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The triumph of Romanticism ; collected essays

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TRENT UNIVERSITY
LIBRARY

Digitized by the Internet Archive
in 2019 with funding from
Kahle/Austin Foundation

https://archive.org/details/victorianrevolutOOOOpeck

Victorian Revolutionaries

V ictorian
Revolutionaries
Speculations on Some Heroes
oj a Culture Crisis

Morse Peckham

George Braziller

New York

COPYRIGHT ©

ALL

RIGHTS

PUBLISHED

1970, BY MORSE PECKHAM

RESERVED.
SIMULTANEOUSLY

IN

CANADA BY DOUBLEDAY CANADA, LIMITED.
FOR INFORMATION,
GEORGE

BRAZILLER,

ADDRESS THE PUBLISHER:
INC.

ONE PARK AVENUE, NEW YORK, N.Y.

STANDARD

BOOK

NUMBER:

10016

O-8076-O543-3

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NUMBER:
FIRST

PRINTING

DESIGNED

BY

JENNIE

BUSH

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

78-IO47OI

O Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!
Ce pays nous ennuie, 6 Mort! Appareillons!
Si le eiel et la mer sont noirs comme de l’encre,
Nos coeurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons!
Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous reconforte!
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brule le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’lnconnu pour trouver du nouveaul
—Baudelaire

Contents

PRELIMINARY
I
II

1

ESCAPE FROM CHARISMA
WE ARE INSANE

8

44

III

PERSONALITY AND THE MASK OF
KNOWLEDGE 84

IV

THE USES OF THE UNFASHIONABLE

130

V

THE ROMANTIC BIRTH OF ANTHROPOLOGY

VI

EROTICISM = POLITICS: POLITICS^EROTICISM 235
INDEX

306

175

DEDICATED TO
ROBERT W. BUEDINGEN

Preliminary

T

X HIS BOOK does not offer an argument, nor even an

historical account, with a beginning and an end. Such endings
as it does offer are principally questions. Yet the six essays have
a number of themes in common. The most important theme is
that of culture transcendence. All the men discussed here
managed to get outside of their culture, to escape its presuppo¬
sitions. The novel conclusions they came to may not seem par¬
ticularly relevant to our times, though it is my opinion that they
are highly relevant. But even if one finds their conclusions use¬
ful, it is the mode ; of their escape that is of greater importance.
The effort to achieve culture transcendence is a consequence
of a culture crisis. Culture crisis is a term we are now familiar
with. It is evident that we are living in a culturally critical period
today. Any help we can get in understanding how to deal with
it is bound to be of some value. Not the particular strategies of
these men, but the general pattern of their strategy is probably
the most useful thing they have to offer. Although it may seem
that the culture crisis of Victorian England has little to do with
that of Kennedyan, Johnsonian, and Nixonian America, it ap¬
pears to me that ours is a continuation of the English one, now
accessible only by historical reconstruction, unreliable as such

1

Victorian Revolutionaries
constructs must be. The strategies of the men discussed here to
meet their cultural crisis by innovating various modes of cultural
transcendence have, therefore, a double interest.
The values of a culture are necessarily incoherent. What we
call the logic that holds the values of a culture together is itself
but a cultural convention. What seems firmly mortared together
falls apart under the pressure of a crisis. A culture is always in
at least a mild state of crisis, for its values are never coherent and
never adequate to meet the demands made on it from within
and from without. Nevertheless, when a culture is in what we
may call a non-critical or reasonably healthy condition, the inco¬
herency of values is not observed, nor is there present an irony
which juxtaposes obviously inconsistent values. In such an era
a man says to himself, “Look before you leap!” when he wishes
to postpone a decision. But when he wishes to make a decision
in a hurry, he encourages himself and validates his act by “He
who hesitates is lost.” The sensible man never juxtaposes these
two aphoristic devices for controlling his behavior. But in times
of crisis, that is exactly what he does. The result is an irony
which makes action exceedingly difficult and even psychologi¬
cally perilous.
No one has analyzed the process more illuminatingly than
Spren Kierkegaard, whom we may call a Danish Victorian. That
stage in which a man moves easily from one value to another
without ironic juxtaposition and to gain the maximum immedi¬
ate gratification, whatever his gratificatory interests might be,
he called the “aesthetic stage.” But when his interests conflict,
as Kierkegaard’s did when he was in love and wanted to get
married, and simultaneously wanted to continue his philosophi¬
cal and religious pursuits with a devotion that meant the impos¬
sibility of a close relation with another human being, a man can
become a Buridan’s ass, unable to choose between two equally
desirable stacks of hay. Kierkegaard called this crisis “irony.”
Then, he concluded, the only recourse is to step away from

2

Preliminary
one’s culture, to see that it is penetrated through and through
with similar ironies, to grasp in its fullness the necessary inco¬
herence of one’s culture.
It is followed by what he called the “ethical stage,” in which
the individual attempts to find a metaphysical ground for exis¬
tence, that is, for decision, a principle that will enable him to
act once more within his culture, to be effective and to be
ethically right, to be good. But just as irony dissolves the aes¬
thetic stage, humor dissolves the ethical stage; one discovers
that there is no ground to be reached. Ethical existence is sus¬
pended over nothing, and though any number of ladders reach
down toward a metaphysical ground, all equally attractive, none
of them have any lower rungs. They stop short and, whichever
he chooses, a man is left dangling. To the man who has really
understood what he has so far gone through, this situation is
funny, is filled with humor. But it also means that there is no
return to the culture that irony forced him into making the first
step away from.
The only thing left to do is to climb to the final stage, the
religious stage, since only this can offer him what he so desper¬
ately needs—a justification for existence, a conviction of mean¬
ingfulness, of value—since humor has swept away all available
justifications, meaningfulness, and value. God, then, is the final
terminus. But Kierkegaard’s God was a very strange being in¬
deed.
In moving from the aesthetic stage to the dissolutions of hu¬
mor, the individual exhausts the resources of his culture. Among
those resources are definitions and explanations of God. These
are no longer available to him. In this Kierkegaardian religious
stage, the word “God” can be used in no sense and in no situa¬
tion in which the rejected culture uses it. In effect, in this situa¬
tion the word “God” simply means that there is no farther to go.
The end has been reached; the individual is now completely
alienated, as Kierkegaard made abundantly evident in his final,

3

Victorian Revolutionaries

savage attacks on Danish Christianity or, more accurately, Euro¬
pean Christianity. Rejecting any cure for the culture by political
or other revolution, and any action taken on the basis of the
culture’s existent values, he could only recommend that the
alienated individual turn aside entirely from his society and
culture and devote himself to creating a new possibility. To do
so would be to achieve a true culture transcendence, a possibil¬
ity that rises above and resolves the incoherence of the culture
which is so filled with self-defeating ironies.
Can it be done? That is the question asked by the men with
whom these essays are concerned. They understood the prob¬
lem with various degrees of completeness; they offered answers
of varying adequacy. None of them, perhaps, understood the
problem so well as Kierkegaard, and he cannot be said to have
understood it as fully as might be, for all of his enormous efforts
to do so, so exhausting to himself and to his readers. These men
can be placed along various stretches of the Kierkegaardian
schema, though I have not attempted to do so. It may be that
their analyses were better than his—his being superior only in
elegance.
More interesting and useful than the content of Kierkegaard’s
analysis is what it tells us about the form of nineteenth-century
thinking. By the end of the eighteenth century it had become
established in European culture that abstract thinking, if prop¬
erly performed, is parallel with the world. Abstract thought
moves with the world. What is in our minds has its experienced
origin in the world. The way we structure our experience corre¬
sponds to the structure of the world. This is still the most com¬
mon way of conceiving the matter; few today have really left
the eighteenth century.
Berkeley and Hume had their doubts about all this, but it was
Kant who damaged this system irreparably. He pointed out that
logically arrived at conclusions lead to antinomies, to antitheti¬
cal but equally well-founded conclusions. Kant concluded that

4

Preliminary
it is not the world which organizes our minds, so that the struc¬
ture and content of thinking correspond to the structure and
content of the world, but that the mind organizes the world. The
categories which we use to cut up the world for whatever pur¬
poses we may have are not derived from the world, nor is the
structure with which we organize those categories. The cutting
up or categorization of the world he called the activity of the
Understanding. The structuring of those categories he called
the activity of the Reason.
There is much that is puzzling about Kant, much that is un¬
satisfactory, and much that will never be understood, probably
because Kant did not understand it either. However, it is not
what Kant said that is important for the present purposes but
the form of his saying it. What he called an antinomy, Kierke¬
gaard called an irony. Just as Kant moved back from the world
to the Understanding and then back again to the Reason, and
then back again to a God of whom nothing can be said, so
Kierkegaard moved from the aesthetic stage back to the ethical
and then back to what he so strangely called the religious stage.
The structure of their abstract thinking is not an attempt to
create a structure parallel with the world but rather one that
proceeds at right angles to the world. It is not their philosophi¬
cal correctness which is important here. As far as that goes, both
were wrong, in that they thought they were talking about the
“mind” but were in fact talking about language. What is impor¬
tant is that in response to a culture crisis they both radically
revised the structure of the explanations of the world as estab¬
lished in their culture, and revised it in the same direction.
Hegel’s philosophy shows precisely the same pattern or struc¬
ture. What he called logic was utterly different from what the
eighteenth century called logic and, for the most part, what is
still called logic today. Though Hegel has been pretty well re¬
jected, in the last few years a number of contemporary philoso¬
phers have begun to have a nervous feeling that after all

5

Victorian Revolutionaries

Hegel was saying something of great importance.
The traditional logic which he relegated to a minor task
within his system may be called a one-level logic. Or better still,
since excellence, in this kind of logic, depends on all terms
being on the same plane of abstraction or concretion, it might
be called a planar logic. But Hegel’s was a hierarchical logic.
Planar logic tries to move parallel with the world, and is often
successful in doing so; Hegelian logic, which owes much to
Plato and even more to the Neoplatonists, moves at right angles
to the world. The one is concerned with explaining the world;
the other, with explaining the structure of explanation.
This difference may be put in a simple, behavioral way. Tradi¬
tional logic is interested in the fact that there is a tendency for
all individuals faced with an identical stimulus field to respond
in the same way. It is interested in the congruence of behavior
and in the fact that, in spite of error, we all make our way around
in the world with considerable success. Hegelian logic and nine¬
teenth-century thinking in general are interested in the fact
that, faced with an identical stimulus field, individuals can re¬
spond with a wide range of varying behaviors. They are inter¬
ested in the incongruity of behavior; interested, as Kierkegaard
put it, in irony and creativity.
It is not a question whether either system is right or wrong.
Both, after all, may be quite in error, and probably are. That is
not the consideration here. The point is that at times of cultural
normalcy, awareness of incongruity of behavior is repressed in
favor of awareness of congruity, while at times of culture crisis,
the reverse holds: incongruity is what is noticed. When a cul¬
ture’s processes are smooth, the mind—whatever it is, or what¬
ever the word refers to —is felt to be in harmony with the world,
parallel with the world, structurally identical with the world.
But at times of culture crisis, the mind is torn loose from the
world; the world is felt to be in its essence inaccessible and the
mind is felt to be without foundations—dangling. Traditional,

