John Pistelli


Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Don’t ask me why I didn’t read Brave New World when I was sixteen the way everybody else did—the powers-that-be never assigned it to me in school, and I’m only now catching up to it on my own. I should have read it when I was sixteen, because then it probably would have seemed profound; but now I confess I find it a superficial and confused fiction.

Since you read this 1932 novel when you were sixteen, gentle reader, you don’t need me to tell you the conceit and the plot, but just in case: it is the 26th century and humanity, under the rational and utilitarian governance of a world state, has achieved happiness. Humans are grown in laboratories and conditioned in childhood for specific life roles, from the knowledge-worker Alphas to the proletarian Epsilons, and their entire lives are chemically and technologically regulated to prevent their developing inner lives capable of subverting this utopia of universal satisfaction.

Huxley shows culture reduced to base sensationalism, religion banished, the family obsolesced in favor of non-reproductive sexual pleasures beginning in early childhood, and even science itself firmly kept at the level of technical application lest it induce metaphysical speculation; his imagined future is based on a conflation of laissez-faire capitalism’s rationalized inequality and socialism or communism’s subsumption of the individual in the state, thus suggesting that modernity in all its varieties, whether left or right, is moving toward a single end: the abolition of the soul. So we don’t miss the point, all the novel’s characters are named after a deliberately wide range of modernizing figures, from Lenin to Mussolini to Malthus to Ataturk, and the prophet of its utopia is Henry Ford.

Huxley sets a perfunctory plot, half based on The Tempest, in this projected future: a dissatisfied inhabitant of the Fordist utopia visits a reservation for “savages” (here Southwestern Indians) and brings back a man who was raised on the reservation after being born to an accidentally exiled Londoner—who was, in a coincidence perhaps derived from Dickens’s Hard Times and its Bounderby subplot, the girlfriend of one of London’s main officials. The second half of the novel features this “Savage,” reared on a melange of Native American and Christian religion and Shakespeare’s plays, as he moves through and comments on the “brave new world,” even though the persistent dry irony of Huxley’s narrator in the novel’s expository first half makes explicit critical comment largely unnecessary.

That the novel seems, in its witty shallowness, to fail as fiction does not concern me—Northrop Frye points out in his comprehensive Anatomy of Criticism that Huxley’s genre is satire, not realism, and if anything, I wish Brave New World had made less obeisance to the traditional novel, as its characters are almost entirely illustrations of abstract concepts and accordingly do not require the consciousness-probing free indirect discourse that Huxley rather boringly grants them. But as satire, the novel mounts an argument, and it is this argument I would like to consider critically.

For one thing, Huxley’s thesis on the cultural consequences of omnipresent technologization is too unsubtle. Fascism and communism summoned the citizen and the worker to religious ecstasies of collective self-sacrifice; laissez-faire capitalism, in the United States, produced a modern state of uniquely intense and militantly antirational religiosity; the spread of mass communications technology today has emboldened the postmodern atavisms of ISIS (as well as, at a much reduced and not morally equivalent scale of course, the scarcely-concealed millenarianism of the “alt-right” partisans and the “social justice warriors”), which are both a product of and a challenge to a world where traditional centralized hierarchies have been undone by technics. In short, technological society dialectically produces its own correctives in the form of anti-modern resistance both large and small, both left and right, both benign and malign. In fact, Huxley’s own use of free indirect discourse as a narrative technique is telling here, since it was this development in fictional prose that signaled the novelist’s desire to resist dehumanization by spiritualizing the masses of the modern city, as in Huxley’s older contemporaries, Joyce and Woolf. (Personally, I can’t think of a more benign corrective to modernity’s coercions than the modernist novel.)

It is inevitable to compare Brave New World to Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Orwell’s description of mass-mediated totalitarianism, with its two-minutes’ hate and Junior Anti-Sex League and war fevers and hard pornography, seems truer and more profound: technology will not wipe out the traditional, the irrational, the perverse, or even the puritanical but will become wedded to them. Look at how feminist sexual ethics have supplanted Christian sexual ethics in our society—it goes to show that Huxley’s prediction of unfettered libertinage, the replacement of morality with utilitarian calculation, falls short, probably because it is indeed against human nature, which seems to be ineluctably driven to create values.[1] Huxley’s argument admittedly depends on advances in reproductive and chemical technology that have still, to my knowledge, not been achieved—but even these, it seems to me, will no more eradicate the chaos of the human heart or the vagaries of human morality than did the birth control pill or anti-depressants.

Frankly, my decorous citation of Northrop Frye aside, I find the linear extrapolations of science-fictional satire a cheap trick, so flattening of life’s complexity that I always wonder why authors of such fiction even bother. Huxley’s social thought seems shallow enough to be a product of his utilitarian dystopia rather than an objection to it.

This flattened conceptual horizon leads me to my next objection. As I have said, against his “brave new world,” Huxley counterposes contradictory elements: Christianity, Shakespeare, Native American religion, nature, maternal and filial love, and more. If the vice of the revolutionary is fecklessly hurtling toward a wholly notional future, the reactionary’s vice is in advocating a weird hodgepodge of disparate elements called “tradition,” even though the bygone values to which they contrast the ugly present and uglier future may have nothing to do with each other or may even be at odds. So it is with Huxley.

