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58e Congrès de la SAES, atelier de la SFEVE, Utopia(s) and Revolution(s)

The Music and (dis)harmony of (anti)utopia in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon

La musique et la (dis)harmonie de l’(anti)utopie dans Erewhon de Samuel Butler
Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay

Résumés

Contrairement à l’architecture, la musique est un aspect dans l’ensemble rare et marginal des littératures utopiques, malgré ses connotations généralement très positives. Elle occupe cependant une place centrale dans Erewhon de Samuel Butler mais sous une forme négative car elle est caractérisée par ses sons désagréables, discordants, voire par sa cacophonie. C’est en cela que réside l’originalité profonde de Butler qui, d’une part, détourne la conception élogieuse et spiritualisée et les associations utopiques de la musique, et d’autre part, se la réapproprie à des fins satiriques et anti-utopiques. Après un bref panorama des connotations et du rôle habituels de la musique dans les utopies, cet article se penchera sur sa valeur avant l’arrivée du narrateur à Erewhon. Nous examinerons ensuite son mode de représentation dans cet étrange pays, qui fait se rejoindre le sens littéral (acoustique) et social de la discordance, la musique désagréable ou cacophonique étant l’indice du dysfonctionnement et des défaillances éthiques de ce monde. Cet article étudiera enfin l’instabilité de la position et des points de vue du narrateur qui, alliée à l’hybridité générique et tonale du texte, et à sa logique ironique (alternant entre satire and (anti)utopie) font passer le roman par une série de fluctuations idéologiques intrigantes. Comme la musique cacophonique d’Erewhon, le message véhiculé est en fin de compte assez ambigu et discordant.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) represents a notable exception since in chapter 9, we learn that in (...)
  • 2 Part of chapter 11 (53–56) is devoted to the democratic access to all types of music, suited to all (...)
  • 3 The version used here is the 1901 revised edition, edited by Peter Mudford.

1Unlike architecture, music is, as a rule, a marginal or infrequent aspect of utopian literature although it is usually1 invested with solely positive connotations. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888),2 in which it is praised as one of the ideal/istic expressions of e/utopia, stand as exceptions. So does, even more strikingly, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872 and 1901)3 in which music plays a central role. Yet, in the novel, it is a strongly polysemous ideological vehicle, and it is only described negatively, as unpleasant, jarring, discordant and even cacophonous. This is where Butler’s radical originality lies: firstly in this diversion of the laudatory, spiritualized conception of music and of its utopian associations; and secondly in the (re)appropriation of music for satiric and anti-utopian purposes.

2After a brief survey of the role and connotations of music in utopian literature, this paper will focus on its value and symbolism before the narrator’s stay in Erewhon, during his arduous journey in chapters 4 and 5, when he reaches the supposedly impassable mountains that he and his fellow sheep-raisers can see from the plain. The novel is tellingly subtitled Over the Range, which does not evoke the transcendent quality of the imaginary world, but its mere isolation and inaccessibility.

  • 4 Disharmony both refers to ‘want of harmony or agreement’ or to ‘discord’, and to ‘want of harmony b (...)

3The various representations of music in the unknown land, and the way they collapse the literal (acoustic) and social meanings of discordance or ‘disharmony’,4 will then be addressed. Unpleasant or cacophonous music turns out to be the index to the ethical flaws of Erewhon, whose various modalities shall be discussed.

4The final section will deal with the narrator’s unstable stance and views, which, together with the generic and tonal hybridity of the text and its ironic logic, take the novel through a series of perplexing ideological fluctuations, so that like the cacophonous music of Erewhon, the message conveyed is itself rather confused and cacophonous at times. As Butler himself mischievously remarks in his ‘Preface to the second edition’: ‘For the inconsistencies in the book, and I am aware that there are not a few, I must ask the indulgence of the reader. The blame, however, lies chiefly with the Erewhonians themselves, for they were really a very difficult people to understand’ (31).

  • 5 The ‘Father of Salomon’s House’ commends the wide range of harmonies produced in the ‘sound-houses’ (...)
  • 6 The American narrator of The Coming Race discovers a wonderful and ‘strange world, amidst the bowel (...)

5Unlike architecture and geography, music is usually a marginal aspect of utopian literature and Thomas More’s founding text is paradigmatic in this respect. In Book II, Raphael Hythloday evokes the ‘Social and Business Relations’ of Utopia, noting that ‘never a meal passes without music’ (44) and that, during lunch and dinner ‘they burn incense and scatter perfume, omitting nothing which will make the occasion festive’ (44). Music appears as a way of brightening up everyday life and making it quite pleasurable. Besides, since it is always harmonious, sweet, expressive and soul-lifting, it is one of the most adapted vehicles of spirituality in More’s Utopia (Book II, ‘Religions’, 81), in Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627)5 or in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race.6

  • 7 Music plays an educational and cathartic role in News from Nowhere, a futuristic utopian ‘romance(...)

6In The Coming Race, in Bellamy’s Looking Backward, or William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890),7 euphonious music is a source of aesthetic pleasure but above all, a highly spiritual expressive mode that reflects the new equalitarian and socialist organization of society. In The Coming Race, the narrator learns from Aph-Lin, his host that:

‘of all the pleasurable arts, music is that which flourishes the most amongst us. . . . in music the absence of stimulus in praise or fame has served to prevent any great superiority of one individual over another; and we rather excel in choral music, with the aid of our vast mechanical instruments . . . , than in single performers’ (Bulwer-Lytton 46).

  • 8 The essay ‘explores Owen’s belief in the power of music to bind together people from different back (...)

