Carlyle & Murdered Children
Carlyle, the first of the Victorian sages, liberally salts his works with symbolical grotesques he finds in contemporary phenomena or constructs out of them, and like the Old Testament prophets, he uses such combinations of satire, symbols, and the grotesque to reveal the perilous spiritual condition of his age. Many of these grotesque Signs of the Times turn out to be obviously significant things or events, such as the Peterloo Massacre, but many others, like the Irish widow's death, exemplify matters that received comparatively little public attention. Past and Present, which in so many ways can stand as the epitome of this kind of writing, contains another instance of such sordid, disturbing, but seemingly minor phenomena. Here not criminal indifference but a hideous crime is the subject, for Carlyle points to an example of child murder for money as a Sign of the Times that sums up the spiritual state of the modern world:
At Stockport Assizes, — and this too has no reference to the present state of trade, being of date prior to that, — a Mother and a Father are arraigned and found guilty of poisoning three of their children, to defraud a "burial-society" of some 31. 8s. due on the death of each child they are arraigned, found guilty; and the official authorities, it is whispered, hint that perhaps the case is not solitary, that perhaps you had better not probe farther into that department of things.... It is an incident worth lingering on.... Such instances are like the highest mountain apex emerged into view; under which lies a whole mountain region and land, not yet emerged. [10.4]
Carlyle does not, in the manner of the reporter on the modern tabloid, use such incidents purely to arouse jaded or sick appetites. Rather he finds in such grotesqueness a symbol of the condition of England, a symptom of his age's spiritual and mental state. Carlyle's citation of the Stockport murder, Arnold's mention of similar crimes a decade later, and similar examinations of crime by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Kate Millett all force the reader to confront hideous evil and attempt to determine if these horrors are truly Signs of the Times. Such examination of grotesque evil plays an important part in the writings of the sage from Carlyle to the present day, for it forces upon the reader the immediate need to understand what is not ultimately understandable — the presence of pain and suffering in human existence. The very horror of such crimes makes them of interest, makes them fascinate, for we feel we must try to understand the apparently meaningless incursion of chaos into everyday life. Such symbolical grotesques inevitably direct our attention to what are essentially religious questions, but because they appear in a political context, they raise political ones as well. This particular incident of grotesque horror leads Carlyle to raise the question, once again, of what wealth means and to whom it does any good in the modern world.
Arnold and Murdered Children
More than two decades after Carlyle had drawn his audience's attention to child murder for profit, Arnold made use of infanticide as a grotesque emblem of the condition of England. In "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," which he delivered at Oxford during October 1864, he quoted a newspaper report to deflate English self-satisfaction (and hence demonstrate the need for criticism): "'A shocking child murder has just been committed at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in custody."' Arnold points out how "eloquent" is this newspaper account when juxtaposed with the "absolute eulogies of Sir Charles Adderley and Mr. Roebuck.... 'Our old Anglo-Saxon breed, the best in the whole world!' — how much that is harsh and ill-favoured there is in this best! Wragg!" (3.273). Arnold's tone makes this citation of child murder an even more aggressive attack upon opposing points of view than Carlyle's had been. Carlyle aimed his discussion of the Stockport murders, however, directly at his audience whereas Arnold directs his at Adderley and Roebuck, thereby permitting his Oxford audience, many of whom were opposed to them, to avoid feeling under attack.
Although the Peterloo riots had an obvious major significance to many of Carlyle's contemporaries and the grotesque incidents at Stockport and Nottingham did not, all three demand some sort of explanation because they so clearly raise major questions about the spiritual and political condition of England. Many of the most effective symbolical grotesques created from contemporary events by Carlyle and other sages, on the other hand, take the form of far more trivial phenomena that are apparently beneath the notice of serious people at least until the sage turns his attention to them and thereby transforms them into symbolical grotesques.
In fact, this identification and subsequent interpretation of trivial phenomena as the embodiments of important truths provides one of the characteristic procedures of both Victorian and modem sages. For example, immediately after Arnold has placed Wragg's act of infanticide next to claims that English stock is the world's finest, he draws attention to precisely such a trivial phenomenon — "the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names, — Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg!" According to him, such names imply "a touch of grossness in our race" and an intrinsic, "original shortcoming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions" (3.273). R. H. Super, Arnold's editor, points out that these are names of great antiquity in Britain. Therefore, Arnold's point that they represent something originally present in the nation has some grounds, though his additional claim that the increasing number of people with such names demonstrates essential flaws in the national character seems a trifle foolish and unconvincing.
