Tuesday, 11 July 2017


Samuel Butler Erewhon (1872)
Erewhon is the second great satire of the nineteenth century, it says here, the other being Gulliver's Travels, but personally I'm not convinced. It seems too much like a sentence referring to those two giants of twentieth century rock music, David Bowie and Nick Lowe - I mean Cracking Up was a fucking great single for sure, but let's keep some sense of perspective here, because Erewhon really isn't a patch on Swift. Aside from anything else, Swift was funny.

Erewhon transports a curious traveller to a distant and vaguely allegorical civilisation of that designation serving as a parody of Victorian society. It's written in an engaging style and delivers plenty of novelty, but I'm not entirely convinced it works as satire. It reads as though Butler kept changing his mind about what he wanted the book to do even as he was writing it. It starts well, with our man detailing the eccentricities of the Erewhonian justice system in which illness and infirmity are penalised whilst acts we might regard as criminal indiscretions go unpunished. Given the present state of healthcare in the United States and the NHS in England, the thrust of Butler's argument translates into contemporary terms very well, not least because he composes a weirdly plausible argument as to why the crime of being poorly might warrant a jail sentence.

Unfortunately, once we're done with Erewhonian justice, there are too many mixed messages and it becomes difficult to tell just what he's satirising. Sometimes he satirises by exaggeration,  sometimes by inversion, and sometimes we're left with the impression that he's entirely serious; so Erewhon lacks the consistency or the sense of progression found in Gulliver's Travels. The presumably Victorian monetary system is parodied through Erewhon honouring two unrelated forms of currency, one of which is exchanged at the Musical Banks - whatever they are - and I can't actually tell how any of it relates to anything.

Then follows philosophical mumbling, some of which reads a lot like a vicar's son asking Mr. Darwin if there is not room for the Baby Jesus in his fanciful theory. I'm not sure which part of any of it constitutes satire.
There are no follies and no unreasonableness so great as those which can apparently be irrefragably defended by reason itself, and there is hardly an error into which men may not easily be led if they base their conduct on reason only.

Butler was apparently quite the fan of Darwin but disagreed on certain fundamental points - points suggesting, at least to me, that he hadn't actually understood The Origin of Species in the first place. He seems to regard evolutionary theory and the process of natural selection as overly mechanistic, and Darwin's work is therefore parodied as The Book of the Machines - Erewhon's book within a book. The problem with this section, at least a problem for the notion of Erewhon as satire, is that Butler writes The Book of the Machines a little too well, makes some decent philosophical points, unwittingly predicts the technological singularity, and in doing so fails to deliver whatever the fuck the warning was supposed to be about in the first place.
'May we not fancy that if, in the remotest geological period, some early form of vegetable life had been endowed with the power of reflecting upon the dawning life of animals which was coming into existence alongside of its own, it would have thought itself exceedingly acute if it had surmised that animals would one day become real vegetables? Yet would this be more mistaken than it would be on our part to imagine that because the life of machines is a very different one to our own, there is therefore no higher possible development of life than ours; or that because mechanical life is a very different thing from our ours, therefore that it is not life at all?'

Erewhon is an interesting and occasionally thought-provoking novel, but is hamstrung by its own inconsistency. It may well be that, living as I do in 2017 rather than 1872, I have simply missed the subtleties which would seem obvious to the reader in Butler's time, but this still leaves the question of why Swift's novel works so much better than this one whilst requiring fewer allowances for the idiosyncracies of its vintage. Personally, I think there may be a clue in Butler's occasionally revealing narrative tone.
They have another plan about which they are making a great noise and fuss, much as some are doing with women's rights in England.

I appreciate he's not actually saying that women's rights are necessarily a bad thing, but there seems to be a somewhat insular subtext which creeps in at certain points of the narrative. He doesn't like change. He doesn't like anything too fancy. He's suspicious of big ideas. Erewhon isn't a bad novel, but I get the feeling that if its author were alive today he'd be the treasurer of his local model aeroplane flying club, his favourite band would be ELO, and he would have ceased posting on facebook following an argument in which he described Mike Read's UKIP Calypso as just a bit of fun.

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