Order and Erasure

In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers of a thousand lifeless lives.

- Oscar Wilde, De Profundis 1897


Presently the statue of the good, kind, well-meaning gentleman will be placed upon the monumental pedestal – that long marble array of the world’s demi-gods around the base, bracing their shoulders to the genial work and supporting their brother in his high seat.

- Mark Twain, English Journals (1872)

Look, it is no secret that I love the Victorians. I love the neuroses and drive of a massive, ordered society to put all of its cogs into one working machine of commerce, ethos, culture, and religion. I love it for its magpie like determination to steal from other cultures and adopt their forms and beauty, its diligence and assurance, and its chilling need to turn this cooption into not only a comfortable narrative of order and empire, but also a deeply insecure one. Looking at the structure and vision of the Victorian Era is not looking at the rot and fallout of a failed empire. It is looking at the efforts to build a narrative of order of a successful empire to convince itself and the world that it will sustain, even as is collapses under its own weight.


I can think of no more flawed and human enterprise than such beautiful self-delusion.


The Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens was designed as a part of a competition to erect a fitting monument to Queen Victoria’s consort after his death in 1861. Completed in 1872, the winning design was submitted by Sir George Gilbert Scott, an architect whose work has come to be synonymous with both the High Gothic Revival of the Victorian Age, and whose work on two other iconic buildings (San Pancras Railway Station and Reading Goal), taken in sum, offer a look at an urge to encompass, classify, tame, and constrain not only the nations and people of an empire, but its anxieties.

Very quickly, a look at the Albert Memorial: it is a tower of allegory. The four corners of the base are massive statues commemorating the four continents of the empire: Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Spanning these are friezes of the arts – Literature, Painting, Music, Poetry- each with artists arrayed in order of their influence, with the most revered artist (like Homer) in the center. Atop these are figures of applied Sciences (Engineering, Commerce, Agriculture), then a ring of Arch Angels and angels… all in a perfect arrangement and order, each assigned to a rank and place. The center of all this harmonious structure and classification sits a gilded statue of the late Prince Consort, and with all of this eloquent narrative of the memorial, there is only one word carved: “Albert”


Not accidentally, it is based on the structure of a Gothic reliquary, a sort of way station designed for pilgrims on their journeys. The reliquaries housed remains of saints and martyrs, and these holy structures were a chance to pause and reflect while on the road to Canterbury or Salisbury. They also served as road and direction markers, literally guiding a pilgrim to enlightenment. Charing Cross in central London is an excellent example of a still standing reliquary: a reliquary of some kind has stood on that site since the 1p3th century, and the current cross was erected in 1675. Now Albert, and his memorial, is a similar sort of guidepost and cultural pole star as well.


San Pancras is an explosive, High Gothic fanfare of a building which created a terminus in central London for the Midlands Railroad. The rails literally strap across Great Britain and supplanted the previous canal system in bringing goods and people from across the island nation to the newly gentrified Belgravia. Sir George Gilbert Scott’s San Pancras hotel, attached to the station, continues this triumph of man over nature, with a dizzying array of vaults and arches, ceilings painted with stars and heavens, a massive staircase that seems to leave a footprint on the earth itself. If the opportunity arises to have a drink at the hotel’s bar- go. You will feel more a god than man in that setting.


If the memorial and the hotel are triumphs of order and anthropocentrism, celebrating systemic classification and man’s place in the universe, Reading Gaol, also designed by Scott, is a chilling counterpoint. As much as the Memorial defines a place for Albert as the polestar of Victorian of culture and society, the Gaol also places men firmly ordered within a constellation, but of a very different sort.


An early commission, Reading Gaol (now the decommissioned Reading Prison) was built in 1844, and conceived to employ the ‘Separate System,’ a practice which aimed to eliminate any contact between prisoners, believing that solitude would lead to penitence. The star shaped system of corridors maximized the number of single occupancy cells which could be placed on a floor, and allowed one guard (situated at the center of the star) to warder dozens of men at once in a 360 degree fashion. With prisoners arrayed in this orderly fashion, and the single guard, the 'Separate System', compartmentalized the incarcerated with the least contact possible with anyone outside themselves. This practice forced separateness was carried out even to the Exercise Yard, where inmates were forced to wear concealing hoods, so as not to be able to recognize one another, or be recognized. The structure is a physical representation of a massive machinery of isolation, and that isolation and crushing dehumanization is the central part of Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” It offers separation and loneliness as the byproducts of strict stratification. The laws and classifications are bound up in the imagination of Man, and so cannot imagine its own redemption:


I know not whether Laws be right, Or whether Laws be wrong; All that we know who lie in goal Is that the wall is strong; And that each day is like a year, A year whose days are long.


But this I know, that every Law That men have made for Man, Since first Man took his brother's life, And the sad world began, But straws the wheat and saves the chaff With a most evil fan.


This too I know--and wise it were If each could know the same-- That every prison that men build Is built with bricks of shame, And bound with bars lest Christ should see How men their brothers maim.


In the poem, the prisoners watch as day by day, a nameless man who is condemned to hang lives out the last of his days in mysterious, wistful mockery of his own fate. The prisoners, the warders, the clergy: all are baffled by the condemned man’s unwillingness to atone, to connect with his own sins, and prepare for his death. The narrator and the other incarcerated men, each alone with his sins and fears, become united in the deathwatch, each feeling keenly his own end in the condemned man’s.


Order and Classification are tools of empire; Separation and Loneliness are chief tools of the abuser. They are the cudgels an authoritarian state uses to enforce its power. When we are so focused on seeing only our own pain, seeing and understanding the pain of another becomes impossible. In this terrified state, to see and alleviate the pain of another becomes our road to salvation. Wilde knew these, and he learned it at the hands of his captors at Reading Gaol. He used his Art – and his Forgiveness, Humanity, and Courage – to build that window from his solitude into the world of another. He created the very thing the tools of solitude with set to destroy: Empathy. Empathy is our greatest human treasure- for without it, Ethics are impossible; and without it we are no more than beasts to be led by whatever cruel and self-puffed fools elect themselves to lead us.



Featured Posts
Recent Posts