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Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World represents perhaps the scariest form of utopia: the utopia so many people seem to crave. It is not the story of a foreign-seeming totalitarian state, engaged at all times in the repression of human happiness on behalf of a larger transformative ideal, as is George Orwell’s 1984. It is instead the story of a society peculiarly our own: a society dedicated to the facsimile of human happiness, an ersatz happiness defined not by glorious ideals but by the Freudian id, incentivized and structured and indoctrinated into quiet stability by a powerful state. The happiness sought here is not the eudaimonia of the Greeks or the simcha of the Bible; it is instead the happiness of Marquis de Sade, who wrote in 1785, “Virtue can never bring anything but a fantastical happiness … there is no true felicity except in the senses, and virtue gratifies none of them.” And that happiness requires the restructuring of humanity from the cradle to the grave – a reduction of the human instinct for something higher to embrace biological pleasures and drives.
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STABILITY THROUGH DEHUMANIZATION
We are a generation raised in Huxley’s Brave New World; we have been dehumanized, indoctrinated into the belief that our individual sense of sexual identity represents the height of human achievement. So it seems odd to us to read Brave New World and see in it the ugly reality: that the Freudian “pleasure principle” – which suggests that primal drive of mankind is to seek pleasure and avoid pain – when taken as the guiding force behind human life, actually turns us into obedient and compliant animals, convinced of our own individuality while fading into the broader herd of humanity. To human beings, who have higher aspirations than mere animality, members of the animal species seem alike; individuals degraded to the level of animals similarly fade into the general mass.
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That is why the central principle of the World State in Brave New World is “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” A focus on the pleasure principle flattens all drives until they are similar; this allows identity to recede into community, producing stability. As the Director of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre observes, “[T]hat is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”
To that end, human beings are treated from the outset like animals. Huxley’s description of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre is purely animalistic: laboratories and workers and “corpse-coloured rubber” gloves, “frozen, dead” light, work tables filled with the “butter” of human genetic material. Human beings are treated as widgets, molded by the factories of the State: “We also predestine and condition. We decant our babies as socialized human beings…” Pavlovian conditioning is the chief method of the State: “Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks—already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.” Children are, at the earliest available opportunity, trained in sexual pleasure:
He let out the amazing truth. For a very long period before the time of Our Ford, and even for some generations afterwards, erotic play between children had been regarded as abnormal (there was a roar of laughter); and not only abnormal, actually immoral (no!): and had therefore been rigorously suppressed. A look of astonished incredulity appeared on the faces of his listeners. Poor little kids not allowed to amuse themselves? They could not believe it.
Any institution that threatens this order – community solidarity through the pleasure principle, as facilitated by the State – must be treated as an enemy. History itself must be waved away. Family must be obliterated; the home must be leveled. Citizens of the State are so thoroughly conditioned that they respond with actual nausea at the mere thought of “[h]ome, home—a few small rooms, stiflingly over-inhabited by a man, by a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, no space; an understerilized prison; darkness, disease, and smells.”6 In the State, the dual gods of Ford and Freud are worshipped – assembly-line division of labor and sexual pleasure lie at the root of all virtue:
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Our Ford—or Our Freud, as, for some inscrutable reason, he chose to call himself whenever he spoke of psychological matters—Our Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life. The world was full of fathers—was therefore full of misery; full of mothers—therefore of every kind of perversion from sadism to chastity; full of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts—full of madness and suicide.
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Yes, says the State, traditional institutions foster rules and responsibilities, particular loves and hates, directed and intense. And these elements make for chaos: “feeling strongly (and strongly, what was more, in solitude, in hopelessly individual isolation), how could they be stable?”8 Now, however, under the State, people are free. They are free from thought, from the evils of “something called liberalism,” which promoted “[l]iberty to be inefficient and miserable.”9 And they are free from religion: “All crosses had their tops cut and became T’s.”10 And for those who cannot drain their higher aspirations through Pavlovian training, sleeptraining, and pursuit of the pleasure principle, there are drugs, particularly soma: “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”11 As the World Controller for Western Europe, Mustapha Mond, explains:
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Now—such is progress—the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think—or if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions, there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon; returning whence they find themselves on the other side of the crevice, safe on the solid ground of daily labour and distraction, scampering from feely to feely, from girl to pneumatic girl, from Electro-magnetic Golf course to.
THE SAVAGERY OF HUMAN NATURE
In Brave New World, we interact with the pleasure-centered dystopia of the World State via a variety of characters. Each provides a distinct critique of the World State: Bernard Marx, a man who desperately seeks to fulfill the pleasure principle but cannot do so, bound by his own biological and emotional shortcomings; Lenina Crowne, who believes in the pleasure principles of the World State but finds herself drawn to forbidden monogamy; Mustapha Mond, who makes clear that the intellectual life must be crushed in order for the World State to succeed; and John, the Savage, a man brought up outside the World State who longs for a far more profound connection with the eternal things of life than the World State can provide.
