After two years of living through Covid restrictions, as well as pondering through several weeks of the ongoing war in Ukraine, I concluded the time might be ripe to open Aldous Huxley’s opus Brave New World. While I am interested in the tendencies that drive European societies towards multiplying the means of technical and social control for some time, the book has been escaping me until this point. There it is – a proof that every crisis is also an opportunity, at least an intellectual one. The fact remains that Brave New World appears in our mental landscape as one of those works that are often referred to already due to bearing a catchy title, but not so much read. A mistake! With all its warning signs that it offers, writings like these are made to be pored over precisely at times like nowadays: when everything seems crystal clear, when media, experts and politicians in unison sign the tune of there being no alternative, it is the moment of greatest danger for independent thought. And therefore also for human beings who no longer deem it worthy to dust off the cover of old tomes.
In fact, Huxley is anything but outdated. It reads as if it was written by a contemporary.
There might be these minor details which betray that this relatively short novel was written back in 1932 (such as the over-emphasis of “neo-Pavlovian” conditioning of people, which would be likely replaced today by genetic engineering), but this does not throw us off the main message. The author’s utopia-dystopia is also surprisingly mild in its coercive mechanisms, at least to anybody who lived through Covid passes, QR codes and the images of quarantines coming recently from China. And not only them. In their place, Brave New World sprays its dissidents and nonconformists by soma, which is otherwise a “regular” happiness drug, which is compulsively used and expected to be used by population. In this our society is much more instructive and demonstrates that the rule of science, feely-happy consumerism, mass culture and erasure of history and literature is perfectly compatible with its enforcement by Orwellian means. Such a combination of Huxley’s soft and Orwell’s hard methods of ensuring the masses fall in line is more accurately portrayed for example in George Lucas’ film THX 1138, which, however, benefits from its release in 1971. The whip – or at least the tacit threat of its use – is for those who are not willing to swallow the sugar. They form a perfect duo.
The imperative of Brave New World denizens is to be always happy. Greeting fellow dweller with anyting but an ear-to-ear grin of an American TV show is a betrayal of community values. And being sad is an outright flaw, a condition that needs to be treated immediately by a few grammes of soma, as good citizens will remind each other of, using one of the catchy phrases taught to them during their Pavlovian childhood conditioning. Being happy-go-lucky means to consume: sex and fleeting relationships from early childhood, meaningless films, which however emulate senses in a kind of virtual reality, or enjoying effortless “sports” that offer no danger or exertion. The pitiful character of Linda, an inhabitant of Brave New World, who involuntarily ended up stuck for two decades in one of the few remaining “savage reservations”, where people outside civilisation still live in primitive conditions, demonstrates the level of addiction to these triffles and distractions. The moment of her return to society – for which she is overjoyed – she sinks into dependence on high doses of soma, to the extent of quickly destroying her health. Any effort to rouse her from this stupor, a metaphor for their human condition as a whole, ends up in bouts of anger, confusion and, ultimately, incomprehension of why anyone would like to be released from this rosy, ever-cheerful simulated reality. This golden cage just like in a Plato’s cave, makes its entrapped prisoners feel anxiety and snap at those who would make attempt at releasing them outside.
All this makes the reader aware that such a carefully engineered, artificially conflictless society, where people are not able to gain freedom from their immediate mental and bodily condition, is thoroughly dehumanising. How could it be? Is not individual happiness such a self-evident objective, that there can be nothing wrong if it turns into a society’s supreme pursuit? Huxley guides us to a possible answer via the book’s (few) rebellious characters and, in particular, thanks to Shakespeare-reading John, a son of Linda and therefore a “savage” from the reserve. Simultaneously regarded as a curiosity and looked down upon, John sees what is hidden to the others in their bamboozled sunny state. To be “merely” happy is inhuman, it is “goats and monkeys”, it is – idiotic. Stuck in this simple frame of reference, we are cutting ourselves off from what is most properly human: understanding and trying to comprehend our being – of our person, but also of the world we live in, which are inevitably intertwined. Doped into another condition by drugs, genetic engineering, social conditioning and peer pressure, we degrade to a circumstance lower than than of an animal, as we cannot even adequately feel and react as the nature of our surroundings would command.
One example in the book is more striking than the others. As Linda lays dying in a hospital, comatose and unaware even of her impending demise, is surrounded by genetically and mentally deprived “Delta” children (Brave New World, we did not mention, is a caste society), which observe her with intrusive curiosity to the rage and vexation of her son John. Just like the nurses, they simply do not care. Not because of intent or viciousness, but because they completely lack such a capacity. Since they were artificially created in a laboratory and then socially conditioned, not brought up in a family, they neither understand childhood nor motherhood. Their world does not open up for them the possibility to be even sad, or in love, as that requires living and interacting with existence, which is not the case when they are born enclosed into a self-centric technical universe. It therefore should not surprise us that they are deprived of the ultimate characteristic that makes up the human condition and permits a comprehension of what it means to be: the mystery of death. Huxley, acting via the character of John, perceives it very clearly.
Despite this firm grip of beings of the Brave New World, this carefully designed structure is a precarious construct. Citizens might be genetically engineered into different social castes and conditioned into a certain behaviour from the earliest age, but as long as the essence of “humanness” is not completely eradicated, some tend to wake up and question beyond this tight frame into which they have been put. They ask why, how, whence and whither – at that moment, they realise their human condition, they truly are. This puts the system into jeopardy, therefore the access to nature, withdrawal to solitude, long-term relationships, or families or national belonging are discouraged or simply erased from society. As Mustapha Mond, one of the ten “World Controllers” in charge of the Brave New World’s government, quips in response to John’s question: “you can’t make tragedies without social instability”. The tragedy here stands for the nature of human life, as the Greeks knew. And while we could correct Huxley a little, because our own society’s modus operandi shows that a certain kind of order is entirely compatible with keeping population perpetually on the move and deprived of stable institutions, the choices that have been made could not be more clear.
Ultimately, in Brave New World it is John the Savage who proves himself more worthy of being human than the architects and inhabitants of its civilisation. Towards the end of the novel, he adopts the only position tenable in the face of totalitarianism commanding everyone to induced happiness: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.” To this, Mustapha Mond replies with a deep sense of irony: “In fact, you’re claiming the right to be unhappy”. A long silence ensues, before John replies: “I claim them all.” Also our future condition might depend on whether we can grasp the sagacity of such simple, profound words.
Aldous Huxley (2013 ). Brave New World. London: Everyman’s Library, 232 p.
Featured image: Brave New World, Copyright 2021 Stanislav Máselník – Reuse not allowed without author’s permission.