“Fernando Pessoa, Shadow of a Ghost”

“If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

“He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

“This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity….”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/12/27/fernando-pessoa-shadow-of-a-ghost/

Review: “Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future”

Artivism (political and social activism using the forms and language of art) is set to become the predominant art movement of the early 21st Century. For both supporters and critics (both large groups that are growing), it is necessary to understand the movement, in order to promote or oppose it. Artivism tends to come from the left of political spectrum, though it remains to be seen if this holds true long term. After all, anti-migrant artivism is as viable as pro-migrant artivism and (judging from public surveys) the former would engender more popular support.

Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future is written by Carlos Garrido Castellano, a Hispano-Lusophone specialist in the intersection of culture and politics in Central and South America and Africa. This book looks at artivism as a branch of “anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial struggles”.[i] The use of Western avant-garde art forms – the installation, conceptual art, land art, performance, street art and other approaches – are ripe for non-Western practitioners to use (or appropriate) to advance their interests. “[…] through excavating “postcolonial” art histories, it becomes impossible to identify socially engaged art as a recent phenomenon, and the idea of this kind of art as an outcome of Western art histories is also called into question.”[ii]

The opening paragraph sets out the racialised identity-politics beliefs of the author. “Following Cedric Robinson’s incisive observation that capitalism is always racial capitalism, and that social inequalities are shaped by (and shape in turn) racial categorizations, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future maintains that art activists and socially engaged artists are equipped with a decades-long experience of challenging the reasoning that lies behind neoliberal capitalism.”[iii] Garrido Castellano notes characteristics of socially engaged art are anti-commodification, pro-collaboration and anti-aestheticism.

The decision to take as a subject art biennales is by no means an obvious one. The author writes, “[…] biennials [are] the main space where art becomes global, where local and transnational art interactions are negotiated.”[iv] Yet the only people who pay attention to biennales are top-level curators and collectors. Most gallerists, artists, collectors, museum visitors, academics and historians ignore them. However, biennales have permitted political curators to showcase their arguments over recent decades, although the only people who notice are other post-colonial activists. “Three central elements can be deduced from here. First, biennials are not the new, nor is the kind of art they promote. Second, the impact of that kind of art goes far beyond the space and time of the biennial itself, directly conditioning what Jones calls “the global work of art” and having an impact on taste, tourism, and consumption. Finally, and this is crucial, the aesthetic resulting from biennials will not be determined so much by the objects as by experience.”[v] The chapter suffers from the excess of perhaps-this-perhaps-that, with the author quoting post-colonial theorists contradicting each other on the subject of biennales.

Garrido Castellano discusses the theoretical foundations of post-colonialism, looking closely at African nationalist Amílcar Cabral and Trinidadian historian-essayist C.L.R. James. These figures are considered as post-colonial thinkers, as they have no connection to art. The author chose Cabral as a case study because he had no cultural hinterland. He was – according to the quotes here from his biographer – a Machiavellian man of action, lacking any ideological encumbrances, dedicated to national unity under rule of a black citizenry. He was a collectivist, materialist and technocrat. “Cabral’s mistrust of individualism in cultural matters remains invaluable as part of a genealogy of socially committed cultural production. For Cabral, culture constituted a perfect and necessary platform for turning his idea of emancipatory and political practice into reality.”[vi] He had a utilitarian, materialist approach to culture. He criticised the bourgeois black Cape Verdeans and Bissau-Guineans for preferring Western Modernism in the visual arts over the collectivist socially functional production of the black proletariat, that Cabral favoured as socially valuable. Cabral, like other post-colonial leaders, advocated an outright rejection of Western taste and thinking. In the following chapter, Garrido Castellano seeks to place James as a key precursor to socially-engaged cultural production.

Ugandan projects Lilian Mary Nabulime’s HIV/AIDS “social sculpture” and the Disability Art Project Uganda are described. The author then considers reactions of writers to the wave of “do-good activism” in Africa, considering if the urge to benefit local people conflicts with a duty to critique a social system or socio-political economy that (supposedly) produced the imbalance in need of correction. Artivist groups Taring Padi, Ruangrupa and Kunci Cultural Studies Center are presented as critical voices negotiating the complex political situation in Indonesia during the 1990s and 2000s. The establishment of democracy after the departure of President Suharto in 1998 and the struggle between regional separatists, Islamists and the national military forces was a time of political and civil turbulence. The heterogenous and conflicting interests of ethnic, regional and religious groups were suppressed by the government until 1998; in the era immediately after Suharto Taring Padi made public street art that raised the possibility of a non-authoritarian society (along the idealistic lines of Western humanism), it is one which actually supports sectarian identification whilst proposing an idealist multiculturalism to contain anyone acting according to that sectarian identification.   

