Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cultivating a sufficient distrust of printed matter - notes on Erewhonian pedagogy

Erewhon (1872), in the antique (1927) Modern Library edition I read, is 308 pages long.  The first 43 pages move the narrator from his life as a New Zealand shepherd across the mountains to the hidden Erewhonian civilization.  This passage for some reason ends with a page of a Handel score, for harpsichord.  The basics are covered for 44 more pages – dress, food, and so on, and questions about how these people live, not answers.  Then, for 197 uninterrupted pages, satire.  How we all love satire.  In Book Blog Land, I often see “satire” used as a kind of swear word.  Two final chapters in 25 pages, “Escape” and “Conclusion,” finish off the novel-like business of the novel, bringing the narrator back to England.

Except for some odd, odd, odd business with the narrator, all of which I want to save for tomorrow, the heart, meat, and spirit of Erewhon is in the satirical chapters, two-thirds of the novel.  Religious practices, somehow involving a Musical Bank.  Education at the Colleges of Unreason.  The wisdom of The Book of the Machines.  Crime as illness; illness as crime.  The afterlife and the beforelife.

Often, episodes work by correspondence.  The Musical Bank is a church!  You go there to withdraw a special currency that everyone says is valuable, but does not actually allow you to buy anything, but you do get to hear some pretty music while banking.  Ha ha!  Or, not.

At the Colleges of Unreason, youngsters study nothing but “hypothetics,” for which they learn the hypothetical language.  Students “will spend years in learning to translate some of their own good poetry into the hypothetical language – to do so with fluency being reckoned a distinguishing mark of a scholar and a gentleman.”  Hey, I do believe Butler is talking about Latin!

This is thin stuff, really, but as Butler piles on the nonsense, the satire becomes more tangled, and thus, to my mind, sharper, more universal.  The allegory falls away.

Life, [the professors of Consistency and Unreason] urge, would be intolerable if men were to be guided in all they did by reason and reason only.

Unreason is a part of reason; it must therefore be allowed its full share in stating the initial conditions.

"It is not our business," [the professor of Worldly Wisdom] said, "to help students to think for themselves.  Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do.  Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do."

One man was refused a degree for being too often and too seriously in the right, while a few days before I came a whole batch had been plucked for insufficient distrust of printed matter.

All of these aphorisms are from Chapters 21 and 22.  Are they wrong?  Yes, but, completely wrong?  One should certainly cultivate, for example, a sufficient distrust of Erewhon and its author.


  1. This is thin stuff, really, but as Butler piles on the nonsense, the satire becomes more tangled, and thus, to my mind, sharper, more universal.

    I wonder if this isn't how this always works. E.g., Mardi: The first stuff is wicked basic, church, lawyers, corsets. Starts to get more tangled with the whole worldwide political allegory. But the more jumbled everything gets, the harder it is to keep up with the allegory (if it's still really there), and the more universal it starts to seem. I haven't actually read Erewhon but based on your post it doesn't sound totally dissimilar.

    Other than the length, of course.

  2. Mardi had enough surface differences that I did not see that it is, like Erewhon, another descendant of Thomas More.

    Butler's book is not a quarter as jam-packed with stuff as Mardi.

    I'm with you - it's when we start to lose the allegory that the ideas begin to have some room to do something, whether or not they're doing what their author wants.

    This was true of Wells, too, actually. I don't think I'm going to write about it, but I enjoyed The Island of Dr. Moreau a lot because it was the craziest Wells novel I read. It made less sense, and therefore was richer.

  3. Satire needs an edge--it has to be either very, very, incisively funny, or black-death absurdist serrated-edge despairing.

    Satire is not, as some writers seem to think, "high-concept."

  4. Shelley, Butler's is the funny version. Much of what I'm calling thin is when he goes for the more obvious jokes. But as concept gets deeper and the jokes get funnier, or at least stranger.

    I don't think Butler ever reaches the level of Book 4 of Gulliver's Travels, where Swift's satire becomes almost sublime, but he's in that tradition.