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Weaving the Material and the Immaterial

‘The silent Arachnes that weave unrestingly in our Imagination’: The Industrial Metaphoric Web in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

« Les Arachnés silencieuses qui œuvrent sans répit dans notre Imagination » : les métaphores filées de l’industrie dans Sartor Resartus de Thomas Carlyle
Marie Laniel

Résumés

Si Thomas Carlyle fut certainement l’un des critiques les plus virulents de l’Ère Industrielle, responsable selon lui de la dégradation spirituelle de l’homme asservi par les machines, il était également animé par le désir d’interpréter et de donner un sens aux métamorphoses constantes de la société moderne. Au livre I, chapitre 10 de Sartor Resartus, Carlyle revisite ainsi le mythe d’Arachné et adapte le poème d’Ovide aux préoccupations de son temps : « Devons-nous craindre d’être pris dans les rets, réels ou chimériques, de l’ère industrielle, qu’ils soient tissés sur les métiers d’Arkwright ou par les Arachnés silencieuses qui œuvrent sans répit dans notre Imagination ? » En évoquant les gestes mécaniques et répétitifs de ces Arachnés modernes, Carlyle dénonce la détérioration des conditions de travail des ouvrières et la contamination de l’esprit par le rythme des machines. Cependant, précisément parce qu’elles tissent des liens entre le règne de la matière et celui de la poésie, ces Arachnés modernes symbolisent également le travail de l’imagination, la puissance métamorphique du langage poétique face aux changements de la société, la capacité des « systèmes symboliques » à « faire et refaire le monde », pour citer La Métaphore vive de Paul Ricœur. Le fil qu’elles tissent matérialise la nature « tensionnelle de la vérité métaphorique », l’intensité de la « métaphore vive ».

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1One of the staunchest critics of ‘the Age of Machinery’ (Carlyle 1829, 442), who repeatedly condemned the spiritual degradation induced by the process of mechanisation and the submission of men to machines, Thomas Carlyle was also fully aware of the interpretive challenges posed to the social critic by the constant metamorphoses of industrial society, which he famously encapsulated in Sartor Resartus (1833–34) and Past and Present (1843) as a ‘Sphinx-riddle’ (Carlyle 2005, 16), a riddle which one ‘must read, or be devoured’ (Carlyle 1999, 98), which one must read or ‘suffer death, the worst death, a spiritual’ (43). What Carlyle criticized about the industrial age was not the progress of technology as such, but the lack of spiritual guidance in the face of change, the lack of an inward, moral force that would accompany the development of outward, mechanical power:

  • 1 ‘Carlyle allowed that in some significant respects “mechanical genius”—the capacity to relate cause (...)

[I]t seems clear enough that only in the right co-ordination of the two, and the vigorous forwarding of both, does our true line of action lie. Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses . . . . Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must, in the long run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious. (452) 1

2Carlyle believed that material and spiritual forces both partake of ‘the Mystery of Force’ and that they could contribute to mankind’s development if they were to unite: ‘with Iron Force, and Coal Force, and the far stronger Force of Man, are cunning affinities and battles and victories of Force brought about’ (Carlyle 1999, 55–56). He therefore saw it as the duty of the social critic to provide spiritual guidance, as well as an interpretive framework to decipher the hieroglyphics of this ‘strange new Today’ (Carlyle 2005, 12).

3The main protagonist of Sartor Resartus, Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, from the university of Weissnichtwo, is faced with such interpretive challenges. According to him, the predicament of the industrial age is epitomized by one key and ambivalent symbol, that of clothes and clothing (‘Society is founded upon cloth’, 41): produced in the new semi-automated spinning-mills, included in new commercial circuits, representative of the newly-acquired social status of the middle class, clothes hide man’s true spiritual nature, reduce his soul to a purse and society to a mere ‘Ragfair of a World’ (171). However, precisely because they are the symbol of the industrial age—and it is their ambivalent nature—, clothes are also the key to the system of interpretation which could enable the social critic to make sense of this new era. Therefore, in Sartor Resartus, Teufelsdröckh tries to see beyond the materiality of clothes as a product of the textile industry to perceive the spiritual ‘vestures’ (147, 162, 179, 205), the symbolic systems of belief—religion, education, politics—that man invests with meaning in order to make sense of his condition: ‘[A]rt not thou too perhaps by this time made aware that all symbols are properly Clothes; that all Forms whereby Spirit manifests itself to Sense, whether outwardly or in the imagination, are Clothes’ (205). It is man’s failure to weave for himself these new ‘Spiritual Tissues, or Garments’ (164), his failure to connect outward circumstances with inward systems of thought that Teufelsdröckh hopes to address: ‘There has a Hole fallen out in the immeasurable, universal World-tissue, which must be darned up again!’ (186). In order to do so, Teufelsdröckh develops his own personal philosophy, which can be described as a sartorial version of German Idealism and which he expounds in his magnum opus, a book on the History of Clothes (Clothes, Their Origin and Influence). Sartor Resartus describes the complex and chaotic editorial process leading to the ever-delayed publication of this book.