7In real life and fiction alike, orchestral and choral forms of music are collective and cohesive practices that promote social harmony and democracy, as Lorna Davidson’s essay on Robert Owen’s New Lanark Community shows.8 For Rousseau and for utopian writers, ‘singing and the hearing of song allow a direct, empathic human connection’ and create ‘a privileged, felt community of shared experience in which membership of the whole is reconciled with personal freedom’ (Levitas and Moylan 211).

  • 9 In ‘In eine bess're Welt entrückt: Reflections on Music and Utopia’, Levitas seeks to ‘explore the (...)
  • 10 ‘The physicality of musical performance—its dependence on the body, hands, breath of the player(s)— (...)

8In their introduction to the 2010 issue of Utopian Studies, Ruth Levitas and Tom Moylan point out that the critical focus on the relation between utopia and music is a recent tendency only dating back from the mid-2000s (206–07).9 It is an as yet under-researched field because it poses ‘a real problem for the analysis’: because of the ‘evanescent quality’ of music, its ‘abstraction’ and its ‘resistance to linguistic representation’, ‘something is always missing, lost in translation’ (Levitas 224).10 But the capacity ‘to transport the listener or performer into a better world’ is precisely what ‘renders music utopian, for it is this better world and the attempt at and experience of its prefiguration that is the defining character of utopianism’ (Levitas 216). Besides, ‘utopian energies’, both of a ‘prefigurative and transformative’ nature ‘are attributed to the imputed relationship between the performers themselves—assuming that what is achieved is an ideal form of nonconflictual human connection’ (Levitas 225).

9Nothing of the kind must be expected ‘over the range’ where music is soulless, unpleasant, and discordant, and used as a complex, polysemous satirical tool and topos, as a signifier both of utopia and anti-utopia.

  • 11 As V. Larbaud points out in his ‘Avertissement’, Butler did not deem it necessary to give his chara (...)

10Yet, in chapter 4, before the nameless11 narrator arrives in Erewhon, music still seems to possess the traditional spiritual connotations that characterize it in utopias. As he travels with the utmost difficulty to discover what lies ‘over the range’ of mountains, and stops to rest for the night, he has a wondrous dream whose golden tonalities and organ music evoke the Celestial City and whose vertical and symbolic architecture is attuned to the ideal beauty of e/utopia:

I dreamed that there was an organ placed in my master’s wool-shed: the wool-shed faded away, and the organ seemed to grow and grow amid a blaze of brilliant light, till it became like a golden city upon the side of a mountain, with rows upon rows of pipes set in cliffs and precipices, one above the other . . . In the front there was a flight of lofty terraces, at the top of which I could see a man with his head buried forward towards a key-board, and his body swaying from side to side amid the storm of huge arpeggioed harmonies . . . . Then there was one who touched me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Do you not see? it is Handel’: —but I . . . was trying to scale the terraces, and get near him, when I awoke, dazzled with the vividness and distinctness of the dream. (59)

11The fact that he fails to reach the summit of the golden city, and to get near Handel, the organ player, whom he later praises as ‘the greatest of all musicians’ (68), makes him feel ‘bitterly disappointed’ (59), and he has to come ‘back to reality and [his] strange surroundings as best’ he can (59). His staying at the bottom of the terraced city suggests that e/utopia is forever out of reach just as, in The Concept of Utopia (1990), Levitas reflects on ‘the space which utopia occupies’ (8), which is the space of unfulfilled desires. The narrator’s staying at the bottom of the city is also an index to his moral shortcomings and spiritual inadequacy, prefiguring the same flaws in the land of Erewhon which, in many respects, falls short of the utopian ideal.

  • 12 ‘Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the (...)

12On waking up, he seems to hear the distant sound of an Aeolian harp ‘borne upon the wind’ (60). The Aeolian harp or lyre, ‘a stringed instrument producing musical sounds on exposure to a current of air’ (OED), pertains to the poetic and lyrical modes. Its harmonious, sweet and melancholy music traditionally expresses Nature’s voice and soul, and man’s spirituality. It is a privileged Romantic topos, present for instance in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821).12

13As Levitas and Moylan point out about the myth of Orpheus and how it persistently influenced the symbolism of lyre music: ‘[It] has the capacity to inspire dance, to comfort and console, to remove pain, to persuade to kindness, to lead toward the light; but the Orpheus myth . . . is also one of yearning and in the end irreparable loss (Levitas and Moylan 208). It is on this wistful, nostalgic note that Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) ends: ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?’ (Lines 79–80)

14Similarly, the sense of irremediable loss, longing and frustration are the keynotes of these opening chapters of Erewhon first with the incomplete, elusive dream, and then with the evanescent music: both implicitly point to e/utopia as an absence and a chimerical aspiration. When he can no longer hear the soft elusive Aeolian music, the narrator starts to doubt the reality of the harp and remembers ‘the noise which Chowbok had made in the wool-shed’ (60), a key scene in chapter 2, preceding the journey to Erewhon, when one of the native shearers (said to be quite ugly) had presented a grotesque and enigmatic impersonation of awe-inspiring entities producing strange sounds ‘a low moaning like the wind, rising and falling by infinitely small gradations’ (47). The unexpected yoking of the Aeolian harp and Chowbok prefigures the debased and desecrated status of music in the world ‘over the range’. Its threshold is aptly guarded by gigantic and hideous stone idols, the very entities the native had been impersonating in front of the perplexed narrator.

