Transcendental Generative Semantics:
The Grotesque Retailoring of the World

in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

7 October 1999

(The instructor's comments are in brown throughout this essay.)

Semantic generation is the artistic process of ontologically recreating the reality of the world in the image of the artist. Man has innately possessed this generative potential since God gave to Adam the power to call the lower animals into existence through the assignations of names respective to their attributes. [What do you make of the paragraph on names in the middle of 'Natural Supernaturalism'?] Through the process of naming, then, man began establishing a fundamental understanding of the world. Thomas Carlyle, in his Sartor Resartus, posits that "Strangely in this so solid-seeming World, which nevertheless is in continual restless flux, it is appointed that Sound, to appearance the most fleeting, should be the most continuing of all things. The Word is well said to be omnipotent in this world; man, thereby divine, can create as by a Fiat" (Carlyle 199). This power of the creation to be, through language, the creator of its own perceived reality implies that humankind have it within themselves to distort the truth of that reality with as much certitude in their own righteousness as they possess of their own fallibility. [But doesn't the text see this power as one of the 'constraints of a fluctuating world'?] When opposing perceptions collide, conflict develops, leading to new perceptions arising from the foundations established by the old, which reverberates in constant flux. Mikhail Bakhtin addresses this phenomenon as representative of the grotesque, and writes, "’The grotesque body…is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body’; the grotesque body ‘outgrows its own self, transgressing its own body’" (Miles 93). As the body is of the spirit, and the spirit is of God, [Does Bakhtin make this clear?  Does Carlyle?] humanity is similarly reshaping the world through its perceptions of what that world means to it, and its acceptance of its place in that recreated world is what Carlyle calls "the EVERLASTING YEA, wherein all contradiction is solved" (192). The grotesque in Carlyle is, therefore, an attempted reconciliation of the conflicts of generative semantics, in which all of us accouter ourselves in a perpetual evolution of being, to the effect that we are what we wear, but when we wear it, we grow beyond it.

Sartor Resartus is so named because it is Carlyle’s belief that humanity derives its perception of itself through the vestments with which it adorns itself for the sake of ornamentation. He writes that "Man is a Spirit, and bound by invisible bonds to All Menhe wears Clothes, which are the visible emblems of that fact" (60). We dress the part we wish to play in society, which is never to be confused with the actuality of our existence, for all men are born bereft of the style into which they are born. It takes that style, that culture, to clothe him in its image, philosophically, morally, and physically, before he takes upon himself the mantel of his forebears. In the same way we find meaning within a person’s appearance, there is meaning to be found within this upbringing, and that is as significant a factor of his employment in this world as are the vestments with which he introduces himself to it. If I were to wear a suit and enter an office park, I would be perceived as a professional, regardless of my vocation—that perception establishes my meaning within the world of others. Likewise, were I to wear dirty overalls and cover myself with grease, I would be perceived by others to be a laborer in the mechanical vocations. In either situation, however, the moment I speak, and call my background into being through that act of speech, I suddenly summon my true self into the perceptions of my audience for them to behold and contend with—if there is a disparity between my appearance and my speech, it will be noticed. Holding my tongue, though, and allowing the outward appearance to be all that is seen, creates a particular impression based entirely on extrinsic factors of Being. These prima facie assessments of my station in life hold consequences, for I am less likely to be taken seriously in a discussion on capital gains if I look like a laborer than I would be if I looked like an investment banker. When others perceive us, therefore, they look superficially at our garments and place our relationships with them according to whether they feel their garments measure up to or surpass ours. Carlyle, moreover, writes:

Perhaps not once in a lifetime does it occur to your ordinary biped, of any country or generation, be he gold-mantled Prince, or russet-jerkined Peasant, that his Vestments and his Self are not one and indivisible; that he is naked, without vestments, till he buy or steal such, and by forethought sew and button them. (Carlyle 57)

The implication here is that garments do not make the man, but establish his status in relation to other men. As that a priori status is merely a superficial rendering of man’s true self, then the true man has to be remade—he has to have his clothing, so to speak, retailored. What remakes the man, then, has to be a retailoring of his perceptions of himself, not the perceptions of others concerning him. If each man creates his own world through the language that he uses to pronounce upon it, then he is involving himself in the ontology of creation—the calling into being of the nicht-Ich (not-me) through words that have a specific meaning for the speaker. In effect, the remaking of oneself involves the active process of the remaking of the world around oneself, even if that involves unlearning all the conceits that have shaped one’s cultural heritage. Yates writes, "The grotesque [according to Flannery O’Connor] can point to that beyond itself which it too participates in…it invites us in to see and experience that which seems to contradict what first we see" (61). It turns us into the subjects transitively acting upon objects within the world, while being, not at all paradoxically, complemented by them and linked indelibly to them.

To alter our world views, it is necessary for us to alter the meanings we assign to objects in the world through a reinterpretation of their significance to our worlds. Carlyle writes that "The beginning of all Wisdom is to look fixedly on Clothes, or even with armed eyesight, till they become transparent" (67), to look fixedly on our preconceptions until we can see through them. That clothing serves as a metaphor for being dressed in philosophy is made clear by Carlyle: "Whatsoever sensibly exists, whatsoever represents Spirit to Spirit, is properly a Clothing, a suit or Raiment, put on for a season, and to be laid off" (74). This representation of the idea of philosophy as clothes creates the impression that philosophies not only can be changed as casually as eveningwear, but are also designed exclusively for that purpose. Were we to look upon a philosophy until we could see through it and determine all of its weaknesses and flaws, we would inevitably have to disseminate a new philosophy to replace it, building, more than likely, off the remnants of the old conservatism—escaping the bounds into which we were born by standing on those very boundaries. Such a project would require societal participation, though, which is much slower in getting than any single conversion, and this explains Carlyle’s hesitance to believe he could win over an entire people to such a revolutionary concept as one that would require a king to meet a peasant as an equal. Nonetheless, Carlyle is able to call that idea, at least, into being, and from that influence and be influenced by an entire genre of transcendental and romantic writers. In so doing, he creates his own grotesque, a concept that "allows the writer to challenge any final or closed version of truth, to raise questions about what has been lost or omitted from a particular view of reality, and to explore the paradoxical, ambiguous, mixed nature of human life" (Corey 230). He challenges, calls into question and explores, all at once, mankind’s understanding of itself and of its place in God’s universe as co-creators with God. [One problem lies in the indefinite of who Carlyle means by 'God'.] The regenerative process involved in perpetual growth is kinetic, never reaching its full potential, at which point it would then have to stop. Growth, then, is perpetual and the redefining of our role in this universe an infinite endeavor.

