Novel Review: Brave New World

Brave New World depicts what the world will be like in the future.  It’s 2540 or 632 A.F. i.e. After Ford and the novel depicts what happens to society when Americanisation/Globalisation has reached its zenith.  Written in 1932, it’s chilling how prescient the author, Aldous Huxley, seems to be.

Brave New World is a world where mankind serves the advances of science rather than the other way round; where promiscuity is compulsory to avoid humans having close personal ties with each other; the concept of family has been abandoned for the very same reason thereby thwarting any possibility of divided loyalties.  It’s a world where an individual’s freedom is subsumed for the apparent good of the social whole; and where the populace is conditioned from childhood in the mores of this Brave New World and kept compliant by constant use of a drug called soma. “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of the defects.” (This drug seems to have the effects that the internet, social networking sites, and computer games have currently – numbing you from the present and taking you to a virtual reality instead).

We are first introduced to this world by a visit to the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre where babies are hatched, conditioned and decanted.  This is after all a world without families, without mothers and fathers, where the idea of someone giving birth to another human being is considered abhorrent.  In other words, the birth of new life is seen not as an act of creation but merely as a fertilizing process.  As with birth, death is regarded “like any other physiological process”.  Children undergo death conditioning from 18 months.  Death is seen as a useful means of recovering phosphorus.  Foreshadowing the Nazis and their industrial processing of the bodies of their countless victims in concentration camps scattered around Eastern Europe, here bodies are incinerated in the Internal and External Secretions Factory and burned for phosphorus recovery.

Aiming to make the fertilizing process as efficient as possible, the Bokanovsky Process has been developed which allows 96 human beings to grow from one egg where only one grew before, leading to 96 identical humans who are just one step above pond life but able to do the more menial tasks required by society, and thanks to conditioning, are happy with their lot.  In a world of two thousand million inhabitants there are now only ten thousand surnames.  In Brave New World standard men and women are regarded as a sign of progress and a major instrument of social stability – where a small factory can be staffed with the products of one single egg.  “Ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!”  It’s reminiscent of one of the more striking images from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where the workers are portrayed not merely as working the machines but become in fact part and parcel of their working apparatus.

Not content with now being able to hatch humans, Brave New World also predestines and conditions them.  By treating or more accurately mistreating the embryos in the Social Predestination Room, it predestines them to a social class, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon with only the necessary desires and skills the embryos will need to fulfil their allotted lot in life.

In order to ensure that all future members of this new society are content, they are conditioned by the State.  Conditioned physically while still being hatched, later on in State Conditioning Centres (i.e. schools) their minds are conditioned by a variety of methods from nightly hypnopaedia to cruder tactics such as giving toddlers electric shocks.  As the Director of Hatcheries so neatly puts it: “That is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do.  All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”  The hypnopaedia is used to “inculcate the more complex courses of behaviour.”…  “Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions.  And not only the child’s mind.  The adult mind’s too.  … But all these suggestions are our suggestions.  Suggestions from the State.”  The ultimate in political spin!  To overcome any natural impulses and urges that even conditioning cannot eradicate, people are given various surrogates such as Violent Passion Surrogate where bodies are regularly flooded with adrenaline that their emotionless lives would otherwise lack; and women are given obligatory Pregnancy Substitute.

When the Savage is arrested trying to stop soma distribution at the Death Hospital, he asks the Deltas: “Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you understand what manhood and freedom are?”  The answer is a resounding no.   They may not be free and they may not understand what manhood and freedom are, but thanks to the State they are happy with this state of affairs.

The aim of this World is for everyone to be happy which – with the exception of one or two individuals – everyone seems to be. However it’s clearly not happiness as we would define it.  This obsession with happiness is just as prevalent in today’s society as can be witnessed by the plethora of religious cults, the cult of celebrity, the cornucopia of self-help books currently available and ads for tarot readers and psychics in various newspapers.  Huxley’s novel raises the following questions:  What is happiness?  Is the pursuit of happiness what we should be aiming for in life?  And at what cost does this happiness come at?  As the Resident Controller for Western Europe, Mustapha Mond muses: “What fun it would be, if one didn’t have to think about happiness.”  He comes to this conclusion having just banned a paper on “A New Theory of Biology” because as he notes: “But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose–well, you didn’t know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes–make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere, that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge“.  It would seem that Huxley was in no doubt that ‘some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge’ was in fact what the world should be striving for.