15He eventually comes across them on his way to Erewhon in chapter 5 when ‘proceeding cautiously through the mist’ (66), he finally sees ‘a circle of gigantic forms’, ‘upstanding grim and grey through the veil of cloud’ (66), and faints at the sight thinking he is in the presence of ten huge ‘living beings’ (66). When he regains consciousness and part of his composure, he becomes aware he has ‘come upon a sort of Stonehenge of rude and barbaric figures, seated as Chowbok had sat . . . in the wool-shed, and with the same superhumanly malevolent expression upon their faces’ (66). He also discovers that their heads have been hollowed (67), when a ‘gust of howling wind’ produces ‘a moan’ from one of them, then shriller ones from the other statues, ‘swelling into a chorus’ (67). It soon becomes clear to him that it is because the heads were fashioned like ‘a sort of organ-pipe, so that their mouths should catch the wind’ (67), that the statues can produce these ‘unearthly’ sounds and their ‘concert’ can be heard from afar (67).

  • 13 In ‘A Driving Image of Revolution’ (2010), Mary Louise O’Donnell addresses the symbolism and role o (...)
  • 14 From 1883 on, Butler and his friend H. F. Jones started composing musical pieces (minuets, gavottes (...)

16This scene concentrates a series of ironic contrasts resting on echoes of chapters 2 and 4 and prefiguring the disharmonious world of Erewhon and its jarring sounds (for instance, at the Musical Banks in chapter 15). Firstly, the supposedly ‘Aeolian’ music ironically turns out to be the ‘ghostly chanting’ (68) of the stone idols. Then, the radical discrepancy between lofty organ or lyrical harp music13 and the references to the grotesque character of Chowbok in the unpoetic and everyday world of the wool-shed in chapter 2 produces irony; so do the lexical echoes between chapters 4 and 5 whereby the celestial organ music issuing from the ‘rows upon rows of pipes’ in the golden city (59) is metamorphosed into a grotesque and nightmarish parody with the ‘organ-pipe’ (67) of each of the ten idols’ head and mouth. Lastly, Handel is mentioned both in the dream and in the statue scene, but while he stands for the nobility and perfection of music in the dream city of chapter 4, his evocation at the end of the encounter with the stone idols radically shifts: it introduces the anti-utopian theme and adumbrates the links between musical and social discordance. The score of his ‘Prelude: arpeggio’, a composition for the harpsichord, is reproduced at the very end of chapter 5 (68) but it is preceded by an incidental remark from the narrator which, considering Butler’s life-long admiration for Handel,14 is, to say the least, strange and destabilizing as it implies that English society itself is barely more harmonious than the world ‘over the range’:

I may say here that, since my return to England, I heard a friend playing some chords upon the organ which put me very forcibly in mind of the Erewhonian statues (for Erewhon is the name of the country upon which I was now entering). They rose most vividly to my recollection the moment my friend began. They are as follows, and are by the greatest of all musicians:— (Ch. 5, 68)

17Yet, the anti-utopian dimension is temporarily toned down: chapter 6 is quite a deceptive introduction to Erewhon which misleads us into expecting a genuinely utopian world. The narrator’s first view of it seen from the symbolically elevated standpoint of the mountain top is full of promising religious and pastoral overtones. The ineffable beauty of the grandiose panorama displayed in front of him seems to be the real-life materialization of his wonderful dream.

I got below the level of the clouds, into a burst of brilliant evening sunshine . . . , and the sun was full upon me. . . . But what I saw! It was such an expanse as was revealed to Moses when he stood upon the summit of Mount Sinai, and beheld that promised land which it was not to be his to enter. The beautiful sunset sky was crimson and gold; blue, silver, and purple; exquisite and tranquillising; fading away therein were plains, on which I could see many a town and city, with buildings that had lofty steeples and rounded domes. (70–71)

  • 15 Yram is ‘Mary’ in reverse, like many of the proper names in Erewhon (Nosnibor, Ydgrun) which are ‘s (...)

18But as in chapter 4, he falls asleep, as if utopian bliss and perfection could only be glimpsed fleetingly. He is gently woken up by the sweet sounds of ‘tinkling bells’ (71) from goats feeding nearby, followed by some musical ‘chattering and laughter’ (71) from ‘two lovely girls, of about seventeen or eighteen years old’, presumably shepherdesses, and he is ‘dazzled with their extreme beauty’ (71). He receives a consistently kind, unaffected and warm welcome from the inhabitants of this secluded, mountain area of Erewhon (in chapters 6 and 7). The strong pastoral and utopian overtones of these two chapters jar with the narrator’s recital of his unpleasant experiences in town (chapter 8 is entitled ‘In Prison’) and in the metropolis (from chapter 9 on) when the music topos is significantly reintroduced, this time in an anti-utopian context. After being quarantined because, as a foreigner, he must be sick and contagious, he has to serve a three-month prison sentence because of the watch he owns, a grave offence in a country where machines have been proscribed and criminalized for centuries. In order to pass the time in his provincial prison, he makes himself a flute, plays it and sings. His repertory and use of the scale are radically new to his amazed visitors and to Yram,15 his jailer’s daughter:

  • 16 It is impossible to ascertain whether it is the sentimental lyrics of the songs and/or their unusua (...)

. . . being a tolerable player, [I] amused myself at times with playing snatches from operas, and airs such as . . . ‘Home, sweet home’. This was of great advantage to me, for the people of the country were ignorant of the diatonic scale and could hardly believe their ears on hearing some of our most common melodies. Often, too, they would make me sing; and I could at any time make Yram’s eyes swim with tears16 by singing ‘Wilkins and his Dinah’, ‘Billy Taylor’, ‘The Ratcatcher’s Daughter’ . . . (88)

  • 17 The ‘musical’ statues, therefore, cast a long shadow. In chapter 9, we learn about their exact mean (...)

