Sunday, 8 February 2009

Carlyle: we’re not done yet

Last year I did a number of postings that presented extracts from Carlyle’s The French Revolution. Other matters overtook me, the project was incomplete and I asked if anyone was actually reading the stuff and wanted to see the rest of my selections.

I take the ensuing silence as a resounding Yes and now propose (slowly) to resume. The point is mainly for myself, to see if I can produce a set of passages from a difficult book, well outside the range of what normally gets studied in English, that might actually be enjoyed by some school students. If someone else enjoys the extracts, good.

Since the last posting on Carlyle I read a review of a new book that was pronounced to have a good section on his history:

Burrow, J. (2007) A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the 20th Century. London: Allen Lane.

I got it out and indeed it does. The sections are about many different histories and types of history, a series of them dealing with histories of the French Revolution, as a result of which I want (some time in the next 30 or 40 years) to look also at Michelet and Taine, who take opposite positions: for Michelet the People was the hero of the tale, for Taine it was smitten with madness. (Taine wrote a book on crowd psychology and anticipated what in the 20th century became known as totalitarianism.)

It occurs to be that although I did history at school for O Level, we read not a single word by any historian. All they gave us was the textbook. But it would be a great thing in school to read passages on the same episode by Carlyle, Michelet and Taine, either in History (I don’t really know what they do there now) or English (and why not? In the 19th century writings by historians were considered part of Literature.)

(Burrow also describes earlier English and Scottish histories of England/Britain: Clarendon on the Civil War period (he was a close associate of Charles I), Hume (better known as an 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher), and Macaulay (Victorian: celebrating the achievement of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, that gave us, he says, a century and a half of internal peace, in contrast with two periods of violent disorder in France, from 1789 and 1848). Of those I’d like most to read Macaulay, who, like Carlyle, was greatly influenced by Sir Walter Scott and writes colourfully and pictorially.)

Burrow indicates some of the passages that might be read together. For instance, on Carlyle and Michelet. This is nice because the bit of Carlyle he refers to is one I've reproduced in this blog (21 September 2008; click on Carlyle in the labels down the right hand margin. I haven't discovered how to link to a previous posting.). Burrow writes:

“The differences appear most sharply, however, in Michelet's treatment of the first 'Festival of the Federation', on the anniversary of the
fall of the Bastille, 14 July 1790. Carlyle's version is above all ironic:
the professions of universal goodwill are shortly to give way to massacre and the guillotine. But, in any case, humankind cannot sustain
very much fraternity. Though he acknowledges that the Federation
movement began spontaneously in the provinces and aroused popular enthusiasm all over France, he treats it as a kind of contagious intoxication and the greatest of the festivals, on the Champs de Mars in
Paris, as manifestly artificial and stage-managed, which of course it
was. To Carlyle its gospel was merely sentimental: he had, as we have
seen, a Presbyterian sourness towards ritual, though he could be
indulgent to spontaneous violence (as in the Scottish Reformation).
But for Michelet the Federation is the high point of his history and in
French national consciousness, pointing the way to a better future.
He said that writing about it marked one of the great moments of
his life. His description has an ominous element: at the sacramental
moment, the swearing of the oath of fraternity, the surly demeanour
of the royal family strikes a jarring note. But irony is almost absent,
though he goes on to mourn over the contrasting future. The moment
of the Federation was 'the holy epoch in which the entire nation
marched under one fraternal banner'. He compares the marches to
Paris by the participants from all over France to the Crusades: 'What
Jerusalem attracts thus a whole nation? ... the Jerusalem of hearts,
the holy unity of Fraternity, the great living city made of men . . .'; its
name is patrie. At the oath-swearing in the Champs de Mars

The plain is suddenly shaken by the report of forty pieces of cannon. At that clap of thunder, all rise and stretch forth their hands to heaven ... 0 King! 0 People! pause ... Heaven is listening and the sun is breaking expressly through the cloud ... Attend to your oaths! Oh! how heartily the people swear! How credulous they still are! ... But why does the King not grant them the happiness of seeing him swear at the altar? Why does he swear under cover, in the shade, and half-concealed from the people? ... For God's sake, sire, raise your hand so that all may see it. (III.xii)”
(pp 395-6)

Burrow sums up as well as anyone Carlyle’s approach and style:

“One has to accept Carlyle as a historian, if at all, for what he is; it
is no use expecting what he did not attempt to be, a lucid purveyor
of linear narrative and careful analyses of cause and effect. These
things can be found in the midst of Carlyle's accounts, but his stranger
effects were entirely deliberate, made largely out of epic precedent,
an Old Testament style of vision, a fierce pulpit manner, and an
idiosyncratic cosmic view: a metaphysics made concrete through
symbolism. The effect on narrative is a rapid cutting from individuals, often humble and seen only momentarily, and highly particular situations, rendered in full concrete circumstantiality, to cosmic
and world-historical perspectives, with many intermediary points

Carlyle's devices for bringing this about are essentially two: the
selection of certain events, characters and actions as symbolic of larger
realities, and extraordinarily innovative experiments in what may
be called multi-voiced narrative, where the authorial voice, so often
peremptory, intrusive and bullying, sometimes seems temporarily suspended in favour of a cacophony of other voices, of which he is the
impresario, making a babble of catchphrases out of quotations from
the newspapers, pamphlets, placards and memoirs he has consulted.
This imagined babble in the midst of the revolutionary crowd, where
Carlyle alms to place the reader - always, of course, in the present
tense - is, to use his own term, combustible. A particular word or
incident can ignite it into action and almost randomly determine its
direction: to the Bastille, to Versailles, to the palace of the Tuileries,
and hence to some of the central events of the Revolution. The combustibility is made up of hunger and hatred, suspicion and rumour.
Suspicion, for example, of a royalist military coup, which leads to the
storming of the Bastille.”

Burrow himself is worth reading as a writer.

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