Thomas Carlyle, “The French Revolution: a History” (1837) – I don’t know, man. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to get out of this (he said, about the book he assigned himself). Apparently this was a standard work once! It doesn’t surprise me that a round denunciation of the French Revolution would become a standard anglophone work on it- that’s still viable today. I guess I’m a little surprised that this massive, discursive mess that takes for granted a pretty substantial knowledge of the players going in was as big a deal as it was. Because Carlyle, romantic elitist sage that he was, does nothing so pedestrian as “begin at the beginning” or “explain the significance of any of the people in the narrative” or “have a written thesis.” He just blusters. He blusters learnedly, with some good turns of phrase, and an impressive ability to project his feelings (almost always disdain), but still. Shows how relatively unlearned even educated people are now! Barely anyone knows who Madame Du Barry was, or why she was important, or the Necker affair or whatever. I know the French Revolution pretty well for a nonspecialist but would still get lost sometimes.
Still and all, frustration won out over intellectual insecurity in reading this. Carlyle doesn’t argue, really, but he gets his point across- disdain, universal disdain, disdain given just enough contrast to some theoretical world of worth to even exist, an oxygen to fuel Carlyle’s smoky peat fire of secular damnation. That dingdong Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin cites Carlyle as his intellectual master and you can see why, not that that fatuous nerd would be fit to edit Carlyle’s copy on one of the Scottish prick’s bad days. Carlyle could make a point when he wanted to. He was quite explicit about what he thought about black people and slave emancipation, for instance. He used the bare minimum of wordy bush-beating that a Victorian sage could get away with there! He was pithy with Margaret Fuller when he insisted she accept the universe (his, though, it went without saying, not her Yankee vibration).
But I notice one bunch who our enterprising Scot seemed kind of leery of, even though he blames the French Revolution and whatever came from it on them: the philosophes. I came in expecting some good, ripe Frenchie-smarty-pants punching, and I did not get it! Many lesser lights have made Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and company rhetorical pin cushions. They’re not hard targets! But while Carlyle, in as close to a real argument as he comes, strongly implies that it was the philosophes who ushered in the “age of paper” that allowed the sans culottes to run wild and cause all the problems, he never really comes to grips with them, never gives them a real working over. Was he… scared? Did he figure that argument by implication — “we all know what was wrong with philosophy, guys” — would play better? Probably a reasonable assumption in his time and place. Who knows! Maybe I’ll read a Carlyle biography someday and find out. I hear he had a peach of a marriage! **’