Five Books to Understand the Modern World Part Three: ‘Brave New World’
In the first part of the twentieth century, two very different men wrote parallel, yet divergent, predictions concerning the future of the western world.
In 1949, in the shadow of rampant totalitarianism, George Orwell wrote ‘1984’, in which he predicted the rise of Big Brother, the Ministry of Love, Newspeak, and thought crime – all instruments of a repressive future political order in which freedom is vanquished.
In 1932, at the outset of the consumer and permissive society, Aldous Huxley wrote the novel ‘Brave New World’, also a dystopian take on the future.
Yet ‘Brave New World’ imagines a vastly different kind of oppression coming our way.
Writer and critic Neil Postman explains the differences better than I can, in the introduction to his book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
“Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy…
“In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
In short, ‘Brave New World’ is probably the most terrifying book you will ever read – for two reasons. Firstly, because the world Huxley imagines is so dreadful. And secondly, because that world is basically our home now.
Huxley imagines a world of genetic engineering, in which natural birth has been abolished. All people are planned by the state and thus naturally are organised into caste systems according to ability. People are taught their skills and state doctrine via hypnosis.
There is no family anymore, and sex is completely detached from procreation. Women wear ‘Malthusian Belts’ that carry convenient birth control products. Sex is perfectly free and entirely for pleasure. To have sex with one person regularly is seen as selfish.
There is no sickness, no poverty, no suffering. People are entertained by mass sporting events, television, and ritualist orgies, fuelled by legal psychedelic drugs.
Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud are deified as founders of the new order: Ford, because he invented mass production (upon which a consumer society is built), and Freud, because he imagined guilt and suffering as mere neuroses to be rationally edited out of existence. Yes, Huxley is not fair on either of them in reality, but they serve as useful symbols for the World Controllers to plan and manipulate society.
In short, Huxley has imagined a world of control and order and pleasure – at the cost of the human spirit.
Chillingly, some modern thinkers actually like the idea of the Brave New World.
Celebrated historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Homo Deus’, actually welcomes the Brave New World in our time as the harbinger of the god-man and immortality.
Yet there is one character in the novel itself who detests this perfect world.
The new world order in the novel leaves some territories outside of their civilization as reservations for so-called savages. One such savage is named John, the son of a former citizen of the world state who abandoned her life because of her shame at accidentally falling pregnant.
Knowing only the religious and primitive life of his reservation, and being taught to read using only a scientific manual and the complete works of Shakespeare, John is eager to learn about the ‘brave new world’ as worded by the desert-island born Miranda in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.
When he travels to the World State, he is disgusted.
He falls in love with the lead female character, Lenina, yet is appalled when she immediately offers him sex. He tries to prevent fellow citizens from taking drugs, and, in short, demands the right to be unhappy, to live a life made up of Shakespearean drama.
Ultimately, his stand is doomed to fail, and this is Huxley’s final act of pessimism concerning our world. Resistance is futile.
What about our resistance?
Are we doomed to a life of digital addiction, consumerism, and cheap pleasure?
The extent to which we have already been saturated with such a culture is not yet fully understood.
Social media, for example, is far more sophisticated than anybody realises. When you log in, you enter an algorithm specifically designed for your tastes, by means of all the collected information revolving around your use of data as recorded by your smartphone. You enter a consumer paradise.
On the other hand, if you visit many night clubs, what you see won’t be too different from a soma-fuelled orgy in the novel. Equally, some people say that social reform will be impossible in Britain as long as the vast masses remain fixated by watching soccer matches on every free day from work they get.
Like John the Savage, should we despair utterly?
What Huxley did not allow for is the human genius to rise above our circumstances.
We always have a choice, and the Brave New World is not inevitable. We also have tools and weapons far more powerful than Shakespeare (great as he may be) with which we can rebuild a new culture, much like Asterix and Obelix use their magic potion to protect their village from the Roman invaders.
We have family. We have nature. We have love. We have faith. We have the Spirit of God.
Ultimately, there is also not an absolute dichotomy between the Brave New World and a life of meaning. We need not be savages. We can use technology for good.
In conclusion, Huxley noted himself after writing the book, that there is in fact a third way beyond both savagery and hedonistic bliss:
“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.
“… 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?’”
But, you have to choose. Perfect pleasure, or costly freedom.
In the words of Huxley again: “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”