19Chapter 15, ‘The Musical Banks’, will amplify and clarify the anti-utopian significance of the Erewhonians’ ignorance of the diatonic scale. The OED’s definition of the figurative use of ‘diatonic’ in common parlance in the 1870s, a period exactly contemporaneous with the publication of Butler’s Erewhon, illuminates the exact meaning of this ignorance: ‘Of a normal or natural sort; free from fancies or crotchets’. The definition is accompanied by a quote from The Contemporary Review (1871): ‘The healthy diatonic nature of Mr. Hutton’s chief preferences in literature’ (649). The implication, therefore, is that Erewhonians’ ignorance of the diatonic scale (regarded as a natural scale) betrays something awry, unnatural, if not perverted in their society. The musical deficiency stands for more serious ethical shortcomings and prefigures the (literal and metaphoric) cacophony of their world and its senseless, topsy-turvy values.17 The very name of the ‘Colleges of Unreason’, first mentioned in chapter 9 (98) and described at length in chapters 21 and 22, epitomizes this prevalent sense of discordance and absurdity. As a matter of fact, the narrator actually considers the Erewhonian name of the ‘City of the Colleges’ so ‘cacophonous’ that he decides to ‘refrain from giving it’ in his narrative (195).

  • 18 I am here borrowing from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem ‘Body’s Beauty’ (Poems 1870) which, republis (...)
  • 19 His jailor tells him owning a watch is a ‘damaging feature’, and ‘a very heinous offence, almost as (...)

20One of the most striking characteristics of this topsy-turvy world is its exclusive and aberrant cult of ‘body’s beauty’18 that stands for moral worth and intelligence. Blue eyes and fair hair are praiseworthy (83),19 a fresh complexion is ‘meritorious’ (93) and synonymous with ‘genius’ (150) while illness is regarded ‘highly criminal and immoral’ (90), like ‘ill luck of any kind’, ‘ill treatment at the hands of others’, ‘loss of fortune’, or ‘bereavement’ which are offences ‘punished hardly less severely than physical delinquency’ (102). The novel can therefore legitimately be read as ‘an absurdist satire on Darwinian evolutionary theory’ (Graff 41) in which ‘Butler satirizes the implications of the literal application of Darwin to social policy’ (Graff 47). Ill luck and ill health ‘demonstrate a susceptibility which endangers future generations’ (Graff 43).

21Conversely, ‘no man in the country stands higher’ (92) than Mr Nosnibor, the wealthy embezzler who is going to be the narrator’s host in the capital and is ‘favourably considered in the best society’ (92). This character and his family are paradigms of the Erewhonian values and ideology. His refined and elegant mansion or palazzo in the metropolis, is located on a ‘slight eminence’ and boasts ‘large and lofty’ rooms (99) and ‘terraced gardens’ (99), reminiscent of the terraced dream city (chapter 4) or the terraced mountain landscape (chapter 6). This could stand for a form of moral elevation. Yet, his family only have mundane concerns and not only show a complete lack of interest in music (they have no instruments at home, except noisy gongs) but are deaf or indifferent to melodiousness.

  • 20 This partly disillusioned, partly humorous echo of Ch. 5 (68) on Handel can be read as another obli (...)

I missed also the sight of a grand piano or some similar instrument, there being no means of producing music in any of the rooms save the larger drawing-room, where there were half a dozen large bronze gongs, which the ladies used occasionally to beat about at random. It was not pleasant to hear them, but I have heard quite as unpleasant music both before and since. (100)20

  • 21 One of the few exceptions is when a ‘feast [is] held’ and the family and their ‘friends gather toge (...)

22In most respects, the values of Erewhonian society and its discordant music represent a radical antithesis to the euphony of e/utopia. More presents the love for musical harmony as an index to man’s spiritual side, since ‘No other kind of animal contemplates the shape and loveliness of the universe . . . , or distinguishes harmonious from dissonant sounds’ (More, Book II, ‘Their Moral Philosophy’ 56). Unsurprisingly, music is almost absent from Erewhonians’ lives and homes, just as their society does not care for communal life, collective gatherings21 or public celebrations. But it plays a prominent role in chapter 15 (‘The Musical Banks’) that satirizes conformism and religious hypocrisy. ‘[The banks] were decorated in the most profuse fashion, and all mercantile transactions were accompanied with music, so that they were called Musical Banks, though the music was hideous to a European ear’ (137). Erewhonians do not use the coins issued at the Banks but they pretend to value them more than ‘the current coin of the realm’ (143) and to be deeply moved by the choir music of the Bank singers. Yet, the fact the singing is relegated to the back of the building confirms how shallow the whole ritual is, and how pervasive cant is.

In a remote part of the building there were men and boys singing; this was the only disturbing feature, for as the gamut was still unknown, there was no music in the country which could be agreeable to a European ear. The singers seemed to have derived their inspirations from the songs of birds and the wailing of the wind, which last they tried to imitate in melancholy cadences that at times degenerated into a howl. To my thinking the noise was hideous, but it produced a great effect upon my companions, who professed themselves much moved. (139; emphasis added)

23The prevalent sense of discordance of this passage, with its verbatim echoes of chapter 5 (the singing statues), can be associated with what the narrator calls Erewhonians’ ‘extraordinary obliquity’ (78) and ‘perversity’ of ‘mental vision’ (93).

  • 22 His status as Butler’s double or mouthpiece is particularly evident in chapter 3, with the strongly (...)

24We should nevertheless bear in mind that, both intellectually and morally, he is far from reliable or trustworthy; nor is his psychology or mind-set consistent since he can alternately think like a down-to-earth middle-class Victorian (with self-righteous, colonialist and self-serving tendencies) or like his cultivated and morally refined creator’s mouthpiece.22 His initial simile in chapter 1 when he evokes the majestic landscape seen from the mountain side, ‘as through the wrong end of a telescope’ (42) sets the tone and inaugurates the generalized ambiguity of the novel’s message. This optical image prefigures the misguided and unsound values of Erewhon. Indeed, ‘it is as though one is viewing Victorian England through a series of distorting mirrors, and mirrors that distort in different ways’ (Raby 127). Therefore, the telescope, like a distorting mirror, encapsulates the satiric dimension of the text which ‘holds a distorted image up for the reader to see, and the reader is to be shocked into a realization that the image is his or her own’ (Graff 33).

