Brave New World Revisited

As a follow-up to my last post, I wanted to delve into the two great satire-epics in more detail. First up, the satire that came true: Brave New World! And as the title says, I would also like to include a little commentary on the thoughtful essay that capped off his thoughts about his magnum opus, its reception, its enduring legacy, and the themes it addressed. There were so many, so where do I begin?

For starters, the central premise in his work: that humanity would be controlled through amusement and pleasure, not fear or brutality. Without a doubt, his commentary was based on the age in which it was written (American society of the 1920’s), an age in which amusement was seen as the cure to all social ills. It might even ventured that if he wrote it a little later, say, during the 30’s and 40’s during the age of totalitarianism and total war, he might have thought differently. One could make this case, but whether by circumstance or design, he ended up being right. In the post-war era, with the death of Soviet Communism, the extension of democracy and the growth of the middle class throughout the industrialized world, it seemed that the forces of repression would need to be more creative if they were going to control the hearts of minds of the people. And, in many respects, they succeeded. With the advent of television, mass advertising, mass consumption, deregulation, globalization, outsourcing, the decline of job security, unions, public broadcasting, and the concentration of industry and information into fewer and fewer hands, personal freedom once again appears to be threatened by the forces of repression and conformity. In fact, in many ways, life today is beginning to resemble life in the 1920’s when Huxley wrote his book. Funky coincidence huh?

But enough background! Let’s get specific. Brave New World opens on the facility where selective breeding takes place under the watchful eye of Mustaffa Mond, one of the ten leaders of the world and the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. It is quickly made clear that in Huxley’s world, the World State as its known, all people are predetermined before they are even born. Those who do manual labor are specifically designed for it, their size, physical and intellectual capacities tailored to that purpose. Alphas are the top of the line people, tailored for intellectual work and management, Gammas and Epsilon’s perform the most menial tasks, and Betas and Deltas do all the stuff in between (middle-management and processing, I guess!) In this way, class conflict and expectations are eliminated, no one can feel unhappy with their vocation because they can expect nothing better, and to just to make sure readers are catching on to the subtlety of this assembly-line birthing process, the people in this future revere Henry Ford and cross their chest with a large T when uttering his name. Henry Ford, the man who invented the assembly line and the concept of unskilled labor, who reduced his workers to cogs in the machine, and then bought their loyalty by cutting their hours and increasing their pay. Some saw these as enlightened reforms and Ford as humanitarian; but other, smarter people, saw it for what it was: an attempt at making his workers passive consumers! And what was good for Ford was good for all industrial giants, America soon followed suit and the age of plenty was born! A fitting social commentary, but I’m getting off track here.

Another element that is used to control society are “Feelies”, and like many things in the novel, it took some historical context to teach me the true genius of this concept. You see, at the turn of the century, the relatively new phenomena known as motion pictures were called “movies” (get it?). When sound was incorporated, the term “talkies” came to be used. Sensing the trend, Huxley came up with the idea of “Feelies”, films where the audience were wired into the theater so they could feel everything happening to the actors. Clever! And then there’s the designer drug Soma, a chemically non-addictive substance that people are actually encouraged to use, the process of which is known as “going on holiday”. Whenever people are frustrated, sad, depressed, anxious, restless, or angry, they are encouraged through conditioning and slogans to take their Soma and bliss out. Echoes of antidepressants perhaps? Speaking of conditioning, Huxley sought to portray the forces of commercialism by once again taking things to the next level. In addition to signs, radio jingles, and pervasive ads, people are conditioned from an early age through sleep conditioning to consume, use Soma, and follow the rules of the World State. One such rule is that everyone belongs to everyone else, including in the Biblical sense. Yes, in this world, promiscuity is encouraged and orgies are commonplace, all to keep people satisfied and avoid the pitfalls of monogamous relationships, which include jealousy, infidelity, and crimes of passion.

