On the Road to Nowhere (2016)

Ingrid Horrocks & Cherie Lacey, ed.: Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays from Aotearoa New Zealand (2016)

On the Road to Nowhere:
Revisiting Samuel Butler's Erewhon

Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872 / 1973)

Over the Range

The Erewhonians say that we are drawn through life backwards; or again, that we go onwards into the future as into a dark corridor. Time walks beside us and flings back shutters as we advance; but the light thus given often dazzles us, and deepens the darkness which is in front. We can see but little at a time, and heed that little far less than our apprehension of what we shall see next . . .
(Samuel Butler, Erewhon)[1]

Samuel Butler's Erewhon is, literally, nowhere: an inversion of Utopia, Thomas More’s imaginary state in (or near) South America. It is, however, reachable from somewhere — or rather, from Erewhemos, the state contiguous to Erewhon described at the end of its 1901 sequel, Erewhon Revisited.

People often forget that the subtitle of Erewhon is ‘Over the Range.’ I have in my mind’s eye the cover of the mid-1970s edition of Erewhon, in the Golden Press series of New Zealand classics. It shows a lone rider in a Southern Alpine landscape — a detail from a 19th-century realist landscape painting called ‘The Waimakariri River Bed’.[2] This image, evoking the mood of James K. Baxter’s ‘High Country Weather’ (‘Upon the upland road/ Ride easy, stranger’), certainly had the effect of reinscribing the story’s New Zealand setting in my imagination when I first came across it as a teenager.

As a born-and-bred Aucklander, I had few associations with the South Island and the Canterbury Plains beyond a few family camping trips. My father lived in Templeton, outside Christchurch, for a single year during his childhood, but his principal memory seemed to be of the long straight roads, with deep drainage ditches on either side, which my grandfather would cycle along—his two boys taking turns to ride pillion behind him.

Nevertheless, when I came across the following description of Erewhon in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s otherwise authoritative Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980), I felt almost offended:
. . . a kingdom probably in central or northern Australia [my emphasis], though its location has been deliberately concealed by travellers who have visited it. Those geographers who have placed it in New Zealand (Upper Rangitata district, Canterbury) have not taken into account the sheer immensity of its land surface.[3]
Given the deliberately over-literal and tongue-in-cheek nature of Manguel and Guadalupi’s book, it would be silly to resent too strongly their reassignment of Erewhon to our larger, brasher neighbour (though precedents such as Pavlova, Phar Lap and Crowded House do spring to mind). It still seems a bit odd, though, that a place so unequivocally nowhere should have to be so firmly located somewhere.

Perhaps that subtitle ‘Over the Range’ becomes particularly significant here. It denotes movement from here to there, from the known to the unknown, from the closely observed (by Butler himself, among others) Canterbury of the 1860s, to the Otherwhere of the imagination.

We need to go somewhere else to see where we’ve been: to the unknown place to look back on what we thought we knew. And, like all binaries, this dichotomy between nowhere and somewhere, Erewhon and Erewhemos, suggests something in between: the true subject of investigation, albeit one which can only be taken by surprise, as in a Knight’s move.

Arthur’s Pass

An old friend of mine, whom I’ll be calling Graeme for the purposes of this essay, owned a bach in Arthur’s Pass for a few years in the late 1990s. We were close at school and university, but I’d seen little of him since he moved to the small Canterbury town of Darfield to work as their rural GP.

I only visited his bach (or should I say ‘crib’?) once, for a single night. I’d often wondered why he talked about it so much, and went to such extraordinary lengths to get there. From the road it looked like nothing much: a rough discoloured shed with walls of corrugated iron.

But then I walked inside and saw the view.

It’s not that it was particularly grandiose: no Albert Bierstadt ranges of snowy mountains towering up into infinity. Rather, it was the more intimate charm of forest and valley, with a single rocky stream. When I awoke next morning, the fog had already rolled in.

Graeme had gone for a walk, and I was left alone in the cabin. I looked out the window at the trees looming through the mist, and felt a kind of joy at the perfection of this place, a mood of quiet contentment such as I hardly remember experiencing anywhere else.

‘This would make the perfect location for a writers’ retreat,’ I thought, and later, after we’d driven back down to the Plains, hinted as much to Graeme. He didn’t take the bait. I never succeeded in making my way back there again—though not for want of trying.