  • 2 In The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), Andrew Ure mostly celebrates Minerva as the founder of th (...)
  • 3 For an in-depth analysis of Book VI of Metamorphoses, see Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, Les Métamorphoses (...)

4In Book I, chapter 10 (‘Pure Reason’), the tenets of Teufelsdröckh’s sartorial philosophy and his anxieties about the industrial age are expressed in one central question: ‘Shall we tremble before clothwebs and cobwebs, whether woven in Arkwright looms, or by the silent Arachnes that weave unrestingly in our Imagination? Or, on the other hand, what is there that we cannot love; since all was created by God?’ (52) Whereas some of Carlyle’s contemporaries, such as Andrew Ure or William Cooke Taylor, celebrated Minerva or Prometheus as the tutelary figures of progress and industry, Carlyle chose the much more ambivalent figure of Arachne to convey his industrial anxieties.2 In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne, a young plebeian girl from Lydia, takes such hubristic pride in her weaving skills that she denies the divine origin of her talent. She is therefore challenged to a weaving contest by Minerva and, although—or perhaps because—her tapestry is far superior, she arouses the goddess’s vindictive wrath.3 Her tapestry is destroyed. Arachne is humbled—the goddess strikes her three or four times on the head with her shuttle—, she tries to commit suicide and is eventually turned into a spider by a slightly mollified Minerva, who takes pity on her. Carlyle’s reference to the myth is far from innocent, and we will see that, in Sartor Resartus, the figure of Arachne lies comfortably at the centre of a metaphoric web, connecting the notions of industry, metamorphosis and language.

  • 4 Edmund Cartwright (1743–1823) is credited with the invention of the power-loom in 1785. But he drew (...)
  • 5 While in her tapestry Minerva celebrates the glory of the Olympian gods and the legitimacy of their (...)

5In the excerpt from Book I of Sartor Resartus quoted above, Carlyle adapts the tale of Arachne to the industrial context by revisiting her original transformation: the singular becomes plural—‘Arachne’ becomes ‘Arachnes’—as the young weaver grows into an army of factory workers absorbed into the new manufacturing system. The reference to Richard Arkwright further complicates the reinterpretation of Ovid’s tale.4 Here, Carlyle makes the most of the metamorphic potential of the myth, as it is not clear whether his modern-day Arachnes are industrial workers (weavers), machines (power-looms) or even factories. Rather, the original figure of Arachne seems to have morphed and multiplied to form an army of animal-mechanical hybrids, combining organic and technological features. In Book VI of Ovid’s poem, Arachne, who wove the deceitful metamorphoses of the gods into her tapestry, is made to experience the painful transformation of her own body and the bitter irony of her condition in a cruel mise en abyme: 5

  • 6 ‘Vive quidem, pende tamen, improba, dixit: / Lexque eadem poenae, ne sis secura futuri, / Dicta tuo (...)

‘Live!’ said [the goddess],
‘Yes, live but hang, you wicked girl, and know
You’ll rue the future too: that penalty
Your kin shall pay to all posterity!’
And as she turned to go, she sprinkled her
With drugs of Hecate, and in a trice,
Touched by the bitter lotion, all her hair
Falls off and with it go her nose and ears.
Her head shrinks tiny; her whole body’s small;
Instead of legs slim fingers line her sides.
The rest is belly; yet from that she sends
A fine-spun thread and, as a spider, still
Weaving her web, pursues her former skill. (VI, 136–45)
6

  • 7 Arachne’s metonymic reduction to ‘fingers’ mirrors the metonymic reduction of male workers to ‘hand (...)
  • 8 In book II, chapter 3 of Sartor Resartus (‘Pedagogy’), Teufelsdröckh derides the spiritual degradat (...)

6Adapted by Carlyle to the industrial context, Arachne’s metamorphosis is made to stand for the painful changes experienced by factory workers, since her body undergoes a form of utilitarian reduction to its more functional and productive parts: she loses her hair—the attribute of femininity—, her nose and ears; her whole body is reduced to fingers for the production of goods and to a belly for the consumption of goods.7 The shrinking of her head and the expansion of her belly mirror the deformity of industrial society, the degradation of workers’ souls to stomachs, which is a recurrent motif in Carlyle’s anti-utilitarian writings.8

7French artist Gustave Doré (1832–1883), who was also fascinated with the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, made a striking representation of Arachne’s metamorphosis for an 1868 edition of Dante’s Purgatory. In Canto XII of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil come across the prostrate figure of Arachne in the process of being transformed into a spider: ‘O mad Arachne, so I saw you, already half a spider, sitting wretched on the shreds of the work you made to your own ruin!’ (191). Although Arachne still has distinctively human, even feminine, features—she hasn’t lost her hair, her nose and her ears yet—her body is no longer human, but contorted in an unnatural position and reduced to an exposed belly lined with monstrous legs (figure 1).

