On THE PHILOSOPHY OF CLOTHES – THOMAS CARLYLE

sartor resartus

FROM SARTOR RESARTUS

CONSIDERING our present advanced state of culture, and how the torch of science has now been brandished and borne about, with more or less effect, for five thousand years and upwards, it is surprising that hitherto little or nothing of a fundamental character, whether in the way of philosophy or history, has been written on the subject of clothes. Every other tissue has been dissected, but the vestural tissue of woollen or other cloth, which man’s soul wears as its outmost wrappage, has been overlooked. All speculation has tacitly figured man as a clothed animal, whereas he is by nature a naked animal and only in certain circumstances, by purpose and device, masks himself in clothes.

But here, as in so many other cases, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid. The editor of these sheets has lately received a new book from Professor Teufelsdrockh, of Weissnichtwo, treating expressly of Clothes, their Origin and Influence (1831). This extensive volume, a very sea of thought, discloses to us not only a new branch of philosophy, but also the strange personal character of Professor Teufelsdrockh.

When we knew him at Weissnichtwo, Professor Teufelsdrockh lived a still and self-contained life, devoted to the higher philosophies and to a certain speculative radicalism. The last words that he spoke in our hearing were to propose a toast in the coffee-house–‘ The cause of the poor, in heaven’s name and the devil’s.’ But we looked for nothing moral from him, still less anything didactico-religious.

Brave Teufelsdrockh, who could tell what lurked in thee? In thine eyes, deep under thy shaggy brows, and looking out so still and dreamy, have we not noticed gleams of an ethereal or else a diabolic fire? Our friend’s title was that of Professor of Things in General, but he never delivered any course. We used to sit with him in his attic, overlooking the town; he would contemplate that wasp-nest or bee-hive spread out below him, and utter the strangest thoughts. ‘That living flood, pouring through these streets, is coming from eternity, going onward to eternity. These are apparitions. What else?’ Thus he lived and meditated, with Heuschrecke for his Boswell.

‘As Montesquieu wrote a Spirit of Laws,’ observes our professor, ‘so could I write a Spirit of Clothes, for neither in tailoring nor in legislating does man proceed by mere accident, but the hand is ever guided by the mysterious operations of the mind.’ And so he deals with Paradise and fig-leaves, and proceeds to view the costumes of all mankind, in all countries, in all times.

The first purpose of clothes, he imagines, was not warmth or decency, but ornament.

‘Yet what have they not become? Increased security and pleasurable heat soon followed; divine shame or modesty, as yet a stranger to the anthropophagous bosom, arose there mysteriously under clothes, a mystic shrine for the holy in man. Clothes gave us individuality, distinctions, social polity; clothes have made men of us; they are threatening to make clothes-screens of us.’

Teufelsdrockh dwells chiefly on the seams, tatters and unsightly wrong-side of clothes, but he has also a superlative transcendentalism. To him, man is a soul, a spirit and divine apparition, whose flesh and senses are but a garment. He deals much in the feeling of wonder, insisting that wonder is the only reasonable temper for the denizen of our planet. ‘Wonder,’ he says, ‘is the basis of worship,’ and that progress of science, which is to destroy wonder and substitute mensuration and numeration, finds small favour with him. ‘Clothes, despicable as we think them, are unspeakably significant.’

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