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October 12, 2006

The Civilised Way of Death: Nature vs. Civilisation in the novels of Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and William Golding

Posted by William Coleman

In an earlier essay Dr William Coleman - Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics - explored the supposed conflict between "Perverse Civilisation" and "Natural Barbarism" in social theorising: Perverse Civilisation and Natural Barbarism: William Coleman explores two doubtful moves in social theorising and examines Malthus's debate with Godwin over population - and the subsequent Benthamite libelling of Malthus.

Here Dr Coleman explores how the supposed conflict between Nature and Civilisation played itself out in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow and Brave New World, Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief and Love Among the Ruins, and William Golding's The Lord of the Flies.

At the opening of the modern political era the notion that that the Civilised and the Natural are in conflict received a thorough airing in the ardent controversy between T. R. Malthus and William Goodwin. In 1798 the one thing that these two agreed upon was that the human race's "animal" instinct to breed posed a menace to human progress. A supposed conflict between Civilised and the Natural was, therefore, key and common ground to both sides. The difference between the Malthus and Godwin lay in the choice they took in the face of the conflict. Unable to have both Civilisation and Nature, Malthus opted for Nature, while Goodwin for the Civilisation.

In the 19th century the presumption of a conflict between the Civilised and the natural - and the two possible responses to it - enjoyed a vigorous expression in the differences between Social Darwinists and Eugenicists. The emergence of Social Darwinism and Eugenicism was occasioned by the advent of the Darwinian notion that fertility and mortality constitute Nature's "quality control". When combined with the Malthusian conviction that greater wealth increased fertility and reduced mortality, this Darwinian interpretation of fertility and mortality implied that progress was damaging Nature's "quality control".

There appeared to be two possible responses. First, restore nature's quality control by letting civilisation retreat; this was the choice of Social Darwinists. Second, replace Nature's quality control with one contrived by Civilisation; this was the choice of Eugenicism.

Charles Darwin's own inclination was to have Civilisation retreat: thus his opposition to vaccination, on the grounds that it preserves "the weak members of civilised society".

By contrast, Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's principal advocate, was inclined to the Eugenic solution.

Huxley, as much as Darwin, was a convinced Malthusian. He believed that because of the 300,000 births in Britain each year:

we are in reality engaged in an internecine struggle for existence with our presumably no less peaceful and well-meaning neighbours.
This vision sounds Social Darwinist. However, this "internecine struggle for existence" is not creative, but destructive:
Let us be under no illusions, no fiddle faddling with the distribution of wealth will deliver society from the tendency to be destroyed by that struggle for existence .
Huxley has converted Malthus' common struggle of humanity against the environment into a struggle of subsets of humanity (either nations or classes) against each other; a struggle which threatened all involved in the struggle.

Huxley therefore preaches an ethic of "social stability", and promotes the possibility that the disintegral forces of nature can be controlled by conscious effort of civilisation. He never came down to specifics of this control. Huxely's rather foggy and gas lit piece of hopefulness was illuminated in flashing neon lights by his grandson 40 years later

From the opening to the close of his life Aldous Huxley was preoccupied with the problem of overpopulation, and fertility. His earliest novels, Crome Yellow (1921), captures a conflict between the claims of Nature and Civilisation with respect to fertility. It features a dialogue in which Scogan (the utilitarian and scientist) rebuts Gombauld, the Lawrentian artist, who has urged the beauty of fecundity:

Even your eloquence, my dear Gombauld, must prove inadequate to convert the world to multiplication. With the gramophone, the cinema, the automatic pistol, the goddess of Applied Science has presented the world with another gift, more precious than these - the means of dissociating love from propagation. An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature's hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires.
Scogan also proposes a gas chamber for redundant intellectuals (rather than redundant babies), which is interesting, but the lead we will follow here are those "gravid bottles", which are developed spectacularly in Brave New World (1931).

Brave New World opens with a party of medical students being taken on a guided tour of the Central London Hatchery. From the Fertilising Room they move to the Bottling Room, to the Embryo Store, and then to the Social Predestination Room; 2040 metres of conveyer belt, where the bottles are subject to various environmental retardants, or stimuli, depending upon the desired IQ of the bottled product in question.

Evidently, in the name of "social stability", a massive, profound and revolutionary eugenics program has been implemented. Parenthood has been abolished, and reproductive decisions totally "nationalised" and "industrialised" by a technocratic planning state, that produces in factories (Hatcheries) a planned quota of babies of various grades - from the ruling class "alphas" down to the "semi-moron" epsilons - who after "decanting" are raised (as if orphans - they are orphans) in states nurseries, which function so much as outsize Pavlovian pigeon-conditioning chambers.

