Friday, 23 June 2017

Characteristics (1831) by Thomas Carlyle


In those days we didn't know we had a system.
characteristics
Carlyle's system always had his own initials on it even at an age when one might be supposed to be working one's way out of a system he, following his study of Goethe, knew that you had to spin that web out of your own innards. Now it certainly might be a trap for yourself but it had the mark of your own spiritual power. To release that true energy, that ergos/work, it is necessary to bypass the rationalist system building that he took metaphysics to be. It is not thought but action that is the mainspring of life.

This is he whom business-people call Systematic and Theorizer and Word-monger; his vital intellectual force lies dormant or extinct, his whole force is mechanical, conscious: of such a one it is foreseen that, when once confronted with the infinite complexities of the real world, his little compact theorem of the world will be found wanting; that unless he can throw it overboard and become a new creature, he will necessarily founder. 

This theme is dominant in all his writings and in his consideration of the West Indian negro's condition post emancipation certain rebarbative seeming comments are understandable. The freed slaves had no real work in the striving, strenuous sense that Carlyle understood it. Subsistence farming was a failure to truly exploit the possibilities of the colony. Very white man's burden. The potato was the Irish analogue to the pumpkin and evoked the same exasperation. Oatmeal was ever his own favourite food though arrowroot was his frequent recourse. I imagine grisly comedy of breakfast bulletins of the dyspeptic insomniacs Jane and Tom particularly during the period of the writing of Frederick the Great whose last victory was over their marriage.

Is Characteristics for all its verbal ebullience overstated? With Carlyle that's an axiom, he's a Lambeg drum man for subtlety. My own view is that you can leave the connatural good man alone, it is the majority addled by fake news that inquiry serves to free from the bondage of the bogus.

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