Aldous Huxley and Our Brave New World, Part II

[This is the second part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the first part here and the third part here.]

As I will argue later in this installment, both Huxley’s and Orwell’s dystopian visions have been realized, but not by means of coercive state control or narco-hypnotic conditioning. Neither Huxley nor Orwell could have anticipated the digital age. Before I explore the relevance of Huxley’s work to our dystopian present, it is important to explore his influences.

Huxley established himself early in his career as a successful writer and satirist. His early books include Crome YellowAntic HayThose Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point. His fifth novel, Brave New World, would become his greatest work. The predictive power of Brave New World is both extraordinary and improbable. That is to say, the dystopian theme of the novel has far more relevance to the digital age than it had in Huxley’s time. Beyond the literary and scientific influence of his family, Huxley’s ideas in Brave New World were discussed and debated by the leading scientists and intellectuals of the day, many of whom were either friends, acquaintances, or family. They include the philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell; J.B.S. Haldane who contributed original work to the areas of physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and mathematics; his great uncle and poet, Matthew Arnold; Albert Einstein with his general theory of relativity; and several other notable writers of the time. Although Huxley was heavily influenced by the adventure and utopian writer, H. G. Wells, he never cared for the man, labeling him as a “vulgar little man.”[i] Part of Huxley’s disdain was due to Wells’ anti-semitism.

Neither Huxley nor Orwell could have anticipated the digital age.

For his part, Wells believed that Brave New World was intended as a satiric response to his book, Men Like Gods. Wells felt offended and accused Huxley of misunderstanding his utopian vision. Huxley, of course, both understood and rejected Wells’ idealized embrace of a future where scientific knowledge is a guiding principle. In the letters Huxley wrote during the early 1930s, he stated explicitly that his aim was to expose the “horror of the Wellsian Utopia”[ii] Beyond the influence of his contemporaries, Huxley’s doubts about the benefits of science and technology came from Dostoevsky. In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man declares: “Knowledge alone will teach us (…), that man, in fact, does not have and never had neither will, nor wants, but is, in fact, something like a piano key, or an organ pin; that there are laws of nature beyond the world; and everything that man does is not happening in accordance with his will, but just happens, in accordance with the laws of nature. It is sufficient to discover these laws of nature and man will cease to be responsible for his deeds, and will lead his life with ease.”[iii] The idea that the laws of nature could be discovered and used to control and manipulate human beings would become the theme of Huxley’s Brave New World.

H. G. Wells was partly correct that Huxley wrote Brave New World as a derisive parody of Men Like Gods. The truth, however, was slightly more nuanced. According to Huxley, “The reading of Men Like Gods evoked in me an almost pathological reaction in the direction of cynical anti-idealism. So much so that, before I finished the book, I had resolved to write a derisive parody of this most optimistic of Wells’ Utopias. But when I addressed myself to the problem of creating a negative Nowhere, a Utopia in reverse, I found the subject so fascinatingly pregnant with so many kinds of literary and psychological possibilities that I forgot Men Like Gods and addressed myself in all seriousness to the task of writing the book that was later to be known as Brave New World.”[iv] Regardless of Huxley’s motivation, Wells took offense and his aversion towards Huxley lasted more than ten years. If Huxley initially planned to satirize Wellsian Utopian tropes, then the question becomes: Where did he draw inspiration from for his dystopian ideas?

Aside from Dostoevsky, the one writer that may have influenced his dystopian ideas was Yevgeny Zamyatin. Ten years his senior, Zamyatin was born in Tambov Governorate, some 200 miles south of Moscow. His father was a Russian Orthodox priest and his mother a musician. During the time he was studying naval engineering in St. Petersburg, Zamyatin joined the Bolsheviks, who were a radical far-left faction of the Socialist Democratic Labour Party. The word Bolsheviks literally means the “majority” in Russian. Founded in 1905 by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks played a minor role in the failed Russian revolution. By 1917, the Bolsheviks would succeed in overthrowing the Tsar, executing him and his family, and creating the Soviet Union. Zamyatin was arrested during the failed revolution of 1905 and sent to Siberia. He managed to escape and returned to St. Petersburg. He went on to Finland to finish his education. After his return to Russia, he was arrested once again, but later given amnesty. His first novel, Uyezdnoye (A Provincial Tale), brought him some degree of fame.

Beyond the literary and scientific influence of his family, Huxley’s ideas in Brave New World were discussed and debated by the leading scientists and intellectuals of the day.

