Last weekend I went to a party, where I met someone who, it turned out, I had taken an art history class with in Edinburgh in 2002/3. This was pretty cool. We also had a fun chat about the University of Edinburgh English department, which we’d both taken classes in, hated, and yet learned a huge amount from. One of the books I read in that course was called Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle.
Sartor Resartus means ‘The tailor re-tailored,” and is a very strange book that (to be honest) I haven’t read again since. It’s at once serious and wildly satirical. The author distances himself from his work by means of various late 18th/early 19th-century tactics, such as claiming that he was given the manuscript to edit by someone else who’d translated it (in this case from the German), having found the German manuscript in a box or an attic or a trunk or something — all because the topics were somewhat inflammatory, and this was a way of protecting oneself from them; and also, I have to think, because this is fun. Steven Brust does something similar, for no reason besides the fun of it, in his fantasy novel The Phoenix Guards, which has several layers of fake editors and historians involved before it comes to him. But then Brust is imitating the 18th-century models, too.
I’m not going to go read Sartor Resartus again right now, even if I could find it (it’s in a box at the moment), because I don’t have the time and also because I think there’s something intriguing about what you remember from a book read long ago. You never recall it correctly, of course (or at least I don’t have a well-enough trained memory to even pretend to do so; something, incidentally, I always wonder about with respect to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and which was addressed in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip). Instead, you remember a combination of the things that struck you most at the time, and which have continued to resonate since.
In my case, the things I remember most from Sartor Resartus are the title, the layers of distancing, the main character’s name (Teufelsdrock — probably not spelled quite like that — ‘Devil’s sh*t’), and a passage somewhere in the book where Teufelsdrock launches into a rant about the Everlasting No — and the Everlasting Yes.
This is coming out of German philosophy of the time, and has to do with one’s response to the universe at large. Does one say yes — or no? The question has stuck with me, long after all the details of the argument — even whether Teufelsdrock was ultimately arguing in favour of the yes or the no (I think it was the yes; whether Carlyle was, I’m not sure) — am I saying yes to things, or no, and what does that mean?
I have more of a tendency to say no than I like in myself. I have been working on it, but I still tend to say no to things that are good to do, that I want to do, and even that I ought to do. Obviously I have no good reason for this; I occasionally blame the general obstinacy of things, including myself. Sometimes I make up stupid reasons why I can’t do something, but they are stupid. Most of the time I just realise in retrospect that I was saying no at some subterranean level, rather than yes. It never ceases to amaze me how hard it can be to do the things one wants to do — and not just the ones I want at a superficial level (those are far too easy to do, usually) — but the ones that are my deeper priorities. When I sit down and think clearly about what’s important to me, and then look at what I’m actually spending my time on, it can become all too apparent that while I’m saying yes with my head, I’m saying no with my actions. And guess which one matters more in the long run?
Over the past year and a half I have been trying to say yes. I am much happier as a result. I have been struggling over the past few weeks (in particular) with balancing out different things that I want to do, different elements of desire, some of which require unpleasant amounts of hard work in order to do. (Does anyone want to practice things one is bad at? Yet that’s the only way to become good enough to enjoy the practice…) I’ve been coming to the conclusion that as long as I do follow through on the things I am saying yes to with my head, even a little each day, then I feel that I am living properly, saying yes at a deeper level too. Of course, this means saying no to other things … but that’s a different topic.