In which I take arms against a sea of troubles and wind up drowning
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
‘Tis new to thee.
: The Tempest, Act V Scene 1
Friends, Americans, countrymen! We have entered the next administration—rung in by an inaugural ceremony which provided nothing short of crushing relief.
On the leeward side of a tempestuous four years, it appeared a proper moment to read Aldous Huxley’s defining opus, published in 1932. Imagine my surprise to find that the dystopia it depicts is…not only closer to a utopia, but really no better or worse than the ‘topia’ I live in.
This isn’t to disparage our ‘topia.’ Or, not exactly. What I mean is that the features of the World State in AF 632 (Anno Ford—about CE 2540) overlap generously with the features of the technologically advanced and overall materially wealthy society we’re used to. Also, the problems it doesn’t account for are problems we have ourselves. It’s a story of people determining how much they want to fit in or stand out. It’s a portrait of family trauma and accidental bonds. It’s a discourse on the coping mechanisms by which we process harsh realities, and the possibilities (and implications) of creating a reality that eliminates harshness altogether. It’s a treatise on what constitutes happiness. And yes, it’s a hierarchical and discriminatory world, but what world isn’t?
Huxley was a pacifist and hailed from a family of biologists, zoologists, and botanists, as well as teachers and writers. These factors inform his work deeply, and they took me aback. I steeled myself to witness the paramilitary violence rampant in our own state—don’t tell me if I’m thinking of Orwell’s 1984, I haven’t read it and I don’t care—but suffice it to say that in Brave New World there is essentially none.
Unless you count a bioengineered social structure a form of intrinsic violence. The nuclear family does not exist: mother and father are all but profanities. Human beings are conceived in batches from the mitosis of a single embryo with one of a selection of DNA, grown on assembly lines based on Henry Ford’s model, then ‘born’ from decanters and raised in one of five aptitude-based social strata, Alpha down to Epsilon. A series of Pavlovian experiments conditions them for consumption and complacency. Ultimately some go to work at actual jobs, while others’ job is merely to consume. Through a regimen called hypnopedia, they absorb slogans and jingles about the world so as to come into the world convinced of both the superiority of their own stratum and the necessity of the others. “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” “We can’t do without anyone.” “Ending is better than mending.” “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.” Wait, no, that last is the catchphrase of Ravenclaw House at Hogwarts. (The World State never prizes wit except as funneled into propaganda—hence the plight of gifted yet disillusioned head rhyme-writer Helmholtz Watson.)
Sleep-learning reinforces these ideas to the point that they can, and regularly do, quote them reflexively in couplets. It’s as if the advertising industry skipped the middleman of a product and went straight to marketing a (government-sponsored) way of life. The endgame of capitalism, if you will. Meanwhile, the corporeal design is universally youthful, and blood transfusions keep even the oldest people spry—when they do eventually die, around age sixty, they are ushered off without fanfare, and children are conditioned to embrace the concept by being given candy on ‘death days.’
Clearly we’re dealing with a limited range of human experience. But the government doesn’t look at it that way: indeed, it believes it is preserving its citizens from the barbarism and indignity of natural life. The Nine Years’ War and accompanying economic collapse (their ‘tempest’), after which the new regime came to power, incited the destruction of all cultural and historical institutions—museums, textbooks, etc.—which prompt people to feel and, thus, to be unstable. As Mustapha Mond, World Controller for Western Europe, articulates to a group of Alpha students near the beginning of the novel, people must be conditioned identically in order to be spared the agony of individual suffering/sentimentality/attachment as plagued the olden days of family and liberalism and democracy; and the morals of the state must be so ingrained into their consciousness as to be less ‘truth’ than ‘indisputable fact.’ The global motto is, after all, Community—Identity—Stability.
How many of our own cultural institutions have been called into question? How much have we been tortured by an inability to distinguish—or accept—truth?
Furthermore, the people don’t feel their experience is limited. As far as they’re concerned, the state has set them “free to have the most wonderful time.” They fly in personal ships: they are presented with an array of synthetic entertainments—the ‘feelies’ are movies with physically titillating special effects; they contract almost no diseases; and they have at their disposal a drug called soma. Should they ever find themselves in discomfort, they take a tablet (or several) and their emotions are regulated. If they take enough, they fall into a sleep which functions as a holiday, allowing them to travel wherever their hearts desire. Psycho-soma-tic. What occurs in the mind manifests in the body.
There are even slogans for soma: “‘Was’ and ‘will’ make me ill. I take a gram and only am.” “One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.”
Oh, and they love Henry Ford. He is the focal point of the closest thing they have to a religion: they use his name as an oath, build their calendar around the date of the Model T’s debut, and even change the name of Big Ben to Big Henry. That ‘Ford’ is sometimes conflated with ‘Freud’ speaks volumes: this is a society that conflates technological progress with a less inhibited, more virtuous existence. Technology is good. Technology is equivalent to goodness. Had the novel appeared post-Apple, Steve Jobs would be a minor deity. As he arguably is to us now.
Additionally, because reproductive sex is obsolete, erotic experimentation is encouraged from a young age; and after one ages into regular sexual activity, promiscuity is not only permitted but practically expected. When we meet Lenina Crowne (pronounced Lenin-a, as in Vladimir), a Beta nurse, her biggest problem is being judged for having had a four-month fling with one man—being a veritable anti-Hester Prynne. Despite her friends’ nagging about upsetting the balance, she has no plans to pursue any other sexual partners.
Any, that is, except Bernard Marx. (There are other characters named Benito, Engels, Trotsky. Subtle it ain’t.) Bernard is an Alpha-Plus whom his fellow Alphas demean for his stunted stature. He’s a kind of Quasimodo, an outsider despite belonging to the highest class—or a George Harrison, if you prefer, underappreciated and more embittered by the day. It’s clear that his value as a sleep-learning specialist is his sole means of influence. ‘Miserable,’ he’s usually described; his boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning at London’s fetal-development facility, looks out for an opportunity to fire him over his surly attitude.
See, Bernard is Not Like The Other Workers. He believes life is more than a homogenous cycle of distractions and games. He isn’t impressed by the Solidarity Services praising Ford and his industrial innovation, working citizens up into an orgasmic frenzy. And he derides Lenina’s penchant for the empty spoils of the system. When she insists that it can’t be that bad if “everybody’s happy nowadays” (the excellent Buzzcocks song takes its title from this passage), that’s precisely Bernard’s objection.
Still he invites her along to New Mexico to study the “pre-moderns” who practice natural birth and still speak Zuni and Spanish at an Indigenous reservation (in our terms) known as Malpais—even a rudimentary familiarity with Romance languages will get you ‘evil country.’ Lenina requires large doses of soma after witnessing their supposed atrocities; but she and the odd young man John, aka ‘the Savage,’ are drawn to each other.
How may I describe John? John is an idealist to Bernard’s cynic. During a dark childhood, in which he came to recognize his mother Linda as the village ‘whore’ despite the fact that the men who visited her were the adulterers, he learned to read—and make sense of the world—from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He quotes the plays extensively and demonstrates a preference for Miranda’s titular exclamation. His vision of love has been so shaped that, when Lenina expresses her desire in a typically physical fashion, he denounces her for what he considers her looseness, causing her to flee in fear. (Unsurprisingly, just about all his misogynist citations come from Hamlet. The word ‘strumpet’ crops up a lot.)
When Bernard brings John and Linda back to the London facility, they wreak just the havoc he’s hoped for by revealing themselves to be his boss’s long-lost girlfriend and son. (Cue the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme.) The flabbergasted Director resigns in shame, while everyone else becomes instantly obsessed with John—and, by extension, with Bernard.
If instability is public enemy #1, these two interlopers embody it. So you might forgive me for anticipating swift and terrible retribution. Not so. Linda, whose aged and distended appearance is belabored by both narrator and community, wastes away under soma in a “Hospital for the Dying.” Her son’s grief is gruesomely fascinating to all; and when he starts a riot by throwing away great quantities of soma tablets, the police’s tack is to spray the gathering with soma vapor. Go to all lengths to maintain calm and happiness.
John’s subsequent debate with Controller Mond is a chapter worthy of Tolstoy. Political, spiritual, spanning the meaning of free will and the purpose of humanity. Even as the disgraced Bernard is exiled to a remote island for his long-sought chance to be an individual—a fate he now curses—John is usurping him as ‘protagonist’ and ‘hero,’ if these are the correct terms. John resists Mond’s philosophies, demanding, as Mond summarizes it, the right to grow sick, frail, and reliant on God, and “to be unhappy.” He also makes a big deal of having a name, which foreshadows another John (Proctor, of The Crucible) by a couple decades.
The supreme irony is that this ‘Savage’ would be extraordinarily erudite by present-day standards. Mond, who would be on the same level, recognizes the extent of John’s knowledge—he himself keeps some Shakespeare and other forbidden texts inside a safe—and enumerates his reasons for the population’s benighted condition in a sort of Socratic Apology. Well, they’ve both got a Socratic edge. There is an air of The Republic, perhaps even of the Pilate/Jesus dynamic, to the dialogue. It’s a section that sets me reeling.
