Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I’m not in the habit of tooting my own horn, but I am really happy with the entry I wrote on Brave New World after listening to it years ago as an audiobook.

From December 6, 2004:

The next audiobook after The Handmaid’s Tale and another dystopic vision of the future. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as My Antonia or The Moon and Sixpence, but I believe I will add it to my get and read again list anyway. It’s a classic, after all, and its vision of the future is stark and compelling. In fact, now that I think on it, I realize that it’s the vision that is worth revisiting, and not so much the story.

There were really two things here that, although taken to a ridiculous extreme, reflect poorly on our present society and make me wonder how truly close we are to that Brave New World. The first is the idea of conditioning. In BNW, people believe what they believe because it has been conditioned into them, a conscious part of their education as well as reinforced ad infinitum during their periods of sleep. Hypnopedia is what Huxley calls it. But even in our own society, absent subliminal messages played repeatedly in our sleep, I wonder how much of what we believe we believe because we have been “conditioned” to think a certain way. “People believe in God because they have been conditioned to believe in God,” Mustapha Mond famously says, but he also questions the philosopher who said that philosophy is the practice of coming up with bad reasons to believe what we believe intrinsically. “As if people believe anything intrinsically.” That will make you think. Do we know or believe anything apart from what our environment has taught us? Can we? How is that different from being conditioned to believe a certain thing?

The second is the idea of consumption. In BNW, to consume commercially-produced products is more than patriotic, it is a sign of good citizenship. To mend clothes that have torn or fix things that have broken—rather than getting new ones—is seen as antisocial and wrong. After all, consumption drives the economy, keeps people employed, and therefore gives purpose to a thousand otherwise meaningless tasks and the people that perform them. And all of the “approved” forms of recreation require elaborate and expensive equipment to participate in. There’s nothing you can do by yourself (with a pen and a piece of paper, for example). Everything requires a group and the latest in an unending chain of upgraded tools and devices. Again, I see this as different from our own society only in degree, not in basic premise.

I also like the way Huxley brought in the title. John is a “savage” raised by Indians on a reservation where the rules of BNW don’t apply. He is given a book of Shakespeare’s plays which he reads voraciously and basically memorizes. Like Miranda upon seeing men from across the sea, he quotes, “Oh, brave new world that contains men such as these,” when he finally meets men from the BNW society.

The last part of the book is an interesting analysis of how the world of Shakespeare cannot co-exist with the Brave New World. BNW has eliminated all forms of human passion by declaring that everyone belongs to everyone else, and abolishing the family unit as the basis of society. Babies are born in test tubes and children are raised in conditioning centers. No one has a wife to cheat on or a lover to pine for. No one has a child to care for or a brother to compete against. For the BNWers, it is the ultimate expression of human happiness because there is no war, crime, or strife of any kind, and people spend eight hours a day making positive contributions to society and then take a recreational drug (called soma in the novel) and have sex with each other as much as they want. For John the Savage, it’s a world turned upside down and, after an initial fascination, a decidedly insidious one. He much prefers the human passions of Shakespeare, even if they too frequently lead to heartache, betrayal, and death.

There’s much more to say about this book—the caste system in which embryos are nurtured or neglected from the very beginning to produce the right number of geniuses to keep innovation moving forward and the right number of morons to keep the machines running, for example—but again, almost none of it is about the story. It’s almost all about the premise. Bernard Marx is no Winston Smith, and there isn’t a time when we care about him as much as we do the other.

I’m not sure there’s much new substance I could add to that, although having now read it in hard copy, I’ve made notes on several dog-eared pages, and that gives me a prime opportunity to cite several passages from the text itself that expound on one of the novel’s main themes—conditioning.

The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning perhaps says it best on page 15:

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”

The whole opening section of the novel is, in fact, an introduction to the way BNW develops and conditions its children to fulfill the social destiny that’s been determined for them. It’s a conditioning that Bernard Marx and then John the Savage rebel against, the first from within and the second from without the construct of that conditioning itself.

I say at the very bottom of my previous entry that Bernard Marx is not Winston Smith, and what I mean by that is that Marx never captures the reader’s compassion and fealty the way Smith does, even though they are both fighting against the inhuman machinations that control their societies. Marx is ultimately not BNW’s protagonist, the way Smith is 1984’s. In BNW, that honor ultimately goes to John the Savage, but Huxley allows us to flirt with Marx for a while before introducing his novel’s real conflict.

Marx’s most endearing scene, for me, is when he speaks out against his conditioning, in language his love interest Lenina (similarly, no Julia) can’t hope to understand.

On their way back across the Channel, Bernard insisted on stopping his propeller and hovering on his helicopter screws within a hundred feet of the waves. The weather had taken a change for the worse; a south-westerly wind had sprung up, the sky was cloudy.

“Look,” he commanded.

“But it’s horrible,” said Lenina, shrinking back from the window. She was appalled by the rushing emptiness of the night, by the black foam-flecked water heaving beneath them, by the pale face of the moon, so haggard and distracted among the hastening clouds. “Let’s turn on the radio. Quick!” She reached for the dialing knob on the dashboard and turned it at random.

