Chapter 3, Part 5 of the author's
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arlyle's ascription of the authorship of "On History Again" to Diogenes Teufelsdröckh suggests that the Palingenesia, a mythus intended to enable the rebirth of his society, would take the form of epic history. The French Revolution manifested the fundamental beliefs of Carlyle's own era just as the Trojan wars manifested the beliefs of the Greeks. Yet this subject was problematical because the revolution did more to destroy antiquated beliefs than to bring new beliefs to life; the only belief his society retained was the belief in unbelief that prevented him from authoring the new mythus promised in Sartor Resartus. Instead of creating a text that would bring about the birth of a new society, he would demonstrate how the revolution continued to be reborn in his own era, in the Paris Revolt of 1830 and the Reform Bill Of 1832. Sansculottism "still lives," he was to write in the conclusion of The French Revolution "still works far and wide. . . as is the way of Cunning Time with his New-Births" (3:311). By concluding his history of the revolution with the events of October 1795, just two months before his birth on December 4, 1795, Carlyle suggested that he himself was the first rebirth of the revolution, that it had indeed invaded the households of the lowly (Rem., 30). (It is worth recalling that in "Illudo Chartis" Stephen Corry's father decides to send him to the University of Edinburgh "in the ever memorable year Of 1795," an event that the narrator compares to "a second birth" (King, 167). If it was an "unhappiness to be born" in such an era, to be a rebirth of its spirit, a history of the revolution would at least help one figure out "what to make of" the "age," what it means to be born of revolution (FR i: ii; HHW, 201).
Carlyle's problem in writing The French Revolution was how to make it epic rather than novelistic in the sense that he used these terms in "On Biography." He wanted to avoid the problems raised by Sartor Resartus, especially that of his own authority, but he could not solve this problem simply by effacing the authorial ego. Indeed, the narrator of The French Revolution is every bit as prominent as the Editor of Sartor Resartus. Instead, Carlyle made himself into a narrator who [62/63] interprets a society. He did not write The French Revolution as a factual chronology of political events but as a sequence of symbolic episodes through which the narrator, and the reader, discover the meaning of their own era. For this purpose, he shaped a unique historical narrator who speaks in the first person and present tense, represents the voices of the historical actors, and interprets symbols in order to create a double narrative, both epic and mock epic, of the revolution.
The Editor of Sartor Resartus and the narrator of The French Revolution both represent themselves as interpreters. The Editor of Sartor must make sense of the "chaos" of the clothes volume and the six paper bags filled with random autobiographical fragments; the narrator of The French Revolution must contend with an intransigent imbroglio of historical documents. Each addresses the reader directly, setting himself the task of enabling the reader to make sense of this material. Yet The French Revolution reverses the procedure of Sartor Resartus. While the Editor begins with random symbols that he situates in a narrative framework of his own devising, the narrator of The French Revolution begins with a narrative chronology in which he must discover symbols.
The Editor attempts to explain the clothes philosophy and the life of Teufelsdröckh through narrative even though, as he represents it, the basic material of Sartor Resartus resists chronological narration. Sartor does not present a logical argument that develops from chapter to chapter; material from the first book could even be interchanged with material from the last (Levine, Boundaries, 41-43; see Gilbert, 433-36; Vanden Bossche, "Prophetic Closure," 212-13). The autobiographical fragments, from which the Editor constructs book 2, arrive in hardly any chronological, certainly no narrative, order. The patterns that the Editor uses to organize these materials do not inhere in them, but are familiar narrative paradigms that he imposes on them. To represent the process of coming to understand the clothes volume, for example, he employs the convention of the journey. Similarly, he fits the random autobiographical fragments to the conventional pattern of spiritual autobiography (see Peterson, 49-57). To the Editor, both the clothes volume and the life of Teufelsdröckh are a chaos that must be interpreted, but the interpretation appears to come from the preexisting narrative patterns he employs. rather than from the materials themselves. Like the novelist in "On Biography," the Editor creates narratives that are "Nothing but a pitiful Image of [his] own pitiful Self" (CME, 3:58). Because there is no original text, only an interpretation [63/64] of a fictitious text, Sartor Resartus represents the tendency of interpretation to overwhelm the interpreted text.