Temporary Art Platform, Beirut is “a curatorial and interventionist collective that focuses on producing and researching public art projects. TAP facilitates site-specific art interventions and mediates between artists and private and public powers. Seeking to understand how public art can become more context-sensitive, the platform also conducts research on legal and practical aspects surrounding existing and ongoing initiatives. Finally, TAP has recently started lobbying for production budgets for public art.”[viii] The organisation published a handbook for artivists, explaining the law in layman’s terms and detailing how to acquire permits and funding from public bodies. It was published in Arabic and English. Garrido Castellano outlines the difficulties facing activists in Lebanon in the post-civil war period (after 1990).

“Ensayos is a nomadic educational and research platform located in the southernmost part of Chile. Ensayos was initiated in 2010 through the collaboration of curator Camila Marambio and the scientists and conservationists working at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Karukinka Natural Park in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego.”[ix] Two topics of Marambio were local sovereignty and the impact of introduced species. One problem of deconstruction is that the issue of utility becomes immediately locked into competing claims and definitions. If colonial and post-colonial/indigenous priorities define utility, where does sex, sexuality, religion and age come into the equation? What about trans-species rights, especially pertinent to projects centring on conservation? However rigorous the language of discussion, intersectionality (and standpoint theory) cannot help but nakedly foreground the priorities of speaker’s preferred metric or group allegiance.

Regrettably, Garrido Castellano misuses the term “alt right” to refer to populist movements in the UK, USA and Brazil. In October 2017 in Lisbon a statue of Padre António Vieira was the centre of a protest by left-wing activists and conservatives and rightists, this is compared to the events of Charlottesville, in 2017, “where the alt-right protestors impeded any approach to the statue, gathering in a circle around it in order to “protect” it from defacement.”[x] The protestors were not exclusively alt right; they also included conservatives, traditionalists and local residents. Preventing vandalism or iconoclasm is protection; there is no need for the scare quotes. Whether one approves of defacement or not, protection is protection. “[…] the attitude of the persons supposedly “protecting” the sculpture of Vieira was only the result of a more widespread defensive nationalism that despite the articulation of new iterations of portugalidade remains alive and well in broader segments of present-day Portuguese society.”[xi] One only has to look at the violence and defacement of colonial statuary common during this period in the USA and Europe to understand that those who wished to preserve their physical culture from attack were justified in being highly concerned. As the author of the book Iconoclasm, I can attest to this, having thoroughly researched the subject.

There is ambiguity in the political impact of activism through art. In what respect is agitation for Western liberalist values of egalitarianism, universal suffrage, state-provided healthcare, parliamentary democracy and freedom of conscience actually rooted in native cultures and to what degree is it imported by NGOs, activists and academics? Does a Lebanese agitator for collectivism have to drop the tenet of religious superiority ingrained in his people’s culture? Is he permitted to pick and choose between native beliefs and enmities? What if an Indonesian artivist wished to lobby for reinstatement of royalty, sharia, a strict caste system or expulsion of a tribe historically in competition with his tribe? As with the question of agency, the question of legitimacy of native causes is very much a case of post-colonial theorists being highly selective about what they consider authentic and appropriate. What if a local population wanted individualistic laissez-faire capitalism as route to independence, provision of healthcare and material comfort? It is often the case that such aspirations are dismissed by post-colonialists, temperamentally opposed to capitalism and individualism. We hit again the Neo-Marxist dismissal of the proletariat’s attachment to capitalism as “false consciousness”, that term used to discredit its opponents.

How much of post-colonial theory is simply taking away the role of gatekeeping from governments, museums and local leaders (colonial and decolonised) and giving it to artists, curators, critics and academics, as arbitrators of agency and commitment? After all, it is this latter group that designates itself as assessors of self-determined artistic activism carried out in the field, applying (often abstruse) theoretical measures without recourse to dialogue with local people.

One suspects that much of post-colonial theory is post facto justification for the occupation of spaces and use of resources by political actors. After all, as Marxists and Neo-Marxists admit, theory is nothing if not backed by power and their theory is almost solely concerned with power. Engaging with the post-colonial theory could be viewed as beside the point, as the theory is never the proximate cause – or even the explanation – for a tactical seizure of space, be that space academic, artistic, financial, civic, economic or any other category.

