254 pages @350 wds/pg
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I have seen a radiance upon the face of those who were worshipping the divine in either art or nature—in picture or statue—in field or cloud or sea—in man, woman, or child—which I have never seen kindled by any talking about the nature and attributes of God. Mention but the word divinity, and our sense of the divine is clouded.
It stands to reason that he who would cure a moral ailment must be practically acquainted with it in all its bearings.
"Remember...that if you go into the world you will have free will; that you will be obliged to have it; that there is no escaping it; that you will be fettered to it during your whole life, and must on every occasion do that which on the whole seems best to you at any given time, no matter whether you are right or wrong in choosing it."
(advice to the unborn)
COMMENTARY | TEXTThrough a looking-glass darkly
I'm not sure we should even call Erewhon a novel. If it is one, it's a novel of ideas. Not like, say, one of Aldous Huxley's novels of ideas though. Great ideas don't play out among characters or decide the plot.
In Butler's Erewhon, characters are ciphers and narrative is an afterthought—they exist just as an excuse to present an alternative society and allow the author to comment on it. Or rather, to give the author an way to present his own ideas as though they are someone's else's.
There is a bit of narrative framework, a few chapters about how Butler's narrator stumbles onto the land of Erewhon (an anagram for "nowhere") somewhere near southeast Asia. (It sounds geographically like New Zealand where Butler once resided.) And there's an adventurous escape by balloon near the end.
But Erewhon is really more a work of philosophical, religious and scientific speculation. The novel is often called dystopian—since it purports to describe a bad imaginary society—but really Butler is more concerned with showing us our own world. Each aspect of the ridiculous nature of the state of Erewhon has its counterpart in our own society, or at least in Western society of Butler's time.
Sometimes the comparisons point up opposites between our world and Erewhon, as in the Erewhonian condemnation of sickness as immoral and criminal, while they are quite understanding of what we would consider criminal activity such as theft. Sometimes the differences are near-parallels, as in the mystical belief Erewhonians have in a before-life of the unborn, while most citizens of our world hold out hope for an afterlife.
In both cases, the intent is to point up how illogical our own attitudes are. Butler makes no attempt to explain how such a society as Erewhon's could actually function with such bizarre laws and economics.
Sometimes he just seizes the opportunity to put his own theories into other people's mouths. Religion is one of the two great topics that absorb him. Butler is still a Christian at this point in time but in defending his beliefs to Erewhonians he reveals to us they are based on nothing better than are those strange creeds of that upsidedown people. The all-out criticism of The Way of All Flesh is still a few years away but we see Butler expressing doubts in Erewhon. Religious skepticism plays a role throughout the story, being evident even behind the long exposures of the Erewhonian banking and educational systems.
Butler's other prime target is Darwinian evolution. He's no creationist though. During the period of great intellectual upheaval in the latter nineteenth century, Butler sided with the evolutionists but came up with a variation on Darwin's theory that allowed the inheritance of habits. This would become full-blown in Butler's later non-fictional works, which are probably best left forgotten, but here he just hints at it.
He recycles an earlier piece he had written about the rise of intelligent machines in the future, attributing it to an Erewhonian philosopher, and in a similar fashion goes on about consciousness in animals and plants. Interesting stuff—much of it outdated but some of it still profound.
The hard truth is that much of Erewhon is very dull reading. If you want a juicy story, forget it. You really have to be interested in the ideas he raises to get much out of this so-called novel.
Yet Erewhon has lasted well into its second century while other utopian/dystopian fantasies of that fertile era—and since—have come and gone.
It appears Samuel Butler's ideas may be of interest well beyond the religious and scientific concerns of the 1870s.
COMMENTARY | TEXT