Aldous Huxley, 1932
A little while back my friend Zoe the Squirrel posted a plea for someone to explain to her what exactly was supposed to be so dystopian about Brave New World. I wasn't surprised that she found this bewildering, given that concepts like jealousy and self-denial are as alien to her as to most of its characters. If ever anyone was not part of Huxley's target audience, it's Zoe. She is a brave new squirrel.
It was kind of weird to be put in the position of defending Brave New World, since I'm more inclined to rip into it myself. The premise of the book is that it's the 26th century, and nearly universal human happiness has been achieved, mainly by making people easier to please. "Making people" is the operative phrase here, because people are no longer born, but rather grown in bottles, and most of them are deliberately kept stupid. Even those who are engineered to be smart enough to keep things running are conditioned to have no greater ambition than to have their primal desires sated. Thus members of all castes lead lives consisting of sixty years of sports, narcotics, and meaningless sex, punctuated by interludes of undemanding busywork, and find these lives perfectly satisfying. There are few misfits, not because independent thought is suppressed, but because people live communal lives that keep them from thinking independently in the first place.
Huxley has two main targets in Brave New World. One is communism. Brave New World is often mentioned in the same breath as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, frequently with the explanation that Orwell's book is a communist dystopia and Huxley's is a capitalist one. Yet Huxley, ham-handedly naming his characters after everyone he hates, populates his novel with the likes of Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne and Polly Trotsky. So what gives? The answer is that Orwell, writing in the late 1940s, was responding to Stalinism, which was still in its embryonic stages when Huxley wrote this book nearly two decades earlier. Huxley was responding not to the communism of purges and show trials and Five-Year Plans, but the much more threatening version of the revolutionary days. As Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm, Stalinism was not a marked departure from the despotism the USSR was supposed to have displaced. But — as also happens in Animal Farm — the Bolsheviks did initially overturn the social order in dramatic fashion. One of the central principles of communism was that the material wealth of society should be allocated according to each person's needs; viewing the traditional patriarchal family as a mechanism to keep that wealth confined to certain genetic lines, the Bolsheviks set out to destroy it. Women were granted civil equality with men; divorce was granted on demand; abortion was performed on demand; children born inside and outside of wedlock were declared equally "legitimate." Many traditional family responsibilities, such as preschool education and elder care, were taken up by the state. Some younger Bolsheviks wanted to take things even further, abolishing marriage entirely and setting up sex stations the way we set up water fountains. So while by the end of the '20s these reforms had been rolled back, what the names Marx and Lenin and Trotsky conjured up for Huxley were not collective farms and the Cheka but the end of mothers and fathers and husbands and wives.
Huxley's other target is the combination of industrialism and consumerism he associated with Henry Ford. Just in case we weren't clear on this, Huxley makes Ford the closest thing the New Worlders have to a deity: they call him "Our Ford" and curse "Oh, Ford!", and they've chopped the tops off the Christian crosses to make T's. In Huxley's day, Ford had been lionized for pioneering the use of the assembly line, which greatly increased industrial output and thereby added to the pool of consumer goods available to society; he also paid his workers relatively high wages, broadening the base of people who could actually afford those goods. The cost was that, while more efficient, it's dehumanizing to do one specific job (e.g., fastening a particular bolt) over and over again rather than creating an object from start to finish in the manner of an artisan. Therefore, in extrapolating these trends into the future, Huxley posits a caste system that relies on tiers of people who don't mind the dehumanization of modern work because they are less than human. Those closer to the top, with at least the biological potential to be fully human, are taught to think it a pretty good trade to give up half their waking lives to unrewarding labor if they can spend the other half on leisure. Most strikingly, Huxley presents a world in which people are no longer merely the victims of mass production but the products of it. If the future George Orwell presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four was "a boot stamping on a human face forever," that of Brave New World is "ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines." The thing is, it's obvious how having boots stamping on people's faces is suboptimal. What's so dystopian about the clones?
Huxley doesn't really say. To a great extent, Brave New World is an exercise in Aldous Huxley looking at where the world seemed to be headed in the early 1930s and going "DO NOT WANT" without actually thinking very deeply about why he doesn't want. His attempts at satire consist of tiresome repetitions of this formula:
Brave New World crowd: "No! You're kidding! Ha ha ha! How terrible!"
Implied reader: "They're laughing at my most cherished values! What a nightmarish future!"
