Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World stands, along with Orwell’s 1984, at the foundation of what we might call dystopian fiction. Even people who have never read Huxley or Orwell are familiar with the primary themes in their best-known works: the subjugation of the individual to the communal and the elimination of opposition to protect the state. While this essay is not to draw similarities or tease out differences between these two major works of speculative fiction, it is important to realize that, although both novels depict the possibilities of a near future, Huxley’s utopia is considerably more nuanced that Orwell’s and offers many more opportunities to question its motives and, possibly, even challenge whether it is truly a dystopian future at all. While many readers and critics see Brave New World as an indictment of modernity, civilization and the ‘softening’ of the human experience, we should ask ourselves if such a world is as disturbing as we have been led to believe or, as this essay seeks to elucidate, the reason for our fear is not so much its promise but its complete redefining of what it means to exist in a human society.
Even before we open the book, the reader is predisposed to see Huxley’s world in a negative light. Most modern versions of the text will include some sort of synopsis or excerpt designed to place the story within a dystopian context. The particular edition cited in this essay is the 2006 Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition which includes a back-cover summary that includes the description of a world where “humans are genetically bred and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively serve a ruling order”. While this is certainly a legitimate, if somewhat sophomoric, understanding of the novel, its inclusion sets the reader along a predetermined trajectory which may foreclose any opposing consideration. In a way, this hints at the industrial scale conditioning we see at work within the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre (27).
Interestingly, one of the main objections directed towards Brave New World is its society’s deep reliance upon mechanized conditioning and desensitization, as if the ‘real’ world doesn’t spend enormous amounts of money and energy conditioning children to believe certain societal truths and adhere to certain societal norms. It’s as if our 24/7 ‘news’ cycle coupled with an unrelenting stream of horror and outrage from social media platforms haven’t desensitized the masses to suffering and death. In the ‘real’ world, we call it education. In Brave New World, it might be called ‘predestinating’ or “Elementary Class Consciousness” (48). The outcome is largely unchanged — only the processes differ, and it is within those processes that the supposed evil of Huxley’s utopia emerges.
THE NOBLE SAVAGE?
Although John (aka Mr. Savage or simply the Savage) does not appear until midway through the novel, the attitudes and philosophies he embodies have been hinted at throughout. John is a kind of missing link between the old pre-Ford world and the modern civilized age. His mind, rather than treated in virtro with various chemicals and molded (after decanting) by the regime of hypnopaedia had been fed literature, art and folklore and, as such, has a far less alien presentation than a character like Henry Foster. His experience with aging, death, misfortune and solitude acts as a counterweight to the life of comfort, ease, safety and predictability enjoyed by the citizens of the A.F. world.
As the second half of the novel unfolds, John’s obsession with chastity, virtue and romanticized notions of the world become increasingly incompatible with the society introduced to him by Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne. His progressive psychologic deterioration is marked by three events that, if we are to subscribe to John’s paradigm, demonstrate how the brave new world destroys rather than builds. The first event is when John refuses to be a spectacle at one of Bernard Marx’s social gatherings (172). His complete rejection of the ‘role’ assigned to him illustrates how his individuality has begun to gain the upper hand. No longer content to be a kind of trophy for Marx’s personal ambitions, John takes this bold and decidedly antisocial action in an effort to be alone with his thoughts and his books (178). While impolite and serving to “nourish… a secret grievance” within Marx (179), this slight is nothing when compared to his behavior towards Lenina (194) and his attempt at instigating a revolt outside the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying (210).
If embarrassing Marx at his party was John’s response to the communal, insulting, threatening and abusing Lenina was his violent response to her sexual expression and the challenge it offered to his antiquated notions of chivalric nobleness and courtly love. Even though John finds Lenina attractive and desirable, he simultaneously denounces such feelings as “base” and “ignoble” (170). This confusion and the subsequent lashing out against Lenina’s sexuality demonstrates John’s inability to reconcile his own paradigm (influenced as it is by Shakespearian romances and other fictions) with the reality of a non-viviparous world. It also further complicates the predisposition to think the brave new world is a bad place and a future to be avoided at all costs. While many people would argue that dialing back women’s liberation and human sexual freedom are worthy, even necessary, goals, many more would say trying to build social order from myth and through puritanical guilt mongering is an exercise in futility.