So what is happiness?  If most of the new world’s citizens were asked if they were happy, they would indubitably say they were, not least because they have been conditioned to believe that they are.  But in essence does it make them any less happy? In their World they are unable to experience art, listen to great music, read great books, view great masterpieces, but then they don’t know they exist so they don’t feel their loss.  It reminds me of when I was at a 2 year old’s birthday party where all the expensive toys were ignored and the kids had a ball with the wrapping paper and boxes much to the annoyance of the now slightly more impoverished adults.  Henry Foster notes “there’s one thing we can be certain of; whoever he may have been, he was happy when he was alive. Everybody’s happy now.”  Ironically he says this upon realising that the switchback in his helicopter is due to some individual disappearing in hot gas as he goes up the chimney in the Internal and External Secretions Factory.

Brave New World seems to show what happens when Americanisation and mass production is taken to its logical conclusion- a standardized world where family life has broken down, where the sole  aim of everyone in life is happiness through consuming everything they are told to consume by the State and by numbing their emotionless lives.  This is a world where there is no room for truth and beauty.  “Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered.”  This is in sharp contrast to the world before Ford where “Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate”.

It may be that Huxley wasn’t far off the mark in his prognosis.  Nowadays we even have people investing in Kindles to avoid those most onerous of tasks – turning pages and carrying round a book.  This way of thinking also seems to encapsulate the current official attitude towards University education – at least in the UK – where it seems to be less about the pursuit of knowledge per se rather than turning out ever increasing numbers of students from a variety of vacuous, supposedly vocational courses.

The happiness in Brave New World though has come at a price – state control and the exorcising of all those qualities, both good and bad, which make us human.  “We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for”. Anything unpleasant has been done away with.  There are no inconveniences, no risks, and no dangers.  As the Savage points out, “Nothing costs enough here.”  The Savage wants “God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”  Mond is quick to point out that there is also a flip side to that: “you’re claiming the rights 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 to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

Just as happiness comes at a price in Brave New World, so does risking living a life which accommodates the human spirit.  This is the seeming dichotomy of life – whichever route you chose, it always comes at a price such as the thrill of love and the gut-wrenching agony when it all goes wrong.  We talk of passion – love, desire, lust but we also talk of the Passion of Christ – the sufferings and agonies of Jesus at his Crucifixion.  The German for passion is Leidenschaft – Leiden in fact means suffering, sorrow, but add the noun suffix –shaft and it becomes the word – passion.  It would seem the two concepts are inextricably combined.  We can’t have one without the other.  I remember being in a passionless relationship where I knew I’d never really feel anything for the guy I was with.  It meant when it ended there was no pain, no sorrow but it also meant that while I was with him, there was no true joy or passion.  It was an emotionless and ultimately futile relationship.

The Controller points out: “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”  He has a point. After all no one would go and watch a movie if the entire plot consisted of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, nothing stands in their way and they live happily ever after.  We seem slightly contemptuous of couples who seem happy with their 2.2. kids living in suburbia whilst having an apparent morbid fascination for the failed romances of the famous and not so famous.  The question is: is the emotionless, stable world of 632 A.F without  poetry, history, religion, love, literature and any flowering of the human spirit the price worth paying for a world without war, torture, illness, where everyone has enough to eat, no one gets old or impotent.?

Citizens are also conditioned to want stuff in order to keep factories busy and consumption on the up.  In Elementary Class Consciousness sessions toddlers’ minds are brainwashed to adapt their future demands to future industrial supply.  Therefore people are taught to consume a certain amount in the interests of industry, for example to throw away clothes and buy new rather than mend and make do.  The lower classes are taught to abhor nature as nature is freely available.  However, in order to keep the consummation of transport up, the lower classes are taught to like any country sports which necessitate a lot of apparatus that in turn can be produced in a factory operated by 96 identical semi-morons.

