In the opening chapter of his ground-defining book The Symbolist Movement in Literature, the Edwardian critic and poet Arthur Symonds quotes this dictum from Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution: It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works and has his being. First published in 1837 – only 40 years after the events it depicts- and around the same time that Ranke and Comte were trying to establish history as a more scientific discipline, with an underlying theory and a rigorous methodology, Carlyle’s History occupies an ambiguous position in historiography today.
On the one hand, Carlyle’s work is still cited as a source in the most up-to-date studies of the Revolution. It’s a must-go-to text for students of the period. On the other, there are those who argue that Carlyle’s methods and project are not empirical enough; that his high-flown, epic, symbolic style undermines any scientific contribution the work might make for an objective understanding of the Revolution. Modern academic historians have done much to lay open the economic causes of the Revolution, studying tax returns and harvest yields etc, while Marxists have given us a framework for understanding the underlying political and structural causes. Against this kind of academic, objective approach, Carlyle’s work reads more naively, more like a novel, or an epic of Revolution, and less like a serious scientific study.
But to hold this view is to miss the point Carlyle is trying to make about history, and to be blind to the very sophisticated awareness the work displays of the difficulties inherent in doing history. And not to read Carlyle is to miss out on the pleasure of encountering one of the greatest works in English of the 19th century.
The French Revolution may be regarded as a prototype of Symbolist literature, a non-fictional Symbolist work avant la lettre. This Symbolism is present in the work in at least two ways: in the theory of history that underpins the text, and in the text itself, the historiography.
1. A symbolic theory of history
Men do what they were wont to do, and have immense irresolution and inertia; they obey him who has the symbols that claim obedience.
As Symonds noted, Carlyle sees man’s propensity to create and interpret symbols and signs as the defining essence of man and fact of history: Man, by nature of him, is definable as ‘an incarnated word’, or in other words, man is a symbol-making creature. His allegiance to or rejection of symbols is held by Carlyle to be a chief driving force of history because it’s man’s adherence to or rejection of symbols that provides the strongest and highest motivation for his actions: Of man's whole terrestrial possessions and attainments, unspeakably the noblest are his Symbols, divine or divine-seeming, under which he marches and fights, with victorious assurance, in this real life-battle: what we can call his Realised Ideals. Carlyle sees history as the operation of various forces, not economic or political as modern academic historians do, but symbolic forces. This is how, for example, Carlyle explains the astonishing victories of the French Revolutionary army against much stronger, much better supplied and organized forces of the Coalition; that the French were fighting for a symbol, for their Revolution, and that it was the motivating power of this symbol, greater than the motivating power of the enemy’s symbols – Monarchy, Order, Conservatism- which led them to victory.
Carlyle describes the whole movement of the Revolution, from the early revolt against feudalism in the late 1780s to its capture by the reactionary and largely bourgeois Directory in 1795, in terms of a gradual movement between various symbols, a movement away from the symbols of Aristocracy of Feudal Parchment to an Aristocracy of the Moneybag. He comments: Fleur de lys had become an insupportably bad marching banner, and needed to be torn and trampled, but Moneybag of Mammon (for that, in these times, is what the respectable Republic for the Middle Classes will signify) is a still worse, while it lasts, and he calls this last symbol: the worst and basest of all banners, and symbols of dominion among men.