The problem is that if you don't already cherish those values, these scenes don't work at all. And while I am temperamentally much more conservative than the squirrel, I too found that the supposedly abhorrent ideas Huxley put in the New Worlders' mouths frequently struck me as much more sensible than Huxley's own. Though "ideas" may be too grandiose a word here, given that the arguments don't extend much beyond "this is nice and that is icky." The World Controller describes what breastfeeding was like, and everyone says, "Ugh! That's obscene!", and we're supposed to find this reaction dystopic and protest, "No! It's lovely!" The Directory of Hatcheries leads the student group past a field full of naked children engaging in sex play, and everyone says, "Aww, how lovely," and we're supposed to find this dystopic and protest, "No! It's obscene!" My responses were, from Huxley's point of view, suboptimal:
- On family:
My upbringing was only mildly abusive, but that was still enough to make
a pretty good case that, no, it's actually not always optimal to
leave the welfare of a child up to one or two guardians, who may have
emotional problems or may be overwhelmed or may simply be a poor match
for that kid.
Huxley may buy into the piece of social engineering that is Exodus
chapter 20 verse 12, but as far as I'm concerned,
be the verse.
- On sexual development:
Consider the passage that follows the aforementioned bit with the field of
The Director turns back to the teenage students, and:
He let out the amazing truth. For a very long period before the time of Our Ford, and even for some generations afterwards, erotic play between children had been regarded as abnormal (there was a roar of laughter); and not only abnormal, actually immoral (no!): and had therefore been rigorously suppressed.
A look of astonished incredulity appeared on the faces of his listeners. Poor little kids not allowed to amuse themselves? They could not believe it.
"Even adolescents," the D.H.C. was saying, "even adolescents like yourselves…"
"Barring a little surreptitious auto-erotism and homosexuality — absolutely nothing."
"In most cases, till they were over twenty years old."
"Twenty years old?" echoed the students in a chorus of loud disbelief.
"Twenty," the Director repeated. "I told you that you'd find it incredible."
"But what happened?" they asked. "What were the results?"
"The results were terrible." A deep resonant voice broke startlingly into the dialogue.
They looked around. On the fringe of the little group stood a stranger — a man of middle height, black-haired, with a hooked nose, full red lips, eyes very piercing and dark. "Terrible," he repeated.
This pronouncement at the end is delivered by Mustapha Mond, the World Controller who articulates the ideas Huxley is arguing against. The problem for Huxley is that Mond is right. I know a little bit about this: I had no sexual experience until I was over twenty years old, and yes, the results were terrible. Professionals I have seen about my relationship troubles have intimated to me that I'm probably beyond help, because it's during adolescence that the neural pathways for sexual attachment develop, so spending your teenage years entirely alone like I did is basically psychological thalidomide. Huxley is defending a cultural practice, adolescent chastity, that does tremendous, irrevocable damage. Thankfully, these days it's relatively rare. But the world used to regularly turn out people as fucked up as I am, and Huxley wanted that to continue.
Why? I guess this is where John the Savage comes in. To the extent that Huxley's novel has a plot, it's that a young white man raised on a Native American reservation is introduced to the Brave New World and causes a stir by not liking it. This is John the Savage. John the Savage, we learn, read The Complete Works of William Shakespeare when he was twelve, and was so blown away by the "terrible beautiful magic" therein that he now speaks almost entirely in Shakespeare quotes. It is insufferable. Look at this scene between John and brave new girl Lenina Crowne. The backstory is that John is attracted to Lenina and Lenina is attracted to John; Lenina, being a brave new girl, thinks that if you're attracted to someone, you should say so, and if that person is attracted to you, then there's no reason not to go ahead and have sex. John, by contrast, takes the following course of action: falls to his knees and kisses Lenina's hand; quotes The Tempest; declares that he wants to abase himself to win her favor; quotes The Tempest again; doesn't listen when Lenina tries to explain that his cultural script makes no sense to her; proposes marriage; quotes Troilus and Cressida; quotes The Tempest a third time; answers Lenina's exasperated question "do you really like me, or don't you?" by saying he loves her; freaks out when she kisses him; quotes The Tempest a fourth time; freaks out when Lenina takes off her clothes; quotes Timon of Athens and The Tempest back to back; freaks out as the naked Lenina attempts to embrace him; and then quotes Othello in screaming "Whore!" and "Impudent strumpet!" at her. Now, I won't go so far as to say that John the Savage is Huxley's mouthpiece; he doesn't even really carry the banner for 20th-century Western culture, given that John's inner self is half Pueblo and half Elizabethan. But he is the one character who, like the reader, is an outsider to this future society, and it says something that the element Huxley singles out as most difficult for this character to bear is the expression of female sexuality. And John has no lack of modern, real-life counterparts in this. It's hard to read his shrieks that Lenina is a whore without hearing echoes of Rush Limbaugh's attacks on Sandra Fluke, attacks that emblematized just how much of the platform of the Republican Party is driven by the desire to punish women for wanting to have sex. I suppose that most political argument is really just an exercise in finding intellectual justification for these sorts of primal urges, but I was struck by the extent to which, both in its simplistic mirror-image satire and in the character of John, Brave New World sticks to the level of reflex.
