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.