[This is the third and last part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the first part here and the second part here.]
As we look at Huxley’s work, we will find striking parallels to Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, We.
Brave New World is also set in the distant future. The year is 2540 CE or 632 AF, where AF stands for “After Ford.” Ford’s assembly line is so revered that a new era began in 1908 CE, which is the year Ford first introduced the Model T. Huxley’s dystopian society is called the World State, which operates on the principles of science and efficiency. Individuality and the freedom of choice are forbidden. Children are conditioned to ignore their emotions and sense of individual identity. One of the mantras of the World State is that “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Children are not born, but rather created outside the womb and cloned. Using chemicals and hormones, each thus-created child has a predetermined function and is assigned to a particular class. Some of the citizens are destined for the higher class, which means they are perfected physically and mentally at the embryonic stage. Those who belong to the lower classes are engineered to be less perfect. Each class is assigned a name: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. The Alphas become the leaders and the Epsilons perform menial labor. All citizens of the World State exist in a meticulously engineered happy state, which keeps them perpetually distracted.
The more we rely on the exactitude of science to categorize, control, manipulate, predict, and envelop our every move, the more dystopian we become.
Happiness is derived “from consuming mass-produced goods, sports such as Obstacle Golf and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy [a game where children fling a ball onto a platform. The ball rolls down the interior and lands on a rotating disk that hurls the ball in a random direction. The object of the game is for children to catch the ball.], promiscuous sex, “the feelies” (movies that are experienced not only by sight and sound, but also by touch), and, most famously of all, a supposedly perfect pleasure-drug, soma.”[i] Soma is a type of euphoriant that gives rise “to only shallow, unempathetic, and intellectually uninteresting well-being.”[ii] Following in the footsteps of Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s description of a culture that is endlessly distracted by the trivialities of artificially induced happiness is at the heart of his dystopian vision. In fact, the title of the book, Brave New World, comes from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, where Miranda, who is only aware of her father, Prospero, and their slave, Caliban, is introduced to the savage people on an island for the first time. Her reaction, both innocent and idealistic, is one of wonder and amazement. Miranda declares, “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!”[iii] Miranda’s exuberance of youth filters out any trace of cynicism, as she only sees the beauty of people.
Huxley turns the naïve interpretation of Miranda’s brave new world on its head. The title of his book is an ironic dystopian view of man’s relentless pursuit of reason and science. The title, in fact, serves as a warning against the kind of scientific utopianism popular in his day. As with Dostoevsky and Zamyatin before him, the more we rely on the exactitude of science to categorize, control, manipulate, predict, and envelop our every move, the more dystopian we become. This seems to be the theme of all dystopian novels; the more we try to move away from our irrational nature, the more we resist the utopia presented to us on a silver platter. We are, to the core, the number five; irrational and unamenable to the harmony of the number four. Despite our evolving scientific and technological sophistication, we will always assert our freedom, whether it is real or imagined, as a means of asserting that we exist. The rational ordering of human beings, and the tension between the “I” and the “we,” is the singular defining theme of our world today. Huxley’s dystopian world anticipated what was to come by examining what happens to us when we take the scientific engineering of humanity to the extremes.
Despite our evolving scientific and technological sophistication, we will always assert our freedom, whether it is real or imagined, as a means of asserting that we exist.
Brave New World is centered around Bernard Marx, who was born an Alpha. Marx works as a psychologist at the London Hatching and Conditioning Centre, where citizens are engineered in artificial wombs and indoctrinated into the World State. Although Marx belongs to the higher class, his diminutive physical stature has given him an inferiority complex. Lenina Crowne, who is popular and sexually desirable, works with Marx at the Hatching. Her job is to describe to the young boys how she vaccinates embryos for different functions in the World State. The director leads the boys to the nursery where a group of infants, who are destined to become Delta citizens, are programmed to dislike books and flowers. The Director explains to the students that Deltas are programmed to become docile and eager consumers. The children are then taught about the morals of the World State. Outside, Mustapha Mond, who is one of the ten World Controllers, explains to the boys the history of the World State and the need to remove emotions, desires, and human relationships from society. Marx, who is dissatisfied with the World State, primarily because of his anxiety about his physical stature, asks Lenina if she would accompany him on his vacation to a savage reservation in New Mexico.
When Marx asks his superior for permission to take a vacation, the Director tells him about his own trip twenty years earlier. He informs Marx of the woman he took with him, who was lost during a storm, and he never saw her again. The director gives his permission to Marx and Lenina to take a vacation. When Marx contacts his friend, Helmholtz, he learns the Director is planning on exiling him to Iceland for his difficult antisocial behavior. Once on the reservation, Marx and Lenina witness a religious ritual where a young man is whipped and are disturbed by the horrific scene. Shortly after the ritual, they meet a light-skinned young man, John, who appears to be isolated from the others in the village. John proceeds to tell Marx about his childhood and his mother, Linda, who were both rescued by the villagers. Marx realizes that Linda is the woman mentioned by the Director. John was raised in isolation as punishment for his mother’s promiscuous behavior. He tells Marx he is eager to see this “brave new world” his mother told him about. Marx agrees, but only if Linda returns with them. Disgusted by what she perceives as the barbaric people, Lenina consumes enough soma to put her to sleep for eighteen hours.
The rational ordering of human beings, and the tension between the “I” and the “we,” is the singular defining theme of our world today.
