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The Way of All Flesh, 1895, Samuel Butler, British

This was a great book to start the project with because it took a load of important 19th century values, and politely exposed them as rubbish. I’m not necessarily looking for iconoclastic books, but I am looking for art that drills a few layers down into the human experience, challenges a few belief systems and conventions. I certainly found it here.

A Few Notes on Context & Tone

The book was actually written from 1872-1884, and not published until 1903, posthumously. It’s not terribly surprising that it was published posthumously; one gets the sense that Butler was treading a tad lightly when dealing with a few characters (Theobald, Christina, Charlotte) and with a few scenes. Indeed, in one of the most pivotal moments of the novel, when Ernest Pontifex is sent to jail for propositioning a young women he confused for a prostitute, the reader must utterly infer what happened, using two or so brief mentions of it after the fact: Butler ceases the scene the moment Ernest steps into the room with her. But aside from this Victorian avoidance of anything sexual, and underneath heavy satire, Butler was rather bold in confronting the norms of the Victorian bourgeoisie.

I have the feeling that Butler was nervous that his family would see themselves too clearly in the novel, and perhaps take offense at his devastating attack on Victorian values and institutions–even with his satirical allusions and narrative elisions. The conjecture that the novel is semi-biographical is corroborated in Holt (1989): “so many other details of the Theobald Pontifex family life are drawn directly from Butler’s youth, including the letter taken verbatim from one his mother wrote him and his brother, that no one can deny that the novel has much basis in reality.” Though the same source notes that “the artistic duplication of events, the arrangement, and the meaning are poetic creations and not slavish transcripts.”

Butler was clearly sick of Victorian mores, and this novel exposes their detrimental effect on the individual through the vehicle of the story, rather than discursively tearing into them. In the cases when the narrator, representing a “sensible” rationality (an agnostic secularist, really), does provide some authoritative “lessons” or “insights” in a detached, “out of nowhere” style–as E.M. Forster often does–these are less effective than the story itself at debunking Victorianism as a mode of life. They are also generally heavy with irony and/or satire:

To parents who wish to lead a quiet life I would say: Tell your children that they are very naughty–much naughtier than most children. Point to the young people of some acquaintances as models of perfection and impress your own children with a deep sense of their own inferiority. You carry so many more guns than they do that they cannot fight you. This is called moral influence, and it will enable you to bounce them as much as you please. They think you know and they will not have yet caught you lying often enough to suspect that you are not the unworldly and scrupulously truthful person which you represent yourself to be; nor yet will they know how great a coward you are, nor how soon you will run away, if they fight you with persistency and judgement. You keep the dice and throw them both for your children and yourself. Load them then, for you can easily manage to stop your children from examining them. Tell them how singularly indulgent you are; insist on the incalculable benefit you conferred upon them, firstly in bringing them into the world at all, but more particularly in bringing them into it as your own children rather than anyone else’s. Say that you have their highest interests at stake whenever you are out of temper and wish to make yourself unpleasant by way of balm to your soul. Harp much upon these highest interests. Feed them spiritually upon such brimstone and treacle as the late Bishop of Winchester’s Sunday stories. You hold all the trump cards, or if you do not you can filch them; if you play them with anything like judgement you will find yourselves heads of happy, united, God-fearing families, even as did my old friend Mr Pontifex. True, your children will probably find out all about it some day, but not until too late to be of much service to them or inconvenience to yourself (Chap. VI, par. 10).

Edward Overton as narrator, of course, dominates the tone as well as the content. He is not addressing stodgy Victorians, but speaking to readers like him–readers who are “in on it”–“it” being knowing how annoying and destructive the types of people (largely people in authoritative positions) whom he exposes are. The story is thus not a persuasive appeal, but more like a case of evidence that people like George and Theobald Pontifex ruin their own life and the lives of those close to them by their cruel and obstinate beliefs. Overton’s blatant elitism over people like George and Theobald Pontifex and Dr. Skinner, must have been excruciating at the time to the ears of upholders of traditional values, but for readers sympathetic to his message, we enjoy being addressed intimately in this way. We snicker collectively.

In the way The Way of All Flesh delivers its message, it has similarity to Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy: never once does Dreiser rail against capitalistic exploitation of the poor, against the disregard of the poor by the rich, or against the perversion of the soul of individuals by the American Dream-fed idealization of wealth, but the novel conveys all of this strictly through the tale of young Clyde Griffiths. The Way of All Flesh also uses the narrative as the primary vehicle for delivery of the message, but it adds to the critique with thick slabs of satire and irony from the narrator Overton. Further, neither Butler nor Dreiser treat their “villains” with fierce disdain, but a bit of detached understanding.

In Chapter LXXXIV, Ernest tells Overton, “‘Well,’ he continued, ‘there are a lot of things that want saying which no one dares to say, a lot of shams which want attacking, and yet no one attacks them. It seems to me that I can say things which not another man in England except myself will venture to say, and yet which are crying to be said.’ There is no doubt that Butler saw himself in that position. Here are a few “shams” Butler exposed by way of The Way of All Flesh:

  • Religiosity (at least, Victorian Christianity) is correlated with truth and kindness
  • The Victorian family system and brutal dominating parenting are good for kids
  • Victorian bourgeois values are good for society
  • Authority figures generally have the interests of their charges in mind
  • Classical education is fulfilling in itself for all students

And here are a few alternatives he proposed:

  • Maturation includes eschewing dominant social norms and values, at least temporarily
  • Self-exploration is important in developing into a whole person, therefore children should be given the freedom to do so
  • Life should be more lived with unconscious effortlessness and “as nearly in the middle of the middle rut” (Chap. LXXVII) as possible

Individualism: Unloading the weights of convention

I will here explore Samuel Butler’s treatment of individualism, self-exploration, and maturation.

In late 20th and early 21st century America, we have forged some clear paths in the institutionalization of the idea that during one’s adolescence (and recently, during one’s “emerging adulthood” stage–the twenties), one must be free to stretch one’s legs, and challenge the norms of the past. We have the 1960s to thank for making this a reality, but reading The Way of All Flesh indicates that the notions were in the air as we entered the 20th century. It is possible that my generation will reverse these gains, but at least those raised in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s have largely embodied the trend.

Although social norms and the environment may encourage it, the willingness to rebel against what everyone around you accepts as legitimate because it is traditional is generally innate (perhaps in all of us, but brighter and likelier to manifest in a certain few), but the courage to do so must be discovered or learned. This is essentially the courage to be follow one’s own intuitions, ways of being, worldviews, whims and impulses; resisting the pressures for conformity that come from parents, state, culture, society, etc. As Marx said in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living;” illustrating this idea with the metaphor:”the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

And so The Way of All Flesh takes a look at the journey of shedding the weight of tradition through the experiences of young Ernest Pontifex; I read the book as a story of evolution, with the underlying point that this is a desirable evolution for so-inclined individuals in modern society to make, regardless of their age.

Ernest’s aunt Alethea visits him to see if she may “exploit” him; that is, help to rid him of some of the undesirable qualities (priggishness, closed-mindedness, judgmentalism, tyranny) present in the immediate Pontifex line to which she was unfortunately exposed–“she knew very well where the prigishness came from” (Chap. XXXII, par.12). She does indeed notice natural qualities in Ernest tending towards the free-thinking and spirited side, qualities which presumably she (along with Edward Overton, and perhaps her grandfather John) had, but which are absent or repressed/suppressed in her father George and brother Theobald. Alethea foresaw the eventual emergence of this spirit in Ernest, and the “self” that was to emerge may hold values congruent with hers and Edward’s values, but it was clear that Ernest would first have to wrestle with and overthrow the weight of Theobald’s (and indirectly, George’s) oppression. Having caught typhoid, and on her death bed, Alethea wisely determines to withhold Ernest’s inheritance money until he turned 28, but with a trust in the boy that these qualities will naturally emerge:

Don’t scold him if he is volatile, and continually takes things up only to throw them down again. How can he find out his strength or weakness otherwise? A man’s profession is not like his wife, which he must take once and for all, for better for worse, without proof beforehand. Let him go here and there, and learn his truest liking by finding out what, after all, he catches himself turning to most habitually–then let him stick to this; but I daresay Ernest will be forty or five and forty before he settles down. Then all his previous infidelities will work together to him for good if he is the boy I hope he is.