This book is a useful demonstration of that. Post-colonial artivism cannot remain at the theoretical level; it cannot be framed by a Western perspective; it must be applied or it is useless; it must be taught to students as a tool for liberation and agency. These positions are not so much Garrido Castellano’s, as the sources he quotes; he seeks to set out these positions in Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future. The book includes thorough endnotes, a bibliography and index. Unreliable as the author is on iconoclasm and contemporary politics, Garrido Castellano knows his field well and has read the latest literature in depth. He seeks to avoid jargon where possible but some passages will mean more to academics and students in his field than to the general reader. Overall, this is a stimulating and serious study of the reception and understanding of post-colonial artivism in non-Western settings.

The artivism discussed in this book offers a template for indigenous populations across the world; there is no reason it should be restricted to those in the political Global South. Nativist causes, self-determination and freedom from globalist interference provide counter-narratives opposed to international capital – all of these are causes of the political right in the West. It remains to be seen if progressivist positions will dominate the field of artivism wholly.

Carlos Garrido Castellano, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, State University of New York Press, 2021, 338pp + x, 24 mono illus., hardback, $95, ISBN 978 1 4384 85737

Alexander Adams’s book Artivism will be published by Imprint Academic in 2022. Details here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

[i] Back cover

[ii] P. 56

[iii] P. 1

[iv] P. 27

[v] P. 33

[vi] P. 98

[vii] P. 193

[viii] P. 199

[ix] P. 223

[x] P. 243

[xi] P. 243

Roger Raveel, Belgian proto-Pop artist

[Image: Roger Raveel, Woman with Make-up Mirror, 1953, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on hardboard, 122 × 88 cm]

Roger Raveel (1921-2013) was one leading artists of Belgian Modernism. His pungently coloured, simplified, schematic paintings of figures and still-lifes are startlingly modern. He has been acclaimed as an important proto-Pop artist. By 1948, Raveel was already juxtaposing passages of volumetric modelling and flat strong colour. Linear forms emphasise the artificiality of a picture and the seeming arbitrariness of visual languages. The boisterous clash in styles and modes forms a precursor to not only Pop Art but Post-Modernism. His pictures still seem powerfully original and fresh, lacking the consumer culture references that date Pop Art.

This catalogue is for the 2021 centenary exhibition at BOZAR (Brussels, 18 April-21 July 2021), including about 120 art works from all periods of Raveel’s output. This edition of the catalogue is a trilingual publication in Dutch, French and English, with the English text prioritised. The catalogue is an excellent survey of Raveel corpus, including a chronology and a good selection of colour plates. The English text will make this catalogue a valuable resource for non-Belgians, permitting them to acquaint themselves with this artist.

Raveel was born in Machelen-aan-de-Leie, Flanders and remain there most of his life, a path not followed by most ambitious Belgian artists, who tended to converge on Brussels or Ostend. Raveel studied art at Deinze and Ghent over 1933-45, his studied disrupted by war. His teacher recommended that Raveel move away from Belgian Expressionism towards realism. Henceforward, his palette brightened and realism tended to be Raveel’s stylistic touchstone, as he incorporated other elements and influences throughout the years. The painter destroyed many of his paintings from the 1930s and early-mid-1940s.

There is a case to be made that the war and subsequent occupation – which Raveel saw first-hand – destroyed the idea of national and regional isolation and a concomitant attachment localism in artistic terms. The world intrudes. The heterodox nature of Raveel’s post-war art is forcefully heterogenous and non-regional. The paintings of the late 1940s could be seen as naïve or simplified. Raveel rejected his previous use of atmospheric colour in favour of local colour. The views of kitchens and local fields are deliberately homely and content. Only in 1950, do we see other aspects intrude – muted colour and objects reduced to the point of ambiguity.

 In 1948, Raveel married Zulma De Nijs. They lived in modest circumstances, in the centre of their small town. Lack of resources meant Raveel materials were limited, forcing him to improvise and perhaps instigating his use of found materials. In the early Fifties Raveel came into the orbit of CoBrA and had contact with members. The directness (both thematic and stylistic), assertiveness and accessibility of these artists lined up with Raveel’s temperament. Raveel never joined the movement but some of his painting in the 50s and 60s shares much in common with these artists. There are more than a few parallels between Raveel and Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s late linear paintings, with bold patterns and reduced palette, are close to Raveel’s paintings.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man, Bucket, etc., 1967, Private collection © Raveel – MDM, Oil on canvas, 150 × 120 cm]

Over the period 1956-62, Raveel turns to almost completely abstraction in his production. The bodies and buildings are replaced by surfaces, simple forms, brushwork, patches of strong colour, repeated marks. These are not inert or hollow – the painted forms are like handles that would be used to manipulate things but the things themselves are gone, leaving only the handles. The stakes are lowered – the viewer cannot engage deeply, protest a proposition, take away in insight into lived reality. As a result, these are the least satisfactory of Raveel’s output.  Commencing again in 1962, recognisable forms return amidst abstract surfaces. Geometric forms intervene, disrupting, displacing and obscuring figural depictions. The patterns appear on the clothing and replace the heads of the working men.

