My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 18.
-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Why not two straight weeks of Huxley?
This is my second time reading the book. I decided to read it again because I want to read it and 1984 (which I’ve never read, though Animal Farm is one my favorites) in close proximity. My particular interest in this book, as well as 1984, stems from Neil Postman’s treatment of the two books in the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
Anyone who’s been around my blog for a while knows that I love Neil Postman. I just ordered two more of his books to read. More on that soon; and I really need to blog through Amusing Ourselves to Death at some point. I’ve already written a lot about Technopoly (which is without a doubt one of my favorite semi-modern books). Which all reminds me that I’ve never blogged on Animal Farm. I need to at some point. Anyhow…
For this post, I simply want to record a few things about Brave New World that popped out at me this time around.
First, the ‘Ford’ worship struck this time in a way that it didn’t in the first reading. ‘Ford’ as in Henry Ford. In the future society of A Brave New World, all other forms of religion have been replaced by the veneration of Henry Ford. His brilliance for machinery and assembly lines are apparently the ideal in that future world. And so the word ‘God’ has been replaced by ‘Ford.’
So, then, the god of that future world is a secular god set up to symbolize the ideals of technology. Let’s hope we’re not venerating Steve Jobs to that level in the near future; though he already appears to have received his sainthood in modern America.
Second, the worship of Ford involves intense mysticism. That didn’t strike me as profound the first time around. But now, having seen the elements of mysticism implicit in our technological society, it takes on a bit more realism and possibility. It’s also worth noting that mysticism can go hand in hand with drug use; which leads me to my next point.
Third, as someone who worked in the pharmacy business for several years, the fact that there is an actual drug named Soma still makes me giggle a bit. I’ve mentioned the fact that this was the name of the popular drug in Brave New World to virtually everyone I’ve ever worked with; no one else had ever read the book, and, therefore, didn’t notice. In the novel, Soma is the tranquilizer all people immediately turn to in order to numb emotions (“I take a gram and only am;” “a gram is better than a damn,” etc.). Yep, we’re about there on that one. However, in the real world Soma is a muscle relaxer (and yes it is used recreationally to numb the senses, they call it a ‘Soma coma’); it’s Xanax and Ativan and Tranxene and the like that we turn to to be numbed. Interestingly, another novel I recently read, Generation A by Douglas Coupland, features a sedating drug that has the world hooked. Both that novel and Brave New World are on the short-list of fiction that I recommend.
Fourthly, the strict imposition of worldly orthodoxy stood out. We’re seeing that a good bit these days. Blasphemy in our culture is no longer religious. Blasphemy now belongs to the secular realm.
Finally, there is lots of sex, but no reproduction. Well, I take that back. There is reproduction, but there is no procreation. People have multiple sexual partners; loose sex is encouraged. No worries; all the babies are born in a lab. Doesn’t really seem that far-fetched these days. Lots of sex, hatch the babies in a lab.
Huxley’s prophetic imagination is stunning; plus he was a great writer. It’s a wonderful book, and one that I will keep turning back to.