Given the total "nationalisation" and "industrialisation" of reproduction decisions, the family can only be a disruptive influence, and is erased. Any impulse to monogamy or maternity has been extirpated by conditioning in the nurseries, and the word "mother" is an unprintable, "grotesque obscenity". Most women have been sterilised in the bottle. For those who have not been, there is always the Abortion Centre that now constitutes a prominent London landmark.

In Brave New World the population issue has, evidently, been completely "civilised". Nature has been censored, truncated and almost annihilated.

In just one fragment of the world is nature flourishing; a part deemed "not worth the expense of civilising", consisting of an Indian reservation in New Mexico, that is left as it is, to provide a "safe adventure" for holiday makers seeking something different. Two holiday makers in the Reservation come across the (now adult) son of another pair of holiday makers who, 25 years before, had became lost, and were never heard of again. This "babe in the wood", called Mr Savage, is taken back to civilised London, as a person of great celebrity. But Mr Savage - in an Othello-like manner - is baffled, dismayed and maddened by what he finds there.

"So you don't much like civilisation, Mr Savage?"

He decided to tell the truth, straightforwardly. "No". He shook his head. Bernard [Marx] started and looked horrified.
Ultimately, Mr Savage (like Othello) kills himself. In this acute conflict between Civilisation and Nature, Civilisation triumphs.

Huxley refrains from explicitly denouncing the monstrosity of this triumph. Perhaps the monstrosity of this triumph speaks for itself. But I suspect Huxley had a degree of ambivalence about his vision. Throughout his life he retained a rather nave believe in the power of birth control to relieve the world's miseries. I suspect the he felt that in the philosophy of the Brave New World there was mingled some wisdom.

Evelyn Waugh, who from his earliest craftsmanship closely observed, and responded to, Aldous Huxley, felt no such ambivalence.

Black Mischief (1932), published in the same year as Brave New World, may be one response.

Black Mischief tells of Seth, a superficially westernised East African prince, returning home, after a few years residence in Oxford, to attempt, unsuccessfully, the westernisation and modernisation of his backward princely state, Azania

There is a symmetry in Seth and Mr Savage. Both are suspended between two worlds; both are making their journey "home"; both are bearing a message in doing so; one bringing the message of civilisation to the barbarian, and the other the message of the barbarian to civilisation; and both perish in the act (one certainly by suicide, the other possibly so).

And there are, momentarily, exact coincidences between the two novels. Seth:

I have read here, he said, tapping a volume of speculative biology, that there is to be no more birth. The ovum is fertilised in the laboratory and the foetus is matured in bottles. It is a splendid idea. Get me some of those bottles.
But the two books have different subjects.

While gulf between the Civilised and the Barbarian is a strong theme in Mischief, the conflict of Nature and Civilisation does not really come into resolution. It is in Waugh's Love Among the Ruins (1953) that the relation of the Civilised and the Natural comes firmly into view, with its vision of a dystopia that is entirely civilised but distinctly perverse.

Love Among the Ruins is set at a future date. England is entirely in the grasp of an omnipresent and unchallenged welfare state. This state (like that of Brave New World) is not terroristic; the population is depressed, but not palpably oppressed. It is gentle state. Crime is treated very calmly, and very leniently. The only crime on the statues is "antisocial activity".

The family is deemed to be a mildly antisocial institution, and the dissolution of family life, or its "nationalisation", is encouraged by state. The Orphan is envied, as someone who has the good luck to been under the supervision of the welfare state from the moment of opening their eyes. One such orphan is Miles Plastic. We are told that huge sums have been spent on his education; and that he has enjoyed a carefully balanced diet. But Miles is not happy. And neither is much of the citizenry. And, as a consequence of this unhappiness, the state of Wavian England is engaged in population management just as much as the state in Brave New World, but at a different end of the life cycle.

Whereas, Brave New World opens with a survey of the state's artificial manufactories of birth, Love Among the Ruins opens with a survey of the artificial manufactories of death.

Euthanasia, by cyanide gas, has been deemed an "essential service" by the Wavian welfare state, and Miles is employed in one of its huge gas chambers.
These chambers are not for the terminally ill, or the "unfit". They are for general use, and are of considerable popularity. Although the chambers operate everyday, even on "Santa Claus Day" (25th December), there is a waiting list months long: and Miles' particular duty at the chambers, upon the opening of the doors at 10 a.m., is to stem "the too eager rush" of perfectly healthy but "welfare weary" citizens.

