Ever since I read Emerson I have been interested in reading Thomas Carlyle’s “novel” Sartor Resartus because Emerson loved it, got it published in the United States, and it influenced New England Transcendentalism. If it weren’t for the Scottish Challenge sponsored by Wuthering Expectations, I don’t when I would ever have read the book or, when I did, that I would have finished it. It is a crazy book; a philosophical treatise in the guise of satirical fiction. Here is Carlyle’s description of the book from a letter to Fraser, his publisher. Carlyle had tried to get Fraser to publish it before but was refused, and now he is trying again:
It is put together in the fashion of a Didactic Novel; but indeed properly like nothing extant. I used to characterize it briefly as a kind of “Satirical Extravaganza on Things in General”; it contains more of my opinions on Art, Politics, Religion, Heaven Earth and Air, than all the things I have yet written.
My own conjecture is that Teufelsdröckh, whenever published, will astonish most that read it, be wholly understood by very few; but to the astonishment of some will add touches of (almost the deepest) spiritual interest, with others quite the opposite feeling.
I can’t say that Carlyle’s letter does much to recommend the book, but nonetheless, Fraser published it in installments from 1833 – 1834. It did not meet with immediate success.
The title of the book means the tailor retailored which will make a little sense in a minute. The premise of the book is an unnamed British editor presenting one Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, a German Professor of Things in General, and his philosophy of clothes. Teufelsdröckh, by the way, translates as “devil’s excrement” and he is from the town of Weissnichtwo, or “Know-not-where.” The clothes in the philosophy of clothes, are, of course, actual clothes and what they say about a person as well as a metaphor of the ideas and thoughts, manners and actions we clothe ourselves in.
The unnamed editor translates the philosophy of clothes,
endeavour[ing], from the enormous, amorphous Plumpudding, more like a Scottish Haggis, which Herr Teufelsdröckh had kneaded for his fellow mortals, to pick out the choicest Plums, and present them separately on a cover of our own.
We are also given a pieced together biography of Teufelsdröckh which pretty much amounts to a spiritual journey from the Everlasting No to the Everlasting Yea with some stops in between. When Teufelsdröckh gets hot under the collar about cant, the corruption of modern life and Utilitarianism he sounds just like Carlyle when he’d get going on a rant in letters to Emerson.
Carlyle, and later Emerson, are both heavily influenced by Goethe. Sartor has numerous references to Goethe’s works, especially The Sorrows of Young Wether. The only Goethe I have had the pleasure of reading was when I took German in college and we read the fantastic poem Erlkönig (gave me poetry stomach even in my halting German), and Faust. After reading Sartor I feel like I need to read more Goethe, only this time in English as I have sadly neglected my German.
But back to Carlyle. Sartor is often compared to Tristram Shandy (another book I haven’t read) in terms of technique. It is also considered by some to be an early Existentialist text.
I worried that the book would be hard to read and I would have no idea what it was talking about. I did have to look up a few things like Sansculottism, but over all it was not hard to follow. Sometimes the book was funny; sometimes it was just flat out weird. I can’t say the book was a pleasurable read, a good bit of it was a slog and it took me since May to read the final twenty pages. It was sort of like facing down the vegetable you like the least. You know it is good for you but you just can’t bring yourself to like it no matter how it gets dressed up. But once you’ve eaten it there is a certain sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as well as relief. How’s that for a recommendation? Read it if you dare.