Marx calls Mustapha Mond to ask permission to bring both Linda and John back to the World State. When Marx introduces Linda and John to the Director, John cries out “father,” which embarrasses the Director. Over time, John becomes a celebrity, or a curiosity, as he was raised among savages. In fact, people start calling him “the savage” and are eager to observe him like a caged animal. Attracted by his savagery, Lenina attempts to seduce John, but is rebuffed with curses. After his mother dies, John attempts to start an uprising by persuading a group of Delta citizens to revolt. After the riot is quelled by the police using soma vapor, John and Max are arrested and brought to Mond. It is here that John and Mustapha Mond engage in a philosophical conversation about the value and purpose of the World State. John argues that the so-called utopia that Mustapha Mond created dehumanizes people. Mond responds by telling him that order is more important than happiness. Mond goes on to tell John that stability and order supersede our desire for art, religion, and even science.
The conversation between John and Mond plays out in a very similar manner to the conversation between Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and Christ. John, who lacks the intellectual sophistication of Mond, attempts to expose the flaws in Mond’s reasoned arguments. It is worth quoting the final conversation from Brave New World. John begins:
“Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Isn’t there something in that?” he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond.
“Quite apart from God — though, of course, God would be a reason for it. Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”
“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”
“What?” Questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”
“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”
“But I like the inconveniences.”
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“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.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.[iv]
Mond’s ambivalent final words leave the reader contemplating the question of freedom versus social control. How we answer this question for ourselves will determine how we engage with the digital age.
We no longer need a science-fiction parable to offer us a commentary on our present world. Our world today is dystopian.
Mustapha Mond is in essence “The Grand Inquisitor.” Both Mond and the inquisitor prefer order and happiness to the irrational tendencies of individual thought. They both accept that twice two is always four; rather than the chaos of the number five. John the savage is Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. John is fighting for the freedom to be irrational; the freedom to choose without having an all-powerful state tell him what to think and how to act. There are those who see Brave New World as a reimagining of Dostoevsky’s parable of The Grand Inquisitor. Rebecca West, the novelist and literary critic, and also the mistress of H. G. Wells, argued that Huxley had “rewritten in terms of our age” Dostoevsky’s parable of The Grand Inquisitor, which is a “symbolic statement that every generation ought to read afresh.”[v] West was, of course, correct in that every age needs a conversation about the dangers of a scientifically orchestrated society.
Huxley’s Brave New World is also about how we view progress as the inevitable movement towards our hidden potential. In other words, progress is the constant unfolding of new realities and actualities that promise us an evolving sense of perfectibility. And here lies the problem. Our concept of perfection is a goal that is always out of reach; a kind of Zeno’s paradox where we can never bridge the space from where we are and where we want to go. It is this paradigm that shapes and defines our understanding of constant improvement. The only problem, of course, is that our definition of perfection and improvement is bound by the materiality of this world. We believe that our inexorable drive towards scientific and technological improvement is both liberating and enlightening. The fact that our intellectual or spiritual life is sacrificed is of no consequence. We have created our own brave new world grounded in mathematical precision and technological convenience. We have created, wittingly or otherwise, the world filled with endless distractions that keep us perpetually numb to the world of ideas.
If the soma in Huxley’s work has the functional effect of an opiate that keeps people in a constant state of euphoric delight, then today our soma is social media, smartphones, laptops, endless apps, and the consumption of a near-infinite supply of consumable content.
Dostoevsky’s prediction, coupled with Zamyatin and Huxley’s dystopian vision has been realized. We no longer need a science-fiction parable to offer us a commentary on our present world. Our world today is dystopian. It is, on the surface, filled with shiny gadgets that keep us perpetually occupied with the trivial and the mundane. If the soma in Huxley’s work has the functional effect of an opiate that keeps people in a constant state of euphoric delight, then today our soma is social media, smartphones, laptops, endless apps, and the consumption of a near-infinite supply of consumable content. In fact, we do not need to wait hundreds of years in the distant future to experience a life of mind-numbing distractions. The drugs of choice today are our shiny little toys that we can hold in our hands. Who needs a Mustapha Mond to control us when we have algorithm-driven corporations that condition us to believe what they want us to believe; to buy what they want us to buy, to vote the way they want us to vote; and generally to consume whatever they put on our virtual plates. The World State has been fully realized. We are instantly connected to anyone and everyone on the planet. Our homes don’t need to be made of glass, as there are other means of monitoring us.
Huxley showed us what the future might be and his vision was frightening. What makes Huxley more relevant today is that his vision became a reality; not hundreds of years from now, but in less than a century. What is more disturbing is that we don’t see the connection between the dystopian world of one writer’s imagination and our own reality of today. Wherever you look, you will find that we celebrate the crystal palace we created. We marvel at our own achievement and eagerly anticipate the latest innovation and breakthroughs.
The drugs of choice today are our shiny little toys that we can hold in our hands.
Our constant distractions have reduced us to digital zombies. We have lost our ability to engage in intellectual discourse. We have lost our ability to focus and concentrate for any meaningful amount of time. We have become a visual and trivial culture. If this is the vision Huxley had of the future, then his student, George Orwell would alarm us with an even darker image. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four imagines a future where society will be controlled at the epistemic level. In other words, the future will be ruled by a totalitarian state that controls not only our actions, but our thoughts as well.
[This is the third and last part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the first part here and the second part here.]
[i] (2020). Brave New World? A Defense of Paradise-Engineering. Huxley.net.
[iii] Bowen, H.C. The Shakespeare Reading Book, Being Seventeen of Shakespeare’s Plays. 2015. Mishawaka, IN. Palala Press. P. 538.
[v] Nicol, C. (2007). Brave New World at 75. The New Atlantis. Pp. 41–54. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/brave-new-world-at-75.
Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash