Brave New World holds one of those distinctive places in literature, that of a book that people “know,” in some sense, even if they haven’t read it. Like its colleague in dystopian imaginings, 1984, Brave New World is a book much cited and discussed, especially, one suspects, by many more people than have actually read it. For while Brave New World is a fascinating glimpse of a hypothetical alternate future, it is Brave New World Revisited, Huxley’s examination of the themes and realities behind the book written about a quarter century after the initial publication in 1931, that really packs the greatest punch.
The Chambers English Dictionary defines the adjective “authoritarian” as “setting authority above liberty.” From Brave New World, we learn that there are, in reality, two sorts of authoritarianism. There is what most people probably think of, an obdurate, unyielding dictatorship under which people have little or no freedom from the least humiliation and live in constant fear. Think of Orwell’s 1984, in which the citizens of Airstrip One are little more than fear-driven cogs in a giant, never-ceasing machine of State. That is the first type of authoritarian state. Then there is the other sort of authoritarian régime. It is soft, and pliable, and applies the most liberal of methods to dealing with citizenry which might feel compelled to step beyond the proscribed bounds. And that is the world created by Huxley in Brave New World.
Huxley’s novel is a mixture of world-building, depicting life seven centuries after the death of the world’s patron saint, the industrialist Henry Ford, and story, depicting the struggles of several characters, beginning with Bernard Marx. Marx is a privileged member of the highest caste in the society of Brave New World, who is nonetheless something of a physical throwback and therefore is constantly discontented. The World State has adopted Fordism, a sort of hybrid cult of efficiency and mass production and eugenics, all rolled into one. The motor car was clearly a defining symbol in this cult; the expression “Ford’s in his flivver and all’s right with the world” replaces the more familiar version, and the word “cross” and its symbolism (from the Roman method of execution), has changed into the “T,” even where this alteration doesn’t suit the original grammatical sense. The “T” is a symbol to the extent that ornamental “T”s are now worn by some more devout disciples, and the word “cross” has actually been replaced in some cases; Charing Cross, in west-central London, for example, is now called “Charing-T”. The world of the future is one without mothers and fathers (indeed, both concepts are considered indecent), where the genetically manipulated and in vitro conditioned population are artificially fertilized, budded, and grown in glass bottles until they are decanted, rather than “born.” All they while they are drugged, suggested, irradiated, and sometimes chemically altered to ensure their complicity. Divided into classes designated Alpha through Epsilon, the lowest echelons of society, the Deltas and Epsilons, are little more than morons in some cases, and perform the more menial functions of society. Gammas are middle of the range, Betas superior, and Alphas represent the pinnacle of societal function. To Alphas go the jobs of administration and decision-making for the world, but even they are not entirely free of selection, chemistry, and conditioning.
However, the trade-off has been to create a world in which all vestiges of pair-bonding have been stripped away. Men and women are sexually promiscuous, and (in some of the more difficult-to-read passages) children are encouraged in forms of sexually exploratory play. But, in the free-love society of the future, Marx is troubled by his attachment to one person only. The object of his affection, Lenina Crowne, a Beta who is completely conventional in her polyamorous attachments. Bernard is a curiously deformed Alpha: that is, he is shorter and darker than Alphas are designed to be, and mentally somewhat aberrant in his outlook, occasioning suggestion that he had “alcohol in his blood surrogate,” 650 A.F.’s equivalent of a drunken mother. Bernard is secretive about his attachments, and unwilling to approach Lenina publicly, preferring sadness and the company of his close friend, Helmholtz Watson, who is himself a disaffected publicist-poet. Overcoming his distaste for display, Bernard invites Lenina to go on holiday with him, to visit a Reservation in New Mexico where a small number of people live, untroubled by the dictates of the World State. These people are some of the last on Earth who live without the “benefit” of the World Government’s tight regulation and soft glove (rather than the iron fist). The inhabitants are of various backgrounds, but largely Native and Central American.
On their arrival and to their shock, Bernard and Lenina encounter a clearly caucasoid youth, who lives with his infirm and decrepit mother, Linda. Marx already knew of Linda; his Director had by chance told him a story of visiting the same Reservation years before, and of how his companion of the day, Linda, went missing and was for some reason left behind (clearly the technology of the 7th Century A.F.does not extend to mobile phones or identification cards that would have allowed Linda to declare herself to the Reservation guards and be set free). The young man, who is called John but generally addressed as “Mr. Savage,” and his mother return to London with Marx and Lenina, and cause a sensation.
John has been educated — to a degree — by his mother Linda, reading an old manual on The Chemical and Bacteriological Conditioning of the Embryo: Practical Instructions for Beta Embryo-Store Workers and, later, a tattered copy of a book otherwise unknown to all but a few high-grade Alphas, like World Controller Mustapha Mond: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The viviparous nature of Mr. Savage’s origins make him a source of scientific and social curiosity, and he struggles to make sense of Bernard’s world as he is poked and prodded at by the elite of London.
It is through John, however, that we the readers experience the world of future through values nearer to our own, with its libidinous play and its soft authoritarianism. We see the conditions of the Deltas and Epsilons, and understand how they are so completely controlled by the administration of soma that the threat of its withholding provokes a riot. The riot, in turn, is only quelled by riot police, who, rather than striking with batons or shooting indiscriminately, instead use pacifying gases and sprays to quickly bring the situation under control. John, who quickly grows weary of the world of Bernard Marx and his kind, is at a loss.
It is difficult to see how such a man, who is basically, in his unconditioned state, like every one of us, could ever expect to survive in such an environment. His reactions to London and its society lead him to repeatedly step out of line. He mourns and weeps for his dying mother Linda, in a world where death is celebrated from infancy, and where “mother” is an obscene concept. His knowledge of the world comes from a literature that has not only been taken from the masses (and replaced with “feelies,” Obstacle Golf, Bumble Puppy, Escalator-Squash, and the like), but which the masses would no longer understand or recognise. It is for this reason that the titular Shakespeare quote, which John the Savage mutters on multiple occasions, is lost on all those that he meets.
