Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dystopian Novels: Samuel Butler, Religion, and Erewhon

I have been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic, utopian and dystopian novels over the last year. Most of the ones that I have been reading I have read in the past but wanted to take a fresher look. My interest was first sparked after I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. There was something about the sparse narrative that was well suited to the horror of the story. Maybe I unfairly lump together post-apocalyptic and dys/utopian novels, but they seem to me to share a speculative nature and to, in some ways, have a similar goal of positing a world that is different from our but that looks back on and critiques ours.
The most recent book that I have re-read is Samuel Butler's 1872 novel Erewhon. I first read this book in a 19th century British literature course in my undergrad. I was not impressed with it at the time, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to return to it. I think that I may not have given the book its due when I first read it; I was not terribly interested in 19th century British novels. My interested was also re-kindled in this book after reading a passage about it in Wayne C. Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony in which Booth discusses the paradoxical position on the narrator regarding his stance toward religion. But I'll return to this in a moment.
Much of Erewhon is as I remember it. It is presented as a travelogue. The narrator travels into the unexplored interior of some continent (he does not specify), finds a civilization that has not yet been contacted by the West, lives amongst the people for a time, and then returns to England hoping to make his fortune from his experiences. One of the key differences between this discovered civilization and the one the narrator comes from is that crimes are treated as though they were diseases and vice versa (this is Butler's device to criticize what he sees as the punishment of misfortune under the guise of criminality). One element that I did not notice on that first read is Butler's criticism of religion along with these other elements. At one point Higgs, the narrator, believes that the Erewhonians are one of the lost tribes of Israel and he vows to either make a name for himself by converting this lost tribe to Christianity and thus showing himself to the be equal of the Old Testament prophets or to sell his story and then exploit the natural resources of the unknown country to his own massive profit.
Butler presents this situation less to criticize the institution of religion than what he sees as the duplicity of its adherents. Higgs plans to take full advantage of his fortuitous discovery in whatever way is most advantageous to himself. Rather than desiring to convert the Erewhonians for their own salvation, he desires to convert them for his personal fame. Add to this the fact that he would then elevate himself to the level of the most important Biblical prophets, laying bare his selfish intentions. Higgs relates this to the reader unselfconsciously; he believes that he will be praised for his initiative and business sense.
Booth writes of a critique that is more subtle but exposes Butler's ironic intention in the work. After escaping a difficult situation, Higgs says ". . .As luck would have it, providence was on my side." Booth's point is that Higgs attribute his salvation to both luck and God, clearly a contradictory statement. Booth continues to parse the semantic advantages of Butler's selection of the word "luck" over "fortune" and "providence" over "God," but the point remains. In this example, as in the one I cited above, Higgs professes a kind of piety that he seems not to actually feel. Had his beliefs been true, he would have sought to convert the Erewhonians whatever the benefit to himself and he also would have attributed his salvation to God alone. The fact that he does not -- and these are just two examples of many -- indicates that his professions and his true beliefs do not match up.
Although religion is not Butler's primary focus in this social allegory, it is an important element of the text. His method of treating religion is fairly standard in dystopian texts of this kind, however. For the critique to be effective, Higgs must remain unaware of his hypocrisy. This should, ideally, lead to the reader's questioning his or her own beliefs to determine whether or not they match up with his or her actions.

Since the dystopian novel has been a fascination for me lately and because I have been thinking about them a lot, I have planned a series of posts about both utopian and dystopian literature. This may end up including some post-apocalyptic stuff, too. Coming up: some general thoughts about utopian and dystopian literature, a segment on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, narrative technique in dystopian novels, and much more.


Unknown said...

It's really kinda odd if you think about it-the development of Utopian ideals in historical renaissance literature and the modern bombardment of post-apocalyptic literature in modern literature. What ever happened to the "good 'ol days?"

M Raese said...

I'm a little confused by your comment. Could you explain a little more about what you find odd about these topics?

Unknown said...

It's not the topics that are odd at all. It's the centuries of literary and story evolution, from the inception of a societal peace and happiness to a defrauded and desperate one that seems to permeate popular culture, movies, and even books anymore. =)

M Raese said...

I see what you mean, although I don't agree with the movement from peace and happiness to doom and gloom because I think that those elements have always been around. My interest in these novels comes mainly from the fact that even the bleak dystopian novels seem to have a basic desire to improve social conditions. I would be more inclined to think that a heavier reliance on irony to make social commentary more recently has made it seem as though there is a heavier emphasis on the pessimistic perspective.

Unknown said...

Well said. A post-apocalyptic world can even be found in the Bible if you look. I wonder what one would find if you took the controls, of say church or state, on personal liberties into account throughout these different eras and were able to pinpoint how, when, where or why the opinions and writings were vented or released. What sort of pressure does it take on an individual or society to force them into the pessimistic attitude? I love irony. I love satire. I wish I read more of it. This is Chris from back home, by the way. Blogger just won't let me access my account id for comments because of the e-mail account it's associated with. Is this very much a lot of what your PhD paper is about? Thanks for explaining your point of view to me. You know how to get in touch.

Shane said...

Interesting fact: Aldous Huxley asked his wife for, and was granted, intramuscular LSD on his deathbed.