Saturday, 1 March 2014

Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question by Thomas Carlyle

To understand Thomas Carlyle and ‘the Negro question’ his attitude to work is central. In the alienated world of most of us that word signifies turning up, doing your bit and collecting your ‘green gauges’. Our man felt it to be a sacred duty that joined his energy to the force that flows through all things. Well yes but didn’t he have a wife that had an income and a father that waited calmly while he flailed about trying to establish himself? Indeed but considering that he was nearly 40 by the time he achieved any sort of reputation with The French Revolution I think that his high ground was righteous. Add to this the deep horror of the burning of the first half of ‘French’ by Harriet Taylor’s maid. (H.T. was the inamorata, as it were, of John Stuart Mill the ‘unheimlich’ as T.C. dubbed him) How do you burn that much manuscript to start a fire? Where were you H.T. on the night in question?

He rewrote it from memory that being his only copy and achieved his overnight success. Work then is not the curse of the drinking classes it is more - “It is a better thing to travel hopefully than to arrive and the true success is to labour”. (Robert Louis Stevenson)The great enemy of work is the ‘dismal science’ or economics. This brings me to the uncanny position that the anonymous author of the Wikipedia entry on Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question
has a better understanding of it than Harold Bloom in his introduction to a series of essays on Carlyle. In the first publication it was known as ‘the Negro Question’, in later editions Carlyle got thick due to Blooming misunderstanding and called it ‘the Nigger Question’.

The discourse is introduced to us as the work of one Phelin M’Quirk a journalist who has skipped his digs leaving it after him to be sold in lieu. Phelin represents the distillation of the common racism of the day and the attitudes of the average ignoramus. Bits of Carlyle break through but that is the preamble to the piece. As the wikiman says in later editions he got contrary and left out the preamble and substituted ‘nigger’ which is sheer anachronism to be appalled by.

If you don’t see as Bloom doesn’t that Oliver Cromwell under all the pumpkins is atrabilious celtic humour then go back to Swift and reacquaint yourself with A Modest Proposel.
A bit of the great Protector’s own life lies there; beneath those pumpkins is a bit of the life that was Oliver Cromwell’s.

A Roundhead and a Pumpkinhead too that flickers demonically on the porch of the Irish Mind. (Keep it goin’ Mikey, don’t stall the digger) Which bring me to Carlyle’s trip by open car through the Emerald Isle of the previous year. He saw a starving country exporting food workless and forbidden to work except for work relief paid for in Indian Meal or Yalla Buck. Thus the number of roads from nowhere to nowhere known in Irish as Bóthar na Mine (Meal Road). It was all down to the laissez faire, the leave alone the market forces of the dismal science. All would be well in the meliorist opinion of the Victorian. A bit of thinning of the Irish crop was providential. Applying the rational choice theory of the day to the West Indies where the sugar trade was failing due to the freeing of the slaves Carlyle could see that for them to choose to grow ‘pumpkins’ on upland farms was much more attractive than working for the man cutting cane. If more free blacks were imported then you would only get a replication of the Irish situation with too much labour and not enough work as conceived by the dismal science. Jimmy Rabbitte of The Commitments reprised the Carlyleean view:
Jimmy Rabbitte: Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.
What do you call a Northsider in a suit?
The defendant.

Mind you in Roddy Doyle’s book Jimmy used a more abrasive term; political correction came in brown envelopes then.

But I digress. Carlyle in that ‘Discourse’ and in his Latter Day Pamphlets saw the pious fable in continuous advancement. The main beams of the floor of the Polity had rotted and the floor was barely suspended by the beam-ends:

The front wall of your wretched old crazy dwelling, long denounced by you to no purpose, having at last fairly folded itself over, and fallen prostrate into the street, the floors, as may happen, will still hang on by the mere beam-ends, and coherency of old carpentry, though in a sloping direction, and depend there till certain poor rusty nails and worm-eaten dovetailings give way:—but is it cheering, in such circumstances, that the whole household burst forth into celebrating the new joys of light and ventilation, liberty and picturesqueness of position, and thank God that now they have got a house to their mind? My dear household, cease singing and psalmodying; lay aside your fiddles, take out your work-implements, if you have any; for I can say with confidence the laws of gravitation are still active, and rusty nails, worm-eaten dovetailings, and secret coherency of old carpentry, are not the best basis for a household!—In the lanes of Irish cities, I have heard say, the wretched people are sometimes found living, and perilously boiling their potatoes, on such swing-floors and inclined planes hanging on by the joist-ends; but I did not hear that they sang very much in celebration of such lodging.
(from The Present Day essay in Latter Day Pamphlets publ.1850)

Carlyle whose parents were barely literate had pride in good work well done at a fair rate. The father was a stone mason and farmer. People like them were wandering about as beggars and it appalled him that industrial workers in England had a greater infant mortality rate than slaves in the Americas whom the great and the good i.e. Exeter House, were campaigning about. Mill whose family battened off the Indian colony particularly must have struck him as a whited sepulchre. Even today debt slavery is rampant in India and it is passed on through the generations

The ‘Occasional Discourse’ is the exasperated saeva indignatio cry of a man sick of bien pensant waffle. I have yet to read Taylor and Mill’s response to it. All texts mentioned are available on Gutenberg Project.


Mark Patrick Wallace said...

Yes, there's some Celtic humour there, but I think the elements of satire and misdirection can be over-emphasized, as Carlyle's private opinions were, in fact, pretty much M'Quirk's. Of course, lots of Carlyle scholars do insist on the Swiftian-satire reading, but they have little choice, as to read it straight would condemn Carlyle in most people's eyes.

Carlyle had plenty to say on the Irish question. The collection Rescued Essays has a few short contributions from the late 1840s, not wholly sympathetic.

ombhurbhuva said...

Where I sympathise with him is his irascible reaction to virtue signalling where there is no significant burden. Did anyone even give up sugar? In my post yesterday I find Mill guilty of similar racism towards the Irish and blindness towards his involvement with the plundering East India Company. It was the moral ‘snow-blindness’ of the day. The Eyre affair showed how many of the elite could champion a scoundrel.

Mark Patrick Wallace said...

I can't resist pointing out the irony that it was Carlyle himself who led the plaudits for the 'scoundrel' Eyre, while Mill was fervently trying to get him put in jail. Many of the most prominent Eyre-ites were Carlyle acolytes as well (Ruskin, Dickens, Kingsley). I also disagree with your take on Mill and Ireland, and will answer it at that post.