Chapter 6, Part 1 of the author's
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ike the Huxley-Wilberforce debate that signaled the victory of science over traditional religion despite much popular sentiment to the contrary, the Eyre controversy played out a conflict between literature [168/169] and economy in which the men of letters won only a Pyrrhic victory over the advocates of classical liberalism. Even though Carlyle had turned to the institution of monarchy, rather than literature, as the means to oppose political economy and produce a social ethos with transcendental authority, he continued to write as a man of letters. In spite of the fact that he always considered it incapable of producing belief, it was increasingly the discourse of political economy, rather than literary discourse, that compelled belief. Because literature had withdrawn from the realm of political action into the transcendental idyll, it had not only failed as a worthy opponent to political economy, it had left political economy in possession of the realm of politics, thus helping to establish its authority.
In June of 1866, after a government commission removed Governor Eyre from office though arguing that his actions had been justified, John S. Mill and the Jamaica Committee decided to prosecute him for murder. When, in response, the Eyre Defense Committee was formed, Carlyle was the first prominent individual tojoin it. Since Mill was accompanied by a formidable group of public figures — Thomas Huxley, Frederic Harrison, Thomas Hughes, Herbert Spencer, John Bright, Charles Darwin, and Leslie Stephen — Carlyle felt it necessary to enlist an equally prominent group on the other side — John Ruskin, John Tyndall, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, and Henry Kingsley (see Ford; Workman; August, xxvii-xxxi; and Hall). The men on Mill's Jamaica Committee wrote in the scientific mode of economic discourse, the discourse of rationalized efficiency, while the authors on the Eyre Defense Committee employed the religiously inflected discourse of literature. Chief justice Cockburn wrote his directions to the jury in the former mode, leaving little doubt that he thought Eyre should stand trial; but the grand jury, apparently more persuaded by the latter mode of discourse and reflecting widespread public sentiment, dismissed the case. The public could afford to follow the men of letters for, even setting aside other issues such as racial prejudice, they had no immediate interest in the case-which, however, did not stop them from embracing the fundamental principles espoused by Mill and taking the primacy of their own individual rights for granted. The same public that would allow the rights of a mulatto to be ignored already accepted many of the principles Mill put forward in respect of them. [169/170]
Rather than regarding the discourses of literature and economy as diametrically opposed, it would be more accurate to see them as complementary, Mill's discourse providing the ideological ground for the dominant mode of conflictual social relations, and Carlyle's providing the middle classes with a compensatory vision of a secure social order. The discourse of economy claims to describe things as they are, while that of literature claims to describe things as they ought to be. Literature concedes that economy correctly analyzes and describes the world in history but insists that the world need not be in history, that if we were to return to the transcendental idyll, literature, not economy, would provide the "right" representation of reality. By confining its ability to define ethos to the transcendental or even to the private domestic sphere, literature legitimates economy, for the time being, in the public sphere. Carlyle could imagine ethos as a function of the social ideal, but he could not imagine it as part of a historical process; Mill could conceive of ethos as a social process, but could only see it in terms of the limits of the individual, not as the function of a social ideal.
The summer before the Jamaica rebellion, Mill had been elected to Parliament and sentiment in favor of a new reform bill was on the increase, but the prospects for passage remained slight because Palmerston resolutely opposed it. On the day Palmerston died (October 18, 1865), Carlyle, recognizing like his contemporaries that reform was now inevitable, sat down to draft a reply to Mill's On Liberty, the text that codified the classic principles of liberal individualism that would be embodied in the bill. Although Carlyle had been disturbed by the book when he first read it upon its appearance in 1859, it was only when Mill appeared to be on the verge of turning his principles into law that he felt compelled to respond. The central issue that Carlyle's fragmentary response to On Liberty sought to address was the problem of ethos, how one controls the behavior ofthe self-interested individual. Defining,justice in terms of the rights of individuals, Mill had insisted that individuals can be suppressed only when their actions infringe on the rights of others: "Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation" (87). Carlyle attempted to refute Mill by arguing that this limitation of individual action does not provide a true ethos, that Mill's principle allows an individual to act wrongly so long as that [170/171]] wrong action does not affect anyone else. He concludes, as one might expect, that the solution is to discover a transcendental standard: "All turns on his course being verily Hellward, and of your persuasions, if they articulated themselves in the form of regulation, observable by human care & prudence and coercions and compulsions, being verily Heavenward" (Trela, "Review of Mill's Liberty," 25)
The Eyre case provided a symbolic arena for debating this conflict between the need for social and individual justice. Mill argued that it was a case of Gordon's individual rights under English law, and that English law did not allow martial law to displace common law. Carlyle argued that it was a matter of the social order as a whole: that it was "as if a ship had been on fire; the captain [i.e., Eyre] by immediate and bold exertion, had put the fire out, and had been called to account for having flung a bucket or two of water in the hold beyond what was necessary. He had damaged some of the cargo, perhaps, but he had saved the ship" (LL, 2:351-52). In the more positive form of his argument, Mill would make the forming of social consensus the historical process of defining socialjustice. But by taking the individual as the basis of his description of ethos, he provides a picture of society in perpetual conflict, individuals walled off from one another in selfdefense. Carlyle attempts to provide a corrective by making society as a whole the basis of his analysis, but when, instead of seeking consensus as a historical and social process, he insists that governors and ruling classes have transcendental authority, he merely justifies authoritarian coercion.
