I recently read Aldous Huxely’s famous ‘Brave New World’. It wasn’t quite what I had expected – having the model of 1984 in my mind to compare it to, I was anticipating a fairly unremittingly dire and hideous dystopia. What I found was something much more ambivalent.
Putting the matter very crudely, BNW presents a society in which happiness has been secured at the cost of freedom, dignity, and various other things. Halfway through, a ‘savage’ character who hasn’t gone through the extensive and finely-tuned conditioning of the other individuals is introduced, who finds the whole society despicable. But this character is himself, ultimately, pathetic – neurotic, delusional, self-loathing, and, ultimately, able to be at peace only through endlessly repeated self-imposed suffering. Through him and his outrage at ‘civilisation’, we see painted a picture of the present, of what has been given up, which is no more inspiring.
I get the impression different people have different responses to the pair of dystopias presented (one of which is basically a dystopian presentation of reality). Some people look at the choice (happiness vs. dignity) and say that obviously we should prefer dignity because the happiness presented is ‘false’ happiness (this is assuming that really is the choice, which hopefully it isn’t).
Now, I can see what they mean, but the happiness still seems like a real, and valuable, thing. Maybe I am more displeased about the suffering everywhere, or maybe I the ‘dignity’ we currently have impresses me less, but I don’t share the feeling that one society is obviously better. The decision seems very hard, and I can’t really say how I would justify choosing one or the other.
Now that’s not to deny the dystopian nature of the book. The society is hideous, but hideous in that it has given up on certain aspirations completely, simply abolished them – while we are awash with aspirations rarely fulfilled. When we compare our society to that of BNW, we see what our society could be, what it aims to be. BMW-society has no potentiality beyond its daily actuality. This has a certain, one might say, obscenity to it – in the way that someone being killed and then eaten by their killer is not a worse thing to happen than them simply being killed (they’re still dead, after all) but it has a terrifying je ne sais quoi.
Now Mustapha Mond (one of the world controllers, and the spokeman for the social order in BNW) would probably say that what we have now is simply an obscenity that we don’t recognise as such, because of the myths and delusions with which we blind ourselves. And the book wouldn’t be as good as it is if there wasn’t some truth to that.
So I’m going to try to write a few posts that treat BNW as a critique of modern (and premodern) society – that discuss various aspects of the life it presents, and tries to separate out what bits are legitimate critique and what bits can be resisted.
The first one will focus on the issue of love, sex, and relationships.
The second is about the use of ‘soma’ and the relationship of drugs to ‘truth’.
The third is about that elusive idea, ‘freedom’.