That there is deeper symbolism to the lines spoken by Miranda, daughter of Prospero, in The Tempest, may be subject to debate, but for those whose memories are temporarily letting them down, I’ll give you Miranda’s words (her last spoken lines in the play), in full. Having just met Alonso and Sebastian, father and uncle to Ferdinand, under whose spell she has fallen by the end of the play, and having known no men save her father until that time, Miranda expresses her surprise:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!”
— Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1, Lines 181-3
Miranda’s circumstance is not exactly analogous to John the Savage’s. And her fate is certainly a happier one.
I would encourage interested readers who feel as though they might be missing something when they read Brave New World to consult the list of character names readily available in the Wikipedia article . Huxley’s character names are a soup of references mostly contemporary to writing the novel, many of which are still familiar today. The names are not always relevant, but useful to know.
Brave New World Revisited
In what seems to be a mix of prescient observation and a few ideas that have been proved in the last fifty years to have been unsuccessful, Brave New World Revisited is Huxley’s examination of the thinking behind the original 1931 classic.
As a shorter work, assembled from essays originally written by Huxley for Newsday magazine, Brave New World Revisited packs a substantial punch. Some of Huxley’s assertions were correct, but not in terms of their intended target; for example, Communism as practiced is generally discredited as a viable economic system, largely due to the fact that governments which formerly practiced it (at least in name) are now centrally-controlled pseudo-capitalist oligarchies. Huxley also addressed comparisons between Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 (the two had corresponded before Orwell’s death in 1950). But it is in Huxley’s observations through his various essays that we find the most trenchant and telling observations.
Huxley notes in his first essay, on over-population, that increasing numbers of inhabitants in the world invariably stress resources, and where resources are stressed, conflict is inevitable. For much of his information about the perils of the future, Huxley relies upon the then-recent book authored by several academics at the California Institute of Technology, entitled The Next Hundred Years. Published in 1957, this book explores the mechanical and systemic (rather than political, institutional and governmental) threats with which he was concerned. It is quite a lucid view, and from my quick reading of it, some of its assessments are still relevant to us, a mere sixty years on. The projections regarding population, for example, fall roughly in line with the real number: in the late 1950s, the world population sat around the 2.1 billion mark. When I was a child in the 1970s, the figure was closer to 4.5 billion, and now, in 2017, it is counted at around 7 billion.
You can’t really call it a swipe against thinking people when Huxley notes that “Unlike the masses, intellectuals have a taste for rationality and an interest in facts,” (p. 274), as that point has been made resoundingly in the latter months of 2016 and the opening months of 2017. Further, Huxley takes a grim view of the potential of “progress,” particularly in light of advances made in the arts of propaganda and “selling” and persuasion (he devotes two chapters to propaganda, “in a democratic society” and “under a dictatorship”). In one particular point, he makes a statement which rings altogether too true:
“Assembled in a crowd, people lose their powers of reasoning and their capacity for moral choice. Their suggestibility is increased to the point where they cease to have any judgment or will of their own. They become very excitable, they lose all sense of individual or collective responsibility, they are subject to sudden accesses of rage, enthusiasm, and panic. In a word, a man in a crowd behaves as though he had swallowed a large dose of some powerful intoxicant. He is a victim of what I have called “herd-poisoning.” Like alcohol, herd-poison is an active, extroverted drug. The crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from responsibility, intelligence, and morality into a kind of frantic, animal mindlessness.”
— Huxley, Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited, p. 273
One wonders what Huxley might have thought of the dynamics of online anonymity, which finally succeeds in removing the last shred of decency from the most herd-poisoned, and the resulting vileness of their words and deeds? Or of the demagogue and his lackeys, whipping up cynical and false outrage at any opposition to his agenda, labelling it “fake,” jabbering non-sensically about “illegal votes,” “illegitimate courts” and “paid professional protestors and agitators,” when again none of these things have any connection with fact. Show me your provable, real “paid agitator and protestor,” show me their pay stub and W-2, and I’ll introduce you to my pet unicorn, Gerald. Frankly, these diversions and distractions seem enough like madness to make Huxley’s bones shudder.
Obviously, not all of Huxley’s chapters are revelatory. The chapter on subconscious persuasion appeals to notions about “subliminal advertising” which have since been discredited. His discussion of hypnotism (or “hypnopaedia”) is a dated examination of a phenomonenon which surely has greater expression in sensational literature than in reality. And Huxley’s citation of the market for pillow speakers and motivational records “to be played while sleeping” in all sorts of fields discounts the possibilities of marketing toward the gullible by the cynical. But I would argue, in light of the material which not only rings true, but is disturbingly prescient, that a few missed guesses are the price one pays for being a largely accurate visionary.
Huxley’s final chapter opens with a thought which I would also like to leave with:
“We can be educated for freedom — much better educated for it than we are at present. But freedom, as I have tried to show, is threatened from many directions, and these threats are of many different kinds — demographic, social, political, psychological. Our disease has a multiplicity of co-operating causes and is not to be cured except by a multiplicity of co-operating remedies. In coping with any complex human situation, we must take account of all the relevant factors, not merely of a single factor. Nothing short of everything is ever really enough. Freedom is menaced, and education for freedom is urgently needed.”
— Huxley, Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited, p. 332
Bearing that in mind, can there be any question of how important education, political literacy, and good information as a basis for decision-making is? And why we should be very careful about who is in charge of education? Education, and education in reality and fact, not in flights of fantasy and wishful imaginings, is key.