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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 1: Phenomena

But, it is said, our religion is gone: we no longer believe in St. Edmund, no longer see the figure of him ‘on the rim of the sky,’ minatory or confirmatory! God’s absolute Laws, sanctioned by an eternal Heaven and an eternal Hell, have become Moral Philosophies, sanctioned by able computations of Profit and Loss, by weak considerations of Pleasures of Virtue and the Moral Sublime

It is even so. To speak in the ancient dialect, we ‘have forgotten God;’ -- in the most modern dialect and very truth of the matter, we have taken up the Fact of this Universe as it is not. We have quietly closed our eyes to the eternal Substance of things, and opened them only to the Shews and Shams of things. We quietly believe this Universe to be intrinsically a great unintelligible perhaps; extrinsically, clear enough, it is a great, most extensive Cattlefold and Workhouse, with most extensive Kitchen-ranges, Dining-tables, -- whereat he is wise who can find a place! All the Truth of this Universe is uncertain; only the profit and loss of it, the pudding and praise of it, are and remain very visible to the practical man.

There is no longer any God for us! God’s Laws are become a Greatest-Happiness Principle, a Parliamentary Expediency: the Heavens overarch us only as an Astronomical Time-keeper; a butt for Herschel-telescopes to shoot science at, to shoot sentimentalities at: -- in our and old Jonson’s dialect, man has lost the soul out of him; and now, after the due period, -- begins to find the want of it! This is verily the plague-spot; centre of the universal Social Gangrene, threatening all modern things with frightful death. To him that will consider it, here is the stem, with its roots and taproot, with its world-wide upas-boughs and accursed poison-exudations, under which the world lies writhing in atrophy and agony. You touch the focal-centre of all our disease, of our frightful nosology of diseases, when you lay your hand on this. There is no religion; there is no God; man has lost his soul, and vainly seeks antiseptic salt. Vainly: in killing Kings, in passing Reform Bills, in French Revolutions, Manchester Insurrections, is found no remedy. The foul elephantine leprosy, alleviated for an hour, reappears in new force and desperateness next hour.

For actually this is not the real fact of the world; the world is not made so, but otherwise! -- Truly, any Society setting out from this No-God hypothesis will arrive at a result or two. The Unveracities, escorted, each Unveracity of them by its corresponding Misery and Penalty; the Phantasms, and Fatuities, and ten-years Corn-Law Debatings, that shall walk the Earth at noonday, -- must needs be numerous! The Universe being intrinsically a Perhaps, being too probably an ‘infinite Humbug,’ why should any minor Humbug astonish us? It is all according to the order of Nature; and Phantasms riding with huge clatter along the streets, from end to end of our existence, astonish nobody. Enchanted St. Ives’ Workhouses and Joe-Manton Aristocracies; giant Working Mammonism near strangled in the partridge-nets of giant-looking Idle Dilettantism, -- this, in all its branches, in its thousand thousand modes and figures, is a sight familiar to us.

The Popish Religion, we are told, flourishes extremely in these years; and is the most vivacious-looking religion to be met with at present. “Elle a trois cents ans dans le ventre,” counts M. Jouffroy; “c’est pourquoi je la respecte!” -- The old Pope of Rome, finding it laborious to kneel so long while they cart him through the streets to bless the people on Corpus-Christi Day, complains of rheumatism; whereupon his Cardinals consult; -- construct him, after some study, a stuffed cloaked figure, of iron and wood, with wool or baked hair; and place it in a kneeling posture. Stuffed figure, or rump of a figure; to this stuffed rump he, sitting at his ease on a lower level, joins, by the aid of cloaks and drapery, his living head and outspread hands: the rump with its cloaks kneels, the Pope looks, and holds his hands spread; and so the two in concert bless the Roman population on Corpus-Christi Day [Thursday after Trinity Sunday], as well as they can.

I have considered this amphibious Pope, with the wool-and-iron back, with the flesh head and hands; and endeavoured to calculate his horoscope. I reckon him the remarkablest Pontiff that has darkened God’s daylight, or painted himself in the human retina, for these several thousand years. Nay, since Chaos first shivered, and ‘sneezed,’ as the Arabs say, with the first shaft of sunlight shot through it, what stranger product was there of Nature and Art working together? Here is a Supreme Priest who believes God to be -- What in the name of God does he believe God to be? -- and discerns that all worship of God is a scenic phantasmagory of wax-candles, organ-blasts, Gregorian Chants, mass-brayings, purple monsignori, wool-and-iron rumps, artistically spread out, -- to save the ignorant from worse.

O reader, I say not who are Belial’s elect. This poor amphibious Pope too gives loaves to the Poor; has in him more good latent than he is himself aware of. His poor Jesuits, in the late Italian Cholera, were, with a few German Doctors, the only creatures whom dastard terror had not driven mad: they descended fearless into all gulfs and bedlams; watched over the pillow of the dying, with help, with counsel and hope; shone as luminous fixed stars, when all else had gone out in chaotic night: honour to them! This poor Pope, -- who knows what good is in him? In a Time otherwise too prone to forget, he keeps up the mournfulest ghastly memorial of the Highest, Blessedest, which once was; which, in new fit forms, will again partly have to be. Is he not as a perpetual death’s-head and cross-bones, with their Resurgam, on the grave of a Universal Heroism, -- grave of a Christianity? Such Noblenesses, purchased by the world’s best heart’s-blood, must not be lost; we cannot afford to lose them, in what confusions soever. To all of us the day will come, to a few of us it has already come, when no mortal, with his heart yearning for a ‘Divine Humility,’ or other ‘Highest form of Valour,’ will need to look for it in death’s-heads, but will see it round him in here and there a beautiful living head.

