Saturday, November 06, 2010
An Unread Book
Like all those who possess libraries, Aurelian felt a nagging sense of guilt at not being acquainted with every volume in his...One book that has been sitting unread on my shelves for many years is Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, 2 vols. (London: The Colonial Press, 1900). Even the pages were uncut for a long time. I bought these volumes at MacEwens Used Books in Bangor, Maine. I must have bought them before 1968, when MacEwens moved to Stockton Springs, Maine.
The book has accompanied me in my wanderings, from Maine to Virginia, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Minnesota. I started to read it many times, but never got beyond the first half dozen pagesthe little I knew about the French Revolution came instead from Dickens' Tale of Two Cities and Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.
But I recently started to read Carlyle's history, and have so far completed Part I (The Bastille), about 250 pages of the first volume, with great enjoyment. Here are some excerpts.
Part I, Book I, Chapter II:
For ours is a most fictile world ; and man is the most fingent plastic of creatures. A world not fixable; not fathomable!Part I, Book I, Chapter IV:
How such Ideals do realise themselves; and grow, wondrously, from amid the incongruous ever-fluctuating chaos of the Actual, this is what World-History, if it teach anything, has to teach us. How they grow; and, after long stormy growth, bloom out mature, supreme; then quickly (for the blossom is brief) fall into decay; sorrowfully dwindle; and crumble down, or rush down, noisily or noiselessly disappearing. The blossom is so brief; as of some centennial Cactus-flower, which after a century of waiting shines out for hours!
He would not suffer Death to be spoken of; avoided the sight of churchyards, funereal monuments, and whatsoever could bring it to mind. It is the resource of the Ostrich; who, hard hunted, sticks his foolish head in the ground, and would fain forget that his foolish unseeing body is not unseen too.Part I, Book II, Chapter I:
Man awakens from his long somnambulism; chases the Phantasms that beleaguered and bewitched him. Behold the new morning glittering down the eastern steeps; fly, false Phantasms, from its shafts of light; let the Absurd fly utterly, forsaking this lower Earth forever. It is Truth and Astraea Redux that (in the shape of Philosophism) henceforth reign. For what imaginable purpose was man made, if not to be "happy"? By victorious Analysis, and Progress of the Species, happiness enough now awaits him. Kings can become philosophers; or else philosophers Kings. Let but Society be once rightly constituted,—by victorious Analysis. The stomach that is empty shall be filled; the throat that is dry shall be wetted with wine. Labour itself shall be all one as rest; not grievous, but joyous Wheat-fields, one would think, cannot come to grow untilled; no man made clayey, or made weary thereby;—unless indeed machinery will do it? Gratuitous Tailors and Restaurateurs may start up, at fit intervals, one as yet sees not how. But if each will, according to rule of Benevolence, have a care for all, then surely—no one will be uncared for. Nay, who knows but by sufficiently victorious Analysis, "human life may be indefinitely lengthened," and men get rid of Death, as they have already done of the Devil? We shall then be happy in spite of Death and the Devil.—So preaches magniloquent Philosophism her Redeunt Saturnia regna.Part I, Book II, Chapter VII:
Blessed also is Hope; and always from the beginning there was some Millennium prophesied; Millennium of Holiness; but (what is notable) never till this new Era, any Millennium of mere Ease and plentiful Supply. In such prophesied Lubberland, of Happiness, Benevolence, and Vice cured of its deformity, trust not, my friends!Part I, Book III, Chapter III:
Is not Sentimentalism twin-sister to Cant, if not one and the same with it? Is not Cant the materia prima of the Devil; from which all falsehoods, imbecilities, abominations body themselves; from which no true thing can come? For Cant is itself properly a double-distilled Lie; the second-power of a Lie.
A Deficit so enormous! Mismanagement, profusion is too clear.Part I, Book IV, Chapter II:
Meanwhile such things, cheering as they are, tend little to cheer the national creditor, or indeed the creditor of any kind. In the midst of universal portentous doubt, what certainty can seem so certain as money in the purse, and the wisdom of keeping it there? Trading Speculation, Commerce of all kinds, has as far as possible come to a dead pause and the hand of the industrious lies idle in his bosom.Part I, Book IV, Chapter IV:
...Quackocracy...Part I, Book V, Chapter VI:
...discerning in such admired forensic eloquence nothing but two clattering jaw-bones, and a head vacant, sonorous, of the drum species.
What further or better belief can be said to exist in these Twelve Hundred? Belief in high-plumed hats of a feudal cut; in heraldic scutcheons; in the divine right of Kings, in the divine right of Game-destroyers. Belief, or what is still worse, canting half-belief; or worst of all, mere Macchiavellic pretence of-belief,—in consecrated dough-wafers, and the godhood of a poor old Italian Man!
...the Deputies assisted at High Mass, and heard sermon, and applauded the preacher, church as it was, when he preached politics.
Down with it, man; down with it to Orcus: let the whole accursed Edifice sink thither, and Tyranny be swallowed up forever!Part I, Book VI, Chapter I:
Blood flows; the aliment of new madness.
Occupied in that way, an august National Assembly becomes for us little other than a Sanhedrim of Pedants, not of the gerund-grinding, yet of no fruitfuller sort; and its loud debatings and recriminations about Rights of Man, Right of Peace and War, Veto suspensif, Veto absolu, what are they but so many Pedant's curses, "May God confound you for your Theory of Irregular Verbs!"Part I, Book VI, Chapter II:
Do nothing, only keep agitating, debating; and things will destroy themselves.Part I, Book VI, Chapter III:
For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live forever. The very Truth has to change its vesture, from time to time ; and be born again. But all Lies have sentence of death written down against them, in Heaven's Chancery itself; and, slowly or fast, advance incessantly towards their hour.Part I, Book VII, Chapter I:
...beshouted, becymballed by the world...
To the Parisian common man, meanwhile, one thing remains inconceivable: that now when the Bastille is down, and French Liberty restored, grain should continue so dear. Our Rights of Man are voted, Feudalism and all Tyranny abolished; yet behold we stand in queue! Is it Aristocrat forestallers; a Court still bent on intrigues? Something is rotten somewhere.Part I, Book VII, Chapter VIII:
Misery which, through long ages, had no spokesman, no helper, will now be its own helper and speak for itself.The style sometimes reminds me of Tacitus, e.g. "Blood flows; the aliment of new madness."