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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1 (April 1, 1935)

A New Zealand Utopia

page 42

A New Zealand Utopia.

Standing upon your head is a pastime that can be recommended as being much more exhilarating than golf or rugby football. We are so used to seeing things right way up that it is sometimes refreshing to take a look at the world from a totally different point of view. If we are in New Zealand, we can travel to England and secure a first-rate Antipodean outlook on the manners and customs of the barbarous New Zealanders; if we are natives of England, we can emigrate to the South Seas and amuse ourselves at the expense of the insular, hide-bound Britons to whom we have just been murmuring tender words of farewell. This is precisely the method adopted by Samuel Butler, whom all New Zealanders, whatever their philosophical or religious convictions, should be proud to have had in their midst during the years 1860 to 1864.

It was all a question of infant baptism. Butler had been destined for the ministry, but, having ventured to express some doubts as to the efficacy of infant baptism, he found that his relations with the family had become somewhat strained. Accordingly, in September, 1859, he set sail for New Zealand in the “Roman Emperor.” Even during the voyage he refused to take anything for granted. For instance, we are all accustomed to talk glibly of the Southern Cross; Butler's sharp eyes perceived at once that this was not strictly accurate, for while on board ship he wrote: “It isn't a cross. It is a kite, a kite upside down, an irregular kite upside down, with only three respectable stars, and one very poor and very much out of place.”

(Railway Publicity photo.) Wellington by night, as seen from Oriental Bay.

(Railway Publicity photo.)
Wellington by night, as seen from Oriental Bay.

A very practical man, this new immigrant of ours. No sooner had he settled in Canterbury than he gladly availed himself of any information the inhabitants could give him. Having made several excursions into the interior, he finally established himself in “Mesopotamia,” a run of eight thousand acres in the upper gorge of the Rangitata. There he prospered. His sheep throve, and his cash balance increased with agreeable rapidity. Like Bernard Shaw, Butler considered poverty a crime, and condemned unhesitatingly the existing social conditions.

Now that he was an independent sheep-farmer, Butler found new light breaking in upon him. While he was living in England, he had had some difficulty in crystallising his ideas, but now, in comparative isolation, he realised that his thoughts were growing clearer day by day. He was a man of wide interests. Literature, theology, philosophy, science, art, and music—all were grist to his mill; and here in New Zealand he found an opportunity to interweave these interests and present them to his readers in a straight-forward, fascinating way.

The process was gradual. In a New Zealand paper—“The Press” of the 20th December, 1862—he published a “Dialogue on ‘Darwin on the Origin of Species'” and later his “Darwin Among the Machines”—a letter that, in these days of intense economic discussion, might still be the means of creating a strenuous controversy. Not that Butler refused to pay his respects to Darwin and his work—he merely disagreed with the great scientist on certain points, and had the courage to say so. Darwin, he considered, was assuming the garb of a prophet and must be ruthlessly exposed, and so, by painting a picture of machines endowed with definite consciousness and finally dominating man, Butler succeeded in anticipating by nearly half a century the thought-provoking Robots of the modern stage.

By this time New Zealand had become part and parcel of Butler's life and thought. In a volume entitled “A First Year in Canterbury Settlement” not only does he give an excellent record of New Zealand plants, animals, and geological formations, but his observations on sheep and bullocks are shrewd and to the point. He even goes so far as to describe for the benefit of the uninitiated a model sheep-run according to the Butlerian philosophy. Then he sits down to write his most popular book, “Erewhon,” published in 1872, a work that contains all his old theories stated in a new and attractive guise.

The title is arresting. It is, of course, an inversion of the word “nowhere,” though two letters, “wh,” which Butler regarded as one sound, are not interchanged. With this in mind, we shall have no difficulty in recognising two of its main characters, Mr. Nosnibor and the jailer's daughter Yram, or in identifying the prim and proper Ydgrunites whom the author satirises so mercilessly. For the book is pure satire from start to finish, and everything which at first sight we may think peculiar about it has in reality a deep secondary meaning. Here in its pages we have a Utopia—a Utopia which has for its actual setting the undiscovered country beyond the mountain ranges of the South Island, but which in its application to human thought and experience is world-wide in its appeal.

Once more we are in the upper gorge of the Rangitata, and the hero of the book, bent on discovering what lies beyond the ranges, has, after a page 43 long and perilous journey, arrived at a sort of rude Stonehenge. “A few steps brought me nearer, and a shudder of unutterable horror ran through me when I saw a circle of gigantic forms, many times higher than myself, upstanding grim and grey through the veil of cloud before me.” Each of these barbaric statues has its mouth open and its head hollowed out from behind, so that, as the wildness of the wind increases, an awe-inspiring moan, swelling into a weird, wailing chorus, proceeds from the terrifying circle.