Bernard begins Brave New World as a character dissatisfied with the shallowness of the system in which he lives. It is because of Bernard’s genetic inability to meet his status as an Alpha-Plus that he feels excluded; this exclusion leads to alienation, and therefore an outsized interest in Malpais. As the book progresses, however, it becomes clear that Bernard is truly upset because he wants to be part of the system. He wishes to stand out without rebelling. Compared to his friend Helmholtz Watson, a writer who wants to experience hardship in order to “write piercingly,” Bernard wishes to feel strongly without consequence.
This means that when Bernard brings John back to the State, success “went fizzily to Bernard’s head, and in the process completely reconciled him (as any good intoxicant should do) to a world which, up till then, he had found very unsatisfactory. In so far as it recognized him as important, the order of things was good. … Bernard felt positively gigantic—gigantic and at the same time light with elation, lighter than air.” Bernard, naturally, ends up exiled for his dissent.
The object of Bernard’s sexual interest, Lenina Crowne, is thoroughly indoctrinated into the principles of the State. She is hesitant about sexual promiscuity but engages in it anyway, as required. She constantly speaks in the mantras ingrained in her: “Yes, everybody’s happy now.”15 She engages in soma use regularly; she does all the right things. But she finds herself emotionally entangled, first with Bernard then with John, and seems unable to extricate herself from the nostrums of the State that have been implanted in her. When Bernard says he wants to be alone with her, just watching the ocean, for example, she breaks down: “how can you talk like that about not wanting to be a part of the social body? After all, every one works for every one else. We can’t do without any one.”16 And yet, Lenina wants something more. And when she faces the prospect of rejection from John, she makes a crucial error leading to the genetic ruination of an embryo.
Then there is John. He is the true outsider to the State. Brought up in poverty by a mother originally from the State, rejected by the native society, and self-educated by the works of Shakespeare, John forms his own picture of a world filled with meaning: a primitive world filled with emotional depth, filled with “Time and Death and God.”17 When he is confronted with Bernard and Lenina, citizens of the State, John initially believes he has discovered a place filled with that same depth; he assumes that the State and Shakespeare share commonalities, and that the society of the State will reflect the beauty he sees in Shakespeare. When he meets Lenina, he immediately forms a romantic picture of her in his mind: “O brave new world … O brave new world that has such people in it. Let’s start at once.”18 But John soon discovers that the State has ripped the heart out of beauty and nobility and has made everything “base” and “ignoble,” including the act of love19 and the eternity of death.20 John eventually decides he must rebel against the foundations of the State, throwing “soma tablets in handfuls out,” shouting at the pre-programmed citizens, “Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you even understand what manhood and freedom are?”
Pitted against John is Mustapha Mond, the only man who seems to understand the actual philosophy of the State. He understands that to even speak of the possibility of human purpose is to upset the balance by which the State controls society. He rejects one biological paper, for example, based on the fact that ideas about teleology might compromise the whole vision of the State:
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 de-condition 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.
The conflict between John and Mustapha forms the central ideological conflict of the book. As Mustapha observes, there can be no Shakespeare without liberty, and no chaos without liberty: “The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!”
Stability, says Mustapha, can only be achieved by destroying liberty, science, and even leisure. “We prefer to keep a third of the population on the land. For their own sakes—because it takes longer to get food out of the land than out of a factory. Besides, we have our stability to think of. We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. … Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t,” he explains.
In the end, Mustapha says, human beings are offered a choice: meaning or happiness. They cannot have both. “Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness. That’s why I have to keep these books locked up in the safe. They’re smut.”25 And people will be kept happy by their “pleasant vices.”
For his part, John makes his choice:
‘But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’
‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.’
‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’
The problem for the State, of course, is that if citizens were to claim a different definition of happiness than that of the State, the State’s definition would collapse. The manufactured unity of the State relies on unanimous approval of the pleasure principle. Any crack in that edifice brings down the entire structure – which is why John repairs a lighthouse to escape civilization, whips Lenina when confronted by her embrace of promiscuity and destruction of his romantic ideal, and eventually commits suicide.
For decades, scholars have debated whether 1984 or Brave New World provides a more prophetic look at Western dystopia. For his part, Orwell thought that Huxley’s dystopian vision would be impossible to build and sustain. He wrote, “Here the hedonistic principle is pushed to its utmost, the whole world has turned into a Riviera hotel. But though Brave New World was a brilliant caricature of the present (the present of 1930), it probably casts no light on the future. No society of that kind would last more than a couple of generations, because a ruling class which thought principally in terms of a ‘good time’ would soon lose its vitality. A ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique.”
