The infinite Shoeblack

Several passages in Sartor Resartus focus on the attainment of happiness or contentment, and I have not yet assembled the whole Meta-Philosophy of Clothes into a coherent whole to explain exactly what Teufelsdröckh and Carlyle might think about it. A start.

Teufelsdröckh attributes the unhappiness of humans to their “Greatness,” that is, “there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.” He goes on to elucidate the problem:

Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two; for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that Ophiuchus! Speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men. —Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.

Teufelsdröckh’s answer to this is renunciation; we must move on from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of blessedness only. There is a strain throughout Sartor Resartus exploring the continuation of spirituality and some kind of religion after the Romantic death of God. This was very important to Teufelsdröckh, who lost his faith as a young man and found it crushing: “for a pure moral nature, the loss of his religious Belief was the loss of every thing.” Here Teufelsdröckh feels Dostoevskian to me (which may be another way of saying squishy and pathetic), thanking “Destiny” for being “broken with manifold merciful Afflictions, even till thou become contrite.” Self-annihilation is the path to blessedness, is about the most I can make out.

You could make an argument that Ishmael is annihilating himself when he leaves Manhattan in the first chapter of Moby-Dick, with his depression and plans to join a whaling crew, but I wouldn’t. The passage that tells me most about Ishmael and happiness doesn’t use the word at all—nor “blessedness”—and while it suggests a lowering might be necessary, it actually changes its mind about that.

For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally.

But this, too, echoes Sartor Resartus elsewhere, where Teufelsdröckh (or perhaps only his Editor, whom I quote below) is less concerned with selfless blessedness and more concerned with how much “attainable felicity” people are probably missing in their everyday lives, by disregarding the miracles all around them all the time:

[T]hrough the Clothes-Screen…thou lookest, even for moments, into the region of the Wonderful, and seest and feelest that they daily life is girt with Wonder, and based on Wonder, and thy very blankets and breeches are Miracles….

“Wonder”—now that, certainly, is the name of Ishmael’s game.

4 comments to The infinite Shoeblack

  • If you just kept following this train of thought, that would be all right with me, but I suppose there are other valuable ways to spend your time and books to read.

    Still, you take two rich books and rub them together like this.

    I think the idea of the move to self-annihilation is about right, although some new better self should result. The passage you choose is perfect – Ishmael achieving some kind if self-annihilation via the overpowering sensory effects of whale wax. But then he breaks himself out of the reverie with a spurt of the arcane knowledge that drives so many readers crazy – slobgollion, nippers, gurry. Another “region of the Wonderful.”
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..Partly not yet intelligible, partly no longer so – an early Hugo von Hofmannsthal verse playMy Profile

  • “other valuable ways to spend your time and books to read”

    Really? Darn.

    The problem with looking at what Ishmael does as self-annihilation is that he fails–if that’s what he’s after, that is. If you look at his purpose in “Loomings” that way, you have to deal with the fact that Ishmael is just all over the novel. It’s all his cracked personality and interests. So he loses himself for moments, but he’s always still there. Hence, I think, the “shifting.”

  • He fails, or at least the effect is only temporary. You just touch the “infinite in him,” Rather than stay there. Unlike that kid in Butcher’s Crossing who is looking for permanent self-annihilation, and perhaps finds it.
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..Obscenities drawn with charcoal on the bare brick – Hofmannsthal’s realistic dream-like "Cavalry Story"My Profile

  • Ishmael’s moments of annihilation are some of my favorite in MB, “annihilation” understood as total loss of self-identity, as happens when he hovers over Descartians vortices atop the masthead or when he’s rubbing globules of sperm oil in Hands, I think. Good stuff.
    kevin recently posted..The Sharon in the TreesMy Profile

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