Chapter 3, Part 6 of the author's
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arlyle represents the revolution as burning down the old social structure and attempting to build a new one by writing a constitution. Sartor Resartus had already employed the metaphor of masonry to represent the process of writing. The Editor of Sartor depicts himself as a bridge-builder spanning the sea that separates British readers from [71/72] the German clothes philosopher. As in "The Reminiscence of James Carlyle," the bridge-maker connects heaven and earth; he is the ponmetheus who "can bring new fire from Heaven" (225). As translator of Teufelsdröckh's philosophy, the Editor transmits the authority of German transcendentalism to the land of British empiricism. Or, to pit t it another way, he builds a bridge that enables us to pass from ordinary existence into the "promised land" (255).
But the Editor's metaphors ultimately suggest that his bridge leads us into an infernal chaos, not a transcendental idyll. He compares it, not to a bridge like Tieck's that leads to a land of faery, but to the bridge between hell and earth built by Sin and Death in Paradise Lost (79). Furthermore, he can only "conclude" but "not complete" it: "No firm arch, over-spanning the Impassible with paved Highway, could the author construct; only, as was said, some zigzag series of multuously thereon" (268). Since this bridge is the Editor's metaphor for his project of transmitting in writing the life and Teufelsdröckh, that project appears to be a failure. As the Editor fails in his attempt to build a bridge to heaven, instead building so the French fail to "build" a utopian social structure and intead create the Terror.
In Carlyle's history, the Bastille is the building, a metaphor for the entire social edifice of the ancien regime. Bastille is the generic name for a fortress derived from the verb bâtir, to build: "they name [it] Bastille, or Building as if there were no other building" (1: 131). Carlyle calls the Bastille along with other medieval buildings, a "realised ideal"; it is an expression of the feudal social order and of the structures of the nation resides. He further contends that, while the kings of France have passed away, the physical and social structures they "realised" remain, and names among these "realised ideals" both "Cathedrals" and a "Creed (or memory of a creed) in them," both State and Law" (1: 8).
The metaphor of the social order as a house or building was already in political writing when Carlyle wrote The French Revolution (see Arac, Commissioned Spirits, 124). Burke uses it throughout his Reflections on the Revolution, arguing that although the old order and dilapidation," it still possessed "the foundations of a novel and venerable castle" that might have been "repaired" (40; see 79, 99, 105, 196-97). Carlyle takes up the same metaphor and treats it differently, finding that the social structure that [72/73] had once served as a home-a protective "castle" as in "The Reminiscence of James Carlyle" — had become a prison, a Bastille. In fact, the Bastille had been built during the feudal era to protect the people of Paris from invasion, but by the eighteenth century, it was used only to imprison them and to suppress popular disturbances. The only solution is to destroy it and rebuild the social order.
Carlyle emphasizes that beliefs, not physical force, create and destroy these social structures. The destruction of the Bastille only symbolically enacts the destruction of "Old Feudal France" by philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot (FR, 2:201). In "Diderot," Carlyle describes the "End of a Social System ... which for above a thousand years had been building itself together" as the destruction of a building, clearly the Bastille:
active bands drive in their wedges, set to their crowbars; there is a comfortable appearance of work going on. Instead of here and there a stone falling out, here and there a handful of dust, whole masses tumble down, whole clouds and whirlwinds of dust: torches too are applied, and the rotten easily takes fire: so, what with flamewhirlwind, what with dust-whirlwind, and the crash of falling towers, the concern grows eminently interesting; and our assiduous craftsmen can encourage one another with Vivats, and cries of Speed the work. (CME, 3:179-80)
Carlyle interprets the attack on the Bastille as an attempt to destroy the old social order, the blows ofthe axes on the drawbridge aimed at "Tyranny" and its "whole accursed Edifice" (FR, i: i go). He deeniphasizes the role of physical force by noting that only one Parisian died in the storming and concluding that the Bastille, "like the City of Jericho, was overturned by miraculous sound," a reversal of the Orphic niusic that built Thebes (1: 210; see SR, 263).
Carlyle's concern is that the processes of destruction, once unleashed, are difficult to control. Revolution, he writes, is: "the open violent Rebellion, and Victory, of disimprisoned Anarchy against corrupt worn-out Authority; how Anarchy break s prison; bursts up from the infinite Deep, and rages uncontrollable, immeasurable, enveloping a world; in phasis after phasis of fever-frenzy; — till the frenzy burning itself out and what elements of new Order it held (since all Force holds such) developing themselves, the Uncontrollable be got, if not reimprisoned, yet harnessed, and its mad forces made to work towards [73/74] their object as sane regulated ones" (1: 211-12). Fire is the most common and prominent metaphor in The French Revolution, almost always representing the uncontrolled spread of destruction: "Feudalism is struck dead ... by fire; say, by self-combustion ... in visible material combustion, chateau after chateau mounts up; in spiritual invisible combustion, one authority after another" (1: 231, 2:107; see 227). The problem for the revolutionaries is how to "re-imprison" this revolutionary force. (On the importance of the metaphor of fire in the works preceding The French Revolution, see Cabau, 12ff., and passim). The title of the chapter in which this passage appears, "Make the Constitution," points toward the next phase of the revolution; the attempt to "build" a new social edifice will be the subject of volume 2, "The Constitution." In the conclusion of this chapter, Carlyle introduces an analogy between the attempt to author the constitution and the project of building a social structure with a comment that suggests the difficulties and failures that lie ahead: "A Constitution can be built, Constitutions enough &agrace; la Sieyes" (1: 215)
While the cathedrals and fortresses of the old social order had been, like James Carlyle's houses, constructed of lasting stone, however, the constitution built to house the new social order is made of ephemeral paper. None of the three constitutions Sieyes sets out to "build" lasts as long as a year. The first is a mere house of cards, a "card-castle" with a "top-paper" instead of a "top-stone": the "Edifice of the Constitution" or the "Constitutional Fabric, built with ... explosive Federation Oaths, and its top-stone brought out with dancing and variegated radiance, went to pieces, like frail crockery ... in eleven short months" (1:215, 221, 2:195, 203-4; note that the earliest meaning of the word fabric is an edifice or building, yet fabric also evokes Carlyle's clothing metaphor and its connotations of an organic network of human relations; see also Reflections, 24). The second constitution, raised on the unstable "rubbish and boulders" of the first, also suffers "frequent perilous downrushing of scaffolding and rubble-work" and never even goes into effect (3:69). It is the quintessential paper constitution: "Further than paper it never got, nor ever will get" (3: 186; emphasis added) - The final constitution is just as fragile as its predecessors; it is another "paper-fabric" constructed by the hitherto unsuccessful "Architect," Sieyes. It only brings the process of writing constitutions to an end because it formalizes the social order that Napoleon imposes by force rather than providing a system of belief.
