A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.
The dystopian novel, recently a noted trend in YA sections and movie theaters, has been haunting high school and middle school halls for decades under the much less stylish guise of “assigned reading”. They are loved by teachers because they have a point to make about society, and because they do so with the subtlety of a brass band. In addition, they are full of exciting Sci-Fi futures and action beats to entice the reluctant readers of adolescence.
I had to read a few in school but somehow missed both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, the two giants of the genre. I have only this week gotten around to correcting the later of these gaps in my reading history. So, a decade later than most I get my first taste of Huxley, but what to think of his Brave New World?
Most dystopian fiction starts with a singularly evil incarnation of society, a world that is unsettling and evil. Brave New World starts very much in this vein. The first three chapters are spent explaining the cycle of genetic engineering, pharmaceutical social controls from just shortly after sperm meets egg (this and everything until adulthood happening in labs, of course), behavioral conditioning, and hypnotic suggestions that are used to subdue and control all citizens in this world. It is a very frightening vision that makes humans into manufactured products. Each is designed and treated for their specific function in society. Only a select few are unique, the others are incubated in batches of up to seventy genetic twins.
One of Huxley's greatest successes is crafting a government-corporate environment that gets around the threat of jackbooted thugs and achieves control by means of convenience and pleasantness. Thought and its corollary, resistance, are eliminated by taking away any opportunity or desire to indulge it. People are encouraged—in this case meaning conditioned and indoctrinated—to constantly pursue social activities including pornographic movies, complicated and expensive sports, and frequent sex with multiple partners. Solitude is undesirable and any downtime is spent either asleep or in a drug-induced bliss. It is an inspired turn by Huxley to see the inherent instability of thuggish regimes, but it is not without its own faults.
The means of control take us down a rabbit-hole of human psychology and biology. Even after three chapters learning their methods there are still many features of this massive control mechanism that are revealed as the story runs into some feature of human behavior for which he has not accounted. There are supplements to simulate the effects of violence and pregnancy, there is the sedative/mood improving “soma” pills, the fertilization and incubation processes that are singularly convoluted, and there is some new activity every chapter to account for every moment of every one's day. Every activity has to be intensely stimulating, as boredom leads to thinking and discontent. Also they have to be expensive. There is no appreciating nature taking a stroll, everything requires expensive equipment and facilities to keep people plugged into the endless cycle of pay and earn.
Huxley seems to come up against the reality of human experience that even if we sometimes appear to act like—I really hate this term—sheeple, it is only an illusion. Humans are masters of disturbance. Hardly do we seem to reach anything approaching conformity before someone, for good reason or not, throws a wrench into the works. Take a walk or drive through Manhattan sometime; even enforced rules of the road falter before some taxi driver who is not going to stop just because the light is changing, or a chatty businessman plugged into his phone and charging ahead over women, children, and anyone in his path. We chant together for our favorite sports team, then fight out in the parking lot.
To override every one of our impulses toward individuality involves so many contingencies that you might as well be trying to blot out the sun with a collection of umbrellas. This is the risk of science-fiction though, it is nearly impossible to write science fiction without inviting criticism about your creation. What is established, unequivocally, is that this society, despite its cheerfulness and high consumer ratings, is wrong, evil, no good, awful, and rotten.
We get only cursory glimpses of our away team in those first chapters. We encounter Lenina first. She is the least inclined to rebellion, though she demonstrates unique tendencies of which she is only marginally aware: she tends slightly toward monogamy (we are told she has been seeing only Henry Foster for some weeks, for which she gets a gentle ribbing from her friend), and that she likes Bernard Marx.
Bernard is introduced as a weird and unattractive outcast. A bit of grump too. There are rumors that a mistake had been made during his incubation resulting in his slight build. A minor feature as literary deformities go, but in a society so marked by conformity it becomes important. It is serous enough to make him unpopular but not so bad to have had serious repercussions. He spends time alone, which, as mentioned, is highly unusual and cause for suspicion, and he chooses to dwell on his foul moods rather than dissolve them with a gram of “soma”.
