Thursday, March 3, 2011

My ignorance of technical terms has led me doubtless into many errors - my imaginary Erewhon

The narrator of Erewhon spends his first three months in the strange country learning the language.

I found to my sorrow that the resemblance to European things, which I had so frequently observed hitherto, did not hold good in the matter of language; for I could detect no analogy whatever between this and any tongue of which I have the slightest knowledge, - a thing which made me think it possible that I might be learning Hebrew. (Ch. 8)

Hebrew, because he thinks he has stumbled upon a lost tribe of Israel.  He begins his study with numbers and objects, logically, but the bulk of the book is concerned with abstractions – the College of Unreason, the religious beliefs of the Erewhonians, the details of their legal system.  He claims that the long excerpts from "The Book of Machines" and other works are his own translations – he smuggles the manuscripts back to England under absurd circumstances.  Prof. Mayhew observes that reading an Italian text full of cognates is easier than one about household objects, but Italian, for him, is full of cognates.  Our hero insists he has no knowledge whatsoever of Greek or Hebrew, and that the Erewhonian tongue is completely unfamiliar.

My ignorance of technical terms has led me doubtless into many errors, and I have occasionally, where I found translation impossible, substituted purely English names and ideas for the original Erewhonian ones, but the reader may rely on my general accuracy. (Ch. 22)

Ya know, in a different kind of book, a disclaimer like this would set off the unreliability alarm bells.  Add to this the narrator’s nutty insistence on the Lost Tribe theory, and his crackpot, even evil, final-chapter scheme to profit from it (it involves sugar plantations and a gunboat).  Maybe this fellow is not altogether right in the head.

I don’t think there’s quite enough of these clues, or that they’re arranged in a tight enough pattern, to spend much time looking for the secret subtext.  Butler wants to take his shots at the Anglican church, classical education, false middle-class respectability, and he wants to find a context for his amusing ideas about the Darwinian evolution of machinery.  Anything else is just messing around.

The messing around, though, suggests the possibility of another novel.  A better novel, says I.  The traveler arrives in Erewhon, learns the language, confidently but badly, and proceeds to misunderstand everything he sees.  The Colleges of Unreason are, of course, Colleges of Reason – the narrator never figures out how negations work.  Criminals go to prison, and ill people to the doctor, just like anywhere else.  The church is treated with respect.  There are of course no Professors of Inconsistency and Evasion.

The plot, as such, can go a couple of different ways.  In Erewhon, the nation that at first seems bizarre turns out to be a veiled version of England, at least in its hypocrisies and absurdities.  But perhaps it is a genuine Utopia, the vices only existing in the mind of the uncomprehending and stubborn traveler.  Or perhaps he has been knocked on the head, and has been in England all along.  No wonder he picks up the language so quickly.

This would be a clever book.  Erewhon is a clever book, too, but the one I want to read would be more clever.


  1. The imaginary novel you suggest sounds like one Italo Calvino might have written. The combination of language, misunderstanding, satire, allegory, and infinite possibility is a slice of what he does.

  2. The perfect candidate! Perfect.

    Once upon a time, I read lots of Calvino, 14 books, I think. I would have read this one - I want to read this one.