Albert J. LaValley

Carlyle, Blake, Nietzsche: The French Revolution & The Birth of Tragedy


Basically The French Revolution, despite its blurrings and ambivalences, remains a strong evocation of rebellion, focusing on man’s assertions of his rights against an outmoded and repressive order, and an equally strong statement of the difficulty of living in the new era. As a book of rebellion, it can be compared with two other famous works, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, which it resembles in certain matters of theme, structure, imagery—and even ambivalence. Such a comparison will, I believe, illuminate all three books.

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The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, engraved by Blake in 1793, is far closer to the revolutionary events than Carlyle’s history but treats the Revolution less as subject matter than as a confirmation of the more generalized theories of the rebellious consciousness erupting against an evil social order that calls itself “heaven.” (When in his earlier unfinished poem, The French Revolution [1791], Blake had attempted a narrative manner of events not unlike Carlyle’s, he had encountered thematic problems that necessitated another kind of treatment and subject closer to the self.) It resembles Carlyle’s work in two important respects: the endorsement of energy, rebellion, and “hell” as full life asserting themselves against weak oppressors who have behind them the sanction of traditional social institutions, and the vision of a hoped-for marriage, a new society that will not be repressive, that will be in touch with man’s basic powers. The poem also shows something of the same odd mixture of genres and voice that Carlyle’s work does—epic, lyric, gnomic, philosophic, satiric, polemic, prophetic, and ironic.

The heaven-hell dichotomy, present in a suggested inversion in The French Revolution, is treated far more radically by Blake, for whom the forces of the old order and those of the newly emergent energies are so polarized that he can actually satirically invert his terms, the traditional dualism of heaven and hell, angels and demons. He is so opposed to the forces of organized and orthodox religion as restrainers of life that he satirically acts out the role they would assign to him as a demon and writes in the Marriage a bible of hell, rising like Christ from the dead, uttering “gospel” truths, giving beatitudes in the famous “Proverbs of Hell” section, overpowering the “angel” in a temptation scene, and finally withstanding the leviathan of the Apocalypse in a climactic vision.

Carlyle, of course, is by no means the outright rebel

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that Blake is, and Blake’s satiric inversion, so deliberately flaunted as a corrective to the prevailing orthodoxy, would probably have struck him as shocking and outrageous. (I can find no evidence of Carlyle’s reading Blake.) But his own use of the demonic element in man undergoes a shift in The French Revolution so that it is not unlike Blake’s use in the Marriage. In its new spelling “daemonic,” it even seems to suggest Greek and nonreligious associations, calling up the voice of genius behind poetry itself (much as Nietzsche was to use the term “daimon” to describe the sudden instinct of Socrates to write poems while imprisoned). [4] Thus, The French Revolution insists on the demonic, or the daemonic, as the most natural and fundamental instinct in man and ultimately the expression of his most “religious” impulse. Carlyle’s highest praise for Charlotte Corday, a figure of true purpose in a confused France, is that she is “angelic-daemonic: like a Star!” (FR, 3, 172).

Blake’s terms, like Carlyle’s, point beyond surfaces and Christian categories to a nature symbolism that makes a similar insistence: man, having lost touch with his roots, must be immersed in the cauldron of nature to recover his own nature and then defeat the threats of nature through the power of his own recovered nature. Both writers insist that the infinite element in man has been hidden by false forms, though Blake, more radical in tone than Carlyle, argues for the body as the source of energy and for cleansing the doors of perception, the senses, so that they may once again open man to infinity. But Carlyle also strips man down to his nakedness in the service of a similar cleansing and rebirth; he argues for a breakthrough of surfaces and an eradication of paper theorems and systems that are out of touch with nature, fact, and force. His mobs assert the fact of

4. See Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pp. 84, 90.

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things as they really are: man is a natural creature linked to nature with his body, his digestive processes, his hunger. Filled with titanic energy, however, the mobs in their uprising reveal the concealed dimensions of man, the infinite expansion of his consciousness that is his unique property.

Both Blake and Carlyle see the world beneath the social surface as filled with repressed giants and titans. The mythical vision they share serves the same function for each. Blake writes:

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity; but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy; according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning. [5]

But Carlyle’s world is far less polarized and far more problematic than Blake’s; it is hard to imagine Louis and the nobility as evil and cunning however much they may plot to hold onto the old order. Louis’ fundamental evil, if I may use that term, is his failure to perceive reality and act accordingly.

