“Sometimes pace _is_ argument”


April 16, 2017 by AK

Ada Palmer, who teaches history at Chicagowrites science fiction and composes music, reminisces on her early encounter with Thomas Carlyle’s prose:

My cohort and I were wolfing down a book a day in those months, looting each for thesis and argument, so we could regurgitate debates, and discuss how our own projects fit with the larger questions of the field.  Only two books refused on that list to be so digested: Carlyle’s [Hero Worship and the Heroic in History], and Burkhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

That’s not surprising – difficult people, difficult books.  More precisely, both works are “unskimmable.” Not because the writing is bad – although it’s probably unacceptable by today’s academic standards – but because it’s too rich and complex:

Each paragraph of both was such a work of rhetoric and rhythm that the quick eye-slide from first sentence to last was as meaningless as connecting the first and final chords of a line of Renaissance polyphony without the intricate structure which transported us from A to B.

It gets more interesting from there onward – too good to be missed but too long to be quoted. Start from the second paragraph of this post.


  1. JCass says:

    I read some Carlyle at university and was impressed at the time but I bought “The French Revolution” a couple of years ago and found it unreadable. I think it was Carlyle’s hectoring pub bore rhetoric rather than the crazy Teutonic syntax I found repugnant. On the other hand, it’s possible his early stuff is better. His novel “Sartor Resartus” is one of the few “post-modern” works of English fiction in the 19th century, a kind of fusion of Jonathan Swift’s “Tale of a Tub” and German Romanticism. I don’t know what I’d make of it now but I might try it again one day, although to be frank I’d be more drawn to Ruskin as a writer of long, complicated Victorian prose. Also Melville. Melville is often like good Carlyle.

    Carlyle was ahead of his time in some dubious ways. His support of the Paraguayan despot Dr Francia prefigures the modern intellectual worship of Third World dictators. Also, in practice rather than official doctrine, there have been few more devoted subscribers to the Great Man Theory of History than Marxists.

    • AK says:

      I tried to read The French Revolution a few years back but didn’t get very far. Curiously, Carlyle is a demigod for some on the American alt-right. It’s beyond my powers to imagine Melville (or Jean Paul) producing Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question. However, some of Carlyle’s arguments remind me of Russian advocates of serfdom from about the same time as the Discourse.

      • JCass says:

        It doesn’t surprise me that the alt-right love the later Carlyle, although he had far more literary talent than any of them I’ve read. As far as I remember, when he started the liberal left were fond of essays like “Signs of the Times” but then came things like “On the Negro Question”,which you mentioned, and “Shooting Niagara”. I can imagine Carlyle being a passionate Putinist too.

        • AK says:

          I may have underestimated Putin in the past. He is a savvy politician – that much I have to admit. But Putin as a hero… “The Hero as President for Life?”

          • JCass says:

            If Carlyle could admire a tinpot dictator like Paraguay’s Dr Francia then why not a bigger “anti-liberal strong man” like Putin? However, it’s probably unfair to judge a 19th-century author on their hypothetical response to 21st century politics.

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