Culture is seen as objectionable as you can’t consume if all you are doing is sitting down and reading a book.  History is banned because, as Ford would say, “History is bunk.”  The arts and history can destabilise, disseminate ideas and propagate possibilities foreign to the status quo thereby getting people to think.   Hence dictators and tyrants have always had an acute desire to control the arts throughout history.  In Brave New World instead of banning specified works of art as “degenerate” and destroying them as was to happen in 1930s Germany, this State has gone one step further and banned all books from the past and even banned the past all together.  When the Savage asks why Shakespeare is prohibited.  The Controller replies: “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.”  “Even when they’re beautiful?” the Savage asks.  The Controller replies: “Particularly when they’re beautiful.  Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.”

As with art and the past, Brave New World has also done away with religion.  In an apparent perfect, stable world, it would seem people no longer need to believe in a Supreme Being they can turn to in their time of need, because in Brave New World you never go wanting.  The qualities that faith bestows on truly religious people such as forbearance and courage aren’t necessary when you always get what you have been conditioned to want and no serious misfortune awaits you.  People now aren’t allowed to be alone or think about death, and because there is no God to punish them, they can indulge in numerous vices without feeling guilty and, thanks to science, without having to deal with the consequences.  Women don’t get pregnant – most are freemartins – so there are none of the traditional repercussions to sleeping around – no unwanted pregnancies as well as no jealous lovers.  “’You can only be independent of God while you’ve got youth and prosperity; …’ Well, we’ve now got youth and prosperity right up to the end. What follows? Evidently, that we can be independent of God. ‘The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.’ But there aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?”

When the Savage protests that God is “the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic”, Mond replies that “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism.  These things are symptoms of political inefficiency”.  In Brave New World you don’t need to be noble or heroic as the occasion never arises for you to make use of these virtues.  All those intangible qualities that are most admirable about the human spirit have now become obsolete in a world where no one is allowed to love too much, have divided loyalties and where no temptations exist to be resisted.  And if something unpleasant should happen, you can always numb yourself on soma.

Mond believes God exists but now manifests himself in this modern world by his absence.  “Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness”.

The morality of Brave New World is polar opposites from what may well have been considered moral at the dawn of the 20th Century.  Whereas the family would have then been regarded as the bedrock of society, in Brave New World close personal ties, mothers, fathers, siblings, children, husbands, wives, lovers, monogamy, romance, family is seen as a destabilising force, “a focusing of interest, a narrow channelling of impulse and energy.”  After all such ties can pull on a human being that no logical argument can rail against and therefore can divide loyalties.  This is why totalitarian states such as those of Hitler and Stalin were so keen to inculcate children from an early age and to portray themselves as the primary parent to the people; why Pol Pot destroyed the idea of families all together during his genocidal regime.

But morals change.  And a lot of what may have seemed outrageous in the 30s probably seems slightly familiar now!  Lenina’s ease at walking around in the nude, which would have then probably seemed shocking to most of 30s Britain, would nowadays be no big deal even in the UK -though admittedly we have some way to go to attain the levels of complete indifference to the naked form that our Germanic and Scandinavian cousins have acquired.

And though as yet promiscuity is not felt to be a social necessity and ordained by the State, it is considered part and parcel of everyday life. Teenagers now can ask their parents if their girlfriend/boyfriend can sleep over.  In my day, you had to keep your parents blissfully in ignorance of any such shenanigans or face the prospect of never being let out of the house again.   In Brave New World sex is seen as nothing special, of no significance, not connected to any emotions or intimacy, yet another physical process.  “But everyone belongs to everyone else”.  And there is a danger that we are beginning to view sex in the same way, where the idea that you might actually get to know someone and like them before you sleep with them seems rather antiquated.  I have heard horrible stories of how young girls are allowing themselves to be used and reused by numerous boys in the erroneous belief that they are some kind of Samantha Jones figure.  But in the real world that’s a hard trick to pull off and to do so you first need to be empowered as a woman, and that’s hard to do when you’re an underage teenager with low self-esteem from a sink estate in one of our inner cities.

And although erotic play among children is not encouraged and endorsed in today’s society, some parents don’t seem to have any compunction in sexualising their children from an early age.  From the abhorrent spectacle which are children pageants, where little girls (and it always seems to be little girls) are forced to wear inches of make-up, even Joan Collins would have balked at in her heyday, padded bras for non-existent breasts and thick, sprayed up hair, thereby making their own children look like weird miniature adults to shops selling provocative underwear for young girls to children’s tops advertising various sexual slogans.