25The telescope image ironically reflects on the narrator himself (and potentially on his Victorian readers). Though we may subscribe to some of his judgements and assessments, he occasionally seems to view things through the wrong end of the telescope himself: ‘I write with great diffidence, but it seems to me that there is no unfairness in punishing people for their misfortunes, or rewarding them for their sheer good luck: it is the normal condition of human life that this should be done, and no right-minded person will complain of being subjected to the common treatment’ (120). This particularly ironic passage in which the narrator’s apparent callousness conceals a fierce attack on the iniquity of English law exemplifies the way Erewhon rests on the use of an ‘ingenuous observer’ who ‘is unable to make convincing normative distinctions’ (Montague 19). The use of this flawed observer as narrator is the ‘device that pulls the book together’, with ‘the advantage’ that ‘the audience can sometimes laugh at him, sometimes with him’, a strategy achieving ‘verisimilitude’, ‘economy’ and ‘humor’ (Montague 21). His concluding remarks in Chapter 12 (‘Malcontents’) unmistakably evokes Gulliver’s seeming naivety and obtuseness: ‘I have perhaps dwelt too long upon opinions which can have no possible bearing upon our own, but I have not said the tenth part of what these would-be reformers urged upon me. I feel, however, that I have sufficiently trespassed upon the attention of the reader’ (125). He also affects to find fault with the prevalent equivocation and prevarication at the ‘Colleges of Unreason’, with their ‘professorships of inconsistency and evasion’ (XXI, 187) but the professors’ methods shed light on Butler’s own ironic roundabout ways constantly hovering between satire and (anti)utopia.

26Sue Zemka justly remarks that ‘it seems that a devious trick has been played, such that Gulliver’s Travels and not Utopia is the true template for the novel’ (Zemka 439), so that ‘since its first publication’, it has been interpreted as a fierce satire of Victorian institutions while also ‘frequently classified as a utopian novel’, so that the question of its ‘relationship to utopianism is vexed from the start’ (Zemka 439). It is all the more vexed, too, as utopias themselves (including More’s) are far from unequivocal, being both ‘a criticism of existing things and the fiction of a better society’ (Tizot 1; my translation), ‘halfway between the interpretation of the real world and a blueprint for change’ (Tizot 3; my translation) and this ambivalence may well explain why they are ‘from the outset . . . bound to be received in contrasted and diverging ways’ (3).

27Gulliver’s Travels is indeed a recognizable ‘template’ but Erewhon widely diverges from it: the logic or mode of each of the four Books is consistent throughout. Books 2 and 4 are utopian and contrastive (presenting alternative models to emulate) whereas Books 1 and 3 are unequivocally anti-utopian and analogical (the flaws of Lilliput and Laputa transparently mirror contemporary Britain’s). Not so with Erewhon in which satire, utopia, and anti-utopia coexist, sometimes overlap, and perpetually shift, without warning. For Simon Dentith, inversion is ‘the dominant figure in utopian writing’ (138) but Erewhon is much more than ‘an inversion of the society from which it springs’ (Dentith 137). It is both a ‘genuine utopia’ (139), an anti-utopia and a satire, and as such, it ‘requires an especially alert reading, since it shifts so rapidly in and out of an ironic relationship’ to Erewhon (139) and to Victorian society. It criticizes the world ‘over the range’ (anti-utopian mode) but is also praises some of its features (utopian mode), and it does so almost in the same breath.

  • 23 Ydgrun is the anagram of ‘Grundy’, a byword for the tyranny of public opinion and propriety. (Cf. L (...)
  • 24 Although Howard Maynadier fiercely attacked Butler for launching the ‘fashion of iconoclasm’ (317) (...)

28Chapter 17 is a case in point illustrating the complex, oblique and destabilizing approach adopted. The apparent castigation of Erewhonians’ semi-clandestine cult of the ‘cruel and absurd’ (156) goddess Ydgrun23 sounds like a relatively transparent satire of the British cult of conventions and propriety.24 Yet, Butler does not leave it at that: the satire is unexpectedly turned on its head when the bigoted narrator (hiding behind a semblance of religious conformity) seemingly condemns ‘High Ydgrunites’ while, ironically, he (or Butler) is actually praising the highly estimable moral qualities and values, and the ‘religion of humanity’ of these agnostics:

I always liked and admired these men, and although I could not help deeply regretting their certain ultimate perdition (for they had no sense of a hereafter, and their only religion was that of self-respect and consideration for other people), I never dared to take so great a liberty with them as to attempt to put them in possession of my own religious convictions, in spite of my knowing that they were the only ones which could make them really good and happy, either here or hereafter. (159)

29With these High Ydgrunites (seemingly criticized but actually praised), Butler ‘is not concerned with a simple satire on the Victorian church and the actual dominance of Mrs Grundy’ (Dentith 141). The inversion permits ‘a relatively complex set of defamiliarizations and reorderings of value’ (141). This is what occurs for instance in chapters 21 and 22 in which the apparent satire of the practices at the Colleges of Unreason is not only a way of pointing out the flaws of Erewhon and implicitly of the British educational system but also of advocating—as if in negative—the possibility of sensible teaching methods. In these two chapters, the overall (seemingly) negative picture of the Colleges is interspersed with unexpected positive features. Erewhon is an ‘enigmatic text’ (Dentith 140) which compels readers to constantly practise ‘sceptical revaluation’ (Mudford 11) but this deprives them of a safe and stable standing-ground.

