Thomas Carlyle - Sartor Resartus (1836)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
It's always especially interesting to look at texts from a period during which writing was in flux. The years between 1820 and 1840 were tumultuous ones for literature, with a sharp contraction in the production of poetry (caused, in part, by an economic recession) contrasting with a proliferation in new periodical forms and novel publication. Out of this written deluge emerged Carlyle's staggeringly ambitious Sartor Resartus, a text only released after a difficult period of negotiation with a number of publishers and journal editors.
The editorial reticence of the time is understandable. Nothing about Sartor Resartus is as it seems, and a text based on obfuscation can naturally enervate a reader. It is a false critical biography of a fictional German author, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, with particular attention paid to his masterwork Clothes, Their Origin and Influence. Carlyle may adopt the Romantic method of marrying his overall idea (the reassessment of how we read and write) to a form (false critical biography) that concurs in its complexity and ambiguity, but here, there's nothing as contrived as historically specific methodology. This is writing as apostasy; a reassessment of how we approach literature. The book's narrator struggles to understand Teufelsdröckh's work; we struggle to understand Carlyle's (fictional) critical digestion of it. The evasive nature of meaning in text is thus emphasised.
Sartor Resartus (translated literally as 'the tailor, retailored') is a mind-bendingly, self-reflexive work, written some 130 years before the post-war critics would claim self-reflexivity as a postmodern literary device. Our response to literature, says Carlyle, is as multifarious as life itself, and so why should our criticism attempt to limit a limitless experience?
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