Editorial Introduction: Or, How to Read Sartor Resartus

Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is at once one of the most influential and idiosyncratic works of the nineteenth century. One might well argue that it was influential precisely owing to its eccentric and stereoscopic vision. Carlyle himself described the book to Hugh Fraser as “a Satirical Extravaganza on Things in General.” Ranging far and wide—treating questions of philosophy, religion, politics, consumerism, literature, history, and aesthetics—it provides no single line of argument, and this is reflected in the book’s unconventional structure (Letters, 365). As Rodger L. Tarr puts it, Sartor is a

novel anti-novel, guided by figurative language and informed by paradoxical relationships. It is a fictive narrative while a parody of didactic fiction; it is a complex of structures similar to a mathematical tract while a challenge to the Newtonian systems of cosmos: it is a formal essay while an inventive discourse; it is a veiled autobiography and relies on a recognition of the complex allusions which are often dependent on or enhanced by the use of irony. (xxii-xxiii)

In other words, Sartor Resartus is a work that continually appeals to and undermines its own generic conventions. In this, it reflects that air of self-consciousness, which Carlyle regarded as a defining feature of nineteenth-century culture. As George Levine astutely observes, the generic indeterminacy of the book (which he refers to as belonging “to the complex class of confession-anatomy-romance”) is a reflection of Carlyle’s position in the 1830s, a time when he was at his most “flexible and undogmatic” (132, 136). To this extent, the seeming contradictions within the text actually mirror Carlyle’s anxiety about the political future of Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century. This spirit of uncertainty seems to have extended to Carlyle’s understanding of religious and philosophical truth as well: despite his intention to present in Sartor Resartus a commentary on “Things in General,” it was by no means clear to him that a comprehensive knowledge of the world was either possible or even desirable.

Unfortunately, the indeterminacy of the volume—in both form and content—has rendered it more or less inaccessible to the modern reader. Even in his own time, the most encouraging reviews warned readers that they might find Carlyle’s style strange and unpleasant. The Sun referred to Sartor as a “heap of clotted nonsense,” and the North American Review described Carlyle’s style as a “sort of Babylonish dialect.” In 1836, the Christian Examiner predicted that this “very odd” book “will not be read through by a great many persons, nor be liked by all its readers. Some will pronounce it unintelligible, or boldly deny that it has any good sound meaning” (74). The same year, a critic from the Southern Literary Journal and Magazine of the Arts observed: “Many a reader will be at first displeased at the extremely odd tissue of fiction, with which the author has seen fit to interweave his jewels of thought” (“4). Repeatedly, reviews of the volume highlight its departure from the conventions of narrative and prose form, expressing a concern that it might alienate even the most discerning of readers. 

Even Carlyle’s personal acquaintances were not quite sure what to make of this peculiar text. In a letter to Carlyle, Leigh Hunt admitted to being “mystified enough when your Sartor Resartus first appeared, to take it for a satire on ‘Germanick[?ism]’” (246). John Sterling, who claimed to be profoundly sympathetic to the substance of Sartor, objected to its “Rhapsodic-Reflective” style and “its occasional jerking and almost spasmodic violence” (Carlyle, Life, 96).  John Stuart Mill was more pointed in his critique, querying: “are there many things worth saying, and capable of being said in that manner which cannot be as well or better said in a more direct way?” (64).

The charge is especially striking, given Carlyle’s own interest in the “unreadability” of the world around us. For Carlyle, essentially a skeptic by nature, truth is embedded in the world but always in a sublimated form. He regarded the past itself to be a “complex Manuscript, covered over with formless, inextricably-entangled unknown characters” (“On History,” 222). The historian or philosopher should seek to uncover knowledge, certainly, yet that quest is unlikely ever to yield more than a partial glimpse of the truth. Carlyle’s insistence that the world is essentially unknowable places him squarely in line with the German idealists he so often cites throughout his work. Like Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, and Friedrich Schlegel, Carlyle felt that empirical truth was unverifiable; individual perception alone provides us with insight into the world we inhabit. If those insights are incomplete, they nevertheless empower the individual, who does not merely see but actively works to construct his own reality.