His friend, Helmholtz Watson, plays a particularly odd role in the story. Unlike Bernard, whose individuality stems from being outcast, he is exceptionally well built and bright and has found uninterrupted success in every aspect of life. He is good at his job, popular, great at sports, and desired by women. It is the very ease of his constant prosperity that he finds unfulfilling. He has overshot the means of control to discover boredom and, with it, original thought. He explores these thoughts with a scientific curiosity, unlike the irritable Bernard. If it provides a more measured way of approaching the world it also makes for dull reading. He brings little to the story except to serve as a sounding board to the more dynamic characters.
Then there is John, the offspring of a woman abandoned in a reservation-type community completely cut off from this society. He has caused me the most trouble and appears to defy the tendencies of later dystopian heroes, and the hero he must be. John is the only one to come from outside of this society. He loves Shakespeare and appears, at first, to be bright and sensitive. He is the one who gives us the title Brave New World from a line in The Tempest.
Then John starts to display some troubling tendencies. Not that he does much to upset their society, which is what I would expect, but it becomes increasingly difficult for the reader to see him as a positive figure. To some extant, it is a reaction to a society that tries to strip your humanity from you, but that only takes us so far. From what he tells us of his childhood, he is less our model for a hero of individuality, and more a man stuck between two terrible worlds, both oppressive and dehumanizing, separated only by the sophistication of their technology.
Sexuality is a major factor throughout John's life as well as the book, but it is hard to see through the filter of time how Huxley means to portray this subject. The world government encourages promiscuity, though it has eliminated natural birth. Sex is stripped completely of its reproductive origin, it is prevented from ever producing children and romantic attachments have, like solitude, been effectively eradicated. Their endorsement of sex and promiscuity is an almost certain sign that this book means to challenge increasingly cavalier attitudes about sex. This certainly seemed the case in the early chapters where the children are being encouraged to engage in “erotic play”. Everything about this scene is creepy and terrible.
On the other hand, there is John. Many of his attitudes toward sex specifically, coming from the more traditionally structured world of the “Savage Reservation”—completely isolated from the new world and still practicing monogamous family units—are what we would consider unhealthy. Some of his other attitudes are closer to deranged.
He engages in a lot of disturbing behavior, starting in his childhood, that provide a dissimilar but equally disturbing attitude toward sex. John's mother, Linda, is a product of the world government that got impregnated then lost on a trip through the reservation. When she is taken in by the people of the reservation she thinks nothing of taking on multiple sexual partners. This gives her a bad reputation, particularly among the wives, and even extends to John. Linda incurs the wrath of the wives and gets a whipping for her trouble—as we see too often still, she gets treatment much worse than the husbands who actually betrayed their promise of fidelity. John is raised as an outsider, banished from the important rituals and marriage due not to his race, but his mother's sexuality. His relationship with his mother becomes, in a word, Freudian. It is fraught with jealousy, guilt, anger, a whole pack of issues that manifest in such violence as to seem hardly preferable to the pharmaceutical coma of the rest of the world.
He learns to read, and after some simple sentences and a science text, he is given a copy of the collected Shakespeare. I have a copy of the collected Shakespeare that I turn to in between books, so I believed this was a good step, one towards culture, towards striving and promise, but these hopes are disappointed. John draws from the negative models in Shakespeare, like the impetuous Romeo—who in the span of a week contemplates suicide over one girl, meets another, falls in love, kills a relation of hers, and finally does commit suicide so quickly as to not get news of his new love's death rush—the rash Othello, and Hamlet, whose psychoses are so numerous that I cannot fit them all here. Shakespeare's work itself is implicate through the thoughts of Helmoltz who draws a parallel with his own work writing and teaching—for conditioning and propaganda purposes, naturally— and Shakespeare who, he thinks, has created a “superb piece of emotional engineering!” (p 184)
Within a page of discovering Shakespeare, John finds the words of Hamlet to encourage him to stab his mother's lover—the same that gave him the book. “'When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage/ Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed' The magic was on his side, the magic explained and gave orders.” Its a scene that belongs to a serial killer in a movie, not to the man who saves us from an evil dystopia. Though he offers some moving passages about wonder and love—as when he is introduced to this, “brave new world”—he begins to absorb himself in the most rash and dangerous characters in his repertoire, Romeo and Othello.