The third and most brazen of John’s assaults on civilization comes after leaving his mother’s deathbed at the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying. Having been emotionally wrecked by Linda’s death and, at the same time, triggered by the presence of the “swarming indistinguishable sameness” of an invading group of children undergoing death-conditioning (203). The lack of diversity, the absence of individuality and the complete disregard for the dignity of the dead all coalesce to drive John into madness. His mental anguish finds release outside the hospital as he discovers solace and catharsis in trying to foment rebellion among a group of Deltas (211). In his fit, John tries to get the group to embrace their individuality and eschew the false happiness provided by soma but only succeeds in agitating the group against him as he theatrically tosses away their soma rations.
MORE THINGS IN HEAVEN AND EARTH
Something happens in this scene that adds an additional and almost impenetrable layer of uncertainty to the premise that John’s quest for freedom is both acceptable and preferable to the environment of the Brave New World. As he presents his case, John reaches a point where he feels called to issue an ultimatum to the Deltas who, much to his chagrin, are unmoved by his calls to liberate themselves:
“Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you even understand what
manhood and freedom are?” Rage was making him fluent; the words
came easily, in a rush. “Don’t you?” he repeated, but got no answer to
his question. “Very well then,” he went on grimly. “I’ll teach you; I’ll make
you be free whether you want to or not.” (213)
This demagoguery is a prime example of the inherent conflict within modern Western liberalism — the assumption that everyone wants the same kind of ‘freedom’ and that any hesitation must be met with forced conversion. Freedom, in John’s mind, means being made uncomfortable. Freedom means suffering, sacrifice, despair and frustration. Freedom means having secrets, giving birth, becoming sick, growing old and finally dying with family to mourn your passing. Freedom means conflict, war, atrocities, social unrest and chaos, and that is what John wants the Deltas to embrace. Aside from the fact the Deltas are conditioned to have no interest in such matters, even if they did have that capacity, would they give up the safety, predictability and relative ease of the brave new world for the morass of the pre-Ford world?
That is the crux of the entire novel and the question we as readers should be considering before allowing ourselves to be swept away by the current of popular opinion. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that any attempt to create a world where experience is replicated by scent organs at the feelies or passions tempered by soma is to deny our own humanity. Where would we be as a society or as species without truly feeling anger, love, inspiration or curiosity? What would we become if we used drugs to stifle every unpleasant or uncomfortable thought that passed through our minds? In some ways, we are already experiencing or close to experiencing that world (benzodiazepines can be used to calm the anxious mind and the rapid development of VR technology means real-world interaction will become rarer).
But on a more profound level, this argument takes place between John and Mustapha Mond in the form of something akin to a Platonic dialogue. Mond reveals his own delicate dance between civilization and the ‘pornography’ of art and religion, although he ultimately chooses to support and “serve happiness. Other people’s — not mine” (229). Mond repeatedly presses John on why he thinks a world like those in his dramas and stories is preferable to a “properly organized society… [in which] nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic” (237). Mond takes great care and goes to great lengths in explaining how the world came to its current status, how only after the terror of the Nine Years’ War did the people reach a point where individuality, social mobility and ‘freedom’ could be sacrificed to achieve safety and order.
Yet many self-styled liberals look at the brave new world with horror and disgust. But why should we criticize a society devoid of war and crime? Because that peace is secured by the elimination of class warfare? Or perhaps it is because the society remains built upon a permanent under-class of Epsilons, Deltas and Gammas towards which the upper echelons have nothing but revulsion (“I’m glad I’m not a Gamma”) (63). But we rarely see the Betas and the Alphas of our own world adopting the hardships of the poor, except in small portions in connection to some grandiose work of charity. The only real difference is the presence of mechanization and central planning into what has historically been a byproduct of normal society. By removing the abstract workings of economics, sociology and psychology and replacing them with a methodical mass-production of castes, Huxley’s utopia has maintained the same overall structure but without the guilt from above or the resentment from below.
As to the elimination of strong passions and feelings, this too might not be the great loss it would appear. Without zealotry, militant ideology, jealousy, greed or a host of other conditions, the world seems to be far more peaceful and happier. But haven’t they simply replaced needs, ambitions and desires with soma and emotional surrogates? Yes, but look at the result. “Actual happiness,” Mond says, always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations of misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability” (221). The Huxleian utopia does strike the conditioned reader as horrible and dystopian, but that is largely due to a lifetime of being told one must struggle for happiness and that nothing is valuable unless one has worked hard for it. It has never occurred to even the most liberal minds that happiness might be achieved by the absence of struggle and competition, conflict and, yes, maybe even freedom.