The dialectic nature of history, with its intersecting and overlapping forces, helps us understand how ideas evolve, impinge, shape, define, contradict, cancel out, and generally impose themselves upon our consciousness. Ideas themselves are the product of biographical moments that are captured and printed on a page, publicly engaged and debated, where they eventually end up as part of our collective discourse. These biographical moments offer us unique insights into an author’s intellectual frame of reference, cultural influences, generational temperament, state of mind, and so forth. When we think of an author, we associate a book, or a set of books, with that individual without thinking about all the forces that converged to produce the literature we read. In other words, the acts of thinking and writing are not, in themselves, bound by the individual author working in isolation. Writing is a reflection of the collective intellectual influences that have come before. Once these influences are revealed, we gain a much deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the texts we read. Let’s take a look at the generation of writers who were influenced by Dostoevsky’s dystopian sensibility.
On September 18, 1917, an ambitious 23-year-old who had graduated from Oxford the previous year was hired as a schoolmaster at Eton College, which was, and continues to be, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the world. The list of Eton alumni (known as Old Etonians) is impressive, to say the least. Aside from Prince William and Prince Harry, as well as numerous members of the extended Royal family, notable alumni include former Prime Minister Anthony Eden, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, King Leopold III of Belgium, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ian Fleming, Robert Boyle, John Maynard Keynes, Eddie Redmayne, etc. The 23-year-old who was hired to shape the minds of the young men who belonged to the upper crust of British society was none other than Aldous Huxley. His grandfather, Thomas Huxley, was the renowned biologist who passionately defended Darwin’s theory of evolution. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Huxley will forever be remembered for his participation in the famous 1860 Oxford debate on evolution. The debate had a panel format that included Bishop Samuel Wilberforce; the physiologist and surgeon, Benjamin Brodie; the botanist, Joseph Dalton Hooker; and Robert FitzRoy who was the captain of the Beagle that took Darwin on a five-year voyage to South America and the Galápagos Islands.
When we think of an author, we associate a book, or a set of books, with that individual without thinking about all the forces that converged to produce the literature we read.
The debate was notable as it marked a punctuated historical moment where evolution, and science in general, rose to prominence. Although the central topic of the debate was Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Darwin himself was notably absent. Not one to engage in controversy, Darwin invoked his poor health, and the health of his daughter, in order to avoid attending what he believed would be a contentious debate.[i] The debate was indeed contentious with ad hominem attacks hurled between Huxley and Wilberforce. Towards the end of the debate, Bishop Wilberforce posed an ungentlemanly question to Huxley regarding his ancestry. The Bishop asked Huxley, “whether he would prefer a monkey for his grandfather or his grandmother?” Although the precise language of Huxley’s response is uncertain, his retort was something to the effect, “If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessing great means & influence & yet who employs those faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion — I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”[ii] While many today believe that Huxley proved to be intellectually superior to Bishop Wilberforce, the truth was much more nuanced.
In addition to Thomas Huxley, Aldous Huxley’s family represented the intellectual pinnacle of British society. His father, Leonard Huxley, was a biographer. His mother, Julia Arnold, came from a literary family of her own, as her uncle was the poet, Matthew Arnold. His brother, Sir Julian Huxley, was the world-renowned biologist and the first director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Coming from a family of letters and science, Aldous set his sights on becoming a doctor. Fate had other plans for him when, in 1911, he contracted punctate keratitis, a condition in which the eye’s cornea is inflamed. Despite this condition, which left him nearly blind, he graduated from Oxford in 1916. His brother, Julian wrote of Aldous’ blindness: “I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking up medicine as a career… His uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province.”[iii] This brings us to Eton College where Aldous taught French for a year. One of his students at Eton was a young man by the name of Eric Blair. Later, the world will come to know Eric Blair by his pen name, George Orwell. Both teacher and pupil would go on to produce two of the most recognizable dystopian novels of the twentieth century.
While many today believe that Huxley proved to be intellectually superior to Bishop Wilberforce, the truth was much more nuanced.
Huxley published Brave New World in 1932 and George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four seventeen years later. Both teacher and student contemplated a dystopian future where the government controls human behavior. Huxley believed that social control will come about through human conditioning, where we will be so distracted that we won’t have time to think about anything else. Orwell’s dystopian society is much darker in that a future totalitarian society not only controls our actions, but our thoughts as well. It is interesting here to note the biographical intersection between these two writers. When Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on June 8, 1949, Orwell asked his publisher, Secker & Warburg, to send a copy to Huxley. It took Huxley four months to respond. In his letter dated October 21, 1949, Huxley praised Orwell’s efforts, then proceeded to engage in a literary analysis comparing Orwell’s novel to his own dystopian work. Huxley believed that his dystopian version was more plausible. The difference Huxley pointed out is not a matter of style, but is of a more philosophical nature. Huxley believed that a police state is not necessary to subdue a population and that more sophisticated methods would yield better results than to threaten violence on people if they did not conform.
Huxley believed that his dystopian version was more plausible. The difference Huxley pointed out is not a matter of style, but is of a more philosophical nature.
The letter Huxley wrote to Orwell is historically important, as it delineates the intellectual differences between teacher and student. Huxley wrote the letter from California, which became his home when he moved there in 1937. It is worth quoting the letter here in its entirety:
21 October 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait for a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psychoanalysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation, I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant 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. In other words, I feel that 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. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a larger-scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
Huxley revealed that his dystopian prediction goes beyond a fictional account of what the future might hold. He predicted the next generation of rulers will use drugs to hypnotize people for the purpose of control. He accepts as an axiom of truth that people will not only be controlled, but they will also love their servitude. It is important to point out that six years after writing Brave New World, Huxley moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a screenwriter. Four years after writing his letter to Orwell, Huxley experimented with mysticism and psychedelics, including mescaline in 1953 and LSD in 1955. He chronicled his experiment with psychedelic drugs in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception. Incidentally, the rock band, The Doors, which was formed in 1965 by two UCLA film students, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, adopted the name of their band after being inspired by Huxley’s book.
[i] Smith, J. (2013). The Huxley-Wilberforce ‘Debate’ on Evolution, 30 June 1860. Branchcollective.org. http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=jonathan-smith-the-huxley-wilberforce-debate-on-evolution-30-june-1860. I’m indebted to Jonathan Smith’s well-researched article concerning the 1860 Oxford debate. I have long read that Huxley thoroughly defeated Bishop Wilberforce in the debate. Smith has powerfully established this was a biased perspective from the Darwinists in attendance. Smith goes on to say, “Huxley, the traditional account has it, vanquished Wilberforce by responding to an insulting question about his own ancestry with a masterful rejoinder that exposed the Bishop’s ignorance of science and ungentlemanly behavior. Historians have shown that this traditional account is biased and distorted, a construction many years after the fact by the Darwinians and their allies, yet it continues to live on, even in literary studies. Reconstructing the Huxley-Wilberforce encounter, the contexts in which it took place and what is and is not knowing about it, yields an understanding of the relationship between religion and science in the Victorian period that is fuller and more complex than the traditional ‘conflict’ model.”
[iii] Huxley, J. (1965). Aldous Huxley 1894–1963: a Memorial Volume. London. Chatto & Windus. P. 22.
[iv] (2012). 1984 v. Brave New World. Letters of Note. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/1984-v-brave-new-world.html.