Thursday, January 22, 2009

SF authors born 1834-43: 1835

1. Samuel Butler


Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

Butler is not a Radium-Age SF author. But he wrote two influential pre-Radium-Age SF novels.

Butler was an iconoclastic Victorian author who published a variety of works, including the Utopian satire Erewhon and the posthumous novel The Way of All Flesh, his two best-known works, but also extending to examinations of Christian orthodoxy, substantive studies of evolutionary thought, studies of Italian art, and works of literary history and criticism. Butler also made prose translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey which remain in use to this day.

His influence on literature, such as it was, came through The Way of All Flesh, which Butler completed in the 1880s but left unpublished in order to protect his family. And yet the novel, “begun in 1870 and not touched after 1885, was so modern when it was published in 1903, that it may be said to have started a new school,” particularly in the use of psychoanalytical modes of thought in fiction, which “his treatment of Ernest Pontifex [the hero of Butler's novel] foreshadows.”

Whether in his satire and fiction, his studies on the evidences of Christianity, his works on evolutionary thought or in his miscellaneous other writings, however, a consistent theme runs through Butler's work, stemming largely from his personal struggle with the stifling of his own nature by his parents, which led him on to seek more general principles of growth, development and purpose: “What concerned him was to establish his nature, his aspirations and their fulfillment upon a philosophic basis, to identify them with the nature, the aspirations, the fulfillment of all humanity – and more than that – with the fulfillment of the universe . . . His struggle became generalized, symbolic, tremendous.” The form that this search took was principally philosophic and – given the interests of the day – biological: “Satirist, novelist, artist and critic that he was, he was primarily a philosopher,” and in particular a philosopher who sought the biological foundations for his work: “His biology was a bridge to a philosophy of life which sought a scientific basis for religion and endowed a naturalistically conceived universe with a soul.” Indeed, “philosophical writer” was ultimately the self-description Butler himself chose as most fitting to his work.

* Erewhon, or Over the Range was 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. It is likely that he did this to protect himself from accusations of being unpatriotic, although Erewhon is obviously a satire of Victorian society. 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; the image of utopia in this latter case also bears strong parallels with the self-view of the British Empire at the time. 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. Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection. ** 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), he 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."

* Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later (Richards, 1901). Sequel, not considered to be as good.

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