This idea was not entirely lost on Carlyle’s contemporaries. In an 1839 essay on his work, the London and Westminster Review lauded Carlyle’s resistance to conventional forms of reasoning, noting his penchant for both philosophical and stylistic obscurity. If Carlyle seems to be wracked by spiritual doubt, he also maintains that the universe is governed by unifying principles that remain unfathomable to the individual percipient. The reviewer observes:

… this  writer very naturally holds in detestation all attempts to give dialectics any important place in human life. He admits, indeed, that reflection inevitably produces thoughts which find no sufficient symbols in any single objects, what are the ideal roots of whole classes of existence, and finally pass into one great principle of life originating and organizing all that is. But the attempt to define this in any precise form of words, though it has been the aim, as he admits, of many of the greatest among men, meets with small sympathy from him. (“Carlyle’s Works,” 8)

It is this desire to circumvent conventional ways of seeing and knowing the world, the critic reports, that has so often led readers to discount Carlyle’s work as dense and bewildering. Those who are willing to embrace a new way of reading, by contrast, are likely to find in Sartor Resartus something “beautiful” and may “admire his wildest extravagances, and discover in his most playful disportings a hidden wisdom” (“Sartor Resartus,” Southern Literary Journal, 4; “Sartor Resartus,” Christian Examiner 75). In his preface to the first bound edition of Sartor Resartus, Ralph Waldo Emerson highlighted the book’s eccentricity, reminding the reader that its chapters originally appeared as “ephemeral pamphlets,” much like the strange sheets of paper that constitute the archive of Teufelsdröckh’s life and work (3).  Emerson frankly admits to having “no expectation that this little work will have a sudden and general popularity” and refuses to defend “the gay costume in which the Author delights to dress his thoughts” (3). In the end, it is Carlyle’s ambition to present an earnest appraisal of his own time, in all of its illegibility, that constitutes the chief virtue of Sartor Resartus. For Emerson, the philosophical rewards of such a style outweigh the risks: after all, “what work of imagination can hope to please all?” (Emerson, 3) 

In a similar spirit, George Eliot acknowledged that some may find Carlyle’s style “as unendurable as an English lady finds peppermint” but insisted that the historical value of his work was indisputable: "The character of his influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have the least agreement with his opinions are those to whom the reading of ‘Sartor Resartus’ was an epoch in the history of their minds" (312, 311). Certainly, the claim is borne out by the number of cameos Carlyle’s work makes throughout the nineteenth century, from the works of Mark Twain and Hermann Melville to those of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens. If readers of Sartor Resartus were reluctant upon its initial publication (and continue to be wary today) it is undeniable that the book has been influential.

In large part, this stylistic innovation was grounded in Carlyle’s personal distaste for the more systematic, empirical approaches of his contemporaries. In “Characteristics” (1831), an essay written just after he completed his first draft of Sartor Resartus, Carlyle juxtaposed the work of the poet or priest to the manufactured rhetoric of the “Logician, or uninspired thinker.” Carlyle does not merely argue against the polemical writing he saw emerging everywhere in the nineteenth-century press—he argues in favor of a new mode of discourse, perhaps it would be better to refer to it as anti-discourse, a discourse freed from the trammels of linear, syllogistic, literal thinking. In his notebooks (produced between 1822 and 1832), Carlyle reflects on the futility of the philosophical treatise as a mode of reflection:

One is tired to death with his and Goethe’s palabra about the nature of the fine arts. Did Shakespeare know aught of the aesthetic? Did Homer? Kant’s philosophy has a monstrously gigantic appearance at a distance—enveloped in clouds and darkness, shadowed forth in types and symbols of unknown and fantastic derivation, there is an apparatus and a flourishing of drums and trumpets and a tumultuous Marktschreyerei as if all the Earth were going to renew its youth; and the esoterics are equally allured by all this pomp and circumstance, and repelled by the hollowness and airy nothingness of the ware which is presented to them. Any of the results which have been made intelligible to us turn out to be like Dryden in the Battle of the Books, a helmet of rusty iron large as a kitchen-pot and within it a head little bigger than a nut. What is Schlegel’s great solution of the mystery of life—“the strife of necessity against free-will”? Nothing earthly but the old, old story that all men find it difficult to get on in the world […] (41-42)

If Carlyle is often thought to have been a devoted follower of German aesthetic philosophy, in the days leading up to the publication of Sartor Resartus we see him instead frustrated with the linear, systematic thinking deployed by his philosophical idols. Whereas Kant and Schlegel grounded their understanding of aesthetics in subjective judgment and the exercise of free will, Carlyle found little comfort in these propositions – such theories could not combat his sense of human experience as small, treacherous, and potentially futile.