Figure 1: Gustave Doré, reproduced from Le Purgatoire de Dante Alighieri (XII: 43-45), trans. Pier-Angelo Fiorentino

Figure 1: Gustave Doré, reproduced from Le Purgatoire de Dante Alighieri (XII: 43-45), trans. Pier-Angelo Fiorentino

Paris: Hachette, 1868, np, public domain

8In Sartor Resartus, Arachne’s metamorphosis stands for the symbolic economy of industrial society, as the metabolism of the spider, whose spinnerets produce silk from ingested and digested bodies, reproduces on a small scale what Carlyle saw as the economic principles of Utilitarianism, what he called a merely ‘Digestive Mechanic life’ (Carlyle 1999, 166). In his 1858 entomological essay, entitled The Insect, French historian Jules Michelet, who shared Carlyle’s views on History, describes the spider as a perfectly functional, small-scale, organic version of a spinning-mill, built on a rational principle, each of its organs performing a specific task: ‘In the same manner the spider is pot-bellied. Nature has sacrificed everything to its function, its wants, and the industrial apparatus which will satisfy those wants. It is an artisan, a rope-maker, a spinner, and a weaver. Do not look at its figure, but at the product of its art. It is not only a spinner, but a spinning-mill’ (212). A perfectly functional little factory, the spider also epitomizes the principles and contradictions of Utilitarianism:

The spider’s hunt costs it dearly, if I may venture to say so, and demands an incessant outlay. Every day, every hour, it must draw from its own substance the essential element of the network which is to provide it with food and renew that substance. Accordingly, it starves in order to nourish, and exhausts in order to recruit itself; it grows lean on the dubious hope of afterwards growing fat … (212)

9In what can only be described as the arachnid equivalent of Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic calculus, the spider must constantly weigh the benefits and disadvantages of producing more silk in order to catch its prey and feed, therefore running the risk of exhausting its own substance and of starving: ‘Its thread, for the spider as for the Parca is that of destiny’ (Michelet 218).

  • 9 On the association between spiders and mania, see Sylvie Ballestra-Puech (‘Arachné et les Minyades: (...)
  • 10 See Tamara Ketabgian, The Lives of Machines, 47–70.
  • 11 The influence of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub on Carlyle’s writings has been widely commented o (...)

10As well as the painful changes of industrial bodies, Carlyle’s modern-day Arachnes, with their incessant spinning and weaving in ‘the factory system of the mind’ (Ketabgian 4), also reflect the development of new ‘modes of thought and feeling’ (Carlyle 1829, 444) induced by mechanical processes and characterised by repetition, compulsion, automation and self-sufficiency. Drawing on the traditional association of spiders with mania, obsession and the vanity of fruitless thinking,9 Carlyle uses the insect to represent the ‘industrialisation of the psyche’ (Ketabgian 2, 53) and the contamination of inner life by the rhythms of industrial production.10 Indeed, his modern Arachnes, who only produce ‘clothwebs and cobwebs’, insubstantial, fruitless ratiocinations leading to insanity, are reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s Modern Spider of Invention in ‘The Battle of the Books’, ‘so Modern in his Air, his Turns, and his Paradoxes’ (151), who feeds upon ‘the Insects and Vermin of the Age’ (152), ‘Spins and Spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any Obligation or Assistance from without’ (152), ‘displays his great Skill in Architecture, and Improvement in the Mathematicks’ (152), only to produce cobwebs, ‘spun out of [his] own Entrails’, ‘the Guts of Modern Brains’ (152).11 Like Swift’s arrogant spider, Carlyle’s modern Arachnes draw their substance merely from their own interior: their guts have replaced their brains as the seat of thought. Associated with utilitarian modes of thinking, based on mathematics, logic, computation, the calculation of profit and loss, causes and effects, they fuel Teufelsdröckh’s anguish about the appalling conditions of workers and his fear of social unrest.