Any article of clothing bears with it symbolic meaning, whether it be a well-fashioned cravat or hangman’s noose. We are born into the pre-established meanings of a given culture and form our worldview around those meanings as we mature into the guardians of, or rebels against, traditional symbolism. Carlyle writes that

It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognise symbolical worth, and prize it the highest. For is not a Symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the God-like? (222)

There is a reason, then, that something becomes a symbol—because it represents a particular idea that has common meaning for an entire group. It unites the group under a common cause and creates a certain cohesion among its members. "When your Symbol has intrinsic meaning," Carlyle writes, "then it is fit that men unite there; and worship together before such Symbol; and so from day to day, and from age to age, superadd to it new divineness" (223). Yet, a symbol can outgrow its usefulness when the needs or composition of a society changes. Carlyle admonishes us on this point by adding a caveat: "On the whole, as Time adds much to the sacredness of Symbols, so likewise in his progress he at length defaces, or even desecrates them; and Symbols, like all terrestrial Garments, wax old" (224). When this happens, it is time for the society to re-evaluate the meaning it has attached to any particular icon. This sort of introspection does not begin with the whole, though, but with a part of that whole—it begins with the individual who is willing to confront the reality of his times. More than just a cultural phenomenon, moreover, symbolic meaning is a semantic construct that is not necessarily bound to its traditional role, but is subjectively drawn—a cross, for instance, can be a sign of liberation or of oppression, depending upon which side of the Church one lies. That ability to regard a symbol as indicative of the state of one’s soul, to recreate that state through the recreation of the symbol, is an aspect of the divine. As Carlyle writes,

In the Symbol proper, what we can call a Symbol, there is ever, more or less distinctly and directly, some embodiment and revelation of the Infinite; the Infinite is made to blend itself with the Finite, to stand visible, and as it were, attainable there. By Symbols, accordingly, is man guided and commanded, made happy, made wretched. He everywhere finds himself encompassed with Symbols, recognised as such or not recognised: the Universe is but one vast Symbol of God; is not all that he does symbolical; a revelation to Sense of the mystic god-given force that is in him; a ‘Gospel of Freedom,’ which he, the ‘Messias of Nature,’ preaches, as he can, by act and word? Not a Hut he builds but is the visible embodiment of a Thought; but bears visible record of invisible things; but is, in the transcendental sense, symbolical as well as real. (220)

Our semantic clothing, therefore, enables us to transcend societal strictures as much as it binds us to them. It is in the pursuit of True meaning that we are able to replace our prejudices with enlightenment and thereby redress the allegoric meaning and intent of the spirit inside of these clothes of skin. [Does it (the 'clothing' symbol) bend us to anything other than ourselves and our self-vision?]

The only purpose for such introspection and reassessment of the meaning behind our derived philosophies is to reveal the redemptive aspect of the divinity within us. Yates says that

Redemption comes when we experience through the acceptance of our own human brokenness the grace of transformation, renewal, the possibility of new life. The grotesque can involve us in opening ourselves to that possibility. The way it involves us may be harsh, ugly, violent, frightening, but the experience of the grotesque…may paradoxically provide the courage that transforms one from despair to hope, from isolation to participation. (Yates 64)

Any philosophy that does not lead to the greater communion of man with the divinity lying within (and composed thereof) each of us is a philosophy that has outworn its use and must therefore be retailored to the society that has grown up around it. What worked for mankind in a less enlightened age may not solve its problems in the present one, even if it represented absolutely the truth of man’s existence. Like science, which builds on the theorems of its predecessors, faith, too, builds upon man’s ability to perceive the divine in what he perceives to be miracles repeated to him through the tradition of the church. When the miracle no longer suffices to convince him, then he must grow into a philosophy that fulfills the function of the miracle. This usually results from an individual hearing an inner voice and assigning meaning to what that voice is trying to convey—a highly interpretive and subjective act of re-creation. Carlyle asserts that "Man’s Unhappiness…comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite" (190). Were mankind able to reconcile his Finite self with his Infinite self, there would no longer exist a conflict between who we are and who we are becoming, the point of stasis leading us directly to a state of being in the eternity of divine perfection—which is the goal Carlyle is perhaps trying to reach.

A very well thought-out paper on the semantics/symbol dialectic in Sartor.  I believe the problem [during the class discussion] arose out of not 'hearing' the conditional structure of your final sentence--which seems to call into question the ability to ever reconcile the twofold 'self' and elicit a 'word' to achieve 'stasis'.


Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh. Ed. by Charles Frederick Harrold. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1937.

Corey, Susan. "An Introduction to the Grotesque." The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections. Ed. by James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Miles, Margaret. "An Introduction to the Grotesque." The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections. Ed. by James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Yates, Wilson. "An Introduction to the Grotesque." The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections. Ed. by James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

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