  • 25 Sussman (138) or Breuer (365) have noted Butler’s ambivalent position in the machine chapters.
  • 26 All these articles and essays formed the basis of chapters 11 (‘Some Erewhonian Trials’), 15 (‘The (...)

30In the end, the interpretative uncertainties,25 conflicts or aporias this produces occasionally make the message cacophonous, like the discordant music of Erewhon. Moreover the loose and piecemeal construction and heterogeneous contents of the novel produce an additional sense of uncertainty as to the ultimate meaning or overall cohesiveness of this elusive and slippery work. It actually originated in a series of articles which Butler had written when he was a sheep-farmer in New Zealand (‘Darwin among the Machines’, for The Press in June 1863), and ‘The World of the Unborn’ for The Reasoner (London) in July 1865. His ‘Preface to the revised edition’ (1901) evokes the ‘genesis’ (33) of Erewhon, and the composition (before 1870) of ‘the substance of what ultimately became the Musical Banks, and the trial of a man for being in a consumption’ (34).26 At a friend’s suggestion, Butler then set to expanding ‘the articles [he] had already written, and string[ing] them together into a book.’ (34)

  • 27 Erewhon is a generically and tonally hybrid work combining several literary traditions, modes and g (...)
  • 28 The view of the satirist as a moralist is much-debated today and Simpson evokes the possibility of (...)
  • 29 L. E. Holt presents a very illuminating overview of the critical reception of Butler, and of Erewho (...)

31Erewhon’s generic,27 tonal and ideological ambiguity are an intellectually gratifying challenge (Gruening 273) and Butler’s aphorism brilliantly encapsulates this: ‘Truth is like a photographic sensitized plate which is equally ruined by over and under exposure, and the just exposure for which can never be absolutely determined’ (Essays 198). Yet, readers ultimately miss an explicit controlling and unifying authority, or the guidance of the so-called ‘moral custodian’28 underpinning satire (Simpson 55). In his ‘Preface to the revised edition’, Butler reminisced about the two favourable reviews of Erewhon in 1872 (The Pall Mall Gazette, April 12 and The Spectator, April 20), and the reason it ‘had met such a warm reception’ (34)29: it gave ‘the sound of a new voice, and of an unknown voice’ (34). Yet, it would be more accurate to evoke the sounds of several voices, and praise Butler’s talents as a ventriloquist.

32Looking at Chowbok’s grotesque performance in the wool-shed, the narrator was filled with ‘astonishment’ (47): ‘This kindled my imagination more than if he had told me intelligible stories by the hour together. I knew not what the great snowy ranges might conceal, but I could no longer doubt that it would be something well worth discovering’ (47). This could actually be interpreted as a meta-textual commentary on the novel by the narrator himself, a preliminary warning about its ultimately problematic message(s), hinting at the multiple meanings which make Erewhon such a complex, ambiguous and memorable novel that perplexes the mind and kindles the imagination.

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Bibliographie

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Bacon, Francis. The New Atlantis. 1627. Three Early Modern Utopias. Utopia, The New Atlantis and The Isle of Pines. Ed. Susan Bruce. Oxford: OUP, The World’s Classics, 1999. 152–86.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000–1887. 1888. New York: Dover, 1996.

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Coming Race. 1871. Gutenberg EBook #1951 (2006; 2016). <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1951/1951-h/1951-h.htm> Last accessed: 16-05-2018.

Butler, Samuel. Erewhon. 1901. Ed. Peter Mudford. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Butler, Samuel. ‘The Deadlock in Darwinism—Part I’. Essays on Art, Life and Science. 1908. Ed. R. A. Streatfield. The Floating Press, 2010.

Collet, S. D. ‘Mr Richard H. Hutton as Critic and Theologian’. The Contemporary Review 16 (December 1870–March 1871): 634–50. London: Strahan & Co., 1871.

Keats, John. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. 1819. Selected Poetry. Ed. Elizabeth Cook. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

More, Thomas. Utopia. 1516. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York and London: Norton, 1975.

Morris, William. News from Nowhere. 1890. Ed. David Leopold. Oxford: OUP, 2003.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. Honolulu, Hawai: UP of the Pacific, 2004.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. ‘A Defence of Poetry’. 1821. Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Vol. I. Ed. Mary Shelley. London: Edward Moxon, 1840.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. 1726. Ed. Paul Turner. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Wells, Herbert George. Tono-Bungay. A Modern Utopia. London: Odhams, 1933.

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Breuer, Hans-Peter. ‘Samuel Butler’s “The Book of the Machines” and the Argument from Design’. Modern Philology 72.4 (May, 1975): 365–83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/436868. Last accessed: 20-12-2017.

Davidson, Lorna. ‘A Quest for Harmony: The Role of Music in Robert Owen’s New Lanark Community’. Utopian Studies 21.2 (2010): 232–51.

Dentith, Simon. ‘Imagination and Inversion in Nineteenth-Century Utopian Writing’. Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors. Ed. David Seed. New York: Syracuse UP, 1995. 137–52.

Graff, Ann-Barbara. ‘“Administrative Nihilism”: Evolution, Ethics and Victorian Utopian Satire’. Utopian Studies 12.2 (2001): 33–52.

Gruening Stillman, Clara. ‘Samuel Butler’. The North American Review 204.729 (Aug., 1916): 270–81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25108902. Last accessed: 19-12-2017.

Holt, Lee Elbert. ‘Samuel Butler and his Victorian Critics’. ELH 8.2 (Jun., 1941): 146–59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2871462. Last accessed: 18-12-2017.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London and New York: Verso, 2005.

Jean, Georges. Voyages en utopie. Paris : Gallimard, 1994.