6

Preliminary
planar, logic wants to get along with its culture, to improve it
and at the same time adapt itself to it; nineteenth-century hier¬
archical logic wants to get away from its culture, to transcend
it. Hegel is the greatest philosopher of culture transcendence.
That is what his philosophy is all about, and that is why sud¬
denly he is very pertinent once more.
It will be evident to the reader of these essays that they have
been written from the position that the culture crisis of the
nineteenth century was the greatest not merely in European
history, but in human history, and that the crisis of the late
twentieth century is a continuation of the crisis of the nine¬
teenth, which actually emerged in the last decade or so of the
eighteenth. It will also be evident that the speculative structure
of this group of essays is typical of the structure of the explana¬
tory response to a culture crisis. If there is indeed no culture
crisis today, then these essays have nothing to say; if there is
such a crisis, it is possible, though not necessarily likely, that
they may speak to our condition.
M. P.

7

I
Escape from Charisma

C3 NE OF Tennyson’s strangest acts was the publica-

tion of his first volume, Poems by Two Brothers, in which the
three oldest of the eccentric and melancholy Tennyson broth¬
ers had a share. Alfred, the third son, born in 1809, not yet
eighteen, had been a poet of professional technique for some
years; yet most of his contributions to the volume—and he had
written more than half of it—were not at all like his early surviv¬
ing poetry. Most of his poems in the joint volume imitated By¬
ron, Scott, and Moore. Many bore a distressing resemblance to
the verse of Mrs. Felicia Hemans, “the female Byron,” though
not, unfortunately, a Byron in her personal life. Years later Ten¬
nyson called the volume “rot,” though admitting that some of
it was better than he had remembered. He never printed any
of it again. In 1830 Tennyson published, as the first volume to
bear his name, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical—the most accomplished
first volume put out by an English poet up to that time, and
arguably since. He had been writing this kind of poetry for
years; it is hard to imagine why he never published some of his
earlier pieces. Perhaps he did, for there is no reason to believe
that all of the 1830 volume was written after Poems by Tioo
Brothers.

8

Escape From Charisma
This volume was published in 1827 at Louth, the nearest large
town in the remote corner of Lincolnshire in which the dozen
tall Tennyson sons and daughters were growing up in so re¬
stricted a house that their clergyman and alcoholic father had
to add a dining room so that they could all sit down to a meal
at once. The publisher was a Louth bookseller, but the book was
also brought out in London; and this was no doubt part of the
arrangement by which the publisher paid twenty pounds, half
of it in books from his stock. Tennyson omitted from this first
volume the kind of work he really cared about, because, his son
tells us, it was “thought too much out of the common for the
public taste.” This gives us a clue to the anomalous place of the
volume in Tennyson’s career and tells us something important
about him. The volume published at Louth and London was
clearly aimed at the public taste. Most of the poems in it were
written to make it a highly salable book. It was a time in which
poetry sold well. Byron had but recently died; Moore was at his
most popular. Scott’s poems, though written long before, were
increasingly well-liked because everybody knew by then that
he was writing the Waverley novels. Even Wordsworth was
approaching the height of his popularity in the 1830’s.
Yet the market for poetry was soon to vanish, not to return for
many years. The spread of literacy and the application of ma¬
chine power to making paper and to printing and binding was
about to create a vast new audience, too crude to relish the kind
of literature published for a restricted and well-to-do public.
Tennyson was out to make money, which he and his brothers
needed if they were to attend the university properly, and the
twenty pounds the publisher gave suggests that he too thought
he

had

a potentially popular book.

Well,

everyone

was

mistaken; it received but one notice, not unfavorable at all,
but it never sold well. It should have. The fault lay not,
one suspects, with the poetry, but with a publisher who
could not command enough attention from booksellers and
the literary world. Byron’s publisher, John Murray, could

9

Victorian Revolutionaries

attract attention for almost anything he put out.
If the young Tennyson, as the venture leads one to suspect,
deliberately set out to make a killing, it must be recognized that
eventually he did. He was the last English poet to make a con¬
siderable fortune out of poetry, enough to build a spacious and
beautiful country home and to live in it like the landed gentry.
Faced with the problem of how to succeed professionally and
financially as a poet and at the same time write the kind of
poetry he wanted to, his first solution was the deliberate at¬
tempt to create what would sell, while holding back what he
cared about and knew was of poetic value. It is easy enough to
say today that his was a deliberate denial of his genius, but he
was not the last artist to attempt to lead a double life. It is a
problem many a serious writer has faced since the coming of
Romanticism and the alienation of the innovative artist from his
culture and his society.
Nor when Tennyson was a youth was the problem as easy to
discern as now. In the 1820’s the parents of a young poet could
remember poets who wrote for their society and their culture,
who were not alienated, and who were recognized and re¬
warded. Pope, before Tennyson the most financially successful
of English poets, had died eight years earlier; in the boy’s youth
there had been Scott and Byron, and soon there was Moore. The
spectacle of the artist without a public was still novel, and the
tradition of how to play that role was by no means well estab¬
lished. Keats, only fourteen years older than Tennyson, had
longed and planned for fame, and expected to have it. The
neglect of Wordsworth was beginning to end. Coleridge’s great
poems, written thirty years before, had become part of the
canon of English poetry; and though reputed to be sunk in
opium, he was not only alive but surrounding himself with some
of the most intelligent youth of the day, as Tennyson was shortly
to learn when he went to Cambridge.
The peculiar separation between what Tennyson wrote for a

10

Escape From Charisma
public which did not materialize and what he withheld was, in
fact, an extraordinary insight for one so young and so isolated,
one would think, in one of the remotest of English countrysides.
Yet his oldest brother had already entered the great world of
Eton and Cambridge. In those days the public schools and the
universities were a part of the great world, as well as training
grounds for it, and were to become even more central to the
culture as the century went on. They may be in their decadence
today, as many English insist, but in the 1820’s they were just
entering their takeoff period. Tennyson early recognized the
situation, and prepared to arm himself for the struggle. A few
years later the young Browning—bewildered and seduced by
immediate success, the kind of success unknown to Tennyson
until the 1840’s—failed to see the problem and got himself into
a terrible difficulty.
The question confronted Tennyson with a peculiar intensity
when he went to Cambridge in February, 1828. He fell in with
a group of young men who had formed the Cambridge Conver¬
sazione Society, known as the Apostles, a club which still sur¬
vives. There he reached an astonishing conviction—that from
this group would emanate forces which would redeem English
society and culture from the materialism into which it had sunk,
and from the revolutionary spirit which was penetrating the
working class. The Age of Reform had begun, with its first great
struggle—Catholic Emanicipation. The immense and danger¬
ous powers of the middle classes to generate social and eco¬
nomic innovation were about to break through the walls with
which the aristocracy had surrounded government, and to be¬
gin their extraordinary attempt to rationalize English and Euro¬
pean and American social management. They had already
rationalized the productive system and had made great changes
in their effort to do the same with the economic system.
It must never be forgotten that the great nineteenth-century
revolutionaries, Marx as well as Tennyson, Chopin as well as
11

Victorian Revolutionaries
Engels, came from the middle classes, and that their astonishing
confidence was born and bred in the middle classes. From a
wider point of view, they can be seen as engaged in the same
role as their brothers, the hated bourgeoisie, who were about to
conquer the world and reduce all but western culture to a sub¬
cultural status.
Nor were the young Apostles engaged in mere youthful illu¬
sionary idealism; almost everyone who was a member of the
group with Tennyson went on to an important career. Each
contributed significantly, either intellectually or in more direct
ways of social management, to the social revolution of Victoria’s
reign.
The Apostles recognized the genius of Tennyson at once, and
this is puzzling. He was all promise, not achievement; but that
was true of all of them. Still, one wonders a bit at the adulation
he received. Presumably he read to them the poems he was to
publish in 1830. The man who was to become Tennyson’s great¬
est friend, and whose early death was of the greatest possible
importance and value to him—Arthur Hallam—was sure he was
a genius. Did the Apostles see something in the poems of 1830
that we fail to see today? Poems, Chiefly Lyrical is not much
admired now, except by a very few. In ascribing remarkable
poetic value to it, I am much in the minority.
The truth of the matter seems to be that the Apostles needed
a poet. It was not merely reform they were after, not merely
political revolution. They were opposed to the latter, and per¬
haps rightly; by now it appears that after every revolution we
end up with the same damned old society we started out with.
They wanted a new kind of society, a new kind of culture; and
lor that a poet was necessary. Only a poet, according to the
mode of thinking they were engaged in, could introduce into
the empirical world that radiance of value to human existence
which was once the task, the privilege, and the prerogative of
religion. In Germany, only a few years earlier, Hegel had pub-

75

Escape From Charisma
lished the notion that the highest forms of human thought were
philosophy, religion, and art, and he was still teaching this at the
University of Berlin. Never before Romanticism had art been
thus elevated above society; nor did Hegel mean that art should
be subordinate to religion. It had its own unique mode of being
which did not require either philosophical or religious valida¬
tion, sanction, control; all three belonged, though hierarch¬
ically, to the realm of pure spirit. Nor was this German idealism,
though not yet in its Hegelian form, unknown to the Apostles.
They were reading Kant and arguing about him; moreover,
though he had already left the University, John Sterling’s spirit
still inspired them and he still visited them—John Sterling, the
follower and adorer of the sage of Highgate—Coleridge, the
nearest thing the English had to a German idealist.
German Idealism has been half-forgotten for a long time now.
For some decades professional philosophy has ignored it, even
in the universities where, after all, one is supposed to be able
to learn about the past, and so often one cannot. Walter Kaufmann has recently published a fascinating reinterpretation of
Hegel. It is said that the contemporary English philosopher A.
J. Ayer, when asked a few years ago if he still held to everything
he had uttered in Language, Truth, and Logic, the great exem¬
plar of logical positivism replied, “No, but I hadn’t read Hegel
when I wrote it.’’ The real oddity is that the basic pattern of the
speculations of the German idealists, particularly of Hegel—and
also particularly of Coleridge—are beginning to be rediscov¬
ered by, of all people, American behavioral psychologists. One
can never be sure that an idea is dead. Hegel’s often derided,
“What is real is rational; and what is rational is real,” is turning
out, in its epigrammatic way, to be exceedingly sensible and
convincing.
Put in simple behavioral terms, Hegel was saying that re¬
sponse varies independently of stimulus, and that the meaning
of a perceived configuration is not immanent in that configura-