At the same time Carlyle is aware of the internal growth and decay of symbols, both as entities in themselves, and of the waxing and waning power of symbols to motivate men and hold society together. Of the former he writes: The Truth that was yesterday a restless problem, has today grown a Belief burning to be uttered; on the morrow contradiction has exasperated it into mad Fanaticism, obstruction has dulled it into sick Inertness; it is sinking towards Silence, of satisfaction or of resignation, marking stages in a symbol’s evolution from an intellectual problem – a truth-, to a belief, to a fanaticism, to an inertness, to a silence. Of the latter he writes how symbols can be exhausted, becoming in effect empty lies or shams, which need to be overthrown. Indeed, he sees this overthrowing of empty symbols and the creation of new ones as another motivating factor in history generally, and in the French Revolution in particular, contrasting the lies of religion under the Old Regime, for example, with the reality of hunger: Behold, ye appear to us to be altogether a Lie. Yet our Life is not a Lie, yet our Hunger and Misery is not a Lie! Symbols can also be emptied of their mysterious content and power to become mere ‘Formulas’, by which Carlyle means abstract ideas such as Constitution, Justice and so on. Carlyle sees history as the interaction between these formulas and reality: What strength, were it only of inertia, there is in established Formulas, what weakness in nascent Realities. In the text, Robespierre is the representative of such formulas, while Danton is the embodiment of reality: with what terror of feminine hatred the poor seagreen Formula looked at the monstrous colossal Reality, and grew greener to behold him. Symbols for Carlyle, then, can also operate in the realm of history as shams, lies, formulas.
Carlyle’s view of the importance of symbols in the processes of history is a corollary of his wider theory of history. Carlyle sees the universe as a chthonic ocean of forces, innumerable and ineluctable, internal and external. Our whole Universe is but an infinite Complex of Forces; thousandfold, from Gravitation up to Thought and Will. Every event in history is the result of an action, and an action is the product and expression of exerted Force. Similarly, each person is a nexus of such forces, so that when men come together to make history, as they did in the Constituent Assembly and the National Convention, the number of forces and the interactions between these forces become necessarily so complex that no objective science can hope to fathom them:
Every reunion of men, is it not, as we often say, a reunion of incalculable Influences; every unit of it a microcosm of Influences, of which how shall Science calculate or Prophesy! Science, which cannot, with all its calculuses, differential, integral and of variations, calculate the Problem of the Three gravitating Bodies, ought to hold her peace here, and say only: In this National Convention there are Seven Hundred and Forty Nine very singular Bodies, that gravitate and do much else, who probably in an amazing manner will work the appointment of Heaven.
For Carlyle, the enormous complexities of history are not something which a scientific, empirical method alone can deal with; they require, in addition, comprehension by a symbolic, historical imagination.
Space precludes us here from entering into a fuller discussion of the interaction between Carlyle’s view of history and his historical methods with those trends that were developing concurrently in Germany under von Ranke. We can say, however, that Carlyle, a student of German culture, was aware of them, and that his symbolic view of history, when contrasted with von Ranke’s more empirical view, is not so naïve as it sounds. Carlyle’s work, like von Ranke’s, was grounded in close readings of contemporary documents, including letters, diaries, contemporary newspaper articles, memoires – including those of Goethe’s, whom he quotes at length- , as well as trial transcripts, minutes of the proceedings of the Jacobin Club and the other various assemblies that met during the course of the Revolution.
Having looked at Carlyle’s symbolic theory of history, we turn now to symbolism in the text itself.
2. Symbolic historiography
Man is a born idol worshipper, sight worshipper.
In his text Carlyle uses various key words to stand for a particular nexus of historical forces. Von Ranke warned against this because he thought that the use of such key terms –leading ideas - circumscribed the historical reality behind them; he believed that the complexities of an historical event cannot be characterized by the recurring use of only one term or idea. But Carlyle, by giving these words capital letters, in effect turns them into symbols, naming them, and thereby allowing the reader, a symbol loving creature, to see them. It is thus, however, that History and indeed all human Speech and Reason does yet, what Father Adam began life by doing: strive to name the Things it sees of Nature’s producing – often helplessly enough.