Larbaud, Valéry, ed and transl. Samuel Butler: Erewhon. Paris : Gallimard, 1920.

Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. London: Philip Allen, 1990.

Levitas, Ruth. ‘In eine bess’re Welt entrückt: Reflections on Music and Utopia’. Utopian Studies 21.2 (2010): 215–31.

Levitas, Ruth & Tom Moylan. ‘Introduction: The Once and Future Orpheus’. Utopian Studies 21.2 (2010): 203–14.

Maynadier, Howard. ‘A Brick at a New Literary Idol’. The Sewanee Review 27.3 (Jul., 1919): 303–19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27533218. Last accessed: 10-12-2017.

Montague, Gene. ‘A Nowhere That Goes Somewhere’. College Composition and Communication 13.2 (May, 1962): 18–22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/354533. Last accessed: 14-12-2017.

Mudford, Peter, ed. ‘Introduction’. Samuel Butler. Erewhon. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

O’Donnell, Mary Louise. ‘A Driving Image of Revolution. The Irish Harp and its Utopian Space in the Eighteenth Century.’ Utopian Studies 21.2 (2010): 252–73.

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Simpson, Paul. On the Discourse of Satire. Towards a Stylistic Model of Satirical Humour. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2003.

Sussman, Herbert L. Victorians and the Machine. The Literary Response to Technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1968.

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Notes

1 Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) represents a notable exception since in chapter 9, we learn that in the ascetic and virtuous community of the Samurai, music is condemned as an indulgence and one of the factors (like the love of ‘painted women’ and liquor) that caused the decadence of the societies of the past. (454) ‘Utopia . . . will have its temples and its priests . . . but the samurai will be forbidden the religion of dramatically lit altars, organ music, and incense . . .’ (457).

2 Part of chapter 11 (53–56) is devoted to the democratic access to all types of music, suited to all tastes and moods, in the futuristic and ideal society of the novel (Boston in 2000), which invented musical telephones (67).

3 The version used here is the 1901 revised edition, edited by Peter Mudford.

4 Disharmony both refers to ‘want of harmony or agreement’ or to ‘discord’, and to ‘want of harmony between sounds’ or ‘dissonance’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

5 The ‘Father of Salomon’s House’ commends the wide range of harmonies produced in the ‘sound-houses’ of Bensalem and its expert science and practice of music (Bacon 182).

6 The American narrator of The Coming Race discovers a wonderful and ‘strange world, amidst the bowels of the earth’ (5) with ‘public halls for music’ (43) and houses equipped with ‘mechanical contrivances for melodious sounds’ (33). The inhabitants ‘breathe an air filled with continuous melody and perfume’ that ‘has necessarily an effect at once soothing and elevating upon the formation of character and the habits of thought’ (Bulwer-Lytton 33).

7 Music plays an educational and cathartic role in News from Nowhere, a futuristic utopian ‘romance’ in which it is part of the yearly commemoration ceremonies for the purgation of the iniquitous past, when the London poor lived in inhuman and degrading slums. (Morris 57)

8 The essay ‘explores Owen’s belief in the power of music to bind together people from different backgrounds, and to assist in the creation of a harmonious community’ (Davidson 232).

9 In ‘In eine bess're Welt entrückt: Reflections on Music and Utopia’, Levitas seeks to ‘explore the ways in which music may be held to be distinctive in its utopian force and thus to suggest a range of approaches to researching the underdeveloped area of music and utopia’ (Levitas 216).

10 ‘The physicality of musical performance—its dependence on the body, hands, breath of the player(s)—also points to its ambiguous status of being both embodied and disembodied’ (Levitas 225).

11 As V. Larbaud points out in his ‘Avertissement’, Butler did not deem it necessary to give his character a name and only did so, calling him ‘Higgs’ as an afterthought, in Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later (1901), the sequel to the original Erewhon (29).

12 ‘Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being . . . which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony . . .’ (Shelley 2).

13 In ‘A Driving Image of Revolution’ (2010), Mary Louise O’Donnell addresses the symbolism and role of the Irish harp in the late 18th century as a ‘utopian icon’ (252), ‘produced and utilized’ as an image ‘by successive waves of Irish utopian visionaries’ (253), but ‘initially encoded’ like the lyre as a medium ‘for the transmission of the word or will of God’ (255) exemplified by David’s ‘redemptive’ and mind healing playing (O'Donnell 256).

14 From 1883 on, Butler and his friend H. F. Jones started composing musical pieces (minuets, gavottes and fugues for the piano) that were collected and published in 1885, and inspired from Handel whom Butler had always revered and regarded the greatest of all musicians, as the narrator calls him at the end of Chapter 5. The two friends also wrote Narcissus (1888), a cantata in Handel’s style. (Larbaud 22)

15 Yram is ‘Mary’ in reverse, like many of the proper names in Erewhon (Nosnibor, Ydgrun) which are ‘symbolic, anagrammatic, echoing the Maori language’ (like Mahaina or Arowhena) and contribute ‘greatly to the texture of Butler’s satire, reinforcing his irony’ (Balfour 131). They also produce the sense of ‘cognitive estrangement’ theorised by Darko Suvin (378).

16 It is impossible to ascertain whether it is the sentimental lyrics of the songs and/or their unusual music that make Yram weep but the somewhat ludicrous discrepancy between such unpoetic title as ‘The Ratcatcher’s Daughter’ and her tears introduces a humorous note.

17 The ‘musical’ statues, therefore, cast a long shadow. In chapter 9, we learn about their exact meaning that collapses musical disharmony and inhumanity: their origin and religious function date ‘from a very remote period’ when they were ‘designed to propitiate the gods of deformity and disease’ (96) and ‘the ugliest of Chowbok’s ancestors’ (or even some Erewhonians ‘who were ugly or out of health’) were sacrificed to them (96).

