Carlyle, Midas, and Enchantment

n contrast to these "found" grotesques that Carlyle and other sages produce by interpreting contemporary phenomena, the "invented" kind take the form of extended analogies, metaphors, and parables they create out of whole cloth. At their simplest, these invented symbolical grotesques appear as witty, often raucous analogies, such as Chartism's description of the impoverished Irishman as a "Sanspotatoe" (29.136).

Past and Present opens with a more extended version of the invented symbolical grotesque. Immediately after announcing the paradox of an England "full of wealth ... dying of inanition," Carlyle describes the condition of England and its workers in terms of baleful enchantment. The work English laborers "have done," says Carlyle, the fruit they have realised is here, abundant, exuberant on every hand of us: and behold, some baleful fiat as of Enchantment has gone forth, saying, 'Touch it not, ye workers, ye master-workers, ye master-idlers ...; this is enchanted fruit!"' (10.1). Two million workers find themselves in "Workhouses, Poor-law Prisons; or have 'out-door relief' flung over the wall to them, — the workhouse Bastille being filled to bursting" (10.1-2) . These workers, some of the finest in the world, sit there imprisoned "as in a kind of horrid enchantment; glad to be imprisoned and enchanted, that they may not perish starved." Citing the words of a picturesque tourist of his own imagining, Carlyle describes the interior of such a workhouse Bastille and the silent despair of its inhabitants, which he interprets: "An Earth all lying round, crying, Come and till me, come and reap me; — yet we here sit enchanted!" (10.2).

At the heart of this Carlylean grotesque emblem of the condition of England resides a simple conceit, heavy with implicit satire, which we can state in the following terms: British workers, the best in the world, find themselves helpless and unable to work when so much work is to be done; surely only evil magic, only enchantment, only a curse could have produced such an absurd, inefficient, essentially unjust state of affairs. Only something like "Enchantment" could explain what has gone wrong. Only enchantment could explain why "we have more riches than any Nation ever had before; we have less good of them than any Nation ever had before," and worse, worse indeed: "In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls, and full barns, no man feels himself safe or satisfied. Workers, Master Workers, Unworkers, all men, come to a pause; stand fixed, and cannot farther. Fatal paralysis spreading inwards, from the extremities, in St. Ives workhouses, in Stockport cellars, through all limbs, as if towards the heart itself." Is this no mere analogy, no mere fable, then? "Have we," asks Carlyle, "actually got enchanted, then; accursed by some god? — " whereupon he closes this first chapter of Past and Present, which he has called "Midas," with a symbolical grotesque in the form of the old Greek fable of the greedy king that answers his question and thereby explains precisely what kind of enchantment Britain has brought upon itself: "Midas longed for gold, and insulted the Olympians. He got gold, so that whatsoever he touched became gold, — and he, with his long ears, was little the better for it.... What a truth in these old Fables!" (10.6). Britain, as the rest of Past and Present demonstrates, has given itself up to the pursuit of material wealth and thus managed to destroy all capacity to enjoy it.

Interpretation, diagnosis, and warning all appear in this Carlylean progression of symbolical grotesques. Having thus introduced the conceits of enchantment, Midas, and workhouse Bastille, Carlyle repeatedly employs them as mock-explanatory devices throughout the volume, and he also connects them to his found grotesques, such as that created by the Stockport child murders, the presentation of which immediately follows that of baleful Enchantment.

Given Carlyle's major emphasis upon fact, most of his symbolical grotesques, such as the amphibious pope and "that great Hat seven-foot high, which now perambulates London streets," in Past and Present, obviously derive from contemporary phenomena, but he occasionally employs the invented form of the symbolical grotesque with particular brilliance as well.