Thanks to all these measures, society is kept controlled and everyone is happy. Well, almost (here comes the plot!) Enter into this world an Alpha named Bernard Marx (recalling the venerable Karl) who is unhappy with society since he does not fit in. His discontent with all things is often blamed on the fact that he is a bit stunted and maladjusted, the result of a mistake rumored to have happened while he was still in the test tube. His partner Lenina (as far as that is possible in a promiscuous society) is more the traditional sort, and the object of desire for multiple main characters. Together, they visit a Reservation, where the so-called Savages who do not belong to the world state reside. Here, they meet John, the lovechild of a former Alpha who got knocked up and was forced to live out her life on a Reservation in former Mexico. When they find him and speak of their world, which he knows about only through stories his mother told him, he decides to return with them. But, much to his chagrin, he does not fit in in this Brave New World either. Lenina and he are incapable of forging a relationship, despite mutual attraction, because of their different values. In John’s world, his views on love having been shaped largely by Shakespeare and traditional “Savage” values, love is monogamous and righteous. In Lenina’s, love is free and cheap, and to be shared openly.

By the end, all the non-conformists are forced to leave, Bernard and his free-thinking friend are forced to live in exile. Lenina goes back to the world she knows, having been rejected and even beaten by John, and John exiles himself to the countryside to live a simple life. But the forces of civilization won’t leave him alone, they chase him to his new dwelling at an abandoned lighthouse and demand he entertain them. Things get a little violet, the crowd is doused in Soma gas (a standard tactic during a riotous event in the World State), and John and the people engage in a drugged-inspired orgy. When he wakes up, he’s overcome with guilt, realizes he will never be left alone, and hangs himself. A sad and fitting ending, the boy who could not function in either the “civilized” or free world resorting to the only out he can think of. Between barbarism and insanity, death appears to be the only option.

In hindsight, Huxley said that he wished he could go back and revise Brave New World, offer some third options and potential solutions other than suicide. For example, he hoped that the idea of the colony of exiles could have been developed more, where free-thinking people could have come up with some solutions to the problems of insanity and barbarism, civilization and its discontents. But arguably, this way was much more effective. In the end, the point of how a “utopian society” crushes the will of sensitive, thinking individuals, how it does not suffer challengers or people do not see eye to eye with it. And lets not forget that good art needs to frighten and offend sometimes in order to make its point. Letting people down easy just waters down the message. At least I think so. So writers remorse aside, I’d say Huxley’s vision was well-rendered in his book and needs no revisions.

And its ingenious really, regardless of whether or not history has proven his vision to be the more accurate one. Because in truth, the totalitarian age, if it taught us anything, was that human beings cannot be forced into anything for long. In order for people to surrender their freedom, they need to be made to do so willingly, and that takes fear and/or the promise of something better. In addition, it also taught us that totalitarian regimes can only truly thrive in underdeveloped corners of the world where they benefit from ignorance, poverty, and a long history of abuse. And even then, they cannot last indefinitely. Modern, developed countries that boast high rates of literacy and take things like mass media for granted require a more subtle approach when it comes to tyranny and social control. Power can never be exercised by a single man, woman or institution, and it cannot be overt. It must take place behind the scenes, where prying eyes cannot easily go, and excesses and abuses cannot easily be proven. Similarly, punishment must be equally subtle, meted out in ways that are either covert or even appear to be benign or beneficial (aka. therapy, mental hospitals, doping, etc). And above all, measures must be taken to ensure that citizens are kept happy, or at least that the majority are kept happy while the rest are kept marginalized and divided. And last of all, there has to be ways to channel or dissuade discontent. Campaigns and institutions that put a happy face on bad things are a good example, as are offices that give the illusion of making a difference or fighting the system, when in fact they are serving it.

Brave New World, ladies and gentlemen! Not as good a read as 1984, but definitely more accurate and prophetic in terms of its vision. Take that, Henry Ford! You and your little Model T too!