As this example suggests, such interpretations of the trivial force the writer to take grave rhetorical risks since he can easily lose the confidence of his audience, but they also guarantee that, when successful, the writer will have established his claims to authority and credibility — claims that are essential in an age of transition and shaken belief. By demonstrating to the members of his audience that he can reveal such truth in unexpected places, the sage convinces them to give a hearing to his views of man, society, and culture, which might at first seem eccentric and even insane. Furthermore, by employing apparently trivial phenomena as the stuff of his symbolical grotesques (and their subsequent interpretation), the sage also obtains a ready means of mocking the shortcomings of society.
Amphibious Popes, 7-Foot Hats
Past and Present employs a series of contemporary facts to create grotesque emblems of what Carlyle finds wrong with nineteenth-century life. "Phenomena," the opening chapter of the third book of Past and Present, uses the fact of an "amphibious Pope" to epitomize what has happened to Christianity. When the pope's rheumatism made kneeling during the Corpus Christi processions difficult, his cardinals constructed "a stuffed cloaked figure, of iron and wood, with wool or baked hair; and placed it in a kneeling posture. Stuffed figure, or rump of a figure; to this stuffed rump he, sitting at his ease on a lower level joins, by the aid of cloaks and drapery, his living head and outspread hands: the rump with its cloak kneels, the Pope looks, and holds his hands spread; so the two in concert bless the Roman population on Corpus-Christi Day, as well as they can" (10.138). According to Carlyle, the pope thus sums up the entire "Scenic Theory of Worship": "Here is a Supreme Priest who believes . . . that all worship of God is a scenic phantasmagory of wax-candles, organ-blasts, Gregorian chants, massbrayings, purple monsignori, wool-and-iron rumps, artistically spread out, — to save the ignorant from worse" (10.138). Admitting the pope's charities, the bravery of his priests during a recent plague in Naples, and his wish to protect the poor and ignorant from unbelief, Carlyle nonetheless mocks him as an embodiment of "worshipping by stage-machinery" (10.139) in order to protect the established political order from proletarian rage. Such "Gregorian Chant, and beautiful wax-light Phantasmagory" hide "an Abyss, of Black Doubt, Scepticism, nay Sansculottic Jacobinism" (10.139). Carlyle thus reveals that the way the pope's infirmities were accommodated one feast day can tell us what we most need to know about the spiritual and political infirmities of the age as well. His sage's vision has in fact transformed an apparently trivial contemporary phenomenon into a Belshazzar fire-letter that warns his readers that they cannot hope to survive by using an obsolete religion to prop up an obsolete political system.
Such an attack upon the Roman church would have appealed to the many Victorian Protestants who were bitterly hostile to it, and Carlyle's particular harsh criticisms of Catholic pageantry and ritual applied to High Church Anglicanism as well. This symbolical grotesque therefore strikes one as a rather orthodox, if wonderfully effective, piece of satire in which the satirist who writes from the vantage point of society lambasts someone on the fringes. In fact, Carlyle, who writes here as a sage, follows the strategies of the Old Testament prophet and attacks his audience with a second symbolical grotesque. After pointing to the "huge Imposture" (10.140) and obsolete forms represented by the actions of the monarch's champion on Coronation Day, Carlyle directs his reader's attention to the British equivalent of the amphibious pope —
that great Hat seven feet high, which now perambulates London streets.... The Hatter in the Strand of London, instead of making better felt-hats than another, mounts a huge lath-and-plaster Hat, seven-feet high, upon wheels; sends a man to drive it through the streets; hoping to be saved thereby" (10.141).
Rather than attempting to make better hats, he instead expends all his efforts to persuade others that he has done so. "He too knows that the Quack has become God" (10.141). Unlike the grotesque emblem Carlyle locates in Rome — a grotesque his readers are only too likely to mock as having no relevance to their lot — this London one has no redeeming qualities. The creators of the amphibious pope at least tried to maintain what had once been an effective political and spiritual order in the world, but the creators of the seven-foot hat use such quackery only to make money for themselves. Carlyle therefore finds in this foolish bit of puffery a dreadful warning to his contemporaries: "To me," he says, "this all-deafening blast of Puffery, of poor Falsehood grown necessitous, of poor Heart-Atheism fallen now into Enchanted Workhouses, sounds too surely like a Doom's-blast!" (10.142), and he ends this chapter with the prophet's warning to those who have fallen away from the ways of Truth.