In his reminiscences of Edward Irving and Francis Jeffrey, written while he was working on the Eyre case, Carlyle represents the dilemma of literature situated midway between Irving's religious domain, in which he no longer believes, and Jeffrey's economic domain, in which he cannot bear to reside. In "Edward Irving," he assumes the position of the Voltairean skeptic in order to reject speaking in tongues and transcendental religion; in "Francis Jeffrey," he assumes the position of "mystic" in order to reject "dead Edinburgh Whiggism, Scepticism, and Materialism" (Rem., 320; see 344). When Irving opposes the Reform Bill of 1832 as a "thing forbidden," Carlyle supports it (293); when Jeffrey assumes that Whig reform will truly transform society, Carlyle claims to become skeptical and to harbor a secret sympathy for John Croker Wilson and the Tory Blackwood's Magazine (328, 330) Because the law, consistent with the discourse of economy, is a self [171/172] referential system that ignores the question of real guilt or innocence in favor of its own processes, Jeffrey's "advocate morality" permits him to obtain acquittal for a murderer whose guilt seems certain. Carlyle concludes that the law is no longer concerned with justice, but has become enfolded in the economic system, the lawyer allowing his "intellect, [his] highest heavenly gift, [to be] hung up in the shop-window ... for sale" (313). But Irving offers no alternative, his transcendental authority collapsing when he becomes isolated in a private world of Coleridgean moonshine. Both, for Carlyle, become self-enclosed, unable to author a social ethos.
When in 1832 Carlyle discovered that he was becoming isolated in the private world of art at Craigenputtoch, he might have concluded that literature should engage in the public construction of values; but instead he decided to subordinate literature to the transcendental hero, who would discover, and compel society to accept, transcenden tal values. Carlyle's authoritarianism derived from the same division between private and public, transcendence and history, that underlay his early belief in literature. Because he continued to assume that the public domain consists of self-interested individuals, he always regarded the social process as fundamentally anarchic and therefore could never acknowledge that a just social order might be based on anything other than an apprehension of absolute and transcendental values. If the man of letters could not transmit those values peaceably through visionary insight, then the political dictator as divinely authorized hero would do it by force.
The alliance of literary culture and political authority against the depredations of political economy inevitably made its way into the works of Carlyle's contemporaries and successors even though they, more often than not, rejected his authoritarianism as well as his later anti-aestheticism. This alliance manifests itself directly in Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, which, like "Shooting Niagara," was written in response to the Hyde Park riots and the Reform Bill of 1867. Although Arnold seems to have preferred the first alternative offered by Carlyle in "Shooting Niagara" — using the authority of culture (i.e., literature) to create social order — he went even further, suggesting that culture can confer on the state the authority to coerce obedience from the masses (Culture and Anarchy, 96; see Wolf; Lloyd; Arac, Critical Genealogies, 135-36). Arnold means to say that culture will provide [172/173] the state with the transcendental authority which will ensure that its laws are just — that, as Carlyle puts it, its course is "Heavenward."
But if culture does not truly possess transcendental authority-and it has been the thrust of this study to show that Carlyle and the Victorians were never able to establish how to verify such authority — then it merely serves to encourage the people to accept state coercion. Indeed, the Arnoldian principle of "disinterestedness" — his insistence that culture separate itself from the public domain and the political process-does not so much lend authority to the state as make the ethical imperatives of culture appear irrelevant to it. Like Carlyle's, Arnold's implicitly pastoral and idyllic notion of culture fails to become part of the process of creating social values, because it denies human history. It is of a piece with many other nineteenth-century visions of an idyll in which all human relationships arejust and a haven from which the public domain can be disinterestedly criticized- — for example, Dickens's "Christmas," Ruskin's "Gothic Eden," Tennyson's Round Table, Newman's primitive church, and the many versions of the preindustrial countryside, from Cobbett and Coleridge to Dickens and Eliot. But these idyllic communities finally fail as models for human society precisely because, as private transcendental spaces, they deny the historical process through which social consensus is continuously shaped and reshaped. With the possible exception of the later George Eliot, none of these writers — it is no coincidence that several joined Carlyle in the defense of Edward Eyre — was able to imagine that a community could create its own standards.
Literary culture, claiming that it can enable one to escape the alienations created by economy, still remains a retreat from the public sphere. If literature is to have public meaning, however, it must neither adopt the value-free discourse of economic efficiency nor continue to mimic the transcendental discourse of religious mysticism. Rather, it must enter the public domain of social dialogue and become genuinely critical. The idyllic vision of the nineteenth century did have a critical purpose; although its idylls were often retreats from society, they were also vantage points from which to criticize existing social structures (see Williams, Culture and Society, 43). Unfortunately, this critical method tended to reinforce the existing structures by setting up absolute polarities — implicit in the oppositions of transcendence and history, public and private — rather than dialectical contraries. Victorian [173/174] social critics often portrayed the very voices of criticism as the source or sign of social fragmentation, the "dissidence of dissent" as the din of Babel. These critics, paradoxically, disliked criticism because they sought, like Carlyle, to achieve silence by silencing the opposition rather than by seeking ways to mediate among dissenting voices. Because its object was to make culture static, literature's participation in the process of cultural formation tended to be negative and limited. Only if literature can relinquish its claims to transcendental authority and enter into the collective historical process through which beliefs and laws are shaped can it eventually fulfill the mission that Carlyle and his contemporaries envisioned for it.
Last modified 26 October 2001