Make your escape from the savage old world


I vaguely recall reading Brave New World in my late teens or early twenties. I was a bit disappointed by it at the time and I suspect I may merely have skimmed the book. It didn’t leave a big impression the first time.

But Brave New World has had a huge impact on our culture. Quite recently I was speaking with a young woman at a coffeeshop here in Alameda, and failed to understand a reference she made. She saw by the look on my face that I had not understood the reference and explained: «Brave New World.» Of course, I thought, but I know that I read Brave New World. Why don’t I remember whatever it is that she was talking about?

So it became clear that it was time for me to reread Brave New World. I still have a very worn paperback copy on my shelf. I was going to joke that it might be older than I am, and sure enough the printing date indicates it was printed in 1958. So there isn’t really a joke there.

(But there is a clue as to when I read it: the book has a stamp on the first leaf which reads in blue ink: Rooks and Becords, which was a second-hand book and record store on Polk Street in San Francisco which closed many years ago. This indicates that, if I read it soon after I bought it, I originally read the book when I was nineteen or twenty. No wonder I don’t remember it.)

The third chapter is surprisingly daring in its form. Though most of the rest of the book relies on a voice which likely spoke well to readers of the nineteen-thirties and -forties, the third chapter steps beyond parallel narrative to become increasingly fragmented. What started with a few paragraphs before switching perspectives, gradually becomes just a few sentences, and then a single line of dialogue from each perspective. It has the effect that increasingly fast jump-cuts have in film: namely, it both lends a building sense of disorientation and reinforces the sense of relation between the otherwise dissimilar threads of narrative.

It’s important to keep in mind that Brave New World was written in 1931. In many respects it is not as sophisticated as the later dystopian novels that it is inevitably compared to. 1984 is darker and more politically astute. Anthem has a more complicated allegory, even if it’s moral is blunter. Even in my late teens I had already been exposed to dozens if not hundreds of works of fiction that had been influenced by Brave New World so it is less surprising to me now than it was when I was nineteen that the book would not shock or impress.

If Brave New World did not impact me like some of the later works the first time I read it, this time around it became clear that those works owe some debt to that which came earlier. Of course Huxley was not the first to write of a future world which contemporary as well as modern readers would find troubling. Certainly Huxley’s vision deserves its place of prominence.

Through the first three-quarters of the book I remained fairly unimpressed, but then toward the end, the pieces fell together and the story became focused. The entire book in some ways is really about the story of Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller for Western Europe. He appears only twice in the novel; once at the beginning and then later at the end. But it is his story that is perhaps most engaging, and the stories of the other characters, even The Savage, are there only to set the scene so that we can find out about Mustapha Mond.

I recently came across a comparison of Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 that neatly summarized: Orwell feared that the government of the future would tyrannize the world with fear, Huxley feared that it would tyrannize the world with pleasure.

On reflection, Huxley’s fears are more disturbing even than those illustrated by Orwell. Instead of throwing a populace into cages, it is so much easier instead to simply let them build their own cages from their comfort and live inside happily.

There was a very pointed passage that seemed relevant in this moment when the current controversy is about the minimum wage and the subject on everyone’s lips is the workers of America working longer to scrounge up the same buying power, and finding less and less work available. It is perhaps inevitable that the work of the world will have to be spread thinner as technology takes more of it from our shoulders. There is a limit to the amount of make-work that we can invent for ourselves, and those limits make themselves clear as the economy falters and spending on nonessentials ceases. When the essentials are cheap and the nonessentials aren’t being purchased, what happens?

In Huxley’s vision of the future, the ideal length of a workday has been determined. Everyone works that amount, no more and no less, not because there are things that need to be done, but because it the workday length has been chosen for being the most effective means by which the people can be controlled. The idea is disturbing, but so too is the lack of attention to such matters by individuals today, which is probably where the attention would be more appropriate.

Of course, this is the point of Brave New World. If the exaggerated illustrations of the dangers of an overly intrusive state don’t make us ask questions about how we are doing things today, then Huxley hasn’t done his job. There is no immediate danger that Shakespeare will be banned here, but there is enough anti-intellectualism (and has been for quite some time) that it demands our attention if we are willing to see it.

This is what is ultimately disturbing about Brave New World: London of 2540 sounds like a nice place to live. As much as modern readers may recoil at the loss of liberty, individuality, and autonomy there is little question that life sounds pleasant and enjoyable. There is little want and no crime to speak of. This vision of the future is abhorrent, but the seductive appeal is obvious.

The world Huxley paints stands in contrast to Orwell’s vision, in which the totalitarian state has created not material prosperity and an overdependence on pleasureseeking, but a more unpleasant form of oppression of the soul. One wonders why anyone would want to live in Orwell’s world of 1984. The inescapable conclusion is that in his vision of the future that fear (in various forms) keep people in line and from complaining (too much) about the shortages and squalor.

The England of Brave New World on the other hand is easy to imagine having been created by a slow and cheerful erosion of liberty. At each stage of new technology and with each new adoption of social structure, it seems they sounded like a good idea at the time, and no one ever thought to look back. If 1984 scares us because of what government might do to us, Brave New World ought to scare us because of what we might do to ourselves.

Reading interval: 
Sunday, 19 January 2014 to Friday, 7 February 2014