Most of the problems that commentators find difficult to explicate in the Marriage stem, I think, from this excessive polarization. If “heaven” is really evil and “hell” really good, why not merely an inversion, why a marriage of contraries at all? To this objection, Blake offers a voice of realism where the absoluteness of the inversions seems to be absent. Life is activity and conflict of forces; triumph is dependent on the energetic engaging and overcoming of obstacles. Blake’s nonrebellious, nonsatiric voice points out: “Without Contraries

5. William Blake, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Northrop Frye (New York, Modern Library, 1953), pp. 129-30.

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is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human Existence.” [6] Like Carlyle, Blake also sees the danger of basing life on a single polarity. Recognizing the danger of man’s instincts raging uncontrollably, he demands a nonrepressive order in touch with those instincts yet checking their excess. But so strongly has he espoused energy—both by his satiric inversion and fierce direct statements—that in his description of the Prolific and the Devourer, where the Devourer is allied to Reason and Order, he has difficulty conceiving of the Devourer as anything but repressive or a mere outer limit.

Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the Devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains; but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.

But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights. [7]

Instead of a nonrepressive order, a marriage, Blake seems to argue exclusively for an awakening of energy in an eternal warfare between two classes of men that can never be reconciled. The revolutionary situation seems eternal: “These two classes of men are always upon earth, they should be enemies: whoever tires to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence./Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.” [8] It is commonly stated that Blake argues for a dialectic of contraries, not of contradictories, but these affirmations in the Marriage make it difficult to envision that dialectic and that “marriage.”

6. Ibid., p. 123

7. Ibid., p. 130.

8. Ibid.

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What readily predominates in Blake’s work and ultimately distinguishes it from Carlyle’s, however, is not the philosophical theory but the fierce voice of protest that generates (but overrides) the inversion, the satire, the arrogance, the deliberate excess, and the very labeling of opposites that causes such confusion. He is the first of the rebellious protest poets, still common in our own day, for whom the existing social structure and morality will always be a repressive force. To such poets the social order always appears at first stronger but then paradoxically weaker when compared with the inherent energies of their own poetic infinitude and affirmation of natural values.

Toward the end of his book, Carlyle seems to be embroiled in some of the same confusions as Blake. Fearing the excesses of his Prolific, he too seeks the finality of a Devourer in the army. Left with the Cabarus balls at the end of the Revolution, lie seems to offer a theory of history as an endless spiral of repression and revolt. Yet, as I have shown, these problems do not touch the core of his work, as they do in Blake’s Marriage.

Carlyle also offers what might be called a “dialectic of contraries,” but here too he differs from Blake. Even when his vocabulary approaches that of Blake, his picture of historical existence complicates the contraries, so that, in the process of time, valuations shift into their opposites (a process that was also explored by Blake in his later visions). Blake’s theory of contraries in the Marriage pushes instead toward the opposition of finalities, an eternal situation scarcely varied by history.

Furthermore, Carlyle locates the contraries within each individual as well as in history, much as Blake did in his later poetry. The picture of both self and history that emerges is even further complicated by the fact that the contraries are not merely within the opposition of classes but within the self. Carlyle thereby makes them

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susceptible of a far less rigorous and more flexible treatment than in Blake’s Marriage. Oppression exists, hope exists, and the violence of revolution is necessary; but the themes are now tinged with irony and acceptance rather than violent assertion.

So, however, in this world of ours, which has both an indestructible hope in the Future, and an indestructible tendency to persevere as in the Past, must Innovation and Conservation wage their perpetual conflict, as they may and can. Wherein the “daemonic element,” that lurks in all human things, may doubtless, some once in the thousand years,—get vent! But indeed may we not regret that such conflict,—which, after all, is but like that classical one of “hate-filled Amazons with heroic Youths” and will end in embraces—should usually be so spasmodic? For Conservation, strengthened by that mightiest quality in us, our indolence, sits for long ages, not victorious only, which she should be; but tyrannical, incommunicative. She holds her adversary as if annihilated; such adversary lying, all the while, like some buried Enceladus; who, to gain the smallest freedom, has to stir a whole Trinacria with its Aetnas. (FR, I, 39)

Carlyle eschews the finality of opposites, of all labeling, and even of rigorous moral judgment. The power of his vision is the power of his humanity, realism, and flexibility. Blake, while treating the same themes, delights in opposition, the use of philosophical and moral labels, and the drive toward ultimates. The power of his vision in the Marriage lies in an area that Carlyle shares, but to a lesser degree‑in the power of the very fierceness of his individual protest and threats.

Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872) is closer than the Marriage to The French Revolution in its contempla-

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tive and philosophic tone, which plays over the need for titanic assertion, but in its radical opposition to almost all of culture and history it is more closely allied to the radicalism of Blake. A bizarre first book, an anti-scholarly intuitive treatise of highly scholarly material by a skilled philologist in revolt, the Birth of Tragedy propounds the anti-civilized thesis that the greatness of Greek tragedy grew from the choric figure, a satyr god close to the Dionysiac forces of nature, who in this highest art was wedded to the Apollonian “epic” material associated with civilization and the Olympian gods. Nietzsche sees Greek tragedy as a restoration of the Titans to daylight, much as Carlyle sees the Revolution. Furthermore, the outcome of the conflict is, like the Revolution, a glorious reinstatement.

The effects of the Dionysiac spirit struck the Apollonian Greeks as titanic and barbaric; yet they could not disguise from themselves the fact that they were essentially akin to those deposed Titans and heroes. They felt more than that: their whole existence, with its temperate beauty, rested upon a base of suffering and knowledge which had been hidden from them until the reinstatement of Dionysos uncovered it once more. And lo and behold! Apollo found it impossible to live without Dionysos. [9]

The “yoke of marriage,” [10] however, was short-lived; Socrates is the villain of the piece, propounding a lifeless reason, a dead form of Apollo that usurps control of the Western mind. Wagner—and presumably Nietzsche himself—are the first signs of a Dionysiac artist bringing about the new restoration.

Nietzsche’s book is obviously not only a rather con-

9. Nietzsche, p. 34.

10. Ibid., p. 19.

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fused and brilliant philosophical essay, but also a blast at culture, a titanic refusal that goes behind culture to its historical roots in nature only to prove that man’s very roots with nature have been neglected. Like Carlyle’s book, it is a look at instinctual man alive with energies and sharply contrasted to the weakness of a dead culture. Nietzsche’s basic model is therefore much like Carlyle’s, but his eye is on neither politics nor the complexity of history but on the role of art, particularly tragic art, as a justification for life, a perfect representation of its essence and a force that will reconcile man to his own suffering and to a terrifying and perhaps meaningless universe.

Carlyle has little to say about art, though the fact that he sees his history in relation to various literary models is rich in artistic implications. Nietzsche’s speculations on tragic art and the tragic artist and his relationship to Apollo and Dionysos seem every bit as useful as Carlyle’s own artistic implications, for they offer an interesting parallel to Carlyle’s own concerns.

Nietzsche sees tragedy as a composition of two artistic genres—epic and lyric. The physiological and psychological bases of these genres when unmediated by art, are dream and intoxication, respectively. Such terms are obviously too clear-cut for Carlyle, and for Nietzsche himself they probably represent only the outline of an idea, the neatness of a philosophical and psychological solution to his problem. But the variety of states of which Nietzsche speaks, the similarity of genres, the manner in which he speaks of both, and the ultimate tragic fusion with a Dionysiac emphasis show how close he and Carlyle are in their basic considerations.

Nietzsche’s discussion of the Apollonian state of dream and its artistic perfection in epic, where the philosophic eye regards life as an illusion and a comedy from which the self is removed, is obviously allied to

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Carlyle’s sense of his philosophical voice as an epic one playing over the material of The French Revolution, limiting and ordering it, making its rough edges smooth and tranquil, seeing it as essentially a comedy. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s discussion of the Dionysiac state of intoxication and its artistic analogue, the lyric manner, that purges it of lust, cruelty, and sexual excess seems allied to Carlyle’s participation with his mobs on the pages of his book and his aim to induce in the reader the sense of presence. “The ‘I’ thus sounds out of the depth of being.” [11] For Nietzsche such a state approximates music, the Schopenhauerian world-will itself, not merely its image, and, by implication, an art like that of The French Revolution, where the density of style can be a barrier to understanding but once entered into carries the reader along on its own surge of intensity, rhythm, and imagery.

The merger of epic and lyric, of Homer and Dionysiac chorus, into tragedy with a Dionysiac emphasis shows a tragic concern in Nietzsche not unlike the one already noted in Carlyle. Nietzsche, however, stresses redemption through tragedy—a fusion with the original oneness, as he puts it in the youthful Schopenhauerian language that he is soon to discard. Carlyle denies neither the oneness nor the rapture of the fusion and the self-transformation implicit in it, but he does not seek redemption through art, not even a quasi-redemption from the temporal process. Carlyle's eye is on the present and the past and on historical existence itself; he speaks as one distanced in history from the Revolution and consequently aware of both the transports and the difficulties.