The working man, in cap and suit of matching colour/material becomes a staple figure in Raveel’s paintings. At once an evocation of the average Belgian labourer and human presence in everyday settings, the figure rarely has a face and retains a degree of mystery, anonymity and a touch of the sinister. The head is often replaced by an area of abstraction or pattern Homely and unhomely (Heimlich and unheimlich) simultaneously, the working man becomes Raveel’s prime actor, even if he never became an alter ego. It is possible that these figures represent the artist’s father, who worked in the flax trade. That oddness adds a vital touch to Raveel’s art, which could become whimsical or flippant or lightweight. Raveel is rarely pedestrian. Perhaps his weakest work are the abstracts, where we enter territory that is arbitrary and vacant.

Raveel’s interiors animate the dazzling Modernist world of De Stijl, with figures peopling these notional utopian places. This renders them accessible, banal, subject to entropy and decay. The faded, tinged quality of past projected utopias is one of the aspects that turn shimmering pristine ideals into compromised, discarded and discredited propositions. This is the essence of the melancholy of the Modern. Raveel’s art is not bleak but it has this sense of loss. The instances of alienation are matched by the scenes of domestic contentment – the cat asleep on the chair, the seated figure, the garden view from the window. Raveel is not sceptical of Modernism as such, more playful and inquiring; he proposes that Modernism is real life (figures transformed into characters in a Modernist painting-cum-architectural-setting) and real life incorporates Modernism (in the form of domestic furniture and decoration). The language in his paintings has many modes, stylistic and tonal. That plastic diversity and spirit of inquiry keeps Raveel’s art lively, laconic, unsettled. Father in a Modern Emptiness (1980) is a very adept and appealing example of this contrast between personal and familial material and the somewhat chilly, anti-human content of Modernist art, architecture and furniture.        

[Image: Roger Raveel, Father in a Modern Emptiness, 1980, Private collection © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on canvas, 145 × 195 cm]

The Surrealism of Magritte – especially the incorporation of mundane realities, everyday life and figures as ciphers – clearly led to the atmosphere and some of the visual repertoire of Raveel. The standing figures of men have an oblique quality we find in Magritte. Magritte was the most prominent of Belgian artists in the 1950s and 1960s, so it is natural that Raveel would have seen a lot of his paintings. The Surrealist practice (most clearly seen in Francis Picabia’s combine paintings) of including actual objects in paintings became characteristic of Raveel. He included objects such as doors, bicycle wheels, windows, mirrors and curtains in his combine paintings. Robert Rauschenberg’s combines precede them by about five years. Raveel saw Rauschenberg’s combines at an exhibition in Bern, in 1962. One piece by Raveel includes a birdcage with a pigeon and another one has a cage with canaries. Raveel responded strongly to Pop Art and he is most often categorised as a Pop artist. Actually, by the time that Pop art became known in Belgium, Raveel had already developed elements that were Pop, which is why is viewed as proto-Pop. In Raveel’s art, there is a fusion of styles and influences. A portrait drawing of the head of a worker (1952) is partly realist, highly stylised and echoes the early drawings of Van Gogh, whom Raveel admired. The heavy outlines of forms is common throughout all of Raveel’s mature output. Raveel’s domestic scenes combining description and blank grounds recalls Hockney of the 1960s and 1970s. The painterly rounded forms and strong colour of Raveel’s interiors and landscapes will remind British viewers of the paintings of David Hockney from the 1980s and 1990s. The pair met at least once, in 1973; a photograph of them is illustrated in the catalogue. Raveel’s art gained added relevance in the 1980s, when the New Figuration and Neo-Expressionism movements returned to painting the figure, expressive paint use and absence of irony to the centre of art production.

