‘THE HERO AS MAN OF LETTERS’
This was not to be. By the mid-nineteenth century, Johnson’s character had already been turned into caricature and he was remembered as a man whose fabulous eccentricities seemed to mark him out as a figure of fun, one whose ‘opinions’ were ‘fast becoming obsolete’ (Carlyle 1966 : 182). It was left to another Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, to attempt to rescue Johnson’s reputation and he did so by presenting an image that stood in sharp contrast to Boswell’s and that was part of a new take on the ‘manly ideal’ tailored to the altered circumstances of the Victorian age. Less than eighty years after Boswell and Johnson had first met in the capital, Carlyle chose to deliver his annual course of lectures in London on the topic of ‘heroes’, those ‘Great Men’ who had shaped the course of ‘Universal History’. And among the curiously assorted names in his pantheon — Mohammed, Luther, Cromwell, Rousseau — Carlyle numbered the undervalued Johnson as a hero of a new type, ‘the hero as man of letters’.
Carlyle’s survey identified six categories of hero, some of whom, like mythical or divine beings, prophets and priests, were largely bound to the past, while others, such as the poets Dante and Shakespeare, lived on in the present by continuing to give a national voice to their peoples. But with the coming of print culture a new kind of hero becomes possible, raising some of the functions of the idols of yesteryear to a higher level. The printing press enables the man of letters to reach out across time and space and ‘accomplish miracles: ‘teaching, preaching, governing, and all else’ (160—1). For in Carlyle’s view it is the writer whose books and essays now instruct the nation and who is therefore best able to make things happen, displacing the pulpit, the university and parliament from power. In an intoxicating flight of rhetoric, Carlyle imagines the man of letters as representating a new ruling class, one that would place ‘intellect at the top of affairs’ and ensure government by ‘the true, just, humane and valiant man’ (169).
Carlyle paints the lives of his heroes in intensely dramatic colours. They are typically men of humble origins, earnestly wrestling with immense obstacles in an endeavour to find and realize the truth. They are sincere, honest, determined, fearless, and free of all humbug or cant. Often these qualities are instinctive: Shakespeare, remembered here as a writer of tragedies and ‘a blessed heaven-sent Bringer of Light’, was ‘everyway an unconscious man’, ‘a Force of Nature’. For, intones Carlyle in his best biblical manner, ‘whatsoever is truly great’ in a man ‘springs-up from the /«articulate deeps’ (111—12). As this lofty standpoint implies, Carlyle’s sketch of Johnson is a far cry from the ‘highly instructive and highly entertaining’ conversationalist described by Boswell (Boswell 1950: 292). Instead it depicts him as a tragic individual struggling heroically against every kind of adversity, his noble inner nature beset by poverty, ill-health and neglect:
Figure him there, with his scrofulous diseases, with his great greedy heart, and unspeakable chaos of thoughts; stalking mournful as a stranger in this Earth; eagerly devouring what spiritual thing he could come at: school-languages and other merely grammatical stuff, ifthere were nothing better! The largest soul that was in all England; and provision made for it of ‘fourpence-halfpenny a day.’ Yet a giant invincible soul; a true man’s.
(Carlyle 1966: 179)
Johnson is hardly Cromwell or Mohammed; but Carlyle gives his work an epic grandeur that blurs the differences between them, transforming him into a crusader against scepticism and unbelief. And, as the lectures draw to a close, one is finally unsure in whose hands Carlyle expects the future to lie: the man of letters or the man of action.
With hindsight it is hard not to read Carlyle’s attempt to depict the writer’s vocation in heroic vein as a vindication of his own personal myth of authorship, a reworking of the narrative of his struggle to carve out a literary career for himself. ‘To carve out’ is no idle figure of speech here, for one crucial move in Carlyle’s creation of a distinctive literary persona was his alignment of the writer’s work with the simple dignity of his father’s daily labour as a stonemason. Carlyle’s memoir of his father’s life, written immediately after news of his death in 1832, uses the same language of heroic struggle as the 1840 lectures: ‘Nothing that he undertook to do but he did it faithfully and like a true man’ (Carlyle 1881: 5). Revealingly, Carlyle even compares him to the man of letters, surmising that his father was ‘among Scottish peasants what Samuel Johnson was among English authors’ (15).
