Following up some references related to Thomas Malthus recently, I discovered that Carlyle’s notorious appellation “dismal science” for economics (or “political economy”) was not a reference to the pessimistic world view of Malthus and his descendants. This sobriquet first appeared in an essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he criticised the emancipation of Black slaves in the West Indies, leaving the unfortunate Blacks to wallow in disgraceful idleness. Carlyle attacked political economy for undermining natural hierarchies, for
declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science.
Here “dismal” is presumably not being used in the modern sense of “gloomy”, but in the older sense of “threatening” or “inauspicious”, as in Henry VI pt. 3:
Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.
Carlyle lumps the Dismal Science together with other unfortunate modern political innovations, such as “ballot boxes”, “universal suffrages” and “Exeter-Hall Philanthropy”.
Here I’d like to call attention to Carlyle’s framing device. The essay is attributed to a fictitious author with the absurd name Dr. Phelin M’Quirk. It begins
THE following occasional discourse, delivered by we know not whom, and of date seemingly above a year back, may, perhaps, be welcome to here and there a speculative reader. It comes to us — no speaker named, no time or place assigned, no commentary of any sort given in the hand-writing of the so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present! Of M’Quirk’s composition, we by no means suppose it to be; but from M’Quirk, as the last traceable source, it comes to us; offered, in fact, by his respectable, unfortunate landlady, desirous to make up part of her losses in this way.
Together with some self-mocking references to some offended members of the fictional audience leaving in a huff, this sets up the cover story, particularly beloved of British racists and misogynists, that “I’m just joking”. You insult people with a wink, simultaneously spreading poisonous sentiments and confirming your superior power by forcing them to smile while you insult them — if they don’t, they are dismissed as “humourless”. Most recently there was Tim Hunt, whose defenders say that his disgraceful remarks on women in science were some kind of protected speech because he followed them with “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it.” “Now seriously” is the proof that he was just joking, so critics are joyless harridans.