Albert J. LaValley

Toward the Totalitarian Self

I always fancy there might much be done in the way of military Drill withal. Beyond all other schooling . . . one often wishes the entire Population could be thoroughly drilled; into cooperative movement, into individual behaviour, correct, precise, and at once habitual and orderly as mathematics in all or in very


many points—and ultimately in the point of actual Military Service, should such be required of it!

“Shooting Niagara: And After?”

In the Latter-Day Pamphlets, issued between February 1 and August 1, 1850, Carlyle heightened the voices of both Past and Present, which looked toward a visionary society in the future, and Heroes and Cromwell, which glorified that society in the past, producing a tone that is a mixture of desperation, menace, hopelessness, and fascistic command. Turned toward the crisis of the present, the new tone becomes every bit as important as the thematic material; the heroes of the past are dropped as models, the metaphor of the soldier is reified, and Carlyle, bewildered and terrified by the revolutionary upheavals on the continent in 1848, becomes the wrathful godlike prophet of doom. The Pamphlets forecast the creative futility of the lengthy Frederick to follow, and the voice, in close touch with immediate social concerns, here acts out to the dead end the impulse behind the heroic roles Carlyle has been playing in an oblique manner elsewhere.

The Pamphlets can fittingly be seen as Carlyle’s last major social prophecy. Of all his works, they are the most embarrassing to the modern reader. With what Raymond Williams calls their “contemptuous absolutism,” [1] with their harsh insistence upon the use of force in almost any situation, with their contempt for Negroes, prisoners, minority groups, and indeed all humanity, they offer a final distortion of all the positive elements in Carlyle’s political vision. Yet they do not represent a complete volte-face from his earlier political and social writings. They may be frightening in both

1. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (Garden City, Anchor paperback, 1960) , p.  90.


what they say and how they say it, but they are still an outgrowth of Carlyle’s earlier social writings. The critic must try to discover what has happened to transform the voice of reform with its social vision in Past and Present into the voice of desperation and frustrated power in the Latter-Day Pamphlets.

In a certain sense, Carlyle’s battle is still basically a noble one: to create the elements of social order in the present anarchic situation. Desperately—and with real love for England—he searches for a political hero who will oust the sham leaders of the present and provide order, structure, and direction for society. His analyses of the failure of the new democratic legislation are not without power or truth. As a moralist condemning the present government’s inability to remedy the great social ills, Carlyle is still an imposing figure, and he is even more impressive as a satirist of the strange misdirection, the vagaries of reform, produced by the new legislation. To the modern reader as well as to Carlyle the schemes of Victorian philanthropy reveal a strange lack of proportion, an odd obtuseness, and even some hypocrisy. Philanthropical legislation which seeks first to enfranchise Jamaican Negroes before it provides any real freedom for the “distressed needlewomen” and the millions of Irish paupers that flood England (cf. “The Nigger Question” [2]) is indeed misdirected, even more so

2. Published before the Pamphlets in 1840 and later called in a subtitle “Precursor to Latter-Day Pamphlets.” Here treated as one of them; found in E, 4, 348-83. Though written before Past and Present (1843), the essay has all the harshness of the Pamphlets. Carlyle’s treatment of “colonials,” of course, was always somewhat harsh. See, for instance, the handling of the Irish in Sartor and especially in “Chartism” (1839) and his celebration of the Paraguayan dictator “Dr. Francia” (1843), the last two both in E, 4. Also, without the prompting of imaginative structures to generate complexities as in Past and Present, Carlyle tended to state his case in rigidified oppositions.


when it provides for prison reforms of some elegance while around the prison walls lie the dingy houses of the unaided poor who are struggling to keep out of the prison (cf. “Model Prisons”). The irony is further increased when Carlyle notes that these same paupers must pay the taxes to support the new prison reforms which enable scoundrels to live better than any duke in England (LDP, 57-58). All these observations wisely direct Carlyle’s audience to the larger economic and social problems behind reform and urge some central governmental coordination to meet the complex social intertwining of the difficulties.