The plot unfolds with the unexpected appearance one morning of "a priority case", Clara. We read that she conforms to "the canon of pure beauty" save for one thing: she bears "a long silken, corn-gold beard". The "Klugman operation" had gone wrong, and Clara is being erased as an embarrassment. She has, however, no wish to die, and so Miles arranges her safe exit from the complex. A few months after their acquaintance, she suddenly disappears from Miles' life. But within a month or so of that disappearance Clara suddenly appears again. But now without beard. Where her beard once burgeoned there is now "something quite inhuman, a tight slippery mask, salmon pink" of synthetic rubber. This shattering spectacle drives Miles to immolate himself and his neighbours by a piece of murder-suicide arson.

Waugh's message is a well-known conservative one: for all its conceit, Civilisation cannot produce a blade of grass. It cannot even improve on the beard it has so wantonly wreaked upon Clara. What Civilisation does do is to denature and demoralise; so much that it induces suicide. This is Civilisation's triumph over Nature.

A year after Love Among the Ruins there appeared The Lord of the Flies (1954), as if to make a riposte with Waugh. In William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, Nature triumphs over Civilisation, and the triumph is horrendous.

The Lord of the Flies tells of a party of English boys who are evacuated at the outbreak of the Third World War. Their plane crash lands on an uninhabited tropical island, killing all the adults. The surviving children establish their own society on the island.

The boys begin by crafting a simple democracy. The gentlemanly Ralph is chosen, by popular acclaim, to lead them. With a talent for "genuine leadership", Ralph devises a system of "rules and agreement" sustained by recurrent debate. The only menace to this peaceful order is the arrogant and domineering Jack, but he is, for the time being, pacified by being awarded (by Ralph) with the task of hunting of wild pigs.

At the beginning the boys act constructively and rationally. But Golding registers that at this early stage they remain the beneficiaries of certain unthinking aversions inculcated by Civilisation:

Roger stopped, picked up a stone, aimed and threw it at Henry - threw to miss. Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space around Harry - perhaps six yards in diameter, in which he dare not throw. Here invisible yet strong, was the taboo of old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and police and the law. Roger's arm was condition by a civilisation that knew nothing of him
From this relatively contented state, there is long and terrible fall. This fall is founded on a general loss of unity amongst the boys, and the rupture of the uneasy coexistence of Ralph and Jack. Concord dissolves, anarchy foams. Ralph pleads the rules "as they are the only thing" they have. "Bollocks to the rules!" shouts Jack, "We're strong - we hunt!".

Jack deserts the group to establish his own band. He establishes an impressive, if rather pointless, fort. Within its bulwarks, he rules as despot. Hunting is made the focus of his band's activity. A religion is devised with the intention of appeasing a (non-existent) forest beast that terrifies them. Cruel and useless punishments are inflicted, and the two boys with the most insight into their predicament are murdered. Roger (no longer "conditioned" by Civilisation) becomes Jack's chief vizier, tribe torturer, and a hunter who favours a particularly indecent method of killing. Jack's boy subjects sing bloody chants. They ululate. They are naked, painted and masked. They are now, in Golding's references, always "savages". And the boys prefer savagery. For all of them (save for a pair of kidnapped twins) voluntarily join Jack's band.

Ralph is alone, and the novel climaxes with him being hunted down by the throng.

Golding, then, is invoking an acute conflict between Civilisation and Nature. External order ("parents and school and police and the law") had implanted in the boys' some civilisation that had bound natures. The island existence dissolves that binding. Nature, now unbound, destroys Civilisation.

Evidently, these well known novels of the mid 20th century offer a contrast in opinions on the proper choice between Nature and Civilisation. To some Civilisation was our deliverance - to others our damnation. To some Nature was our deliverance, and to others damnation.

What all agreed on was the existence of a conflict between Nature and Civilisation. But is there such a conflict?

Dr William Coleman is Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

To read William Coleman's other essays on the conflict between Nature and Civilisation, see: Perverse Civilisation and Natural Barbarism: William Coleman explores two doubtful moves in social theorising and examines Malthus's debate with Godwin over population - and the subsequent Benthamite libelling of Malthus and A Natural History of Civilisation: How the Scottish Enlightenment Reconciled our Biology with our Progress.


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"Here invisible yet strong, was the taboo of old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and police and the law. Roger's arm was condition by a civilisation that knew nothing of him ..."

You can tell Golding was writing a long time ago. Where was that civilisation when Joe Geeling died? Or Damilola Taylor?

Posted by: a at October 16, 2006 03:31 PM
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