18 I am here borrowing from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem ‘Body’s Beauty’ (Poems 1870) which, republished as ‘sonnet 78’ in The House of Life (Ballads and Sonnets, 1881) echoed ‘Soul’s Beauty’ (sonnet 77).

19 His jailor tells him owning a watch is a ‘damaging feature’, and ‘a very heinous offence, almost as bad (at least, so I thought I understood him) as having typhus fever’, but ‘my light hair would save me’ (87).

20 This partly disillusioned, partly humorous echo of Ch. 5 (68) on Handel can be read as another oblique social criticism on Victorian England whose imperfect music stands for its flaws.

21 One of the few exceptions is when a ‘feast [is] held’ and the family and their ‘friends gather together’ on ‘the third or fourth day after the birth of the child’, regarded a ‘very melancholy’ event, hence the absence of music. The feast only aims ‘to console’ the parents ‘for the injury . . . done them by the unborn’ (‘Birth Formulae’, 164).

22 His status as Butler’s double or mouthpiece is particularly evident in chapter 3, with the strongly pictorial and poetic descriptions of the mountain landscape (49–50), the beauty of which is ‘worthy of a Salvator Rosa or a Nicolas Poussin’ (50). See Raby (123–24) about the autobiographical dimension and realistic topography of Erewhon inspired from Butler’s experience as a sheep-farmer in New Zealand, and coloured by his ‘artist’s eye for landscape’ (123).

23 Ydgrun is the anagram of ‘Grundy’, a byword for the tyranny of public opinion and propriety. (Cf. Larbaud for a history of the character, note 313–14)

24 Although Howard Maynadier fiercely attacked Butler for launching the ‘fashion of iconoclasm’ (317) with Erewhon, and reduces his place in English literature to ‘that of a brick-heaver’ who, ‘quite unabashed’, would ‘let fly his missiles at the most cherished ideals of his generation’ (318–19), the direct, frontal attack of England is something exceptional: ‘No doubt the marvellous development of journalism in England, as also the fact that our seats of learning aim rather at fostering mediocrity than anything higher, is due to our subconscious recognition of the fact that it is even more necessary to check exuberance of mental development than to encourage it’ (Maynadier 193).

25 Sussman (138) or Breuer (365) have noted Butler’s ambivalent position in the machine chapters.

26 All these articles and essays formed the basis of chapters 11 (‘Some Erewhonian Trials’), 15 (‘The Musical Banks’), 18–19 (‘Birth Formulae’, ‘The World of the Unborn’), and 23–25 (‘The Book of the Machines’).

27 Erewhon is a generically and tonally hybrid work combining several literary traditions, modes and genres: the picturesque, the pastoral and the sublime; the travel narrative (whose staple features are present in chapters 3–9); autobiographical elements; the marvellous; utopia, anti-utopia, and (Swiftian) satire. From chapter 10 onwards, ‘the nature of the book changes’, ‘the narrative drive is largely superseded by philosophical and satirical commentary’ on Erewhonian laws and customs. The story continues but ‘in a somewhat perfunctory manner’ (Raby 127).

28 The view of the satirist as a moralist is much-debated today and Simpson evokes the possibility of the satirist as a cynic and a detached ironist (Simpson 55–56).

29 L. E. Holt presents a very illuminating overview of the critical reception of Butler, and of Erewhon which sold rather well although ‘the reviewers had little to say in its praise. Out of nine reviews in the leading London journals, only two can be called at all enthusiastic, and none discussed those elements in the book which have appealed to recent critics’ (Holt 147).

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay, « The Music and (dis)harmony of (anti)utopia in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/5492 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.5492

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay

Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay is Professor of 19th-century British literature at Université Paris Est Créteil (UPEC). She specialises in De Quincey, and Victorian writers such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins, J. S. Le Fanu, H. G. Wells, and A. Conan Doyle, highlighting the hybridization and cross-fertilization between genres, but also focusing on questions of style and poetics, and on the links between ideology and representation. She wrote Le Fantastique anglo-saxon (1998), a monograph entitled L’Autobiographie de Thomas de Quincey. Une Anatomie de la douleur (2010), translated George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895) into French in 2007, and edited the proceedings of four CERLI (a multidisciplinary research network) conferences on Gothic, fantastic and SF literatures between 2003 and 2007. Her most recent articles deal with Søren Kierkegaard and De Quincey (Romanticism and Philosophy, Routledge, 2015), Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (E-rea, 2016) and of the role of hypallage in Martin Chuzzlewit (Dickens and the Virtual City, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay est Professeur de littérature britannique du xixe siècle à l’Université Paris Est Créteil (UPEC). Elle est spécialiste de De Quincey et d’auteurs victoriens tels Dickens, Wilkie Collins, J. S. Le Fanu, H. G. Wells, et A. Conan Doyle. Sa recherche porte sur les croisements et les hybridations génériques, avec une attention particulière aux questions de style et de poétique et aux liens entre idéologie et représentation. Elle a écrit Le Fantastique anglo-saxon (1998), L’Autobiographie de Thomas de Quincey. Une Anatomie de la douleur (2010), traduit en français Lilith (1895) de George MacDonald en 2007 (avec le soutien du CNL) et dirigé les actes de quatre colloques du CERLI (Centre d’études et de Recherches sur les Littératures de l’Imaginaire) en 2003-2007. Ses articles les plus récents traitent de Søren Kierkegaard et De Quincey (Romanticism and Philosophy, Routledge, 2015), de The Island of Dr Moreau de Wells (E-rea, 2016) et du rôle de l’hypallage dans Martin Chuzzlewit (Dickens and the Virtual City, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

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