One might easily argue against the contempt for prisoners as scoundrels, adding that the two situations Carlyle notes are not quite the same or mutually exclusive, that reform in one area does not preclude reform in another. Carlyle would be willing to a great extent to concede this point, but his major attack remains true: legislation is misdirected and ineffectual in the present social chaos. Since he believes some central control embodied in a hero is necessary, while modern political thinkers might argue for legislation as a basis for or prelude to greater economic and social reform, he actually forces himself into more repressive and conservative measures for instilling order. Nevertheless, his satiric eye, like that of the later Victorian, Samuel Butler, maintains a brilliant focus for exposing this strange amalgamation of earnest concern in one area with total unconcern in another more vital area, certainly one of the strangest feats of the divided Victorian mind. The amalgamation reaches its apex in religious practice, where obtuseness becomes outright hypocrisy, “Jesuitism.” Carlyle’s picture of people kissing a Bible, characteristically closed (LDP, 314), is a telling image of hypocrisy that points toward Butler’s satire of the Church as a “Musical Bank” in Erewhon. The ultimate concern of these peo-


ple Carlyle describes in the propositions of the “Pig Philosophy” (LDP, 315-18) is a vision of the universe dominated by the moneybag and the meat trough (LDP, 258).

Carlyle’s condemnation of the effects of democracy also seems most just when it approaches the similar and later views of John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold. “Hudson’s Statue” offers a damning picture of the consecration of ugliness and money and of the encouragement given “an already-ugly Population to become in a thousand ways uglier” by such dreary art (LDP, 263) Here Carlyle sounds like Mill in On Liberty, awakening to the vast collective mediocrity engendered by the very democracy for which he had fought. His vision also resembles Matthew Arnold’s portraits of the Philistines and the Populace in Culture and Anarchy.

Such special positive elements of the Latter-Day Pamphlets are, however, only a part of their total statement, their constantly reiterated demand for a new structure of command and obedience, for a strong leader and subservient masses, for the social realization of Cromwell. Only thus does Carlyle see social chaos capable of being transformed into social cosmos, and here, as in Past and Present, he condemns the contemporary chaos, demands and envisions new social order, seeks new leaders, and urges self-reform and the replacement of the money god by the true god of the spirit.

The result is unmistakably a product of Carlyle’s vision, but it is different from anything he has ever written. For the first time the commitment to a static reiteration of a viewpoint completely overrides the commitment to process and to exploration of self and society. The editorial role is completely absent, and all the categories that provided interesting means of exploration have hardened. As in Cromwell—but even more so—the world becomes a divided camp: the separation between forces is now complete, and there can be no in-


teraction. Ironically, Carlyle can now justify his rigidity, inflexibility, and militarism, as he did in Cromwell’s world of the past, by what he feels is a prior commitment to a large, almost godlike, vision of freedom. But in this way the totalitarian, absolutist self is born and applied to the present.

The Pamphlets offer no literary depiction of the underlying social process and its conflicts that could serve as a basis to an enduring and constantly self-perfecting society. They can only paint in contrasts: a chaotic and fluctuating present society versus an ordered and static future one. Thus, there is no real development from essay to essay or within the essays themselves. A single page may contain three or four “either . . . or” statements of warning or several disjunctive constructions (“unless you do . . .”) intensifying the separation of the two worlds. The symbols are never developed as they are in Past and Present, as a method of exploring the nature of the social process and its various interconnections.

But perhaps nowhere is the shift from Past and Present to the Pamphlets more evident than in the changes of the imagery. Never before has Carlyle employed such strong images of disgust and contempt. By comparison, the images of social dissolution in Past and Present are mild. The world of the Pamphlets is not merely chaotic, but also foul and loathsome, and it is this fact, not the picture of a future society, which occupies the foreground. The social formlessness of this world is now described as ooze, mud, cesspools, choked sewers, kennels, abortions, swamps, peatbogs, dirt, dung, and nauseous odors. Animal imagery is intensified: stupid horses, dead dogs, pigs, owls, rats, bloated drowned asses, foxes, serpents, and slimy creatures crawling on their bellies. To all of these, society and its present leaders are likened, with great contempt and rage.

Such imagery not only signifies the theme of social


formlessness and unreason, but points more dramatically toward a tone of disgust and contempt that becomes paramount. The social visionary himself experiences a horrible alienation from society. Carlyle becomes infinitely removed from any present social situation; if his vision approaches it, it will be defiled. The heroes of the past are studied because the present needs a new strong hero, modeled after Cromwell or Frederick, who, by his special contact with the godlike, like the heroes of the lectures, will descend from above since he has not sprung from below (LDP, 142). What is needed is a Sir Robert Peel (often earlier condemned by Carlyle) who will go into the “Augias Stable” of Parliament and Downing Street and reform it by cleaning out the dung that has accumulated there for two centuries (LDP, 91-92, 169). This dung, according to the schematic and moralistic theory of history voiced in Past and Present and Heroes and Cromwell, began accumulating when England rejected godlike Cromwell and chose godless Charles and Nell Gwynn. At this point the theory of history fades as all discrimination of insight is blotted out by rage, contempt, and fury.

