Today we have another Fact of the Day contribution to Power of Change by FotD editor Timothy Dees. This one is a classic of literature that turns 75 years old this year, Huxley's Brave New World. '
Enjoy the summary of this provocative work and reflections on Western culture. I particularly enjoyed reading this book in high school and found the ending particularly fascinating. Many thanks to Mr. Dees for including that ending in his ending below. A must read FotD.
STILL BRAVE AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
by Timothy Dees.
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was written in 1922, which means that this year is its 75th anniversary. With this important milestone approaching, it would serve us well to take a second look at this classic work.
Brave New World (BNW) portrays a future world where happiness is king.
God has been banned, art has been stymied, and all has been sacrificed in the name of production. Gratification is the end-all, be-all of Huxley's imaginary society, and anything that gets in the way of happiness is cast aside. Monogamy is seen as an unnecessary check on happiness, so "everyone belongs to everyone else". In fact, reproduction by natural means has been banned altogether. Everyone is made sterile, and children are produced on an assembly line just like everything else. In this world of free, non-reproductive love, the only thing that makes anyone blush is natural childbirth, which has become a taboo. People are designer-made for their jobs. "Alphas" are given the top intellectual jobs, while lowly "Epsilons" toil away at manual labor.
If a person ever feels conflict or anguish, they merely take soma, a drug with no side effects that keeps people from feeling pain.
In this environment, two young employees at a hatchery take a vacation to a wild, uncontrolled part of America, where they encounter a young "savage". This savage was born naturally, and he was exposed to Shakespeare, God, and all the things that the new utopia has tried to eliminate. He finds himself unable to live in the world, and he eventually chooses to live in exile, preferring pain, complication, difficulty, God, and everything else to the unmitigated happiness that the Brave New World provides.
When Huxley's novel first came out, critics were frosty. Most reviewers took issue with Huxley's grim portrayal of the future. "A writer of the standing of Aldous Huxley," H.G. Wells wrote, "has no right to portray the future as he did in that book." George Orwell described BNW as a "brilliant caricature of the present" that "probably has no bearing on the future." G.K. Chesterton was also quite harsh: "However grimly he may enjoy the present, he already definitely hates the future. And I only differ from him in not believing that there is any such future to hate". The literary elite, embroiled in 1920s utopian liberalism, couldn't imagine a future for the world that was anything but rosy.
But the biologists suspected otherwise. One Cambridge biochemist put it this way: "Only biologists and philosophers will really appreciate the full force of Mr. Huxley's remarkable book. For of course in the world at large, those persons, and there will be many, who do not approve of his 'utopia,' will say, we can't believe all this, the biology is all wrong, it couldn't happen. Unfortunately, what gives the biologist a sardonic smile as he reads it, is the fact that the biology is perfectly right."
And indeed, it serves us well on this, the 75th anniversary, to discuss just what else was right. Huxley's vision of a world enraptured with production was spot-on. If you listen to Marketplace on NPR, you know they play chipper music when the markets go up and brassy, muted trombones when the markets drop. These days we're quite confident that charts should go up, and we stake our happiness on them. Whole newspapers are devoted to the rise and fall of production, and an entire class of businessmen devote their lives to production. The flip-side of the production coin is consumption, and we are nothing if not consumers.
When a problem arises, the answer is more consumption. After 9/11, we received calls to travel, fly, and use hotels, as if we could merely out-spend the terrorists. In so many ways, we vote with our pocketbook.
Huxley also anticipated our age of free love. If Huxley saw the current environment of birth control, test tube babies, genetic testing, and modern fertility drugs, he would say that we are only a stone's throw from producing made-to-order babies on an assembly line. And perhaps he'd be right.
Huxley also foresaw the gearing of culture toward entertainment. In BNW, films have simplified into pornography and action-packed nonsense, and one can scarcely look at modern movies and profess otherwise. Also, in the drug soma, Huxley presciently anticipated our age of psychological drugs. Today, doctors prescribe everything from Prozac to lithium for every manner of ailment.
If, however, we take the book as merely an exercise in crystal ball gazing, we sell it short. Huxley's book is also an enormous contradiction. It is a theodicy produced by an atheist, a conservative work written by a liberal, and a utopia that succeeded - everyone was happy, after all - but failed at the same time.
As the book comes to a close, the savage is brought to Mustafa Mond, the World Controller, and they discuss the world that has been created.
This exchange forms the climax and thesis of the book:
"Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Isn't there something in that?" he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. "Quite apart from God-though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn't there something in living dangerously?"
"There's a great deal in it," the Controller replied. "Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time."
"What?" questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
"It's one of the conditions of perfect health. That's why we've made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory."
"Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It's the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences."
"But I like the inconveniences."
"We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."
"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."
"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," he said.