20 classics in 2011 #6: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
I love Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and dystopian fiction in general. Plus, the sections of my work-in-progress that people have read have been compared to Brave New World. I thought it was about time I read it (also to make sure I’m not accidentally riffing on it too much).
When was it published?
In 1932. Several years before Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) and in many ways containing more progressive ideas. Huxley wrote to Orwell in 1949, congratulating him on his book, and predicting:
‘Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.’ (via)
What’s it about?
Set in London in the year 2540, children are grown, rather than born, and are conditioned via Pavlovian methods and sleep-learning to be citizens of different castes. The idea is that society will be stable, and that people will be happy. They are essentially free to pursue pleasure through multiple sexual partners, soma (a form of medication/recreation) and ‘feelies’, which are movies with added sensation. The Model T Ford and Sigmund Freud are the fathers of this society. Ford is their God.
Bernard is a bit of an outsider both physically and mentally. He thinks his fellow Alphas are ‘morons’, and he fights internally against his own conditioning. He is able to see that happiness is a construct, and is therefore, of course, not happy. He sees the value in delaying gratification, and in being alone (both blasphemous in this society).
Bernard takes a woman he likes, Lenina, to a Savage Reservation, where they meet a woman from their World who had been lost there, and her son, who has learnt English through Shakespeare and who is curious about this place he’s heard so much about. The second half of the novel then deals with ‘the Savage’ and his encounter with civilisation.
Aldous Huxley was born into an educated family in Surrey, UK in 1894. He was educated at Eton college and was disqualified from service in the WWI due to an illness that left him mostly blind for two to three years. He would struggle with eyesight problems all his life. He studied English literature at Oxford and graduated with first class honours.
Huxley began writing seriously in his 20s. His first published novel was Chrome Yellow in 1921. Brave New World is probably his most famous novel. He moved to Hollywood in 1937 and became interested in Vedanta (and introduced Christopher Isherwood into the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda). He earned a bit of money as a screenwriter, but his synopsis of Alice in Wonderland was rejected by Walt Disney ‘on the grounds that “he could only understand every third word”. (via) Huxley was at the time beginning to experiment with psychedelic drugs as an experiment in the search for enlightenment. I’d like to read that synopsis…
Huxley famously requested and took LSD on his deathbed in 1963. He was 69.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
‘What fun it would be if one didn’t have to think about happiness!’ – World Controller Mustapha Mond
For a book that was apparently completed in just four months, Brave New World is almost shockingly prescient, dealing with issues of consumption, conformity and complacency. The idea that citizens will be conditioned to be able to fulfil themselves through the means available in order to create stability (as opposed to through threat or punishment) is even more relevant today. Other aspects are dated, of course, such as the psychoanalytic overtones, and the hypnopaedic ways of learning. But then again, some people do still buy into ‘subliminal learning’!
The retro-future aspects are still enjoyable, aesthetically, such as the fact there are lift operators, and helicopters are the advanced mode of transport. It’s like seeing the DOS computer systems in Blade Runner. You can’t read a futuristic novel written in the past and not think about what has and hasn’t come to pass, and what might by the date in which it’s set. There is still an environment in 2540, for example, where as any futuristic novel written today would surely grapple with the issue of climate change.
Bernard is a great character, both inside and outside his society – conditioned by it, like everyone else, but also fighting against it. He has a weak personality, and a large ego, and is easily buoyed by popularity and praise in the rare instances it is bestowed upon him. I think readers of the novel over time would have related to his character, particularly in the earlier chapters, when everyone else is loosening up and having a good time and he feels something is a little off. He is painfully aware of himself and the way he’s feeling. He is interested in ideas of the benefits of feeling pain and of delaying gratification – ideas I’m fascinated by in this era of rampant consumerism. Natural human desires have always been ever-renewing, but what happens to us when they can be fulfilled easier and easier? Huxley deals with the way dissatisfaction or boredom might set in with soma, where citizens can take a little drug-holiday. Soma reminds me of both valium and ecstasy. It calms, and it also creates heightened sensation. Bernard is too aware of its effects (but he still uses it). The Savage refuses to use it.
I enjoyed the ideas, too, about the way we are constructed through language – about how powerful language is. In the brave new world, all ‘old’ texts have disappeared, because they are unnecessary and will interfere with the conditioned ideas. A language of worship to a commercial god has replaced them. But the Savage, too, is constructed by words. His ideas about the world come from Shakespeare. He cannot reconcile himself with the (normatised) promiscuity of the world, and repeats phrases like ‘impudent strumpet!’ from Othello. He thinks and speaks in Shakespearian, and so becomes subversive to both his Savage society who do not read in English, and to his mother and civilisation, who are conditioned to think in specific oppositional ways. There is an Oedipal undertone, too, where he tries to kill the man in bed with his mother. His love and disgust for her is then transferred into his love and disgust for Lenina. He does not wish to ‘defile’ her, thought she literally throws herself at him. Conditioned to be sexually open, she doesn’t understand his response at all. The Savage is a tragic character. The greater message, here, I think, is that none of us escape some kind of ‘conditioning’ through language, during our socialisation process.
I was quite disturbed by the Savage’s repulsion of Lenina, though it is justified in the story. I was worried about a parallel message of nostalgia for female chastity and virginity. I suppose Huxley could have wanted to explore these thoughts (as he’s exploring the dangers of excess in general), and that’s also why Linda, the Savage’s mother, is rendered so repulsively (not just to the civilised, but to the reader). Lenina is a character who, if the novel were written now, I believe could have been developed further. Her tiny awakenings were due to the male characters she encountered and her desire for them. She could be more active, now.
I underlined and dog-eared much in Brave New World and I think it’s a novel that will continue to make people think, and definitely to entertain. I forgot to mention that it’s funny – particularly in relation to Bernard. The style is a little all-over-the-place, but it works. It’s a brilliant piece of art.
‘What you need,’ the Savage went on, ‘is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.’
I’m currently reading The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. It’s a big’un so be patient with me.
Have you read Brave New World? What are your thoughts? I have to say that the mood of Nineteen Eighty-Four is quite different. I remember it well: a certain weightiness. Is there a dystopian vision you prefer?