In 1960, Raveel began teaching at the Municipal Academy, Deinze and the use of a loaned studio at the local school allowed him to make work of a greater size. He also became more involved in printmaking at this time. in 1966, Raveel was commissioned to paint murals in the basement of Beervelde Castle, near Ghent, which he painted from 1966 to 1967 in collaboration with Raoul De Keyser, Etienne Elias and Reinier Lucassen. Zulma handled the couple’s finances; the Raveels could afford to move to a larger modern house by 1968, the year the artist represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. The honours and exhibitions only increased. In 1999, the Roger Raveel Museum opened in Machelen-aan-de-Leie. In 2009 Zulma died; Raveel remarried in 2011. In 2013, Raveel died in Deinze, at the age of 91.

The 2021 exhibition relied heavily on the comprehensive collection of Roger Raveel Museum and commences with a 1941 landscape: modest, mundane, muted in coloration, realist in execution. By 1948, the rejection of realism is apparent in the faux naïf treatment of farm animals and reduced palette. The catalogue is arranged by subject. Raveel made self-portraits that range from Flemish Expressionism to linear-proto-Pop to 1970s Pop, as well as images with the face or head replaced by blank zones. The latest painting in the exhibition is dated 1995. Some of Raveel’s best known paintings are included and his murals are illustrated. His famous Man with Wire in Garden (1952-3) is a welcome inclusion.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man with Wire in Garden, 1952–53, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on paper on plywood, 75.5 × 91 cm]

The motif was used in many drawings, paintings and prints. It exemplified the use of the working-man figure, abstracted head, simplified landscape and reference to Raveel’s domestic situation. Woman with Make-up Mirror (1953) and Man Bucket, etc. (1967) are celebrated examples of his horizontally striped figures engaging in everyday activities. A drawing from 1950 shows Raveel admiration for Van Gogh. The coffee pot is drawn like Van Gogh; the handling of perspective and the revolver on the table are influenced by children’s art.

The combines with curtains and windows reach deep into art history, the trompe-l’œil of the Renaissance and Baroque. The mirror pieces play with incorporating the viewer’s image into the painting. Alone in the Backyard (1967) has the mirror in the centre, positioning the viewer’s reflection in a bare yard in Caulfield-style drawn images, with a colourful sliver of landscape confined to one corner. An extension of this was a street-vendor’s cart, clad in mirror cube, partially overpainted. Raveel did a number of street performances, bringing his paintings into non-gallery settings and eliciting public responses. Regrettably, there is not much written material in the catalogue discussing his murals.

Apart from the cart, no sculpture per se is presented. The exhibition includes paintings, combines and drawings but no prints. Understandably, for a survey retrospective, supplementary material such as documents (sketchbooks, letters, posters) are virtually omitted from the catalogue. Clearly, the aim of the catalogue is to spread knowledge of Raveel outside of the Low Countries, and the editors have made the right decision. This is a broad survey of Raveel, full of wonderful images and with a few introductory essays and a handy chronology. The art is very enjoyable and the design of the catalogue is thoughtful and easy to negotiate. Recommended for any fans of Low Countries art, Pop Art and New Figuration.   

Roger Raveel Museum website: https://www.rogerraveelmuseum.be/

Franz W. Kaiser, Kurt De Boodt, Paul Demets, Ann Geeraerts, Marie Claes, Roger Raveel: Retrospective, BOZAR/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 224pp, fully illus., text English, French, Dutch, €34.95, ISBN 978-0-300-25994-0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art  

Thomas Carlyle’s “Latter-Day Pamphlets”

Thomas Carlyle, Latter-Day Pamphlets, vol. XX, Chapman & Hall, 1850/1898

This is a brief review of one book by Scottish historian, biographer and journalist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) is a collection of journalism and political pamphlets from 1850. It is dominated by Carlyle’s negative responses to 1848, the year of revolutions. “One of the most singular, disastrous, amazing, and, on the whole, humiliating years the European world ever saw.” This is a review of the unabridged reprint of 1898.

“The Present Time”

In “The Present Time”, Carlyle surveys the state of Europe in 1850. He blames the reforming Pope for providing tacit endorsement for revolutionary initiatives of 1848 – or at least not attempting to divert the situation beforehand. “Everywhere immeasurable Democracy rose monstrous, loud, blatant, inarticulate as the voice of Chaos.” Carlyle bemoans the insistent imposition of democracy regardless of the wishes of the populations of Europe. He compares the futility of voting to the institution of democracy in a ship upon a dangerous journey, which is prey to indomitable forces beyond the control of sailors and officers. Democracy on a ship creates a phantasm captain, when the lives of the men and success of the mission depends on a real captain, writes Carlyle.