John then removes to the countryside for a life of asceticism. Henceforth he is referred to only as ‘the Savage,’ though he fulfills his final ‘John’ identity (John the Baptist) by engaging in self-punishment. He lashes himself in imitation of the Malpais ritual, attempting to purge himself of lust. This performative suffering draws a crowd over the course of days, for no one has ever conceived of passion or emotion so strong as to provoke violence. Nevertheless, the thirst for blood sport is quickly aroused. They egg him on until he attacks a spectator—Lenina, the victim of the mounting conflict between his longing for Shakespearean intimacy and his horror of the mercenary quality of sex. At last, unable to reconcile his environment with his ideals, he hangs himself. The state has actively perpetrated nothing; he is driven to enact his own demise.
I hesitated to use either ‘protagonist’ or ‘hero’ earlier. I’m not sure there is one. John would seem to be, his forgotten thousand-year-old poetry noble and refined in contrast to the infantile rhymes of the World State…but isn’t the hero supposed to win? Bernard could be justifiably classified as an antihero: his longtime wish is granted (cue “I Want to Break Free”) the moment it’s too late, after he is addicted to the acceptance and prestige accorded him by his ‘discovery’ of John. Sour grapes indeed. What does it mean to win in such an environment? Who comes out on top?
Therein lies the quandary we face, too, I think. It seems the idea is to hold the World State in contempt and to reject its proposal of hyper-surveillance; but it also seems the rulers act on a conviction that harmony is secured via the happiness of the ruled. Communal living and child-rearing are even practiced today by the Kalahari bush people, reportedly among the happiest societies on earth. Wouldn’t the offer of a life with guaranteed health, security, and company hold at least a little appeal?
Besides, have we not already succumbed to hyper-surveillance, if in slightly different forms? Are we not as comfortable, and as subservient? We wonder how much ‘soma’ it will take to satisfy us—our soma being our phones, sources of bottomless preoccupation, enjoyment, and solace, liminal spaces where we trade personal information for hits of dopamine. Plugging in invites further plugging in: to opt out would be antisocial. No matter how much we get, we’ll want more.
And who’s to say we are treated to the full range of human experience? Capitalism and consumerism put us in constant anxiety. All manner of trauma prevent us from living to the fullest. We fall prey to bitter infighting over divergent belief systems as opposed to directing our energy toward the forces that keep us all down. We suffer all sorts of hang-ups around sex. The pharmaceutical industry has us dependent on various substances. Like Bernard’s friend Helmholtz Watson, we hunger to do real substantive work. We live in fear of our neighbors’ judgment. We die of disease too soon. To be sure, we are hampered at every turn.
Yet we light upon things to be happy about all the time. We somehow soothe our nerves and bury our hatchets, even if we’ve found ourselves with a bunch more hatchets these days than we ever remembered having. Are we engaging in our own kind of self-flagellation? Is our happiness more significant because of the light it provides in the darkness of the world? Or would we do better to do away with that darkness and design a world of permanent light and content?
Gee, I didn’t even get to talk about Helmholtz, the character with whom I might empathize most. Or about Shakespeare, and what exactly all this has to do with The Tempest and its themes. Or about Ford. Do you know how little of my time I’ve devoted to Henry Ford? I probably haven’t intentionally thought of him since Schoolhouse Rock.
Maybe the point I’m arriving at is that if this fictional culture is dystopian, then so is our nonfictional one. Maybe I’m so disarmed at having read about voluntary submission, rather than a police state marked by brute force, that I don’t know whether to find it abhorrent or attractive. Maybe I’m left with no point at all. Huxley has handed me more enormous ideas than I can juggle gracefully. My cones are really scrambled here.
Mond was right about having to choose between happiness and high art. Good Ford.
Anyhow, there’s no need to panic. We stand nose to nose with that brave new world, equally capable of wonder and woe. The question of how to govern with dignity and induce national flourishing is at the forefront of minds everywhere. After a tempest of political and economic damage, where do we go from here? Whatever the answer, whatever’s to come, we are present for it and part of it.
So…give me your hands if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends. Hang on, that’s not a fairy from The Tempest. But the comedies could’ve made a better showing. Forget it. I’m going to scroll through my phone until I fall asleep.
P.S. I’d like Huxley to know that his shout-out to Kurfürstendamm did not fall on deaf ears. That’s where my friends and I go to get wrecked on rose-petal cake and fancy cappuccinos. Thank you, sir. I feel seen.
Dedicated to Gillian—hoping for more bookish conversation.
Image: first edition