Ruskin's Goddess of Getting-on

Invented grotesques play an greater role in the writings of Ruskin and Arnold than do found ones. Ruskin's description of the "Goddess of Getting-on" in "Traffic" and Arnold's analysis of England's Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace in the third chapter of Culture and Anarchy exemplify some of the most brilliant satiric emblems of the sage. In his writings on political economy Ruskin makes major use of them, and they effectively replace the word-painting that characterizes his art criticism as a favorite rhetorical device. Ruskin's invented symbolical grotesques, which take several chief forms, are particularly useful in summing up the flaws in opposing positions. These little satiric narratives and analogies of course owe much to neoclassical satirists, particularly Swift, whose Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels make extensive use of elaborate analogies to cast an opposing view in a poor light.

In "Traffic" Ruskin mocks his audience's conception of an ideal life by presenting it in the form of what is essentially a dream vision. Arguing that his listeners' worship of the Goddess of Getting-on implies they also condemn others to miserable lives, he presents a picture of their ideal that enforces corollaries or implicit points they would willingly leave out of their sight and consciousness.

Your ideal of human life then is, I think, that it should be passed in a pleasant undulating world, with iron and coal everywhere beneath it. On each pleasant bank of this world is to be a beautiful mansion, with two wings; and stables, and coach-houses; a moderately-sized park; a large garden and hot-houses; and pleasant carriage drives through the shrubberies. In this mansion are to live the favoured votaries of the Goddess; the English gentleman, with his gracious wife, and his beautiful family; he always able to have the boudoir and the jewels for the wife, and the beautiful ball dresses for the daughters, and hunters for the sons, and a shooting in the Highlands for himself. At the bottom of the bank, is to he the mill; not less than a quarter of a mile long, with one steam engine at each end, and two in the middle, and a chimney three hundred feet high. In this mill are to be in constant employment from eight hundred to a thousand workers, who never drink, never strike, always go to church on Sunday, and always express themselves in respectful language. (18.453)

As Ruskin points out, this image of human existence might appear "very pretty indeed, seen from above; not at all so pretty, seen from below," since for every family to whom the Englishman's deity is the Goddess of Getting-on, one thousand find her ,the "Goddess of not Getting-on" (18.453). By making explicit the implications of such a vision of life based upon an ideal of competition, this symbolical grotesque serves a powerful satiric purpose. Ruskin's expertise as an art critic here turns out to be particularly helpful, for he carefully explains the sketched-in elements of his supposedly ideal scene with the same skill that he uses in setting forth his descriptions of Alpine landscape, the city of Venice, or Turner's paintings. In each case he proceeds by resenting visual details and then drawing attention to their meaning. Here he first presents, slightly tongue-in-cheek, an image of the English capitalist's Earthly Paradise, and then, once he has sketched it for his audience, he presents its dark implications by showing the world of have-nots upon which it sits both literally and symbolically. By moving through his created word-picture from upper to lower, he endows each portion of his visual . image with a moral and political valuation: the upper classes reside literally, spatially, above the industries that provide their wealth and also above the workers who slave to make their lives ones of ease.

Ruskin's Narrative Grotesques

A second form of the invented symbolical grotesque, the one that takes the form of a brief narrative, also appears in "Traffic." When Ruskin argues against those who claim that they cannot afford to create beautiful surroundings for human life, he employs a characteristic parable to reduce such opposing claims to absurdity. Suppose, he instructs his listeners, that he had been sent for "by some private gentleman, living in a suburban house, with his garden separated only by a fruit wall from his next door neighbour's" (18.438) to advise him how to furnish his drawing-room. Finding the walls bare, Ruskin suggests rich furnishings, say fresco-painted ceilings, elegant wallpaper, and damask curtains, and his client complains of the expense, which he cannot afford. Pointing out that his client is supposed to be a wealthy man, he is told:

"Ah yes," says my friend, "but do you know, at present, I am obliged to spend it nearly all on steel-traps." "Steel-traps! for whom?" "Why, for that fellow on the other side of the wall, you know: we're very good friends, capital friends; but we are obliged to keep our traps set on both sides of the wall; we could not possibly keep on friendly terms without them, and our spring guns. The worst of it is, that we are both clever fellows enough; and there's never a day passes that we don't find out a new trap, or a new gun-barrel, or something." [18.438-39]

Fifteen million a year, his client tells Ruskin, the two good neighbors spend on such traps, and he doesn't see how they could do with less, and so Ruskin the room decorator must understand why so few resources exist to beautify his client's environment.

