Many scholars of Thomas Carlyle refer to Sartor Resartus as fiction, but readers who think of the nineteenth century novel when they think of fiction would hardly agree. Although Sartor Resartus does have a putative hero, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, whose life and opinions become the substance of the book, he is only the mouthpiece through whom Carlyle unleashes a torrent of criticism about the materialism and philosophical rationalism of his age. Writing about the German humorist Jean Paul Richter, Carlyle observes that “every work, be it fiction or serious treatise, is embaled in some fantastic wrappage,” and he refers to Richter’s “perfect Indian jungle” of a style. This precisely describes Carlyle’s prose as well.
Sartor Resartus is divided into three books of eleven, ten, and twelve chapters, respectively. The title means, literally, “the Tailor Retailored,” and the whole work elaborates a long metaphor suggested by Jonathan Swift’s question in the second book of A Tale of a Tub (1704): “What is Man himself but a Micro-Coat, or rather a compleat Suit of Cloaths with all its Trimmings?” In Carlyle’s view, civilization—that is, religion, government, and all the other institutional garments that human beings weave to clothe themselves—is frayed and shabby and needs retailoring. For the transcendentalist Carlyle, clothes also become the shroud of matter by which all spirit makes its appearance in this world of sensible experience.
Carlyle adopts the conventional apprenticeship novel to his own purposes in Sartor Resartus. His chosen hero, the young man who goes out into the world and meets its challenges, has the fantastic name of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, or Born-of-God Devil’s-Dung. This improbably named character becomes professor of Allerley-Wissenschaft at the University of Weissnichtwo, or Professor of Things in General at the University of Know-Not-Where.
Carlyle’s complicated narrative begins with praise for “deep-thinking Germany” and its Idealist tradition in philosophy, its expounding of a transcendental supersensible realm closed off from the five senses. This admiration for German thought permeates Sartor Resartus, appearing not only in Teufelsdröckh’s nationality but also in the repeated German phrases and in the penchant for beginning nouns with capital letters. Given this predilection, the narrator responds eagerly to the arrival of Professor Teufelsdröckh’s new book on the origin and influence of clothes.
After months of perusing Teufelsdröckh’s opus, the narrator unexpectedly receives a letter from Teufelsdröckh’s associate, Herr Hofrath Heuschrecke (Mr. Councilor Grasshopper), announcing that he is sending materials for a “Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh.” Before these materials arrive, however, the narrator muses on the character of Teufelsdröckh and on passages from the volume on clothes. In book 1, chapter 5, for instance, Carlyle attacks one of his favorite targets, Enlightenment rationalism, when his narrator quotes Teufelsdröckh’s sneer at the Cause-and-Effect Philosopher.
The chapter “The World out of Clothes” stresses the inadequacy of rational systems, praising Teufelsdröckh’s broad, intuitive approach to understanding the spiritual basis of nature, an infinitely complex system, but one that faith convinces readers reveals a plan. Humans live as in a dream, perceiving only in “rare half-waking moments” the spiritual reality behind the mask of matter in the creation.
This same theme is pursued in a chapter that renounces “vulgar Logic” in favor of “Pure Reason”; that is, logic views the human being simply as an “omnivorous Biped that wears Breeches,” whereas Pure Reason, or direct, unmediated intuition, apprehends in humans “A Soul, a Spirit, and divine Apparition.” Matter, however, should not be denigrated, for it is everywhere the manifestation of Spirit. Science threatens the reverence for Spirit, however, because its curiosity about matter dampens the sense of wonder at the mystery of existence....
(The entire section is 1696 words.)