Can We Seize the Duck? Is an arrest imminent?
by Diogenes Teufelsdrockh jr.
When first asked to contribute to this magazine, I tried to figure out what - if anything - I could contribute. I figured the best plan was to ask a couple of questions. First - what was this magazine going to be about? The answer to this question was less than specific, and mostly involved music, art, humor, and "stuff." The first three terms can in the main be ascribed to culture. However, "stuff" is a little harder to pin down.
My second question, having been unable to get any sort of bearing from the first, was - what is the magazine's name? The answer "Seize the Duck" filled the air. Nervous laughter followed. At first I thought perhaps this was some odd play on "seize the day" (Carpe Diem). Much to my relief, I was told it didn't have anything to do with this newest addition to pop-culture. No more help was forthcoming and I was firmly on my own.
I raced to the dictionary. This was my last hope. Inspiration was dead, and nothing that should be connecting was connecting. I opened the dictionary to the word "duck." I perused the definitions and as fate would have it, I hit upon clothes. YES, CLOTHES! My memory was jarred with the happy result that I can now lay before you the contents of that ill-used instrument.
In November of 1833, Fraser's magazine began to publish, in strip form, the contents of a book by Thomas Carlyle. Up until that time, this book was considered unpublishable ("Sartor Resartus"). Carlyle himself had spent nearly three years trying to get the work published, finally concluding that "British Literature was a mud-ocean, and boundless mother of dead dogs."
Sartor was not well received in England. In fact it was quite universally heaped on. In America, however, and under the supervision of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the book did very well and was received enthusiastically. Carlyle, back in England, would have to wait nearly five years, and then not until after he published "The French Revolution," to have Sartor republished and receive the acclaim it deserved.
Sartor is very hard to classify. It is satire, philosophy, and social commentary all rolled into one. Carlyle himself described the book as a "Satirical Extravaganza on Things in General." He even doubted his own sanity for having written it. Carlyle used a nonexistant German professor from a nonexistant German town to epouse the Philosophy of Clothes.
The Philosophy of Clothes is a sociology as well as Philosophy of Culture (the word "culture" is used in its modern sense. In Carlyle's time it had a more restricted definition). Carlyle was very impressed by the German Transcendentalists. Like Goethe and Kant, he believed that nature was a living unity, and that this unity could not be investigated by empirism alone. Science, while respected, could not lay claim to a priori truth.
Man to the Transcendentalist, while being part of the unity of nature, is much more; because he is the image "...that reflects and creates nature. Man, however, exists in a paradoxical duality. While all humans make up humankind, each also exists as an individual. The physical body separates men from their natural unity. This duality is unsatisfactory, with the result that man attempts to unite with his peers. This unity of wills can then be seen as the foundation of society.
Society, in Sartor, is founded upon cloth. Humans are naked animals. It is through clothes, both metaphorical and real, that we exhibit and hide ourselves. Societies work because we are willing to accept flags, uniforms, and institutions as equivalent to power. The cloth of which Carlyle speaks is the agent of spiritual force, culture, and life. To the Transcendentalist all of these terms are one. Culture at this point becomes life.
Carlyle believed very strongly in the moral imperative. He believed that the age he lived in was in desperate need of moral deliverance. Now this in itself is not surprising or even noteworthy, because a lot of people in a lot of places have thought their age in need of moral deliverance. Carlyle differs because he was damn good at it. The attacks he made against Utilitarianism and planned political economies are memorable. The fact that we still grapple with these ideas today is not for lack of trying. He himself suspected it: "In my heterdox heart, there is yearly growing up the strangest crabbed one-sided persuasion, that all Art is but a reminiscence now, that for us in these days Prophecy not Poetry is the thing wanted; how can we sing and paint when we do not believe and see?"
When I started this peice the word "duck" seemed very simple. But "duck," it would appear, can be very formidable indeed. Duck to Clothes, Clothes to Culture, Culture to Life; is this a chain of being? Perhaps, but this much is true: the clothes we wear are not trivial matters. They define us in ways that we ourselves may not be aware of. Take a close look at some of the things you surround yourself with. Some of it will no doubt be in this magazine. Do you like what you see?
For us who live in a century soon to be over, we receive a message from the beginning of a century long since past. It is an adult message; that although here, "in this poor, miserable, despicable Actual, wherein thou now standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal: work it out therefrom; and working, believe, live, be free." (Thomas Carlyle)
[ home | archive | magazine | x1 ]