Democracy is a false idol. “That the grand panacea for social woes is what we call ‘enfranchisement,’ ‘emancipation’; or, translated into practical language, the cutting asunder of human relations, wherever they are found grievous […]” Carlyle sees the axiom of democracy as a root for undermining social stability and standards. “Cut every human relation which has anywhere grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of nomadic:- in other words, loosen by assiduous wedges in every joint, the whole fabric of social existence, stone from stone; till at last, all now being loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and, lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity etc. over it, and to rejoice in the new remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.” As a traditionalist, Carlyle believed that destruction of existing social structures in the name of progress would have dire consequences for the future. He concludes the article on the topic of the indigent Irish, for whom he has little sympathy.

“Model Prisons”

In “Model Prisons”, Carlyle recounts a visit to a new prison of the scientific type – clean, efficient, well appointed. Carlyle is impressed by the results but doubts the reforming spirit that animates the creation of these new model prisons. He casts aspersions on prison reform, calling reformers egotists, who bribe by offering “cheap bread to the cotton-spinner, voting to those that have no vote, and the like”. He sees sin and indiscipline as the cause of crime, not inequity. “Fraternity, in other countries, has gone on, till it found itself unexpectedly manipulating guillotines by its chosen Robespierres, and become a fraternity like Cain’s. Much to its amazement!” Carlyle sees the vaguely worded causes of fraternity and equality as liable to corruption and (when given leave by secular reformist leaders) the humanitarian as the greatest executioner of fellow man in the name of fraternity. Only the objective laws of God resist manipulation, in Carlyle’s view. His evidence is the course of the French Revolution, with its frenzy of high-minded scientifically-facilitated butchery.

Carlyle tackles the basis of the prison-reform platform. “Not the least disgusting feature of this Gospel according to the Platform is its reference to religion, and even to the Christian Religion, as an authority and mandate for what it does. Christian religion? Does the Christian or any religion prescribe love of scoundrels then? […] This is the rotten carcass of Christianity; this malodorous phosphorescence of post-mortem sentimentalism.”

In his introduction, H.D. Thrall faults the collected texts as weak in argumentation – “[…] as journalism they are ineffective they are too long, too discursive, too unpractical. They deal at once too much in generalities and too little […]” “Model Prisons” is a prime example which tends to confirm Thrall’s reservations. Carlyle turns some fine phrases but his argument is not sharp. Despite the force of the resistance and its potential correctness, this essay is not an adept performance. Emotion and righteousness get the better of its author. This essay is a contemporary response to Howard’s prison-reform movement and is evidence of opposition to that – a views that is generally lacking from school history coursebooks.

“Downing Street”

In “Downing Street”, Carlyle takes aim at the Colonies Office – its inefficiency and cost. “[…] [Great Britain] has in fact certain cottons, hardwares and such-like to sell in foreign parts, and certain wines, Portugal oranges, Baltic tar and other products to buy; and does need, I suppose, some kind of Consul, or accredited agent, accessible to British voyagers, here and there, in the chief cities of the Continent […]” He ponders on the nature of officialdom and big government. “What these strange Entities in Downing Street intrinsically are; who made them, why they were made; how they do their function; and what their function, so huge in appearance, may in net-result amount to, – is probably known to no mortal. The official mind passes by in dark wonder; not pretending to know. The official mind must not blab; – the official mind, restricted to its own square foot of territory in the vast labyrinth, is probably itself dark, and unable to blab. We see the outcome; the mechanism we do not see.”

He states that the vices of government are inefficiency and inappropriateness of its work. “These are the two vices that beset Government Offices; both of them originating in insufficient Intellect, – that sad insufficiency from which, directly or indirectly, all evil whatsoever springs! And these two vices act and react, so that where one is, the other is sure to be; and each encouraging the growth of the other, both (if some cleaning of the Augias stable have not intervened for a long while) will be found in frightful development. You cannot have your work well done, if the work be not of the right kind, if it be not work prescribed by the law of Nature as well as by the rules of the office. Laziness, which lies in wait round all human labour-offices, will in that case infallibly leak in, and vitiate the doing of the work.” Carlyle foresees doom in the mounting institutional and personal failures of government departments. “A class of mortals under which as administrators, kings, priests, diplomatists, etc., the interests of mankind in every European country have sunk overloaded, as under universal nightmare, near to extinction; and indeed are at this moment convulsively writhing, decided either to throw off the unblessed superincumbent nightmare, or roll themselves and it to the Abyss.”

