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November 04, 2004

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Posted by David Womersley

Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
first published in 1932

Of the celebrated dystopias published in England in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it seems to have been Orwell's 1984 rather than Huxley's Brave New World which has enjoyed the greater influence. Phrases such as 'Big Brother' and 'Room 101' have percolated down to popular culture, concepts such as doublethink have been adopted and extended by sociologists. Yet this appearance of influence is perhaps misleading. It disguises the extent to which Orwell was profoundly mistaken about the ills which lay in wait for the nations of Western Europe after the Second World War. If the vision of 1984 was, in its drabness, its insistence on material immiseration, its understanding of how the family could be perverted into the seed-bed of social surveillance and betrayal, an accurate image of aspects of life in Eastern Europe under Communism until the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has looked increasingly wide of the mark as a prognosis of the ailments of Western democracies. Huxley's Brave New World, by contrast, has come to seem ever more prescient.

The essential fact that Huxley grasped, but that eluded Orwell, was that trivial pleasure, not grinding deprivation, would be the mode of the future. The control of mood provided by the drug soma, the stimulus of the 'feelies', the social expectation of ubiquitous promiscuity, the denial of a right to privacy, the profusion of meaningless choices, the prevalence of mass comforts, the suspicion of whatever is elite or unsocialised, the ascendancy of a middle-class culture devoted to mediocrity – all these features of the society of Brave New World are vividly present in our own world, even if we are sometimes confused as to their origin. The television show Big Brother is the latest exemplification of the vigorous afterlife of 1984, but its prurient assumptions have far more in common with Huxley than with Orwell: this is surveillance as entertainment, not control.

Why is it that we prefer to see ourselves as the children of Orwell rather than of Huxley? Surely it is because the shortages, corruptions and brutalities of 1984 are all offered to us under the aspect of the terrific – it is a book quite without any sense of comedy. Huxley realised, however, that we would be as much fools as knaves, and that in consequence we deserved to be mocked as much as loathed. Hence, perhaps, the poorer fortune Brave New World has enjoyed with posterity as compared with 1984: almost anything is preferable to being thought ridiculous.

Huxley's mind was so acute, his ability to write prose which maintains its balance between amusement and satire so accomplished, that reading Brave New World provokes both a strong literary pleasure, and a disquieting moral unease:

By eight o'clock the light was failing. The loud speakers in the tower of the Stoke Poges Club House began, in a more than human tenor, to announce the closing of the courses. Lenina and Henry abandoned their game and walked back towards the Club. From the grounds of the Internal and External Secretion Trust came the lowing of those thousands of cattle which provided, with their hormones and their milk, the raw materials for the great factory at Farnham Royal.

An incessant buzzing of helicopters filled the twilight. Every two and a half minutes a bell and the screech of whistles announced the departure of one of the light monorail trains which carried the lower caste golfers back from their separate course to the metropolis.

At one level this is a witty rifacimento of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray's poem was at least in part composed at Stoke Poges, and its opening lines indicate how Huxley has remembered and re-worked it:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,

The plougman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Lenina and Henry, as well as the hordes of lower caste golfers, are unconsciously in the very situation of Gray's reflective and morally-sensitised observer. This is part of the impoverishment of Huxley's Brave New World; that its inhabitants tread unawares on classic ground. However, merely to notice the presence of the allusions does not do much to free us from the scope of Huxley's satire. As a society we have for the most part chosen to live our lives in accordance with many of the principles of the society of Brave New World, and so even if some of the more alarming expressions of those principles have yet to be realised (such as the thorough-going eugenics of Huxley's future society), this provides little comfort. To notice the structuring allusions in Huxley's prose is to be made aware of our alarmingly rapid progress towards Huxley's vision of the future, but not to be consoled as to our ability to redirect or slow that trajectory.

The conversation which resonates backwards through the novel and unlocks the essence of that vision of the future is the exchange towards the end of the novel between the Controller, Mustapha Mond, and Helmholz Watson, the would-be poet. Watson and his fellow-misfit, Bernard Marx, are about to meet the fate of all those in Brave New World who, as Mustapha Mond puts it:

for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren't satisfied with orthodoxy, who've got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who's any one.
Such problematic types are dealt with by being sent to an island, where they will meet only other like-minded individuals. Watson opts for the Falkland Islands, on the grounds that hardship makes for creativity:
I should like a thoroughly bad climate … I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example …
It is a choice which Mustapha Mond heartily endorses:
I like your spirit, Mr. Watson. I like it very much indeed. As much as I officially disapprove of it.
Mond's response to Watson is divided between liking and disapproval because as a younger man he too had been made to choose between conforming and exile. As a gifted scientist Mond had realized that:
all our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody's allowed to question, and a list of recipes that mustn’t be added to except by special permission from the head cook.
His attempts to pursue 'real science' landed him in trouble, and he was then faced with a choice:
to be sent to an island, where I could have got on with my pure science, or to be taken on to the Controllers' Council with the prospect of succeeding in due course to an actual Controllership. I chose this and let the science go.
The strange affinity between the dissident and the controller – that they are almost doppelgänger – is a point of contact with Orwell's vision in 1984, where Winston Smith's only real intimacy is with, not Julia, but O'Brien. That the dissident and the controller should share the same vision of the world – that dissidence and the suppression of dissidence should spring from the same perceptions – is the insight which underpins Huxley's gloomy assessment of the possibility of resistance: the distance between deploring and participating is so slender, as the Savage discovers in the novel's final 'orgy-porgy', orchestrated as it is with a series of allusions to Othello. To condemn is not the same as to resist, or even to elude; it may not even be the first step on the path towards resistance and escape. It is in the clarity of his understanding of the insidiousness of control that Huxley shows his intellectual acuity.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.