This is not to suggest that ignorance is bliss, nor does such a proclamation insist that one luxuriate in a state of nihilistic uncertainty. Indeed, Carlyle’s appreciation for the “significance of Mystery” to some extent finds its roots in Calvinism, which would insist that knowledge of God cannot be either comprehensive or acquired by force of will (“Characteristics,” 301). Yet the question of belief was not strictly a religious one for Carlyle—it was epistemological. Chris R. Vanden Bossche has rightly noted that Carlyle’s relationship to knowledge in Sartor Resartus is full of paradox. The German philosopher, he expounds, “needs knowledge to obtain authority, but he can only achieve authority and rest when he stops seeking knowledge” (28-29). Only an unremitting quest for knowledge can bring the individual to the realization that truth is unattainable. Through this relentless process of seeking, we become self-conscious – aware of the mind’s limitations and capacities.

Sartor has often been treated as exemplifying the Victorian “crisis of faith.” John D. Rosenberg famously suggested that the volume represents “Romanticism half-way down the road to renouncing itself,” a work that insists that “doubt has become the pre-condition for tenable belief” (10). This certainly seems to have been the position of John Sterling, who wrote to Carlyle in 1835, observing that the book “falls-in with the feelings and tastes which were, for years, the ruling ones of my life; but which you will not be angry with me when I say that I am infinitely and hourly thankful to have escaped from” (Carlyle, Life, 95). Yet to suggest that Sartor Resartus highlights that moment of doubt that every man must in turn confront and transcend, as Sterling suggests, is to miss Carlyle’s larger point. Questioning is not merely a means of attaining enlightenment or clarity – indeed, it is confusion itself that serves as the ultimate source of philosophical clarity. It would be nearer the truth to suggest, as J. Hillis Miller has done, that Sartor Resartus is a book about books, that it is “in part about the act of narration, about the act of achieving knowledge by a process of reminiscent retelling, retailoring the tailor, repatching the patcher, sartor resartus” (3). The protagonist of Sartor is not the English Editor or Diogenes Teufelsdröckh: it is the reader himself. The drama of Sartor is the reader’s engagement with not only the immediate conditions of nineteenth-century political life—with Chartism, capitalism, or Britain’s place in global politics—but with the movement of his own mind. The question is not how to act but how to think.

As an illustration of this principle, we might turn to one of Carlyle’s other signature works, Past and Present (1843), where the question of clothes again makes an appearance. The volume, which juxtaposes the work ethic of a medieval monastery to that of nineteenth-century England, resembles Sartor Resartus in its generic indeterminacy and its attention to speculative modes of inquiry. In Book 2, which focuses on the life of Abbot Samson, Carlyle conveys this mode through a striking episode in which the abbot attempts to view the shrouded body of his patron, St. Edmund, thus coming face to face, as it were, with historical and religious truth. The Loculus containing the body is wrapped in several layers of tissue:

There was an outer cloth of linen, enwrapping the Loculus and all; this we found tied on the upper side with strings of its own; within this was a cloth of silk, and then another linen cloth, and then a third; and so at last the Loculus was uncovered, and seen resting on a little tray of wood, that the bottom of it might not be injured by the stone. Over the breast of the Martyr, there lay, fixed to the surface of the Loculus, a Golden Angel about the length of a human foot; holding in one hand golden sword, and in the other a banner: under this there was a hole in the lid of the Loculus, on which the ancient servants of the Martyr had been won’t to lay their hands for touching the Sacred Body. And over the figure of the Angel was this verse inscribed: “Martiris ecce zoma serant Michaelis agalma. This is the Martyr’s Garment, which Michael’s Image guards.” (Past and Present, 119)

At first, it would seem that the inscrutable past becomes increasingly visible as each layer of cloth is removed. The process of uncovering the truth is merely a laborious unraveling of vestments that promise to terminate in the immediate apprehension of the body. The Latin inscription, however, suggests that the garment is perhaps not meant to be removed, so that this process of denuding the Sacred Body is already called into question. When the Abbot peers beneath the lid, he finds layer upon layer of silk cloth covering the body: “These coverings beings lifted off, they found now the Sacred Body all wrapt in linen; and so at length the lineaments of the same appeared. But here the Abbot stopped; saying he durst not proceed farther, or look at the sacred flesh naked” (Past and Present, 120).