For example, the origin of the Revolution he sees as arising from the interaction of the two forces which he names ‘Prurience’, and ‘Effervescence’. The pre-Revolutionary scene was ripe with ‘Prurience’ – a word that in the 1830s meant a mental itching or craving, as well as propensity towards lewdness. He traces how this manifested itself both in the corrosive ideas of the Philosophes and Enlightenment thought; in the increased focus on pleasure in the life of the court, which created an unbridgeable gulf between rulers and ruled as well as putting an unsustainable strain on the nation’s finances; and in the scandal sheets and erotica which circulated freely in Paris in the late 18th century, engravings featuring the Queen in lesbian orgies and so on. Acting as spark to this gunpowder is ‘Effervescence’, which he describes as the propensity in the Gallic character for the sudden eruption, for the passionate gesture, for noise and fuliginous fury. Carlyle ascribes the various revolts that happened throughout France in the terms of ‘Effervescence’, noting, in his account of the sugar riots in Paris in the summer of 1792, for example, how the secret courses of civic business and existence effervesce and effloresce, in this manner, as a concrete Phenomenon to the eye. In the text, ‘Prurience’ and ‘Effervescence’ become symbols of two forces whose interaction was the tinder and spark of the Revolution.
Symbolism in the discourse also appears in a number a recurring devices, such as the extended and repeated similes or metaphors Carlyle employs for the Revolution itself: a sand palace disappearing into a whirlwind, a fireship sinking with all hands. Another device is the repeated epithet, which accompanies the names of the key figures of the Revolution -like Homer’s heroes - to remind the reader who they are: Robespierre is always seagreen, Huguenin ever has the tocsin in his heart, Maillard is always the famed leader of the Menads…
Carlyle knows that the reader is a person in history just as much under the influence of symbols as the personages in his history of the Revolution are. Man, with his singular imaginative faculties, can do little or nothing without signs, which is one of the reasons why he employs a symbolic, epic, novelistic mode of transmission of events, a mode that is intensely visual. Throughout the text there is a discourse field of words associated with light: vision, seeing, focus, shining as well as their antonyms: murk, shadow, obscurity. This discourse field forms the underlying metaphor of the whole work. Visualisation as a narrative strategy is constantly foregrounded and brought to the reader’s attention: In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing. …. Let the reader here in this sick room of Louis, endeavor to look with the mind too. At other times, Carlyle will select one of the participants in a historical event, and use him as a focaliser for the reader to visualize what is going on: Let the Reader look with the eyes of Valet Clery, through these glass doors, where also the Municipality watches……Visualisation itself is even symbolized in the text. Carlyle’s term for the Court of the Ancien Regime is L’ Oeil de Boeuf, which is a symbol of an eye, as well as a description of the shape of the window in the chamber in Versailles where the Court met.
This visual aspect of the work also applies to the wonderful verbal portraits Carlyle gives of the various personages of the Revolution; and it’s probably best to just give a selection here:
Shining though such soil and tarnish, and now victorious effulgent and oftenest struggling, eclipsed, the light of genius itself is in this man, which was never yet base and hateful, but at worst was lamentable and loveable with pity.
Him mark, judicious Reader. … hot metal, full of scoriae, which should and could have been smelted out, but which will not. He has wandered over the terraqueous planet seeking, one may say, the Paradise we lost long ago.
Marat is no phantasm of the brain, or mere lying impress of Printer’s Types, but a thing material, of joint and sinew, and a certain small stature: ye behold him there, in his blackness in his dingy squalor, a living fraction of Chaos and Old Night, visibly incarnate, desirous to speak…
Visualisation is not simply a narrative or discoursive strategy, however, but one that is closely allied to Carlyle’s method of selecting and analyzing material. He imagines himself as a kind of all-knowing historical Eye, which roams above the scenes and, like a camera, picks out salient ones for the reader to visualise:
Which event successively is the cardinal one; and from what point of vision it may best be surveyed; this is a problem. Which problem the best insight, seeking light from all possible sources, shifting its point of vision whithersoever vision or glimpse of vision can be had, may employ itself in solving; and be well content to solve in some tolerably approximate way.
3. Language and history
Men’s words are but a poor exponent of their thought; nay their thought itself is a poor exponent of the inward unnamed Mystery, wherefrom both thought and action have their birth. No man can explain himself, can get himself explained; men see not one another but distorted phantasms which they call one another.
