I know it has been a while, but many life changing things have kept me from the blog. A few housekeeping items before diving into my thoughts on Huxley’s work are in order. First, I have decided doing an entire book and commenting all at once is just too much. I think it will be more constructive to blog as I go, and tackle a work in chunks. Second, I am trying to persuade my dear friend into joining me on this venture and starting a podcast which is where I see The Dusty Den going in the near future. Third, and finally, I am going to try and establish a better presence on twitter with focus on quotes from specific texts chosen to provoke particular thoughts and interest in the principal work. Now…..onto the meat and potatoes….
Despite the relatively small size of Brave New World, there is a ton in there for analysis and debate. Off the top I would say, because the two authors are so often compared, I prefer Orwell. I think that is more of a preference on writing style and narrative clarity; that is to say, I like Orwell’s actual stories better. That aside I believe the gradualism in society today lends itself to a more direct parallel of the collective, human, backwardness in Brave New World. The absurd can’t be seen by those living in it due to the gradualist nature of society. Only from a historical perspective or satirist work can the absurd be totally consumed. That is the beauty here. Essays can be written about the character names in the work, which are staggeringly deliberate, and in depth commentary can be constructed regarding the Shakespearian quotations, but it is the bold absurdity of it that is so memorable and unsettling. From the opening paragraph the words are unapologetic, and jettison the reader into Huxley’s world. “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” Immediately you understand your direction. “CENTRAL,” “World State’s..,” “CONDITIONING,” “COMMUNITY,” “STABILITY.” Quickly the story guides you through the process which all humans are grown from a disturbing engineering sequence where they are conditioned from the embryo stage to include the intentional damaging of some to create inferior specimens; through childhood with state education (brainwashing), mandatory erotic sexual play, sleep massaging, pavlovian techniques and shock conditioning; and placed into a caste system for which they were specifically designed and programmed to accept without question. Organic, natural childbirth is no longer accepted and words like “Mother,” are considered vulgar and filthy. Any type of individualism is regarded as sinister and detrimental to the delicate, forced collective balance ensuring a false utopia. Family has been replaced with the state, and a form of group altruism is the prevailing religious philosophy.
To give an extreme, crude, inarticulate, and rushed oversimplification of the plot…There is a futuristic society where family is nonexistent. There is a caste system in place sustained by the only acceptable means of reproduction which are mechanized and controlled in the absolute. Embryos, infants, and children are subject to bombardment of various techniques to prepare the humans to obey and even love their place in society. The society is immersed in pleasure, sexual perversion, and distraction, with no free thought. Individualism and spending time alone is seen as disgusting and terrible. Religious organizations are nonexistent. There are indigenous peoples still in certain areas called, “Savage Reservations,” the central one in the book being Malpais. A natural born human named John is brought back to civilization form the reservation by a man named Bernard Marx because he is found to be the actual son of one of London’s important “Alpha” citizens conceived naturally by a woman who was lost and abandoned on the reservation. John is excited to see this Brave New World, but soon realizes he hates it. There is a final act in which Bernard is ostracized, as is one of his contemporaries and John tries to assimilate but ends up with a tragic Shakespearian fate. Of course there is much more, but just to give some of the following remarks a loose framework, there you have it.
One of the more interesting aspects of how society maintains this bizarre existence is what sets it apart from dystopian works of other authors. It is a combination of gradual conditioning and withheld knowledge coupled with self-inflicted assimilation. There is an overwhelming sense of social pressure suppressing what desires of individuality remain after the conditioning process. The population’s lust for leisure, acceptance, entertainment, and physical pleasures takes the place of militaristic, evil forces in other stories. The sheer commitment to the will of the social majority forces obedience. Soma, a drug, helps suppress any distress, including the burden of individualism which creates depression and isolation in such a world, by sending the user on a “holiday.” It is dispensed generously to combat any loss of happiness and satisfaction which could threaten the questioning of social order. Distraction is what is lived for. It is this absurdity in Brave New World, which is so chilling. When compared to todays society by those who choose to look from afar, at themselves and the current state of our world, there are more parallels than one might be comfortable with. Soma is ever-present and inescapable. Most studies indicate well over 10% of the American population is currently prescribed antidepressant medication. People also find their soma in illegal drug use. Binge-watching Netflix and obsessing over celebrities’ trends and opinions is more important to many than their own family or developing their “self” in any fruitful and productive way. Our pair of protagonists engage in this without full realization. Bernard is treated completely different upon his return from the reservation. His relationship with John has given him a voice, made him important, made him a celebrity. It relates well to the amount of importance our society places on the words and thoughts of the celebrity. Without their status (achieved by a singular talent, or not even that in most cases) they would not be given a second thought. Their political, religious, and philosophical beliefs would not matter to the masses. It is the status which is worshiped, not the individual or prowess of thought. The world’s worship of entertainment is glaring. You only need to turn on one of the many television channels dedicated to athletics to see it. You get analysis of a fantasy game about an actual game! You get commentators debating various points on the appropriateness of what a particular player said or did. Analysis about other analysis wrapped in a debate! Not even the game itself is focal, but the inconsequential social behavior of its participant who are celebrated and defended with more passion and ferocity than most would feel comfortable displaying in loyalty to their God or political ideals. If looked at from afar, how out of control is it?
