The search for clues of the writer’s national identity in the construction of a utopian/dystopian place assumes that the utopian universe of representation is affected by the theoretical assumptions which build up national identity as a cultural concept in a specific historical context. “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation”, Ernest Renan’s lecture of 1882, addresses crucial issues of the debate around the nature of the nation. The 19th-century debate on human beings as social beings emphasised the concept of interrelatedness, as clearly expressed by Numa-Denys Fustel de Coulanges: men exist take part in social relations which also define their sense of proximity. The historical context in which Erewhon by Samuel Butler was written is characterised by a systematic search for historical roots, which developed from a 19th-century nostalgia for a pre-industrial past tinged with a romantic flavour: historical memory validated the present, quickly transformed by the industrial productive system, and eased anxiety about the future. A romantic, historicist ‘spirit of the time’ spreading all over Europe was fuelled by the uncertainty caused by the progressive destruction of the old world and habits: new, collective values were thus acquired by re-tracing ancient roots. The new idea of the nation – unique, indivisible and unchangeable, born from the primeval spirit of the people – was legitimated through a homogeneous, coherent view of history which sustained the sense of the continuity of the nation. Each nation, as authoritatively sustained by the German historian Leopold von Ranke, derives its nature from God, and the course of history evolves through the autonomous development of each nation’s nature, as God demands . All over Europe the nineteenth century was marked by the triumph of history conceived as a science. The constant endeavour of historiographers was to refine the scientific tools of national historiography. Erewhon by Samuel Butler is intricately connected with Victorian notions of British empire. Contingent historical factors and the development of meta-narrations affect Butler’s fictional universe: the characters of Victorian Englishness emerging from the utopian text reveal the influence of 19th-century discourses on the origin, history and characters of England as a nation. The relationships between the cultural system the traveller refers to and the imaginary community he encounters reveal a notion of Englishness intermingled with issues of race and colonialism; nevertheless, the variety of registers employed by the author prompts the reader’s constant assessment of the degree of truth, irony, and satire . The extensive use of paradox disrupts the apparent soundness and viability of the statements the traveller utters as expressions of the cultural system he identifies with; the relativity and even absurdity of his standpoint appears as soon as the reader assumes a ‘non English’ point of view.
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