Carlyle, Cinematographer

‘OF all the innocent diversions known to cultured humankind,’ remarked a Wise Person once to me, ‘the most dangerous is a discussion of Carlyle’s style.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Because,’ replied the Wise Person, ‘there are so many of them.’

‘Styles or discussions?’ said I.

‘Both,’ said the Wise Person, and left me to mull over the matter at my leisure.

But I believe I have made a discovery in regard to Carlyle’s style: and oh, the difference to me! Until I made it, I found the French Revolution very uphill reading, mountain-climbing reading. But since, being able now to adjust my mind to what I conceive to be Carlyle’s purpose, I progress rapidly and with some enjoyment.

Here is the secret: Carlyle is a cinematographer. What I mean is that his method is the moving-picture method. The French Revolution is a glorified scenario.

I find him, and it, cinematographic in four respects. First, in form; second, in treatment of related incidents; third, in treatment of character; and fourth, in re/titling.

Philosophers have puzzled over Carlyle’s form. Explained cinematographically, it is quite simple. There are a quantity of minute pictures following one another in such logical order that the whole thing, run off rapidly, gives the effect of motion, smoothness, and unity. Would it be stretching the simile too far — or seem a case of lèse majesté — to say that each book is a reel? At any rate one may safely say that each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence almost, is an individual picture. And the pictures are interspersed with appropriate comment; but of that — more later.

What masterpieces of picture-making art are the scenes of Louis XV’s death, the procession of the elected of France, the attack on Versailles, and the King’s going to Paris! What stirring drama in the trial scenes!

I remarked that these incidents were arranged in logical order. That does not necessarily mean chronological order. No! Carlyle is too great an artist to follow slavishly the exact historical sequence of events. Being a cinematographer, he understands and uses to advantage the device known as the ‘flash’ or ‘cut-back.’ At the time of the taking of the National Oath, he flashes back suddenly to the Oath of the Tennis Court. In the trial of Marie Antoinette, he cuts-back to her departure from Vienna.

Another device — for depicting character, and for heightening and vivifying the picture — is that known technically as the ‘close-up.’ In this Carlyle excels. See how skillfully he brings the individual out from the group, describes him, characterizes him, forecasts and recapitulates, and then sinks him back into his group — all in a moment. Thus we meet and know, not once but often, where opportunity best offers — as in the Procession and in the National Assembly — the features of Necker, of Mirabeau, of Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Cazales, Lafayette, Bailly, and Dr. Guillotin.

And now I come to that which I consider the summit of Carlyle’s excellence— his mastery of the fine art of titling. His pictures stand alone, are comprehensible in and by themselves; but it is the author’s comment, the titles, which unites them into a work of art. Titles should illumine, not explain; and this distinction is admirably achieved by Carlyle. His titles — which I separate into two varieties: philosophic comment and chapter headings — are brief, to the point, and packed with meaning.

As an example of the first, here is his comment on the King’s going to Paris: — ‘ Poor Monarchy! But what save foulest defeat can await that man who wills, and yet wills not!’

All Hamlet in one sentence.

As examples of the second type, I list a few of the chapter headings: ‘Astrea Redux without Cash’; ‘Burial with Bonfire’; ‘Arrears and Aristocrats’; ‘The Day of Poniards’; ‘The Night of Spurs’; ‘The Gods Are Athirst’; ‘Lion Sprawling Its Last’ — what moving-picture artist of the present day, titling thrillers, could do better ?

There are advantages in this cinematographic method of writing. It is, I think, the best way that has yet been invented for saying a variety of things in a variety of ways. But there are also disadvantages. Suppose the reader is a patient, plodding, and somewhat dull animal, and not an imaginative, responsive creature like me. What then, Carlyle? Ah, then your fine words go all for naught: which is a shame.

So I am passing on my discovery to whom it may concern. For I like Carlyle and his picture-play, and I should hate to see him neglected.