The Victorian Sage

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Tag: model prisons

Model Prisons: Thomas Carlyle and Rod Liddle

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 by 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.


Flinging Dead Cats: Reading Carlyle’s Pamphlet on Model Prisons

In my readings of the main works of Thomas Carlyle I have come to the notorious Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), the collection of condition-of-England reflections that did most to damage his own reputation in his lifetime. It was on reading the Pamphlets that Anthony Trollope remarked: “I look on him as a man who was always in danger of going mad in literature and who has now done so” (Simon Heffer, Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle, London: Phoenix Giant, 1995). Reading “Model Prisons”, the second of the pamphlets, one understands Trollope’s view; nevertheless, it should also be remembered that this pamphlet inspired Dickens, whose chapter on Heep and Littimer in jail in David Copperfield (1850) is clearly indebted to Carlyle.

“Model Prisons” is extraordinary for the contempt, disgust and sadistic malice with which it regards prison inmates. Carlyle paid a visit to Millbank Penitentiary, and what he saw was charity and indulgence towards…

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.

Rather than philanthropy, what these wrongdoers needed was

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.

The pamphlet (and others in the series) is also full of cloacal imagery that must have imspired Dickens in Our Mutual Friend:

 A whole world, for want of Reform, is drowning and sinking; threatening to swamp itself into a Stygian quagmire, uninhabitable by any noble-minded man.

“Model Prisons” is truly an extraordinary work, but what is surprising is less that this and its fellow pamphlets led many to denounce Carlyle, than that so many continued to see him as a seer and social prophet: Dickens’ period of Carlyle-influence was just beginning, and George Eliot eulogized Carlyle in 1856, admitting that many “quarrel with the exaggerations of the Latter-Day Pamphlets“, but concluding that “for any large nature these points of difference are incidental. It is not as a theorist, but as a great and beautiful human nature, that Carlyle influences us” (Eliot, Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings, Penguin, 1990).

While writings like “Model Prisons” may give rise to doubts about the beauty of his nature, and the sheer repetitiveness is ultimately tedious, what continues to impress is Carlyle’s extraordinary style, prophetico-volcanic, seething with a vibrancy that is almost purely destructive, malicious and sadistic, but that is nonetheless unignorable.

One example of Carlyle’s sheer unpredictability and oddness particularly struck me: it is in reference to the philanthropic movement, one he had attacked before in the (also notorious) Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849); here he refers to it as a conglomeration of “universal sluggard-and-scoundrel protection societies”. Before true reform can begin, he says, philanthropism must be defeated, and he is certain that this will in fact happen:

One day, I do know, this, as is the doom of all nonsense, will be drummed out of the world, with due placard stuck on its back, and the populace flinging dead cats at it: but whether soon or no, is by no means certain.

The populace flinging dead cats at it. What an image this is! And this hypothetical action to be directed, not at a person, or even a thing, but an abstraction. One of the things that give Carlyle’s prose its peculiar intensity is this tendency to humanize everything, and see it in the simplest binary terms: all things to Carlyle in LDP are either of God or are of the Devil; they either conform to the Eternal Laws of the Universe, or they are an offense against such laws – in which case, their doom approaches. Carlyle’s binarism in descriptions like this is not perhaps very impressive from an intellectual point of view – in fact, as argument it’s sheer sophistry – but it gives him a solid basis from which to indulge in the most unhinged rants ever set to paper. Rants which are, however, delivered in language which attains power through(occasional) innovation, apocalypticism and the undying passion of the splenetic.

Ok, so they're not dead, but it was the closest I could get

Ok, so they’re not dead, but it was the closest I could get (The Simpsons, Crazy Cat Lady)

Yoinked from



Further Notes on Flinging Dead Cats:

Wiktionary’s Glossary of Idioms has an entry for “can’t swing a dead cat without hitting…” I had never heard this before, though it is similar to the more common “not room enough to swing a cat”. In any case, it’s close to but different from Carlyle’s term and usage, which relates to a punishment or expression of community disapproval.  Using Carlyle’s sense, one can imagine perhaps a pagan custom recorded somewhere deep in The Golden Bough in which the king after a bad harvest is chased from the community by “the populace flinging dead cats at [him].”

The Free Dictionary has lots of “cat” idioms, but nothing on this one. Apparently there’s a Polish phrase meaning “to fling the dead cat over the neighbour’s fence”, which indicates either “passing the buck” or malice. Opinions differ. This website offers a complete guide to live cat flinging, in a spirit (one hopes) of jocularity.  It’s  surprisingly detailed and elaborate.

Google Books search offers first several editions of Carlyle’s works in which the phrase “flinging dead cats” appears, then a few other works in which it’s used in a basically similar sense (close to “trenchantly hostile criticism” or something like that), but all seemingly later than Carlyle’s usage.

In short, I have no idea of the provenance of the phrase. I doubt, on reflection, that Carlyle actually invented it, but in the absence of indications to the contrary, he may have. One can only lament its fall from usage, and endeavour to use it whenever practicable in future. There are many contemporary phenomena which one would like to see the populace take to flinging (metaphorical) dead cats at. Example (suggested by above image): “The Simpsons used to be great, but has long outstayed its welcome. People still watch it, but it can’t be long before it’s recognized for the travesty it’s become, and is shunted off our TV screens, the viewing audience flinging dead cats at it.”

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