Sunday, December 4, 2016

Birthday: "Life is one long process of getting tired."

Self-portrait, 1873

Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

He was the son of a clergyman, who was the son of the clergyman.

The grandfather was much-loved, and died Bishop of Lichfield, England.

The father accepted the grandfather’s orders to take holy orders, and was an undistinguished country parson who, one biographer concluded, “to make up for being a servile son, became a bullying father.” Canon Butler’s Christianity was of the Old Testament variety- “brutal and stupid”, the son called it.

The family, at their best, tolerated each other. Sam was a bright one, mastering Greek and Latin by thirteen, and soon enough he was off to St John’s College, Cambridge. Out from under his father’s thumb, he excelled at his lessons and on the Cam, coxing the Lady Margaret Hall first VIII in the nascent sport of rowing.

Butler at Cambridge, 1858

Butler graduated and, preparatory to taking the collar himself, spent six months in a poor parish in London. His experiences tried a faith already made fragile by his upbringing, and he determined to become an artist instead. His enraged father, who, like the parents of so many Victorian authors, tried to control their children by controlling their money, settled on Samuel an allowance sufficient to leave the country and go somewhere far off.

Australia was still perceived as a penal colony, so the well-born exiles of English families went to New Zealand. There Butler bought a sheep station called Mesopotamia and began to find himself as an independent man. He read widely. Like his contemporary, Melville, he was much influenced by Darwin, and in 1863 serialized a story about machines achieving consciousness in a New Zealand newspaper.

Butler returned to London in 1864, after five years abroad. He had doubled his father’s stake, and took up rooms in London. He returned from New Zealand with a young man, Charles Pauli, with whom he formed one of those intense male Victorian friendships. They lived near each other, and Butler- feeling flush- gave Pauli an annual allowance.

Butler took up the study of art, and in 1873 published his fantasy novel, Erewhon, anonymously. The book was a report from a newly discovered nation- at first glance, a Utopia, but, actually, rather worse- from which Butler’s narrator compared the society of that land to the strictures and hypocrisies of Victorian England. It caused a sensation, both for its literary merit and over finding out who wrote it. When Butler outed himself as Erewhon’s author, his reputation as a writer was secured. The book remains in print to this day.

He continued the allowance to Pauli even after their friendship cooled, and at considerable strain to Butler’s finances over time. When Pauli died in 1894, Butler was astonished and dismayed to learn that Pauli had similar arrangements with several other men, and had become wealthy. Pauli left nothing to Butler.

In 1878 Butler met a young solicitor, Henry F. Jones, whom he persuaded to give up his practice and become Butler’s literary assistant, secretary, and traveling companion, for two hundred pounds a year. Jones did better by his benefactor than Pauli, staying with the writer until Butler’s death, then shepherding his autobiographical novel to publication, editing his papers and publishing a biography of Butler in 1919.

At fifty, Butler became financially comfortable. His grandfather had left him a valuable property in London, conditional upon surviving his father and aunt. Burying his father in 1886, Butler sold the property and began spending half his years in Italy. He also published widely, writing on art, the new medium of photography, travel and the sciences.

He fell away from Darwin’s theories, positing a theory based on the 18th century scientist Lamarck’s view that animals evolved to meet changes in nature (trees grew taller, so giraffes grew longer necks and passed them on to their offspring; nature’s basic ordering principle was that organisms became naturally more complex over time, and sometimes just sprang up in new iterations).

Scientists dismissed them as rubbish and Butler himself admitted they were merely entertainments. Today he would likely be the head of a lavishly funded creationist think tank in America.

Butler was fascinated by the emerging discipline of psychology, and became a pioneer in applying its methods to fiction. He seemed untroubled by his own eclecticism; it was as if he had spent his life trying to be himself and finally found his niche, pursuing whatever interested him.

His establishment side produced well-regarded- and still used- translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. His heterodoxy led to a book arguing both works were written by a woman. He also produced the first significant study arguing Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to a younger man who had jilted him. In 1901 he returned to his great triumph in Erewhon Revisited.

Was Butler homosexual? In a male-dominated, gender-segregated society like Butler’s, where the educated were a bit obsessive about the ideal of the ancient Greeks, it is hard to tell where friendship ended and sexual activity began.  Butler kept a London prostitute on retainer for years, but spent his adult life in a series of close relationships with men.

When another of his proteges, a Swiss called Hans Rudolph Faesch, died in 1895, Butler composed a long memorial ode in the manner of Tennyson’s to his friend, Hallam; but, when the Oscar Wilde scandal and prosecutions exploded that same year, Butler hastily recalled the publication of the work. Jones, in his biography called the work a “Calamus poem”, in the style of Walt Whitman’s more homoerotic work. In the late 1930s, Malcolm Muggeridge invented a third gender of English person: the “incarnate bachelor”, among whose examples he cited were  Butler, Walter Pater, Henry James and E.M. Forster.

Butler published seventeen books in all. Two of his three novels, Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh, earned him a solid slot in the canon of English literature. He started the latter- a highly unflattering portrait of his family- in 1870, and worked on it for fifteen years. Henry Jones saw it through to publication after all the Butler’s were dead.

Butler’s style was epigrammatic and showed flashes of Wildean-level wit:

Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.
The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too.
Friendship is like money, easier made than kept.
Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.
Every man's work, whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.
An apology for the devil: it must be remembered that we have heard one side of the case. God has written all the books.
The man who lets himself be bored is even more contemptible than the bore.
I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy.
Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.

Rather scandalously for the times, when Butler died in 1902 he was cremated. Some accounts have it his ashes were scattered; others claim they rest in an unmarked grave.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Samuel Butler #Erewhon

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