Huxley disagreed; he thought that political leaders might seek to achieve stability in the long term by use of the pleasure principle. Huxley saw his own dystopian vision arising from Orwell’s – as the State sought more control, he believed they would have to remold people from the womb:[I]nfant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience … the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.
But here Huxley was wrong. The vision of Brave New World isn’t actually about a state using particular techniques for efficiency’s sake. It is about something far more frightening. George Orwell wrote about the Soviet Union by proxy in 1984, a state system dedicated to tearing away capitalism and replacing it with a powerful Marxist state; the transformation of mankind was an instrumental goal, necessary in order to bring about the Marxist eschaton, which would in turn transform mankind into something even better. Huxley’s vision is even darker than Orwell’s then. In Huxley’s vision, the transformation of man is the end goal. And that can be achieved by blowing up all existing structures, indoctrinating children in the ideal of the Freudian pleasure principle, and drugging those with higher aspirations into submission to that pleasure principle. As Huxley wrote:
This really revolutionary revolution is to be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings. Living as he did in a revolutionary period, the Marquis de Sade very naturally made use of this theory of revolutions in order to rationalize his peculiar brand of insanity. Robespierre had achieved the most superficial kind of revolution, the political. Going a little deeper, Babeuf had attempted the economic revolution. Sade regarded himself as the apostle of the truly revolutionary revolution, beyond mere politics and economics—the revolution in individual men, women and children, whose bodies were henceforward to become the common sexual property of all and whose minds were to be purged of all the natural decencies, all the laboriously acquired inhibitions of traditional civilization. Between sadism and the really revolutionary revolution there is, of course, no necessary or inevitable connection. Sade was a lunatic and the more or less conscious goal of his revolution was universal chaos and destruction. The people who govern the Brave New World may not be sane (in what may be called the absolute sense of the word); but they are not madmen and their aim is not anarchy but social stability. It is in order to achieve stability that they carry out, by scientific means, the ultimate, personal, really revolutionary revolution.
Something else is required, however, in order to carry forward Huxley’s dystopia: a constant reminder of the enemy. In our society, the enemy has become Judeo-Christian values, inherited wisdom, virtue, and biological reality. And devotees of the World State declare themselves virtuous in fighting those enemies on behalf of the hedonistic value system. After all, they say, just as Mustapha does, that happiness can never be achieved outside the framework of Freudian pleasure. We can hear the echoes of Huxley’s nightmare in the writings of feminist writers like Shulamith Firestone:
Until a certain level of evolution had been reached and technology had achieved its present sophistication, to question fundamental biological conditions was insanity. … We are no longer just animals. And the kingdom of nature does not reign absolute. … [T]he end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality Freud’s ‘polymorphous perversity’—would probably supersede hetero/homo/bisexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would [be] born to both sexes equally, or independently of[,] either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken. And with it the psychology of power.
Man can become free only by becoming an animal, trained using Pavlovian techniques to avoid, at all costs, the thing that makes us most human: the drive for something higher, beyond ourselves. That is the message of the World State. John’s message, though, continues to resonate. Human happiness isn’t to be found in soma or promiscuous sex or the “feelies.” It’s to be found in the pursuit of a higher meaning – the pursuit that drives John. Huxley would later write that if he could rewrite Brave New World, he would have posited a “third alternative” beyond the Reservation and the World State: “the possibility of sanity … economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque co-operative. … a society composed of freely co-operating individuals devoted to the pursuit of sanity.”32 Putting aside the politics here – Henry George believed that free markets were most conducive to human flourishing but also believed in a single tax based on property holding, and Kropotkin was an advocate of cooperatives in governance – the reality is that a third option is possible: the alternative of a people oriented toward higher goals, respectful of virtue traditions handed down over generations, and innovative in their pursuit of liberty within those fences. We used to call that option Western civilization. Whether that civilization collapses into the brave new world of Huxley is the question of our time.
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1. Is Mustapha Mond correct that stability can only be brought through satisfaction of desire, even artificially?
2. Is division of labor – Fordism – inherently degrading to the point that it kills the possibility of human achievement?
3. Is the Reservation the true contrast to the World State? Or do they share some features?
4. Is soma truly bad, or is it an actual cure for those who would otherwise be unhappy?
5. Is Brave New World a rebuttal to the feminist movement?
6. How important is the separation of sex and reproduction in the World State?
7. Who is more useful to the World State: John or Bernard?
8. Is John right to continually refuse Lenina when she attempts to pursue sex with him? Or would she have eventually come around to his way of thinking had he acquiesced to her?
9. Would John really kill himself, or was an alternative ending possible?
10. Which is a more accurate take on the dystopian future of Western civilization: Brave New World or 1984?
11. What features do the worlds of Brave New World and 1984 share?
12. What definition of happiness does Huxley believe we should be using? Or is happiness not the goal of human life?
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