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.

“The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is Decoration; as indeed we still see among the barbarous classes in civilised countries.”

So what of the Philosophy of Clothes? It’s quite possible I may not really get to that at all until a re-reading rolls around, but one piece of pre-clothing philosophy stuck out as particularly Melvillean:

The first purpose of Clothes, as our Professor imagines, was not warmth or decency, but ornament. …”[T]he pains of Hunger and Revenge once satisfied, his next care was not Comfort but Decoration (Putz). Warmth he found in the toils of the chase; or amid dried leaves, in his hollow tree, in his bark shed, or natural grotto: but for Decoration he must have Clothes. Nay, among wild people, we find tattooing and painting even prior to Clothes.

Melville read Sartor Resartus in 1850, long after he had already started writing about tattoos (and clothes more generally). Tattoos first show up in Typee, where they get in the way of reading people’s faces (or not—Fayaway’s relatively mild tattooing is one reason Tommo is able to court her). The issue of reading, whether skin or a garment, comes up again in Redburn and still more strongly in White-Jacket—and again, the discussion of clothes in these two prefigures Melville’s reading of Sartor Resartus, which has even more to say about clothes than it does about tattoos.

Of course, after reading Carlyle Melville gives us the most well-known and memorable tattooed character, Moby-Dick‘s Queequeg, along with more clothing issues in Israel Potter and blankness in short stories.

So what does Carlyle give him, that he doesn’t already have? A language for talking about these things more clearly? A framework on which to crystallize the ideas? A greater meaning around which to hang it all? Questions for a re-read, perhaps—perhaps the next read through Melville should include things like this in situ. Now that’s a fun idea! Until then, I’d have to say Carlyle gave him at least some language, some style. Never until Sartor Resartus have I felt more like I was reading Melville when I wasn’t.

“It were a piece of vain flattery to pretend that this Work on Clothes entirely contents us…”

I will continue out of pattern, and write this week about Sartor Resartus even though I only just read it and have lots of things waiting in the queue. But (a) reading this was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, and (b) a big part of that was the joy of knowing that I would definitely be re-reading this book (and probably more than once), and therefore did not need to stress over every last word in it.

That is to say, I could simply enjoy it, knowing there would be more to enjoy for years to come! What else can a reader want?

Well, here’s an idea of what a reader might want—the best description I think I’ve read in a long time of what a “good” book should be like:

[W]e admitted that the Book had in a high degree excited us to self-activity, which is the best effect of any book; that it had even operated changes in our way of thought; nay, that it promised to prove, as it were, the opening of a new mine-shaft, wherein the whole world of Speculation might henceforth dig to unknown depths.

The Book in question—for I suppose I should explain something of what Sartor Resartus is—is a Philosophy of Clothes, written by the (fictional) Professor Teufelsdröckh and commented upon exensively by the “editor” of Sartor Resartus. The introduction to the Oxford World’s Classic edition notes that Thomas Carlyle’s book “makes the transition from the Romantic to the Victorian periods…[and] enacts within itself the dislocations of the passage.” Those lines are well worth stealing because I can’t imagine a better encapsulation of Sartor Resartus (other than ones like “awesome” or “super sweet”—but then few will be surprised I fell in love with one of the most important precursors to Moby-Dick).

While the Philosophy of Clothes is a good book, it’s also a bad book in the special way of such good books:

More specially it may now be declared that Professor Teufelsdröckh’s acquirements, patience of research, philosophic and even poetic vigour, are here made indisputably manifest; and unhappily no less his prolixity and tortuosity and manifold inaptitude; that, on the whole, as in opening new mine-shafts is not unreasonable, there is much rubbish in his Book, though likewise specimens of almost invaluable ore. A paramount popularity in England we cannot promise him.

Sartor ResartusNew mineshafts full of rubbish: just how I look, with love, on a monster like Mardi or the cleaned-up, but still baggy, Moby-Dick. But is it rubbish? Is any of it really rubbish? Kevin finds purpose in even the boredom of M-D, and why not? After all, you can’t open the mineshaft without getting the rubbish somewhere, and there are always a few mad people like myself willing to sift through it just to be sure.