Later, when he moved down to Dunedin after a marriage breakup, he was forced to sell it in order to make up the price of a house deposit. I’m sure he’s regretted it many times since—as have I. Perhaps it couldn’t have lived up to that miraculous first impression if I’d gone back there later, on my own, but I doubt that. It was just a magical spot, a place of peace and refreshment.

My friend the Christchurch poet John O’Connor once told me of an experience he’d had during his teens, when he and a few friends drove out of the city and the working-class suburb he’d grown up in, and stopped for a short walk in the hills on the way to Arthur’s Pass.

The others got bored quite fast, he said, but (as he put it), ‘I felt like I wanted to sing, as if I couldn’t believe anything could possibly be so beautiful.’ John died earlier this year, but I can’t help remembering that story whenever I think about Canterbury and the Southern Alps.

The Statues

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.
One of the strangest things in Erewhon (not to mention its sequel) are the repeated references to the ring of statues which guard the unnamed colony the narrator lives in from the imaginary country which borders it: ‘a sort of Stonehenge of rude and barbaric figures . . . [with a] superhumanly malevolent expression upon their faces.’

It actually takes the narrator some time to realise that these ‘were not living beings, but statues.’
They were barbarous — neither Egyptian, nor Assyrian, nor Japanese—different from any of these, and yet akin to all. They were six or seven times larger than life, of great antiquity, worn and lichen-grown. They were ten in number.
What’s more, not only do they look forbidding — ‘Each was terrible after a different kind. One was raging furiously, as in pain and great despair; another was lean and cadaverous with famine; another cruel and idiotic’ — but they sound frightening, too:
The inhuman beings into whose hearts the Evil One had put it to conceive these statues, had made their heads into a sort of organ-pipe, so that their mouths should catch the wind and sound with its blowing. It was horrible. However brave a man might be, he could never stand such a concert, from such lips and in such a place.[4]
In narrative terms, too, one could say that these figures constitute a barrier: between the circumstantial verisimilitude of his opening chapters, so clearly drawn from Butler’s own observations of the Canterbury colony (as recorded in his 1863 book A First Year in Canterbury Settlement)[5] and the fantastic inversions which characterise the No-place his protagonist would shortly enter.

The Cautery

It was the early 90s. I’d been at an academic conference in Dunedin, and thought I’d take the opportunity to drop in on Graeme on my way home. I accordingly took the bus from Dunedin to Christchurch, which was (in retrospect) a pretty stupid thing to do.

Tempers were already wearing thin when I came rolling into the depot a couple of hours late—due to various misadventures on the way— and I could see that Graeme’s family could probably have done without this lengthy interruption to their day. So tense, in fact, was the atmosphere on the way back to his place that I began to wonder if it would even be possible to last out the weekend I’d budgeted on staying.

I mentioned to Graeme, more to make conversation than anything else, that I’d been having trouble with nosebleeds all through my stay in Dunedin, and had had to run out of a couple of sessions with blood on my shirt and two fingers pinched shut on my nasal passages.

Nothing could be easier to fix, he told me. He could cauterize my nose: seal shut the vein which must be causing the problem. He had the tools to hand in his surgery down the road.

Since both of my parents were GPs, I’d got into the bad habit of relying on family and friends for medical advice, and — as the youngest of three brothers — had (in any case) a certain ingrained tendency to see doctors as authority figures. Reluctant though I was to go along with this plan, I let him persuade me to climb back into the car.

It was long after hours, and we were the only ones in the surgery. It was a modern pre-fab, but the garish religious pamphlets and posters which his partner, an evangelical Christian, had left lying around the place gave it a strange gothic atmosphere. He told me to strip, then strapped me down on the table (‘In case you flinch too much when I put it in and it ends up in the wrong place.’)

The cautery, the small metal rod he was proposing to stick up my nose, took a while to heat up, and — in the meantime — he took a good look up my nostril to see the exposed vein. It was, it seemed, quite visible and ready to be seared shut.

The process was quite intrusive (as you might expect): not directly painful, exactly, but certainly very uncomfortable. Nor is snuffing the scent of one’s own scorched flesh ever exactly pleasant.

I did think of some things while I lay there, though. What was I doing there, for one thing? Why had I agreed to this bizarre procedure in the first place? ‘Never again, under any circumstances,’ was my main thought. The next was to wonder how many more minutes I would have to endure before I could leave.