Far more frightening is the way in which the imagery of contempt sets up a new dialectic, one where no real interaction is possible, only a widening rift heading toward self-destruction and social destruction. For the imagery of contempt easily demands the imagery of guidance, command, and force and the myth of the exalted heroic self, cruel and forcefully commanding. The nine out of ten who are blockheads, the twenty-seven million who are mostly fools, [3] the majority who are stu-

3. It is interesting to watch the commas disappear from this phrase. Pages 115-16 have “the twenty-seven million, many of them fools.” By page 209, the phrase has been shortened to “twenty-seven millions mostly fools,” in which manner it appears thereafter as a slogan. The loss of commas illustrates the movement from the possibility of real consideration to rejection, contempt, and disgust.


pidity itself, must not be allowed ballot boxes and other well-oiled contrivances to express their will. The ignoble cannot discover the noble; their will is not God’s, Carlyle’s, and the Universe’s.

The minority, even if that minority is only Carlyle, must use leadership, command, and force, if necessary, to effect the vision which it knows is truth. By their very social dissolution, the masses have proved that guidance and command, not enfranchisement with its beer and balderdash and stump-oratory, are what is needed. But Carlyle’s vision of society shifts its emphasis to the means of vision, force and command, compulsion and power, and the desire for a new social order retreats into the background.

Glorious self-government is a glory not for you, not for Hodge’s emancipated horses, nor you. No; I say, No. You, for your part, have tried it, and failed . . . : and here at last you lie; fallen flat into the ditch, drowning there and dying . . . . And I am to pick you up again, on these mad terms . . . I will not! Know that, whoever may be “sons of freedom,” you for your part are not and cannot be such. Not “free” you, I think, whoever may be free. You palpably are fallen captive caitiff, as they once named it:—you do, silently, but eloquently, demand, in the name of mercy itself, that some genuine command be taken of you. (LPD, 40)

By a similar line of reasoning, Carlyle decides that Black Quashee of “The Nigger Question” has no right to sit idly by up to his ears in pumpkins and not to work. His real right is “the right . . . to be compelled to work as he was fit, and to do the Maker’s will who had constructed him with such and such capabilities” (E, 4, 357). The accent again falls on compulsion, not freedom, and a rigid hierarchy of castes is asserted.


There is master morality and slave morality, and since “Slave or free is settled in Heaven for a man” (LDP, 248), Carlyle does not see himself doing the settling.

Thus everything that Carlyle envisions becomes godlike. At first, the great consummation seems once again to be the process of making divine order out of chaos, as in Past and Present. In “The Nigger Question,” for example, God is embodied in the British effort that transforms “mere jungle, savagery, poison-reptiles, and swamp-malaria” into the “noble elements of cinnamon, sugar, coffee, pepper black and grey” (E, 4, 374). “The gods wish besides pumpkins, that spices and valuable products be grown in their West Indies” (E, 4, 375). But this is less invigoration with the power of labor than intoxication with power alone; the gods in this instance are largely Carlyle and British imperialism. Elsewhere Carlyle again divinizes and mythologizes colonization and imperialism. In opposing Canada’s attempts at secession, he declares, “They are portions of the general Earth, where the children of Britain now dwell; where the gods have so far sanctioned their endeavour, as to say that they have a right to dwell” (LDP, 152). The appearance of the word “gods” in both statements along with the imperialistic but high-sounding “children of Britain” points to Carlyle’s own mythologizing tendency, his own departure from traditional Christian conceptions toward an Anglo-Saxon Teutonic myth, toward “the gods” themselves.

Neither of these assertions really hearkens back to Past and Present, however, with its vision of a society and self fulfilled through labor. Though each picks up the excitement of that view of labor, the focus is shifted to command and obedience, to imperialism and colonialism, and to a totalitarian self and society. Those concepts are the true centers of the Pamphlets, and of the new society, and the structure they form, not self-


fulfilling labor, is presented throughout as the principal behest of the divine will that is to be actuated. “Gifted souls . . . are appointed, by the true eternal ‘divine right’ which will never become obsolete, to be your governors and administrators” (LDP, 130). This is not even hero-worship, though it preserves some of the earlier doctrine’s overtones. Given the focus on forceful command and power, the mob seems scarcely able to do the act of worship; its only task is to quail before the leaders and to do the work that the leader has decided upon.

Carlyle’s blessed Paradise is no longer centered on divinized labor but on divinized command and obedience. Only the metaphor of the traditional Civitas Dei remains; in “The New Downing Street” the transfer of emphasis is explicit.

