Sunday, May 10, 2015

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Wheels must turn steadily, but cannot turn untended.  There must be men to tend them, men as steady as the wheels upon their axles, sane men, obedient men, stable in contentment.

Crying: My baby, my mother, my only, only love; groaning: My sin, my terrible God; screaming with pain, muttering with fever, bemoaning old age and poverty--how can they tend the wheels?  And if they cannot tend the wheels... The corpses of a thousand thousand thousand men and women would be hard to bury or burn.

Brave New World is a dystopia with a sense of humor.  Your Hunger Games and Divergents and what have you could use a bit of it; those books always seem to be utterly joyless.  But Brave New World gives us absurdities like Riemann Surface Tennis and Obstacle Golf and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy and the feelies--sharp satires of the modern pleasure industry which actually sound pleasurable.  But that sense of humor belies a dark sense that I'm not sure I picked up on the first time I read Brave New World: that Huxley isn't at all sure that the world he's created is demonstrably worse than the alternative.  In his introduction, Huxley describes a world crippled by fear of the nuclear bomb, writing as he did in the mid-20th century, imagining a future of "a number of national, militarized totalitarianisms" to which the efficient technocracy of Brave New World is the solution.  The third possibility is science in service of "producing a race of free individuals," but Huxley is pretty mum on what that ideal future might entail.

The brilliance of Brave New World lies in the difficulty of describing what is so bad about the future it imagines.  As World Controller Mustapha Mond explains to the Savage John toward the novel's end, the society of Brave New World is seamless and self-sustaining: cloned individuals take their places in one of various social groups, from the superior Alphas to the inferior Gammas, and each is conditioned to prefer their place in society.  All the necessary work of maintaining civilization is done, from nuclear science to the scrubbing of the floors, and no one is dissatisfied with their place.

But what Huxley understands is that there are greater goods than satisfaction itself.  There is, for example, the good of family life, which has been eradicated because it diverts the individual's attention from the larger good (something which Huxley and Orwell both recognized as necessary for their dystopias to function).  There is the good of literature--like the Shakespeare which Huxley ham-handedly allows Mond and the Savage John to have read--but which is inscrutable without the knowledge of death, pain, grief, loss, etc.  Huxley knows that we want those things, too, though we may profess to want only happiness, which is what this world offers in spades.  As Mond himself says, "What fun it would be... if one didn't have to think about happiness!"  Or as the Savage John points out:

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind."  There was a long silence.

"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders.  "You're welcome."

I detect, sometimes, a whiff of Mond in the way we think and talk about technology today.  I hear it in every absurd TED talk which labors ideas like "disruption," believing wholeheartedly in the unalloyed good of remaking society through the power of technology.  There is something valuable lost in these visions of society, which, like in Brave New World, think too highly of efficiency. 

But Huxley refuses to give us the easy alternative in the Savage, an Englishman born by accident in the wilds of the American southwest.  He, unlike everyone, is a free man, but what is the value of being the one free man in an unfree society?  He spends his time rejecting every pleasure, raging against the inhumanity of the social system, putting on his hairshirt act:

"Did you eat something that didn't agree with you?" asked Bernard.

The Savage nodded.  "I ate civilization."


"It poisoned me; I was defiled.  And then," he added, in a lower tone, "I ate my own wickedness."

I'm not really sure what to do with the Savage, except to see a satire of the kinds of asceticism that sees itself as being apart from the world.  Is Huxley asking us to see someone who leans too far into the "right to be unhappy?"  Or merely recognizing that, like Winston Smith, the individual is never a match for society?  In a strange and imaginative novel, his character strikes me as the strangest and most difficult thing.


Randy said...

I wonder if Huxley needed the savage for plot reasons. That is, without him there's no conflict in this society. And so he serves as the agent of chaos that allows us to meet and process this society and hear Mond's explanation for it.

This is one of those novels that I've revisited a couple times and have always felt that it is worth the re-read.

Christopher said...

But he's not just a stand-in for the contemporary reader. He's got his own, weird, puritanical thing going on that goes beyond a reaction to the dystopia he's dropped into.

Randy said...

Yeah. I think I never identified with John and so that part of the novel never really resonated with me. And honestly, I'd forgotten about that whole aspect of the book. The main thing I remember is loving the conversation between Mustapha Mond and John at the end.

But I think you're right. There's substantially more to John than merely being a foil to Mond (and the society). I may need to revisit this sometime soon.

I've never read anything else by Huxley and always wondered if it would be worth it.