December 28, 2006

A Whole Imbroglio of Capabilities

Filed under: books, literature — ted @ 4:56 pm

I’m presently working my way through Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and it makes for tough-going. The text is difficult not only on account of Carlyle’s notoriously elaborate and eccentric prose, but because of the text’s near Kierkegaardian level of indirection. The narrator (not Carlyle) is an Englishman who is in possession of a disorderly collection of papers left by a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, who developed a “philosophy of Clothes” which encompasses all of life. The meaning works on a wide range of levels: the professor is clearly a pastiche of Hegel, and Transcendentalist philosophy in general, but he’s also — just as evidently — very dear to Carlyle, and certain parts of the professor’s story are autobiographical. Add to this the fact that it aims to communicate deep truths about human existence while simultaneously mocking the very effort.

Presently, I’m one hundred pages in, which puts me at the beginning of the middle. The good stuff is still to come. Carlyle’s detachment and ability to pile on detail and mockery effectively lull the reader into a false sense of boredom — and then he’ll hit you with a passage like the one below. The Professor is writing about his post-university days, and the feelings of possibility and despair he is experiencing. It hits close to home:

“Not what I Have,” continues he, “but what I Do is my Kingdom. To each is given a certain inward Talent, a certain outward Environment of Fortune; to each, by wisest combination of these two, a certain maximum of Capability. But the hardest problem were ever this first: To find by study of yourself, and of the ground you stand on, what your combined inward and outward Capability specially is. For, alas, our young soul is all budding with Capabilities, and we see not yet which is the main and true one. Always too the new man is in a new time, under new conditions; his course can be the fac-simile of no prior one, but is by its nature original. And then how seldom will the outward Capability fit the inward: though talented wonderfully enough, we are poor, unfriended, dyspeptical, bashful; nay what is worse than all, we are foolish. Thus, in a whole imbroglio of Capabilities, we go stupidly groping about, to grope which is ours, and often clutch the wrong one: in this mad work must several years of our small term be spent, till the purblind Youth, by practice, acquire notions of distance, and become a seeing Man. Nay, many so spend their whole term, and in ever-new expectation, ever-new disappointment, shift from enterprise to enterprise, and from side to side: till at length, as exasperated striplings of threescore-and-ten, they shift into their last enterprise, that of getting buried.

I’ll write a full review of Sartor Resartus after I finish it, but I may have to post more fragments along the way.


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