Thou shalt have a wise command of men, thou shalt be wisely commanded by men,—the summary of all blessedness for a social creature here below . . . . Wise obedience and wise command, I foresee that the regimenting of Pauper Banditti into Soldiers of Industry is but the beginning of this blessed process, which will extend to the topmost heights of our Society; and, in the course of generations, make us all once more a Governed Commonwealth, and Civitas Dei, if it please God! . . . Wise command, wise obedience: the capability of these two is the net measure of culture, and human virtue, in every man. . . . He is a good man that can command and obey; he that cannot is a bad. (LDP, 166-67)

Even this is not without its ambiguities, however, for if the hero has obedience, it is not to the masses and their wishes, but to God—that is, to his own voice in tune with the universe. The masses have only one real task,


to obey, and there is little room for them to command. Furthermore, Carlyle, like Nietzsche, provides no suitable criterion for deciding who belongs to what rank. If the masses suddenly decide to command and thus to question the validity of the commander’s commands, they are told that Eternal Laws are ever present, invariable, like the laws of mathematics and physics, “inflexible, righteous, eternal; not to be questioned by the sons of men” (LDP, 236). The use of scientific arguments to bolster tyranny and totalitarian conceptions of society is the inexorable prologue to the scientism and the ideas of biology, instinct, and race in Nietzsche’s late philosophy. Both authors begin by attacking empirical science and its limitations but, when pressed for an eternal ground to their assertions, fall into a pseudoscience of instinct and power far more limited than that they sought to remove, far more destructive of any freedom than their original enemy. Both use an argument of eternal validity against the questioning of the masses: against the eternal, scientific, or religious, there is no argument; the drill sergeant is “divine” (LDP, 156).

If the masses choose to go so far as rebellion, then “divinity” will sanction their overthrow. For the visionary leader who sees himself in touch with the Eternal and perhaps is the Eternal—any use of force is sanctioned to overthrow the followers of Satan, as indicated by the terms and phrases I will italicize in the following quotations. The unworking Haitians receive god’s revenge, extermination (E, 4, 376). If idle workers refuse to be drilled into real, not metaphoric, soldiers of industry, the new Prime Minister threatens to flog or shoot them (LDP, 46). The Christian Religion commands not model prisons for scoundrels, but “fixed, irreconcilable, inexorable enmity to the enemies of God" (LDP, 70). Revenge against scoundrels is a “divine feeling,” “a monition sent to poor man by the Maker himself


(LDP, 78). "The soul of every god-created man flames wholly into one divine blaze of sacred wrath at sight of such a Devil’s messenger” (LDP, 79). The hanging of the scoundrel and the crowning of the new king—but especially the hanging of the scoundrel—constitutes “the millennium” (LDP, 273). To hasten this millennium, universal cant, Vox as the god of the universe, must be dispelled; silence is enjoined; if it is not observed, tongues should be clipped (LDP, 181).

It is difficult to believe that Carlyle really intended to implement these brutal suggestions, this absolute usurpation of power in the name of God or the gods. His suggestions might be mere rhetorical exaggeration, the result of excessive anger and alienation, or deliberate jolts to shock and awaken society. Most critics, relying on Froude’s description of the Pamphlets' composition (“fierce acid,” “bilious indignation.” “sulphurous denunciation”), [4] believe that Carlyle meant exactly what he said, but the attribution of total “vitriolism” to the Pamphlets should be tempered with a sense of the alienation Carlyle has undergone, with the quality of anguish and torment in the denunciatory voice, and with the pain of disillusioned idealism. If such tempering will not right the picture, it can help to adjust it and to put it in a more proper focus.

All the cruel suggestions, the concentration on command and obedience, and the contempt for suffrage and the masses are really products not only of a more intensely dislocated social situation but also of the receding vision, the failure of the prophet to save society by his message in Past and Present. In the Pamphlets the hero has gained in power, in absolutism, in titanic will, but this increase is purely theoretical and visionary, for, practically, he has become more powerless than ever.

4. Froude, Life in London, 2, 43.


And thus the vision of a future society has become more imbalanced, more fiery, fierce, and intense. Perhaps this reflects the possibility that totalitarianism needs the acute shock of disinheritance and deprivation as a seedbed for its fiery conception of enemies, its need for victims, and its thrust for power.

