Early yesterday morning I opened my 1987 Expanded Edition of The Dictionary of The Imagination to Erewhon. I can’t say why, I just opened it to the entry there, much like one would turn a holy book to whatever page was meant to be read for inspiration. Erewhon, it turns out is a location taken from the novel by Samuel Butler (1872).
Erewhon is an imaginary land that also happens to be the anagram for “nowhere” (Erewhon is nowhere spelled backwards). It’s a funny old place with outstanding oddities like elaborate musical banks whose coinage is worthless; colleges of unreason whose main theory is hypothetical and hospitals for incurable bores. Of particular interest is the Erwhonian Stonehenge, the criminality of poverty and disease and the peculiar belief that we are drawn backwards through time as our lives progress. There is also a noticeable absence of cats.
Butler meant it to mock Victorian society and the details bear this out. Interestingly enough, an upscale and very pretentious network of Los Angeles organic markets has captured the name, by buying an old hippie market established in the 70s, and is making a fortune off high-priced items meant to promote health. In Butler’s Erewhon everyone is responsible for their own health. So that makes sense. You have to wonder if the affluent Erewhon clientele knows the namesake is satire.
Lest you think me silly for being so taken with this book, I’ll drag out a quote on imagination from the best known genius of our times to make my point…
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.Albert Einstein
The idea behind The Dictionary of Imaginary Places originated with a Parmesan publisher. He wanted to compile a guided tour of scenic locales in the imaginary universe. The vastness of these literary lands, however, compelled the armchair explorer-documentarians to restrict their work to places a traveler might expect to visit on our home planet. This then excludes heavens, hells, off-world locales, places of the future and others too ethereal to be pinpointed on a terrestrial map.
In just that one entry, (Erewhon) something else jumped out at me, probably because I’ve been writing about a series of dreams that converge on a single place in my journal. The place in my dream is a large, modern house that, though already beautiful, seems to be under constant construction. Each time I visit it in my dreams more rooms have been added and the ones I remember from before have become more refined. It’s gaining ground and definition. This house is my home and from a Jungian perspective symbolizes my evolving sense of self.
Here’s the insight I gleaned from my first reading from The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. What if, in the detailed description of a locale, there is also implied the soul of the characters who populate it? How they think of themselves, the world and their peers. As a writer one might use this exercise as a world-building tool. Instead of the usual developmental strategy of creating plot and character first, start with the environmental and anthropological setting. Or maybe it’s just one more tool to add to your writing toolbox.
I’m willing to bet writer-director James Cameron uses a “place first” strategy when brainstorming the adventures in Avatar.