13

Victorian Revolutionaries

tion—it is a consequence of what happens between stimulus
and response, that is, in the “mind,” as we too blithely say. He
was saying that mankind cannot help making sense out of the
perceived world, and the kind of sense it makes is culturally
established and transmitted, but that the mind is also radically
creative, particularly in philosophy, religion, and art, and there¬
fore the sense we make out of the world is emergent, historical,
changing, and increasingly more adequate. This radically crea¬
tive aspect of man is the spirit, which is meaning and value, and
from which is derived both the meaning and value of the sense
we make out of the world in everyday affairs. That sense is
rational and it is what makes, for human purposes, the world
real. The real and the rational are therefore identical. The spirit
cannot come into existence without the phenomenal world; but
the phenomenal world cannot be meaningful, or rational, with¬
out the spirit. To use other, and yet somewhat old-fashioned
terms, the spirit is what separates and unites the subject and the
object, and the relationship of subject to object is one of eternal
and unresolvable tension.
This is the pattern of viewing man’s relation to the world
which lies behind the remark of one of the Cambridge Apostles,
“The world is one great thought; and I am thinking it.” In simple
behavioral terms, any configuration is a sign, in the sense that
the meaning of it is the response to it, but it does not dictate that
response. It is a position confirmed again and again by contem¬
porary psychologists in laboratory and clinic. But this idealism
alone was not enough to make the Apostles affirm Tennyson to
be the redemptive poet of the future. They needed a poet not
because of German idealism but because of John Sterling and
Coleridge, as well as Wordsworth and Shelley and even Keats,
but especially Coleridge. It was he who enunciated in the form
available to English culture the great doctrine of the Creative
Imagination, which now has more than a stranglehold on the
modern mind and w'hich, it must be confessed, has done much

14

Escape From Charisma
to damage clarity of thought about both the arts and the
sciences. From Coleridge’s notion of the Imagination, more
than from any other source, has developed the redemptive no¬
tion of art, so that without thinking about it most educated
people simply assume that what is creative is art, at least if it
claims to be art, and is therefore value-laden and of literally
unspeakable significance. Looked at coolly, the proper substi¬
tute for “creative” is “socially validated innovation” and, as
Hegel was well aware, innovation is the second thing that man
cannot avoid.
When stripped to its hide, Coleridge’s great notion amounts
simply to this: The Imagination is responsible for the emergent
in cultural history, as well as responsible for the order, meaning,
and value we ascribe to experience. Since poets are obviously
individuals particularly good at making things up or, more ele¬
gantly, inventing constructs of experience, more so, he thought,
than anybody else, it follows that the poetic imagination is the
most creative, the most innovative, and therefore the most valu¬
able manifestation of the Imagination. It does not follow at all,
really, but it seemed to. After all Coleridge was a poet and
bound to be a little biased in the matter. The whole thing is
uncomfortably like Orwell’s “All men are created equal, but
some are created more equal than others.” At any rate, it is a
notion infinitely seductive for poets and artists and lovers of
poetry and the arts, and for anyone who has disengaged himself
from his society and culture, who has achieved a degree of
Romantic alienation, who is challenging his society and his cul¬
ture, but who, at least as yet, has no notions of alternatives to
the current culture and modes of social organization and man¬
agement.
Before Romanticism, when a cultural crisis occurred and a
new style of poetry emerged from it, it was the philosophers
who defined the new orientations, and the critics who used the
philosophical speculations to explain and justify the new poetry.

15

Victorian Revolutionaries

At the end of the eighteenth century, however, the cultural
breakdown was so severe, the crisis was so intense, and the
resultant loss of any sense of value so desolating, that the poets,
particularly in England and Germany, had to be philosophers,
critics, and poets, all at once, to be able to write at all. It is not
surprising that Coleridge, himself a poet, and with the great
example of Wordsworth before him, came to Wordsworth’s con¬
clusion, that they were philosophers and critics because they
were poets. Their new vision of meaning emerged, it seemed to
them, from the same mysterious depths of the mind from which
poetry, itself so mysterious in its meanings and its effects on the
individual, had always emerged.
To be sure, it is probably true that, no matter how guided by
cultural conventions, every response to every stimulus, even a
response a man makes to a stimulus generated by himself,
emerges from the same mysterious depths; but th-ough Words¬
worth and Coleridge had gone a long way toward seeing that
the everyday, the quotidian, is as mysterious in its generative
emergence as any poem, they had not yet penetrated beyond
the superficial similarity of most patterns of behavior to apply
their insight to all human action, as their great inheritor, Wal¬
lace Stevens, was to. Even today it is hard enough, and for most
human situations all but impossible, to be so discriminating in
one’s perceptions and cognitions. One may say, perhaps cruelly
but not inexactly, that for Wordsworth and Coleridge and the
Apostles and Tennyson it was mostly the grossly obvious inno¬
vation of the arts that could as yet be discerned as emergent and
creative.
In any event it was this mode of thinking about poetry that
made it so essential for the Apostles to have a poet that they
made Tennyson an honorary member when he turned out to be
either too shy or too lazy to give the requisite papers and too
poor to give the substitutive dinner. And it was this conception
of the poet and his redemptive task that Tennyson used to

16

Escape From Charisma
define himself. Above all, since Hallam asserted it, Tennyson
accepted it; and hence something of the relation between the
two young men must be understood both to grasp what was
exciting about the 1830 volume and to comprehend the great
importance and value to Tennyson of Hallam’s death.

Arthur Hallam was the perfect upper-middle-class intellec¬
tual son of the perfect upper-middle-class intellectual father.
Two years younger than Tennyson, he was far more sophis¬
ticated, having grown up in a London household frequented by
the advanced and reformist thinkers of his time, whose conver¬
sation he was permitted to listen to from an early age, and
eventually to join. Nevertheless, he was a member of a new
generation, a Romantic generation. Taking from his father and
his circle the middle-class belief in the value of innovation, he
found, like so many of the Romantics, the authority for it not in
the supposed logic and structure of Nature but in the Creative
Imagination, the Imaginative Reason, the Spirit, that is, the
unique individual. If the medieval style of thinking affirmed that
the attributes of the object could be subsumed under the
categories of the subject, and if the Enlightenment-Rationalist
style believed the contrary, that the attributes of the subject
could be subsumed under the categories of the object, the Ro¬
mantic style assumed that both were, as we have seen, in an
eternal interlocking tension; and at this stage of the develop¬
ment of Romantic thinking the authority for the meaning and
value emanating from the Imaginative Reason into human expe¬
rience was the Divine, was God.
This is only superficially in the medieval style, for the
Imaginative Reason’s dependence upon the empirical world
was not, as in that style, a dangerous exposure to sin because the
mind is a fallen mind. On the contrary, the release of the force
of the Imaginative Reason into the world was analogous to the

17

Victorian Revolutionaries

Incarnation, was perhaps a repetition of the Incarnation. Per¬
haps the Incarnation was the continuous penetration of the
divine into the human, of the infinite into the finite, of eternity
into time. Perhaps, according to some thinkers more daring than
Hallam, every human act, no matter how we judge it, is a new
Incarnation. At any rate, with such an attitude Hallam, in spite
of the deep affection between them and superficial similarity of
many of their ideals, had departed from his father’s world. He
needed someone, preferably a little older, to whom he could
transfer that emotional dependence; by defining him, he could
define himself.
It was indeed, throughout Europe, a period of intense friend¬
ship between and among the young men who were entering
with utmost enthusiasm upon the inheritance of orientations
forged by their predecessors, the men of the generation of
Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Hegel, of Beethoven and Caspar
David Friedrich, the great German painter, and his counterpart
in England, John Constable. Though inheriting the bourgeois
drive to innovation, their justification was utterly different: they
were alienated from their society and culture; deeply anti-bour¬
geois, transcendental, not rational—visionary, not empirical.
The young needed to sustain each other, and intense friend¬
ships were the result, relationships deriving from an irresistible
and terrible need for justification and self-definition. For Hallam
the very brilliance and success and intellectual canonization of
his father’s historical studies made an emotionally loaded
friendship all the more necessary, and as an Apostle he needed
a poet, for he himself had experimented in that direction,
enough to realize that the gift was not his.
As for Tennyson, he had a father who was as nearly satisfac¬
tory as a poet’s father could be, and at the same time utterly
unsatisfactory. All the sons and daughters were remarkable in¬
dividuals, tall, handsome, looking more Spanish than English,
exquisite speakers, capable of saying anything in any company,

18

Escape From Charisma
preferring genteel poverty to work, lazy, often religiously ob¬
sessed, and constantly a prey to almost psychotic melancholia.
Some in fact reached psychosis. Their father was permanently
embittered because his father had disinherited him in favor of
his younger brother and had forced him into the church, for
which he had no aptitude and in which he had little interest.
But the Tennysons had always been called the black Tennysons,
an allusion both to their complexions and to their transmitted
weakness for melancholia and personality instability. The rea¬
son for old Tennyson’s decision remains mysterious, but one
suspects that he saw that the more stable younger son would be
the right one to found the family fortunes, as he did.
George, Alfred's father, was certainly a man of unusual tal¬
ents, learning, and powerful fantasy; but by the time Tennyson
went off to Cambridge the family life, with his father’s violence
and drunkenness, had become barely tolerable. The poet, in
short, was born into a family of powerful and dominating per¬
sonalities; and his two older brothers were no exception. He
needed a friend, a young friend for whom he could play some¬
thing of the role of older brother, protective and loving and not
dominating. At the same time, Hallam’s superior sophistication
made him as meaningful to Tennyson to satisfy the needs of
justification and self-definition as Tennyson was to him. In visits
to Hallam’s home Tennyson found that rational and tranquil
domestic life which he needed so desperately, as much of his
subsequent poetry and eventually his own family life makes
very clear. In the Tennyson-Hallam relationship the Imagina¬
tive Reason found its incarnation, the one representing the
Imagination and the other, the younger youth, the Reason. The
price was dependency; how to terminate that dependency be¬
came for Tennyson a central and ultimately illuminating prob¬
lem.
Today it is not easy to respond with any adequacy to the 1830
volume, and much of the next volume—dated 1832 but pub-