And as for the idea of family that too seems to be disappearing under its own steam without any apparent rigorous intervention from the State.  For a capitalist world which is constantly asking its workers to work longer and longer hours often for no extra financial return, where even those who may be cash rich are generally time poor, maybe the disintegration of the family is exactly what such a society requires.

Brave New World aims for a stable world, that’s why everyone belongs to everyone else.  It wants an emotionally easy world in other words an emotionless one – a world with no pain and therefore no love. It wants no obstacles and the immediate satiation of desire.  But how can you appreciate something, if you haven’t had to work for it or long for it?  How can you create anything, if you haven’t really felt anything?  It reminds me of the famous quote that Orson Welles wrote for himself for his turn as Harry Lime in the Third Man: “You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonarde da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland , they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Brave New World shows the horror of what happens when the world becomes completely standardized and the variety, brilliance and genius of true human nature is stifled from the moment of conception.  In Brave New World there will clearly be no individuals of the like of Michelangelo, da Vinci or Shakespeare.

As Mustapha Mond explains to the Savage after his failed attempt to “free” the Deltas: “The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.”  But this stability comes at a cost: a life lacking true emotion and feeling, where the essence of what makes us truly human has been rigorously exorcised along with the ability to think for oneself or act on one’s own initiative.  As Mond explains to the Savage: “It would upset the whole social order if men started doing things on their own.”

According to Mond, the world had to choose between destruction and stability.  “No civilization without social stability. No social stability without individual stability.”  “Stability. The primal and the ultimate need.”  And there is definitely a need among humans for stability.  The question again is at what cost?  Many in the West are surprised that some people in the former Eastern Bloc hanker after communism and strong leaders such as Stalin. But the truth is people knew where they were then.  There was no inflation, everyone had jobs – even if it was just watching people go up and down the escalator at underground stations, everyone had their one bedroom flat, the system didn’t really work but at least it didn’t work in a way people understood and knew how to get round.  When it comes down to it, most people care little for intellectual freedom, what they want is somewhere to live, a job, bread to eat, hopefully a better life for their kids, not an uncertain world where lifesavings can vanish overnight along with all the values that had been up to then a constant in their lives .

There seems to be a feeling among European authors of this period that by its very nature the modern world was crushing individuality.  I’m currently reading Robert Musil’s book the Man without Qualities.  The novel deals with this idea at some length (two books worth and it’s still an unfinished novel)!  Musil notes in Man without Qualities “the era of great individuals is coming to an end!”  In Brave New World not only individuality is rooted out but the idea of solitude, the concept of spending time on your own is seen as socially undesirable.  People are actively discouraged to be alone or appreciate anything in solitude.  Another reason for the banning of literature at school, even the works of Shakespeare.  “If our young people need distraction, they can get it at the feelies.  We don’t encourage them to indulge in any solitary amusements.”  When Bernard Marx suggests to Lenina that they go for a solitary walk or to look at the sea in peace, she considers him a freak.  “Walking and talking – that seemed a very odd way to spend the afternoon.”  Mind you, I remember a guy freaking out the first time he saw my bedroom (not because it had just dawned on him what was about to happen, I hasten to add) but simply because the room had no telly in it but rows on rows of books on shelves – apparently a massive faux pas already in 2004.

As in most dictatorships the individual is unimportant, the State can act with impunity as long as it claims it does so for the good of society.  In such a State, conformity to the norm is requisite, as individuality, originality might lead to ideas not sanctioned by the State. “No offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour.  Murder kills only the individual – and, after all, what is an individual? … We can make a new one with the greatest ease – as many as we like.  Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.”

However a few individuals in the form of Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson still manage to feel at odds with society, precisely because they know they are individuals.  The former is made aware of “feeling an outsider” due to his physical defects, the latter due to a mental excess.  Bernard Marx even goes so far as wanting to be free, free from his conditioning, free to be happy in a way not predetermined by society, free to be happy in his own way.  He wants to feel passion, to feel something strongly.  “I’d rather be myself,”…. Myself and nasty.  Not somebody else, however jolly.” He knows he lives in a society where they are taught to be adults at work, children where feelings and desires are concerned.  Bernard wants to be an adult all the time.