Muted behind Carlyle’s fiery voice is his full awareness of the receding vision, of his own failure and futility. Futility breaks into the Pamphlets much as it had already done in Cromwell and as it would in Frederick, and the sustained sense of realism, of hopelessness, of the “mask” of the denunciatory voice, and of his role-playing saves the Pamphlets from the extremity of Nietzsche’s later social writings and prevents Carlyle from toppling into Nietzsche’s madness. Carlyle’s fierceness, intimately bound up with his sense of isolation and failure, is a desperate means of transforming his futility into courage.

To the whole world’s Yes, Carlyle answers No. Like Nietzsche, he dares to be a nay-sayer, but he swears an oath by the Eternal: “I can only say, if all the Parliaments in the world were to vote that such a thing was just, I should feel painfully constrained to answer, at my peril, ‘No, by the Eternal, never!’” (LDP, 155). In swearing by the Eternal, Carlyle gains the added dimension of being the Miltonic one just man, Abdiel alone against all of Satan and his hosts. But such a No can only intensify and accelerate society’s rejection of both Carlyle and his vision, and, indeed, Carlyle seems to invite that rejection as a kind of martyrdom and crucifixion, a proof of his own worth. When destruction by society is essential to the true hero, society becomes more and more contemptible, the vision more affirmative and more intense, Carlyle further and further alienated.

Nevertheless, as in Cromwell and Frederick, the note of futility insists on intruding itself and dissolving the


heroic vision, Carlyle becomes the one man who stands by Nature and Fact, but he is “felt as a kind of interloper and dissocial person, who obstructs the harmony of affairs, and is out of keeping with the universal suffrage arrangement that has been entered upon” (LDP, 274). Thus the nature of the heroic vision, though intensified, falls more and more into the background. In “Stump-Orator,” with its study of the method whereby society summons up its talent, Carlyle progressively discovers that, outside of the earnest but mediocre realm of the beaver intelligence, there is no room for the hero in the higher realms of medicine, law, or the church—three careers which he had also tried (LDP, 189). Even literature, the choice he had made, which should be the one remaining outlet, the pulpit for a new and dislocated age, has degenerated into a formless “motley flood of discharged playactors . . . a boundless canaille,—without drill” (LDP, 191). The self can no longer really be a hero.

The same sense of ultimate futility presents itself in “The New Downing Street.” The initial upward movement, the return to Veracities, is followed by an awareness that getting regimented is “impossible for us”; then, the suggestion that literature will still be a hope is followed immediately by the awareness that it is a “slough of lies.” An essay like this, which is typical, reverses the critical yet visionary movement of an early essay like “Characteristics.” “Stump-Orator,” however, effects a kind of reconciliation by projecting the visionary society far into the future while at the same time allowing Carlyle to assert his isolation and the futility of his discourse. Carlyle himself becomes a stump-orator of sorts, though presumably one without hypocrisy.

Brave young friend, dear to me, and known too in a sense, though never seen, nor to be seen by men,


—you are, what I am not, in the happy case to learn to be something and to do something, instead of eloquently talking about what has been and was done and may be! The old are what they are, and will not alter; out [our?] hope is in you. (LDP, 213)

This is Carlyle’s supreme moment of honesty in the Pamphlets, his most explicit and pathetic recognition of his own powerless position.

Even when Carlyle does not explicitly talk about this powerlessness, it hovers behind the essays. In “The Nigger Question” it is the source of the rather awkward and painful structural device: a speech delivered by an unknown orator to Exeter Hall members about the dangers of philanthropy. [5] The interruptions in the speech that depict the decreasing audience testify to Carlyle’s deep awareness that he represents a minority of one that is powerless. In “The Present Time” he tries another method which stems from the same lack of power; he envisions himself as Prime Minister delivering a speech to idle workers and regimenting them in the army of the new era. The militaristic and commanding “I” comes to the fore in all the essays, here growling at all new development, there flinging itself into the mouth of all opposition. But the emergence of the “I,” always as the vehicle of opposition, only underscores Carlyle’s inability to implement his power effectively, his need to fall back on assertion alone. “The New Downing Street” is supposed to contrast with “Downing Street,” but the description of the ideal contains just as much criticism of social dissolution as the depiction of the real. When

5. The device of a fictional speaker presenting Carlyle’s own unpopular views was always a crutch for Carlyle, but frequently a source for creativity too. Sauerteig, who appears in Frederick and briefly in Past and Present, made his first appearance in “Biography” in 1832 (E, 3. 44-61), where he vehemently condemns fiction.


this inability, this lack of power, does not take the form of envisioned situations of personal power, it becomes gasps of frustration and futility. And the struggle for assertion always goes on under the very feelings of futility: “My friend, I have to speak in crude language, the wretched times being dumb and deaf; and if thou find no truth under this but the phantom of an extinct Hebrew one, I at present cannot help it” (LDP, 325).