11The first stage in Teufelsdröckh’s spiritual development is therefore a movement of emancipation from this process of mechanical and utilitarian thinking, a refusal to be ‘a mere Work-Machine, for whom the divine gift of Thought were no other than the terrestrial gift of Steam is to the Steam-engine; a power whereby Cotton might be spun, and money and money’s worth realised’ (196). To the industrialisation of the mind and the contamination of spiritual life by processes of hedonistic computation, Carlyle’s protagonist opposes another faculty, Fantasy or Imagination, the ‘organ of the Godlike’ (165). Indeed, in Book I of Sartor Resartus, the industrious activities of Carlyle’s silent Arachnes are associated with a specific faculty of the mind, the workings of imagination. Therefore, they pose a challenge to the social critic not merely in social or economic terms but also in creative terms. They do not merely prey on his mind and fuel his anguish about the living conditions of workers, but they also fuel his imagination.

12At the end of Book II, after going through a period of utter despair and visions of apocalyptic horror in the chapter entitled ‘The Everlasting No’, Teufelsdröckh finally has the intuition of the power of imagination as an instrument of truth, the revelation of his true calling as a spiritual guide and the vision of his magnum opus, his book on clothes:

[Teufelsdröckh] has discovered that the Ideal Workshop he so panted for, is even this same Actual ill-furnished Workshop he has so long been stumbling in. He can say to himself: ‘Tools? Thou hast no Tools? Why, there is not a Man, or a Thing, now alive but has tools. The basest of created animalcules, the Spider itself, has a spinning-jenny, and warping-mill, and power-loom, within its head; the stupidest of Oysters has a Papin’s-Digester, with stone-and-lime house to hold it in: every being that can live can do something; this let him do.—Tools? Hast thou not a Brain, furnished, furnishable with some glimmerings of Light; and three fingers to hold a Pen withal? Never since Aaron’s Rod went out of practice, or even before it, was there such a wonder-working Tool: greater than all recorded miracles have been performed by Pens. (150)

Figure 2: ‘The Symbol Shop’, Edmund J. Sullivan, reproduced from Sartor Resartus, Book III, Chapter V, London: George Bell & Sons, 1898, p. 271, scanned image by George P. Landow

Figure 2: ‘The Symbol Shop’, Edmund J. Sullivan, reproduced from Sartor Resartus, Book III, Chapter V, London: George Bell & Sons, 1898, p. 271, scanned image by George P. Landow

Source: http://www.victorianweb.org/​art/​illustration/​sullivan/​61.html

13True to Carlyle’s spirit and humour, in the 1898 edition of Sartor Resartus, British illustrator Edmund J. Sullivan represented Teufelsdröckh’s ‘Workshop’ as a vast accumulation of ‘old symbols’ (179), ‘once sacred’ (177), but no longer endowed with real significance (figure 2). In this illustration for Book III, Chapter V, the emblems of the secular power of ‘the State’ or ‘Body Politic’ (177)—the crown, the sceptre, the chair, the armour, the shield, the sword, the drum and bugle—and the emblems of the spiritual authority and guidance of ‘the Church (177)—the tiara, the crozier, the orb and cross—form a huge ‘funeral-pile of symbols (177), heaped in a corner or lying on the floor of Teufelsdröckh’s workshop. The hourglass, the rat, the scythe, the skull, the peacock feather and the grinning satyr suggest the vanity and uselessness of these superseded systems of belief. Interestingly, this symbolic paraphernalia is presided over by a large spider’s web, which might epitomize the vanity of old creeds, but which also points to Teufelsdröckh’s mission as a weaver of new spiritual ‘vestures’ (179).

  • 12 ‘The tale of Arachne can be read as an aesthetic manifesto or even as an implicit evocation of Ovid (...)

14Indeed, in his ‘Ideal Workshop’, that is to say the workshop of Idealism, Teufelsdröckh discovers what Paul Ricœur in The Rule of Metaphor calls ‘the redescriptive power of poetic language’ (292), the capacity of symbolic systems to ‘make’ and ‘remake’ the world (273). The connection between Arachne and the power of imagination, which was suggested in Book I, is now made manifest, since Teufelsdröckh compares his calling as the prophet of his age to the activity of an industrious spider, whose dominant organ is no longer the belly but the head. Although he does it with humour, Carlyle suggests that Arachne is also a figure of the poet, spinning symbols in the ‘ideal’ workshop of imagination, a workshop which is powered by both animal and industrial energy. Like other mythological figures from Ovid’s tale, Arachne is an ‘embodied metaphor’ (Ballestra-Puech 49), an embodiment of the process of metamorphosis, but unlike the other unfortunate creatures depicted by Ovid, she has the ability to weave metaphors, to connect the material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible, through her ‘spiritual touch’ (Keats 66). Indeed, as Sylvie Ballestra-Puech argues in Les Métamorphoses d’Arachné, Arachne, who depicts a series of deceitful metamorphoses in her tapestry, is also a figure of the poet, Ovid himself, silenced by divine authority—the authority of Emperor Augustus—and using imagination as the instrument of truth, asserting the truth of images in his poem, their ability to expose the abuse of power.12 Her tapestry, which is described in a long ekphrasis, is a mirror image of Ovid’s poem, ‘a mirror of Ovid’s aesthetics’ (45). Its structure is not hieratic or hierarchical, but inspired by a spider’s web. It is an autonomous, self-evolving work of art, embodying the very principles of metamorphosis, the process of analogy itself and the workings of imagination (44–45). This interpretation is also supported by A. S. Byatt in a short piece entitled ‘Arachne’, published in 2000 in the collection Ovid Metamorphosed: ‘Arachne’s tapestry is Ovid’s poem, a rush of beings, a rush of animal, vegetable and mineral constantly coming into shape and constantly undone and re-forming’ (141); ‘Ovid gave Arachne all the lively images. He gave her his own style . . . whilst his doll-like goddess puts up a puppet-arm’ (143).

