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· My Unfashionably "Carlylean" Take on Sartorial Elegance ·

I have yet to nod even slightly in the direction of fashionable style — I mean, of course, sartorial elegance, literally (as well as metaphorically) understood.

Today's post isn't much likely, I'm afraid, to mend that omission. If you saw me here — now an aging graduate of Red Green's School of Fashion Design, West Campus — you'd laugh at my sad threads. Imagine a pair of woolen Acorns warming my feet, a Bangladeshi-stitched Forest Trails shirt over my shoulders, a Canadian-knit KellySport fleece vest under that, and a ratty REI turtleneck under my old, "locally fashionable" Pendleton plaid. I mean, apart from chilly fishermen on peninsular rivers hereabouts, I warm to the idea of sartorial splendor about as well as steelhead do to frozen bait. You can see why I was rejected at Red's U.S. campus near Brainerd (a bit north of Garrison Keillor's wonderfully idyllic Lake Wobegone), Minnesota.

Well, I got to thinking today about my unfashionable handicaps, especially inasmuch as Friedrich Nietzsche once observed — on the philosophical subject of clothing — how even Adam and Eve's threads can bear metaphorically upon language. Now that got my attention.

 · Friedrich Nietzsche · Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things [Nietzsche writes]. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept "leaf" is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the "leaf": the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted — but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model [my italics]. Freidrich Nietzsche, 'On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,' Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1990, 891.

Now Nietzsche is too much given here to brevity to weave what, Platonically speaking, seems the pattern likely to make his very threads fashionable. So I got to hunting about in my library for a non-Nietzschean model, when suddenly I spied Thomas Carlyle. Of course, I know he's not in style today, and I know his book Sartor Resartus is to California's Rodeo Drive what Red's design school is to New York's Fashion Institute — "The Tailor, Retailored" — yet Professor Teufelsdröckh's text might serve as one likely original of Nietzsche's thought (composed, ironically enough, in the quaint old German university town of Weissnichtwo).

'Language is called the Garment of Thought [Carlyle's Diogenes Teufelsdröckh writes]: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of thought. I said that Imagination wove this Flesh-Garment; and does not she? Metaphors are her stuff: examine Language; what, if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sound), what is it all but Metaphors, recognized as such, or no longer recognised; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colorless? If those same primitive elements are the osseous fixtures in the Flesh-Garment, Language, — then are Metaphors its muscles and tissues and living integuments. An unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for: is not your very Attention a Stretching-to? The difference lies here: some styles are lean, adust, wiry, the muscle itself seems osseous; some are even quite pallid, hunger-bitten and dead-looking; while others again glow in the flush of health and vigorous self-growth, sometimes (as in my own case) not without an apoplectic tendency.'

I should note before literally heading out the door now to a steelhead dinner at my son's, how in Thomas Carlyle's own editorial analysis of Teufelsdröckh's style, Carlyle rightly marks — "as in my own case," too — yet another difference. Please, at quote's end, do at least fill in the blank with one of your own choosing.

 · Thomas Carlyle · In respect of style our Author [Carlyle writes of Teufelsdröckh's writing style] manifests the same genial capability, marred too often by the same rudeness, inequality, and apparent want of intercourse with the higher classes. Occasionally, as above hinted, we find consummate vigour, a true inspiration; his burning thoughts step forth in fit burning words, like so many full-formed Minervas, issuing amid flame and splendour from Jove's head; a rich, idiomatic diction, picturesque allusions, fiery poetic emphasis, or quaint tricksy turns; all in graces and terrors of a wild Imagination, wedded to the clearest Intellect, alternate in beautiful vicissitude. Were it not that sheer sleeping and soporific passages, circumlocutions, repetitions, touches even of pure doting jargon, so often intervene! On the whole [______] is not a cultivated writer. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus and Heroes and Hero Worship, Everyman's Library, No. 278, London: Dent, 1908 [1965], 22; above, 54.

"Und so weiter," Nietzsche would add.

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Please define "cultivated."

Posted by
Mary Lee Donahue on February 12, 2004 02:29 PM

Being long dead, poor Thomas Carlyle can't speak for himself now, though his remains might direct you — via Teufelsdröckh — to old Tacitus. His famous Histories suggest "being full of wit" stylistically. But as that's "too metaphorical," I'd maybe point you to the search engine at Agricola (where you'll find a more ground-breaking, Germanic thoroughness).

Posted by Styles on February 12, 2004 04:11 PM

Ah, cultivation in the true sense! Here below the Mason-Dixon line, where farmers now begin to disc and harrow fields for spring planting, it's good to know that we wordsmiths may share in that springtime tradition!

Posted by Mary Lee Donahue on February 13, 2004 01:38 PM


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