect of the criticism appears to up to lie in its author's determination to have a complete theory of Mr. Carlyle and his philosophy, and to show the mutual connection and dependence of his various works. M. Taine altogether omits to notice the fact that the books which he criticises have been published at intervals extending now over at least forty years, during which the position, the views, and even the style of their author have undergone a great alteration. Several of Mr. Carlyle's works were written originally as magazine articles, or as lectures delivered to a popular audience; and it is clear enough, to any one who reads them attentively, that they have all the crudeness and harshness of early productions written whilst the mind which produced them was in a state of fermentations. His really characteristic books are not his speculations, but his histories. The speculations are in the nature of dyspeptic and humorous pamphlets, poured forth, as the fit happened to take the writer, with surprising energy, and occasionally with wonderful felicity and vivacity, but with no real pretensions to the establishment of a philosophy or religion. Many of the books which M. Taine-quotes—especially the "Sartor Resartus"—are little else than moral commonplaces, thrown into strange forms and expressed in a dialect in which German and broad Scotch struggle for the mastery with alternate success. To take Mr. Carlyle as a great leader of English thought, to describe him as the representative of a thing called English Idealism, is to misunderstand him altogether. His thought—that is, his reflections and his arguments—has had singularly little influence on the world. His rhetoric and humor upon very old themes, such as the virtue of truth, the relation between work and worship, the identity of might and right, and other topics of the same kind, have had a great effect; and the amazing strength of his imagination, and his extraordinary accuracy, diligence, and shrewdness in historical research, have given him nearly the first place amongst English historians. What appear to M. Taine his essential qualities are in reality accidental ones, and vice versa. He has exercised hardly any perceptible influence upon English philosophy. Politics, morals, theology, metaphysics, political economy, jurisprudence, and many other subjects, have made great progress during the past generation; but on no one of these matters has Mr. Carlyle exercised much influence. In history, on the other hand, he has taught much to his country, and has set an example as to the way in which the imaginative and the prosaic qualities ought to be combined, and the mutual support and illustration which they are calculated to afford to each other, which it is far easier to admire than to imitate. The humor which M. Tuine appears to consider as an incidental, occasional talent, is in reality one of his great qualifications for historical inquiry. The great merit of humor is that it usually means much more than it says. The mere turn of a phrase enables a man possessed of this gift to give a color to whole series of transactions, and thus to hint a meaning which it would take many pages of explanation to assign specifically. This is the characteristic peculiarity of the "History of the French Revolution" which so much shocks and scandalizes M. Taine. What he views as mere tricks and charades are a set of devices which enable the author to point out easily and transiently the slightly absurd character of the whole proceeding. The delicate flavor of contempt which pervades the whole book is that ingredient which delights almost all Englishmen, and which Frenchmen appear incapable of understanding, whether they themselves or others are its objects. To try to exhibit, in a connected, systematic form, the views of such a writer is altogether a mistake. He has shown us Cromwell and Frederick face to face; he has given us, rather by insinuation and indirect allusion than otherwise, a view of the French Revolution, and this is a considerable achievement; but it is a mistake to suppose that he has materially influenced the main current of thought in this country on important subjects.

Saturday Review, June 4, 1864.

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