The Mess of Brave New World

One of my students this summer suggested that I read Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.  I obliged him.  And then I realized that it is book #58 on the BBC book list, so I killed two birds with one stone: pleasing people and checking a book off of my list.

I can’t decide if I liked Brave New World.  I don’t think it’s a book one is supposed to like.  It isn’t heartwarming or particularly beautiful.  The prose is simple, even bad at times, and the plot is horrifying and comedic at the same time.   Here’s the premise: it is the future and all babies are born in laboratories.  Society creates a few types of people, conditioning them from the time they are embryos to either work in particularly hot weather (the tropics), to be amused by death in order to handle working around it, to be less-than-average intelligence in order to perform menial tasks, or to be very casual about sex.  They are all essentially slaves, or “major instruments of social stability” (7).

The conditioning of young children and babies to be certain parts of society sounds frightening, but I contend that it isn’t different from what we have now.  This conditioning happens, just on a less shocking scale and in a more hidden way.  It happens in our educational system.  According to Jean Anyon in her article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” (read it here), children are already being conditioned to stay in their social classes.  Her research found that kids from lower social classes are taught to follow directions in school, kids from middle class schools learn to get the right answer, and the children of executives and people from a higher socioeconomic class are taught leadership and creativity.

This inequality in our school system is the result of many things, one of which is just plain old human nature.  Teachers aren’t perfect.  However, much could be done to equalize the system and to give children of all economic backgrounds the same chances to succeed.  Yet, part of me must acknowledge that parents play an even bigger role in making sure that children have advantages.  If parents aren’t “conditioning” their children to love reading or to explore their world curiously from infancy, they have already created a lack in their child’s education.  I have seen and do believe that children from educationally impoverished backgrounds can make up ground and can certainly lift themselves out of that disadvantaged beginning, but it’s tougher.  Parents are equally as responsible for their child’s education and abilities, yet that is also directly affected by the inequalities passed on through generations.  If a parent never had the advantages of a complete education or economic security, how can they give it to their children?  They do not know better or how.

Well, that’s enough of my musings on why not everybody is equal in the United States.  I’m passionate about that.  But Huxley addresses other concerns in his novel as well. One of those is promiscuity.  He presents society as one in which children are encouraged to engage in sex games, where women wear Malthusian belts (the opposite of a chastity belt, replete with birth control), and in which the words “mother” and “father” are dirty.  It is unheard of for children to be “born,” and when Bernard brings back a lost woman from the uncivilized world and her son John, nicknamed Savage, people are shocked by the fact that she gave actual birth to him.

This representation of society is an extreme one (obviously), but the ideas are not that far off.  Motherhood and fatherhood do seem to lack the respect and importance they should have.  Family life is often dismissed as boring or ignoble.  Media glamorizes being single, partying, and hooking up with as many people as possible.  The idea is that youth should be enjoyed and wild oats should be sowed.  I disagree, because of my religious background and beliefs, but Huxley disagrees as well.  He makes a pretty good case for why such behavior is immoral and will lead to a breakdown in society.  And if we want to connect a stable family life in which parents are responsible for their children to education, we definitely can.

Now, the writing in this book is admittedly terrible by its author.  In the foreword, he agrees that it could use some revising.  The ending is also rushed and strange, but it might just further the overall point of the book.  Savage ends up being extreme in his rejection of society, and that doesn’t do him any good either.  It seems that moderation would be better for all of the major characters.

As a side note, Savage learns to read (unlike anybody else) from a long-forgotten text: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  He is constantly quoting lines from the bard, especially from The Tempest.  As he enters “civilization” it becomes more and more clear that the novel itself is loosely based on The Tempest, with him as the Caliban figure and Lenina as Miranda.  (The title Brave New World comes from that play as well.)  His encounters with Lenina are awkward at best, and the most comical scene is when she takes off her clothes and is willing to sleep with him causally.  Savage nearly has a heart attack, violently rejects her, is offended by her immorality (which is completely normal to her), and forces her to hide in the bathroom until he’s gone.

And to this point, Huxley’s first line of the foreword is this: “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment.  If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time.  On no account brood over your wrong-doing.  Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”  I have to agree, and I think if the society he describes in Brave New World had followed this wise council, it wouldn’t be as dire, as unequal, as stupid, or as vapid as he describes.  Although the science in the novel seems to be advanced, I think the question Huxley is posing through the narrative is this: “Is this really progress?”

He also explores the following questions:

Is capitalism evil when applied to biology?

Is this sort of society a feminist’s worst nightmare?

What about the individual?

What would society be like without privacy rights?

My question is this: Is Huxley xenophobic?  Most of the names are foreign.

Huxley also explores the need for opposition in all things.  The people take a drug called soma (it causes them to sleep, as the word is reminiscent of somniac) every time something unpleasant happens.  (Interestingly enough, Huxley himself experimented with drugs, particularly LSD.)  The characters suppress all bad emotions and only seek pleasure.  Savage, when confronted by the leader Mustapha Mond, pleads with him to let the people know about Shakespeare, and The Bible, and God.  He says, “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” (240).  He expresses the ideas that there can’t be happiness without sadness, there can’t be right without wrong, and there can’t be life without pain.   This novel explores such a world, one without sin or self-control, one in which good is called evil and evil is called good.  The conclusion is that such a society won’t work.

If you’d like more about this interesting novel, please check out my friend Hugh Curtler’s blog posts about it here and here.  Hugh is a retired philosophy professor and knows much about literature, politics, and life in general.  Check out his blog.  You won’t regret it!