The Collected Letters, Volume 12


TC TO GERALDINE E. JEWSBURY ; 5 September 1840; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18400905-TC-GEJ-01; CL 12: 242-245


Chelsea, 5. Septr, 1840—

Dear Miss Jewsbury,

Your Letters1 awaken in me many thoughts; many feelings, among which affectionate interest in you, sympathy and hope for you, occupy a prime place.

What you ask about “Unconsciousness”2 is abundantly pertinent; consistent too with your having rightly understood what the heart of that matter may mean: to all these questions I should answer, precisely as you yourself would, Yes. With all that can be said about Unconsciousness, surely our whole Life is a becoming conscious. And yet by these words, Unconsciousness, Silence, and so forth, I mean something; I mean much, almost all that men ever meant by the highest words. You will see that the contradiction is of the surface, apparent merely. One has to speak out the centre of the business, as it can get itself spoken; and leave ingenuous hearers to adjust the details. Things are not speakable otherwise. “When we begin to speak we have begun to misstate”; the first word we utter is more or less an error.3 How often have I been reminded of this, in regard to these very subjects! People find something in them, an unfathomable possibility of significance in them;—and then straightway their Logic shews them this and the other “inconsistency”; they get involved among the extremities of the radii, “skip from radius to radius, and miss the centre altogether,” come to me as with a great discovery, That there is no centre! Alas, one does not mean to say that men walk on their head, in asserting that New Zealand is antipodal!— These are the class of gainsayers that afflict you, my fair Disciple: let them have their say out: we shall see who gets to the centre; and he will be the winner, let his tune be loud or low!

My notion about the progressive Consciousness we do attain in Life may be also worth stating to you. It seems to me, whatever power, gift, or work we have got to see clearly extant, in us or about us, and to be conscious of, has thereby in several senses really become small, measurable; the vitality which connected it with the Infinite is out of it before we could become conscious of it. At best, it is like the part of a Tree you see above ground; so many measurable feet of timber, good or better,—useful for the carpenter, indispensable, and according to Nature: but the roots of the Tree, the mysterious virtues and workings of the Earth that grew it; these go down to the foundations of the world; these alone are great. This partly illustrates what I mean. We may add, in the same figure of speech, that one should not lay the roots bare, that &c &c, all which your own ingenuity will abundantly develope. On the whole, so far as this doctrine of “Unconsciousness” will elucidate the world of Being for you, I advise that you dwell in the heart of it rather, and look at the details from that, rather than at that from the details. Which indeed is the rule in all Thought whatsoever,—as contradistinguished from Argument, too often the antagonist and destroyer of Thought! The older I grow, all Logic, from being at the top where it once was, sinks ever lower in the scale with me. It is the deep blindness of this time to conceive of no thought that cannot speak itself:—perfect speaking, Logic means that; and all speech is by the nature of it radically imperfect. Benthameeism4 and all the rest of it follow in a man's head, when he calls the Unspeakable the Nonextant: Logic is good, but it ought to know that is not the best; if it know not this, it approximates to the worst.

I rejoice that you ask me about self-examination. I believe well that there is an excess in it,—that a serious solitary heart like yours is very apt to have erred on that side. Unconsciousness has its word to say here too. Doubtless we should examine ourselves; we must and will do it, in so far as we are not mere animal creatures. We examine all things, ourselves among the number, by virtue of having a faculty to examine with,—an intellect namely! It were possible here also to get into endless hair-splittings, confusions of logic. Omitting all that, I will repeat to you what I have written somewhere, That Know thyself, tho' the old Greek Oracle spoke it as from Heaven, seems to me an altogether impossible attempt, dangerous if too far persisted in; that Know what thou canst work at5 is a much safer rule,—altogether serviceable, which we are competent to set about! Thyself never can be even guessed at except by the things thou hast done: one's working accumulates itself all round as a natural mirror, wherein the Self so far as that is suitable may see its image on this side and on that. Decidedly I call it health of mind not to have too much self-listening, study of perfection &c &c,—too much even of repenting. Go and do better; that will be the best! Men hollow themselves out, and become vacant, morbid, often enough go to Bedlam itself, by eating their own heart6 in this sense too. As you say, it is but another form of Self-conceit. Who am I that I should set up for being the model of the Universe!— On the whole, one must pray for health of mind. It will show one the reasonable middle-course in all these matters; and nothing else will.

Dear Scholar, I wish you did live always in the midst of “beautiful scenes,” of beautiful souls and friends; of things you could take a pleasure in!7 Welcome enjoyment withal, seek it; that too is a duty. The Earth has little flowers, brighter than Solomon's glory, amid its stern rocks, under its great awful skies. To you I may say, without danger of your leaving out of view the other side of it: Consult yourself, what you have a genuine desire for; your genuine desire, in the simplest things as in the highest, is always an important element; an audible monition as if from Nature herself. “Our wishes are presentiments of our Capabilities”:8 that is a brave word. Genuine desire: how often have our very desires small or no genuineness,—mere hearsays gathered from others (as Ambition &c &c), not facts derived from our own self! The good Doctor says, Eat what you really long for;—and foolish sickly children think it is peppered sweetmeats that their appetite craves. Really, as old Johnson says, we should “clear our minds of Cant”;9 not our words only but our thoughts, our very feelings. We should then see whereabouts we did stand; what was substance for us, what was wind and shadow only. I have hardly any other precept to give a true soul in these days. Be true and silent: cast away cant; step silently forward, whither you are bound;—sit down and rest, even, if you can find yourself bound nowhither! Honestly rest; say honestly, I am nothing, I can do nothing; the whitherward, to your glad surprise, will by and by disclose itself.

Alas, my Friend, what a sad saying is that about “Life forever”! It tells me, as in stern epitome, a long history of sorrow, disappointment, fruitless wasting pain. You are not alone in these feelings; but do not indulge in them. For the fact of the matter, as to other worlds, we know and can know as good as nothing at all. We are in our Maker's hands, there as here; we are to say, as the wise have all said, “Thy will be done.” Be sure it will go well with us, conscious or not. Job said long since, “Tho' He slay me yet will I trust in Him.”10 Ought we to say less?— I will promise you, too, that such mournful transcendency of Renunciation will abate in due season; become an earnest background of Eternity of which this fantasm-reality of Time will paint itself all the more touching and lovely for you. Hope always; we are here to hope.

When you write again, cannot you tell me something more of what you are historically as well as spiritually, what your practical environment is; what things you do, what books you read, kind of persons you see, &c &c! No more of this, however, than you like. But it seems to me if I saw even your Portrait once, I could know better what I was saying. Do you never come to London? My Wife would welcome you right kindly here; and, as we are only two, our small household has generally a vacant room in it. Or if I came to Manchester;—but I never come of late years.

Good be with you, dear Friend.

Yours with sincerity, /

T. Carlyle