As Norma Clarke has argued, one effect of this Oedipal identification was to reclaim the world of literature for men, to produce a ‘social fiction’ to offset the social fact of increased opportunities and recognition for women writers in the early decades of the nineteenth century (Clarke 1991: 41). In Carlyle’s imagination such brave, reverent, natural men formed a kind of brotherhood, united in devotion to their calling. This trope of brotherhood appears in a variety of guises in Victorian art and literature, from the pre-Raphaelites to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. At times this kinship between men is compared to a monastic order, as in Carlyle’s meditation in Past and Present (1843) on the contrast between the ‘wretchedness’ of the modern workhouse and the life that was once found in the now ruined abbey at Bury St Edmunds (Carlyle 1971: 262). In this text, as elsewhere in Carlyle’s writings, women are pushed to the margins of the ideal society, at which point they can be conveniently forgotten. In Past and Present the symbolic moment for this exclusion occurs when the young Samson, the man who will become the monastery’s abbot and heroic leader, leaves his mother for the Church.
Carlyle’s fantasy of male bonding is not without its problems, however. The powerful communal feelings passing between men can become charged with desire and, at St Edmundsbury, it is the task of the fatherly abbot to set an example, to hold their psychic energies in check, and to sublimate any last trace of homoeroticism into productive work. The nobility of the Carlylean male ideal is compromised by a deep interior division between the need for mastery or control that will create order out of chaos and a fear of the potentially untameable flows of energy within. One can see this as a splitting of gendered identity, in which the instability ofwhat for the early Victorians constituted ‘maleness’, the potent physical powers that were thought to be of the basic essence of man, begins to sabotage the ‘manliness’ or self-discipline with which an individual conducts himself. For Carlyle,
maleness, potentially progressive, is also innately diseased. The very spring of male identity is also potentially the source of its destruction as dissolution. Repelled by the male body, by male sexuality, by what he sees as the miasmic swamp of the male psyche, Carlyle imagines the interior of the male as polluted, unclean. Masculine energy may power the energy of industrial society but it may also disrupt it in a power surge, an overflow of the diseased fluid interior in a flood that would dissolve the ego boundaries of the male self and the patriarchal bounds of the social system.
(Sussman 1995: 24)
Herbert Sussman’s analysis of the phantasmatic construction of masculinity in texts like Past and Present brings out not only Carlyle’s immensely fertile strategy of yoking together materials drawn from different historical times, so that the warrior may be reborn (or re-branded) as the ‘Captain of Industry’; but it also reveals the extreme precariousness of his restless imaginings, a masculine ideal that is in constant danger of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Unlike the rival images of the male self held out for inspection in Boswell’s journals, this is not so much a conflict between competing masculinities as a strong bid to establish a dominant form of masculinity for the industrial era that pays the price of its own exclusions. Carlyle’s dreams contain the seeds of his own worst nightmares, haunted by thoughts of indolence or disruption that assume the shapes of feminized men (the lazy freed slave conjured up in the notorious pamphlet ‘The Nigger Question’) or castrating women (the female marauders depicted in his study The French Revolution).
We would seem to have moved a long way from the battlefields and the trenches. But in fact we have come full circle. For one of the major influences upon Sussman’s account of Carlyle in his book Victorian Masculinities is Klaus Theweleit’s disturbing two-volume study Male Fantasies (1987, 1989), an investigation into the gendered imaginary of the right wing Freikorps, private armies of mercenaries that were employed to contain the ‘threat’ of communism in the aftermath of the First World War. From an intensive reading of letters, autobiographies and novels, Theweleit reconstructs the fantasy world of these forerunners of German fascism showing how it thrived upon a series of pathological representations of hostile and aggressive women who symbolized all that was felt to be most terrifying in their political adversaries. Here sexual predators and militant revolutionaries became indistinguishable: the mocking, brazen prostitute was sister to the sadistic communist riflewoman, phallic creatures who brought slow, sexually humiliating death, finally leaving their male victims ‘drenched in black blood between hips and thighs’ (Theweleit 1987: 74).
