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July 25, 2006

Going Nowhere: Samuel Butler's Erewhon

Posted by Lincoln Allison

by Samuel Butler
first published 1872
Penguin Books, 1936

Available in Penguin Classics, (9.99)

"Erewhon" is, of course, a rather simple anagram for "nowhere". I guess this rather obvious remark would occur to most people immediately, but I walked past this book title for more than half a century without it occurring to me. I don't "do" anagrams.

It is 1868, somewhere beyond New Zealand. Our narrator, name and background unknown, but young, fit and handsome, is intrigued by the high mountains which he can see from the sheep station at which he is working. He succeeds in crossing them and enters a very fully developed, but very rum, country called Erewhon (pronounced Ere-eh-whon) populated by a people whom he comes to believe are the Lost Tribes of Israel. He is taken prisoner (specifically for possession of a watch), but paroled to a family called Nosnibor where he is able to learn the language and observe the customs and beliefs of the country at close range. He falls in love with his host's younger daughter, Arowhena, but several social conventions stand in the way of their union.

Eventually, he is able to persuade the Queen to devote resources to the construction of a balloon in which the young couple escape and finally reach London. When last heard of he is in the process of setting up an Erewhon Evangelization Company with the purpose of a) converting the Erewhonians to Christianity and b) transporting large numbers of them to work in the sugar cane plantations of Queensland. This involves raising the money to hire a gunboat: the full Imperial package tour, as you might say. He is shocked to discover that Chowbok, the "native" with whom he had originally set off, is intent on the same project. Erewhon is about to experience the hurricane force of Globalisation Phase One . . . .

We are in Swiftian territory here, with a nod towards More. There is a narrative, but it is subsidiary to satire and philosophical investigations with a distinctly Victorian flavour. This was a period in which the race and class of our narrator had acquired an unprecedented capacity to explore and conquer the world, but had not yet done so. The world was not yet "opened up", flown over or photographed from space. It was also the time when both science and religion seemed a great deal more credible than they do now, though their compatability was in doubt. They were drawn to write about futures which might be utterly different from the past, but also about ancient ways of life which might be continuing on the other side of mountains and jungles.

The genre may be More and Swift, but the style and period make Erewhon literary cousin to Anthony Trollope's The Fixed Period, H. G.Wells' The Time Machine, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, William Morris's News from Nowhere and many others. It is a genre I have always enjoyed - particularly the bit where the horse or the natives (in this case a single native) refuse to go on because we are entering deeply dodgy territory.

One of the themes of Erewhon has featured prominently in subsequent science fiction: it is the idea of a society which has put a ban on technological progress. Some centuries earlier the Erewhonians, who had had steam railways in about the fifteenth century, had been influenced by a prophet who had argued against technological addiction and warned of the capacity of machines to assume power and reproduce themselves. His ideas, varying from the sophisticated to the risible, are explored in chapters 23-25 when our narrator discovers "The Book of the Machines".

After a bitter civil war a compromise is reached in which technology is permitted only if it existed 271 years earlier than the time of the agreement. It is for this reason that our narrator, who is otherwise treated with friendly curiosity, is arrested. Old machines are broken and then put into a museum.

As the result of too much heed to another prophet the country has also been through a period of extreme animal rights orthodoxy and vegetarianism, led by another of their prophets. The way in which people subvert and avoid the vegetarian laws is a good model for understanding how Prohibition worked half a century later (and the word prohibition is used). This phase in their history was ended when another prophet argued convincingly that vegetables should be treated with equal respect to animals. Whether this was sincere or a cunning reductio ad absurdam is not clear.

Erewhon has two kinds of bank and currency. There is an everyday kind, but also "musical banks" which are much more ceremonial, but whose currency has little street value. There are also two religions. The official religion has gods and goddesses who embody virtues; it receives lip service, but not much else. But there is as well the cult of the goddess Ydgrun, who is not virtuous but is thought to be powerful and (our author believes) is more respected in practice.

The Erewhonians do not believe in life after death. They do believe in life before death: souls have a prior existence which is ordered, eternal, sentient and intelligent, but not corporeal (it is "gaseous"). They can choose to be born. They do this out of a kind of terminal boredom knowing that it is, among other things, an act of suicide.

In order to be born they must hound and harry a married couple and on taking corporeal form they must have their memory and characteristics obliterated. Readers of more contemporary political theory will recall John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" behind which we must choose the forms and rules of society before we discover our own abilities and characteristics. Here we have a kind of Original Sin - or Original Folly - we choose to be born, knowing that we are being a nuisance by doing so and that by choosing birth we are also choosing death. We are born deserving capital punishment!

