Revisiting Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) is famous today for two books, one of which many people have read and another which almost nobody has read. The unread volume is The Doors of Perception (1954), an account of Huxley’s mescaline use that made him a counter-culture favourite during the 1960s. The Doors took their name from its title, and Huxley also appears on the album sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here he is, just above Dylan Thomas:

The book that people do continue to read is Brave New World (1932), an attempt to predict the future direction of society. Brave New World is almost always coupled with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a dystopian satire of the future, and in fact, the two men knew each other. Huxley was one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton college. However, Brave New World is not really a dystopian novel at all.

That’s because Brave New World is not about disaster. Everybody is happy. It’s one of the strongest themes of the novel:

‘that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny’.

The citizens of Brave New World are bred in huge factories and artificially engineered to be intelligent Alphas or ‘low-grade’ Epilson workers: cheerfully branded by Huxley as ‘semimorons’ both in the text and in his later forward. Their childhood sleep is saturated with hypnotic suggestions that dictate the way that everybody thinks.

This conditioning is extremely effective, brainwashing everyone except for one or two extraordinary Alphas. Thankfully, one of these is the anti-hero of the first part of the novel, the morose, moody, Bernard Marx. He demands the right to be unhappy in the face of a crushingly upbeat population of pleasure-seekers.

‘In a crowd’, he grumbled. ‘As usual.’ … He remained obstinantly gloomy the whole afternoon … ‘I’d rather be myself,’ he said. ‘Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly.’

Considering that it is obsessed with an over-happy populace, it’s strange that the book appeared in 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression. At that time, huge numbers of people were out of work. FDR’s New Deal, which was intended to kick-start the American economy, would not begin until the following year. Over in the Soviet Union, the system of the Gulag was in full swing, and many of Huxley’s Russian contemporaries were facing imprisonment, exile or death.

Yet to this child of inherited wealth and prestige, the ultimate horror was a world of consumerism, comfort, television and constant entertainment. Huxley was obsessed with the influence of Henry Ford and artificial consumption. He often makes the criticism that the future population never repairs its clothes, but wastefully throws all the old ones away:

“The more stitches, the less riches.” Isn’t that right? Mending’s anti-social.

On reading this, you wonder how often Aldous Huxley himself ever stooped to darning his socks.

In his defence, he does rise above the economic despair of his own times to spot longer term consumerist trends. Modern fans of the Premier League might recognise this idea:

 Imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It’s madness.

As a future prediction, Brave New World is actually surprising good. Huxley does predict the rise of instant communication (one newspaper is called The Hourly Radio), as well as e-readers. He also shrewdly perceives that future people will require chemical aid to function, with soma playing the role of our real-life Prozac.

Where the novel has dated is in attitudes to non-Europeans, especially the Native American population. Somehow Huxley seems to think that the population of New Mexico would remain in some sort of fossilised state seven centuries into the future. The only intelligent member of their community is a fugitive from ‘civilised’ Europe and her son John Savage. Savage is the only person on the reservation that Huxley can contemplate reading anything as elevated as Shakespeare. Everyone else spends their time indulging in bizarre ceremonies that bear no resemblance at all to any real culture. It’s an appalling portrayal of a people.

Despite these shortcomings, Brave New World is bursting with ideas and remains a thought-provoking read, even if many of Huxley’s theories about eugenics would become utterly discredited after the horrors of Nazism and the Second World War. It is a novel that rewards revisiting because there is always something new to find, even though the text is now over eighty years old.

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13 responses to “Revisiting Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

  1. Huxley is turning in his grave nearly 100 years after his visionary prophecies began to form into his own mode of fiction. He is one of my favorite authors and raised serious issues and made world-wide breakthroughs in the research of psychedelics as well as our cognitive liberties. I drew a portrait as homage to the man and his works. See the him roll with the mushrooms, the pills and the doors of perception at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2010/07/aldous-huxley-rolls-in-his-grave.html

  2. One of the interesting points in the novel is that his future distopia/utopia even has a place for its miscontents. What some might see as exile I’d argue is better seen as them finding a place for those who aren’t suited to utopia, for the poets and rebels. The book’s ending could be seen as an act of kindness, for all save the savage.

    That’s part of what makes the book so challenging. The challenge isn’t that his future is terrible, the challenge is why his future isn’t desirable.

    I’ve read his Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, and can never remember which is which sadly which is a shame as I want to reread one of them, but not the other. One of the two is an utterly dislikeable and frustrating novel, until the last chapter which turns the whole thing around and turns a novel of stultifying selfishness into a vision of generosity and humanity. It’s no small trick.

    • [Spoiler warning!] That summarises it up nicely: ” The challenge isn’t that his future is terrible, the challenge is why his future isn’t desirable.” It’s only Bernard Marx and the savage who struggle with life in Huxley’s future world. Marx’s problem comes from the fact that he is always forced to be cheerful, which he finds false and depressing. He’s also aware that the thoughts that most people have are not the result of spontaneous free thinking, but rather platitudes that have been pre-programmed into their minds during their conditioning. He can’t believe anyone is being sincere when they say what they say.
      The savage is more problematic because he neither fits in at the reservation nor in the future Britain. As the child of an outsider, he suffers a great deal of prejudice in the native American reservation where he grows up. Personally, I felt this gave a very negative portrayal of real native Americans. It’s also a very different approach to that taken in later similar works, like John Boorman’s film The Emerald Forest, where an outsider child becomes an accepted and valued member of the community. I think the bullying that the savage suffers in his original home is just a rather clumsy plot device to ensure that the book ends in tragedy. The obvious solution to his predicament would just be to go home, rather than flaying himself in the thorn bushes.

      • I agree that the Savage is problematic. Regarding Marx, I think one could ask whether Huxley is simply showing us an exaggerated version of our own world. Do we not largely repeat platitudes born of our class and expectations? Is it insincere if you believe the wisdom you’ve received? The difference between us and them is not programming, it’s that their programming is advertent, ours largely accidental.

      • That’s very true. One thing I did notice was that Eton College still existed in the future world, so Huxley did find it difficult to imagine his own class and contemporaries in the thrall of this conditioning. I’m thinking now that it’s time to give his other books a look. You mentioned Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, and there’s also After Many a Summer about his time in Hollywood.

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