The narrator of The French Revolution finds most of his historical materials already arranged in chronological order in collections like the Histoire Parlementaire and the volumes of the Moniteur, but simply composing a chronological narrative would not enable him to discover the meaning of those events. He complains, furthermore, that the editors of the Histoire Parlementaire have already imposed a narrative depicting the recuperation of Christianity and counters: "But what if History were to admit, for once, that all the Names and Theorems yet known to her fall short? ... In that case, History, renouncing the pretension to name it at present, will look honestly at it, and name what she can Of it!" (3:204). Although Carlyle's history also has a thesis, he claims that he discovers it in the symbolic structure ofthe revolution itself. As opposed to Sartor's Editor and the editors of the Histoire Parlementaire who derive their narrative patterns from preexisting narratives, Carlyle's narrator attempts to derive his interpretation from something outside of himself, from the historical material itself.
Because the narrator of The French Revolution can be regarded as a character whose role it is to interpret the history of the revolution, Carlyle does not employ the omniscient mode of historical narration, but a first-person mode that dramatizes the continuing process of interpretation. The conventional omniscient mode — using the third person and past tense to make history seem to "speak itself " — creates the illusion of objectivity by treating the past as fixed and the narrator's interpretation of it as exhaustive (Barthes, "Le Discours de l'histoire," 68). This mode of historical narrative is so prevalent that Emile Benveniste designates it simply histoire (208-9; see White, intro.). Conventional historians have long objected to Carlyle's historical style. Recently, for example, Hugh Trevor-Roper complained of the "over-dramatization ... highly personaijudgments ... rhetorical interruptions ... [and] grotesque egotism" of Carlyle's histories (732). In fact, omniscient narrative only disguises the presence of a first-person narrator and that narrator's ideological assumptions. Carlyle's use of the first person and present tense makes his presence explicit. We can see the difference between these two modes of history in the following narratives of the procession of the Assembly of Notables on May 4, 1789, the first from Archibald Alison's History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 (1833) and the second from Carlyle's French Revolution:
On the evening before [May 5, 17891, a religious ceremony preceded the installation of the Estates. The King, his family, his ministers, and the deputies of the three orders, walked in procession from the [64/65] church of Notre Dame to that of St. Louis, to hear mass. The appearance of the assembled bodies, and the reflection that a national solemnity, so long fallen into disuse, was about to be revived, excited the most lively enthusiasm in the multitude. The weather was fine; the benevolent and dignified air of the King, the graceful manners of the Queen, the pomp and splendour of the ceremony, and the undefined hopes which it excited, exalted the spirits of all who witnessed it. But the reflecting observed with pain, that the sullen lines of feudal etiquette were preserved with rigid formality, and they augured ill of the national representation which commenced its labours with such distinction. First marched the clergy in grand costume, with violet robes; next the noblesse, in black dresses, with gold vests, lace cravats, and hats adorned with white plumes; last, the Tiers Etat, dressed in black, with short cloaks, muslin cravats, and hats without feathers. But the friends of the people consoled themselves with the observation, that, however humble their attire, the numbers of this class greatly preponderated over those of the other orders. (i: 18 1-8 2; I cite the edition of 1839, but this volume appeared in 1833. I choose Alison because his history represents contemporary practice and Carlyle had some acquaintance with it: see CL, 6:373).
Behold, however! The doors of St. Louis Church flung open; and the Procession of Processions advancing towards Notre-Dame! Shouts rend the air; one shout, at which Grecian birds might drop dead. It is indeed a stately, solemn sight. The Elected of France, and then the Court of France; they are marshalled and march there, all in prescribed place and Costume. Our Commons'in plain black mantle and white cravat'; Noblesse, in gold-worked, bright-dyed cloaks of velvet, resplendent, rustling with laces, waving with plumes; the Clergy in rochet, alb, or other best pontificalibus: lastly comes the King himself, and King's Household, also in their brightest blaze of pomp,-their brightest and final one. Some Fourteen Hundred Men blown together from all winds, on the deepest errand.