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IMO, Orwell's 1984 deserves all the praise it gets. It may not say much about "our situation". That's not what it's about. It *is* a brilliant exposition of the essential nature of totalitarianism, as Alain Besancon argued in "The Falsification of the Good: Soloviev and Orwell".

FWIW, I don't think it is really that difficult to write a skit in prose on Gray's Elegy. Furthermore, I can't stand Huxley. A man with all the usual left-liberal prejudices - and also one totally without commonsense as his sordid end shows. If he were around now, he'd doubtless have been writing nonsense to the people of Clark County, Ohio.

And "Brave New World" is only one side of the story. It needs to be held up against "Island" -

- for the full truth to emerge. Much that seems to be condemned in "Brave New World" (including eugenics) is actually endorsed in a different form in "Island".

Give me Orwell any day.

Posted by: Michael at November 5, 2004 08:34 PM

It is hard to fault this essay on Brave New World. However the author takes a somewhat parochial view of life, referencing his remarks only to the comfortable and affluent west. Orwell's nightmare still exists in many countries, notably China and North Korea with their slave societies,and African states who are progressively retreating into the middle ages, all lighted as Churchill said "by the lights of perverted science".

Posted by: myles at November 8, 2004 03:41 PM

Brave New World, as a literary work of satire, has never appealed quite so much as Orwell's 1984. I do not believe that the reason for this is entirely due to a public fear of being made ridiculous, as the author suggests.

Firstly, Huxley is very unsubtle and without deeper nuances, which I tend to feel are essential for effective satirical works. Orwell, on the other hand, provides us with a nuanced portrait of how institutional and social thought processes work within a totalitarian state, and projected how those might possibly look in the future. It is also important that Orwell retains a sense of urgency and imminence to his work - he once wrote that he sincerely expected the conditions of 1984 to prevail by 1964.

Huxley on the other hand is more given to outward gestures and externals, which to me - although some might disagree - tend to indicate a lack of depth of thinking. His chief literary tactic is to work on people's moral distaste to generate a reaction, for instance, to dehumanise and debase the role of motherhood as "cattle"; and to show the spoilt boy whose lusts for a particular girl were not gratified immediately and so therefore felt "uncomfortable".

I cannot help but feel that Huxley fails his reader by never assessing the inner thinking of an ordinary person in the world as he predicts it. Orwell puts us squarely in the shoes of Winston Smith who is alone, facing the pressures around him, and providing us with a weighty sense of the helplessness and despair of such a world. Huxley gives us a stream of moving pictures, each brilliantly technicoloured, but each as momentary and fleeting and empty for the reader as the deeper cognition behind his writing.

I have tried my hand at writing satire, and although it would never place myself in the class of either Huxley or Orwell, I believe that I have experienced at least a little of Orwell's deep melancholy that he reported had accompanied his work on 1984. A satire is never funny; especially for the writer, given that the process of producing a distopia is at once melancholic, absorbing, depressing and gloomy adventure in which one becomes so taken up in the future that one almost seems to live in it.

Orwell's melancholy helps to drive home a truth about democracy and government, it helps to establish in our consciousness the possibility of the realism of the future existence as he imagines it - and what is more, Orwell is sincere and honest. He believes in the possibility of what he writes. Contrast this with Huxley's mile-a-minutue, breathless, excitable, shallow, breezy tale about an institutional hedonism and debauchery and one can easily see why Huxley failed in popualrity. Not that it is strictly speaking anti-literature, but rather that it attempts to be amusing, which is a sure indication that Huxley either did not take seriously the future he predicted, or he did not really care.

Either way, it is fatal for his efforts at satire.

Posted by: Jason Landless at November 11, 2004 06:22 AM

I would just like to state that while i agree with the author on many of his points i do think that "Brave New World" is becoming increasingly popular in this world where many of Huxley's predictions have actually come true and look as though they will. After all wasn't it Huxley himself who stated that: "Brave New World is a book aboug the future and... a book about the future can only interest us if its prophecies look as though the might concievably come true". In our modern society where eugenics is becoming more and more common, it seems it is Huxley's novel rather than Orwell's future which could "concievably come true". Therefore, I as a 17 year old student would prefer Huxley's novel to Orwells. Yet, mine is merely an opinion and not a researched and well thought out deconstruction of both books...

Posted by: bee at August 28, 2005 02:21 PM

Please do explain how eugenics is becoming more common when the population is in fact falling victim to entropy and mediocrity.

Posted by: Ryan at March 19, 2006 04:21 AM

It seems to me that no one wants to admit we're more Huxley than Orwell. With our steady diet of celbrity news, reality tv, dysfunctional families and drugs for everything that ails us, then you get that we're closer to the breakneck idiocy than opression.

We save true oppression for our global skin color caste system. Alphas are White Americans. Betas would be white Europeans. Gammas would be the Japanese and Chinese. Deltas would be all the Latinos and MIddle East folks. And of course last on the totem pole are the dark Africans.

People will rise up from oppression. They will not rise up from the illusion of safety. That's what wrong with America now.

Posted by: D at March 22, 2006 02:07 AM
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