Blood flows throughout these texts. But so too do desire, energy, tears, and bile, passions and bodily fluids. Bodies themselves seem to merge into a liquid mass, the ‘Red flood’ that threatens to drown the gallant men who are defending their nation’s honour. Theweleit traces a complicated psychic economy of dams and torrents in which the battle to stem the swelling enemy tide has as its counterpart the soldier’s strict control over his own bodily functions so that he does not turn to water, jelly or shit. Unlike the sublimated, productive energy that courses through Carlyle’s imagery, the literature of the Freikorps typically erupts into climactic violence when the moment is right. In one scene depicted by the popular novelist Edwin Erich Dwinger, the men cannot shoot:
into the crowd of women until the advance wave of that slimy stream is already upon them. Not until the spit of one of the working-class women is already dripping down his medal of honour does Donat [the soldier] fire into the woman’s open mouth. And not until then does Donat perceive that what was once a face is now only a bloody pulp.
(quoted in Theweleit 1987: 428-9)
In this hideous contra-flow, aggression is always already sexualized and the metonymic slippage between different kinds of fluids — slime, spit, blood, pulp — is endless. In Theweleit’s analysis, the appeal of fascism goes right to the heart of this desperately embattled masculine imagination, for the Nazis, in effect, promised to turn the tide, channel men’s energies and desires, ‘and let them flow inside their rituals’ (429). Fascism thus ‘translates internal states into massive external monuments or ornaments’ (431); it offers a controlled release of intolerable frustrations through mass political spectacles like the Nuremberg Rally.
As a theory of fascism, Theweleit’s argument is tendentious in the extreme. It would reduce too many complex political and economic events, from hyperinflation to the anti-Jewish pogroms of the Reichskristallnacht, to an immense psychodrama. But as a study of what we might call a combatant masculinity, one that acquired a deadly social presence at a key point in German history, Theweleit’s work is extremely insightful, not least for the way in which it seeks to identify the ideological currents that passed back and forth between personal memories, popular literature, and political propaganda. It allows us to glimpse the inner dynamic through which the classic military body patriotically extolled by Ernst Junger came to be transformed into the fascist ‘new man’.
Junger, Remarque, Boswell and Carlyle were all engaged in an attempt to imagine a form of manhood that was worthy of the name, to construct a version of the male self that could command moral and cultural respect, sometimes in the face of the most appalling conditions. Yet despite the fact that their work can be placed within a general history of the dominant modes of masculinity in Western Europe, these writers differ considerably in their accounts of men’s strengths and blindspots. Taken together, their writings show more signs of discontinuity than convergence. They cast doubt on the notion of a single modern manly ideal.
Even where there are points of overlap, as in the profound ambivalence towards bourgeois society that they each exhibit, the differences between them outweigh the similarities. One of the most unsettling episodes in All Quiet on the Western Front comes when the soldiers are sent on leave and are unable to adjust to civilian life. Not only do they find themselves estranged from the people who remained in their home towns, but ordinary everyday sounds like the noise of the tramcars remind them of the screech of shells whistling across the battlefield. The mood of despair evoked by Remarque is diametrically opposed to the scathing tone adopted by Junger in his indictment of ‘the bourgeois epoch’ a mere two years later. In a highly polemical essay ‘On Danger’ (1931) Junger attacked the bourgeois as the person who overvalues security, who desires a reasonable world from which risk, misfortune and chance have been completely banished. The comfortable middle classes are not only unaware that life is becoming increasingly hazardous, but they are ill – equipped to understand why this is to be welcomed. In their eyes the man who jubilantly volunteered to fight for his country in the Great War was guilty of ‘patriotic error or a suspect love of adventure’; whereas, in reality, ‘this jubilation was a revolutionary protest against the values of the bourgeois world’, a Nietzschean demand for ‘a revaluation of all values’. Junger places the warrior alongside the other great outsiders of modernity, the artist and the criminal, men who, whether ‘lofty or base’, are closer to ‘the elemental’ nature of things than their bourgeois cousins (Junger