How are we meant to understand the many layers that shroud the Sacred Body? And what are we to make of the abbot’s ultimate refusal to denude the body of its clothes? On the one hand, we might regard clothing, as Carlyle does elsewhere, as a symbol for “habit”—that is, as a reflection of those cultural forms with which we adorn our lives. Such habits may be inspired by deep conviction and earnest passion, but they often ossify into polemic, ideology, or happenstance.  As Carlyle himself observes: “Uzi hones sent modi sent. Habit is the deepest law of human nature” (Past and Present, 125). Habit is, he hazards, “the very skin and muscular tissue of a Man’s Life; and a most blessed indispensable thing, so long as they have vitality withal, and are a living skin and tissue to him!” (Past and Present, 125). It is when we cease to engage actively and critically with these ideas—when they becomes mere habit—that they become no more than “dead skin, mere adscititious leather and callosity, wearing thicker and thicker, uglier and uglier; till no heart any longer can be felt beating through them….”(Past and Present, 125).  Hence, we might regard Abbot Samson’s refusal to denude the body as a celebration of old habits and a refusal to seek out the living truth they once embodied. More charitably, Abbot Samson recognizes that only habit— that is, the symbolic value in which history has shrouded St. Edmund—retains any value, since no heart beats beneath the cloth wrappings. It is tradition and not literal truth that ultimately matters. 

Relating this back to Sartor Resartus, we might well concede Janice L. Haney’s point that it is an “overdetermined fiction, a text that lays fiction upon fiction as if it wanted to stop interpretation or at least make reading a problem” (307). By shrouding the life and philosophy of Teufelsdrockh within multiple layers of irony, Carlyle potentially arrests the interpretive process and compels the reader to confront his own fetishization of habit. In this spirit, Geoffrey Hartman has astutely noted that Carlyle resisted “this potentially infinite regress of mediation – even though it provides a saving distance from absolute inwardness or solipsism” (49). “His solution,” Hartman explains, “is to foreground the mediatory process, to make the writer’s distance from any source so palpable that the retailored text is endowed with a factitious presence of its own” (49). In other words, irony in Sartor Resartus does not serve simply as a way of shielding the reader from truth or the author from potential criticism. Instead, these layers of irony call attention to the constructedness of all stories, habits, and cultural practices. As Tom Toremans puts it, such a reading suggests that “Sartor’s entrance into literary criticism occurs as an affliction rather than as an unproblematical passage to moral, historical, political or critical instruction” (in Kerry 216). I would propose that Carlyle’s stylistic indirection is somewhat more productive than this, if we regard the subject of his work to be not the outcomes of interpretation but interpretation itself. Seen this way, the layers of partial knowledge empower the reader to recognize the processes through which knowledge is a creation of the individual mind. If the infinite regress of Carlyle’s writing would seem to parody a Hegelian dialectic, as Hartman suggests, it is at least equally luxuriating in the failures of such a hermeneutic. Put another way, Carlyle’s reader—like Abbot Samson and the fictive English Editor—must finally abandon the linear, literal, and material quest for truth. He must leave aside the fetish or ritual to confront the Mystery that underlies all things. If truth cannot be perceived empirically or deduced through a process of careful reasoning, perhaps it can be accessed through alternative means.

It is possible, moreover, that the “infinite regress of mediation” in Carlyle’s writing serves a second and vital function. After all, the linear quest for truth is not altogether without value in Carlyle’s eyes. While he calls Abbot Samson and his companions “stupid blockheads” for worshipping a dead body and seeking to find in it evidence of divine truth, he also recognizes that the relationship between the body and divinity is one of the great mysteries of human life. Hence, while their worship of the body—their desire for literalism—may well be misguided, the speculative impulse is not. The chief insight of Sartor Resartus is not its engagement with Christian typology, Chartism, German philosophy, or anything else. At the heart of this strange book is the instantiation of a new methodological form – one that seeks to reform the reader’s approach to text and, consequently, to self-reflection. As Lee C.R. Baker suggests, “Sartor is not intended to persuade logically” but rather to draw the reader into a “state of mind” that is unfamiliar and therefore revelatory (220, 231).

