One of the most interesting aspects of the society in Brave New World (henceforth BNWS) is the way it deals with human relationships. The essential idea is to dilute and so moderate all emotional attachments, under the mantra “everyone belongs to everyone else”. There are no parents (children are grown in factories and reared together) and no monogamy: instead, tepid friendship and, not just promiscuity, but a social pressure in favour of promiscuity. Those who focus too much on sleeping with a single partner are worried about and considered unhealthy. Words like ‘marriage’, ‘mother’, and ‘father’, are embarassing and hilarious. Solitary pursuits are frowned on and aloneness is rare.
The result, planned for and openly declared, is to abolish strong feelings and individuality.
That’s how BNWS looks from an outside perspective. What does the status quo look like, seen from within BNWS? It’s a society driven by a desire to possess other individuals, in which people are brought up in the presence of only two individuals, to whom they consequently form a powerful bond – but a bond that, having been formed, must be broken, as the growing individual leaves their family unit to seek companionship in the wider world. Having formed this immensely powerful emotional bond and then broken it, the individual must repress their pain at this ‘abandonment’, this tie-cutting, but still subconsciously seeks out some person that can satisfy this deep-seated need, can provide the unconditional love that they basked in as a child.
As a result, they find some person who ticks a few boxes and they project onto them an almost mystical fullness – the projected opposite of the emptiness they feel in themselves. They hope that by ‘acquiring’, ‘getting’, ‘conquering’, ‘marrying’, or ‘possessing’ this one individual, the great tear in their psyche may be sewed up. In most cases, however, even if they find a bearable equilibrium, they soon find that the individual they ‘fell in love with’ doesn’t exist, but only another person looking for completion in them – a person who they may like and feel great affection for, but who cannot on their own basis produce or live up to the soul-tearing agony of a person trying to find wholeness.
As a result, each citizen spends their lives in a fruitless search for something they are unlikely to find, trying fill a void that has been created by their upbringing, and, while some measure of happiness and contentment are often found, usually suffering endless heartbreak, agony, and futile passions in the process.
That doesn’t sound like a very appealing society, does it? But then, we shouldn’t expect it to, when described by someone from outside. But it clearly has some element of truth to it. So how should we, as Huxely puts it, steer a course between the two options of insanity and lunacy?
BNWS seeks to avoid strong emotions, because it associates strong emotions in general with A) strong negative emotions, and B) strong but pointless emotions. The two points are related: it is because emotions are pointless, deluded, absurd, that they are more often frustrated than satisfied.
One way to focus in on this would be to look at ‘love’, which is what BNWS conspicuously lacks (all ‘loving’ has been replaced with ‘liking’). Love is not just a feeling that I experience, it is a belief that grips me – a belief that the person I love is vastly, even world-surpassingly, important. To be in love is to be willing to kill or to die for the sake of, or for the sake of being with, the object of that love.
One consequence that might be drawn is that love is liable to be in conflict with pleasure. This comes out, for example, in BNW when John, the ‘savage’ character, is ‘in love with’ a woman called Lenina. She, raised to see promiscuity as normal and sex as just a bit of fun, tries to have sex with him. He responds with horror. He doesn’t know what to do, and eventually goes mad (in the short term, he hits her and she hides in the bathroom until he leaves because his mother is dying). In his mind, in the story he has woven to make his life make sense, Lenina is world-surpassingly important, and sex is a method of physically ‘having’ her. Consequently that sex should be world-surpassingly important. It should be difficult, it should be won by struggle and suffering. But she has no wish to make him struggle and suffer – she just wants to have fun with him. This makes his world crash down around his ears and he responds as you would expect – with mortal terror.
We might then offer a simple argument ‘against love’ (i.e. in support of love being futile and delusional, hence doomed to produce frustration and heartbreak): the person loved is not all that important. Maybe one person once loved someone who really truly was the most important thing in the world, but it can’t be true of everyone who is ever loved – different people in love contradict each other. So we should see them all as wrong.
There are some obvious and easy responses to that first, and somewhat familiar argument. One is to say “well yes, love can’t be made consistent – but that’s because logic is alien to love. You shouldn’t try to make it fit into a rational framework.” I think this is a mistake. Remember that the appeal to ‘logic’ here is based simply on taking love on its own terms – as a perception of the transcendent value of the beloved. Love is supposed to be about the other person, it doesn’t make sense if it’s just a feeling or perception in the lover. To say that it’s ‘irrational’ here amounts to admitting that it’s got nothing to do with the beloved, it’s just a projection of importance by the lover. And this will eventually make itself known when the lover gradually is informed by experience, moment by moment, that the person they’ve projected this passion onto is no different from anyone else.