We are then introduced to a part of the world where the new order does not hold sway – the New Mexican Reservation.  Fenced in from the rest of the world, here Time, Death and God still exist.  In the Reservation there is no conditioning, the population or savages, as they are referred to, still marry, have families, breast feed, practise religion, drink alcohol, suffer from diseases and jealousies, illness, wounds, dirt, deformity and old age.  Huxley doesn’t romanticise it, this is no idealistic alternative to Brave New World.  Ironically the Savage (John) who we get to know and who is taken back to the Brave New World is the one character (with the exception of Mond) who knows Shakespeare and quotes copiously from several of his plays and poems.

The Savage believes in a soul independent of the world around him, refuses to numb himself by taking soma and becomes distressed about his mother despite her “senility and the extreme repulsiveness of her appearance”.  When his mother Linda is dying, he commits the social faux pas of visiting her in the hospice and his attachment to her is considered unnatural in a society where people are taught the “impulse to recoil from an unpleasant object.”  “with this disgusting outcry – as though death was something terrible, as though anyone mattered as much as all that!”

Linda has committed the heinous sin of looking middle-aged.  (I know how she feels).  “Bloated, sagging, and among those firm youthful bodies, those undistorted faces, a strange and terrifying monster of middle-agedness”  “Fat; having lost her youth: with bad teeth, and a blotched complexion.”  I like to think I’ve fared somewhat better but there is nowadays clearly a cult of youth particularly when it comes to women.  In the UK capable female newsreaders and presenters are shunted off our TV screens while their older male counterparts are able to continue on regardless.  Linda is shunned and overdosed on soma until she eventually dies. This attitude to Linda encapsulates the sheer horror of the aging process which is deep-rooted in today’s society with the increasing pressure on women to look young and unnaturally thin; and with some older female celebrities preferring to look oddly unhuman rather than allow the odd wrinkle to remain on their face.

Against all the rules, Lenina and John start an old fashioned British romance in that neither actually admits at first that they fancy each other and then get worked up imagining various negative scenarios in their heads. “He always does his best to avoid me; goes out of the room when I come in; won’t touch me; won’t even look at me. But sometimes if I turn round suddenly, I catch him staring; and then–well, you know how men look when they like you.” British romancing at its very irritating best – ignoring the person you actually fancy.  This new emotion however cuts Lenina off from all those around her.

Huxley also anticipates the cult of celebrity with Bernard Marx gaining pseudo-popularity and a choice of women to shag thanks to his parties featuring The Savage.  However, this celebrity proves as fleeting as being a contestant on X Factor with his so-called new friends eagerly awaiting his downfall.  This soon comes to pass after the Savage refuses to attend one of his parties. .

As with the Savage, the individuals that rail against the Brave New World are not themselves particularly heroic or glamourized.  Bernard is soon reconciled to the society he once despised as soon as he achieves some transient fame within it.  And he is hardly heroic when he, Helmholtz and the Savage get arrested.

I didn’t intend to write such a long account of this book, but it proved to be a more fascinating novel then I remembered.  When I first read it, I think the first successful attempt at creating a test tube baby had just been made, so I remember being fascinated by Huxley’s apparent ability to predict scientific advances.  Reading it again some 20 years later, I’m struck by how prescient he was about the dangers of a consumerism, mass production, globalisation and for want of a better term Americanisation.  At present we are standing on the brink of possible economic collapse, thanks to people being told to consume, consume, consume and are apparent willingness to do so without the necessary funds to pay for it all.  Today the music industry is dominated by X-Factor and its slick production values, but something like the X-Factor is never going to produce the next Beatles.  We now have a cult of celebrity but no real stars.  However at the same time we have the Arab spring.  As I write people in Syria are bravely demonstrating despite the repressive and murderous crackdown by their own security forces.  There is something about the human spirit when, at its best, it is truly an amazing phenomenon.  I’ve always been fascinated by extreme examples of that spirit from Pastor Niemöller and Hans and Sophie Scholl to Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.  And it’s that loss of true human spirit and individualism which it seems Huxley is warning us that we’re in danger of losing.

© Maureen Younger and, [2013-2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Maureen Younger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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