After that trip we didn’t make contact again for several years.

Leap, John, leap!

However peculiar Erewhon may seem to contemporary readers, so many of the attitudes and controversies it mocks having faded away over the intervening century and a half, Erewhon Revisited is stranger.

Even the way it’s told, a deathbed account by ‘George Higgs’ (the original narrator, named now for the first time) of his return to Erewhon, recounted secondhand by his son John, seems so diffuse and clumsy as to call into question the accuracy of everything that’s being reported.

Perhaps this was originally designed as a sly dig at the authenticity of the Gospels—the main target of Butler’s satire this time round—but it ends up sounding more like a tribute to other fin-de-siècle novels by the likes of Conrad and James, with their unreliable narrators and obsession with the vagaries of human psychology.

Even the ring of statues appears to have changed in the intervening twenty years. His English-born son John reports that his father found them ‘smaller than he had expected’:
He had said in his book—written many months after he had seen them—that they were about six times the size of life, but he now thought that four or five times would have been enough to say.
But if these statues had ‘grown’ in his imagination, what of the far more startling discoveries he had made in Erewhon itself? Were those to be called into question, too? Certain other important aspects of their appearance seem curiously altered, also:
Their mouths were much clogged with snow, so that even though there had been a strong wind (which there was not) they would not have chanted.
The statues recur in the story when Higgs is being assisted in his escape over the range by his newly encountered Erewhonian son George: ‘Towards noon they caught sight of the statues and a halt was made which gave my father the first pang he had felt that morning, for he knew that the statues would be the beginning of the end.’ Higgs and his son do, however, make a ‘solemn covenant’ at the statues that they will meet again:
‘XXI. i. 3, i.e. our December 9, 1891, I am to meet George at the statues, at twelve o’clock, and if he does not come, I am to be there again on the following day.’
Higgs adds one proviso: ‘if I cannot come I will send your brother.’

The next chapter of the book, however, is headed ‘My Father reaches Home, and Dies not long Afterwards.’

John is nevertheless determined to meet his long-lost Erewhonian brother, and travels out to the colonies to try to make this rendezvous. He finally succeeds in reaching the statues on the appointed day, but ‘could not refrain from some disappointment at finding them a good deal smaller than I had expected’:
My father, correcting the measurement he had given in his book, said he thought that they were about four or five times the size of life; but really I don’t think they were more than twenty feet high, any one of them . . . There was no wind, and as matter of course, therefore, they were not chanting.
This constant insistence that they are somehow reducing in size – from the forty or fifty feet of the first estimate, to the thirty-odd feet of the second, to no ‘more than twenty feet high, any one of them’ — seems a curious point to stress, even in context. Why, too, should their failure to chant be considered such a ‘matter of course’?
. . . when sleep came it was accompanied by a strange dream. I dreamed that I was by my father’s bedside, watching his last flicker of intelligence, and vainly trying to catch the words that he was not less vainly trying to utter. All of a sudden the bed seemed to be at my camping-ground, and the largest of the statues appeared, quite small, high up the mountain side, but striding down like a giant in seven-league boots till it stood over me and my father, and shouted out, ‘Leap, John, leap!’ In the horror of this vision I woke.[6]
The meeting of the two brothers takes place a day late, due to the fact that ‘the year XX had been a leap year with the Erewhonians, and 1891 in England had not.’ This, it appears, is the true meaning behind that strange cry in his dream: ‘Leap, John, leap!’ Our narrator also remarks that ‘George gained an immediate ascendancy over me, but ascendancy is not the word—he took me by storm; how, or why, I neither know nor want to know.’

Disproportionate emphasis is, I think, the predominant impression given by the constant recurrence of these statues in Butler’s two books about Erewhon. They are (we are told initially) ‘terrible,’ ‘barbarous’ — and musical, but only in a ‘horrible’ way. Their size, moreover, seems to fluctuate inexplicably.

Either, one is forced to conclude, they serve as a rather redundant addition to Butler’s otherwise fairly straightforward satire on the mores and opinions of Victorian England, or they have some other function in his narrative, express some anxiety which cannot find a clearer voice there.

North East Valley

Last year I visited Graeme again, this time at his house in North East Valley, Dunedin.