This same tone of helplessness afflicts Carlyle’s final political pamphlet “Shooting Niagara: and After?” written seventeen years after the Pamphlets. Long regarded as his most frightful vision, with its picture of a drilled society, the work nevertheless maintains a sense of finality, of last words mixing disgust with weariness and the inability to summon up real energy. Even the positive vision fails to attain power; military drill is by Carlyle’s own denomination a visionary “fancy,” though we in the twentieth century have lived to see that it is not (E, 5, 40). And the presentation of this vision is interrupted by a realization of its futility: “But I forbear; feeling well enough how visionary these things look; and how aerial, high, and spiritual they are; little capable of seriously tempting, even for moments, any but the highest kinds of men” (E, 5, 45).

The note of wounded pride and the feeling of social rejection show through the lofty declaration. At the end of “Shooting Niagara: and After?” Carlyle is a lonely ineffectual old man, out of contact with the real world and unable to understand its social structure. He has moved from a study of full human and social development in Past and Present through the process of spontaneous self-fulfilling labor to a rigid, hierarchical, inflexible scheme conceived in the militaristic and fascistic terms of the structure of command and obedience, a toughened labor of the self.

Nevertheless, while the Pamphlets are not saved by


the note of futility and grief, Carlyle himself is. If he represents the new Calvinistic God as a mode of the will to power, his own alienation never leads him into claims of real divinity, or even the glory of great self-exaltation. His concern with immediate social and economic realities—not shared by Nietzsche, who is more interested in, and often obsessed by, the unity of the large philosophical picture—provides a more realistic ballast for reassessing the self. Nietzsche’s last works provide once again a commentary on Carlyle, but here the two writers part ways irrevocably. Nietzsche pursues his alienation, his ideas of Dionysos, of master and slave, of extremism, criminality, and immoralism, into madness itself, and in all the later writings there is a deep streak of pessimism, an intense disgust, a lofty contempt, an icy bacchantic laughter, echoing not only lonely freedom but also derangement of selfhood. Only rarely does the personal note of futility appear, for suffering exists as a proof of toughness. The devotion to a toughened will to power refuses the recognition of futility, and thus Nietzsche’s self-discovery must go on at the very cost of selfhood. The worsening situation demands only the stronger asceticism of the self, the stronger declarations of independence, success, freedom, uniqueness, and will to power of the self. Carlyle’s letters, by contrast, adumbrate the futility that creeps into the Pamphlets; they are almost maudlin in their delineation of his alienation, lack of purpose, melancholy, illnesses, and all the problems of being a hero in the futile and complex nineteenth century. Nietzsche’s later letters provide no such obverse image to his denunciatory statements but, instead, intensify the image of the philosopher-hero in the writings. Their euphoric tone points to incipient madness, not merely freedom and self-overcoming: “Between ourselves—it is not impossible that I am the first philosopher of the age, perhaps even a trifle more than


that. . . . something decisive and fateful standing between two millenia.” [6] Though Carlyle also wants to hasten the millennium, he never fully attributes this role and ability to himself.

Other letters of Nietzsche, when not involved in overt self-celebration, suggest a euphoria that also indicates mental derangement, a need for self-apotheosis, a failure in perceiving reality, perhaps in fact the very need to be deluded and to misread reality: “What is remarkable here in Turin is the fascination I exercise on people. . . . When I go into a large shop, every face changes; women gaze after me in the street,” [7] The autobiographical Ecce Homo whose title is presumably designed to celebrate the new Christ who is Christ’s reversal, a total man, is actually a history of Nietzsche’s heroic role-playing rather than a full study of his personal development. The grandiloquent claims, the self-divinization, obviously embody a sportive arrogance, a joy in their own improbability, and a desire to shock; yet, however rhetorical and experimental they may be, they nevertheless indicate real mental derangement and self-intoxication. Their tone is giddy and heady.

Nietzsche’s madness, while probably due to organic causes, [8] is nevertheless associated with his own tighten-

6. Letter to Seydlitz, 12 Feb. 1888, quoted in Hollingdale, Nietzsche, p. 232.

7. Letter to Overbeck, Christmas 1888, ibid., p. 237. Also see the collection of letters in Kurt F. Leidecker’s translation of selections from the Schlechta edition, Unpublished Letters (New York, Philosophical Library paperback, 1959).