Lenina takes an interest in John when they bring him back to England and starts hanging around, attending Bernard's parties and taking John to the “feelies”. John seems to be having an effect on her. She begins to form an emotional connection with him, and even starts to notice things like the night sky, but while she is drawn into the beauty of his world, John retreats further into its cruelest confines. She offers the only connection she knows when she shows up at his apartment to seduce him. He is horrified. Though he has been obsessing over her through readings of Romeo and Juliet, he is unable to cope with her as a person.
She says that if he was interested than he had only to say so. He counters that he had still to prove himself worthy, to, in a sense, earn her, by hunting a lion or vacuuming.
I do believe that there is a legitimate statement to be made about the cost of things. Not in a monetary sense, but in a material sense. The idea that the sacrifice of time and effort, blood and sweat, imbues the reward with value. It is a lesson I was taught as a child, to do things the right way, and when you collect your just reward, you can be proud to know that you earned it. Though, in that case it was literally a reward, a Scout rank specifically. John is referring to a woman, not an object. It is hard to say what audiences would think at the time, but the old concept of winning a girl is creepy and dangerous.
Note how he has become enthralled, obsessed really, with her on only her looks, but she is expected to judge him on material worth. It also brings me back to a scene just as they were leaving New Mexico when John breaks in to their hotel room to find Lenina unconscious—having taken enough “soma” to induce a "holiday”—and just barely refrains from feeling her up. Lenina is more objectified by John than by anyone in England, just because he pictures her having a higher price tag does not make it any less demeaning.
John does not stop at the soft sexism of idol worship. In the face of her overtly sexual advances he turns violent. Lenina slips into his arms where he grasps her harshly, shakes her, shoves her, and, as she retreats to the bathroom, lands a resounding slap. He stalks outside the locked door repeating, “Impudent strumpet, impudent strumpet, impudent strumpet” (p 196) as she asks him to pass her clothes through the vent and does not dare open the door until he has left.
The next scene, with his dying mother, begins a long stretch where John is again sympathetic, but a later reference to Othello brought me back to this apartment scene. Nearly everything John says to Lenina is right from the mouth of Othello, a man so foolish and driven by jealousy that he kills his own innocent wife—not that it would be justified even if she were unfaithful. They centered on in an exchange in the fourth act where Othello berates his bewildered wife.
...O thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!
Was this fair paper, this most goodly book,
Made to write “whore” upon? What committed?
(Othello Act 4 Scene 2, lines 69-83)
It is less an exchange than a verbal lashing. If the emotionless, prolific sex lives of Brave New World are meant to strike us as cold and unfulfilling, then John's are the stuff of overwrought melodramas. He fetishizes suffering, emotions, and subjectivity to the point of madness. He is utterly anti-social to the point where he cannot empathize. That he seems to be going mad should be the result of this faceless society, but it plays out like a man casting his own Shakespearean tragedy. He hates that they don't feel passion, but then he hates passion as well, escalating from impassioned readings of Romeo and Juliet to self-mortification to subdue his desires.
Other examples present themselves lending to this reading of the story. In the obligatory long discussion where the government representative argues against freedom, John never manages to mount a convincing counter. He makes some points about the price of things (discussed above), the greatness of striving and attaining, but it is undercut for me when the discussion somehow winds back to Othello.
The controller explains the Violent Passion Surrogate which is a drug meant to replicate the effects of aggression and risk to which we are otherwise drawn, “All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello without any of the inconveniences” he reasons; to which John responds, “But I like the inconveniences” (p 239-240). Meaning the part where someone is murdered? That could not have been Huxley's idea of a strong response. Of any combination of words in the English language to reply to someone who is offering an alternative to murder, suggesting that murder was just fine as it is, thank you, does not register any where in the realm of “good ideas”. and John, who earlier that day slapped a woman while quoting the lines of that murderer.
The monogamous, family and religion-centered community in Malpais—the reservation—is just as horrifying as the world government. That their society is built on pieces that we recognize from our own world softens the effect but perhaps is meant to bring some of the lessons home. John and Linda are treated with extraordinary cruelty, she being whipped and he shunned for her sexuality. Surely this is not our safer shore. It seems, if anything, to serve as Scylla to the world government's Charybdis.