The metaphor of the paper building is an extension of Carlyle's representation of the eighteenth century as "The Paper Age," an era of "Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities" (1:29). The philosophes have opened a "Pandora's box" of "printed a er": "street ballads " "epigrams " "Manuscript Newspapers", "pamphlets," [74/75] and novels like "Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie, and Louvet's Chevalier de Faublas" (1: 59, 55, 56, 60). After the storming of the Bastiille, the proliferation of paper accelerates: "Committees of the Constitution, of Reports, of Researches. . . yield mountains of Printed Paper"; "Twelve Hundred pamphleteers" drone forth "perpetual pamphlets"; and "Placard journal[s]" make their appeal to the penniless who cannot afford newspapers (1: 219, 222, 28). The same inflationary process forces the government to pay its debts with devalued "Bank-paper," "Dishonoured Bills" (1: 29; see 109). Carlyle's analysis deviates from Burke's, however. Burke refers repeatedly to the assignat, the paper money issued by the revolutionary government, as a sign of its moral bankruptcy (Reflections, 44, 60, 62, 273-75) Carlyle also treats the assignat as an example of the insubstantiality of the acts of the revolutionary government, but he regards the problem of producing worthless banknotes as the product of the old regime that bankrupted the government and was the first to substitute paper for gold, a point that Burke glosses over in his analysis (FR, 2:8).
These metaphors interact in two ways to develop Carlyle's argument about the failure to author a constitution. First, the French build their constitutions out of combustible material vulnerable to the fires with which they have destroyed the old order. Since a paper constitution cannot adequately confine the forces that overturned the old social order, it is not "worth much more than the waste-paper it is written on" (1: 215) . Second, the revolutionaries fail to transform the fire with which they have destroyed the old order into a creative tool for producing a permanent and substantial social order. They cannot find a "Prometheus" who bears, not the fire of destruction, but a divine spark that can "draw thunder and lightning out of Heaven to sanction" the Constitution (2:5, 1:215; see 2:64). Like Burke, Carlyle fears that the revolutionaries can only destroy, that their fire will produce only a "fire-consummation," not a "fire -creation" (FR, 1: 213; see 3:29798; SR, 244; Reflections, 79). Instead of building a heavenly city that recuperates paradise, they build a Tower of Babel — or, in a variant of this figure, "an overturned pyramid, on its vertex" — that produces only social fragmentation (FR, 2: 18 9, 195, 198; allusions to Babel appear throughout the history: e.g., a "confusion of tongues" (1: 41); a 'Jargon as of Babel" (1: 100); "as many dialects as when the first great Babel was to be built" (2:27).
Carlyle's history argues that a written document cannot produce social order unless it reflects the very structure of national life: "The Constitution, the set of Laws, or prescribed Habits of Acting, that men will live under, is the one which images their Convictions, — their Faith as to this wondrous Universe." It is not enough to build a constitutional structure, Carlyle adds, you must build it so that people will "come and live in" it (1: 215). The idea that a written document could be used to articulate a body of fundamental principles through which a state is constituted was a new one. The "British constitution" was a set of principles established by tradition and precedent, not a written document like the constitutions of the United States and France. While the unwritten constitution corresponds to the oral tradition [75/76] of Homer and the Bible, Carlyle treats the written constitution as he does self-conscious epic. Like the oral epic, the unwritten constitution is unself- conscious and therefore authoritative. Carlyle makes this distinction explicit in an early chapter of The French Revolution: "Herein too, in this its System of Habits, acquired, retained how you will, lies the true Law-Code and Constitution of a Society; the only Code, though an unwritten one, which it can in nowise disobey. The thing we call written Code, Constitution, Form of Government, and the like, what is it but some miniature image, and solemnly expressed summary of this unwritten Code? Is, — or rather, alas, is not; but only should be, and always tends to be!" (1: 381; Carlyle here follows Burke [and Coleridge, who states the case more obliquely] in arguing that it is virtually impossible to base a constitution on abstract political principles (Reflections, 35-38 et al.). Without divine sanction, the legislative cannot produce a constitution that corresponds to the constitution that already exists unconsciously; its constitution corresponds only to theories that serve particular interest groups, not the nation as a whole (see 1:219). The paper constitution represents the historicity of all writing, and therefore its inability, in Carlyle's view, to provide the foundation for social order.
Last modified 26 October 2001