8. On Nietzsche’s madness, see pp. 58-59 of Kaufmann, Nietzsche. The whole problem is beset with many difficulties. Most recent studies, intent on rehabilitating Nietzsche, seek an organic cause and often insist that his thought is quite consistent in its development and unconnected with the problem of his madness. While it is not necessary to see Nietzsche’s thought as leading to madness, it does seem more reasonable to admit some interrelationship between the thought and the man.


ing of the reins upon himself, his forcing of himself to become his projections, to be his role. Nietzsche needs an apotheosis of self. Thus the chapter headings shift back and forth from the titles of the world’s greatest books, those which he has written, to special attributes of self-celebration. While some of them—“Why I am so Wise,” “Why I am so Clever,” and “Why I write such excellent Books”—are obviously meant to be funny and arrogant, they are also a trifle mad. Nietzsche can see little in his autobiography beyond the role he has played in his books; consequently, the arrangement of his life is according to the books he has published. At the end of Ecce Homo, when he can conceive of himself only as a toughened Zarathustra fighting against the whole history of morality, he becomes his own projection—and a rather ugly and limited version of that projection. The final line of “Why I am a Fatality” sums it all up in another set of projections, canceling out one and affirming the other as the total self. “Have you understood me? Dionysos versus Christ.” [9] Even this is not the Dionysos of either The Birth of Tragedy or the somewhat later writings, however, but a tougher, lonelier, more ascetic revolutionary.

Nietzsche pursues his opposition to his age, his alienation from it, into such a furious distortion of his own projections that it becomes impossible to draw the line between artistic role-playing and life.

I know my destiny. Some day my name will be bound up with the recollection of something terrific—of a crisis quite unprecedented, of the most profound clash of consciences, and the decisive condemnation of all that theretofore had been be-

9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (Philosophy of Nietzsche) New York, Modern Library, 1954), p. 933.


lieved, required, and hallowed. I am not a man, I am dynamite. [10]

The need to make an impact on life, to feel significant, results sometimes in a self-apotheosis that is purely destructive of everything outside the self, that overturns all civilization in a rage; at other times it produces both an overturning and a construction along new lines, but destruction is always dominant. The hyperbole of hope has its side of horror too.

I am acquainted with tasks of a grandeur formerly inconceivable. Hope is reborn with me. Thus, I am necessarily a Man of Destiny . . . . All the mighty forms of the old society are blown into space—for they all rest on falsehood; there will be wars, whose like have never been seen on earth before. Politics on a grand scale will date from me.”

I find it impossible not to see behind these statements some glimpses of a madness provoked by alienation, a desperate desire to play the role of the god he has destroyed. Nietzsche’s detestation of religion, mob, and slave morality precludes the role of sainthood and of the suffering self, but the image of the martyr and the crucified Christ returns in a distorted form in the “clown,” just as his suffering returns in a kind of bacchantic but pessimistic joy.

In the picture of the clown as the substitute for sainthood, Nietzsche’s alienation actually reaches the text of Ecce Homo. Yet if it is for a moment analogous to Carlyle’s constantly intruding futility, it is immediately checked by qualifications and contradicted by self-apotheosis. Carlyle can never fully realize a moment of apotheosis without qualifying it, while Nietzsche can never reach a moment of unqualified futility:

10. Ibid., p. 923.

11. Ibid., p. 924.


I do not wish to be a saint; I would much rather be a clown. Perhaps I am a clown. And despite this—or rather not despite this (for there has never been anything falser than a saint)—I am the voice of truth. But my truth is terrible: for hitherto lies have been called truth. The Transvaluation of all Values: that is my formula for mankind’s act of highest self-recognition, which in me has become flesh and genius. My destiny ordains that I should be the first decent human being, that I should feel myself opposed to the falsehood of ages. [12]

Though the Nietzsche of Ecce Homo is the new Christ and his reversal—“the voice of truth” become terrible, one who has “become flesh” but is the “first decent human being”—the image of the clown nevertheless suggests a martyr, the sense that he is ordained to a fate of decency suggests a passion and a crucifixion, and the title itself, Ecce Homo, suggests not merely a reversal of Christ, but a confirmation of Nietzsche in the role of the suffering and crucified Christ. This sense of crucifixion returns in Nietzsche’s madness when he signs himself by the opposite of Dionysos in his crazed letters, the Crucified One. What was long denied erupts with a vengeance in his madness.

