This Week in My Classes (September 16, 2009)

I don’t have a lot to say about our first week on The Moonstone in Mystery and Detective Fiction that I didn’t say around this time last year. I notice that in last year’s post I didn’t say much about Miss Clack, though, who was the main subject of today’s meeting. I like Miss Clack for many reasons, including for her name (clickety-clack! it captures and trivializes her annoying persistence with Dickensian precision) and for how well she illustrates one of the novel’s major formal interests–the effect of character on both language and perception. Her narrative is extremely comic, but because it is funny at the expense of her religious attitudes (especially her missionary zeal), the humour inevitably has larger thematic implications. Her major charitable project, for instance, is the “Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society”: “the object of this excellent Charity is . . . to rescue unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent, by abridging them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.” Actually, that’s not a bad idea: recidivism might just plummet with severe enough applications of pantsing among the “irreclaimable,” especially when, as here today, the temperature is a bracing -33 C in the wind. I also enjoy her as a case study in sublimation, as she attempts to translate her erotic interest in Godfrey Ablewhite into spiritual terms:

He beamed on us with his beautiful smile; he held out a hand to my aunt, and a hand to me. I was too deeply affected by his noble conduct to speak. I closed my eyes; I put his hand, in a kind of spiritual self-forgetfulness, to my lips. He murmured a soft remonstrance. Oh the ecstasy, the pure, unearthly ecstasy of that moment! I sat — I hardly know on what — quite lost in my own exalted feelings. When I opened my eyes again, it was like descending from heaven to earth. There was nobody but my aunt in the room. He had gone.

“Unearthly ecstasy.” Uh huh, sure.

In my Faith and Doubt seminar we are also looking at religion with an ironic and occasionally skeptical eye, but there it is important to be clear, with this week’s reading, that there’s religion, and then there’s religion: we’ve been working on bits of Carlyle, excerpts from Sartor Resartus and Past and Present, and God is everywhere acknowledged, though every imaginable doctrine seems to be dismissed as Sham, Cant, and Quackery. We worked to clarify the notion of “Natural Supernaturalism” today. I had recourse (legitimately, I hope) to a couple of passages from Aurora Leigh which have always seemed to me to pursue something very close to Carlyle’s idea of Nature as a system of “celestial Hieroglyphs,” even relying on the same metaphors he uses, and pressing us (as Carlyle does in Past and Present) to see consequences for our social responsibilities and behaviours resulting from what EBB calls that “double vision” by which the “temporal show” is “built up to eterne significance” (AL VII:807-8):

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God. (VII: 821-22)

If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist’s ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyph of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man, —
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use …. (AL VII:857-66)

As I understand it, Carlyle’s objection is that we have (mis)taken the surface show for all, forgetting or denying the greater reality which, on his view, is simply ‘clothed’ in what we can see and measure (“We have quietly closed our eyes to the eternal Substance of things, and opened them only to the Shows and Shames of things”). We have become materialists, scientists, even (gasp) atheists. And the result is a world in which the only concept of Hell is “not succeeding…chiefly of not making money”–we are become believers only the the “gospel of Mammonism”: “We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash payment is not the sole relation of human beings.” Soon after this part comes his well-known story of the “Irish Widow,” which I routinely circulate to my students when we discuss the fate of Jo in Bleak House.

As noted in my previous post, there’s a head-punching-needed quality to Carlyle’s prose (the editors of my edition of Sartor Resartus quote his one-time friend J. S. Mill writing to him cautiously to ask whether his points could not be “as well or better said in a more direct way? The same doubt has occasionally occurred to me respecting much of your phraseology”). But there are moments of sheer delight, too, and this time it was the seven-foot hat that did it for me, so here it is for you to enjoy as well. It’s hard not to feel, when reading it, that Carlyle is, in his own crazed way, a prophet for our time as well as his own. It is part of his general indictment of society for having “given up hope in the Everlasting, True, and placed its hope in the Temporary, half or wholly false.”

Consider, for example, 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. He has not attempted to make better hats, as he was appointed by the Universe to do, and as with this ingenuity of his he could very probably have done; but his whole industry is turned to persuade us that he has made such! He too knows that the Quack has become God. Laugh not at him, O reader; or do not laugh only. He has ceased to be comic; he is fast becoming tragic. To me 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! . . .

We take it for granted, the most rigorous of us, that all men who have made anything are expected and entitled to make the loudest possible proclamation of it, and call on a discerning public to reward them for it. Every man his own trumpeter–that is, to a really alarming extent, the accepted rule. Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat: true proclamation if that will do; if that will not do, then false proclamation–to such extent of falsity as will serve your purpose, as will not seem too false to be credible!

“Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat”–here, indeed, is a motto for our times. Carlyle’s view, of course, is that “Nature requires no man to make proclamation of of his doings and hat-makings.” And a “finite quantity of Unveracity” may leave real life and Faithfulness sustainable, but beware when “your self-trumpeting Hatmaker” becomes emblematic of “all makers, and workers, and men”:

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-workhous, fills one not with a comic feeling!

Indeed. I’m off now, to try to make a better Hat, in accordance with the Universe’s plans for me. O reader, go thou and do likewise! (OK, no more Carlyle for me…)

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