I’d stayed there before a couple of times, and had watched its gradual decline from a basically functional living space — albeit with a few too many boxes stacked in odd corners — into a warren of unread papers and books. Even so, seeing it now came as a bit of a shock.

The steeply sloping section was completely overgrown. The lawn had been left unmown for so long that the grass was higher than my waist. Neighbourhood cats had scoured tunnels through the high grass, and mewed in protest as I tried to beat a way up along the path.

I’d warned him what time I’d be arriving, but even so there was no answer to my repeated knocking and ringing of the bell at the back door. In desperation, I made the long, perilous journey to the front door, which had not been used for years, and could only be reached by pushing right through the heart of the jungle.

No answer there, either: I could see that there was a light on inside, but the porch was overgrown and dusty, with an old rotting cushion disintegrating on one of the wicker chairs.

I made my way back. Eventually, after further knocking, he did answer the door, explaining that he’d been listening to the radio and had lost track of time.

It didn’t look as if there had been any attempt to tidy up in advance of my visit, but Graeme claimed this was not the case—that if I’d come to the house a week or so before I’d have found it impossible to move from room to room.

He admitted to suffering from a lack of energy and motivation, and even to the probability that one might have to describe this condition as a kind of depression. He did not, however, think that treatment or counselling would be likely to help (‘There are so many factors involved, most of which they wouldn’t be able to help with.’)

The visit cannot be said to have gone well. I learned quite quickly that it was unwise to let him drive me anywhere (he had a habit of overtaking trucks on blind corners which was disconcerting, to say the least). It was his behaviour in public which was really awkward, though.

On the one occasion we went out to dinner together, he distinguished himself by dropping his fork on the floor and demanding a clean one to replace it. No sooner had the new one arrived than he dropped that on the floor, too — or, rather, catapulted it there while banging the table to emphasise some loud point he was making. He was about to call out for a new one when he caught my eye. After that he contented himself with making an immense fuss over the amount of butter they’d put on the Naan bread, then complaining about the dessert.

His property in the valley was a couple of blocks down from that ‘steepest street in the world’ which the local scarfies like to roll down in wheelie bins (until one of them got killed doing it, that is). It’s a beautiful spot, with a great view of the wooded hills opposite, and even a certain amount of sunlight — for Dunedin.

As for the house itself, it’s well-built and sound, though certainly suffering from neglect. Before flying out, I took the gamble of doing some tidying up: pinning up a few of the beautiful Indonesian and Indian artefacts Graeme had picked up in his travels, purging a few hundred kgs of old magazines and waste paper, and rearranging his lounge and dining room so one had space to sit down in them.

Graeme seemed quite grateful that I’d taken the trouble, which was a relief. People don’t always like you to go sorting through their stuff while they’re out for the day. Who knows what you might find?

A Field Guide to the Other World

I remember once trying to explain to the arch-sceptic Graeme my interest in occultism and the supernatural. I’d just been reading Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Other World, so I tried to account for this fascination using one of Harpur’s paradigms:
The Otherworld mirrors ours. It can be benign, like the paradises that reverse this world’s suffering; or it can be uncanny, like the realm some tribes ascribe to witches who walk or talk backwards, wear their heads upside down, their legs back to front.
What better analogy could one find to Erewhon? Its names — ‘Senoj Nosnibor, Ydgrun, Thims’ — that run backwards; its location in the Antipodes where everything is ‘upside down’; even its clothes worn, like Professor Panky’s, ‘like an Englishman . . . but turned the wrong way round, so that when his face was towards my father his body seemed to have its back towards him and vice versa’?

The basic point of Harpur’s book, I told Graeme, was to postulate a ‘daimonic reality’ which exists — either literally or psychologically (Harpur sees little distinction between the two) — as a contrast to our world of causation and certainty. Ghosts, poltergeists, UFOs, lake monsters, Bigfoot, the yeti, fairies, angels, demons all inhabit this reality, but not — for the most part — as we see them.

The ‘glamour’ which these beings are able to throw across the perceptions of mortals who chance into this uncanny sphere means that the size, shape and essential nature of all that they see there, including its inhabitants, is always open to question: hence Harpur’s contention that the description of a haunting and a UFO abduction narrative may be basically the same thing.

