Sunday, February 07, 2016

Brave New World (1932)

One thing that strikes me about so many of these popular novels taught in high school which I have been looking at recently, including Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, is how much more poorly written they are than I remembered—but not without impressive features, of course. Like Fahrenheit 451, the story and characters in Brave New World are all but throwaway. It's the imaginative vision of a future that's compelling. What's ironic for me is that this future vision doesn't look so bad, for a dystopia—except for the requirements to socialize, which would represent an entire ring of hell for me. Beyond that: good drugs, plentiful sex, and endless consumer goods for all, not to mention jobs and suitable work. What's to complain about? I went back to this novel originally because I thought there might be a comparison between its "soma" drug and today's antidepressants. It doesn't work entirely. Soma is more a recreational, high-making drug taken usually in casual social situations, whereas antidepressants have more of a pharmaceutical aura, as "meds" taken by regimen, and its most enthusiastic adherents swear its mood-altering effects are not specifically noticeable. That wasn't my experience, but that's another story. Ecstasy (antidepressants' chemical cousin) is probably the more apt comparison with soma, because it tends to be more intermittently used and is more of an all-consuming experience. Also, ecstasy culture leans heavily toward socializing—it's not an alienating drug but an affection-making one. Still, I have to admit, as the isolating individualist crank I have become, I would probably not be happy in the "brave new world" described by Huxley.

As with Fahrenheit 451 and its plasma TVs, Brave New World gets points for prescience. The genetic engineering seems more likely than ever, we are nearly there now in fact, but the elements of mass production that so rightly worried him seem less likely as applied here. At the same time, I'm really not sure it's all such a bad idea: human beings mass produced to specification, and defects destroyed as soon as they are discovered. The destruction of the biological family unit as a foundation of society. Schools that steer students to foreordained roles and positions. Conditioning for adjustment. I did not find any of it extremely discomfiting, though certainly the potential for abuse is obvious, attempting to take natural selection as we understand it now out of the equation. The cliché of the Stephen Hawking example remains useful: would Hawking's value have been recognized in this novel's society, or would he have been discarded and destroyed early? Would humans even continue to entertain aspirational visions, such as exploring space and understanding the universe? There's little doubt that the world of mass production and Skinnerian-style conditioning envisioned by Huxley would flatten out the highs with the lows, which could lead to mere pleasure-seeking and survival, the mediocrity of a society in stagnation. But I have to admit that the stability of Huxley's world appeals to me. Instead of war, people go on empty vacation jaunts and have sex with one another, before returning to work again. That sounds like an improvement to me. And I don't know why aspiration would be necessarily taken out of the picture, unless someone with access to the production process nefariously and deliberately programmed it out—clearly one of the abuses that would have to be risked, and may indeed have occurred in Huxley's novel. But does it really have to be that way? The problem, as always, is the one of getting from here to there. The devil is in the details, and all that. But again, for a dystopic novel, I think Brave New World often paints a surprisingly pretty picture, caste system and all. Viewed from certain angles, it is as if humanity has purged itself of the seven deadly sins, addressing their sources and providing adequately for the human needs they represent. Tweak it a little more and you might have something.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Love your angle here. Drugs, sex, consumerism, sure, mathematically sorted, regulated, but in exchange for war, continual conflict, why not?!