Monday, December 02, 2013

Thomas Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus" was a "new kind of book", in the 19th Century and maybe still today

In the spring of 1962 I started over in college at The George Washington University (while “living at home”) after the catastrophe at William and Mary (discussed often elsewhere on these blogs).  As a freshman, I somehow placed out of English 1, basic composition. At GWU, you took a year of literature before taking the second composition course (English 4) where you “learned how” to write a term paper.  You could write about anything you wanted, and I think I rehashed a high school paper on Mahler’s influence on modern composers.  We read Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens) in that class, and I recall an odd passage in Chapter 8 where Jim Tells Huck (in modern English), “If you’ve got hairy arms and a hairy chest, it’s a sign you’re going to be rich”.  Nobody dared to say anything when the passage was read aloud in class (in spring 1963, probably in the original text), but I thought then that the passage was a euphemism for racism in pre Civil War American History. Spark Notes offers the passage here
  
But back in 1962, I had to start out with “English 52B”, which comprised the second half of English Literature, starting in the late 18th Century.  We had a gray anthology textbook called “British Poetry and Prose”, and typically were assigned about 50 pages to read, a lot of it poetry, for each 75-minute class, taught by a Mr. Rutledge, in a dusky first-floor classroom in Monroe Hall, with a good view of G Street in Washington’s Foggy Bottom, with the old dive “Quigley’s” barely in sight.  (Wordsworth appeared early in the course, with discussions of why poetry gives “pleasure”, and suitable recognition of the film “Splendor in the Grass”, which had played into my lost fall semester at William and Mary). 
    
Mr. Rutledge liked to give “card quizzes”.  They counted one fourth of your grade (so you came to class, but he would drop the lowest two); there would be a midterm and a final.  And sometime around March 20 or so, he gave us a card quiz on an excerpt from Thomas Carlyle’s odd (and blatantly self-indulgent) novel “Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh”. The Latin lead means “the tailor re-tailored” and the protagonist’s name means “god-born devil dung”. 
  
Every student failed this pop quiz, including me.  The professor had to throw it out.  No one understood the point of the writing from just reading at home.  The book is an example of a poioumenon, which is a work of “metafiction” where the author layers the inner story inside a “presentation” layer where the author can address the reader.  Among writers’ groups, it’s considered taboo in modern “writing to sell” as stuck up, but movie narratives do this kind of thing all the time.  Many modern books and films consider the relationship between the narrative story and the presenter or reader itself a subject to be written about.  Think about “Inception”, “Cloud Atlas”, and the gay sci-fi hit “Judas Kiss”.
  
In the inner story, the protagonist wanders rural England or Europe and is spurned in heterosexual love life, and is taken back when he sees his beloved with another nobleman.  He turns to nihilism, wanting to pretend that he doesn’t exist (hide inside that museum clam) until he finds a new purpose for living in his own head.  It sounds dangerous.  And he does find a different woman.  But do people feel disappointed when they have to take “someone else”, and think, “I should have done better than this”?  That was how people thought about relationships, especially in the gay male community, back in the late 1970’s in the days before AIDS.
  
The outer layer of the book has an “Editor” account for his own experience with dealing with the book, getting around to telling the inner existential (or transcendental) story when he feels like it.
   
The professor asked an essay question about the concept of the book (asking for comparisons to other authors’ works or even films) on the final exam.  He thought that students should understand this approach to writing,
   
The book is available on Gutenberg in various formats here.  And “it’s free”.  I tried to download it “free” onto Kindle (like many classics, it’s also a free download for Amazon Prime subcribers) and found that the touchpad for typing on my little device didn’t work, don’t know why.  Battery problems?  But the html version works fine, and downloads OK even on a smart phone, and is perfectly readable.  In fact, “Chapter II” in Book I caught my eye with its title, “Editorial Difficulties”, and says that man is a “proselytizing creature” (even if not a Mormon missionary) and speaks of the Philosophy of Clothes.   The latter would be called “sartorial taste” and was very much a matter in the office in the 1970s and ‘80s, as companies (other than IBM and EDS) gradually relaxed their dress codes, making the choices of flared pants, colored shirts and wide ties very much a modem of pre-Internet self-expression.

I don't see any evidence that Carlyle's novel has ever become a film.  It would make an interesting indie experiment, at least in Britain.   Let the BBC, Film 4 and the UK Lottery have a stab at it. 

Update:

I got the Kindle download from Amazon to go.  It just needed to be fully charged back up before it would work.  The Kindle version doesn;t show the three inner "books", somewhat corresponding to various layers of narration by the Editor.



Update:  Feb. 11. 2017

Mencius Goldbug writes about Thomas Carlye and "reactionaries" here in 2009.  Suddenly this matters, when considering authoritarianism and Donald Trump. 

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