Erewhon: or, The Worst Possible Name for a Grocery Store

My favorite bit in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: or, Over the Range is that rather than admit to feeling under the weather or having a cold, Erewhonians bail on an engagement by claiming to have stolen a pair of socks. Calling in sick is unthinkable, but “having the socks” is a socially acceptable excuse. A small theft (nothing to be embarrassed by) overcomes Erewhonians now and again—it simply can’t be avoided—and social custom dictates forgiveness and well wishes.

In this fictional land where great pains are taken to conceal illness (those who suffer from chronic exhaustion will explain their symptoms by claiming to be alcoholics—and their neighbors will politely pretend to believe them) we meet Higgs, the British narrator of Butler’s tale. After a near-death journey, Higgs discovers Erewhon, learns its language, and studies its culture. Initially, Higgs is in awe of the Erewhonian’s incredible physical vigor and beauty, but certain facets of their society disturb him and he escapes back to Victorian England.

The word Erewhon is an anagram of “nowhere.” It is also the namesake of a see-and-be-seen LA grocery store chain that has surpassed its referent in fame. More people have heard of the Hailey Bieber Strawberry Glaze Soft Serve Sundae ($18) than the satirical novel. The store’s co-founder Aveline Yokoyama named it after Butler’s Erewhon because it was the favorite book of her mentor, George Ohsawa.

Ohsawa is best known for inventing the macrobiotic diet and occupying a cult leader-like position amongst his thousands of followers. His often extreme teachings (including directives to chew every bite fifty times, only pee twice a day, and never eat meat or use medicine) were the guiding principles that dictated what Erewhon sold (and the advice it dispensed) in its early days. Given the book’s scathing commentary on obsessive fixation on health, I have to wonder what Ohsawa loved about Erewhon and what compelled Yokoyama to name a non-ironic business after it.

In the Erewhon of Butler’s imagination, being unwell is not only stigmatized but criminalized. Should you fall ill (a “highly criminal and immoral” offense), the punishment is a “long term of imprisonment with hard labour.” Infanticide is no longer practiced widely, but it’s not unheard of. Erewhonians are prejudiced against “unhealthy families”, which can sour a young couple’s happiness if one’s family disapproves of the other’s health. But for all this hardline attitude and unflinching judgment about bodily failings, moral failings are treated leniently.

For example, “if a man forges a cheque, or sets his house on fire, or robs with violence […] he is either taken to a hospital and most carefully tended at the public expense, or he lets it be known to all his friends that he is suffering from a severe fit of immorality.” As a way to comment on exacting Victorian attitudes toward morality, Butler inverts the British norm by treating immorality as something that befalls you, and physical health as something the individual is expected to exercise autonomy over. He shines a light on how unforgiving it is to deduce that someone is a Bad Person if they make a moral mistake by inventing a world in which falling sick earns one the disdain of his fellow citizens.

While it may have been absurd to correlate one’s health with one’s value in Victorian England, it reads almost as realism in contemporary Los Angeles. Los Angeles is known for its hyper-fit, beautiful citizenry. Its worship of all things corporeal is not all that different from the fictional Erewhon (where the sacrifice of ugly elders was a common practice). Take, for example, the conflation of health with beauty in both Butler and our worlds: Why are they so often listed as a pair? Health does not necessarily lead to beauty, but it’s a convenient bundling because while prioritizing beauty is vain, prioritizing health is virtuous.

In Erewhon, Higgs is an object of interest (thanks to his own beauty) and granted the honor of staying with the city’s most prominent family: the Nosnibors (“Robinson” backward). Even though Higgs arrives in Erewhon with an illegal piece of machinery (a watch), he is treated with respect because his blonde hair and healthy physique are taken as proof of his “great merit” (alongside fair hair, blue eyes are the pinnacle of beauty in Erewhon, which is consistent with Butler’s late 1800s British conception of beauty.)

Higgs learns that Erewhonians fear machinery because of its rapid evolution and possible sentience (the novel is one of the earliest discussions of artificial intelligence): a fear which jibes with the modern idea that technology is a threat to health (hence the growing digital detox and disconnect retreat offerings). The novel concludes with Higgs falling in love with one of the Nosnibor’s daughters and fleeing with her on a hot-air balloon.