Following the 1917 revolution, Zamyatin worked as an editor and translated several writers, including Jack London and H. G. Wells. His greatest literary influence was undoubtedly Dostoevsky. More specifically, Zamyatin was profoundly influenced by Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. In 1921, Zamyatin published the essay, I Am Afraid, which attacked Lenin and the communists who came to power. Although he aligned himself with the Bolsheviks in the past, he distanced himself from them when the newly established Soviet Union engaged in censorship. In I Am Afraid, Zamyatin wrote: “True literature can exist only when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.”[v] This essay made it dangerous for Zamyatin to publish his next novel, We, in Russia, which is why he smuggled it out of the country and sent it to the E. P. Dutton Company in New York. The novel was translated to English by Gregory Zilboorg, who was a psychoanalyst and historian of psychiatry, and published in 1924.

We is simultaneously a polemic against the scientific socialism of H. G. Wells and a critique of the recently established Soviet police state. The uncanny parallels between We and Brave New World led George Orwell to suggest that Huxley’s work was partly derived from Zamyatin. In the 1950s, Kurt Vonnegut stated that his dystopian novel, Player Piano, was, “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”[vi] The dystopian vision of We takes place in the distant future. Following a two-hundred-year apocalyptic war that reduced the world population to 2 percent, a scientifically engineered society known as the One State was created. The God-like ruler of this artificial society is known as the Benefactor. The Benefactor believes that individual freedom is secondary to the welfare of the state. The One State is cut off from the outside world by a barrier known as the Green Wall. The inhabitants, known as ciphers, live in glass houses, thus making it easier for the state to observe them. Despite the fact the inhabitants of the One State have their material needs satisfied, including scheduled sex, they live under the oppressive eye of the Benefactor.

The ciphers must wear identical uniforms (“unifs”) as a reminder that individuality will not be tolerated. Daily life is meticulously planned and controlled by a detailed schedule known as the Table of Hours. Even scheduled sex is bereft of any passion or emotional context. Anyone who defies the rules of the One State will be punished by an elaborate execution via the Machine of the Benefactor. In effect, life in the One State operates like clockwork. Everything is so scientifically ordered and anticipated that there is no need for a single unique thought. The influence of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is unmistakable. In lashing out at the modernity of the nineteenth century, the Underground Man declares, “Twice two is four, after all, is a truly insufferable thing… Twice two is four, why this, in my opinion, is simply an effrontery, sir. Twice two is four looks like a fop, stands across your road, arms akimbo, and spits. I agree that twice two is four is an excellent thing; but if we are to give everything its due, then twice two is five is also sometimes a very charming little thing.”[vii] The metaphor of “twice two is four” represents the triumph of reason over our irrational nature. Dostoevsky believed that when a list of rational courses of action is calculated, then a man will no longer be free.

“True literature can exist only when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.”

The One State uses numbers to identify people, which was done not only for the sake of efficiency, but to subsume everyone under the collective “we” rather than the individuated “I,” thus the title of the book. The story centers around D-503, who is a spacecraft engineer. D-503 is working on a spaceship that will enable the Benefactor to conquer other worlds. The One State is made entirely of glass and is a panopticon-like structure. Here you can see the clear influence of Dostoevsky’s crystal palace, as well as Jeremy Bentham, who designed the panopticon, which is an institutional building where a single guard can observe prison inmates without their awareness. In other words, the One State is a form of control that is antiseptically administered. The totalitarian nature of the One State is managed using the principles of F. W. Taylor. Frederick Winslow Taylor was an American engineer and an expert in the area of industrial efficiency. In 1911, Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management, which is widely regarded as the most influential management book of the twentieth century. The fact the Soviet Union attempted to implement Taylorism may have influenced Zamyatin’s conception of a Soviet-like dystopian future. The One State is a society run with scientific precision and existing laws are grounded in reason alone. Behavior itself is derived from logically consistent formulas and equations introduced by the One State.

Like all citizens in One State, D-503 lives in a glass apartment and is watched by the Bureau of Guardians, who are in essence the secret police. For companionship, the One State assigned O-90 to visit him on certain nights to satisfy his sexual needs. Everything is organized, categorized, planned, mathematically predicted, and scientifically controlled. One night, D-503 goes on a planned walk with O-90. During that fateful night, a woman by the name of I-330 encounters the couple and begins to flirt with D-503. I-330 is different from anyone D-503 has ever met. She smokes cigarettes and drinks alcohol, which are illegal in the One State. Both repelled and attracted by the spontaneous nature of I-330, D-503 accepts an invitation to meet her at the Ancient House, which is the only opaque house in One State. When D-503 becomes about missing work, I-330 has a corrupt doctor write him a fictitious note. Soon after he leaves the Ancient house, D-503 begins to have dreams, which alarms him, as dreams are thought to be a symptom of mental illness.