Turning to his audience, Ruskin abandons the pose of the naif and comments in the tones of the Old Testament prophet: "A highly comic state of life for two private gentlemen! but for two nations, it seems to me, not wholly comic." Bedlam might be comic, he supposes, if it had only one madman, and Christmas pantomines are comic with one clown, "but when the whole world turns clown, and paints itself red with its own heart's blood instead of vermilion, it is something else than comic, I think" (18.278). Having first mocked with his satirical parable the intellectual seriousness of his listeners' selfjustifications for failing to spend money on beautifying their environments, Ruskin next moves from mocking to damning them. In the manner of the Old Testament prophet he demonstrates that the actions of his contemporaries reveal that they have abandoned the ways of God and are inevitably heading toward a terrible destruction.

Like most other techniques of the sage, this Ruskinian parable serves multiple functions: It simultaneously interprets the dullness of English design in terms of the nation's political, economic, and military choices and satirizes England and the English; it diagnoses his nation's ills, explains how they came about, and threatens worse disaster if proper actions are not taken; it contributes to Ruskin's position or pose as a wisdom-speaker and hence adds to his ethos; and it creates a self contained section or episode that can convince readers even if they reject Ruskin's other points in "Traffic."

Such self-contained parables, sections, and arguments typify the writing of the sage and create its characteristic discontinuity. On the one hand, this discontinuous, segmented form obviously derives from Old Testament prophecy. On the other, it is the product of romanticism's emphasis upon lyric moments and upon moments of intense experience and intense expression. Romanticism's emphasis upon these lyric bursts and visionary tableaux, a result or possibly source of making the Lyric the central form of the age, creates major problems for writers and readers, and one of the most noticeable of these was the loss of ability to read epic and similar long forms properly. Croce's reading La Divina Commedia as an assemblage of Lyric poems and brief narratives and several generations of critics' mishandling of Paradise Lost show one of the consequences of such elevation of Lyric to a dominant form, and the British romantic poet's general lack of success with the long forms embodies another. One genre in which nineteenth-century authors from Carlyle onward managed to solve the problems posed by such an emphasis upon intense passages (whether of satire or of vision) is that composed by the writings of the sage. In this form, which already takes great rhetorical risks, formal unity is often a matter of repetition and trains of imagery and paradigms, and the discontinuity, which elsewhere hinders success, here proves to promote it. The genre's rapid shifts of tone, abrupt change of vantage point, and alternation of satire and vision all lend themselves to more or less self-contained minor structures within the entire work. Within this kind of aesthetic, such compartmentalization proves an advantage because if the sage fails to convince in one section, the separation between parts serves to provide an almost entirely fresh start. Since the sage strives chiefly to change the way his audience perceives various matters, any single success in this enterprise can carry the day.

Arnold's Barbarian, Philistine, and Populace

The effectiveness of the invented symbolical grotesque as an argumentative device appears with particular clarity in Matthew Arnold's mocking division of the English into three groups or classes: Barbarian, Philistine, and Populace. In presenting his set of analogies, all of which are closely related to satiric definitions and descriptions, Arnold claims that the British aristocracy is most accurately designated as the Barbarians.

The Barbarians, to whom we all owe so much, and who reinvigorated and renewed our worn-out Europe, had, as is well known, eminent merits; and in this country, where we are for the most part sprung from the Barbarians, we have never had the prejudice against them which prevails among the races of Latin origin. The Barbarians brought with them that staunch individualism, as the modem phrase is, and that passion for doing as one likes, for the assertion of personal liberty, which appears to Mr. Bright the central idea of English life, and of which we have, at any rate, a very rich supply.... The care of the Barbarians for the body, and for all manly exercises; the vigour, good looks, and fine complexion which they acquired and perpetuated in their families by these means, — all this may be observed still in our aristocratic class. (5.140-41)

Unfortunately, whatever culture the Barbarians possessed was largely external and "consisted principally in outward gifts and graces, in looks, manners, accomplishments, prowess" (5.141). Even their inward gifts, claims Arnold, were chiefly those that ,' come nearest to outward ones — courage, a high spirit, and self-confidence. Having, like Carlyle, juxtaposed Past and Present, Arnold then points out the basic similarities of the aristocratic classes then and now, for, he claims, even making "allowances for the difference of the times, surely we can observe precisely the same thing now in our aristocratic class. In general its culture is exterior chiefly; all the exterior graces and accomplishments, and the more external of the inward virtues, seem to be principally its portion" (5.141).

Against the Barbarians, who stand for the aristocracy, Arnold places the Philistines, a term that for him incorporates both the middle and the working classes. As he explains, that part of the working classes

which gives all its energies to organising itself, through trades' unions and other means, so as to constitute, first, a great working-class power independent of the middle and aristocratic classes, and then, by dint of numbers, give the law to them and itself reign absolutely, — this lively and promising part must also, according to by our definition, go with the Philistines; because it is its class and its class instinct which it seeks to affirm — its ordinary self, not its best self; and it is a machinery, an industrial machinery, and power and pre-eminence and other external goods, which fill its thoughts, and not an inward perfection. (5.142-43)

Only that "raw and half-developed" part of the working classes that has long lain submerged in "poverty and squalor" (5.143) falls within the category designated as the Populace, and Arnold concentrates upon the first two groups.'

As Super points out in his annotations to Culture and Anarchy, Arnold first describes the English aristocracy as Barbarians in the closing section of the preface to Essays in Criticism, which quotes a line from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage that comments on the aristocracy at Oxford: "There are our young barbarians, all at play!" (3.290) The same passage mentions the Philistines, a mocking term Arnold borrowed from the German romantics and discussed at length in "Heinrich Heine" (3.111-13). The point here of course is not that Arnold drew upon others for his famous categories but that he made of them wonderfully effective satiric and analytic tools that propel his polemic against complacency and its corollary neglect of culture and true self-development. Arnold explained to his mother that "the merit of terms of this sort is that they fix in people's minds the things to which they refer" (5.415). Like Carlyle, whose attack upon middle-class complacency with the words gig and gigamanty Arnold mentions in "Heinrich Heine," he creates idiosyncratic terms that function as grotesque satirical emblems and then organizes his argument in terms of them.

Thoreau's Visionary Satire

A passage in Thoreau's "Walking, " which contains redefinition, social criticism, a visionary moment, and bitter satire, demonstrates both how rich and varied a symbolical grotesque can be and also how effectively it can sum up the concerns of an entire work. Thoreau begins with a simple declarative sentence that serves to redefine a term beloved of materialist society in his age and our own: "Nowadays almost all man's improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap." The next sentence makes a sharp contrast to this declarative one by calling for an improvement by his contemporaries — literally for a new people, a new and higher race of beings who could appreciate nature: "A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand!" Then after this clause, which essentially states a prayer for the future, Thoreau plunges us directly into a visionary world in the manner of Isaiah and St. John.

I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the middle of Paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the midst of a boggy Stygian fen, surrounded by devils and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor. [199]

Like the millenarians who were so popular throughout much of the nineteenth century, he opens his thumbnail vision with the beginnings of heaven on earth, after which he satirically places a "worldly miser" in the midst of this transformation. The scene changes, and the worshiper of Mammon who violates the earth and destroys its blessed wildness has found his place in hell — and with him so have all members of his readership who fail to recognize that the earthly paradise already exists in wild nature.


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Last modified 14 July 2008