The closest thing to a real argument that Huxley summons in favor of "family, monogamy, romance" is the contention that they represent "a narrow channeling of impulse and energy" and that that's good; his through-the-looking-glass approach, conveniently for him, means that the New Worlders don't get to make counterarguments like those above, but can only assert that family and monogamy and romance represent a narrow channeling of impulse and energy and that that's bad. And even so, Huxley is still wrong, because it is bad. Here's Mond again:
"Think of water under pressure in a
pipe." They thought of it. "I pierce it once," said the Controller. "What
He pierced it twenty times. There were twenty piddling little fountains.
This is precisely what my therapist has been telling me for the past three months. Having a grand total of one person in your life, serving as family and friend and lover, is not healthy. It's infinitely better than zero, but it's not as good as having an actual family and a few different sets of friends to take the pressure off the primary relationship. Similarly, while my trip to meditation camp was kind of a disaster, I still find a lot of truth in the central Buddhist tenet that passions and attachments are obstacles to happiness. Huxley's advocacy of passions and attachments therefore strikes me as about as wrongheaded as can be. And yet Huxley doesn't seem to disagree with the premise! Where we differ is that Huxley is pretty explicit in arguing that happiness is overrated.
"You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art," Mond says. "We've sacrificed the high art." Huxley is getting at a couple of different things here. On the literal level, he's addressing an issue I've discussed here a few times before, to wit: Say you start getting into music. You put in a lot of quality time with your headphones, and gradually your ear becomes more sophisticated. Songs that once seemed like incomprehensible noise you begin to find startlingly compelling, and your old favorites start to sound a little simplistic. You feel as though you're better off, because listening to this complex, challenging music is a much richer experience for you now than listening to insipid prefab pop. Yet the eleven-year-old girl screaming her head off at the One Direction concert seems to be having a better time! If happiness is all that matters, you should prefer to be her, bad taste and all — but few aficionados of an art form would make that trade if they could, and Huxley is arguing against it. I have a fair amount of sympathy for that argument, insofar as I don't watch America's Got Prolefeed either and am glad that I don't. More broadly, though, Huxley is arguing for people to continue leading the sorts of lives that make for high art rather than those that make people content. His chief complaint about the Brave New World is that people have taken the dizzying highs and terrifying lows that lend "nobility" and "heroism" to life and traded them in for the creamy middles of happiness. For that argument I have less sympathy. By which I mean fuck that noise. The notion that suffering is ennobling is a particularly destructive piece of social engineering, and the suggestion that other people should suffer because Aldous Huxley enjoys the "over-compensations for misery" that the artists among them produce is pretty vile.
Dystopian fiction is by definition essentially negative — it tends to exemplify Oliver Cromwell's remark that "I can tell you, sirs, what I would not have, though I cannot what I would." This left the squirrel wondering what Huxley actually wants. On the one hand, Zoe pointed out, he is clearly a sworn enemy of social hierarchy; on the other, he despises collective activity. Isn't this a paradox? Collective activity, particularly the institutionalized collective activity we call "government," is our only real check against socioeconomic stratification! Compare the U.S. to Northern Europe, or even to the pre-1980 U.S., and you'll see that insufficient regulation leads inexorably to greater economic inequality and reduced social mobility. As best I could determine, Huxley's answer to Zoe's objection would be as follows. Yes, he has the "bad guy" denigrate "liberalism" — known today, outside of academia, as "libertarianism" — so, yes, it is safe to conclude that it's an idea Huxley means to champion. And yes, laissez-faire's terrible track record may leave him looking foolish. But it shouldn't, for that track record is a testament to the infantile nature of modern men and women. If corporate rapacity leads to the wealth of society getting vacuumed up by the top 1%, that doesn't mean that the exploited masses should band together into a state that can intervene — it just means that we need to encourage the people in those corporations to cultivate greater self-control! See, the reason they're so greedy is that they want to indulge in the pleasures money can buy — so create a culture in which people prefer to go on long walks and think about God and stuff, and problem solved! Huxley — the Brave New World-era Huxley, at any rate — really does seem to have believed that if only people would stop chasing "the maintenance of well-being" and instead pursue "some intensification and refining of consciousness," we would escape our heredity and our conditioning and become little philosopher-kings who would be equal, or not, depending on our essential virtue. And who knows — maybe we would. Good luck finding out.