75

Victorian Revolutionaries

lished in 1833—nor to comprehend why Hallam and the Apos¬
tles were so enthusiastic about it. One mode of preparing one¬
self is to perceive a certain parallel between Tennyson and
Chopin, born eighteen months after the Englishman. The ex¬
traordinary harmonic imagination and melodic daring of the
composer can be traced back to his boyhood work with Bach’s
Well-Tempered Clavier-, correspondingly Tennyson’s father
started him on Bach’s virtual contemporary, Alexander Pope.
He once told his son that the fault of his verses was an excessive
smoothness; he must introduce rhythmic variety. For a long time
Pope had been accused of exactly this fault, even by Keats; yet
nothing is farther from the truth about Pope, whose style is
infinitely and exquisitely varied. For professional mastery of
versification the only equivalent to Pope and his only rival is
Tennyson himself. Yet the salient importance of Pope to Tenny¬
son, and of Bach to Chopin, was more than this, as we can see
when to these we add the dependence of Delacroix, eleven
years Tennyson’s senior, upon Rubens. Three of the greatest
artists who emerged in the 1820’s and 1830’s found their mas¬
ter, not in their immediate predecessors but in the baroque.
The importance of baroque art in the construction of the
nineteenth-century styles has rarely been fully appreciated, yet
even Wordsworth and Coleridge took many of their formal no¬
tions of how to write poetry from the seventeenth century, and
not just from Milton. The problem for the Romantic artists was
that by the end of the eighteenth century the ideal in all the arts
had become what has been called neoclassicism. It is not a bad
term, and it has some genuine justification, particularly in sculp¬
ture and architecture, though very little in music. Yet even in
its classicism the eighteenth century was strangely pallid and to
our taste without vigor.
The clue comes from the fact that it was the age which
created what are still our ideals of domestic architecture and
furniture, even when we do not imitate and copy its styles

20

Escape From Charisma
directly. The home is above all a place for physical and psycho¬
logical comfort, the one place in the world in which it is of the
utmost importance to have a perceptual field to which percep¬
tual and cognitive adaptation is easy. And such adaptational
ease was the cultural ideal of the late eighteenth century, and
in all the arts; it found its philosophy, as we have seen, in the
notion that the subject is properly subsumed by and incorpo¬
rated into the object, that is, ultimately, Nature, in the grand
eighteenth-century sense of that term. The perfect adaptation
of the human organism to the environment—life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness—was the cultural ambition. Romanti¬
cism emerged because for a few people in Europe that ambition
had been so hopelessly frustrated as to reveal its epistemological
inadequacy.
Tension between subject and object was the truth of the
matter, they were convinced, and hence the task of the artist
was to create a perceptual field to which psychological adapta¬
tion was anything but easy, a field which would permit and
require and force the artistic observer to experience perceptual
and cognitive disorientation and in grasping that field to engage
the power of the creative imagination. The experience of the
work of art, as well as its creation, was to be an incarnational act.
To fulfill such an ambition the Romantic artist needed models,
and the most recent and accessible models were the arts of
the baroque. In his old-fashioned insistence that his son
master Pope, George Tennyson was doing him, considering
what his stylistic task as a poet was to be, the greatest
possible service.
One of the best ways a modern can prepare himself to re¬
spond with some adequacy to Tennyson’s first two volumes is to
spend a little time looking at op art. Such an experience pro¬
vides a useful cognitive model, for the quality to be responded
to is visual and aural splendor. Tennyson was severely criticized
at the time and has been ever since for such poems as “Clari-

21

Victorian Revolutionaries

bel,” and “Isabel,” and “Madeline,” and though other matters
are at work in the masterpiece of the volume, “Mariana,” that
same splendor achieves its utmost beauty in “Recollections of
the Arabian Nights.” Tennyson gave the reader a clue in the
subtitle to the first poem in the volume, “Claribel: A Melody.”
The comparison with Chopin is irresistible, for he too seems in
his first work, which appeared at about this time, to have been
concentrating on seductive and wholly novel melodies and har¬
monies. Poetry, however, has no such aural resources as music,
and its “melody” and “music” are confined solely to a more
frequent repetition of sounds than is to be found in any random
selection of speech, whether of consonants or vowels. One may
call this principle phonic over-determination, and the same
term will serve to identify a great regularity and patterning of
stress (or as it is still called outside of circles affected by modern
linguistics, accents, or even beat).
In these poems Tennyson set out to achieve a degree of
phonic over-determination, together with sudden violations of
the patterns he presents, such as no English poet had attempted
before. It was undoubtedly this that aroused the enthusiasm of
the Apostles and of Hallam; yet one wonders why, for such
over-determination, as in Pope, had previously been justified
and sought for to provide an appropriate background or setting
for the meanings of the words. One would think that with their
deep earnestness, Tennyson’s Cambridge friends would have
rejected such an intense and energetic concentration on one
aspect of poetry as a spiritual trivialization of poetry’s high
mission.
We may find clues to their attitudes from several sources.
First, the language of some schizophrenics and other psychotics
is characterized by quite this same interest in phonic over¬
determination with apparently little interest in the meaning of
what is being said. There is a difference, of course. What Tenny¬
son says in these poems is perfectly intelligible; it is merely that

Escape From Charisma
there seems little reason why anyone, with a few exceptions,
should trouble to say it. Further, more often than not the lan¬
guage of the schizophrenic has a private meaning to him. As
psychiatrists have frequently found out, if they can break the
code of the schizoid’s language, or of his painting, which is
visually equivalent in its over-determination of patterning, they
can frequently help the patient and even bring him to the point
of a functional relation with the rest of the world. There is no
denying that the position of the Romantics is in some ways
similar to that of the schizoid.
The very term “alienated,” comes, after all, from the legal
language organized to deal with the insane. Both the insane and
the Romantic have lost a certain degree of command of conven¬
tionalized interactional functions. The difference is that the
schizoid suffers from a sense of internal breakdown which is
quite out of his control. The Romantic, however, perceives that
the metaphysical or explanatory systems which direct and con¬
trol a culture’s behavior—let us call these, in the manner of the
sociologists, the belief-systems—are no longer adequate to the
challenges which the current historical situation is presenting to
the society’s systems of social management, to its belief-sys¬
tems, and to the individual’s task of integrating his behavior
with both. From this point of view the doctrine of the Creative
Imagination, whether or not it is given a divine or transcenden¬
tal origin and validation, is an assertion that the restructuring of
social management and the reorganization of the belief-system
can arise only from the imagination of the individual who sees
the true state of affairs.
The difference between the schizoid’s overstructuring and
Tennyson’s concentration upon a phonic over-structuring, in¬
novative in the English poetic tradition, is that the one uses his
structuring powers to keep himself from further cognitive disin¬
tegration, but that the other uses it to defend his powers of
cognitive integration against what he perceives as the cognitive

23

Victorian Revolutionaries

disintegration of his society and his culture. This comes out
clearly if we contrast the schizoid’s meaninglessness, according
to the conventions for responding to words, and another aspect
of Tennyson’s structuring or imaginative powers, his imagery.
His power to sustain a consistency of visual images is as remark¬
able as his power to sustain phonic over-determination. These
early pieces may be regarded as exercises, in a sense, in cogni¬
tive integration of a kind achieved in English poetry only by
Coleridge in “Kubla Khan,” occasionally by Wordsworth as sec¬
tions of longer poems, and in a handful of lyrics by Keats, of
which “To Autumn” is the most remarkable. But even that mar¬
velous poem has three different modes of cognitive integration,
while Tennyson in a number of poems in these first two volumes
is able to sustain it over considerably longer stretches.
Considering their mode of defining themselves and their
place in the world and in history, it seems reasonable to con¬
clude that in these imaginative powers of cognitive integration,
evinced in sustained phonic and imagistic over-determination,
the Apostles and Hallam saw incontrovertible proof that Tenny¬
son was the genius they needed, both to validate them as a
group and to validate their enterprise and ambitions for social
and cultural innovative reorganization.
But there was an even subtler appeal. An individual’s knowl¬
edge of himself is for the most part no different from another’s
knowledge of him. We know what we are because of the way
we see ourselves behave, and mostly this is the same kind of
information we have of others, their overt, or observable behav¬
ior. Some information, however, is privileged, such as covert or
unobservable verbal behavior, one of the categories of behavior
we talk about when we use the word “thinking.” Similar is
covert nonverbal sign behavior, such as dreams, mental images,
and visions. Still another is our observation of the emotional
loading of behavior, the emotional intensity that accompanies,
for example, our swearing at a dog for barking too long. Yet

Escape From Charisma
another is more subtle; such information pertains to what may
be called feeling-states, of which the subtlest is the sense of
identity, which ebbs and flows; it is no doubt the same feelingstate we refer to by such phrases as “the sense of meaning” and
the

sense of order,” or relatedness. Similar are other feeling-

states, the sense of inhibition or of expression; of rejection or of
openness; of energy conservation or energy release; of demand,
the sense of controlling the environment; or of acceptance, the
sense of letting some element in the environment assume con¬
trol over ourselves; and so on.
For such feeling-states there are conventionalized sign sys¬
tems, both outside the arts and in them. Of such sign systems the
most readily obvious is music. It has been said that music does
not have meaning, but this means only that it does not have the
kind of meaning language does, for the simple reason that only
language has that kind of meaning. Consequently, in spite of
aestheticians, most music lovers and composers have been con¬
vinced that music is meaningful. When, therefore, the music of
poetry is spoken of, the reference is not, as some have at¬
tempted to maintain, to some analogy between the formal as¬
pects of music and poetry, but rather to the fact that poetry,
though less richly, can and usually does present the signs of
feeling-states which it is the semantic function of music to
manipulate, as well as language signs. That kind of feeling-state
which the phonic over-determination of alliteration and asso¬
nance signifies is, I believe, the sense of demand, the sense of
imposing one’s will on some aspect of the world; while rhyme,
my researches into the matter strongly suggest, signifies the
sense of being adequate to the demands of the situation; in
western music the equivalent is the major key.
It is from this point of view that it is to be understood why
Tennyson in several poems exhibits the most astonishing tech¬
nical command over rhyme; in poems of some length he uses the
same rhyme sound for every line. Responding to this, though