  • 13 On August 5th, 1829, shortly before he started working on Sartor Resartus, Carlyle wrote in his not (...)

15Like Ovid, in Book II of Sartor Resartus, Carlyle describes imagination as an ‘Ideal Workshop’ or mill, producing ‘heuristic fictions’ (Ricœur 282), that can help Teufelsdröckh make sense of the industrial era and ‘remake industrialism in the factory of the mind’ (Ketabgian 4). His protagonist, Teufelsdröckh, believes in the heuristic power of imagination and the heuristic power of metaphors, their capacity to convey a form of truth.13 The modernity of Carlyle lies precisely in his capacity to connect social and political issues with their poetic and metaphoric representation:

[M]ust not the Imagination weave Garments, visible Bodies, wherein the else invisible creations and inspirations of our Reason are, like Spirits, revealed, and first become all-powerful? ... Language is called the Garment of Thought: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of Thought. I said that Imagination wove this Flesh-Garment; and does not she? Metaphors are her stuff: examine Language ... what is it all but Metaphors? (56–57)

16In his ideal workshop, Teufelsdröckh, a new ‘loom-treadle’ for the industrial age (179), is busy spinning new belief systems, the ‘living integuments’ of thought (57). For him as for Carlyle, these ‘living metaphors’—to use Paul Ricœur’s expression—are not just figures of speech and ornaments, but they can help form new creeds, new myths and new bonds between individuals. Carlyle assimilated the industrial age into his own apocalyptic vision of History as a time of ‘Fire-Baptism’ (129–30) or ‘Phoenix-Cremation’ (180) which might give birth to a new era and out of which new spiritual bonds might be established, new ‘organic filaments’ might be spun:

In that Fire-whirlwind [for us, who happen to live while the World-Phoenix is burning herself], Creation and Destruction proceed together; ever as the ashes of the Old are blown about, do organic filaments of the New mysteriously spin themselves ... to poor individuals ... those same organic filaments, mysteriously spinning themselves, will be the best part of the spectacle ... Wondrous truly are the bonds that unite us one and all; whether by the soft binding of Love, or the iron chaining of Necessity, as we like to choose it. (185)

  • 14 See for instance Book II, chapter 1 on ‘The Examination of the Textile Fibres—Cotton, Woolf, Flax, (...)

17Yet again, Carlyle combines organic, technological and political imagery to describe the collective networks uniting a ‘generation of men’ ‘woven together’ by ‘the iron chaining of Necessity’ (185). His ‘organic filaments’ bring to mind ‘cotton filaments’, the fibres of cotton used as raw material in spinning-mills—it is the word used by Andrew Ure in The Philosophy of Manufactures—,14 but they also evoke the organic threads of silk produced by a spider (see figure 3: Edmund J. Sullivan’s heading to Book III Chapter VII of Sartor Resartus).

Figure 3: “Heading to Chapter VII [Organic Filaments]”, Edmund J. Sullivan, reproduced from Sartor Resartus, London: George Bell & Sons, 1898, p. 283, scanned image by George P. Landow

Figure 3: “Heading to Chapter VII [Organic Filaments]”, Edmund J. Sullivan, reproduced from Sartor Resartus, London: George Bell & Sons, 1898, p. 283, scanned image by George P. Landow

Source: http://www.victorianweb.org/​art/​illustration/​sullivan/​66.html)

18In The Lost Thread (2014), Jacques Rancière famously defined the politics of literature as spider’s work (le travail de l’araignée), drawing on John Keats’s analogy in his letter to J. H. Reynolds, dated 19 February 1818, in which he compares ‘artistic composition’ with ‘the industrious activity’ of a spider:

Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel—the points of leaves and twigs on which the spider begins her work are few and she fills the Air with a beautiful circuiting: man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul and weave a tapestry empyrean—full of symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering, of distinctness for his Luxury … (66)

19In Keats’s letter, poetry as an immaterial tapestry of sensations defines ‘a specific mode of sensible communication’, out of which a community—‘a possible relation between humans’ (Rancière 74)—can be built, as each individual sensation can find an echo and reverberate in the common fabric. Elaborating on Keats’s analogy, Jacques Rancière defines the politics of literature as ‘a certain weaving of the material and the immaterial’ (73), as ‘the configuration of a specific sensorium that holds [a] community together’ (73), as ‘a practice of the web’ (86): ‘Poetry can belong to all as a common fabric, constantly rewoven from such or such fragment. To achieve this the diligence of dreamy spiders is thus required; spiders whose work is rid of its utilitarian, that is to say, predatory, function’ (76).

  • 15 In The Rule of Metaphor (1975), Paul Ricœur defines ‘tensive aliveness’ as a characteristic feature (...)

20Like John Keats, his contemporary, Carlyle believed that poetry and imagination have a political function, that it is possible to found a community on a tapestry of symbols, to weave ‘organic filaments’ and spiritual bonds in the workshop of Idealism. But unlike Keats, who thought that this spiritual web should be spun in indolence and passivity, Carlyle firmly believed in the Gospel of Work. Keats’s spider is diligent but dreamy; it feeds on sensations; its web is ‘an airy citadel’ suspended on the extremities of leaves or twigs. Carlyle’s spider is industrious, goaded by the Gospel of Work, firmly grounded in the reality of matter, and fuelled by nervous energy. It is still slightly threatening and predatory; it retains its ambivalence, its firm connection to the industrial world. Containing a whole industrial apparatus within its head, its function is precisely to unite the realm of machinery and the realm of poetry. The web it spins is not an airy citadel. It represents the ‘tensional’ quality of metaphor, the ‘tensive aliveness’ of the metaphoric process (Ricœur 296), connecting the opposite realms of mind and matter.15

21Although Carlyle was deeply concerned about the dehumanisation of workers and the destructive power of mechanisation, he was also very alert to the effects of industrialisation on language and anxious to explore the metaphoric potential of the new tensional relations between humans and machines. The indictment of mechanisation and Utilitarianism provided him with an opportunity to convey ‘the figurative influence of the machine in portraits of spirituality’ (Ketabgian 5), ‘the figurative possibilities of the nonhuman’ (8). Combining as it does the vital and the technological, Carlyle’s spider is the embodiment of the ‘dynamic of transference’ (Ricœur 63) at the heart of the metaphoric process itself. Complete with a spinning-jenny, warping-mill and power-loom within its head, it is at once a piece of machinery powered by industrial energy and a ‘living metaphor’.

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Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of Manufactures. London: Knight, 1835.

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Notes

1 ‘Carlyle allowed that in some significant respects “mechanical genius”—the capacity to relate cause to effect in the material world, and to use this knowledge to expand the physical capacities of humankind—made important contributions to human welfare, and to humanity’s capacity to reduce parts of the natural world to a more orderly and beneficial condition. He insisted, however, that attempts to apply mechanical ingenuity to all aspects of life were characteristic errors of the modern age . . . The key issue was not that the mechanical capacities of humanity played an increasingly important role in the modern world, but that the mechanical cast of mind had attempted to usurp the province of the dynamic by being applied to aspects of human life and thought that should be guided by aesthetic, moral and religious values’ (Morrow 58).

2 In The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), Andrew Ure mostly celebrates Minerva as the founder of the art of spinning and weaving (Book II, chapter 1, 82), although he also briefly mentions Arachne (Book II, chapter 2, 105). In book III, chapter 1, he compares Richard Arkwright to a modern-day Prometheus (367). In his Notes of a Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire (1842), William Cooke Taylor compares the invention of the spinning-jenny and the power-loom to the birth of Minerva: ‘The steam-engine had no precedent, the spinning-jenny is without ancestry, the mule and the power-loom entered on no prepared heritage: they sprang into sudden existence like Minerva from the brain of Jupiter, passing so rapidly through their stage of infancy that they had taken their position in the world and firmly established themselves before there was time to prepare a place for their reception’ (4).

3 For an in-depth analysis of Book VI of Metamorphoses, see Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, Les Métamorphoses d’Arachné, Genève: Droz, 2006.

4 Edmund Cartwright (1743–1823) is credited with the invention of the power-loom in 1785. But he drew inspiration from Richard Arkwright (1732–1792), who developed a water-driven spinning frame and modernised the factory system.