Carlyle damns the government as led by those with no vision and commanded by lieutenants who are stupid. Carlyle vacillates between siting the faults of the government in its form and in its officers. Stupidity and “want of wisdom” are the disease that infects government. He suggests the cure would be individuals of greater human intellect. The contradicts Carlyle’s contention that democracy appoints a phantasm captain in place of a real captain. Carlyle does suggest that any secretaries should be competent and not necessarily elected. He imperfectly advocates the great man as the appropriate figure for the role of absolute leader. The argument (regardless of merit) is not clearly set out.

“The New Downing Street”

This is an extension of the previous essay, presenting a manifesto for revitalisation of government by proposing a new Downing Street. It takes up the point that officials at every level lack sufficient quality; democracy impedes the recruitment and promotion of men of ability and intellect; this is a common blight across Europe. England, newly acquired of an empire, needs to summon kings to lead it or it will fall into decay. “No person or populace, with never such ballot-boxes, can select such man for you; only the man of worth can recognise worth in men; – to the commonplace man of no or of little worth, you, unless you wish to be misled, need not apply on such an occasion.”

It begins as a better essay than the previous one, (in part) because it builds upon the incomplete foundations of the previous essay. Compared to the previous essay, this dwells more on positive changes that could be made – albeit general in character. Carlyle sets out his new Downing Street as a counter to “needless expenditures of money, immeasurable ditto of hypocrisy and grimace; embassies, protocols, worlds of extinct traditions, empty pedantries, foul cobwebs […]” The author mingles reform with wholesale change, leaving the reader somewhat unmoored, unclear about what remains of the familiar system and what is cut from whole cloth.

Carlyle lapses by recommending the creation of an education ministry. Surely, knowing the weaknesses of government and the weaknesses that government spreads, giving such an institution say in the education of children could only lead to spreading of mediocrity, complacency and the inculcation of supplication to secular authority. He touches on foreign wars, pauperism and literature, trailing off into random reflections.  


Carlyle discusses oratory as an art. Speech is divine and “like the kindling of a Heaven’s light” but if the speaker is not ennobled by righteousness, it is better for him to remain silent.  Silence is a necessary accompaniment for great speech. Great speech can be mimicked by persuasive ignoble speech; such deception makes ignoble speech deplorable because it imitates the best of man’s efforts. In Carlyle’s time, there has been a lack of excellent public speech. Carlyle takes a poor view of the political orator of his day. “A mouthpiece of Chaos to poor benighted mortals that lend ear to him as to a voice from Cosmos, this excellent stump-orator fills me with amazement. Not empty these musical wind-utterances of his; they are big with prophecy; they announce, too audibly to me, that the end of many things is drawing nigh!”

Carlyle charts the debasement of oratory to a too liberal imparting of the art to people who use it for debased purposes. Speech – like a currency – has been debased because the speakers cannot back their words with virtue or truth. “Alas, alas, said banknote is then a forged one; passing freely current in the market; but bringing damages to the receiver, to the payer, and to all the world, which are in sad truth infallible, and of amount incalculable. […] The foolish traders in the market pass it freely, nothing doubting, and rejoice in the dextrous execution of the piece: and so it circulates from hand to hand, and from class to class; gravitating ever downwards towards the practical class; till at last it reaches some poor working hand, who can pass it no further, but must take it to the bank to get bread with it, and there the answer is, “Unhappy caitiff, this note is forged.””

Democracy has damaged the efficiency of the offices of state because those who rise in power are the best talkers, not necessarily those best at the work. This also leads to distortion of speech and debasing of oratory because it is done for reasons of status and advancement. This is the most persuasive and carefully argued of the pamphlets.


In this essay Carlyle sees the advent of anarchy through parliamentary means. Actual anarchy “cannot be distant, now when virtual disguised Anarchy, long-continued and waxing daily, has got to such a height;” the only way of avoiding this is complete change in governance. Only a king can enact the wishes and needs of the people. Carlyle discerns that Parliament is no longer adviser to the King but actually sovereign. “[…] our British Parliament does not shine as Sovereign Ruler of the British Nation; that it was excellent only as Adviser of the Sovereign Ruler; and has not, somehow or other, the art of getting work done; but produces talk merely, not of the most instructive sort for most part, and in vortexes of talk is not unlike to submerge itself and the whole of us, if help come not!”