Besides, there is in this poor Pope, and his practice of the Scenic Theory of Worship, a frankness which I rather honour. Not half and half, but with undivided heart does he set about worshipping by stage-machinery; as if there were now, and could again be, in Nature no other. He will ask you, What other? Under this my Gregorian Chant, and beautiful wax-light Phantasmagory, kindly hidden from you is an Abyss, of black Doubt, Scepticism, nay Sansculottic Jacobinism; an Orcus that has no bottom. Think of that. ‘Groby Pool is thatched with pancakes,’ -- as Jeannie Deans’s Innkeeper defied it to be! The Bottomless of Scepticism, Atheism, Jacobinism, behold, it is thatched over, hidden from your despair, by stage-properties judiciously arranged. This stuffed rump of mine saves not me only from rheumatism, but you also from what other isms! In this your Life-pilgrimage Nowhither, a fine Squallacci marching-music, and Gregorian Chant, accompanies you, and the hollow Night of Orcus is well hid!

Yes truly, few men that worship by the rotatory Calabash of the Calmucks do it in half so great, frank or effectual a way. Drury-lane, it is said, and that is saying much, may learn from him in the dressing of parts, in the arrangement of lights and shadows. He is the greatest Play-actor that at present draws salary in this world. Poor Pope; and I am told he is fast growing bankrupt too; and will, in a measurable term of years (a great way within the ‘three hundred’), not have a penny to make his pot boil? His old rheumatic back will then get to rest; and himself and his stage-properties sleep well in Chaos forevermore.

Or, alas, why go to Rome for Phantasms walking the streets? Phantasms, ghosts, in this midnight hour, hold jubilee, and screech and jabber; and the question rather were, What high Reality anywhere is yet awake? Aristocracy has become Phantasm-Aristocracy, no longer able to do its work, not in the least conscious that it has any work longer to do. Unable, totally careless to do its work; careful only to clamour for the wages of doing its work, -- nay for higher, and palpably undue wages, and Corn-Laws and increase of rents; the old rate of wages not being adequate now! In hydra-wrestle, giant ‘Millocracy’ so called, a real giant, though as yet a blind one and but half-awake, wrestles and wrings in choking nightmare, ‘like to be strangled in the partridge-nets of Phantasm-Aristocracy,’ as we said, which fancies itself still to be a giant. Wrestles, as under nightmare, till it do awaken; and gasps and struggles thousandfold, we may say, in a truly painful manner, through all fibres of our English Existence, in these hours and years! Is our poor English Existence wholly becoming a Nightmare; full of mere Phantasms? --

The Champion of England, cased in iron or tin, rides into Westminster Hall, ‘being lifted into his saddle with little assistance,’ and there asks, If in the four quarters of the world, under the cope of Heaven, is any man or demon that dare question the right of this King? Under the cope of Heaven no man makes intelligible answer, -- as several men ought already to have done. Does not this Champion too know the world; that it is a huge Imposture, and bottomless Inanity, thatched over with bright cloth and other ingenious tissues? Him let us leave there, questioning all men and demons.

Him we have left to his destiny; but whom else have we found? From this the highest apex of things, downwards through all strata and breadths, how many fully awakened Realities have we fallen in with: -- alas, on the contrary, what troops and populations of Phantasms, not God-Veracities but Devil-Falsities, down to the very lowest stratum, -- which now, by such superincumbent weight of Unveracities, lies enchanted in St. Ives’ Workhouses, broad enough, helpless enough! You will walk in no public thoroughfare or remotest byway of English Existence but you will meet a man, an interest of men, that has given up hope in the Everlasting, True, and placed its hope in the Temporary, half or wholly False. The Honourable Member complains unmusically that there is ‘devil’s-dust’ in Yorkshire cloth. Yorkshire cloth, -- why, the very Paper I now write on is made, it seems, partly of plaster-lime well-smoothed, and obstructs my writing! You are lucky if you can find now any good Paper, -- any work really done; search where you will, from highest Phantasm apex to lowest Enchanted basis!