This approach is indebted to C.G. Jung’s classic Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, where the Swiss psychologist sets to one side the question of the objective existence of such phenomena, but rather looks into the psychological implications of this transformation of the more traditional apparitions of folklore into spaceships and aliens. Fear was behind it, he concluded: anxiety over the atom bomb and the accelerating rate of post-war technological change.

Harpur, too, wishes to see some larger significance in the exponentially multiplying field of anecdotal and analytical accounts of paranormal events. The fact that people continue to experience such things and to ascribe so much personal significance to these encounters and sightings is, in his view, far more important than whether they can be claimed to be ‘real’.

Real in what sense? The fact that such phenomena can seldom be persuaded to recur in laboratories does not, in itself, render them ‘non-existent’. Can feelings such as love, hatred or even pain be measured according to objective outside criteria? Does this make them, too, unreal?

Pain is only too real to those who suffer from it. It can come as a shock to the congenitally literal-minded to realise that the extent of any pain — physical or psychological — can only be determined anecdotally, by asking the person experiencing it.

My own repeated readings of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon at different points of my life cannot be said to add to much more than a series of indeterminable questions.

Where is the book set? What is the true significance of the statues? Why does Butler (or rather, his narrator) stress their reduction in size over time? Why, in particular, does he take the trouble to transcribe the particular musical phrase from Handel that their moanings most resemble?

One of the few constants at all stages of my friend Graeme’s life has been a love for music: choral music in particular. He’s sung in choirs for many years, and can improvise effortlessly on virtually any musical instrument: pianos, recorders — organs.

I suppose, for him, this constitutes the best way to step out of his life: ignore the frustrations and rages which seem to haunt him like furies, and disappear into a counter-realm of order and harmony.

The composition of Erewhon must have served a similar purpose for Butler: a way of examining the assumptions — religious, colonialist, racist — of his upbringing: from the distance not just of the farthest point on Earth from the oppressive values of his father’s rectory, but from a new world altogether. He stepped through the looking-glass into another place in order to look back. Or, as he himself puts it in ‘the world of the unborn’:
. . . we presage the leading lines of that which is before us, by faintly reflected lights from dull mirrors that are behind.
For me, I suppose that this account of a few visits to the South Island is a way of talking about how the story of a friendship can mirror our feelings both about a place and the progress of a life. For me, Dunedin and the Alps are inextricably bound up with my meetings with Graeme: the original affection overlaid with a certain frustration at where he’s ended up now. But it also constitutes a gauge: a mirror of the nowheres I’ve been, in light of the somewhere I hope I’m approaching.

Patrick Harpur’s rules for travel in the Otherworld seem to ring only too true for all these contingencies:
Travel light. Don’t believe everything you’ve been told, either for good or ill . . . Observe local customs; respect local gods. Talk less than you listen. Try to see as well as sightsee. Be polite but firm; take advice but do not be gullible. If in doubt, smile. Do not laugh at the natives, but don’t be afraid to laugh ... Don’t join in the dancing unless you really have learnt the steps.[7]


1. Samuel Butler. Erewhon, or Over the Range. 1872. New Zealand Classics (Auckland: Golden Press Pty Ltd., in association with Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1973), 156.

2. by one “J. Attwood” (= T. R. [Thomas Reginald] Attwood) [information from Una Platts. Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists: A Guide & Handbook (Christchurch: Avon Fine Prints Limited, 1980), 27. Available at:

3. Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi. The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Illustrated by Graham Greenfield. Maps & Charts by James Cook. 1980 (London: Granada, 1981), 113.

4. This, and the previous two quotations, come from Butler, 1973, pp. 47–48.

5. Compiled by his father, the Rev Thomas Butler, from essays and letters sent home, but subsequently repudiated by Butler himself, who would not allow it to be reprinted in his lifetime (information from Samuel Butler. A First Year in Canterbury Settlement. 1863. Ed. A.C. Brassington & P.B. Maling. Auckland & Hamilton: Blackwood & Janet Paul, 1964).

6. This, and the previous four quotations, come from Samuel Butler, Erewhon Revisited, The Travellers’ Library, 1901 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1927) 37, 279, 281 and 301–1.

7. Patrick Harpur. Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Other World. 1994 (Ravensdale, WA: Pine Winds Press, 2003), 174.


Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand. Edited by Ingrid Horrocks & Cherie Lacey. ISBN 978-177-65607-0-7 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016): 135-49.

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