5 While in her tapestry Minerva celebrates the glory of the Olympian gods and the legitimacy of their power, Arachne represents their deceitful transformations (the ‘crimes of heaven’, VI, 131): ‘Ovid describes the woven scenes in detail. Pallas Athene weaves the forms of civic and divine order … She weaves the twelve gods, on their twelve high thrones full of exalted gravity and grace. She knows their faces, and depicts them, including Jupiter in majesty. She depicts herself, too, upright, armed, with shield, spear and helmet. . . In the four corners of her web, symmetrically, she weaves four scenes of human presumption and punishment. These, like Ovid’s poem, in which they are images within images, show metamorphoses. They are addressed to Arachne; they portend pain and terror . . . And Arachne’s tapestry? She too wove tales of shape-shifting and metamorphosis. Hers were not tales of impertinent women, but of erotomanic gods, full of randy energy, infiltrating the world of creatures, even of metals, to trick, to impregnate defenceless girls [Europa, Asterie, Leda…]. All is deception’ (Byatt 139-141). As suggested by Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, the stories woven into Arachne’s tapestry convey a form of tragic irony: by representing the deceitful shape-shifting of the gods, ‘Arachne unwittingly wove her own destiny’ (Ballestra-Puech 35).

6 ‘Vive quidem, pende tamen, improba, dixit: / Lexque eadem poenae, ne sis secura futuri, / Dicta tuo generi, serisque nepotibus esto. / Post ea discedens succis Hecateidos herbae / Spargit. Et extemplo tristi medicamine tactae / Defluxere comae; cumque his et naris et auris, / Fitque caput minimum; toto quoque corpore parva est. / In latere exiles digiti pro cruribus haerent, / Cetera venter habet, de quo tamen illa remittit / Stamen, et antiquas exercet aranea telas’ (Metamorphoses VI, 136-145).

7 Arachne’s metonymic reduction to ‘fingers’ mirrors the metonymic reduction of male workers to ‘hands’ in industrial novels.

8 In book II, chapter 3 of Sartor Resartus (‘Pedagogy’), Teufelsdröckh derides the spiritual degradation induced by Utilitarianism: ‘If man’s Soul is indeed, as in the Finnish Language, and Utilitarian Philosophy, a kind of Stomach, what else is the true meaning of Spiritual Union but an Eating together?’ (91). The fake etymological link between ‘soul’ and ‘stomach’ in Finnish is one of the numerous instances of Carlyle’s satirical use of made-up etymology (McSweeney and Sabor 255).

9 On the association between spiders and mania, see Sylvie Ballestra-Puech (‘Arachné et les Minyades: le fil de la folie’, 57–68). See also her analysis of Erasmus’s adage, ‘aranearum telas texere’, which refers to sterile wool-gathering (109). In Book I of The Advancement of Learning (1605), Francis Bacon compares the workings of the scholastic or monastic mind, drawing all knowledge from itself, without any practical connection to the outside world, to the sterile activity of a spider: ‘For the human mind, if it acts upon matter, and contemplates the nature of things, and the works of God, operates according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it works upon itself, as the spider does, then it has no end; but produces cobwebs of learning, admirable indeed for the fineness of the thread, but of no substance or profit’ (emphasis mine).

10 See Tamara Ketabgian, The Lives of Machines, 47–70.

11 The influence of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub on Carlyle’s writings has been widely commented on by critics (McSweeney and Sabor xv–xvi).

12 ‘The tale of Arachne can be read as an aesthetic manifesto or even as an implicit evocation of Ovid’s difficult dealings with imperial power’ (Ballestra-Puech 29–30). ‘The Metamorphoses were completed in 8 AD, the year Ovid was banished by Emperor Augustus to Tomis, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, where he died nine years later, without being granted a pardon from Augustus or from his successor, Tiberius. According to Ovid himself, the official reason for his banishment was the immorality of his Ars Amatoria. We still don’t know what the true reason was, but we can assume that Ovid paid very dearly for his refusal to celebrate imperial ideology in his works’ (Ballestra-Puech 37).

13 On August 5th, 1829, shortly before he started working on Sartor Resartus, Carlyle wrote in his notebook: ‘All Language but that concerning sensual objects is or has been figurative. Prodigious influence of metaphors! Never saw into it till lately. A truly useful and philosophical work would be a good Essay on Metaphors. Some day I will write one!’ (141–42).

14 See for instance Book II, chapter 1 on ‘The Examination of the Textile Fibres—Cotton, Woolf, Flax, and Silk’ (81–104).