25

Victorian Revolutionaries

not of course knowing why, Tennyson’s friends would interpret
him as a poet who was at once capable of imposing his poetic
will upon his material and of being adequate to the demands of
the poetic tradition and of the newly defined poet, and who also
constructed sign systems of such feeling-states which served
both as model and inspiration. Hence the sense of euphoric
exhilaration in the language experienced by the early readers
of Tennyson, as well as the Apostles and Hallam.
Yet still more is involved. As we have seen, Tennyson subti¬
tled the first poem in the volume “A Melody,” thus giving a hint
that the important thing about the poem was its similarity to
music. The values of the poem were to be conceived in terms
of the values to be found in one’s response to music. It has been
pointed out a thousand times that the nineteenth century was
the century of music; as Pater said decades later, “All art ap¬
proaches the condition of music.” That is, I propose, all art seeks
to equal music in its power to present signs of feeling-states. At
the beginning of the century, there was still a hierarchy of the
arts; poetry was at the top, followed by painting, sculpture,
architecture; music was considerably lower. There was some
justification for this, since up to the Romantic period the emo¬
tional and feeling character of music was controlled by the
situation for which it was composed. It was, in effect, a subordi¬
nate art, and the assertion that the first great Romantic com¬
poser, Beethoven, was the man who freed music, means that he
wrote music the character of which was totally unrelated to the
character of the situation in which the performance took place.
To make such a separation is to assert that feeling-states tran¬
scend the values of smooth interaction.
An odd position, yet one so familiar to us that it takes some
effort both to realize how novel it was and what were the inter¬
ests that lay behind it. As we have seen, feeling-states are the
subject matter of privileged information. They are directly ac¬
cessible only to the individual who experiences them. To grant

26

Escape From Charisma
them high status is to assert that the uniqueness of one’s in¬
dividuality is separable from the social roles conventionalized in
one’s culture. It is to separate the self from the role. Hence the
importance of music in Romantic culture and its rapid rise to an
equality with the other arts, and even, for many, to a position
of importance and value above all the others.
The ways of experiencing music are manifold, but certainly
one is to go through a sequence of feeling-states, more or less
corresponding to those signified in the music, depending on
one’s unique personality and one’s musical and semiotic sen¬
sitivity. It is to concentrate upon a flow of feeling-states, di¬
vorced

from any action,

any attempt to

manipulate

the

environment. Perhaps no artistic experience is so isolating and
so incommunicable as music, and in that lies its particular virtue
for the alienated Romantic. It confirms his own identity by
enabling him to contemplate his feelings without any social or
environmental interaction, without performing any social role.
For the Romantic at any rate—and an endless series of testa¬
ments by Romantic figures from the early nineteenth century to
the present day affirm this—musical experience above all ex¬
periences confirms and reinforces the sense of identity. One
literally feels one’s self. And this was the profoundest appeal
Tennyson’s first volumes made to those who were adequate in
their response to what Tennyson was doing.
In two poems Tennyson began to work out both the moral and
social function of the creative imagination and its particular
dangers. In “The Poet” is the claim that the poet, “born in a
golden clime,” provides the weapon with which Freedom,
clothed in Wisdom, “shakes the world.” Thus early do we begin
to find what was implicit in Kant and became one of the great
themes of the mainstream of philosophical thinking in the
course of the century, culminating in Nietzsche, James, and
Vaihinger—the instrumental notion of truth, truth as a weapon
or tool rather than as a stable revelation—a position culminat-

27

Victorian Revolutionaries

ing, so far, in the modern notion that the truth value of a propo¬
sition is its value as a set of directions for managing both the
linguistic and nonlinguistic worlds, rather than a proposition to
be passively believed in.
Here again we encounter the assumption of a terrible idea
which has so exalted and crushed the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, the redemptive function of art. On the other hand,
Tennyson is also, as he was to be all his life, wrestling with an
awareness of the dangers of exalting the creative imagination,
the temptation it holds to the alienated individual to experience
and justify his alienation by turning away from the empirical
world, the world of fact, the world of modest failure, the neces¬
sary condition of man, and to enter instead a world of perfect
success.
The more intensely one holds that reality is the tension be¬
tween subject and object, the more unstable the sense of iden¬
tity becomes, particularly for the individual whose rejection of
the current modes of social management and belief forces him
to question his adequacy to make that rejection. It was some¬
thing Tennyson knew a great deal about, for he himself fre¬
quently had the experience of total loss of identity, of the
merging of the boundaries of the self with the perceived world.
The experience was both exalting, convincing him that the
creative imagination finds its source in the divine, and frighten¬
ing, for the loss of self meant a loss of any grip or foothold for
action in the phenomenal world. Thus two themes emerge of
the highest importance for his subsequent career, isolation, in
which the poet’s golden clime turns to a hell, and alienation, in
which a creative tension is maintained between the self and the
role, between the creative imagination and, particularly, the
social world. But that in turn led to a further problem. How was
one to reenter the world, to engage with it, without compromis¬
ing with it and losing the self’s tie to the creative imagination
and the divine authority for it?

28

Escape From Charisma
The danger of isolation is to be found in “Mariana,” and “The
Palace of Art," which appeared in the 1833 volume; the prob¬
lem of reentry is also to be found in the later volume in that
endlessly fascinating work, ''The Lad)- of Shalott.” To turn en¬
tirely in the direction of the structuring power is to risk either
pure negative value or loss of selfhood in a destructive illumina¬
tion; to turn in the direction of the world and social reality is to
risk the loss and extinction of the structuring power. Likewise
to find in a single individual a symbol of one’s identity and thus
to become dependent on that individual, to risk all on love, is
to become both internally blocked, for the beloved threatens at
once to become the sole model for self-definition, and exter¬
nally blocked, for the beloved threatens to become the sole
channel for reentry.
This was exactly the threat Hallam posed, and that is why I
have suggested that Tennyson was lucky in Hallam’s death. It
forced him to examine the nature of dependency and the prob¬
lem of how to resolve the fact that though one rejects socially
validated roles it is impossible to act without a channeling mode
of behavior, an anti-role. For nearly ten years Tennyson pub¬
lished nothing. The new poems of the 1842 collection of his
work to that point and In Memoriam A. H H[allam] are the
record of these new struggles.

In “Ulysses,” as he has recorded, Tennyson created, very
shortly after Hallam’s death in September, 1833, the courage to
continue. It is the monologue of the island-king, threatened
with a meaningless isolation, addressing the souls of his dead
mariners, determined to encounter once again the sea-road of
experience with its eternally promised goal, never arrived at.
And in “The Two Voices” he sees that the death of Hallam
makes it possible to channel his dependence on him into a love
for those men fully submerged in existing social institutions, the

29

Victorian Revolutionaries

family and the church, who cannot reciprocate, as Hallam had,
the confirmation of identity. Psychologically, the problem of
Hallam’s death was solved—one might more correctly say, suc¬
cessfully exploited—almost without delay, certainly in a few
months. The understanding of how that solution was arrived at
and what was involved in the problem and its solution was to
occupy Tennyson for nearly twenty years; it is the subject of
In Memoriam, which is not so much the record of his love for
Hallam as the examination of how he freed himself from him.
Hallam alive was dangerous; Hallam dead threatened to be¬
come an incubus.
Tennyson’s father died in 1831, but the new rector permitted
the family to live in the old house until 1837, when the poet,
who was capable of great practicality, moved his mother, and
those siblings still at home, to the outskirts of London. This gave
him not only access to the life of literary London, but also, and
more important, the opportunity to explore the great and in¬
creasingly terrible city, as Dickens was recording at the time.
Above all, it gave him the chance to become something of a
Bohemian, to loiter in London bars and drink a great deal of
brandy. One doubtful tradition has it that in subsequent, years
he got drunk on brandy every night of his life. There is perhaps
a reason for the lack of intimate details of his life from this time
until his death. At any rate, to become a Bohemian was to
establish an anti-role, to learn how to become a foreigner in his
own society. Certainly from this time his manners at dinners
and evenings, even with ladies present, became extraordinarily
free, even for a Tennyson, and increasingly direct and out¬
spoken.
Part of his luck was to make a bad investment and lose the
little capital he had inherited. Eventually he recovered it, be¬
cause his brother-in-law, whose marriage he was to celebrate in
In Memoriam, insured the life of the inventor who had taken
Tennyson in. The death of that inventor made it financially

30

Escape From Charisma
possible for Tennyson to marry in 1850. It must not be imagined
that this financial error marks him as a dreamy poet. It was a
time of burgeoning invention and financial speculation; losing
one’s fortune was a common occurrence. There were, after all,
innumerable instances of individuals who had made great for¬
tunes by taking just such chances. The whole affair merely
served to intensify and prolong his wandering, Bohemian life.
Fortunately, there was enough money left in the family to make
it unnecessary for him to work. When he was not wandering
about London he wrote, mastering his problems and his tech¬
nique.
One may speculate that had Hallam lived and married Ten¬
nyson’s sister this Bohemian episode might not have occurred.
Tennyson would inevitably have been drawn into Hallam’s cir¬
cle and into the respectable middle-class intellectual life of
Hallam and his father. Great things were expected of Hallam,
and it seems reasonably clear that he was career-minded, plan¬
ning to take part in the middle-class capture of the government
from the aristocracy, or at any rate of the economic powers that
controlled the aristocracy and their governmental decisions.
The upper-middle classes were making money, always an at¬
traction to the English aristocracy. They seemed reasonably
willing, indeed, to welcome the new fortunes into the govern¬
ment of the country so long as they could share in the plunder,
which mostly took the form of investment opportunities. Bour¬
geois wealth and ancient name melted together in nineteenthcentury England in the most comfortable manner imaginable,
and Hallam’s aimed participation in this process would very
possibly have deflected Tennyson into an interpretation of his
poetic task as more direct moral involvement with the immedi¬
ate problems of the day. As it was, when he turned his poetic
interest to writing about the contemporary world, it was usually
to attack the values of the landed gentry and aristocracy, par¬
ticularly those they shared with the middle classes.