I have explored this comparison at some length because it seems to me that none of the social proposals of the later Carlyle or Nietzsche can be understood without understanding their own sense of playing a unique prophetic role totally without precedent in religion or literature, their own peculiar social alienation, and their extraordinary reaction to disinheritance, the loss of tradition, and social confusion. Their social goals cannot be fully perceived without a sense of the complex

12. Ibid., p. 923.


dialectic of self and society that provokes the extravagance and harshness of the proposals. Tone is a most important factor in understanding the later Carlyle and Nietzsche. The dynamic polarity of the self and its social goals must be kept alive.

Furthermore, Nietzsche, by acting out to the futile end his alienation, which is so analogous to Carlyle’s, sheds more light on Carlyle than any author in the nineteenth century. Despite the toying with heroic projections and the need to find the self in heroes, Carlyle never fully confuses himself with his heroes. He refuses to pick up his earlier roles and to encase himself in them. Teufelsdröckh appears but is forgotten, but Zarathustra returns as Nietzsche in Ecce Homo. Carlyle never writes an autobiography of self-exaltation. Sartor, like Zarathustra, is an exploration into selfhood, an attempt at self-discovery, but when Carlyle returns to the autobiographical strain in later years, he discovers himself through the memoirs of others. In Nietzsche’s life and writings other people progressively disappear from view; Carlyle mourns the loss of his friends, but they are separated by death, not by his own alienation.

Basically, however, it is the note of futility, of the voice of the reformer who cannot reform, that protects Carlyle from Nietzsche’s madness. This realistic crucified Carlyle, the alien prophet to his age, enters his own literature of heroism and shatters the completeness of the heroic mask. Thus Frederick the Great, written after the Pamphlets, becomes far more than Cromwell an odd mixture—the study of the will to power, the tough commander, the model leader of men and armies, and also an autobiography of Carlyle’s own futile wrestlings with the sources and subject matter, the confession of a failure to organize a chaos of sources. (Ironically, it was Nietzsche who wanted to found a city in honor of Fred-


erick, in whom he saw a great atheist and anti-ecclesiast. [13]

This note of futility becomes dominant and finally proves both worthwhile and enduring. The Life of Sterling turns at last to a realistically redefined heroism, one that is mild, not harsh, one that foregoes vast social proposals, one that emerges out of the very complexities of the century, one that while always admitting futility turns weakness into strength. Though this strain is muted, recurring only in distorted form in Frederick over a period of many years and thus preventing the heroic fulfillment projected in that book, it is nevertheless constant, providing—though not with full satisfaction to Carlyle—the means for self-redefinition in old age. Carlyle’s version of Ecce Homo is the reversal of Nietzsche’s; though marred occasionally by sentimentality and maudlin moments, it is a crucifixion with others, a finding of the self through others, through memory, and through a realistic assessment of the century’s disinheritance, not through the lonely and exalted acting out of impossible heroic roles that lead into madness and irremediable futility.

13. Ibid., p. 898.

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 5: Hunting for Heroes: The Flight from Reality, section 3: Toward the Totalitarian Self, pp. 278-300.

Note: This is the culmination of Carlyle’s descent into reaction throughout the 1840s: fascism avant le lettre. Note that the revolutions of 1848 mark the historical turning point, and 1848 is considered by thinkers as diverse as Georg Lukács and C.L.R. James to be the point after which bourgeois philosophy degenerates into eventual bankruptcy. LaValley’s measured even-handedness towards his subject serves him well up to a point, as he can focus on the nuances of Carlyle’s writing. He makes some interesting specific comparisons among the figures he treats. However, though LaValley provides enough specific information that can be taken up to verify generalizations about the development of ideologies in the 19th century—unintentionally— he fails to grasp the systematicity of and systematic differences among and thus the fundamental implications of the perspectives of the various thinkers treated in the book. A case in point is the ridiculous conclusion of this chapter, following an otherwise interesting comparative discussion of Carlyle and Nietzsche. One thing that unites the two is that they are tough guys only in theory; they are not Mussolini. As for their differences, the notion that Carlyle redeems himself by avoiding the self-deification of Nietzsche is preposterous. For more on this subject see my notes on Engels (& Borges) on Carlyle.

— RD

Engels (& Borges) on Carlyle

Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”

On Bentham and Coleridge (Excerpts) by John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill & the Dualities: Bentham & Coleridge
— Commentary by Ralph Dumain

Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography

William Blake Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


The Condition of England: A Review of Past and Present, by Thomas Carlyle, London, 1843
by Frederick Engels

The Condition of England: I: The Eighteenth Century
by Frederick Engels

Review: Latter-Day Pamphlets, Edited by Thomas Carlyle—No. I, The Present Time, No. II, Model Prisons
by Karl Marx & Frederick Engels

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