15 In The Rule of Metaphor (1975), Paul Ricœur defines ‘tensive aliveness’ as a characteristic feature of ‘living metaphors’. He borrows this ‘tensional conception of truth’ from Philip Wheelwright’s essays, Metaphor and Reality (Indiana University Press, 1962) and The Burning Fountain (Indiana University Press, 1968): ‘Language, says [Wheelwright], is “tensive” and “alive” . . . More particularly, this “tensive” character of language is focused in metaphor, as opposed to “epiphor” and “diaphor”: epiphor juxtaposes and fuses terms by means of immediate assimilation at the level of the image, whereas diaphor proceeds mediately and through combination of discrete terms. Metaphor is the tension between epiphor and diaphor. This tension guarantees the very transference of meaning and gives poetic language its characteristic of semantic “plus-value”, its capacity to be open towards new aspects, new dimensions, new horizons of meaning. Hence, all these traits call for expression directly in terms of life—“living”, “alive”, “intense”. In the expression “tensive aliveness”. . . the accent is put on the vital rather than the logical aspect of tension; “connotative fullness” and “tensive aliveness” are opposed to the rigidity, the coldness, the deadening effect of “steno-language”. “Fluid-language” contrasts here with “block-language”, which triumphs with the abstractions shared by several minds due to habit or convention. This is a language that has lost its “tensional ambiguities”, its “fluid uncaptured meanings”’ (296).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Gustave Doré, reproduced from Le Purgatoire de Dante Alighieri (XII: 43-45), trans. Pier-Angelo Fiorentino
Crédits Paris: Hachette, 1868, np, public domain
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cve/docannexe/image/3521/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 604k
Titre Figure 2: ‘The Symbol Shop’, Edmund J. Sullivan, reproduced from Sartor Resartus, Book III, Chapter V, London: George Bell & Sons, 1898, p. 271, scanned image by George P. Landow
Crédits Source: http://www.victorianweb.org/​art/​illustration/​sullivan/​61.html
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cve/docannexe/image/3521/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 104k
Titre Figure 3: “Heading to Chapter VII [Organic Filaments]”, Edmund J. Sullivan, reproduced from Sartor Resartus, London: George Bell & Sons, 1898, p. 283, scanned image by George P. Landow
Crédits Source: http://www.victorianweb.org/​art/​illustration/​sullivan/​66.html)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cve/docannexe/image/3521/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 65k
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Référence électronique

Marie Laniel, « ‘The silent Arachnes that weave unrestingly in our Imagination’: The Industrial Metaphoric Web in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 87 Printemps | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 18 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3521 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3521

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Auteur

Marie Laniel

Marie Laniel is Senior Lecturer at the Université de Picardie – Jules Verne (France). Her research focuses on Victorian subtexts in the works of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. She is currently preparing a book on this topic to be published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes. She is the author of articles on Virginia Woolf and Thomas Carlyle (‘Revisiting a Great Man’s House: Virginia Woolf’s Carlylean Pilgrimages’), Alfred Tennyson (‘“The name escapes me”: Virginia Woolf’s Dislocation of Patrilineal Memory in A Room of One’s Own’), John Ruskin (‘“Reading the Two Things at the Same Time”: Victorian Modernism in To the Lighthouse’), Matthew Arnold (‘Virginia Woolf, lectrice de Matthew Arnold: la fortune littéraire du “scholar-gipsy” dans les essais et la fiction’) and Leslie Stephen (‘Généalogies de l’essai: de Leslie Stephen à Virginia Woolf’). She is a member of the editorial board of L’Atelier and the editor of Polysèmes, a journal of intertextual and intermedial studies (https://journals.openedition.org/polysemes/).
Marie Laniel est Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Picardie – Jules Verne. Ses recherches portent sur l’intertexte victorien dans l’œuvre de E. M. Forster et de Virginia Woolf. Elle travaille actuellement à la rédaction d’un ouvrage sur ce sujet à paraître aux Presses Universitaires de Rennes. Elle est l’auteur d’articles sur Virginia Woolf et Thomas Carlyle (‘Revisiting a Great Man’s House: Virginia Woolf’s Carlylean Pilgrimages’), Alfred Tennyson (‘“The name escapes me”: Virginia Woolf’s Dislocation of Patrilineal Memory in A Room of One’s Own’), John Ruskin (‘“Reading the Two Things at the Same Time”: Victorian Modernism in To the Lighthouse’), Matthew Arnold (‘Virginia Woolf, lectrice de Matthew Arnold : la fortune littéraire du “scholar-gipsy” dans les essais et la fiction’) et Leslie Stephen (‘Généalogies de l’essai : de Leslie Stephen à Virginia Woolf’). Elle est membre du comité de rédaction de la revue L’Atelier et rédactrice en chef de Polysèmes, revue d’études intertextuelles et intermédiales (https://journals.openedition.org/polysemes/).

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