31

Victorian Revolutionaries

The 1842 collection was most notable for the revision, polish¬
ing, and selection of the earlier volumes. In bulk what was
added was little more than what was preserved from the
volumes of 1830 and 1833, and for the most part what was new
was less striking than the old. There were, however, several
masterpieces, and of these the most significant was “Morte
d’Arthur,” the germ of the later Idylls of the King. It contained
the famous lines, “The old order changeth / yielding place to
new / And God fulfills himself in many ways / Lest one good
custom should corrupt the world.” These are the words of Ar¬
thur, and the Idylls, which dominated Tennyson’s life from the
late 1850’s almost to his death, are an exploration of what they
meant.
The significance of the corrupting effect of a good custom can
be explored in several ways. While he was at Cambridge, Ten¬
nyson startled his companions by proposing that species were
not fixed, nor were individual species created by God, but
rather that the various species had emerged from preceding less
developed species. It was not, of course, a novel idea to the
more advanced scientists of Europe, though they were, on the
whole, extremely discreet. At almost the same time Lyell, the
founder of modern geology, was writing in a private letter that
he held the same opinion, but since he could offer no explana¬
tion, when he published his Geology in 1830 he presented the
traditional theory. Darwin did not invent the theory which we
now call evolution. He merely proposed an acceptable biologi¬
cal mechanism which demonstrated that evolution was the only
tenable hypothesis. The heart of that hypothesis is that adapta¬
tion of organism to environment is inevitably imperfect, that
any adaptation is, to a certain extent at once and in the course
of time inevitably, a maladaptation.
Darwin ended metaphysical or theoretical evolutionism such
as Tennyson was thinking about and began scientific evolution¬
ary theory. The notion of imperfect adaptation is so consonant

32

Escape From Charisma
with what I have called the Romantic irresolvable tension be¬
tween subject and object that it seems more than likely that
Tennyson thought of his evolutionary theory by analogy with
the relation of the creative imagination to the world. Certainly
a number of the German idealists, such as Schopenhauer, had,
on epistemological grounds, thought of it, and on somewhat
similar grounds Browning was to arrive at it a few years later.
Today we rather have a tendency to sneer at the Victorians
for their facile belief in progress, and thus we often enough
misinterpret the major figures. A distinction must be made. The
common notion of progress was a rationalist-enlightenment no¬
tion, emerging in the seventeenth century. It was progress con¬
ceived as emergent over short time spans. But the Romantic
notion of progress gradually separated itself from its predeces¬
sors and was a long-term notion, closer to biological time than
historical time, and by no means certain at that. Tennyson, who
often used biological and evolutionary language in In Memoriam, saw faith in progress as an imaginative construct and
clearly could accept it only in terms of immense periods of time.
Granted he said he saw evolution as teleological, moving toward
some far-off, divine event. A good custom can corrupt the world,
then, because, since it is good, it can be taken as final, as a
perfect adaptational mechanism. The term “custom” appears to
contain the corrupting element. For short historical spans Ten¬
nyson clearly believed in the value of traditionary good cus¬
toms; just as clearly he saw them as corrupting in terms of
evolutionary aeons.
But he also saw the good custom as corrupting because he had
very nearly experienced such corruption. Ulysses, his islandking, saw the corruption of a good custom getting its grip on
him, and the suggestion is powerful that Tennyson saw his de¬
pendence upon Hallam, defined as friendship and therefore, in
spite of both of them, a social role with traditional protocol, or
custom, a potentially and perhaps actually corrupting influence.

33

Victorian Revolutionaries

This is why, perhaps, Tennyson’s grief was so rapidly overcome,
and why In Mernoriam begins with a poem that rejects violently
the notion that personal tragedies make better men of us. Had
Hallam lived, it is possible that Tennyson could never have
faced the fact of his dependence and its attendant dangers, nor
have achieved the extraordinary insight into his own personal¬
ity, which is the material of In Mernoriam.
There is yet another way in which the significance of the
good custom that corrupts may be understood. One of the cen¬
tral themes in his work is the theme of doubt. It is too plain a
word to get at what he was talking about. At the end of another
poem of the 1842 collection, “A Vision of Sin,” he cries, “Is
there any hope?” There is an answer to the question, but it is
indecipherable, “in a tongue no man could understand,” a
theme which emerges again in the Idylls. In Tennyson’s poems,
over and over again, it is the man of absolute and unquestioning
faith who comes to grief, and the man who transcends faith,
confidence, and belief who sees, as at the end of “A Vision of
Sin,” “an awful rose of dawn.” Yet there is no question that
Tennyson himself believed in God, the soul, and immortality.
He said so, and he also said that without his faith in immortality
he could not continue to exist.
Tennyson’s thinking seems inconsistent or at best paradoxi¬
cal, but it is neither. He could simultaneously hold a position,
understand what interests, indeed what characterological
weaknesses, led him to hold it, and thus doubt and even deny
its validity, while continuing to hold it. Doubt, it is apparent, for
Tennyson gave a position its vitality, its cutting edge, its dyna¬
mism. He was, after all, a poet, and for the Romantic poet,
increasingly as the century wore on, explanation and conceptu¬
alization, the logical reason, became the enemy of the creative
imagination, the imaginative reason. Explanatory propositions
have a terrible power to block further exploration of the empiri¬
cal world, to hypostatize or freeze the subject into a fixed orien-

34

Escape From Charisma
tation toward the object, the result of which must necessarily be
the slackening and eventual failure of the tension between sub¬
ject and object.
Tennyson disliked explaining his poems, and when he did,
frequently made most elusive and ambiguous and puzzling re¬
marks. It was a defensible and even salutary strategy. When a
scientist’s explanatory theory fails him he feels his way by
analogy through a series of experiments, hoping to grasp some
pattern which can correct or displace his failed theory. Ten¬
nyson’s long poems, In Memoriam, Maud, the Idylls, are cycli¬
cal, a series of poems in which exploration is conducted by
analogical permutation. What has been discovered is extraor¬
dinarily difficult to pin down and to conceptualize; that some¬
thing of great significance has been glimpsed through a series
of analogies, like the series of receding arches through which
Ulysses proceeds toward the ever-vanishing limits of experi¬
ence, is irresistible. To conceptualize, to explain, is to threaten
doubt, for language in the form of a generally true proposition
has a fearful finality. Tennyson was reluctant to explain even
what he meant by ’’doubt”; but perhaps what he was after was
most succinctly put by Darwin, in a later edition of his Origin
of Species-, a natural law is only a mental convenience. Ten¬
nyson’s “doubt,” then, was ultimately that epistemological and
linguistic instrumentalism toward which the high culture of
the nineteenth century steadily and majestically moved—or
drifted.

If the new poems of the 1842 collection were, as a whole, less
striking than those of its predecessors, the reason was that Ten¬
nyson’s major effort was going into In Memoriam. It is not a
planned poem. It accumulated itself over a period of about
sixteen or seventeen years; when Tennyson started writing his
brief elegies in odd four-line stanzas, he had no notion that he

35

Victorian Revolutionaries
would eventually turn out a cycle of 133 poems. We do not know
the order in which they were composed, nor even though the
manuscripts are to be accessible to study, will we probably be
able to find out. Tennyson deliberately forbade examination of
the manuscript; and though his will has now been violated, the
manuscript has not yet been studied. It has been assumed that
Tennyson forbade the examination to protect his private life,
but it makes just as much sense to say that he did so to protect
the reader.
In his later years Tennyson lived at a time when literary
scholars were using poetry to reconstruct the intimate internal
and external history of poets. What was being done to Shakes¬
peare’s Sonnets was a prime example. To examine the manu¬
script, to determine the dates of composition, would inevitably
lead the reader to interpret the poem as autobiographical data,
and that would be to mislead the reader. For In Memoriam is
not an autobiographical poem. Tennyson frankly uses his own
experiences and his own efforts to deal with the problem of the
death of Hallam as the material of the poem, but it cannot be
said that it gives or is supposed to give an accurate history of the
poet’s emotional life. He used his ow n experiences, as any artist
whose subject is psychology must do, simply because he himself
was the only possible source of the kind of information about
the human psyche he wanted to write about. To use the term
proposed above, privileged information was his theme.
The time scheme of the poem extends over several years, and
in the poem it takes that long for the problem to achieve a
resolution. But the problem of the grief was solved in a fewr
months, while for Tennyson the problems that consideration of
Hallam’s death gave rise to continued for the rest of his life.
Further, he clearly stated that the speaker of the poem was not
himself, and that the speaker arrives at much more optimistic
conclusions than he, Tennyson, ever did. The far-off divine
event toward which the whole creation moves is a notion of the

36

Escape From Charisma
poem s speaker, not one Tennyson held except as governed by
his peculiar and apparently instrumental notion of doubt. Inso¬
lar as the poem is a poem of consolation, the consolation arises
from the emotional need of the speaker, and not from Ten¬
nyson s discovery of some cosmic truth. The need is Tennyson’s
subject, not the cosmic truth which is presented as hardly more
than a strategy for satisfying the need. So far as Tennyson him¬
self was concerned, the poem is not about how he consoled
himself for the death of Hallam, but how he finally got rid of
him.
Ultimately, Tennyson’s problem was by no means an unusual
one; on the contrary it is the most common of identity problems.
When the individual leaves his family and enters onto the stage
of the world, he needs models for the roles he must play, and
for none so much as that role which carries for him the greatest
emotional weight, in which his investment of emotion is heavi¬
est, whether it be his career or his sexual life. The problem of
how' he should identify himself, that is, define himself as a social
being, is a matter of learning the cultural conventions and then
observing his necessarily unique way of performing them. To
the degree to which he achieves success, no matter what the
role may be, to that degree he places increasing confidence in
variations of the role, in his innovations. Innovation there must
be, since no behavioral pattern can be learned with exactness.
Emotional dependency on the role model means that the indi¬
vidual suffers from two deficiencies, failure to observe his inno¬
vations and failure to place confidence in those he does observe.
To the degree he corrects these deficiencies he becomes his
own role model. But to accomplish that, the dependency on the
role model must be lessened and finally extinguished, usually by
transferring that dependency to himself. To the degree that he
is no longer even dependent on himself but is free to manipulate
his own unavoidable innovations and deliberately to innovate
new' modes of playing his role, to that degree he may be said

