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Erewhon: illness as crime

It is common to interpret an epidemic as a sign of society’s moral failings. Syphilis outbreaks in ancient times were seen as a punishment for a sinning population. The medieval plagues were explained in terms of moral pollution of society, with foreigners or minorities ending up as the usual scapegoat.

As Susan Sontag describes in AIDS and its Metaphors, also the much more recent AIDS pandemic in the 1980s continued this pattern. The spread of HIV/AIDS has been portrayed as a reflection of the misdeeds of society, for instance when the Bishop Falcao of Brasilia declared AIDS to be “the consequence of moral decadence" (Sontag 1989:149).

An individualising turn

As it happens, I think that epidemics typically do disclose moral failings of society, although these failings have nothing to do with ‘sin’ or ‘moral pollution’, and everything with an unfair distribution of resources, care, and infrastructure (e.g. under capitalism).

However, in her work Sontag has pointed out that this narrative of disease as a societal problem is losing its grip. And this trend is only continuing. There has been a gradual shift in how illness gets exploited for projecting moralistic fantasies onto people, a shift towards the individual.

In the past, such grandiloquent fantasies were regularly attached to the epidemic diseases, diseases that were a collective calamity. In the last two centuries, the diseases most often used as metaphors for evil were syphilis, tuberculosis, and cancer—all diseases imagined to be, preeminently, the diseases of individuals. (58-9)

In other words, instead of moralising about society when we find ourselves in a deluge of infection, our moral outlook construes and experiences sickness and health increasingly as individual failures or achievements. This is one of the central theses of Sontag’s classic work on illness and its metaphors: more and more, people interpret your disease as a judgment on you, and not as a judgment on your society.

The society of Erewhon

A satirical portrayal of Sontag’s thesis was made already a century before she published Illness as Metaphor in 1978. The satire is Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: or, Over the Range.

Published in 1872, the book describes the adventure of an English settler in New Zealand who discovers an unknown society after passing through a dangerous mountain range. The people he finds live in the land of Erewhon (an anagram of ’nowhere’).

The protagonist immediately feels at home in Erewhon. It feels European. Its people are friendly and cultured, and they receive the exhausted traveller with a certain degree of warmth and friendliness. But first impressions lie. The culture isn’t quite the same, and layer upon layer of bizarre custom reveals itself. One of several dramatic inversions concerns the judicial system of the Erewhonians. Instead of trying and imprisoning thieves, fraudsters, and murderers, the Erewhonians prosecute the ill and the disabled. Sickness is a crime, both in people’s experience and before the law. Erewhonian prisons and labour camps are filled with those who are chronically ill, infected, and injured.

Engraving of The Bench, by William Hogarth, 1758

Engraving of The Bench, by William Hogarth, 1758

In one scene Butler portrays a typical day in an Erewhonian court, in which a judge delivers the following speech:

Prisoner at the bar, you have been accused of the great crime of labouring under pulmonary consumption, and after an impartial trial before a jury of your countrymen, you have been found guilty. Against the justice of the verdict I can say nothing: the evidence against you was conclusive, and it only remains for me to pass such a sentence upon you, as shall satisfy the ends of the law. That sentence must be a very severe one. It pains me much to see one who is yet so young, and whose prospects in life were otherwise so excellent, brought to this distressing condition by a constitution which I can only regard as radically vicious; but yours is no case for compassion: this is not your first offence: you have led a career of crime, and have only profited by the leniency shown you upon past occasions to offend yet more seriously against the laws and institutions of your country. You were convicted of aggravated bronchitis last year: and I find that though you are now only twenty-three years old, you have been imprisoned on no less than fourteen occasions for illnesses of a more or less hateful character.

The trial fills the protagonist with ambivalence. He disapproves of the morality the procedures express, but at the same time sees that even the convicted person comprehends and embraces the verdict. This particular trial is no exception. As the novel makes clear, if you’re sick in Erewhon, you’ll end up in prison. People go through great lengths to hide any sign of physical unease or discomfort so as to avoid moral scrutiny. (And to complete the dramatic reversal, the Erewhonians will respond with great pity and concern for their well-being to anyone who has committed fraud or violence, give them time off and wish them speedy recovery.)

Social Darwinism

Butler’s portrayal of the moral code of the fictitious Erewhon was intended as a commentary on actual moral practice in modern society. It is, after all, satirical. Professor of Victorian literature Hans-Peter Breuer suggests that Butler used the dramatic inversion of illness and crime to articulate a social-Darwinist ideal, a conception of society that was becoming increasingly fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century.

When writing his novel, Butler was strongly influenced by George Drysdale’s The Elements of Social Science; or Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion (1855), which proposed an empirical morality according to which only deviations from natural laws should be counted as moral failings. Conventional laws, like those of etiquette or the church, are no genuine guide to right and wrong. As Breuer sums up the core of this moral code, “the strong, not the virtuous, are rewarded, and the weak, not the wicked, are punished, by suffering and death” (1973: 324).

It is the kind of morality you find articulated in works by Friedrich Nietzsche around the same time, and which inspired pseudo-scientific movements with a eugenicist or social-Darwinist inflection.

Whether Butler himself subscribed to a form of social-Darwinism or whether his satire was meant to demonstrate the abhorrent character of this way of thinking about illness and disability is not a settled matter. It is clear that Butler recognised that the actual English society of his time didn’t differ as much from Erewhon as people might have liked to think. But did Butler see this proximity and overlap with Erewhonian morality as a good beginning? According to Breuer, we must read Erewhon as Butler’s dramatic defence of a broadly social-Darwinist ethics, already implicit in people’s practice, according to which morality is about strength, not virtue. On the other hand, Sontag, who comments on Erewhon in a footnote, interprets Butler as using the dramatic inversion of illness and crime to “point out the absurdity of condemning the sick” (56).

To be clear, I have only read the novel, and not any of Butler’s other writings. But going by the novel’s text, I’m inclined to side with Sontag.

It is perfectly clear that Butler saw the practices of the Erewhonians as symbolic for actual attitudes in society. Yet, it is equally beyond doubt that his inversion was intended as satire, just as the rest of the novel. Presenting a judge who sentences someone for tuberculosis was an exaggeration intended to evoke indignation in a reader, not praise. To me it seems that the satire’s pedagogic purpose is to get a reader to recognise how close the actual world already is to Erewhon.

Read in this way, the novel maintains its relevance as social commentary. In many situations and corners of society, illness and disability are already construed as moral failings. In modern capitalist societies, people with chronic illness are already tried and persecuted, be it only in a de facto way.


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