0170 | Erewhon – Samuel Butler


Context: While listening to this in the Wycliffe kitchens, I was informed that, due to Health & Safety regulations, I was no longer allowed to listen to audio books while I worked. Finished it off walking home.

This is a strange book. I didn’t really know what to think of it. At times it buzzed with melodrama a la Wells or Verne and at others went off into lengthy metaphorical satire a la Swift (at its best) and Rand (at its worst.)

It’s definitely sci-fi and, as such, makes us question our own society and where it’s all heading. The protagonist finds himself in the midst of the country of Erewhon (read it backwards-ish) and is mystified by the customs and beliefs he stumbles upon.

At times you aren’t sure what Butler intends but once you’ve figured out the symbolism you can share in the joke and have a laugh at humanity’s expense.

Butler did have a lot that was not so good to say about where he saw his own society heading. Where this all falls down for me though is in its universality. Organised religion comes under fire – as if what he is criticising is all organised religion everywhere. Philosophy likewise – which seems a bit self-defeating to me. It would have been less relevant to his readership I suppose to admit that somewhere someone was getting something right.

However, one thing that Butler’s Erewhon needs to be recognised as is the original draft for the screenplay of Terminator or The Matrix. You know those plots where machines have taken over the world and are out to eliminate humanity? Well, this is where they all came from.

So, in all, this is a classic piece of Victorian navel-gazing which, taken for that, can be taken with a pinch or two of salt but important for its legacy in media. That’s what I made of it, but some of the more pessimistic among you might want to make more.

If the reader will excuse me, I will say nothing of my antecedents, nor of the circumstances which led me to leave my native country; the narrative would be tedious to him and painful to myself.

Address to the Mansion-House, care of the Lord Mayor, whom I will instruct to receive names and subscriptions for me until I can organise a committee.

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  1. Enjoyed and generally agreed with your review as usual. But surely Butler is criticising all organized religion – all, that is, of which he has experience. If there were (are) forms of worship to which his criticisms don’t apply, I’m sure he’d have been interested in learning about them.

    Whaddaya mean by “it would have been less relevant to his readership I suppose to admit that somewhere someone was getting something right.”? Who? Getting what right? What was being got right in Victorian England?

  2. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it.

    When you say “all, that is, of which he has experience” that is precisely what I mean when I say “somewhere someone was getting something right.” Nowhere does he admit that there may have been some in organised religion/philosophy/industry etc who were on the right track. There’s a black and white in his view that doesn’t seem to hold with reality.

    For example, we know that the Catholic church has recently been exposed in Ireland for heinous crimes of abuse against minors. But whereas Butler would just throw this all into his cauldron of criticism, someone in the Catholic church in Ireland has minors in their care and has been protecting and loving them as they should be. But, it’s easier to read the news and jump on the satirical bandwagon than to actually get to know the people who are quietly doing things which are praiseworthy.

    Satire has to presume the worst about people for it to work, but by doing so, we fail to praise those who are doing things right.

    Furthermore, Erewhon questions the way the world is from Butler’s point of view. But he didn’t have the ability to say “This is my point of view.” In doing so, is he not demonstrating an equally blinkered viewpoint as that he’s critical of? I believe so.

    I’m involved in anthropology enough to know that we all need to be aware, prima facie, that things only appear to us as we see them and rarely as they really are. It’s this ignorance that I’m criticising in Erewhon but I will admit that Butler is as much a product of his time as I am of mine and therefore his writing should be understood in that context.

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