Archive for the ‘erewhon’ tag
As an English major, with a particular interest in British literature, no less, it’s peculiar to me that I did not come across the fascinating novel, “Erewhon” by Samuel Butler, in my studies. Perhaps because of my personal religious inclinations at the time and my particular college of choice, Clemson, works that were critical of religion were, purposefully or not, conspicuously absent from most course syllabi.
In any case, my particular copy came from a friend who thought I might find it to be an interesting read. And indeed I have. To briefly outline the premise, the British protagonist and traveler, Higgs, is working along one portion of an island. The book doesn’t say precisely where, but the notes indicate that Butler was writing from his experiences while in New Zealand. Higgs subsequently decides to trek inland with another character named Chowbok to find a suitable place in which he can raise sheep for profit on his own. Butler was a sheep farmer in New Zealand from 1860-64. Further inland, Higgs, whose companion eventually abandoned him on the trip, finds a civilization called “Erewhon,” the people of which, he later learns, have a decided distaste for machines, sick people and reason, among other things.
In one town, called the City of the Colleges of Unreason, the protagonist comes across college professors that specialize in subjects such as inconsistency, evasion and worldly wisdom and societies such as the “Suppression of Useless Knowledge” and the “Completer Obliteration of the Past.”
In the book, the reader learns of all sorts of practices and strains of thought that are wildly foreign to even 19th century ears, much less 21st century ones. For instance, human conception is really an incarnation from a pre-existence. In these pre-existence, the people, in their pre-forms, are really in some kind of ghostly, ethereal state, and to get into the tangible world, that is, to be conceived inside a mother that is actually not of their own choosing, they have to sign a document waiving their right to choose and confirming that they agree to be conceived. They don’t get to choose what kind of family, poor or rich, into which they are born. Further, Erewhon’s inhabitants have come to believe that technology, and particularly in the form of “The Machines,” is dangerous to the survival of humanity because they feel that the machines could eventually eclipse humans in intelligence. This idea, of course, is quite ahead of its time since it’s really Butler who is writing it some 70 years or so before the first computer was ever actually invented.
The two most important sections of “Erewhon” in my view are the chapters titled, “The Musical Banks” and the three-part, “The Book of the Machines.”
The Musical Banks chapter is a criticism of religious hypocrisy and the almost insatiable desire of the faithful to raise money for the church (God, if he wanted churches to have paid employees and various programs, could he not provide for them outright without making their members pick up the tab with the notorious 10 percent business?). The Wikipedia entry on the book claims the chapter is partially about the ancient practice of “coinage,” but this may be too complicated an interpretation. Butler seems to simply be comparing churches to banks in their capacity and ability to collect and store money. The images of pagan gods on the Erewhonian money also alludes to the tie between the church and pecuniary interests.
Here is Butler’s rather biting conclusion of the Musical Banks chapter:
The saving feature of the Erewhonian Musical Bank system … was that while it bore witness to the existence of a kingdom that is not of this world, it made no attempt to pierce the veil that hides it from human eyes. It is here that almost all religions go wrong. Their priests try to make us believe that they know more about the unseen world than those whose eyes are still blinded by the seen, can ever know—forgetting that while to deny the existence of an unseen kingdom is bad, to pretend that we know more about it than its bare existence is no better. …
So far as I could see, fully ninety per cent. of the population of the metropolis looked upon these banks with something not far removed from contempt. If this is so, any such startling event as is sure to arise sooner or later, may serve as nucleus to a new order of things that will be more in harmony with both the heads and hearts of the people.
The chapter titled, “The Book of the Machines,” outlines why the Erewhon people have come to mistrust machines and why they have, for the most part, done away with them in their society. As Higgs notes, all traces of machines (watches, for instance) have been stored away and are never used. Indeed, Higgs was heavily frowned upon and made to turn over his watch when he entered their city.
In a passage that eerily foresees the 2004 film, I Robot, the Isaac Asimov short stories from the mid-1950s, as well as the greatly diminished physical size of modern computer CPU chips, readers learn of the concern Erewhonians have for the evolution by which they fear machines may morph into something more than they are at the present:
The largest of them will probably greatly diminish in size. Some of the lowest vertebrate attained a much greater bulk than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, and in like manner a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress. …
“But returning to the argument, I would repeat that I fear none of the existing machines; what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it? And is it not necessary for this end to destroy the more advanced of the machines which are in use at present, though it is admitted that they are in themselves harmless?
“As yet the machines receive their impressions through the agency of man’s senses: one travelling machine calls to another in a shrill accent of alarm and the other instantly retires; but it is through the ears of the driver that the voice of the one has acted upon the other. Had there been no driver, the callee would have been deaf to the caller. There was a time when it must have seemed highly improbable that machines should learn to make their wants known by sound, even through the ears of man; may we not conceive, then, that a day will come when those ears will be no longer needed, and the hearing will be done by the delicacy of the machine’s own construction?—when its language shall have been developed from the cry of animals to a speech as intricate as our own? …
Some people may say that man’s moral influence will suffice to rule them; but I cannot think it will ever be safe to repose much trust in the moral sense of any machine.
“Again, might not the glory of the machines consist in their being without this same boasted gift of language? ‘Silence,’ it has been said by one writer, ‘is a virtue which renders us agreeable to our fellow-creatures.’”
The title of the book is an anagram for the word “nowhere,” and quite possibly, while Erewhon the place may be modeled after New Zealand, we can probably think of it in literary as a hypothetical space and not intended to represent any specific region, other than a remote spot where a civilization of people have developed a unique set of beliefs. Through these people’s thoughts and actions, we get a better understanding of what happens when religion plays the trump card and human morality takes a wrong turn. For instance, in Erewhon, sick people are treated as criminals, often dying while attempting to carry out their harsh sentences, while actual criminals are seemingly coddled and given a form of “therapy” to help them recover from their “immoral” state.
As if the satire was not laid on heavy enough while Higgs was actually in Erewhon, once he gets back to England, Higgs begins planning a way to attempt to ship a number of Erewhonians back to Europe, put them to work in a moneymaking venture, complete with shareholders, and convert them to Christianity:
By the time the emigrants got too old for work they could then by shipped back to Erewhon and carry the good seed with them.
I can see no hitch nor difficulty about the matter, and trust that this book will sufficiently advertise the scheme to insure the subscription of the necessary capital; as soon as this is forthcoming I will guarantee that I convert the Erewhonians not only into good Christians but into a source of considerable profit to the shareholders.
All things considered, then, the entire text of the book is basically a business proposal that includes some proselytizing ruminations, and hidden behind the plot is Butler’s own cunning way of dicing up elements of Victorian life with the satirical knife edge.