Nietzsche, of course, is primarily fascinated with the terror of the Titans, the unvarnished truth of instinct that they reveal to a surface of civilization. In this re-

11. Ibid., p. 38.

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spect he is at one with Carlyle. His use of the Titan myth, however, is a historical one. He returns to the original users of the myth for his subject matter, and he sees it, presumably as they saw it in an unconscious manner, as an emblem of the relationship of personality and culture to nature. Thus he makes clear the link between Carlyle’s use of nature images and his use of the Titan myth and underlines the ultimate nature of both.

In returning to Greek culture, Nietzsche succeeds in avoiding all Christian dualism and the difficulties of the angelic-demonic dichotomy; at the same time, he gives the impression of both undermining all of civilization and getting at its roots in the hope of recovering an authentic selfhood and culture once again. Implicit in such a drive behind history, however, is a repudiation—foreign to the later Nietzsche—of history itself and of most of culture. Both rejections are abetted by the metaphysical language of Schopenhauer which permeates the essay. Carlyle may risk a certain literary flavoring in the use of his Titan myth in connection with the modernity of the Revolution, but his gain in immediacy and historical consciousness is great.

Since his primary concern is the Revolution and its repercussions in history, not the philosophical principles behind it, Carlyle, in his own way, manages to have the best of both sides. Nietzsche, on the contrary, is more like Blake in his interest in the rebellious consciousness, an assertion of life and instinct that is primarily determined by philosophical and psychological attitudes rather than by the economic and historical conditions which Carlyle regards as primary. Since his rebellious role is both highly individual and total, he, like Blake, finds it difficult to conceive of his Apollo as anything other than a restrainer, and his philosophic desire for finality presents difficulties. In phrases startlingly like

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those in the Marriage about the Prolific and Devouring, Nietzsche affirms that Apollo reminds one of the “holy, universal norms” but “threatens to freeze all form into Egyptian rigidity,” to “prescribe its orbit to each particular wave,” and thus “to inhibit the movement of the lake.” [12] Carlyle’s problems with the “marriage” and the order-disorder dichotomy are minor and merely theoretical compared to Nietzsche’s and Blake’s, for the practice of his book leads not to them, but to a wider spectrum of viewpoints.

Nietzsche drives toward a resolution of contraries in art, Carlyle toward an understanding within history of the irresolution of life and the juncture of personality and history. His voice is consequently far less insistent than Nietzsche’s, whose very singular manner thrusts itself boldly upon the material and dominates it. If part of the meaning of The French Revolution is that no single meaning or attitude can be drawn from it, the fighting voice of the author must necessarily recede in importance despite his commitments. Less philosophically ultimate and rebelliously intense than either Blake or Nietzsche, Carlyle is more objectively aware of the individuality and uniqueness of each dramatic moment. More bewildered than they at the conjunction of man’s choice with the logic of history, his similar theme of rebellion against oppression is rendered with both more objectivity and greater irony.

12. Ibid., p. 65.


SOURCE: LaValley, Albert J. Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern: Studies in Carlyle’s Prophetic Literature and Its Relation to Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, and Others (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), Part 2: London—Varieties of Social Prophecy, Chapter 3: The French Revolution: Change and Historical Consciousness, pp. 121-182, this excerpt pp. 164-175.

Note: Apparently, at this stage of Carlyle’s development (1837), his politics are ambiguous rather than clearly reactionary. LaValley’s analysis exhibits his penchant for specificity over systematicity. He also seems to have a penchant for moderation which blurs any tendency towards the systematic. He finds in Blake excessive polarization, Blake being “the first of the rebellious protest poets”. LaValley finds an incompatibility between Blake’s notion of a ‘marriage’of contraries and the irreconcilable war of classes. LaValley finds a comparable dialectic of contraries in Carlyle, but who doesn’t hold to extreme opposition as does Blake. Nietzsche is similar to Blake in his uncompromising opposition to his culture. Nietzsche’s characterization of the stifling of instinctual man is akin to Carlyle’s but is absent an accounting of a contemporary social correlate. Nietzsche is concerned with art, Carlyle is not. Nietzsche’s attitude to Apollo is like Blake’s protest against Reason or state religion as a restraining power. Carlyle’s bottom ideological line seems to be indeterminate, inconclusive, and attentive to particularity—one might say moderated. It appears that LaValley finds this congenial. However interesting LaValley’s individual observations and comparisons are, he reveals himself indisposed to approach his subjects systematically, thereby muddling his judgments and thus stopping short of an adequate assessment of what these three figures are ultimately about.

— RD, 3 February 2019


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