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Sunday, March 5, 2017
DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Dossier: Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World [Chatto & Windus, 1932]
File Under: Statist dystopia.
Executive Summary: Civilization is a wonderful place to live, if you have little imagination or sense of self. But clearly not everyone fits that bill--antisocial Bernard Marx, contemplative Helmholtz Watson and romantic Lenina Crowne, for example. Bored with games, drugs and casual sex, Bernard convinces Lenina to accompany him on a vacation to the Savage Reservation--a New Mexican pueblo that has not been incorporated into Civilization, and which is instead preserved as a model of the "savage past," so tourists from Civilization can gawk at its inhabitants and marvel at how terrible their lives are.
While on the reservation, Bernard and Lenina meet John Savage, who is the son of Bernard's boss and a "civilized" woman who his boss abandoned on the reservation once he found out she was pregnant with his child. John is an outcast in Native American society who quotes Shakespeare incessantly (having learned to read from the Bard's completed works). Sensing an opportunity to oust his boss, who has it out for him, Bernard decides to bring John back with him to London.
John quickly becomes a sensation, which in turn makes Bernard a sensation. But after John's mother's dies from an overdose of the euphoric/tranquilic drug soma, and a failed attempt to embody the Shakespearean ideal of unrequited love (to the decidedly amorous Lenina), he begins to lash out at the suffocating, banal milieu of Civilization--threatening to bring Bernard, Helmholtz and Lenina with him.
Dystopian Visions: This is not a dystopia for democracy's precarious moments, but for those times when comfort leads to complacency. Indeed, the creature comforts of the elite alphas and betas are underwritten by manual labor by lower castes, whose intelligence is deliberately stunted (in the laboratories where they are grown) by chemical intervention. The state conditions its subjects through "hypnopaedic suggestion," behavior-altering platitudes piped in during sleep hours ad nauseum. It discourages intimate relationships that are more than sexual, and forbids exposure to art, literature, religion, science and history. And it further controls potential dissent by providing a euphoric, mood-altering drug, soma, for any and all situations in which individuals might confront trauma or discomfort. This is Foucault's panopticon: an all-seeing, all-controlling structure that relies on covert mechanisms of control in order to exert the least amount of pressure possible to ensure the maximum amount of compliance.
Utopian Undercurrents: Brave New World, more than any of its peers, is a conscious and overt subversion of utopia. In fact, his "civilization" is presented as utopia--a society where there is no scarcity, precarity or violence, boundless leisure time, access to mood-altering pharmaceuticals and an extended life span. It is, in other words, a well-regulated playground. It is in fact supposed to appear, superficially at least, like something HG Wells would cook up and label the ideal society.
Level of Hell: First. As far as dystopias go, this one is fairly livable. There's little to no violence and people are, generally, doing things they enjoy.
Legacy: Brave New World was a sensation upon publication, and is second only to 1984 in terms of recognizability and reputation. Yet the future it imagines--serene and utterly vapid--has never captured the imagination quite like Orwell's neo-Stalinist nightmare. That's too bad, as Brave New World is arguably the more complex and perceptive book.
In Retrospect: Brave New World occasionally shows its age in a bad way (for example, when using cringeworthy racial terms like "Octaroon"). Otherwise, it's incredible how well the book holds up. The imagined future still feels entirely plausible, and Huxley has essentially prefigured many elements of modern societies today--from prevailing anti-intellectualism and ignorance of history, to our obsession with escapist gaming and widespread prescription drug addiction. Huxley also prefigures Foucault's notion of the panoptic society, perhaps because both were reading Bentham.
I had also forgotten how funny it is--absurdist, in many respects, and so designed to expose the absurdity of utopia. And in that pursuit, it succeeds marvelously. Brave New World can, and possibly should, be read as satire.
Though Brave New World is too early on the dystopia timeline to be a commentary on the notion of dystopia, to the degree that it is on the notion of utopia, it nevertheless has some interesting points to make on that front. As I was reading, it struck me that Civilization seems durable in a way Zamyatin's or Orwell's dystopias do not. To cite the real world examples Zamyatin and Orwell drew inspiration from, Nazi Germany was not durable because it was also genocidal and megalomaniacal, while Stalinism was not durable because it was murderous, paranoid and unlivable. Huxley's Civilization, on the other hand, is something people can buy into precisely because it's just so damned comfortable. It's thus surprising to me that more authors have not taken up this theory of statist dystopia
For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 9/10.