Monday, January 23, 2017

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley: A Review

Bernard shrugged his shoulders philosophically. "Anyhow," he said, "they've been doing it for the last five or six thousand years. So I suppose they must be used to it by now."

"But cleanliness is next to fordliness," she insisted.

"Yes, and civilization is sterilization," Bernard went on, concluding on a tone of irony the second hypnop├Ždic lesson in elementary hygiene. "But these people have never heard of Our Ford, and they aren't civilized. So there's no point in …"

"Oh!" She gripped his arm. "Look."

An almost naked Indian was very slowly climbing down the ladder from the first-floor terrace of a neighboring house–rung after rung, with the tremulous caution of extreme old age. His face was profoundly wrinkled and black, like a mask of obsidian. The toothless mouth had fallen in. At the corners of the lips, and on each side of the chin, a few long bristles gleamed almost white against the dark skin. The long unbraided hair hung down in grey wisps round his face. His body was bent and emaciated to the bone, almost fleshless. Very slowly he came down, pausing at each rung before he ventured another step.

"What's the matter with him?" whispered Lenina. Her eyes were wide with horror and amazement.

"He's old, that's all," Bernard answered as carelessly as he could. He too was startled; but he made an effort to seem unmoved.

"Old?" she repeated. "But the Director's old; lots of people are old; they're not like that."

"That's because we don't allow them to be like that. We preserve them from diseases. We keep their internal secretions artificially balanced at a youthful equilibrium. We don't permit their magnesium-calcium ratio to fall below what it was at thirty. We give them transfusion of young blood. We keep their metabolism permanently stimulated. So, of course, they don't look like that. Partly," he added, "because most of them die long before they reach this old creature's age. Youth almost unimpaired till sixty, and then, crack! the end."

But Lenina was not listening. She was watching the old man. Slowly, slowly he came down. His feet touched the ground. He turned. In their deep-sunken orbits his eyes were still extraordinarily bright. They looked at her for a long moment expressionlessly, without surprise, as though she had not been there at all. Then slowly, with bent back the old man hobbled past them and was gone.

"But it's terrible," Lenina whispered. "It's awful. We ought not to have come here." She felt in her pocket for her soma–only to discover that, by some unprecedented oversight, she had left the bottle down at the rest-house. Bernard's pockets were also empty.

Lenina was left to face the horrors of Malpais unaided. They came crowding in on her thick and fast. The spectacle of two young women giving breast to their babies made her blush and turn away her face. She had never seen anything so indecent in her life. And what made it worse was that, instead of tactfully ignoring it, Bernard proceeded to make open comments on this revoltingly viviparous scene. Ashamed, now that the effects of the soma had worn off, of the weakness he had displayed that morning in the hotel, he went out of his way to show himself strong and unorthodox. (110-111)

Given our Presidential choices last year and the ongoing decay of the broader culture, I found myself reading several classic dystopians. Among those was the future portrayed by Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World which is primarily set in London AD 2540 (or 632 "After Ford").

Huxley describes a society - a civilization that is - that has largely perfected humanity. Life is likened to an assembly line first set forth by Mr. Ford himself which is why the new dating system of this civilization begins with the founder of Ford Motor company. Children are not produced by a mom and dad (such terms are considered smut) but in factories. There, each child's life, vocation, intelligence, etc. is predetermined. Huxley goes into intricate detail describing this system of biological predestination.

This civilized society is also very debase and consumed with entertainment. This manifests itself primarily in open sexual relationships and the consumption of "soma" - a hallucinogenic drug that allows the characters to escape both reality and any fear and pain they may be experiencing.

This world also decries independent thought. In this regard, Huxley's world is similar to that of Orwell's in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the latter book, heterodox thought is considered a "thought crime" and was punishable by death. In Huxley's world, those who chose heterodoxy are banished to an island where their thoughts cannot infect others ("God in the safe and Ford on the shelves" [231]).

An example of this is made evident in the twelfth chapter. Huxley writes:
"A New Theory of Biology" was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page: "The author's mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and, so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published." He underlined the words. "The author will be kept under supervision. His transference to the Marine Biological Station of St. Helena may become necessary." A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purposewell, you didn't know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castesmake them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere, that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstance, admissible. He picked up his pen again, and under the words "Not to be published" drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed, "What fun it would be," he thought, "if one didn't have to think about happiness!" (177)
For Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, every society must choose between happiness and truth. His has chosen happiness (made evident in their licentiousness and soma) as a means of perfecting life. Truth requires inquiry, trial and error, and pain. And that world is simply unacceptable and dangerous. Therefore, books like the one featured above must be banned and the author must be supervised and perhaps even banished.

This paradigm comes to a head when one character, named Savage who mirrors both this civilized world and the world of pagan Native Americans, insists that the Brave New World read Shakespeare and Othello. The Controller scoffs at the idea. He explains:
"And it's what you never will write," said the Controller. "Because, if it were really like Othello nobody could understand it, however new it might be. And if were new, it couldn't possibly be like Othello."

"Why not?"

"Yes, why not?" Helmholtz repeated. He too was forgetting the unpleasant realities of the situation. Green with anxiety and apprehension, only Bernard remembered them; the others ignored him. "Why not?"

"Because our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel–and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get. They're well off; they're safe; they're never ill; they're not afraid of death; they're blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they're plagued with no mothers or fathers; they've got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there's soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!" He laughed. "Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!"

The Savage was silent for a little. "All the same," he insisted obstinately, "Othello's good, Othello's better than those feelies."

"Of course it is," the Controller agreed. "But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead." (220)
This is the world described in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. In pursuit of entertainment and risk-free happiness, Huxley understands you cannot have freedom . . . and books. This comes to a head later in the following exchange:
"But I like the inconveniences."

"We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind." There was a long silence.

"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. "You're welcome," he said. (240)
This is dystopia and it is the world we are heading toward. We do, in fact, desire risk-free entertainment apart from truth, knowledge, and genuine freedom. In this sense, Postman is right when he writes:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. (foreword, Amusing Ourselves to Death)
Overall, this work is a classic for a reason. It is a scary world and one can see why many see it as prophetic. The irony, and tragic beauty, of the tale is that their "freedom" is their slavery. One could easily argue we already live in that brave new world.
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