Yes, in that silent-marching mass there lies Futurity enough. No symbolic Ark, like the old Hebrews, do these men bear: yet with them too is a Covenant; they too preside at a new Era in the History of Men. (FR, 1: 134)
Alison effaces himself by avoiding direct address of the reader (which implies a first-person addresser), by avoiding commentary on events, and by employing a plain style that seeks to efface writing itself. In order to avoid commentary, he imputes judgments to others (for example, to "the reflecting" who observe the preservation of feudal social distinctions). As narrator, he has no spatial relationship to the scene [65/66] — he seems to be nowhere — whereas Carlyle situates himself and his readers in the midst of the crowd watching the procession. Carlyle begins by exhorting the reader, in an exclamatory apostrophe — " Behold, however!" — to observe the scene he is describing. The second paragraph of the passage from The French Revolution (of which I have included only one-quarter) consists entirely of the narrator's commentary on the meaning of the event and contains no narrative of the event itself. (C. F. Harrold has estimated that such commentaries constitute nearly a third of The French Revolution; see "Carlyle's General Method," 1150). Throughout the passage, Carlyle's language draws attention to itself through the use of such rhetorical and literary devices as apostrophe, repetition and variation, alliteration, metaphor, and allusion (note the "Grecian birds" and the Ark of the Covenant). Most importantly, Carlyle devotes a whole chapter to this episode because of its symbolic importance-for him it foreshadows the whole course of the revolution-while Alison gives only one paragraph to a ceremony that, for him, has little significance in the chain of political events.
Carlyle's use of present-tense narration collapses the distance between past and present, emphasizing that meaning is not fixed in the past but is always in the process of being made. In a narrative that treats events as if they were taking place before the narrator's and reader's eyes, past and present are not separate, since the beliefs and actions that had constituted the revolution also constitute the lives of the narrator and his readers. Further, Carlyle dramatizes the revolution as it lives on in the present in moments when the time of narration-the moment of writing-converges with the time of historical events. When, for example, he writes of d'Artois that he "now, as a grey timeworn man, sits desolate at Grätz" and informs us in a footnote that "now" means "A.D. 1834," the year in which he is writing the passage, he abruptly brings the historical actor from the past into the present (1:33). The "now" of this passage is itself ever-shifting; the footnotes accompanying similar passages always indicate the moment at which he writes, at least one such note appearing for each of the three years 1834, 1835, 1836) during which he worked on the history (1:224, 3:47, 312).
The first-person plural (for example, "Our commons" in the quotation above) also telescopes the distance between past and present, narrator and narrated (see Vanden Bossche, "Revolution and Authority," 284-85; J. Rosenberg, 77-78). In the following passage, the referent of the word we shifts as the narrator comments on Danton's defense of the September massacres: [66/67]
When applied to by an offical person, about the Orl6ans Prisoners, and the risks they ran, [Danton] answered gloomily, twice over, 'Are not these men guilty?'-When pressed, he 'answered in a terrible voice,' and turned his back. Two Thousand slain in the prisons; horrible if you will: but Brunswick is within a day's journey of us; and there are Five-and-twenty Millions yet, to slay or save. Some men have tasks,- frightfuller than ours! It seems strange, but is not strange, that this Minister of Moloch-justice, when any suppliant for. a friend's life got access to him, was found to have human compassion. (3:47; emphasis added)
The first-person plural ("us") in the third sentence (beginning "Two Thousand slain . . .") refers to Danton. Because there are no quotation marks to set Danton's speech offfrom the historical narrative (as in the first sentence), however, the speech merges with the narration, the narrated with the narrator. This elision continues in the concluding sentences, as the principal location of the speaking voice slides from Danton and the past to Carlyle and the present, the final sentence belonging only to the latter. The sentence that comes between ("Some men have. . .") may be attributed to either man and thus further merges them. If we read it together with the previous sentence, it becomes a continuation of Danton's speech, "ours" referring to the patriots who speak in the first person in that sentence. But if we read it together with the final sentence, it becomes part of Carlyle's commentary, suggesting that the "task" of the patriots in 1792 was more frightful than "ours" in the 1830s.
