Brave New World – Huxley’s and Ours

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In fact, Huxley is anything but outdated.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 [1932]). 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.

Don Quixote: The tragedy of madness

In April of this year, Spain commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of The Ingenious Don Quixote of La Mancha. Cervantes is arguably one of history’s most famous Spanish-language authors – and certainly Spain’s most well-known author – and his novel has become one of the most celebrated pieces of Spanish literature. To many, it is not only a seminal work but also one of the first examples of a modern literary narrative. Now, four hundred years after the death of its author, the book’s influence on Spanish popular culture and on the world is still being felt. From popular sayings, through film adaptations and language appropriations – the term ‘Quixotic’ originated from this novel – to even references in recent video games. With that in mind, it is worth re-visiting the main character of this tale and examining the madness that defines his character, as well as the underlying and inescapable tragedy surrounding the deranged knight and his adventures.


Written and published in 1605, Don Quixote tells the story of Alonso Quixano, a gentleman landowner – hidalgo in Spanish – from the region of La Mancha. Obsessed with tales of knightly quests and chivalric romances, Quixano reads so many books and tales on the subject that he ends up going mad and believing himself to be living one of those same tales. Determined to prove himself a knight errant, he dons a suit of armour, takes up a lance, and rides his steed to travel the land and right wrongs wherever he fights them as Don Quixote de la Mancha, later on acquiring a squire named Sancho Panza. As all knights must have a maiden fair in whose name they fight, he declares to be battling in the name of Dulcinea del Toboso, whom he believes to be superhumanly beautiful despite knowing next to nothing about her.

The problem is that Quixano is elderly and wiry, and his horse is worn-out. His armour is rusted and his shield his old. His adventures often result in his getting hurt more often than not. His lady love, Dulcinea, is in fact Aldonza Lorenzo, a girl from a homely farmgirl who occasionally prostitutes herself. The people Quixote encounters view him as either a laughingstock to be played practical jokes on, or a dangerous madman. His family go to increasingly desperate lengths to bring him home and restore his sanity, including at one point literally dragging him home in a cage.

In his own story, Don Quixote is a figure of ridicule. A madman who believes he’s in a fairy tale world, fighting for a noble lady as he jousts against giants and rights the many evils of the world, all while in reality he attacks innocent travellers, charges at windmills, never pays for staying nights and the inns he encounters, and wears a barber’s bowl on his head as though it were a great helmet.

And yet, as one reads through El Quixote, one cannot help but ask a question: What is it about his madness that makes him so laughable? That he lives in a fantasy land where evil is punished, and the world has a rhyme and reason to it? Quixano’s tragedy is indeed his madness, for it makes him believe that the world in which he inhabits is, at its core, fair and just and one in which he is able to make a difference. He sets out to do good, with arguably the noblest intentions of any character in the novel, and is instead rewarded with deception and harsh punishment.


One remembers a specific instance of from the novel, wherein our main character comes across a youth tied to a tree and being beaten by his master. Quixote’s reaction is to reprimand the master and demand that he free the youth, and swear to never again raise his hand against him. The master does so, and yet as soon as Quixote leaves the youth is beaten again, harder than before.

Quixote’s reaction to seeing what he believes is a danger to others is to face it, in order to defeat it. Whenever he encounters travellers, he endeavours to treat with them honesty. He gains the aid of Sancho Panza as his squire by promising him lands and titles, and it seems he truly has every intention of keeping his promise. At his core, what the character attempts to do is to live the life of a knight errant: He travels the land to its farthest reaches, fights duels in the name of honour, and proclaims his love for his ‘maiden’ Dulcinea for all who can hear. The clearest case of his attempts to emulate a knight errant is his tilting against windmills – he honestly believes that they are terrible giants, and that by battling and defeating the he will help make the lands a safer place

But the reality that Cervantes places Alonso Quixano in is often a harsh one, and he is amongst the first to suffer the consequences of both his madness and his idealism. He is deceived on more than one occasion, such as by the master beating the youth, or when he is convinced by a group of convicted criminals that they are being unjustly led to the gallows. He frees them, and for his efforts he is rewarded with a severe beating that leaves him and Sancho Panza lying on the side of the road, nursing their injuries.

More poignantly, early in his adventures Quixote believes that he is officially knighted by a lord in his castle. In reality, it is a sham ceremony, improvised by a tavern-keeper whose tavern has already been the stage for a fight between several customers and Quixote – who had also ruined the horse’s water trough – and who carries out the ‘knighting’ only to be rid himself of the madman.

The cruel irony that if Quixano were, indeed, the protagonist of a knightly tale then he could very well be a great hero. Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov once famously observed that Don Quixote has a surprisingly long career as a knight errant, and is in fact quite dangerous in a fight. His attempts to emulate knightly virtues – honesty, piety, and defence of the weak – are sincere and well-meaning. If the world he lived in was actually the world of the knightly tales he obsesses over, he would be celebrated and honoured.

But that is not the world he lives in, and the tale ends perhaps the only way it could: Quixano recovers his sanity, and abandons the identity of Don Quixote, albeit not without reluctance, only to die shortly after.


At the end of the novel, when Quixano recovers his sanity and finally leaves behind the adventuring of Don Quixote, one cannot help but feel a sense of defeat. In following the character and his follies, there is a sense of genuine adventure behind his actions, even excitement. Don Quixote is a madman, yet he seems tireless in his quest to do good in the world and his way of seeing things even becomes endearing to the reader, despite the obvious damage he causes. So when reality is finally allowed to triumph, there is no real sense of relief, and the novel ultimately ends with Quixano falling ill and dying after returning home.

The feeling is that the final victory of the real world over Quixote’s fantasy robs it of a man whose ultimate aim was to do good. After all, what kind of world does Quixano truly live in? One in which he is lied to, tricked, ridiculed, humiliated, caged, his personal possessions destroyed and he himself attacked on multiple occasions. Is it any wonder that his return to sanity is so reluctant on his part, and so melancholic in its final result?

Cervantes intended Don Quixote to serve as a deconstruction of knightly tales by making his protagonist exceedingly vulnerable, and placing him into the harshness of the real world. So perhaps there is a further lesson to be taken from the novel and questions to be posed to ourselves, especially now as day by day we see more people retreating into conformist denial, cheap populist rhetoric, simple demagoguery, or even elaborate fantasy escapism, all while the world keeps turning and stark reality refuses to abandon us.


– Javier Alcover



Image: “Don Quijote y Sancho” by Pablo Picasso (1955), Fundación Picasso, free content.