To date, scholars have attributed the oblique, non-linear rhetoric of Sartor Resartus to a number of influences. Some have suggested, quite naturally, that it reflects Carlyle’s investment in German idealism, which highlighted the unknowability of the world and called attention to the role of mental life in constructing the world as we see and know it. Others have aligned Carlyle with “Victorian sage” discourse, highlighting Carlyle’s efforts to speak as if beyond the bounds of society—like a prophet crying out in the wilderness—to revise the underlying aims and strategies of nineteenth-century thought. Still others (like Chris R. Vanden Bossche and J. Hillis Miller) have suggested that it anticipates the work of contemporary cultural critics, especially those who seek actively to deconstruct meaning and the processes through which we come to knowledge. To my mind, all of these perspectives are both valid and persuasive. 

Still, I would recommend that the point of the volume is not to highlight a particular ideological program or to convert the reader to any single “philosophy” of art, politics, or clothes.

The point (and the genius) of Sartor Resartus is its mobility. For it is essentially this that has rendered the text so impenetrable to readers both then and now – its fluidity, its insistence that the reader fleetingly shift from one field of knowledge to another or from one perspective to another. The process of reading Sartor Resartus, like the process of unveiling the Loculus, does not reveal to us divine mysteries or secular ones. Instead, it calls attention to our own interpretive processes, insisting that our reading habits are as worthy of scrutiny as any other habit.

In this age of digital media, we have become more accustomed to a non-linear reading experience—one that invites the reader’s active engagement in forging their own investigative pathways. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault insisted that the “frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network” (25-26). This is precisely what has made Sartor Resartus so challenging to readers, from the time of its initial publication to the present day. Yet its fragmented structure, its appeal to irony, its unrelenting allusiveness—these are all qualities that invite the reader to move away from the reading practices we know and into a more speculative, stereoscopic way of seeing the world. Sartor Resartus is a book for the twenty-first century. 

Works Cited

Carlyle, Thomas. Letters of Thomas Carlyle. Ed. Charles Eliot Norton (London: Macmillan, 1889).

----. Life of John Sterling. London: Chapman and Hall, 1888.

----. “On History.” Carlyle’s Critical and Miscellaneous Writings. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1857. 219-23.

----. Past and Present. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1847.

----. “The State of German Literature.” Carlyle’s Critical and Miscellaneous Writings. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1857. 15-34.

----. Two Notebooks of Thomas Carlyle. New York: Grolier Club, 1898.

“Carlyle’s Works,” London and Westminster Review 33.64 (October 1839): 1-8.

Eliot, George. “Thomas Carlyle.” The Writings of George Eliot: Essays and Uncollected Papers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909): 310-13.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Preface.” Sartor Resartus (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1837): 3-4.

Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge, 2002.

Haney, Janice L. “ ‘Shadow-Hunting’: Romantic Irony, ‘Sartor Resartus,’ and Victorian Romanticism.” Studies in Romanticism. 17.3 (Summer 1978) 307-33.

Hartman, Geoffrey. Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Hunt, Leigh. Leigh Hunt: A Life in Letters. Ed. Eleanor M. Gates (Essex, CT: Fall River Publications, 1998).

Levine, George. “ ‘Sartor Resartus’ and the Balance of Fiction.” Victorian Studies. 8.2 (December 1964), 131-60.

“Sartor Resartus,” The Christian Examiner 21 (September 1837): 74-84.

Mill, John Stuart. Letters of John Stuart Mill. London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1910.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Hieroglyphical Truth in Sartor Resartus: Carlyle and the Language of Parable.” Victorian Perspectives. Ed. John Clubb and Jerome Meckier. London: Palgrave, 1989 1-20.

Rosenberg, John D. Carlyle and the Burden of History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

“Sartor Resartus,” Southern Literary Journal and Magazine of the Arts 1.1 (March 1837), 1-8.

Tarr, Rodger L. “Introduction,” in Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000. xxi-xciv.

Tennyson, G.B. Sartor Called Resartus: The Genesis, Structure, and Style of Thomas Carlyle’s First Major Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Vanden Bossche, Chris R. Carlyle and the Search for Authority. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991.