The rituals and beliefs that John takes to the end present the photo negative to that of the world at large. In Kundera's terms: if theirs is a society operates under the sign of lightness, then his operates under that of weight, and one is just as horrible as the other. Like in the lashing ritual, suffering is not avoided but is actually sought. This can be enlightening, and learning to live with pain is a valuable attribute, but John goes too far. Faced with a society that costs nothing (making everything, in a sense, worthless) he seeks only to pay. So, he resists Lenina's advances—even as she is warming to his ways—and turns to self-mortification. He finds pain only for pain's sake and loses the meaning that makes the struggle worthwhile.
The men who defy the government come across as insincere as well, they are the most disappointing part of the book. Bernard Marx turns out not to be brave or particularly poignant at all. His deformity appears at first to have given him a unique perspective that later it turns out to be just a matter of jealousy. He is happy to avail himself of the popularity that being John's keeper, so to speak, brings him. When a row breaks out he tries to scuttle away, and when he is transferred to an Island he breaks into hysterics.
Helmholtz is tragically perfect, though utterly toothless. He is absent for large swaths of the story as Marx happily throws himself into the welcoming breast of society. His breaks from society are incremental but resolute. He happily springs to John's defense and quietly accepts his fate. In some ways he lives the ideal of Joan Didion's “On Self-Respect” but in others he is that guy you knew in high school whom you hated for having every possible advantage, and whom you hated all the more because he was really a good guy and made the most of every privilege. His only flaw was that he was actually too good, that he conquered his work, sports, leisure, and women so easily that he could not help but think there was more. Bernard acts like an ass around Helmholtz and I can't help but feel for him in that situation.
I mentioned earlier that dystopian fiction tends toward the heavy handed. It lines everything up clearly and distinctly. The “bad” is anything that the evil government/corporation/society promotes and manipulates. The “good”, then, is the cause of our heroes. Typically, the cause is art, and in this is implied emotion, knowledge, dissent, but art is a convenient material way to symbolize all this. I did not know what to make of Huxley's hero. Watching the treatment of women in old movies today can be extremely uncomfortable, but there is more to it here.
The overlords v. hero model, as I grow older, seems insincere. They rarely play a subversive role, even though it would seem the proper channel to do just that. They end up being communal, setting up a straw man for everyone to kindly jeer and thank our lucky stars that we have boldly resisted the forming of human farms and mind control drugs. Huxley slips this trap. He hands us the villain of an oppressive corporate-governmental conglomerate then produces a challenger but does not make him a hero. In fact, some of the most potent social commentary may not be in reaction to the society, but aimed at John, the holdover of our own society. It is only now, after my initial reading, that I am catching on to much of this, and the more I unravel, the more I respect this book.
The danger with dystopian fiction lies the temptations of luddism and conservatism. They show futures that use every technological advance to enslave their people, so it stands to reason that advancement should simply be stopped. No new technology, no new legislation. I encountered many opinions of Brave New World and they naturally tend to speak only of the society. They focus on prescription drugs, contraception, new laws (because, of course, mentioning dystopic futures is nearly as common as comparing a law to the Nazis), eugenics, genetic modification, and the like.
This misreading is not only dangerous, but boring. The success of Brave New World is that it understands that society is complex. What gives with one hand takes with the other, and vice versa. If promiscuity threatens to dull sex from one of the most beautiful shared moments of a loving relationship to a nice way to pass a rainy afternoon, then monogamy threatens to make us jealous, possessive, and violent.
This is a novel that is very wary of a world rapidly advancing technologically and culturally. It was written in 1932, and we know well what happened in quick order: jet planes, atomic bombs, nuclear energy, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the computer. However, I believe it is one that recognizes the difference between advancing cautiously and not advancing at all.
That or it is not cautionary at all, simply an acknowledgment that humanity dooms itself continually. Future, past, present, we don't know what we want, but we know it is not this.
Edit: I couldn't make out the thumbnail and originally associated this post with Brave New World: Revisited, a collection of essays by Huxley that I have not yet read. 9/4/13