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.