37

Victorian Revolutionaries

to have achieved personal freedom; he has objectified his per¬
formance and perceives it not as sacred because emanating
from a beloved other nor from a beloved self, but simply as part
of the phenomenal environment, to be managed for his own
benefit.
How many people actually reach this final stage, it is impossi¬
ble to say; perhaps not so many as we imagine, perhaps more.
Perhaps most people do. In any event, it is evident that the
crucial problem is the emotional dependency on the role model,
in that the role model is seen charismatically, that is, as a sign
that if his way is followed, the tensions of uncertainty and lack
of confidence will be relieved. It is, of course, a delusion; and
there seems to be no question that Tennyson’s vision of Hallam
was thus charismatic and hence dangerous to his development
as a human being and as a poet. His position, personally and
culturally, was so extraordinarily difficult and culturally so novel
that his investment in Hallam as a charismatic symbol was ex¬
ceedingly heavy. This is why Hallam’s death was a piece of
Tennyson’s extraordinary luck.
The very way In Memoriam is printed is itself deceiving, and
consonant with the style of the poem. One difference between
Browning and Tennyson is that it is obvious that the former is
a difficult poet. Tennyson looks easy, and never so easy as in In
Memoriam, but in truth Tennyson’s style is, if anything, more
difficult than Browning’s, particularly in In Memoriam. It ap¬
pears to be divided into 131 poems of varying length, preceded
by a prologue and followed by an epilogue.The fact of the mat¬
ter is that the 131 poems are subsumed under nine divisions. In
later years Tennyson, typically, told this secret ninefold organi¬
zation to a friend, who told it to a critic, who subsequently
recorded it. This may seem unfair to the reader, and a literary
trick, but it is more reasonably seen as a further instance of
Tennyson’s suspicion of explanation as opposed to experience.
Perhaps like so many men of subtle minds, he thought that what

38

Escape From Charisma
was obvious to him would be obvious to everyone. (For the
reader who wishes to try this for himself, the divisions are: 1-8,
9-20, 21-27, 28-49, 50-58, 59-71, 72-98, 99-103, 104-131.)
1 he first five are dramas of failure: the failure of the desire for
death; the failure of the retreat to unreality; the failure of the
illusionism of the past; the failure of immortality and the future;
the failure of any justification of God’s ways and of the meaning¬
fulness of human existence and the universe. Only after these
failures is the dependency discovered, and only then can the
speaker affirm his difference and uniqueness from the charis¬
matic role model, achieve equality, and displace the role model
into the cosmic process. The marriage in the epilogue is a sign
of the transcendence of a psychic state that has outworn its
usefulness.
If there is a moral to In Memoriam, it is this: one can tran¬
scend a need only by discovering its function. Tennyson himself
put it with great exactness: “Born of love, the vague desire that
spurs an imitative will.” Having discovered that his will was
imitative, Tennyson could strike out on his own, to the manifes¬
tation of a unique will. That his unique will had already been
manifested, the stunning quality of the 1832 and 1833 volumes
had, one would have thought, already proved. But as we have
seen, it is very easy to innovate and either not to realize that one
has done so, or not to have confidence in it, or worse yet, to be
unable to take any credit for it, to feel that somehow one had
nothing to do with it. It is a very common feeling among artists
and, for that matter, business executives of a highly and success¬
fully innovative character.

In Memoriam is one of Tennyson’s great achievements; the
other is The Idylls of the King. It took him nearly twenty years
to write the one; on the other he spent nearly thirty years. In
the same conversation in which he said that the “I” of the first

39

Victorian Revolutionaries

poem was not himself and had arrived at a more optimistic
position than he himself ever had, he went on to say that he had
wanted to write another work which would deprive man of any
such consolation and throw him back on his more primitive
instincts. It is typical of him, and of the defensive and selfprotective stance of the alienated Romantic, that he neglected
to say that for some years he had been working on such a poem
and had published some of it. The twelve idylls were published
in this order: 3, 4, 6, 7, 11; 1, 8, 9, 12; 10; 2; 5. Further, each of
the five collected editions involved changes and adjustments in
what had already been published. As with In Memoriam, no
doubt composed in the same manner of addition, interpolation,
and revision, only slowly did the pattern emerge—Tennyson
again working like the scientist whose theory has failed him,
finding his way by vague half-intuitive, half-logical analogies
from experiment to experiment. As early as 1835 he composed
“Morte d’Arthur,” subsequently incorporated, in 1869, in the
last of the Idylls, “The Passing of Arthur.” Already, though
obscurely, the theme of the Idylls was feeling its way toward
him, the great king who attempted to establish the perfect
society and failed.
Thus early, though probably he could not yet formulate it, he
was beginning to doubt the feasibility of the aim of the Apostles,
the redemption of society. He had grown fast since the death
of Hallam. The distinction between historical progress and bio¬
logical evolution w as beginning to emerge. Further, a psycho¬
logical theme of the Idylls was appearing, that the individual
who is dependent upon a charismatic vision of himself is better
off than one who is dependent upon a charismatic vision of
somebody else—but not much. For such an individual, freedom
has not yet been attained.
The ostensible theme of the Idylls is baldly set forth in the
epilogue, “To the Queen”; it is “Sense at War with Soul.” This
seems to have little to do with forcing man back on his more

40

Escape From Charisma
primitive instincts, but it is deliberately ambiguous, in Ten¬
nyson s usual manner. Not that there was not a very practical
function to that ambiguity. He was, as I have pointed out, capa¬
ble of being a very practical man. He wanted success, and he
wanted financial success, and he got both; he did not sell out.
He created works which a superficial interpretation, though
correct as far as it went, would make appealing to a wide and
relatively unsophisticated middle-class audience, one of the
new audiences of the nineteenth century—the result of increas¬
ing wealth and the communications revolution. He wrote a num¬
ber of competent and some very charming and even beautiful
poems for that public, just as many a nineteenth-century com¬
poser wrote both serious music and light, for amusement and
dancing. Thus Queen Victoria, culturally in many ways part of
that audience, though in so many others an aristocrat of the
Regency, could be consoled by In Memoriam. It was beautiful
language about the death of someone beloved, and that was all
she needed, especially if her Poet Laureate read it to her in his
wonderful and always slightly provincial voice. Her Poet Laure¬
ate was a sensible man, and a patriotic one, and obliged. But that
does not mean that his major works were incapable of more
subtle and disturbing interpretations, more adequate than the
superficial interpretations because they took account of more of
the data and more of its interlocking connections.
Sense at War with Soul can mean immorality, which is sensual
pleasure, at war with morality, which comes from God. Thus the
failure of Arthur’s kingdom is the result of Guinevere’s adultery
with Lancelot. Even Arthur thinks so for a time, but eventually
he learns better; and Sense at War with Soul comes to mean the
eternal warfare, or tension, of subject and object. Arthur, then,
is the full-blown Romantic transcendentalist of the 1820’s and
1830’s who seeks to redeem the world, a role in which Tenny¬
son once saw himself and which he had been urged by the
Apostles and Hallam to assume. Tennyson’s morality is a middle-

41

Victorian Revolutionaries

class Christian morality, and to the degree that he assumes the
stance of moral prophet, this is the substance of his prophecy.
The Idylls, however, are so constructed that the fault for the
failure of Arthur’s kingdom lies with Arthur, who attempts to
impose the vision of the subject upon the recalcitrance of the
object, and who, psychologically, is dependent upon his own
charismatic vision of himself. His blindness to Guinevere’s adul¬
tery is entirely his own fault, and arises from his mission; while
the adultery itself is, to put it as baldly as possible, the result of
the fact that Guinevere found Arthur a wholly impossible hus¬
band. Yet Arthur’s fault is still a superficial explanation, though
less so than that of Guinevere’s. Tennyson’s point is that the
imagination enters the world, through its power constructs its
vision of experienced reality, fails to see that vision as an illu¬
sion, and thus destroys itself and its power and its cohorts in an
attempt to realize an illusion. Yet Tennyson strikes deeper yet,
for it is apparent that neither Arthur, nor any man, nor imagina¬
tion, has a real choice in the matter. To act we must act on
illusions. Illusions are the basis for action, the only basis. Histori¬
cally, then, there is no progress, only—it is implied—an endless
cycle of visions converted into illusions converted into failures.
The last lines of the poem are incomparable:
Thereat once more he [Bedivere] moved about,
and clomb
Ev’n to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

42

Escape From Charisma

Concealed within the charm, the beauty, the splendor, the
sentimentality, the moralizing of the Idylls lies a bleakness that
makes it quite understandable that Tennyson felt he could not
live were it not for his belief in the immortality of the soul. That
continued belief marks him as one not yet fully modern. To the
end he was convinced that there is a meaning in human exist¬
ence, and a divine meaning, but also that that meaning is, for
man, utterly inaccessible, and that further the belief itself exists
to satisfy a human need for meaning—a need that may or may
not be divine in origin. In his psychological understanding he
had again moved toward the modern.
Who that is genuinely modern can have the charismatic vi¬
sion of any man, or of himself? Perhaps to have transcended the
need for the charismatic vision of oneself is to be as psychologi¬
cally modern as it is possible to be. What Tennyson worked out
psychologically in the Idylls was that such transcendence is
possible. Had he achieved it for himself? Perhaps he had not
gained for himself that final freedom—though one of his last
poems, “Akbar’s Dream,” suggests that perhaps he had—or that
if he had, he did not know what to do with it, as that poem also
hints. But who even today wants this freedom? Surely very few.
And who, having it, knows what to do with it? Is there anyone?

43

2
We Are Insane

A

recent English critic called Carlyle’s last and

largest work, A History of Friedrich II of Prussia called Freder¬
ick the Great, “unreadable.” In the best edition of Carlyle it is
printed in eight volumes, nearly 4,000 pages; it was more than
twelve years in the writing and eight years in the publishing,
from 1858 to 1865. It is longer than Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire. It is also just as readable; to be sure,
Gibbon is more entertaining, but then his history is perhaps the
most entertaining book in the world.
Still, the critic was on safe ground in calling Carlyle’s master¬
piece “unreadable.” Who living has read it? I have met no one
besides myself, except one friend, a music critic, who found it
as fascinating as I did; and I know of no Victorian scholar who
has done so. When it was being published it certainly was not
considered unreadable; it was Carlyle’s most successful work.
The first printing of the first installment, 2,000 copies, sold out
in a few days, and a second printing went almost as fast. Within
weeks a third printing was called for. In those days that was a
large sale for a serious historical work; and today, too, it would