The modern goal is one of relaxing instead of achieving. Just like the world state of Huxley’s. It is more important to agree than to have any conflict or disturbance in the social calm. Discussing politics and religious ideas is frowned upon socially and discouraged all in the name of not upsetting another. Conformity over individuality. The progress obtained through vigorous conversation and debate and challenge…..lost. Hard to tell which world is being discussed? Some would submit that MOST of what should be discussed by persons of a certain age is political theory, religion, and philosophy. They would argue it is more valuable, healthy, productive, and gratifying to the self and society as a whole to engage in constructive and conflicting conversation, in the name of progress and self realization. They would be right. However, the dawn of a brave new world discourages it, and prefers the even keel of fruitless conversation and thoughtless, distracting interaction. It was satire in Brave New World, to repeat the quote, “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” Yet in our modern times that mantra has found its way into many socio-political ideologies which discourage property rights and the fundamental, natural right of self-ownership and governance.
The imigery and wordplay have an absurdist, mechanized tone. Ford replaced Lord. Ford is worshiped for his industrial accomplishment of mass production and assembly. Machine equals spirit. Mechanizations replaces individual ambition, curiosity, accomplishment, and progress. The growth nurtured by free thinking and human feeling…absent. Is that so absurd? So different than our path? Does John the savage contrast nearly as much with us as he does with Huxley’s future London, year 632 (After Ford)? Liberalism (of the classical verity to be sure), is scoffed at as a malfunctioned relic and as the, “Liberty to be inefficient and miserable,” and, “Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.” It is seen as evil and immoral. “In the end…the Controllers realized that force was no good. The slower but infinitely surer methods…,” were the instruments of the cultural change and suppression of freedom. Gradualism. Inches taken at a time. Inches taken that seem insignificant but add up to the loss of self. Today, regulation after regulation, and a slow, media-driven, entertainment and leisure fueled brainwashing whisper…just relax…let it go…as long as you can, and enjoy the moment. Self-indulgence has slowly taken the place of any spiritual devotion or quest for philosophical understanding. In the novel, the drug Soma and ridiculous games like “Obstacle Golf,” are the substitution. Soma has, “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, [and] none of their defects.” Henry Foster tells Bernard Marx, who are both members of the highest (Alpha) caste that, “Old men in the bad old days used to renounce, retire, take to religions, spend their time reading, thinking – thinking!” The thought of those things brings recoil and disgust. Anything base, instinctual, primal, and natural is treated with complete contempt and horror. Everything in Brave new world is over-complicated, excessive, and contraptionized. Stuff over soul. Copious and needless consumption and wastefulness keep the utopia running, just for the sake of itself.
The hardest thing for me to get around in the book is the absence of anyone to like or root for. I enjoy that in a read like this, and there isn’t one. There is a small glimpse of humanity with your primary protagonist, Bernard Marx, when he takes council with his friend Helmholtz Watson. They both feel the need to exercise individuality. Their craving for individuality keeps them isolated from the rest of their contemporaries to a degree, and they take comfort in the company of each other as outcasts. It is an interesting component to the story, and if anything it illustrates the power and hold of society’s collectivism in the book. So, while there isn’t the type of protagonist one might typically appreciate, it stays faithful to the rules of society Huxley has set up. If there were a character that could defy the rules of the caste society more, the book probably wouldn’t hold up quite as well. Even when John enters the story there isn’t a clear path for a protagonist. John is not only an outsider from the modern , world-state, caste society of London, but he is an outsider from the occupants of the “Savage Reservation,” of Malpas. While he serves as a sharp contrast in some regards, his incompatibility with either world makes him too difficult to relate to. But that isn’t his purpose. Huxley isn’t going for that. His motives are too pure to pervert with appeasing the reader.
The pinnacle of the story is when John, Bernard, and Helmholtz are summoned to the office of Mustafa Mond, the “Resident World Controller of Western Europe.” If there is one part of the book that sums the ideals up completely it is this confrontation. We see Bernard crumble at the order of him being sent to an island and being stripped of the comformity and comforts of society. The controller remarks that the banishment is actually a, “gift.” Bernard will be in the company of individuals and free to develop as he wishes intellectually. Helmholtz requests banishment to a harsh climate, so that he may have a sort of forced adversity, which he believes will improve his thinking and writing. Mustafa Mond and John then talk, and I can help but vaguely be reminded of Ivan’s poem “The Grand Inquisitor,” in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I believe just by reading this final section of Brave New World and reading Ivan’s poem in The Brothers Karamazov, a reader can grasp fully the author’s intentions. Particularly in Huxley’s case. The lack of free choice, and the controlling and suppression of human thought, emotion, and will, is evil. It is evil even when performed under the guise of benevolence for the sake of ease or stability. John has such a struggle with this benevolent suppression in his new world that he ultimately kills himself. He is unable to exist in such a conflicted state of self-hatred and confusion.
Ultimately, Brave New World, is one of the most praised pieces of modern literature tackling the future dystopia of ultra-socialism there is. It is historic, enjoyable, and prophetic. The reader isn’t sucked into the story, at least I wasn’t, but instead is viewing the world as a third party. It is a powerful but detached read due to Huxley’s style. As stated earlier, I reach for Orwell to satisfy my literary dystopia-hunger, but Huxley is a nice change of pace and journey into the absurd. They approach it differently, which is nice. Huxley always makes me ask, “How absurd is the world I live in?” Knowing full well that being in the middle of it, even looking for it, I could never fully see or understand the severity of it. “How conditioned am I?” “How has the ever-growing world state educated individuality out of me?” Its a scary and interesting question. It demands the quest for the understanding and pursuit of liberty and individuality, and allowing other cultures and people to do the same without interference.