Despite Erewhon’s harsh treatment of health “transgressors,” moral transgressors have little to fear. Higgs’ host Mr. Nosnibor is a rich man recovering from “embezzling a large sum of money under singularly distressing circumstances.” When Higgs asks if his host is treated as a social pariah after the crime came to light, he is reassured that Mr. Nosnibor is the most well-regarded citizen in Erewhon. And after seeing Nosnibor’s fine manners, the tastefulness of his home, and the beauty of his daughters, Higgs himself has doubts that Nosnibor could be all that bad: “That man embezzle money… impossible.” Though few people would argue that beautiful people have better character than uglies, we still tend to assume pretty people are more trustworthy.

The same skepticism exists in trials where an attractive defendant gets a more lenient sentence. How could someone attractive be morally depraved? It doesn’t compute. Consider the musical Chicago, which was loosely based on real trials of murderesses who used their looks and charisma to charm the press and parlay their crimes into sympathetic publicity opportunities.

What Butler satirizes is no longer relevant to us because we’ve moved on to unapologetically prioritizing beauty without feeling chagrin.

It’s hard to envision anyone reading about this place where an embezzler is held in highest esteem because he is healthy, handsome, and rich, and concluding, This is a conception of health I can get on board with. So back to my question: What did Ohsawa love about Erewhon? Why was it his favorite book? This man was extreme in his approach to health and I have to entertain the possibility that he admired Erewhon itself, not the critique of Erewhon. That’s a scary thought. Only a die-hard Health Enthusiast would vaunt a civilization in which morality is subservient to beauty. Can you imagine what a store built on such a foundation would look like? Maybe something like Erewhon of Sea Moss Gummy fame.

The name is frighteningly on-the-nose: pitch perfectly tone-deaf. Even though the current owners—Tony and Josephine Antoci, who purchased the chain in 2011—inherited and kept the name, you can appreciate that Erewhon benefits from the same technique Rabbit uses in 8 Mile: Before anyone can criticize your flaws, call them out yourself. The name is both entirely apposite and also a savage self-roast. But if critics accuse Erewhon of embodying everything bad about self-obsessed, morally vapid LA—Erewhon can respond, We said it first. 

It reminds me of another outrageously named company: Soylent. Soylent is a meal-replacement drink (chug all your nutrients, don’t waste time chewing) beloved by tech bros. It’s named after the dystopian film Soylent Green wherein the underclasses’ only food source is mass-produced Soylent, which turns out to be made from humans. Gross definitely, but the choice is tongue-in-cheek—meant to raise eyebrows and intrigue.

The fact that there isn’t a hint of irony in Erewhon’s name speaks to the dearth of humor in the wellness industry. What makes this deadpan approach dangerous is how it convinces you that a consortium of products (crystals/oils/trackers/dry body brushes) will fix your health, that you can hack your body (and mind) as if it’s a code that needs cracking. This industry preys on (and profits from) health fears and beauty insecurity—and there’s no space for humor because Big Wellness needs us to believe that if we don’t buy what they’re peddling, our health (and beauty) will suffer dire consequences. And for our part, we’ve taken their specious claims so seriously that it’s trickled down to tweens.

Of course, when I say Erewhon is a bad name for a store that ostensibly promotes health and wellness, it assumes that we, as a society, agree that morality is more important than beauty. I may be misguided in this assumption. It’s only a bad name if it’s socially unacceptable to profess a preference for beauty over all else.

Erewhon’s popularity speaks to our image-first culture, which rewards pouring effort, time, and money into perfecting one’s body. The value placed on beauty leads to a tacit understanding that looking (and feeling) less than perfect is a personal failure. And even though we might not (officially) jail those who are unhealthy, we do reward those who are attractive with higher salaries and less measurable perks like social leniency.

When you buy the bestselling Erewhon branded tote ($52), what exactly are you associating yourself with? I think it’s a gleefulness that we’ve moved past Butler’s satire. We no longer have to pretend to be ashamed of how much attention we are putting into our looks. Instead, we embrace it. That’s why we have Hot Girl Walks and Hot Girl Books—because walking and reading were not enough. We had to find a way to center Hotness, the axel around which our society spins.

In this era where people are scared of getting canceled for saying the wrong thing or taking the wrong stance, you amazingly won’t get canceled for brazenly declaring The only thing I care about is being hot. It is a reasonable goal today given the great benefits conferred by hotness. What Butler satirizes is no longer relevant to us because we’ve moved on to unapologetically prioritizing beauty without feeling chagrin. We’re as shameless as the Erewhonians about our pursuit of beauty, which can seemingly be accessed via paleo granola. Don’t be surprised when a friend cancels plans claiming to have come down with The Socks.

Sanibel Chai

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