44

We Are Insane
be. Swinburne, who disliked Carlyle, particularly his politics,
could hardly wait for each additional volume to come out, he
found it so intensely interesting. If the London Times critic
found it unreadable it can only be that he had read very little
of it.
Yet, among other treasures, it offers in the portrait of Freder¬
ick's father, Frederick William, the only literary portrait in Eng¬
lish that can come close to challenging the portrait of Uncle
Toby in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy ; after finishing that novel one
is desolated to realize that now one has learned everything
about Uncle Toby it is possible to know. The comparison was
made often at the time. Truly, it is not often that so thoroughly
deserved a contemporary reputation has been so completely
eclipsed by modern taste. Carlyle is the most vivid of historical
writers; yet Frederick, his masterpiece, is totally neglected,
even by scholars of Victorian literature. It must be confessed
that the one scholar I know of who has read much of it thinks
it a “literary failure.” In truth, Frederick calls for readers who
can still perform on the grand scale, and such seem to be rare.
I have met any number of people who have started what every¬
one admits to be one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth
century, The Remembrance of Things Past, but very few who
have finished it. Frederick is for readers whose equivalents
among musical enthusiasts find Bruckner’s symphonies a little
short, and experience Wagner’s music dramas as models of
classic proportion and artistic self-restraint, as indeed they
are. Carlyle was a heroic writer; he demands heroic readers.
Who finds Frederick unreadable and a literary failure does not
judge the book; the book judges him, and finds him severely
wanting.
After casting about among various subjects Carlyle finally
chose Frederick. Even Froude, Carlyle’s excellent and honest
biographer and great friend, felt the choice was a mistake. Fred¬
erick, he felt, was insufficiently heroic for Carlyle’s prophetic

45

Victorian Revolutionaries

purposes, and the one recent Carlyle critic who has read in it
agrees. Both appear to feel that Carlyle should have written
about a successful hero, one whose heroic qualities and accom¬
plishments were not so equivocal as Frederick s. I his is to miss
the point. Frederick had a double appeal for Carlyle. He had
always been most intensely interested in heroes who were fail¬
ures, whose accomplishments were equivocal, damaged; for he
was interested in why heroes could not be heroic. Heroism
damages the hero, sometimes destroys him. Few writers have
led so heroic a life as Carlyle himself, and few have felt them¬
selves so damaged by their efforts, and finally few have felt such
utter failures. Who, he once asked Froude, had ever really paid
the slightest attention to what he had to say, or had heeded his
message, or had taken seriously his warnings? No one. He has
been compared far too often—and too unwisely and incau¬
tiously—to Old Testament prophets. Yet he and they are alike
in this: did the Jews or anyone else ever take them seriously,
before it was too late? Or even thereafter?
Carlyle is notorious for his attacks on liberal democracy, par¬
ticularly as it was practiced in England at the time. Parliament
he saw as a talking machine, the only function of which was to
create a legal and governmental smoke screen while the real
rulers of the country, many of whom were, naturally, members
of Parliament, properly elected, plundered the working classes
of the growing wealth of England which they were creating. He
saw in that working class a steady and monstrous accumulation
of injustice which one day would demand retribution. If the
English working class refuses, as we are told by all the best
economists, as well as by the heirs of those who plundered that
class in the nineteenth century, to be as productive as their
fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, is it not be¬
cause of what happened in the nineteenth century? They know
of what little profit to themselves was the labor of their prede¬
cessors. Their revenge is now, in the form of the minimum

46

We Are Insane
expenditure of energy and the maximum of reward. It is up to
the managers of society to see that such expenditure of energy
as the worker is willing to grant results in a vastly increased
output per man hour; and that those managers have obviously
failed to do. The first task of the hero, according to Carlyle, is
to look at the facts of the matter; obviously there are few heroes
today among the social managers of England.
Carlyle went to Ireland during the great potato famine, plan¬
ning to write a book about Ireland. But he abandoned the pro¬
ject. What was obvious to him, what he would have to say in the
book, was something he knew that nobody could either grasp
or, if they did, would assent to. It was simply that the manner
in which England had governed Ireland for a thousand years
indicated that the real rulers of England were quite incapable
of grasping the fact that a system of social management success¬
ful in England was not and could not be successful in a nation
alien in culture and religion. The Irish were not the English, nor
would ever be, nor could anything make them be. Yet the Eng¬
lish persisted in acting as if neither of these necessities existed
at all. English culture, Carlyle saw, was constitutionally, ir¬
redeemably, incapable of perceiving that it was not the only
possible culture. The English were, then, basically incapable of
facing facts. Their Empire was still growing, but Carlyle was
convinced it would not last, that it was accumulating a weight
of terror and injustice, of plundering in the guise of manage¬
ment, that would sooner or later destroy it.
For the admirer of Carlyle little is so hard to accommodate
oneself to as his attitude on black slavery in the English colonies
and in the United States, and little has done his reputation so
much damage. He thought the freeing of the slaves in Jamaica
would be immensely damaging both to the slaves themselves
and to the economic structure of the island. To him the Ameri¬
can Civil War was a smoky chimney; both sides talked intolera¬
ble cant to conceal their true piggish interests. Certainly today

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Victorian Revolutionaries

a good many modern historians are convinced that in the South
the war was fought by the non-slave-holding poor to protect the
wealth of the exceedingly small white minority of the popula¬
tion that owned large numbers of slaves. Many a white South¬
erner is convinced to this day that the Confederacy was an
utterly meaningless enterprise which has kept him as poor after
its defeat as he was before its founding.
It was not that Carlyle was in favor of slavery. Rather he saw
that the establishment of slavery in the New World had led to
problems which the simple freeing of the slaves would do noth¬
ing to resolve, would make worse, for after such freedom the
exploitative minority would feel no responsibility for the wel¬
fare of the exploited, whereas a slave owner might feel some
responsibility for the welfare of his property. Gurth, the serf in
Ivanhoe, Carlyle reiterated often enough, was better off than
the nineteenth-century factory laborer. To Carlyle, noble talk
about the freeing of the slaves was cant that concealed a desire
by the plunderers to free themselves of all responsibility for the
plundered.
And he was pointing to another problem. His declared enemy
was the Enlightenment conclusion that if the individual took
care of his own economic interests, an invisible hand would
automatically take care of the economic interests of the society
and all members of that society. “What’s good for General Mo¬
tors is good for the country” was even more an article of unques¬
tioned belief than it is today in the United States, and that is
saying a good deal. Carlyle called it the “Pig-Philosophy.”
George Orwell’s Animal Farm says much the same thing; per¬
haps he got the idea from Carlyle’s most vituperative writings,
the [Latter-Day Pamphlets. Carlyle was convinced that those
who wished to free the slaves were not interested in freedom
but in their own particular trough. Hence they completely ig¬
nored the problem of what to do with a large population which
was torn from its natural and social environment and placed in

48

We Are Insane
an absolutely alien one in which they were the victims of exploi¬
tation but not the beneficiaries of acculturation. What good was
freedom without acculturation, except to condemn them to the
most abysmal poverty? No promise the American government
has made to the ex-slave, from the time of Emancipation to the
present moment, has been kept. Perhaps Carlyle in his grim and
brutal way—and his brutalities are, like Schopenhauer’s, unusu¬
ally refreshing—would say that one modest consequence of
merit has been forthcoming; we are now aware that there is a
problem. This has been little enough, but it is not nothing,
though a hundred years late in emerging.
No, Carlyle was a man lacerated by his compassion for human
suffering, and exasperated beyond endurance by the bland in¬
difference of the possessors to the tragedy of the dispossessed,
and by his inability to do anything about it, or even get himself
heard. He saw man as a creature plunged into an alien environ¬
ment, and he saw man’s religion, his philosophy, his values, his
whole belief-system as having but one aim—to conceal that fact
from himself. His compassion made him realize that human be¬
liefs exist to cover man’s nakedness, are protective, and enable
him to act and to live. But that did not prevent him from per¬
ceiving with an astounding sharpness the necessary inconsis¬
tencies

and

incoherences

and

dishonesties

within

any

belief-system. Further, the higher the social level, the greater
the inconsistency, the incoherence, and the concealing dis¬
honesty. He would have agreed with Wagner’s Rhinemaidens,
who sang as they watched the gods cross the rainbow bridge
into Valhalla

The true, the trustworthy
is only in the depths;
false and cowardly
is what rejoices up there!

49

Victorian Revolutionaries

In the early 1850’s Wagner was just discovering that to hu¬
man problems, and above all to the problem of problems, social
power, there is no answer. Carlyle had known it for a long time.
Yet Wagner, at least when he wrote the Ring, was more despair¬
ing than Carlyle, who although he detested the unjustified
confidence of hope nevertheless detested equally the abandon¬
ment of courage. Frederick, then, was heroic because he main¬
tained his courage in the face of innumerable defeats and
humiliations and established Prussia as a European power. But
that, as Carlyle saw it, was not his real achievement. His real
genius lay in finally coming to understand the nature of power
in spite of his initial efforts to solve the problem by avoidance
and sentimentality. That is why Carlyle carried Frederick in
great detail through his wars, but sketched the rest of his long
life in but a few hundred pages.
In circulation nowadays are two generalizations of the utmost
idiocy. One is Blake’s, “To generalize is to be an idiot.” The
other is Lord Acton’s, “All power corrupts.” To Carlyle only
power can be responsible, only power has the opportunity not
to be corrupt. Looked at coolly, power is the attribute of the
individual in the decision-making role of any institution; that
attribute requires him to decide how' the resources available to
that institution shall be used. Two forces hinder just and ade¬
quate decisions. One is, as Carlyle pointed out early in his ca¬
reer, that the desires of every human are literally infinite. The
resources of eternity could not satisfy the desires of a shoe
blacking boy. An institution, moreover, is made up of individu¬
als. That is, there is no such thing as an institution; it is merely
a word by which we categorize a certain range of human behav¬
ior. Institutions exist no more than do societies. Both are terms
which if we reify or hypostatize them lead us into the delusion
that we are talking realities when we are only talking. Conse¬
quently all the resources of the world cannot fulfill the aims or

50

We Are Insane
achieve the goals or accomplish the mission of any institution,
which are only the aims, the goals, the missions of individuals
interacting according to certain culturally validated and trans¬
mitted patterns of behavior.
So the first problem of the man in the position of power is that
the resources available to the institution never are and never
can be enough. Second, his decisions are necessarily governed
by the belief-system of the culture of which he is a part; and
these, as Carlyle saw w'ith savage clarity, are riddled with incon¬
sistencies and absurdities, and furthermore, as they are used,
are constantly w earing out. A desperate innovation is required
of the man in power; but that innovation, to be meaningful, must
be directed by his perception and comprehension of the actual
state of affairs he is dealing with. However, his culture’s beliefsystem is devoted to making it virtually impossible to see what
the state of affairs really is. The responsible man of power, w ho
is the only man who can be responsible, though, as Carlyle knew'
better than most people, he rarely is, penetrates through his
belief-system, sees the realities, and uses power, naked force, to
carry out his decisions. He is the hero.
Frederick, to Carlyle, saw that for the welfare of the people
who had been entrusted to him, the establishment of Prussia as
a socially disciplined, economically strong, and—under the cir¬
cumstances of European international politics—feared nation
was the only possible decision; and to effectuate that decision
he had to use naked power, force, the foundation on