First edition cover
Author(s) Samuel Butler Country United Kingdom Language English Genre(s) Satire Publication date 1872 Followed by Erewhon Revisited
Erewhon: or, Over the Range is a novel by Samuel Butler, published anonymously in 1872. The title is also the name of a country, supposedly discovered by the protagonist. In the novel, it is not revealed in which part of the world Erewhon is, but it is clear that it is a fictional country. Butler meant the title to be read as the word Nowhere backwards, even though the letters "h" and "w" are transposed, therefore Erewhon is anagram of nowhere.
The first few chapters of the novel, dealing with the discovery of Erewhon, are in fact based on Butler's own experiences in New Zealand where, as a young man, he worked as a sheep farmer for about four years (1860–1864) and explored parts of the interior of the South Island.
One of the country's largest sheep stations, located near where Butler lived, is named "Erewhon" in his honour.
In the preface to the first edition of his book, Butler specified:
- The author wishes it to be understood that Erewhon is pronounced as a word of three syllables, all short — thus, E-re-whon.
Nevertheless, the word is occasionally pronounced with two syllables as 'air - one'.
The greater part of the book consists of a description of Erewhon. The nature of this nation is intended to be ambiguous. At first glance, Erewhon appears to be a utopia, yet it soon becomes clear that this is far from the case. Yet for all the failings of Erewhon, it is also clearly not a dystopia, such as that depicted by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. As a satirical utopia, Erewhon has sometimes been compared to Gulliver's Travels (1726), a classic novel by Jonathan Swift; the image of utopia in this latter case also bears strong parallels with the self-view of the British Empire at the time. It should also be compared to William Morris' novel News from Nowhere.
Erewhon satirizes various aspects of Victorian society, including criminal punishment, religion and anthropocentrism. For example, according to Erewhonian law, offenders are treated as if they were ill whilst ill people are looked upon as criminals. Another feature of Erewhon is the absence of machines; this is due to the widely shared perception by the Erewhonians that they are potentially dangerous. This last aspect of Erewhon reveals the influence of Charles Darwin's evolution theory; Butler had read On the Origin of Species soon after it was published in 1859.
The Book of the Machines
Butler developed the three chapters of Erewhon that make up "The Book of the Machines" from a number of articles that he had contributed to The Press, which had just begun publication in Christchurch, New Zealand, beginning with "Darwin among the Machines" (1863). Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection. Many dismissed this as a joke; but, in his preface to the second edition, Butler wrote:
- I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin's theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin....
The rest of the book
Widely shared among the people of Erewhon is the belief that children choose to be born. Many other curious notions abound in Erewhon.
In the chapter, "Musical Banks", Butler compares the practice of the cathedral to that of banks in an attack on the religious hypocrisy of his time.
In the chapter, Butler mentions that these banks have their own currency, which is not honored by the other banks. This refers to an old practice of coinage. During the age when the whole point of money was that it was made of precious metal, there was frequent trimming or shaving of coins once they were released to the public, even though people were expected to accept the diminished coins at their face value. These bits were sold under the counter to an assayer. There was also widespread counterfeiting. Banks of that era were few and quite magnificent.
It would not do for churches to be implicated in these activities. Thus, churches actually had money-changing tables at which each coin would be examined separately and a token of actual worth given to the layperson so that he or she could be seen by the other parishioners as putting money in the basket during that part of the service. These tokens had religious images upon them; this also prevented pilferage. The money-changing was not done at the same time as the service itself. (Some distinguished Protestant churches in the US had this practice in the 19th century, besides the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). The practice goes back to the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, but then it was done for the different reason — that money offered to the temple did not have the images of pagan gods on it.
- Higgs - The narrator who conveys to us the nature of Erewhonian society
- Chowbok (Kahabuka) - Higgs' guide into the mountains; he is a native who greatly fears the Erewhonians. He eventually abandons Higgs.
- Yram - The daughter of Higgs' jailer who takes care of him when he first enters Erewhon. Her name is Mary spelled backwards.
- Senoj Nosnibor - Higgs' host after he is released from prison; he hopes that Higgs will marry his elder daughter. His name is Robinson Jones backwards.
- Zulora - Senoj Nosnibor's elder daughter - Higgs finds her unpleasant, but her father hopes Higgs will marry her.
- Arowhena - Senoj Nosnibor's younger daughter; she falls in love with Higgs and runs away with him.
- Mahaina - A woman who claims to suffer from alcoholism but is believed to have a weak temperament.
- Ydgrun - The incomprehensible goddess of the Erewhonians. Her name is an anagram of Grundy (from Mrs. Grundy, a character in Thomas Morton's play Speed the Plough).
After its first release, this book sold far better than any of Butler's other works — perhaps because the British public assumed that the anonymous author was some better-known figure (the favorite being Lord Lytton, who had published The Coming Race two years prior). In 1901, Butler published a sequel, Erewhon Revisited, alongside a revised and expanded edition of Erewhon.
Influence and legacy
Today scientists and philosophers seriously debate whether computers and robots could develop a kind of consciousness (artificial intelligence, AI), and organic interaction (artificial life) similar to or exceeding that of human beings. This is also a popular theme in science-fiction novels and movies; some raise the same question (Dune's Butlerian Jihad, for example), while others explore what the relationship between human beings and machines with artificial intelligence would be, and even whether AI is desirable. It is important to note, however, that Butler wrote of machines developing consciousness by natural selection, not artificially.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used ideas from Butler's book at various points in the development of his philosophy of difference. In Difference and Repetition (1968), Deleuze refers to what he calls "Ideas" as "erewhons." "Ideas are not concepts," he explains, but rather "a form of eternally positive differential multiplicity, distinguished from the identity of concepts." "Erewhon" refers to the "nomadic distributions" that pertain to simulacra, which "are not universals like the categories, nor are they the hic et nunc or now here, the diversity to which categories apply in representation.". "Erewhon," in this reading, is "not only a disguised no-where but a rearranged now-here."
In his collaboration with Félix Guattari, Anti-Œdipus (1972), Deleuze draws on Butler's "The Book of the Machines" to "go beyond" the "usual polemic between vitalism and mechanism" as it relates to their concept of "desiring-machines":For one thing, Butler is not content to say that machines extend the organism, but asserts that they are really limbs and organs lying on the body without organs of a society, which men will appropriate according to their power and their wealth, and whose poverty deprives them as if they were mutilated organisms. For another, he is not content to say that organisms are machines, but asserts that they contain such an abundance of parts that they must be compared to very different parts of distinct machines, each relating to the others, engendered in combination with the others. [...] He shatters the vitalist argument by calling in question the specific or personal unity of the organism, and the mechanist argument even more decisively, by calling in question the structural unity of the machine.
A reference to Erewhon and specifically "The Book of Machines" opens Miguel de Unamuno's short story, "Mecanópolis," which tells of a man who visits a city (called Mecanópolis) which is inhabited solely by machines.
- The Coming Race (1871) (reprinted as Vril: The Power of the Coming Race) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
- Rangitata River - The location of the Erewhon sheep station, named by Butler who was the first white settler in the area and lived at the Mesopotamia Sheep Station.
- "Mesopotamia Station", Newton, P. (1960)
- "Early Canterbury Runs", Acland, L. G. D. (1946)
- "Samuel Butler of Mesopotamia", Maling, P. B. (1960)
- "The Cradle of Erewhon", Jones, J. (1959).
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