“…skies are blue inside of you,” sang sixteen tremoloing falsettos, “the weather’s always…”

Then a hiccough and silence. Bernard had switched off the current.

“I want to look at the sea in peace,” he said. “One can’t even look with that beastly noise going on.”

“But it’s lovely. And I don’t want to look.”

“But I do,” he insisted. “It makes me feel as though…” he hesitated, searching for words with which to express himself, “as though I were more me, if you see what I mean. More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body. Doesn’t it make you feel like that, Lenina?”

But Lenina was crying. “It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” she kept repeating. “And how can you talk like that about not wanting to be part of the social body? After all, every one works for every one else. We can’t do without any one. Even Epsilons…”

“Yes, I know,” said Bernard derisively. “‘Even Epsilons are useful’! So am I. And I damned well wish I weren’t!”

Lenina was shocked by his blasphemy. “Bernard!” She protested in a voice of amazed distress. “How can you?”

In a different key, “How can I?” he repeated meditatively. “No, the real problem is: How is it that I can’t, or rather—because, after all, I know quite well why I can’t—what would it be like if I could, if I were free—not enslaved by my conditioning.”

“But, Bernard, you’re saying the most awful things.”

“Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

He laughed. “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We begin giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she repeated.

Indeed, Lenina doesn’t. She has never had any reason to question her conditioning. To her, Bernard’s pining for something other than what he has been conditioned for is unnatural, almost obscene. But when they visit the savage reservation together, we see in Lenina’s reaction to that society’s sights and sounds both a horror of things different and a deep abiding understanding of at least one basic element of all human culture.

Lenina liked the drums. Shutting her eyes she abandoned herself to their soft repeated thunder, allowed it to invade her consciousness more and more completely, till at last there was nothing left in the world but that one deep pulse of sound. It reminded her reassuringly of the synthetic noises made at Solidarity Services and Ford’s Day celebrations. “Orgy-porgy,” she whispered to herself. These drums beat out just the same rhythms.

There was a sudden startling burst of singing—hundreds of male voices crying out fiercely in harsh and metallic unison. A few long notes and silence, the thunderous silence of the drums; then shrill, in a neighing treble, the women’s answer. Then again the drums; and once more the men’s deep savage affirmation of their manhood.

Queer—yes. The place was queer, so was the music, so were the clothes and the goiters and the skin diseases and the old people. But the performance itself—there seemed to be nothing especially queer about that.

“It reminds me of a lower-caste Community Sing,” she told Bernard.

And as I said before, it is Marx’s and Lenina’s introduction to John the Savage and his society that provides the vehicle for the ultimate conflict in the novel—not the one between Marx and his conditioning, but the one between the controlled, stable society of BNW and the random, myth-believing society of the savage reservation. Both societies are flawed—in neither one do the citizens embrace the truths of their existence. And it is only World Controller Mustapha Mond—our antagonist—who is in a position to understand the price that is paid to make the Brave New World possible.

In a scene reminiscent of Smith’s truth revealing encounter with O’Brien, John asks Mond why there can’t be things like Shakespeare’s Othello in his society.

“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.”

This is the section in which Mustapha Mond famously says, “People believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to believe in God,” but that sentiment seems at odds with this thesis, which Mond presents just two pages prior.

“That sickness is old age; and a horrible disease it is. They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns toward the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false—a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”

I can’t tell if Huxley is trying to say something permanent about God here—if he does and doesn’t actually believe that God is an ultimate and transcendent truth of our existence. He seems to smash the idea with Mond’s more famous line two pages later, but the rest of the discussion seems to argue that God is something Mond has to protect the BNWers from, like Shakespeare, in order to have the happiness and stability they seek.

One final point. John the Savage seems to hold his own throughout this climactic discussion with Mond, and we the contemporary reader, who feel more affinity for John’s Shakespeare than Mond’s feelies, wish John to succeed, want him to destroy this unfeeling Brave New World if he can. But John doesn’t, and after his banishment, we see that perhaps our fealty to his savage predilections was misplaced.

John is ultimately tortured by the ideals of his savage world, and he actually flogs himself as punishment for sullying the purity he seeks to maintain. Pledged to holding sacred and constant the memory of his dead mother, Linda, the memory and carnal desires associated with an unfulfilled encounter with Lenina cause him to quite lose his mind.

“Strumpet! Strumpet!” he shouted at every blow as though it were Lenina (and how frantically, without knowing it, he wished it were), white, warm, scented, infamous Lenina that he was flogging thus. “Strumpet!” And then, in a voice of despair, “Oh, Linda, forgive me. Forgive me, God. I’m bad. I’m wicked. I’m…No, no, you strumpet, you strumpet!”

It makes you wonder which side you’re supposed to fall on. Ultimately, I realize that the choice of the Savage is no better than the choice we face as the reader. Which society should we embrace? The one based on the passions of our distant past, or on the calculated happiness of our stable future? And if we choose neither extreme, an even larger question looms. How do we ensure that we walk the correct and delicate line between them when others will invariably want to pull our society in one direction or the other?

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