The Logic of Forgiveness

Why Forgive Carlyle?

by Elisa Tamarkin

The essay begins:

Picture_of_Thomas_CarlyleIf, for Henry David Thoreau, “hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance,” then no one was more hospitable than Thomas Carlyle; after all, Carlyle’s ability to keep his friends at a distance was no less than his ability to keep them. Nothing Americans might think, after the publication of his Latter-Day Pamphlets in 1850, could heal over the wound they felt straightaway that Carlyle “mocked the admiration” he lived to gain and that, for all the gratitude he had toward us, he also, says Henry James Sr., “hated us.” There may have been “an inexplicable rapport,” writes Walt Whitman, between himself and Carlyle, but, judging by Carlyle’s anti-egalitarianism, bigotry, and scorn of democracy, Whitman was “certainly at a loss to account for it.” Who could excuse, and in any case who could deny, the harmful effect of Carlyle’s contempt for abolitionism, suffrage, and social reform? He “stands for slavery,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes; he “goes for murder, money, capital punishment” and is as “dangerous as a madman. Nobody knows what he will say next or whom he will strike.” Apparently, vegetarianism bothered him. If you praised republics, he liked Russian czars. If you urged free trade, he remembered he was a monopolist. “Cease to brag to me,” says Carlyle, “of America and its model of institutions and constitutions…. They have begotten, with a rapidity beyond recorded example, Eighteen Millions of the greatest bores.” The press describes his work “On Heroes”—his attempt to substitute a new “hero-archy” for lost hierarchies in society and government—as a recipe for “unadulterated despotism” and “more especially how to catch masses of people and indoctrinate them with the feeling of obedience.” When we read his essay “Dr. Francia,” an apology for the supreme dictator of Paraguay, it is not hard to see why, by the 1930s, Carlyle’s theory of the hero seemed compatible with German fascism or that essays from that time, including “Carlyle Rules the Reich,” suggest that Hitler’s own belief in his “fulfillment of duty” to the majorities could “be expressed in familiar old phrases from Carlyle.” In 1945, when Joseph Goebbels tried to dispel Hitler’s sense of defeat, he read to him from Carlyle’s book on Frederick the Great–Hitler’s favorite book.

Never was “there a publication so provocative of rage, hatred and personal malevolence,” writes one newspaper of the Latter-Day Pamphlets, though the essays were only Carlyle’s most intemperate attacks on philanthropy and democracy. The effect of his intolerance was “convulsive,” so even if Carlyle exaggerated when he said the pamphlets “turned nine tenths of the world dreadfully” against him, it remains true that even his “old admirers drew back.” His estrangement from John Stuart Mill, for example, dates from this time. And while Carlyle’s violence or “scoffing vituperation” might strike us “more with the rhetoric than with the matter,” so that it might not mean what it is, and while “of course,” as Henry James says, “he has a perfect right to be what he is,” does it ever help us justify or make tolerable the critical confusion of Carlyle’s demand to Emerson over the course of two decades, or else to Mill in 1852, “Oh my friend, have tolerance for me, have sympathy with me”? On the publication of Carlyle’s essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” (1849), his willful apology for slavery, Mill writes, “I hardly know of an act by which one person could have done so much mischief as this may possibly do.” But it takes courage to answer mischief with friendship, and Carlyle found Mill “thin.” “Who cares that he wrote the ‘Nigger Question’,” writes Walt Whitman, since “there has been an impalpable something [for me], more effective than the palpable.” “About Anti-Slavery,” writes the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Carlyle “is unbearable, and about every philanthropic effort. He scoffs with cruel glee at all abolitionists, and all blacks…. Though all this is true, and though it is true that he is not amiable… it is also true, though one can hardly believe it, that he is the most lovable soul you can meet. His sayings against Anti-Slavery are of no consequence.”

Why forgive Carlyle? Continue reading …

This essay discusses the troubled relationships, both intellectual and intimate, of nineteenth-century essayist Thomas Carlyle to understand why Ralph Waldo Emerson and other contemporaries decide to forgive him, while despising his ideas. Coming to terms with the intensity of their affection was also to admit that their forgiveness was inappropriate to their principles and beliefs. Thinking through forgiveness as a kind of convexity, or dispersal of focus, the essay asks what it means to object, but love anyway, and what the challenge of forgiving Carlyle says about the logic, and the relevance, of their critical judgments.

ELISA TAMARKIN is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America (Chicago, 2008). She is completing a book on ideas of relevance and irrelevance since 1800.