Carlyle and The Act of Interpretation

Decorative Initial 'S'ages, like Old Testament prophets, begin by announcing the crucial need to understand some unhappy fact or event in contemporary life.

In Chartism the particular puzzling phenomenon [External Link] Carlyle uses his point of departure is the discontent of the working classes: "What means this bitter discontent of the Working Classes? ... How inexpressibly useful were true insight into it; a genuine understanding by the upper classes of society what it is that the underclasses intrinsically mean; a clear interpretation of the thought which at heart torments these wild inarticulate souls, struggling here, with inarticulate uproar, like dumb creatures in pain, unable to speak what is in them! Something they do mean; some true thing withal, in the centre of their confused hearts" (29.119, 122; italics added). Carlyle emphatically states the sage's two basic premises, the first of which is that the particular phenomenon to which he draws attention possesses significant meaning and is not simply a random occurrence.

The second premise of the sage is that this uncovered meaning is important, even crucial to his audience's survival. Therefore the sage's first step, the one for which we obviously need him, is to reveal the presence of meanings by drawing the audience's attention to some phenomenon, such as working-class unrest, which demands comprehension.

In Past and Present the sage's opening gambit draws the reader's attention to "one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest" phenomena:

England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition. With unabated bounty the land of England blooms and grows; waving with yellow harvest; thick-studded with workshops, industrial implements, with fifteen millions of workers, understood to be the strongest, the cunningest and the willingest our Earth ever had; these men are here; the work they have done, the fruit they have realised is here, abundant, exuberant on every hand of us: and behold, some baleful fiat as of Enchantment has gone forth, saying, "Touch it not, ye workers, ye master-workers, ye master idlers; none of you can touch it, no man of you shall be the better for it; this is enchanted fruit!" (10.1)

In several ways this passage serves as a fitting paradigm of the sage's first move or opening technique, because in it Carlyle simultaneously proclaims his subject, indicates its importance to his audience, and suggests, in part by the power of his rhetoric, a confidence in his ability to answer the questions he has raised by pointing to the subject in the first place. Furthermore, lending his voice to that "baleful fiat" — to whatever has caused such human want in the midst of such abundance — Carlyle makes explicit one of the sage's chief techniques: he acts as a ventriloquist, providing an eloquent voice for inanimate phenomena and inarticulate masses. The sage proceeds by turning "dumb facts" into speaking voices.

In addition, Carlyle, who frequently calls the reader's attention to this first crucial stage in his enterprise, also implies that he serves as a second Daniel, interpreting writing on the wall, and as a second (though pre-Freudian) Oedipus. These metaphors for the sage's interpretations, which he draws from classical mythology and the Old Testament, emphasize the essential importance to the community of his acts of interpretation. Chartism, for instance, presents the longed-for interpreter of contemporary political phenomena as Oedipus confronting the Sphinx when he asks: "What are the rights, what are the mights of the discontented Working Classes in England at this epoch? He were an Oedipus, and deliverer from sad social pestilence, who could resolve us fully!" (29.123). Oedipus, we recall, rid Thebes of the Sphinx by solving her riddle. "What walks on four feet in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?" she demanded, and the hero responded that the answer is man, who crawls upon all four limbs as a baby, walks erect as an adult, and totters about with the aid of a cane in the evening of life. Upon hearing Oedipus's solution to her riddle, the Sphinx, who had plagued Thebes, hurled herself to her death. The Greek hero thus saved a community by comprehending the nature of man. In essence every sage attempts to do the same, for no matter what his point of departure, no matter what phenomenon he interprets, he ends up trying to define some crucial aspect of the human.


An illustration of the famous phrase in a Victorian Bible: Daniel interpreting the writing on the wall by Gustave Doré (1832-83) [Not in print edition].

In yet another Carlylean metaphor events appear as fire-letters or writing on the wall: "France is a pregnant example in all ways. Aristocracies that do not govern, Priesthoods that do not preach; the misery of that, and the misery of altering that, — are written in Belshazzar fire-letters on the history of France" (29.161-62). Then again the sage appears as an Understanding Eye, as society's organ of understanding the mysteriously encoded, for as he explains, "Events are written lessons, glaring in huge hieroglyphic picture-writing, that all may read and know them: the terror and horror they inspire is but the note of preparation for truth they are to teach; a mere waste of terror if that not be learned" (29.155). Carlyle alludes, of course, to the Book of Daniel, in which the prophet comes forth to read the undecipherable letters of judgment that have appeared on the wall of Belshazzar's palace. The fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel relates that on the night that Belshazzar made a feast for a thousand of his lords, there "came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote ... upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace" (5:5). When his astrologers and soothsayers cannot read the writing upon the wall, Belshazzar in desperation calls for Daniel, who reminds him that God had raised Nebuchadnezzar, his father, above other kings and then hurled him low when he became proud and arrogant. After telling the king that the same judgment has come to him, he interprets the meaning of the mysterious writing:

And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.

TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians. [5:25-28]

Daniel's reading of the divine sentence of course does not function as a warning to the king since Belshazzar has so sinned that he put himself beyond salvation. Daniel's prophetic interpretations, which verses 30 and 31 reveal to have been accurate, authenticate his stature as a prophet at the same time that they convey a generalizable divine warning: God punishes with terrible destruction all those who fall from his way. Furthermore, because nineteenth-century exegetes read the Book of Daniel as an Old Testament analogue to the Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine, they generally found that its situations had been divinely intended to prefigure those of their own time; and Carlyle, who had been trained as a minister, plays with such expectations.

In thus citing a nonbiblical event as a modern example of writing on the wall, Carlyle made the same use of this situation that Victorian preachers did F. D. Maurice wrote, for example: "If the earthquake of Lisbon swept away hundreds and thousands, of whom we cannot pronounce that they were worse than we are, — at least we may hear in it a voice denouncing those same sins which brought death upon Korah and his company; the ambition and falsehood of priests leading to the unbelief, sensuality, godlessness of a people. It was a handwriting on the wall addressed to all Europe. The attempts of the seers and soothsayers of the age to decypher it, showed that they felt it to he so" ("The Rebellion of Korah," The Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament [London Macmillan, 1892], p. 214). Maurice next asserts that the French Revolution similarly served as handwriting on the wall.

Ruskin and the Trivial

Decorative Initial Another, more common version of the sage's announcementof those interpretive cruxes that signal the start of his enterprise involves pointing to apparently trivial facts and events. In fact, although many of the phenomena that Carlyle and his fellow sages interpret, such as the  Peterloo riots and massacre, obviously demand attention, many others at first appear trivial and beneath our notice, and part of the sage's strategy involves the revelation of their unexpected meanings.

Since the very act of interpretation tends to transform the objects interpreted into complex emblems, most of my examples of the sages' discovery of significance in apparently nonsignificant things and events appear in the next chapter, which discusses the sages' use of grotesque emblems and symbolical setpieces.

Here let us look at a single Victorian example of such interpretations of the trivial. In the introduction to The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), the gathering of lectures which contains "Traffic," Ruskin draws his audience's attention to a new pub that had just been built near Croydon High Street. The builders had created a useless two-foot recess between the front windows and the pavement,

too narrow for any possible use, (for even if it had been occupied by a seat, as in old time it might have been, everybody walking along the street would have fallen over the legs of the reposing wayfarer). But ... it was fenced from the pavement by an imposing iron railing, having four or five spear-heads to the yard of it, and six feet high; containing as much iron and iron-work, indeed, as could well be put into the space; and by this stately arrangement, the little piece of dead ground within, between wall and street, became a protective receptacle of refuse; cigar ends, and oyster shells, and the like, such as open-handed English street-populace habitually scatters; and was thus left, unsweepable by any ordinary methods. (18.387)

According to Ruskin, the expensive iron fencing that enclosed this tiny patch of ground and made it "pestilent" represents several things about the nation and the age. First of all, it represents (because it is equal to) the quantity of work necessary have cleaned up some polluted pools several times over. Second, it represents "work, partly cramped and perilous, in the mine" (18.381) from which came the coal that provided energy for its creation. Third, says Ruskin, that miserable bit of fencing represents the dangerous work at the blast furnace required to produce the iron it contains (and he quotes a recent newspaper article about the particularly horrible deaths of two men burned to death by molten metal). Fourth, that pub fence represents "ill-taught students making bad designs" (18.388), so that this bit of contemporary work "from the beginning to the last fruits of it" represents all that is deadly and miserable in British society. Ruskin as sage thereupon inquires why this kind of work was done rather than that which would have been enlivening: "How did it come to pass that this work was done instead of the other; that the strength and life of the English operative were spent in defiling ground, instead of redeeming it, and in producing an entirely (in that place) valueless, piece of metal, which can neither be eaten nor breathed, instead of medicinal fresh air and pure water?" (18.388). Having begun by looking at the litter that has collected behind an ugly, if expensive iron railing, Ruskin reveals the many significant truths that metal barrier embodies, after which he shows its relation to contemporary political economy. The progression is as unexpected as Ruskin's initial choice of such humble materials for his subject; he and other sages take grave rhetorical risks when they work in this manner, but when Ruskin succeeds in thus revealing significance where no such significance seems possible, he authenticates his claims to extraordinary perception and extraordinary understanding.

Last modified 14 July 2008