It is strange above all that Shakespeare should be the novel’s major symbol of the archaic, since the bard would more persuasively stand not for intractable pre-modernity but for the first wave of literature’s adaptation to modern conditions. Shakespeare wrote largely secular fictions for a mass and mixed audience in a burgeoning commercial empire and showcased the roiling interior life of the modern subject and the rich resources of modern language, anticipating (and inspiring) romanticism and modernism after him. When Winston Smith wakes up with the name of Shakespeare on his lips in Nineteen Eighty-Four or when the anarchist hero makes his first public appearance by quoting a long speech from Macbeth in V for Vendetta, Orwell and Moore are responding to Shakespeare’s status as icon of modern restive individuality, which shows up their dystopias as regressive; Huxley likewise deploys Shakespeare to evoke passion, but he also has him stand, no less than Christianity or paganism, for the past as such.[2]

Consider by contrast two nineteenth-century novels that must have informed Brave New World. In Dickens’s Hard Times, utilitarianism is opposed by the ethics of the Gospels and the immemorial wisdom of the people; in Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov, the notion of a beneficent and totalizing government (modeled on the Catholic Church, which Dostoevsky saw as the forerunner of the overweening secular state) is opposed by the incalculable love of Christ and the irrational freedom of Christian conscience. Huxley is plainly envious of these older authors’ ability to enlist the Lord in their struggle against the world’s encroachment on the soul; but he does not feel that he can appeal to religion for any but, ironically enough, secular reasons—because, the novel cynically implies, belief would make people more soulful and passionate and intelligent, make them, in a word, more interesting, though it would not make them happier.

In a key passage of the novel, wherein the Controller Mustapha Mond[3] reads a scientific paper he decides to censor, Huxley reveals that the real animating principle of his dystopia is the proscription on any concept of transcending the material, because once the very idea of transcending the material is admitted, the mind will presumably ascend Plato’s ladder all the way to God:

“A New Theory of Biology” was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page: “The author’s mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and, so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published.” He underlined the words. “The author will be kept under supervision. His transference to the Marine Biological Station of St. Helena may become necessary.” A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose—well, you didn’t know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere, that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstance, admissible. He picked up his pen again, and under the words “Not to be published” drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed, “What fun it would be,” he thought, “if one didn’t have to think about happiness!”

Huxley’s attack on the modern is so total it is hard to see any reprieve besides a full-scale return to religion, except for the relentlessly and self-aggrandizingly ironic voice that narrates the novel, holding out the hope of a mind’s somehow remaining lively beyond technical control. According to Orwell, Chesterton said that Dickens was not out against this or that institution, but rather an expression on the human face. Huxley’s sour smirking expression, as conveyed by his telegraphic and self-amused prose, is perhaps not much better than the institutions he attacks. More radical satirists—such as scabrous Swift and his descendant Beckett—were out against the human face itself, but Huxley’s satire is too pleased with itself, the tone of his novel too relentlessly facetious, to allow him to encompass himself in his otherwise all-embracing judgment.

Putting narratorial arrogance to one side, Huxley’s need for God, the God-shaped hole in his argument, leads him to derogate anything less when it comes to staving off the rationalizers’ dystopia, and this is the source of his insensibility to the real meaning of Shakespeare or to the potential of modernism. If only a god can save us, then irreligious art can only be decadence, and so Huxley writes a novel that he himself admits, in his later foreword, is nothing but a puerile and rueful amusement. I imagine that for Huxley, a work such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which re-writes dystopian satire as psychological novel, and which forgoes either revolutionary hope or reactionary despair to offer instead the small but very real consolation of an acknowledged and universal sorrow, would seem scandalous when held against the enormous absence of faith that has allowed Ford to usurp God.[4]

While I have said or implied in the course of this review that William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Kazuo Ishiguro all wrote better, more insightful, more coherent books than Brave New World, I will praise Huxley for lucidly displaying a set of human problems we will probably never stop trying to solve.

[1] It has become commonplace to insist that readers should not evaluate science fiction novels based on their predictive capacities but only for their statements about their own societies and for their literary values. While there is some truth to this admonition, let’s not toss all common sense out the window: if a work’s speculative portrayal of the future is lacking, that has many implications for its meaning and thus can indicate a real political or literary failure. Huxley, to his credit, writes as much in his foreword: “whatever its artistic or philosophical qualities, a book about the future can interest us only if its prophecies look as though they might conceivably come true.”

[2] I am drawing on George Steiner’s censure of Shakespeare as incorrigibly secular writer, which I discuss at some length here.

[3] According the Internet, Mustapha Mond is named for Ataturk and the industrialist Sir Alfred Mond, but “Mond” surely also signifies le monde, the mundane, this world—the domain of the devil.

[4] Huxley repented of his despair by the time he wrote his foreword in the late 1940s; he allows that he gave the Savage the option of two versions of insanity—an antiseptic dystopia of the future and a painful dystopia of tradition—and suggests a third, genuinely utopian alternative:

If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the utopian and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity—a possibility already actualized, to some extent, in a community of exiles and refugees from the Brave New World, living within the borders of the Reservation. In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque cooperative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s Final End, the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle — the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?”

To which I can only say, perhaps with a little neoliberal cynicism, “Good luck!”

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