Ernest indeed moves through some stages in life’s way, which are critical to unloading the weight of the religious and educational past.

Drawing another comparison with American Tragedy: while both Ernest Pontifex and Clyde Griffiths are brought to the brink of ruin owing to their naïveté, tendencies to follow and trust others, and lack of stable parental guidance, Clyde’s pursuit was motivated by his need to gain the approval of other people, whereas Ernest was more concerned with finding personal truth. Dreiser never gave us deep access to Clyde’s mind, but it is likely that he never renounced his desperately slavish need to be validated by his rich and popular peer group, and I doubt he would have even if he had lived into middle age, especially if he was successful. While Clyde was no sociopathic monster, the weights of the American Dream and the idealization of wealth were much to strong for him to resist thinking and doing a monstrous thing. Ernest Pontifex on the other hand was trying on identities for himself, and he did have the innate tendency to challenge the weights of the past, given some “breathing room,” which he obtained, ironically, in prison. It was the paradoxical freedom from society which is afforded in jail, that enabled Ernest to fearlessly confront the past, and begin the long process of unloading some of that weight:

He had an opportunity now, if he chose to take it, of escaping once for all from those who at once tormented him and would hold him earthward should a chance of soaring open before him. He should never have had it but for his imprisonment; but for this the force of habit and routine would have been too strong for him; he should hardly have had it if he had not lost all his money; the gap would not have been so wide but that he might have been inclined to throw a plank across it. He rejoiced now, therefore, over his loss of money as well as over his imprisonment, which had made it more easy for him to follow his truest and most lasting interests.

Ernest’s revelations in prison essentially amount to the eschewal of belief–at least weighty beliefs forced upon children by authority figures–and its replacement with rational and objective truth-seeking. This is a process that leads to tearing down authority, period, and majority opinion–a necessary step for budding young independent thinkers.

Consider Krishnamurti on this point:

It is very easy to conform to what your society or your parents and teachers tell you. That is a safe and easy way of existing; but that is not living, because in it there is fear, decay, death. To live is to find out for yourself what is true, and you can do this only when there is freedom, when there is continuous revolution inwardly, within yourself.
. . .We must create immediately an atmosphere of freedom so that you can live and find out for yourselves what is true, so that you become intelligent, so that you are able to face the world and understand it, not just conform to it, so that inwardly, deeply, psychologically you are in constant revolt; because it is only those who are in constant revolt that discover what is true, not the man who conforms, who follows some tradition. (Think On These Things, Chap. 1)

And Overton on Ernest’s time in prison:

As he lay on his bed day after day slowly recovering he woke up to the fact which most men arrive at sooner or later, I mean that very few care two straws about truth, or have any confidence that it is righter and better to believe what is true than what is untrue, even though belief in the untruth may seem at first sight most expedient. Yet it is only these few who can be said to believe anything at all; the rest are simply unbelievers in disguise. Perhaps, after all, these last are right. They have numbers and prosperity on their side. They have all which the rationalist appeals to as his tests of right and wrong. Right, according to him, is what seems right to the majority of sensible, well-to-do people; we know of no safer criterion than this, but what does the decision thus arrived at involve? Simply this, that a conspiracy of silence about things whose truth would be immediately apparent to disinterested enquirers is not only tolerable but righteous on the part of those who profess to be and take money for being par excellence guardians and teachers of truth (Chapter LXV, par. 1 & 2).

And soon afterwards, Overton on Ernest’s own reflections:

It was not simply because he disliked his father and mother that he wanted to have no more to do with them; if it had been only this he would have put up with them; but a warning voice within told him distinctly enough that if he was clean cut away from them he might still have a chance of success, whereas if they had anything whatever to do with him, or even knew where he was, they would hamper him and in the end ruin him. Absolute independence he believed to be his only chance of very life itself (Chap. LXVII, par. 4).

Stated fairly baldy, yeh?

Next, I don’t interpret the novel as severely anti-religious, but it is certainly critical of the effect of Victorian Christianity on the mind and soul and the family and youth of 19th century England.

Butler is a sophisticated commentator, and does not define the weights of the past as the only ones that drag us down in our crawl to maturity. We have general human errors, as well as our personal philosophy and our biological dispositions to contend with.

Ernest is human, all too human, and must make human mistakes. This is demonstrated in his failed marriage, failed business, and the brief time he spent in poverty, whereupon he is “inoculated” (in Overton’s word, Chap. 77, par. 3) against those misfortunes.

And we finally come to Ernest’s major philosophical revelations, which rose out of the ashes of the past and of his past, endearing him closely to the open minded and rational types of the 20th and 21st century: that “no system which should go perfectly upon all fours was possible” (i.e. “no system based on absolute certainty was possible”). And Ernest is contented with this conclusion rather than discomfited. As his prison revelations, this is also an eschewal of belief, but a very important one for 20th century humankind. To put a fine point on it: “Having, in fact, after infinite vexation of spirit, arrived at a conclusion which cut at the roots of all knowledge, he settled contentedly down to the pursuit of knowledge.” This is a high stage of intellectual and being-level development; it is what Tom Campbell may refer to as “open minded skepticism” and “living gracefully with uncertainty.”

Overton comments, when Ernest has this revelation, that “sensible people” have reached this conclusion “without bothering their brains so much.” Overton qualifies it by referring to Ernest’s upbringing as the source of impairment of Ernest’s “taking a common-sense view of things,” but Ernest has a different perspective:

The people like Towneley are the only ones who know anything that is worth knowing, and like that of course I can never be. But to make Towneleys possible there must be hewers of wood and drawers of water–men in fact through whom conscious knowledge must pass before it can reach those who can apply it gracefully and instinctively as the Towneleys can. I am a hewer of wood, but if I accept the position frankly and do not set up to be a Towneley, it does not matter.

As you may infer, Towneley is Ernest’s foil insofar as he is much more at ease in the world and his place in it. What is key in this passage is Ernest’s acknowledgement that it is his own nature that is to blame for many of his difficulties. Although Ernest is innately free-thinking, he must learn his lessons the hard way: direct experience.

So where does Ernest end up? Only a chapter is devoted to this. Ernest becomes a writer and social critic, a bachelor, a nonconformist. It is not for us to decide whether he has reached his proper “final destination,” as the novel is not teleological or even generalizable, but instead is illustrative and explanatory of how a man rids himself of some of the weights of past tradition, childhood trauma, parental pressure, human error, and unprofitable predisposition. What he does from there is his own business and dependent upon his personal circumstances and wishes. I do want to point out that Ernest had a natural inclination to work with his hands (building organs, tailoring clothing) and for that quality to remain unsated is unfortunate. It was perhaps due to pressure from Overton that Ernest finally decided to work in the intuitive rather than the sensory trades–he certainly tended that direction whilst in prison, unencumbered by authoritative urgings. Overton is unambiguous that he pressures Ernest to bend towards his own scribal persuasions. Naturally it is better for Ernest to emulate Overton than Theobald, nonetheless one wonders whether Overton has exerted some more unwanted influence over Ernest that Ernest will later have to pick off. It is possible that Butler too (not, however, Overton) wished Ernest would end up in a trade.

However, it appears that Ernest’s son Georgie perhaps will not be burdened by the weights Ernest struggled to unload:

Georgie though only twenty-one is owner of a fine steamer which his father has bought for him…I do not exactly know how people make money by having a steamer, but he does whatever is usual, and from all I can gather makes it pay extremely well. He is a good deal like his father in the face, but without a spark–so far as I have been able to observe–of any literary ability; he has a fair sense of humour and abundance of common sense, but his instinct is clearly a practical one.

Theobald, the reader may recall, dreamt of becoming a sailor, but he never had the courage to resist his father George, as Ernest had and was thus able to pass along to his son, not as it were from his own parentage, but perhaps by his lack of it, or, at least, his refusal to emulate his father and grandfather’s parenting styles.

Finally, I am here anticipating some later comments on the novels of E.M. Forster; namely, that the upper-middle-class author cannot detach himself enough from his roots to provide a radical alternative (see the review for A Passage to India for a review of my mistake with Forster specifically). But this may be the voice of the radical leftist living inside of me, always desiring a realization of the imaginary future, more so than anything else. Perhaps Butler too wanted to see some greater things from Ernest–and who knows, perhaps Ernest will become a radical social reformer. But at the close of the novel, Ernest is content with merely “addressing the next generation rather than his own” and finally, “In politics he is a Conservative so far as his vote and interest are concerned. In all other respects he is an advanced radical” (Chap. LXXXVI).

As I have already implied, in terms of the Kiersey temperament sorter Ernest is perhaps an Artisan trapped as an Idealist. But perhaps I am projecting, as that is certainly how I feel.

My personal reactions

It took me a while to understand this novel and what it was doing. This was not just because the novel itself took its time to set-up and get moving (Ernest is not even born until chapter 18) but also because I get so wrapped up in the prose and narrative that I can have trouble discerning the larger message.

As you may have noticed by the aspect of the novel I chose to discuss, there is much I can identify with in Ernest’s struggle. I actually had very little hint of rebelliousness until I reached age 18 and my knowledge of my dad’s infidelity slowly began to erode my faith in the institutions which I had previously loved unconditionally: the flag, the country, the idea of a God the father, the general goodness of the government, and other fallacies. Similarly, in the film The Kids Are All Right, the daughter of the lesbian couple resists the impulse of sexual activity throughout the film, until her faith in her family is shattered by (one of her) mother’s infidelity.

Myself and the daughter in that film were lucky enough to be raised by caring and loving parents. Had we not experienced that trauma, we may have ended up toeing our respective lines (myself becoming a Reaganite, and her choosing to resist having sex (regardless of whether or not that was the “right” choice, it was the choice preferred by her more conservative mother). Ernest Pontifex, on the contrary, needed no family tragedy to degrade his faith in convention, as his father was wretched and his mother, though softer, was complicit in his father’s wretchedness. Instead, Ernest needed to learn first-hand that much of social convention is garbage.

A Note on Metaphysics that informs this and, likely, future textual commentaries

As a necessary context, my metaphysical beliefs align largely with Tom Campbell’s model as outlined in his trilogy My Big Theory of Everything (TOE), in which he states that consciousness is the only fundamental reality, that consciousness is non-physical, that reality as experienced by human beings is a virtual datastream rendered to individuated units of consciousness (IUOCs) that is part of a system for the primary purpose of lowering its entropy (and hence the entropy of the entire consciousness system)–i.e. getting rid of beliefs, judgements, fears, and ego, and moving towards what we call on Earth, “love”–and our IUOCs are reincarnated with all slates wiped clean but inherent quality of consciousness, which must be reachieved by the particular Free Will Awareness Unit (FWAU) during the course of its life, from which point the IUOC reduces that QOC. And evolution is key in this process: trying out various possibilities and watching the stronger and more profitable configurations persist whilst the weaker and more entropic ones die out.

So I read The Way of All Flesh as a tale of entropy reduction, of steps Ernest must take to reachieve his inherent Quality of Consciousness. The only way to do that is to experience adversity, make choices based on present functional Quality, get feedback, and readjust accordingly. To experience pain based on small-picture (fear/ego-based) perception of reality and to adjust future behavior based on that feedback is indeed the way of all flesh, and all of us are at different stages. This is not coincidental; Butler accepted Darwinian self-generating evolution as a driver of development. In Campbell’s theory, evolution applies on a fractal scale to physical reality as it does to non-physical evolution of consciousness.


Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler, Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 July 2012.

Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel. New York: Harper, 1960. Web. 10 July 2012. <http://www26.us.archive.org/stream/introductiontoth002032mbp/introductiontoth002032mbp_djvu.txt&gt;

Parsell, Roger E. CliffsNotes on The Way of All Flesh. Web. 18 Jul 2012. <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/literature/id-287.html&gt;.

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