But how could we try to meet the argument head on? If all the world’s lovers believe that their beloved is of infinite importance, might they all, in fact, by right? They could be right in this, only if they were all wrong in their ‘comparative’ evaluation, i.e. that the other 5,999,999,998 people in the world aren’t of infinite importance.
That is, we have two choices. The everyday feeling that people are more-or-less expendable and can be walked past without breaking down in tears at how wonderful they are, is inconsistent with the feeling in moments of love that at least some people are so breathtakingly unspeakable that they make every bone of your body dance. One of them has to be recognised as a sort of blindness.
Most commonly we dismiss love as a sort of blindness. But I think it might perhaps make more sense to treat everything but love as a kind of blindness. As blind creatures, we are unable to see just how spine-tinglingly amazing everyone, every single person and animal in the world, really is. But every now and again, our brain chemicals click into the right position and we find ourselves able to catch glimpses of that, but we can’t let go of our everyday (relative) contempt for the world, so we rationalise those glimpses as this individual person being sublime, and in their sublimity, being unique (or unique for me, whatever THAT means).
This would of course make a lot of sense of morality. Purged of all the disgusting dross that has been put under that label by different societies, the beating heart that’s left, surely, is none other than – treat other people as though they were inestimably, infinitely, precious (if that’s possible)? As Kant famously puts it – treat them as an end in themselves, never just as a means. What if the emotion that would accompany proper moral thought, if our feeble bodies were capable of it, was universal love – not in any tepid form, as a sort of disinterested benevolence, but universal fire, universal heart-pierced by a thousand arrows, universal infinity?
Perhaps the key thing to remember, though, is that if love is the ‘appropriate’ feeling to have towards all people, then it’s the appropriate feeling to have towards ourselves. “Love your neighbour”, as it goes, “as you love yourself”. That would imply that proper love, accurate, rational love, implied and required equal self-love.
But so much love as it actually exists isn’t that at all – so much of the time, love for others is a substitute for self-love. The love that is presented in BNW is a perfect example – what John values in Lenina is precisely someone to feel unworthy of. He himself is empty, impotent, torn open, insufficient. But by finding the right other person, the world-supassingly important beloved, he hopes to complete himself, through a sort of assertive submission, through ‘slaying a lion’ for her. He can’t simply be with her – he needs to have done something, needs to have ‘proven himself’ (to whom? who cast that doubt?). He cannot accept happiness of fulfilment because he doesn’t feel worthy of it. His love for her is dependent on his hatred of himself.
It should therefore not surprise us if his love for her has nothing to do with reality, or with who she really is. It’s a product of his diseased mind, not an appreciation of her her-ness. And the same could be generalised to all the love affairs in which men, who are worried that they may not be sufficiently manly, prove themselves to be men by sleeping with women who are worried that they may not be sufficiently womanly. Or, to put the same thing more abstractly, love where two people use each other to prove to themselves that they are lovable. But this would leave open the possibility of a love based on self-love, a love that was not blind but saw every detail of the world clearly, and which, insofar as it pushed beyond the boundaries of the human organism, pushed towards loving each living thing in their universal infinity.
Anyway, what’s the point of talking about this possibility? The point is that such a view might allow us to see both how both BNWS and real world society have messed up on love. Real world society makes so many people hate themselves (how else to control them?) that when they fall in love it’s rarely with another person, and more often with the projection of the fullness and value which they themselves lack. As a result, they are made only more miserably unhappy. BNWS looks at this and sees only the miserably actuality, and not the hope that animates and is, to varying extents, sometimes fulfilled. Hence it dispenses with the whole affair.
Such a possibility might also allow us also to envisage a third path between the two, a sane society. A society in which there is no need (nor any accidental method) of inflicting on each growing psyche any sense of self-hatred, and in which as a result people do not grow up looking for the one person who can fulfil them, for they will know who that person is: themselves. In place of this, what Erich Fromm calls a ‘need-love’, there can grow whole orchards of ‘gift-love’ – love bestowed on others not because they are what I am not but because they are what they are. In which sex might be both meaningful and free, rather than one or the other.
Or maybe there is no such love. Maybe need-love is all there is, and unless people are made miserable they will never care remotely about those around them. Maybe any progress towards solving our problems will be progress towards giving up our ideals. Maybe we are free to choose merely “between insanity and lunacy”.