Carlyle posits a law of parliamentary democracies that incorporate a mass media. “That a Parliament, especially a Parliament with Newspaper Reporters firmly established in it, is an entity which by its very nature cannot do work, but can do talk only, – which at times may be needed, and at other times again may be very needless.” In all areas of important business, Carlyle advises “[…] That every man shut his mouth, and do not open it again till his thinking and contriving faculty have elaborated something worth articulating.” This is the very opposite of how parliaments – conscious of the reception of its words on the general public through the media – function. Carlyle’s sees that ruin comes when – aside from making money – the nation takes nothing seriously and thereby degenerates. “[…] the Nation […] is no longer an earnest Nation, but a light, sceptical, epicurean one, which for a century has gone along smirking, grimacing, cutting jokes about all things, and has not been bent with dreadful earnestness on anything at all, except on making money each member of it for himself […]”

He notes that only two parliaments succeeded: the National Convention during the French Revolution, and the Long Parliament of the English Civil War. Yet, once again, Carlyle sees only folly in relying on the wisdom of crowds. “Your Lordship, there are fools, cowards, knaves, and gluttonous traitors true only to their own appetite, in immense majority, in every rank of life; and there is nothing frightfuler than to see these voting and deciding!” He argues against the freeing of slaves because then how can enfranchisement be denied to freed slaves, and, by so doing, is not the vote of the ignoble man as weighty as the vote of the noble man? By counting all men equal and submitting to their collective decisions, nations are brought to folly – brought as low as the appetites and vices of their electorate.

“Hudson’s Statue”

With the renewed proposal to erect a statue to Cromwell, Carlyle considers public statuary. As one might expect, he finds the statuary of his own age wanting. “Poor English Public, they really are exceedingly bewildered with Statues at present. They would fain do honour to somebody, if they did but know whom or how. Unfortunately they know neither whom nor how; they are, at present, the farthest in the world from knowing! They have raised a set of the ugliest Statues, and to the most extraordinary persons, ever seen under the sun before.” Carlyle satirises the folly of idle foolish men combining their twenty-pound notes and burning them to summon a brazen idol to a great Somebody, not caring who this Somebody is nor what he might have down to deserve a statue – especially in an age that had not yet marked the life of one of Carlyle’s Great Men, Oliver Cromwell.

George Hudson (1800-1871), the railway magnate who was (shortly before Carlyle’s essay was written) revealed to have engaged in fraud. Carlyle sees Hudson as the typical wealthy Somebody that the English raise statues to, oblivious to his conduct. He was elected an MP after this scandal and thereby gained immunity from being imprisoned for debt. When he lost his seat, he had to flee the country to avoid prison. He only returned once imprisonment of debtors was abolished. As it happens, no statue to him was erected but his contributions were marked in street names. Carlyle uses topical satire to reinforce his points about the decline in moral and civic standards of his day. Lively but overlong.


“Jesuitism” is a reflection on the cult of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and the Jesuits, chief enforcers of the Counter Reformation. As a Protestant, Carlyle sees the beatification of, and praying to, Ignatius as being against (or in ignorance of) the will of God. Ignatius “has done more mischief in the Earth than any man born since.” He casts aspersions on Ignatius’s origins as a soldier, “distinguished, as I understand, by his fierce appetites chiefly, by his audacities and sensualities, and loud unreasonable decision, That this Universe, in spite of rumours to the contrary, was a Cookery-shop and Bordel, wherein garlic, jamaica-pepper, unfortunate-females and other spicery and garnishing awaited the bold human appetite, and the rest of it was mere rumour and moonshine […] That the Cookery-shop and Bordel was a magical delusion, a sleight-of-hand of Satan, to lead Ignatius, by garlic and finer temporal spiceries, to eternal Hell […] ” Carlyle characterises his subject’s abandonment to sensuality as a jumble of intemperate stuffs that inflame rather than satiate human desire. He calls Ignatius a “detestable Human Pig”.

Carlyle decries the work of the black-clad Jesuits, who continue Ignatius’s work to his day. He writes that falsity of speech leads to falsification of all things. The fine arts are condemned wholly as harbingers of falsehood. “The fact is, though men are not in the least aware of it, the Fine Arts, divorced entirely from Truth this long while, and wedded almost professedly to Falsehood, Fiction and suchlike, are got into what we must call an insane condition […]” He ties falsity in public life, religion, the arts and politics in this final pamphlet, combining his concerns in a single lament for the decline of morals.

Carlyle’s book covers democracy, prisons, bureaucratic overreach, the overweening state, public conduct, observing civic and moral standards – and see those subverted – all of which are vital issues today. In the grand denunciations of degradation, we can find prefigured our own concerns. However prolix and meandering Carlyle’s style can be in these pamphlets, his points have the emotional pathos of deeply held convictions and the moral seriousness of a man concerned about the fate of his nation. Many of his arguments still carry weight.

Latter-Day Pamphlets on the Gutenburg Project website

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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