Carlyle also employs this technique to represent the revolution as a multiplicity of speakers and points of view. By merging with the historical actors, he is able to sympathize with each of them and to speak in all of their voices. He represents history as the interaction of groups, as dialogues between personifications like "universal Patriotism" and the "Legislative." In the following passage, he uses dashes to indicate an exchange of speeches between Parisian patriots and the revolutionary authorities:
Twelve Hundred slain Patriots, do they not, from their dark catacombs there, in Death's dumb-show, plead (O ye Legislators) for vengeance? . . . Nay, apart from vengeance, and with an eye to Public Salvation only, are there not still, in this Paris (in round numbers) "Thirty thousand Aristocrats," of the most malignant humour; [67/68] driven now to their last trump-card?-Be patient, ye Patriots: our New High Court, "Tribunal of the Seventeenth," sits ... and Danton, extinguishing improper judges, improper practices wheresoever found, is "the same man you have known at the Cordellers." With such a Minister of justice, shall not justice be done? — Let it be swift, then, answers universal Patriotism; swift and sure! — (3:8-9)
While the quotations within the speeches assure us that the scene is based on documentary evidence, the dialogue compresses a long course of discussion and debate. These compressed dialogues seek to represent, not the literal event, but its symbolic meaning. Because the narrator merges with these voices rather than distinguishing them as part of a past action, the text gives the impression that the narrator is not the manipulator of the voices but the product of them. In Sartor Resartus, the personae, who all sound like Carlyle, may be regarded as avatars of the different aspects of his personality. In The French Revolution, he tries to get beyond the authorial ego in order to represent the full range of historical figures (see Bakhtin, 299). One effect of this practice is Carlyle's even-handed sympathy for virtually every historical figure in spite of his personal judgments of them. Although he admires Mirabeau and Danton more than Robespierre and Louis XVI, he endeavors to see why they acted in the way they did and how historical circumstances shaped them (e.g., 3:106-7, 285-86). See especially the deaths of Mirabeau, Marat, Marie Antoinette, Philippe d'Orléans, and Mine. Roland (2:146, 3:169-70, 194-95, 207-10.
The narrator of The French Revolution, a narrator who belongs to the world he narrates, seeks to interpret this world by discovering its symbols. He suggests, in a chapter entitled "Symbolic," that public events are "Symbolic Representation [s]" of belief (2:47). Whereas Alison's narrative is organized in terms of the day-by-day chronology of events, virtually every subdivision of Carlyle's history, which often disregards chronology, focuses on the discovery of the symbolic import of events.45 At every level of the narrative, titles refer to literal events in which Carlyle discovers a symbolic import. The titles of the three volumes of the history reveal its basic structure, the initial rebellion against the old imprisoning order ("The Bastille"), the attempt to author a new social order ("The Constitution"), and the descent into complete destruction ("The Guillotine"). The same is true for the other subdivisions of the history; for example, the storming of the Bastille represents the determination of the French people to break down the old social structure; "Viaticum" represents not only the death of Louis XV but the last rites of monarchy; "The Paper Age," not just the proliferation of printed matter but the ephemerality of its paper productions; and "Dishonoured Bills," not just the depletion of the treasury but the figurative bankruptcy of the old order. Carlyle's depiction of the royal family's unsuccessful attempt to flee France is almost allegorical. The royal family flees in an overburdened and oversized [68/69] berline that consequently moves so slowly — indeed, Carlyle exaggerated its slowness — that it can be captured by a handful of peasants and retired dragoons. Carlyle finds in the berline a symbol of the accretions of privilege and meaningless tradition with which monarchy had become encrusted and which made its downfall inevitable. Symbols of power, they in fact have made the monarch powerless and given the upper hand to the people.
In addition to discovering the symbolic import of individual events, Carlyle creates ironic contrasts through juxtaposition, often discovering that the symbolic import of one event undermines the intended symbolic message of another. The French intend the Feast of Pikes to express their belief in the principle of fraternity. But Carlyle is suspicious of such "theatrical" displays, contrasting them unfavorably with the ritual oaths they imitate, such as the Puritan "Solemn League and Covenant" and the "Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles," in which 'A whole Nation gathered, in the name of the Highest" (2:47, 42). More significantly, however, the narrative that ensues in the following section, which represents a mutiny in the army, reveals that a violent feast of "pikes" will lead to anarchy, not fraternity. Similarly, Carlyle plays on the idiomatic and literal meanings of the French verb marcher ("to be in working order," but literally "to march") in order to contrast the failure of the constitution with the success of the troops from Marseilles. While "believing Patriots" think "that the Constitution will march, marcher,-had it once legs to stand on," Carlyle ironically contrasts their enfeebled constitution, which grows "rheumatic," "stagger[s]" and finally "will not march," with the vigorous Marseillais and their cry of "Let Us March" that brings about the insurrection of August 1792 (2:5, 223, 237; see 227).