Oh, it is frightful when a whole Nation, as our Fathers used to say, has "forgotten God"; has remembered only Mammon, and what Mammon leads to! When your self-trumpeting Hatmaker is the emblem of almost all makers, and workers, and men that make anything, — from soul-overseerships, body-overseerships, epic poems, acts of parliament, to hats and shoe-blacking! Not one false man but does uncountable mischief how much, in a generation or two, will Twenty-seven Millions, mostly false, manage to accumulate? The sum of it, visible in every street, market-place, senate-house, circulating library, cathedral, cotton-mill, and union-workhouse, fills one not with a comic feeling! (10.144)
Ruskin, Gold, and Death
Ruskin similarly employs "found" grotesques intermingled with the sage's other techniques. For example, in Unto This Last he uses a series of these grotesques to question the validity of the way popularized versions of classical economics define value and possession. Drawing his audience's attention to the embalmed body of St. Carlo Borromeo in Milan Cathedral, Ruskin points out that it holds
a golden crosier, and has a cross of emeralds on its breast" and asks several questions: "Admitting the crosier and emeralds to be useful articles, is the body to be considered as 'having' them? Do they, in the politico-economical sense of property, belong to it? If not, and if we may, therefore, conclude generally that a dead body cannot possess property, what degree and period of animation in the body will render possession possible?
At this point Ruskin cites a second, far more grotesque phenomenon, one taken from contemporary events: "Lately in a wreck of a Californian ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking — had he the gold? or had the gold him?" (17.86). Here, in brief compass, Ruskin has an emblem of modern society and its relation to its possessions. These satirical grotesques, which play a role in Ruskinian redefinitions of economic terminology, reverberate and expand until they indict an entire society that is hurtling self-destructively into the depths in pursuit of material wealth.
Ruskin, who follows Carlyle in making use of elaborate satirical grotesques created from phenomena encountered in newspaper reports, also develops his own characteristic form based upon landscape description. His elaborate word-painting of La Riccia in the first volume of Modern Painters (3.278 80) and that of Torcello in The Stones of Venice (10.79-90) exemplify his many transformations of landscape into emblem.
Lawrence's Landscape emblems
Because we shall observe the literary techniques that make up Ruskinian word-painting in chapter 4, "The Sage as Master of Experience," I should here like to widen my range of examples and cite D. H. Lawrence, who learned his word-painting from Ruskin, to exemplify the sage's creation of symbolical grotesques from landscape. In addition to incorporating Ruskinian phenomenological descriptions of the exterior and interior worlds into his writing, Lawrence also employs Ruskinian transformation of natural phenomena into emblems. Lawrence's emblematization of landscape set pieces appears throughout both his travel writing and his fiction. In Sea and Sardinia, for example, he presents the solitary figure working within the landscape as an emblem of the old full life, which he contrasts to the life of man under industrialism. He begins, as he so frequently does in such set pieces, by presenting the scene from the vantage point of those moving through a defined space.
Soon we begin to climb to the hills. And soon the cultivation be; gins to be intermittent. Extraordinary how the healthy, moor-like hills come near the sea extraordinary how scrubby and uninhabited the great spaces of Sardinia are. It is wild, with heath and arbutus scrub and a sort of myrtle, breast-high. Sometimes one sees a few head of cattle. And then again come the greyish arable-patches, where the corn is grown. It is like Cornwall, like the Land's End region. Here and there, in the distance, are peasants working on the lonely landscape. Sometimes it is one man alone in the distance, showing so vividly in his black-and-white costume, small and far-off like a solitary magpie, and curiously distinct. All of the strange magic of Sardinia is in this sight. Among the low, moor-like hills, away in a hollow of the wide landscape one solitary figure, small but vivid black-and-white, working alone, as if eternally. There are patches and hollows of grey arable land, good for corn. Sardinia was once a great granary.