Model Prisons: Thomas Carlyle and Rod Liddle

by Mark Wallace

A call to rehabilitate the writings of Thomas Carlyle came in last week’s Spectator, in an article written by Rod Liddle. Liddle focuses on a little-known late essay of Carlyle’s, “Model Prisons“, from the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). I wrote about this essay in an earlier post. It’s an attack on the “model prison” system which had been introduced in Victorian England, and which aimed at rehabilitation rather than punishment. As such, the regime was not as harsh as the norm. This system was also famously attacked by Dickens in a chapter of David Copperfield, in which Dickens implicitly argued that the system bred hypocrisy among prisoners, who feigned penitence to get the benefits of model prison treatment. This chapter appeared in late 1850, so it is highly probable that Dickens had read Carlyle’s “Model Prisons”, and that it had fed his own anger at the system. Carlyle’s deep influence on Dickens is well known.

So “Model Prisons”. If Dickens liked it, and Liddle likes it, it must be good, right? Well, it has its moments. Carlyle is angry: sometimes tediously so; sometimes spectacularly so. In fact, the piece that Liddle quotes is the same one I quote in the aforementioned earlier post, a rather strikingly bad-tempered description of the physical appearance of the inmates he saw on a visit to the prison:

Miserable distorted blockheads, the generality; ape-faces, imp-faces, angry dog-faces, heavy sullen ox-faces; degraded underfoot perverse creatures, sons of indocility, greedy mutinous darkness, and in one word, of STUPIDITY, which is the general mother of such. Stupidity intellectual and stupidity moral (for the one always means the other, as you will, with surprise or not, discover if you look) had borne this progeny.

So the prisoners looked like animals; worse than that, they actually looked positively demonic (” imps”). All of them! They were also STUPID – in block capitals. You can’t talk about people like this anymore, even criminals. Or maybe you can – Liddle did, after all, quote this very passage in the context of his piece on why prisons need to be made harsher environments.

It’s tempting to see this in the context of a post-Trump world: all bets are off, and violently authoritarian rhetoric that would have been unthinkable in Western democracies in recent times has become part of the discussion again. In such a context, it’s not incredible that the Latter-Day Pamphlets could finally attain the popularity and esteem that has eluded them throughout their publication history thus far.

Nevertheless, I suggest that Carlyle does not lend himself to an uncomplicatedly authoritarian ideology, even if he espouses it. The reason is similar to the reason given by Zizek for his contention that David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is not a totalitarian film. Perhaps Dune does, Zizek concedes, eroticize power. But in doing so it also “displays the underlying phantasmic support of ‘totalitarianism’ in all its inconsistency” (The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, 1997, p. 92). This, I submit, is what Carlyle does for all forms of authoritarian power, and is the reason why he has been historically read with more appreciation roughly leftist figures (from Walt Whitman to Keir Hardie to Mahatma Gandhi). Carlyle is uneasy reading for any respectable authoritarian, and never more so than when he’s vociferously agreeing with everything they hold dear.

The reason is that the quasi-sexual lust for power and control that a critic might contend underlies the politics of the authoritarian is laid embarrassingly bare in Carlyle’s writings. Following the above description of the prisoners, Carlyle enters into a passage whose fantasmic underpinnings are clearer to a 21st-century reader than they were, perhaps, to a 19th-century reader (or Carlyle himself). He’s considering whether the philanthropic notion of guiding erring sinners “by love” is a viable method. Unsurprisingly, he’s not wholly amenable to the idea:

These abject, ape, wolf, ox, imp and other diabolic-animal specimens of humanity, who of the very gods could ever have commanded them by love? A collar round the neck, and a cart-whip flourished over the back; these, in a just and steady human hand, were what the gods would have appointed them; and now when, by long misconduct and neglect, they had sworn themselves into the Devil’s regiments of the line, and got the seal of Chaos impressed on their visage, it was very doubtful whether even these would be of avail for the unfortunate commander of twelve hundred men!

Carlyle’s imagery of the collar and the whip evoked for his Victorian readers a long-vanished (or, alternatively, spatially distant) world of slavery and conquest. For us, though, such images are more redolent of elaborate erotic scenarios. Thus, Carlyle’s images are not only politically reprehensible, but also embarrassingly intimate. In the guise of espousing a strict authoritarian politics, Carlyle is actually performing a completely unbridled freedom of discourse, laying bare those very aspects of his psyche that are most unacceptable to persons anywhere on the conservative spectrum. That is one of the reasons why Carlyle strikes me as essentially a leftist figure, even if he wouldn’t have consciously wanted to think so. At some level, he was sabotaging all of his explicit politics with the very extreme form in which he irrationally insisted on espousing them, providing the very weapons with which such positions could be easily critiqued and dismissed.