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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1935

Samuel Butler, New Zealand, and Erewhon

page 45

Samuel Butler, New Zealand, and Erewhon

Samuel ButlerIt seems strange that a man not until after the War came really into his own, a man whose whole style and manner are in tune with post-war literature, should have been born one hundred years ago. But it is true. Samuel Butler was born in 1835.

The story of his childhood is well enough known. His home atmosphere was heavy with cant, dullness, unconscious hypocrisy, beatings and hymn-singing. He was the victim of a prosperous English middle-class family, which, in its piety, had learned to mix avarice with religion.

His was the misfortune to live in a home more deeply scarred by parental harshness than even No. 50 Wimpole Street. But young Samuel Butler rebelled.

"I had to steal my own birthright," he says. "I stole it and was bitterly punished. But I stole my soul alive." And, it should be added, considerably maimed, for the punishment had affected him more severely and permanently than he ever dreamed. His soul was crippled by his early training. It may be asked: what has this to do with Butler's achievement? The answer is: almost everything. What he learnt in hardship and suffering he handed on to us in his books; his greatest work is related to it as the pearl to the oyster's wound. Butler's later work continually reveals him as one under the delusion that the whole of mankind, like his family, were conspiring to keep him down. Having started life as the bad boy of a pious family, he could never outgrow entirely that state of mind.

"The Freudian would be able to show how, even after Butler had escaped from the domination of his father, he was still forced to keep putting in his father's place other persons of high authority and, identifying himself with some lesser person, insist on the latter's superior claims. Dante, Virgil, Bach, Beethoven and Darwin had all to play old Butler's role, while Handel, Giovanni, Bellini, Tobachetti and Gaudenzio Ferrani figured the snubbed young Samuel."

—(E. Wilson.)

* * * *

In 1860, at the age of twenty-five, Butler arrived in New Zealand. He had fled from the shadows of the rectory, from his father's rage and his mother's prayers, and with £4400 in his pocket he was ready to settle on the soil of a wild young land. He found his way far into the foothills of the Southern Alps, where the snow-fed Rangitata growls and grumbles over its two-mile-wide shingle bed; and there he made his home. What made Butler choose New Zealand is very largely a matter for speculation, but one thing is certain: he did not come to that Canterbury tussock land seeking "local colour" for some romance or novel. He came eager to make his living as a sheep-farmer, and he toiled hard, bullock-driving. sheep-dipping, sheep-shearing, fencing and exploring. The steep gorges, swift rivers, and tall mountains which surrounded his home amazed and enchanted the young litterateur turned squatter. They challenged him, and he accepted their challenge. With a surveyor friend, John Baker, he penetrated far into the Southern Alps, actually succeeding in making the first traverse of what is now known as Whitcombe Pass.

In the vast ante-room to Frewhon we find a vivid description of the country through which Butler passed on his searches for sheep country. He knew the Alp-land well, and in the journey of the hero of Erewhon up to the saddle, filled with a "Stonehenge of rude and barbaric fig-ures," Butler left a record of wild landscapes and his own youthful adventures.

To the simple settler with whom he came in contact Butler must have seemed a very strange individual. Here is the curious first impression which he made on the diarist, Edward Chudleigh.

"Mr. Butler came here to-day. He is one of the cleaverest men in N.Z. He is a little man and nearly as dark as a Mowray (Maori), and is at present very nearly if not quite an infidel, and yet I believe would not do a dishonourable thing to save his life, he admires a man that sticks to his belief no matter what it is."

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Then, some time later, we find the following entry, dated March 19, 1864, when the two met by chance in Christchurch: "Reached town early. Had a long talk with Butler on various subjects, I think he is gone as far as man can go now, he is an ultra-Darwinian, he thinks Darwin in 200 years hence will be looked upon as a most wonderful philosopher and possibly a prophet, he does not believe the Bible to have been written by men under the influence of divine inspiration ... he does not believe there is a colossal etherial being, that pervades all space and matter, whose person would pass through the densest matter as unconscious of resistance as a feather in a vacuum. . . ."

* * * *

It is difficult to gauge the effect that his short stay in New Zealand had on Butler's life and thought. The germs of Erewhon are to be found in a letter which he contributed to the Christchurch Press called "Darwin Among the Machines" (1863), and in "Lucubratio Ebria," also contributed to that paper and sent from England (1865).

Far up in his mountain stronghold of "Mesopotamia" Butler found a life favourable to the development and cataloguing of his brilliant but hitherto hopelessly jumbled ideas. Isolated from the breathless scurry of civilized life, he could sift a thousand and one caustic criticisms and satirical comments which had been lost in the surge of his university days and his hurried departure from Langor Rectory. But soon his early eagerness wilted, and after just over four years' farming he sold his property for more than twice his original capital and sailed for England.

* * * *

Erewhon—the brilliant first book of a young man.

We have enjoyed its clear-headedness and feeling of intellectual liberation, we have enjoyed the race of natural, healthy beings who people its pages, and have admired the tenderness and keenness of Butler's insight.

Erewhon is not the clear expression of a satiric viewpoint founded on mature experience. Rather is it a device for uniting a mass of satirical ideas—the reduction to absurdity of English ideals and institutions, whimsically suggested improvements on them, and flights of fantastic reasoning of doubtful application. Of the latter, the "Book of the Machines" is a most interesting example. In writing this section of Erewhon Butler had several objects in mind. First, he intended it (i.e., "the obviously absurd theory that machines are about to supplant the human race and be developed into a higher kind of life") to be a burlesque of methods of theological controversy. He wrote, years after, "I developed it with the intention of implying: 'See how easy it is to be plausible, and what absurd propositions can be defended by a little ingenuity and distortion and departure from strictly scientific methods." Second, it was the first thrust in Butler's lifelong conflict with Charles Darwin and his theories—Butler was never able to completely shed the husk of a religious upbringing, the shadow of the rectory was always on him. Third, there was the satiric theme, passed almost unnoticed by Butler, but ominously obvious to us, the enslavement of men by machines and their masters. To point to the fact of Butler's not emphasizing this is to point to the most important feature of his satirical work. How was it that five years after Marx's "Das Kapital" and eighteen years after Dickens's "Hard Times," Butler failed to satirise the profit-motive which was turning the machine into a tyrant and man into a slave?

In passages of Erewhon and more notably in "The Way of All Flesh," he certainly made oblique attack, for he was far from approving the kind of civilisation which the English middle-class had brought with it in its rise. He understood well enough the preoccupation of the Victorians with money (Erewhon had Musical Banks), he saw their weaknesses and snobbery, he could be most entertaining about people's mercenary motives; yet he was too much of a middle-class man himself to analyse the social system in which he found himself, too much of a middle-class man to realise its necessary contradictions and the morass into which it would ultimately lead. He failed to realise the most obvious facts of social structure, for the very good reason that he stood in his own way. For all his satiric insight he had fundamentally the psychology of the rentier.

—J. D. F.