In the country of the Erewhonians, the adventurer is treated with inimitable courtesy; but before long he discovers certain peculiarities in their behaviour. His watch, for instance, they regard with extreme horror, and in a later chapter the author describes their attitude to machines in general. “The servant glides by imperceptible approaches into the master, and we have come to such a pass that, even now, man must suffer terribly on ceasing to benefit the machines. If all machines were to be annihilated at one moment, so that not a knife nor lever nor rag of clothing nor anything whatsoever were left to man but his bare body alone that he was born with, and if all knowledge of mechanical laws were taken from him, so that he could make no more machines, and all machine-made food destroyed, so that the race of man should be left as it were naked upon a desert island, we should become extinct in six weeks.” So the Erewhonians, fearful of the tyranny of the machines, rose in revolt and destroyed all such evidences of European civilisation, and the greater part of their national museum was occupied by broken machinery of all descriptions. “There were fragments of steam-engines, all broken and rusted; among them I saw a cylinder and piston, a broken fly-wheel, and part of a crank, which was laid on the ground by their side.” This in itself gives food for thought; but it is only fair to point out that Butler himself did not regard the machines with such extreme terror and disgust.

Not a whit less advanced were Butler's ideas on crime and disease. In an irresistibly amusing fashion he describes the attitude of the Erewhonians towards their “criminals.” “In that country, if a man falls into ill-health, or catches any disorder, or fails bodily in any way before he is seventy years old, he is tried before a jury of his countrymen, and if convicted is held up to public scorn and sentenced more or less severely as the case may be.” Hence the Erewhonians possess a somewhat remarkable code of manners. They do not say, “I hope you are well this morning,” because to be unwell is with them a serious breach of law. So they greet one another with “I hope you are good this morning” or “I hope you have recovered from the snappishness from which you were suffering when I last saw you,” and they try their prisoners for such odious offences as illness or misfortune. Thus one young man afflicted with pulmonary consumption is sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour for the rest of his miserable existence; while a youth charged with having been swindled out of his property during his minority by his guardian, receives twelve strokes with a cat-o'-nine-tails. “Young man,” said the judge sternly, “do not talk nonsense. People have no right to be young, inexperienced, greatly in awe of their guardians, and without independent professional advice.” People, Butler means to convey, have no right to be poor in a country overflowing with wealth, or sickly when the means of building up a healthy, virile race are at their disposal if only they have the intelligence to use them.

By way of contrast we have the pathetic story of Mr. Nosnibor, a wealthy merchant, who in the course of his dealings on the Stock Exchange has embezzled a large sum of money. “He drove home at once, broke the news to his wife and daughters as gently as he could, and sent off for one of the most celebrated straighteners of the kingdom
Junction of the Hooker and Mueller Glaciers, Mt. Cook, South Island, New Zealand.

Junction of the Hooker and Mueller Glaciers, Mt. Cook, South Island, New Zealand.

page 44 to a consultation with the family practitioner, for the case was plainly serious, … I saw the prescription. It ordered a fine to the State of double the money embezzled; no food but bread and milk for six months, and a severe flogging once a month for twelve.” The neighbours call to offer their condolences, and in the course of time the patient makes acomplete recovery. Never again is it rumourd that he has continued to make money by dishonourable means.

Of the Ydgrunites and the Musical Banks, the Colleges of Unreason and the World of the Unborn the author has much to say that will inevitably interest the earnest reader. That Butler owed much to his temporary exile in New Zealand must be obvious to all. New Zealand gave him renewed confidence in himself as a writer; it benefited his health to a marked degree; and it gave him the opportunity for reviewing in his dispassionate way the habits and customs of the Victorian era. Immortality is his, the immortality he so fondly desired when he wrote: “I fall asleep in the full and certain hope That my slumber shall not be broken And that though I be all forgetting

Yet shall I not be all forgotten

But continue that life in the thoughts and deeds Of those I loved Into which while the power to strive was yet vouchsafed me I fondly strove to enter.”

“Cigarettes are superseding cigars in this Country,” remarks the “New York Times”, It's the same story in New Zealand, where the sale of cigars, even the cheaper qualities, is steadily dwindling. Like the Yanks we smoke prodigious quantities of cigarettes (in proportion to population). Nevertheless and notwithstanding, the pipe, with us, is more than holding its own. It's true that the coarser brands of tobacco are not nearly so much in request as formerly. The demand now is for brands of a better—but not necessarily a more expensive grade, with less nicotine in them. In a word smokers are at last waking up to the fact that nicotine is a menace and must be cut out. Hence the overwhelming success of “New Zealand Toasted,” which, quite moderate in price, combines flavour and bouquet with practically complete immunity from risk. The effect of toasting is magical!—it gets rid of the nicotine! The genuine toasted brands are five in number: Cut plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Desert Gold and Riverhead Gold.