Consider, for example, that great Hat seven-feet high, which now perambulates London Streets: which my Friend Sauerteig regarded justly as one of our English notabilities; “the topmost point as yet,” said he, “would it were your culminating and returning point, to which English Puffery has been observed to reach!” -- The Hatter in the Strand of London, instead of making better felt-hats than another, mounts a huge lath-and-plaster Hat, seven-feet high, upon wheels; sends a man to drive it through the streets; hoping to be saved thereby. He has not attempted to make better hats, as he was appointed by the Universe to do, and as with this ingenuity of his he could very probably have done; but his whole industry is turned to persuade us that he has made such! He too knows that the Quack has become God. Laugh not at him, O reader; or do not laugh only. He has ceased to be comic; he is fast becoming tragic. To me this all-deafening blast of Puffery, of poor Falsehood grown necessitous, of poor Heart-Atheism fallen now into Enchanted Workhouses, sounds too surely like a Doom’s-blast! I have to say to myself in old dialect: “God’s blessing is not written on all this; His curse is written on all this!” Unless perhaps the Universe be a chimera; -- some old totally deranged eightday clock, dead as brass; which the Maker, if there ever was any Maker, has long ceased to meddle with? -- To my Friend Sauerteig this poor seven-feet Hat-manufacturer, as the topstone of English Puffery, was very notable.

Alas, that we natives note him little, that we view him as a thing of course, is the very burden of the misery. We take it for granted, the most rigorous of us, that all men who have made anything are expected and entitled to make the loudest possible proclamation of it; call on a discerning public to reward them for it. Every man his own trumpeter; that is, to a really alarming extent, the accepted rule. Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat: true proclamation if that will do; if that will not do, then false proclamation, -- to such extent of falsity as will serve your purpose; as will not seem too false to be credible! -- I answer, once for all, that the fact is not so. Nature requires no man to make proclamation of his doings and hat-makings; Nature forbids all men to make such. There is not a man or hat-maker born into the world but feels, at first, that he is degrading himself if he speak of his excellencies and prowesses, and supremacy in his craft: his inmost heart says to him, “Leave thy friends to speak of these; if possible, thy enemies to speak of these; but at all events, thy friends!” He feels that he is already a poor braggart; fast hastening to be a falsity and speaker of the Untruth.

Nature’s Laws, I must repeat, are eternal: her small still voice, speaking from the inmost heart of us, shall not, under terrible penalties, be disregarded. No one man can depart from the truth without damage to himself; no one million of men; no Twenty-seven Millions of men. Shew me a Nation fallen everywhere into this course, so that each expects it, permits it to others and himself, I will shew you a Nation travelling with one assent on the broad way. The broad way, however many Banks of England, Cotton-Mills and Duke’s Palaces it may have! Not at happy Elysian fields, and everlasting crowns of victory, earned by silent Valour, will this Nation arrive; but at precipices, devouring gulfs, if it pause not. Nature has appointed happy fields, victorious laurel-crowns; but only to the brave and true; Unnature, what we call Chaos, holds nothing in it but vacuities, devouring gulfs. What are Twenty-seven Millions, and their unanimity? Believe them not: the Worlds and the Ages, God and Nature and All Men say otherwise.

‘Rhetoric all this?’ No, my brother, very singular to say, it is Fact all this. Cocker’s Arithmetic is not truer. Forgotten in these days, it is old as the foundations of the Universe, and will endure till the Universe cease. It is forgotten now; and the first mention of it puckers thy sweet countenance into a sneer: but it will be brought to mind again, -- unless indeed the Law of Gravitation chance to cease, and men find that they can walk on vacancy. Unanimity of the Twenty-Seven Millions will do nothing: walk not thou with them; fly from them as for thy life. Twenty-seven Millions travelling on such courses, with gold jingling in every pocket, with vivats heaven-high, are incessantly advancing, let me again remind thee, towards the firm-land’s end, -- towards the end and extinction of what Faithfulness, Veracity, real Worth, was in their way of life. Their noble ancestors have fashioned for them a ‘life-road;’ -- in how many thousand senses, this! There is not an old wise Proverb on their tongue, an honest Principle articulated in their hearts into utterance, a wise true method of doing and despatching any work or commerce of men, but helps yet to carry them forward. Life is still possible to them, because all is not yet Puffery, Falsity, Mammon-worship and Unnature; because somewhat is yet Faithfulness, Veracity and Valour. With a certain very considerable finite quantity of Unveracity and Phantasm, social life is still possible; not with an infinite quantity! Exceed your certain quantity, the seven-feet Hat, and all things upwards to the very Champion cased in tin, begin to reel and flounder, -- in Manchester Insurrections, Chartisms, Sliding-scales; the Law of Gravitation not forgetting to act. You advance incessantly towards the land’s end; you are, literally enough, ‘consuming the way.’ Step after step, Twenty-seven Million unconscious men; -- till you are at the land’s end; till there is not Faithfulness enough among you any more: and the next step now is lifted not over land, but into air, over ocean-deeps and roaring abysses: -- unless perhaps the Law of Gravitation have forgotten to act?

O, it is frightful, when a whole Nation, as our Fathers used to say, has ‘forgotten God;’ has remembered only Mammon, and what Mammon leads to! When your self-trumpeting Hatmaker is the emblem of almost all makers, and workers, and men, that make anything, -- from soul-overseerships, body-overseerships, epic poems, acts of parliament, to hats and shoe-blacking! Not one false man but does uncountable mischief: how much, in a generation or two, will Twenty-seven Millions, mostly false, manage to accumulate? The sum of it, visible in every street, market-place, senate-house, circulating-library, cathedral, cotton-mill, and union-workhouse, fills one not with a comic feeling!

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