Over time, I-330 reveals to D-503 that she is involved with a subversive group called the Mephi that is plotting to bring down the One State. She then takes him through a labyrinth of secret tunnels inside the Ancient house where the outside world is revealed. The Mephi’s goal is to reunite the citizens of One State with the outside world. When D-503 confronts I-330 about her dangerous revolution, she tries to use mathematics to persuade him:

“Do you realize that what you are suggesting is a revolution?”
“Of course, it’s a revolution. Why not?”
“Because there can’t be a revolution. Our Revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.”
“My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?”
“What do you mean, the last number?”
“Well, then the biggest number!”
“But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be the last one.”
“Then why do you talk about the last revolution?”[viii]

By the end of the novel, we learn that D-503 was subjected to the “Great Operation,” which means he was psycho-surgically altered to conform to the scientifically engineered cultural norms of the One State. The procedure removes any traces of imagination and emotions in order to exercise control over the inhabitants. Following the procedure, D-503 informs the authorities of an imminent revolution by the Mephi. The revolution occurs and a part of the wall of the One State (the Green Wall) is destroyed. We ends with the One State collapsing, as the engineered society begins to crumble.

Dostoevsky believed that when a list of rational courses of action is calculated, then a man will no longer be free.

Dostoevsky’s influence in We is unmistakable. The idea of bread was central to Dostoevsky’s conception of freedom. In the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan relates a parable to his brother, Alyosha. In this parable, Christ returns to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. After performing miracles, Christ is arrested and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor. The setting between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ is perhaps the most philosophical aspect of Dostoevsky’s work. Early on in the conversation, the Inquisitor attacks Christ for rejecting the three temptations of Satan while he was in the desert. The temptations include turning stones into bread, casting himself from the temple, and ruling all of the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor then tells Christ that humanity would have been much better off if had given himself to such temptations. The following quote gets at the heart of the bread and freedom metaphor:

“Do you see these stones in this bare, scorching desert? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling lest you withdraw your hand and your loaves cease for them. But you did not want to deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, for what sort of freedom is it, you reasoned, if obedience is bought with loaves of bread.”[ix]

It is this small passage in Dostoevsky’s work, singular in its philosophical distinction, that reveals the dilemma of freedom and the price attached to it.

If we give people all the comfort they desire in exchange for their obedience, then what becomes of freedom?

What is freedom? What is its nature, if it is bought with bread? The bread here represents material comfort. In other words, if we give people all the comfort they desire in exchange for their obedience, then what becomes of freedom? In Zamyatin’s work, the One State is a scientifically engineered society where every conceivable detail is accounted for. The inhabitants have all the material comforts they need, and yet they are prisoners of an ideology that elevates science above freedom. In the Grand Inquisitor parable, the Inquisitor tells Christ the Church has given humanity what it needs: A blueprint for living without the burden of freedom. Why would anyone need to think about the world when the Church provides ready-made knowledge and understanding? In the One State, the church has been replaced with science and freedom negated by techno-psychological conditioning. Freedom in Zamyatin’s work is both a burden and our last form of liberation.

[This is the second part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the first part here and the third part here.]

[i] Thomson, I. (1994). Grave New World. The Guardian.

[ii] Lewicki, G. (2008). Dostoevsky Extended: Aldous Huxley on Grand Inquisitor, Specialisation and Future of Science. Culture and Politics — Tischner European University Papers. Issue 2/3, pp.210–233.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Real, W. (2013). Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a Parody and Satire of Wells, Ford, Freud, and Behaviorism.

[v] Ginsberg, M. (1991). I Am Afraid (1921) p. 57, in: A Soviet Heretic. Trans. Mirra Ginsberg. London. Quartet Books. P. 53–58.

[vi] Playboy Interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Archived. 10, February 2009 at the Wayback Machine, July 1973.

[vii] Mochulsky, K. (1971). Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. P. 250.

[viii] Orwell, G. (1946). Freedom and Happiness (Review of We By Yevgeny Zamyatin. The Orwell Foundation. This review was written by George Orwell in 1946, three years before Nineteen Eighty Four was published. In his review, Orwell concludes writing: “It is this intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism- human sacrifice, cruelty as an end in itself, the worship of a leader who is credited with divine attributes- that makes Zamyatin’s book superior to Huxley’s.

[ix] Peters, B. (2012). Dostoevsky & the Burden of Freedom. Modern Psychologist.

Photo by Vladimir Malyavko on Unsplash


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By Salvatore Difalco