Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The deeply rooted wish to spread opinions - Samuel Butler and Utopian exhaustion

Let one book lead to another, I advise, but I feel I am demonstrating the limits of the thesis.  Flaubert’s nightmarish siege of Carthage leads to Richard Jefferies’s nightmarish London bog in a book that is also an ecological semi-Utopia, so that leads to the satirical Utopia of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872).  Meanwhile, exotic Flaubert leads to exotic Anatole France (Thaïs, 1890), which inevitably sends me to another satirical Utopia, France’s 1908 Penguin Island, which has pretty much worn we out.  I should read William Morris next, shouldn’t I, News from Nowhere (1890)?  But I'm beat. Some other time.

The problem is two-fold.  First, these books are all second-rate.  I staunchly defend the second-rate, but a diet of nothing-but is wearing.  The characterization in these books is, to be generous, thin.  The stories do not necessarily have much forward momentum.  I’m not sure they should.  Still.

Second, the genuine satires, like Erewhon and Penguin Island and, to drop back to the source, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), are dang slippery.  The authors are, certainly, puncturing hypocrisies and mocking the unmockable, but they are also, at times, entirely serious.  Aren’t they?  So I’m batted back and forth, constantly on edge.  Was that joke just a joke?  A joke with a target I don’t recognize?  A joke that is not a joke at all?  I am thinking of Thomas Carlyle – as I read more of him, I realized that the more outrageous his claim, the more likely he was to really mean it.

Butler’s Erewhonians imprison people when they are ill and send them to the doctor when they embezzle funds or knife their neighbor.  They abolished machinery, or a lot of it, because of fears that machines would evolve into Robot Overlords.  They were all vegetarians for a while, until the entire nation briefly tried living without eating vegetables, although it was all right to eat “what had died a natural death, such as fruit that was lying on the ground and about to rot, or cabbage-leaves that had turned yellow in autumn” (Ch 27, “The Views of an Erewhonian Philosopher Concerning the Rights of Vegetables”).

Butler, my imagined Butler – I know nothing about the actual Butler – may or may not advocate vegetarianism, although I doubt it, but the anti-vegetable position is surely a folly, a mockery of systems that violate common sense.  How about the anti-machine position?  I suspected that I was reading the equivalent of a needle being threaded.

What could it matter to me how many absurdities the Erewhonians might adopt?  Nevertheless I longed to make them think as I did, for the wish to spread those opinions that we hold conducive to our own welfare is so deeply rooted in the English character that few of us can escape its influence.  But let this pass. (Ch. 20)

I recognize the target of that passage.  It’s the author of Erewhon, and perhaps others, too, including, just possibly, the author of Wuthering Expectations.

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