"The Colleges of Unreason" bear distinct parallels to Oxford and Cambridge. They are based on the rather bright notion that since the real world is the obvious place to study the real world the proper study for a university is the properties of worlds which are possible but not real. This is called hypothetics and one can spend many years studying the hypothetical language. So far so good, but then they appear to have degenerated into what sounds suspiciously like academic life as I knew it (p. 181):

My friend the Professor of Worldly Wisdom was the terror of the greater number of students; and, so far as I could judge, he very well might be, for he had taken his Professorship more seriously than any of the other professors had done. I heard of his having plucked one poor fellow for want of sufficient vagueness in his saving clauses paper. Another was sent down for having written on a scientific subject without having made free enough use of the words "carefully", "patiently" and "earnestly". One man was refused a degree for being too often and too seriously in the right . . . .
But the weirdest thing about Erewhon is how it reverses the roles of health care and criminal justice, applying the doctrine of strict liability to the former and the theories of anarchism to the latter (p. 85):
This is what I gathered. That in that country if a man falls into ill-health, or catches any disorder, or fails bodily in any way before he is seventy years old, he is tried before a jury of his countrymen, and if convicted is held up to public scorn and sentenced more or less severely as the case may be. There are subdivisions of illnesses into crimes and misdemeanours as with offences amongst ourselves - a man being punished very heavily for serious illness, while failure of eyes or hearing in one over sixty-five, who has had good health hitherto, is dealt with by fine only, or imprisonment in default of payment.

But if a man forges a cheque, or sets his house on fire, or robs with violence from the person, or does any other such things as are criminal in our own country, he is either taken to a hospital and most carefully tended at the public expense, or if he is in good circumstances, he lets it be known to all his friends that he is suffering from a severe fit of immorality, just as we do when we are ill, and they come and visit him with great solicitude, and inquire with interest how it all came about . . . .

I have a good deal of time for both these ideas. Perhaps the earnest solicitude which assumes that there is something wrong with you if you do wrong might be a good deal more effective than the methods of punishment which we use currently. The strict liability theory of illness is extended also to ugliness.

As with other ideas in this novel (and several of its contemporaries) it has some interesting twentieth century sequels. Holistic theories of illness and stress do take the individual as more responsible for his or her physical condition than does "conventional" medicine. I think it is possible to argue that the world would be a better place if we assumed a doctrine of more strict liability for our condition. In the 1940s A. F.Dunbar introduced another strain to this argument with some experimental suggestion that "accidents" were the consequences of personal characteristics; this was popularised in H. J. Eysenck's essay, Can a Person be Accident-Prone? But this aspect is not dealt with in Erewhon. And is it not the case that an increasing number of television programmes on the subject of physical improvement project the doctrine that you have the face (and body) that you deserve?

The idea that immorality is dealt with by compassion rather than punishment is one which is weakened in the text to the point of semantics. Mr Nosnibor, the narrator's future father-in-law, has embezzled. He has to consult a "straightener" for his condition and the "prescription" includes a hefty fine and a flogging once a month for a year. Which is pretty tough solicitude. It is like those Catalan Anarchists who explained to you, shortly before they shot you, that you should not think of this as a punishment; they just wanted to get rid of you.

Erewhon is a book whose parts are greater than its whole. It contains good narrative and brilliant ideas. But the narrative is sometimes clumsily fitted to the ideas which themselves seem interesting, but ill-fitted to each other. It was written by a man in his mid-thirties, full of scorn and, allegedly, of bitterness. The allegations include latent homosexuality and a father-hate complex. It is as if he poured all his ideas and all his scorn into this book, whereas he would have been better to hold some back and perhaps use them in separate satirical essays or stories. Thus we have paradox which constantly verges on contradiction: criminals are not punished, but they are flogged. Original ideas are discouraged, but dysfunctional original thinkers find ready followings.

There is a bigger contradiction lying behind these: Erewhon is England and at times we seem to glimpse, clearly but oddly, the ancient universities and the Anglican Church (which employed both Butler's father and grandfather and for which he was originally intended). But it is not England and its principles are the opposite of English principles - our hero yearns to return from Erewhon to England. Sometimes the satire is not so bitter or directed, but a more general observation of human weaknesses like hypocrisy and the detachment of theory from practice.

In fact Erewhon was the great success of an author who fancied himself as a visual artist and who struggled for acclaim and an income thereafter. Only with Erewhon Revisited thirty years later and with the posthumous publication of his autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh, was he successful again. I must read Revisited some time.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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