Modern historiographers aspire towards a transparency of text, in which the information presented is not obscured by the means used to convey the information, i.e.: the language. They work under the assumption that language is capable of being a servant of meaning; this is the assumption underlying von Ranke’s famous dictum, that history must simply show wie es eigentlich gewesen ist – what actually happened. Carlyle’s historiography is entirely different, because Carlyle, as a supreme linguistic artist, is under no illusion that language is not also the creator of meaning, that it can ever be totally transparent and objective because words have subjective meanings as well as objective ones: What these two words: French Revolution may mean; for, strictly considered, they may have as many meanings as there are speakers of them. Language has only an arbitrary, symbolic relationship to the things it denotes – here Carlyle follows Locke -, which means that pure objectivity of description is impossible. This extends even to the grammatical choices available to the historiographer. In a brilliant insight Carlyle writes how the use of the past simple tense radically impinges our view of what is being described by the way the tense omits certain factors present in reality: For indeed it is a most lying thing, that same Past Tense always: so beautiful, sad, almost Elysian-sacred, ‘in the moonlight of Memory’, it seems and seems only. For observe: always one most important element is surreptitiously (we not noticing it) withdrawn from the Past Time: the haggard element of Fear!
Because words have ultimately a symbolic relationship to the things they signify, the historical work au fond also has a symbolic relationship to the history it describes. Indeed the whole text is symbolically described as a tapestry, a tissue, a weaving; and this textual weaving is emblematic of the wider weaving of the symbolic forces operating in historical reality: Story and tissue, faint ineffectual Emblem of that grand Miraculous Tissue and Living Tapestry named the French Revolution, which did weave itself then in very fact, ‘on the loud-sounding ‘Loom of Time’! As personages disappear from history, so they also disappear as characters from the text: The brave Bouille too, then vanishes from the tissue of our Story. The historical work is not only a description of history, but also a symbol of it.
One of the considerable pleasures of reading the book comes from Carlyle’s prose, which is at times lofty, at other times facetious. One of the very greatest prose stylists of the language, Carlyle’s sentences everywhere display an acute awareness of rhythm and sound: ‘Worn out with disgusts’ Captain after Captain in Royalist Moustachious, mounts his warhorse, or his Rozinante war-garron and rides minatory across the Rhine, till all have ridden, he writes of the first Emigration. He is the master of the dramatic scene, as well as the pithy historical epigram. Of Robespierre’s attempt to found a new religion in the Festival of the Supreme Being in June 1794, for example, he writes: Mumbo is mumbo, and Robespierre is his prophet. Wise wigs wag, he writes of the diplomatic storm in Europe created by the Declaration of the Rights of Man; Condorcet is described as mouton enrage, and of Mirabeau’s crucial decision to side with the Third Estate in the meeting of the Estates General with which the Revolution begins, he writes: Mirabeau stalks forth into the Third Estate.
Von Ranke wrote: To history has been assigned the office of judging the past. In his 1820 work Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, Carlyle wrote: History is as perfect as the Historian is wise and is gifted with an eye and a soul. Carlyle displays enormous wisdom and soul in the judgments he makes, not only of the personages and events of the French Revolution, but more generally about the unfolding processes of living history itself. An example of the former is the assessment he gives of the vacuous and phlegmatic King Louis XVI, surely one of the stupidest men to ever warm a throne with his buttocks: Thy whole existence seems one hideous abortion and mistake of Nature; the use of meaning of thee not yet known. Of the latter, here are some examples of epigrams Carlyle turns out on a range of topics:
Money itself is a standing miracle.
All available Authority is mystic in its conditions and comes ‘by grace of God’.
How beautiful is noble sentiment, like gossamer gauze, beautiful and cheap; which will stand no tear and wear!
Famously, the first volume was put into the fire by a chambermaid, who thought it was simply waste paper, and Carlyle had to write the whole thing again from memory, which would have defeated lesser men. The French Revolution, thus, stands as a symbol of one man’s titanic endeavor, as well as a description of a people’s struggle to change their world for the better.
Man, symbol of Eternity imprisoned into Time! It is not thy works which are all mortal, infinitely little, and the greatest no greater than the least, but only the Spirit thou workest in, that can have worth or continuance.