If an epic represents the belief of a people as manifested in its actions, then the French Revolution, which manifested a nation's unbelief, provides problematic material for epic. Within his epic framework, Carlyle represents the actions of the French people as mockepic. The French need a deus ex machina (Carlyle's use of the English equivalent of this phrase, "god from the machine," already tends to deflate it) but get only an ineffectual "Mars de Broglie" and a royal usher "Mercury ... de Brézé" (I: 160). The epic machinery that motivates the action of the history becomes mere "preternatural suspicion" (1: 126-27). Homer's "wine-dark sea" gets adapted as the mockheroic epithet "sea-green" to describe Robespierre. Finally, Carlyle [69/70] echoes "The Rape of the Lock" in his depiction of the queen preparing to flee as an epic heroine outfitting her hero: "New Clothes are needed; as usual, in all Epic transactions, were it in the grimmest iron ages; consider 'Queen Chrimhilde, with her sixty sempstresses,' in that iron Nibelungen Song! No queen can stir without new clothes" (2:157). Unlike Chrimhilde, who married the indomitable Siegfried and wreaked terrible revenge on the enemies who killed him, however, Marie Antoinette, married to the ineffectual Louis XVI, is absurdly concerned with "perfumes" and "toilette-implements" that burden the cumbersome 'Argosy" in which the royal family insists on traveling (2:157, 168; see CME, 2:238). Whereas Homer had been able to "sing" the belief of a society in an epic poem, Carlyle can only express unbelief through "prose." Echoing the traditional epic invocation, he writes: "The 'destructive wrath'of Sansculottism: this is what we speak, having unhappily no voice for singing" (1: 212; emphasis added). In a work that persistently satirizes speech-making, it is particularly ironic that his epic must be spoken. [Carlyle's use of mock epic]
Just as The French Revolution's epic aspirations are undermined by mock-epic elements, so its overt narrative structure, which represents a circular movement from the institution of monarchical order through a period of transition following its destruction and concluding in the constitution of democratic order, is undermined by a parallel narrative that represents an uninterrupted current of accelerating destruction and anarchy. The former narrative represents the desire to recover authority while the latter suggests that the revolution can do nothing but destroy it.
Both narratives share the same starting point in volume I, the destruction of the monarchy as symbolized by "The Bastille." Carlyle represents the bankrupt authority of the monarchy through the inability of successive finance ministers to avert financial default. Emptied of authority, the institution of monarchy produces a king who can no longer create social order. Although initially Louis compels obedience-he attempts to govern by royal edict-he cannot compel belief. This situation cannot last long, and, with the storming of the Bastille, power begins to shift to the people.
With volume 2, "The Constitution," the two narratives diverge, the one representing the National Assembly's attempt to author a constitution and the other the increasing anarchy that undermines this enterprise. An "incipient New Order of Society" appears to emerge [70/71] when the French express their beliefs through the grand ritual oath of allegiance celebrated in "The Feast of Pikes" (2:34). But the royalist mutiny in the army at Nanci exposes the absence of loyalty, the "unsightly wrong-side of that thrice glorious Feast of Pikes" (2: 100). With the destruction of royal authority, no single authority can establish itself, and the army, which is "the very implement of rule and restraint, whereby all the rest was managed and held in order," becomes "precisely the frightfullest immeasurable implement of misrule" (2:73). In September 1791, the assembly completes a constitution intended to produce a new social order. But the constitutional monarchy that gives the king the power to veto all legislation only institutionalizes the conflict between the monarchy and the middle class. Louis attempts to assert his authority by vetoing all legislation, and, because authority is now fragmented, neither Louis nor the assembly can govern. Anarchy increases and overwhelms the assembly's attempts to establish order, and, on August 10, 1792, a new uprising overturns the constitutional monarchy. just as the storming of the Bastille had overturned the old regime, so the insurrection of the tenth of August overturns the constitutional monarchy. Instead of discovering authority, the constitution has further undermined it.
In the final volume of the history, "The Guillotine," the attempt to author a second constitution becomes completely submerged in the growing anarchy of the Terror. Having discovered that authority could not be divided between the monarchy and the people, the assembly proceeds to abolish the institution of monarchy itself. "Regicide" completes the abolition of authority that began with the storming of the Bastille: "a King himself, or say rather Kinghood in his person, is to expire here" (3:107). However, when the people assume the authority formerly held by monarchy, they fail to establish social order and anarchy engulfs the nation.
Last modified 26 October 2001