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04 May 2006

Brave New World (1932)

By Aldous Huxley

Wikipedia has a massive entry for this novel.

So, what if it isn't a dystopia? What if it is just an exaggerated representation of society as it stands? One certainly needs not imagine the extremes of decanting and soma to find individuals at odds with peers, political manipulations, inert masses, and a government over-body hiding the truth in plain sight. This Brave New World is not new at all.

Imagine Bernard Marx. He is smart and well-qualified for his position, but his social skills are lacking. He has a small physique, and perhaps rumors circulate about his sexual life (or lack thereof). He tends to exaggerate his grievances, like an angsty, oppressed teenager. He whines.

Imagine Lenina Crowne. She is a little dizzy, but she does her job well. She tends to behave somewhat contrary to some standards of propriety without ever going so far as to foster a negative reputation. She dislikes unpleasant things and would just prefer to have a good time. A party girl.

Imagine John the Savage. His mother was called a whore, and he was born out of wedlock. His mother's abusive lover acts as a surrogate father figure. John looks different from the other kids, he is smarter and more sensitive, and he consumes knowledge of his differences like poison. He looks for answers in forbidden literature and in religion, finding nothing but more poison (because he filters everything this way). He would like to be more penitent, but sometimes he is distracted by a pretty view or nice food - hating himself all the more upon realizing his weakness. Like every unhappy nihilist - seeking redemption because he cannot find acceptance - he does his best to bring about his swift, self-inflicted end. Today, he might be the kid who takes a gun to school.

Of course, critics and students have made endless comparisons to the near-contemporary Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I see only a scant connection. Orwell imagined a masterful totalitarian government that ruled by domination and fear, but Huxley's book is an extreme representation of the inertia, commercialism, apathy, self-indulgence, ignorance, stereotyping, repression, and chemical dependency of a modern, mass-produced society detached from the lessons of its past. Where is the future in this? The science is fanciful, sure, but the characters are walking among us today.

In the postscript of the edition linked above, the editors provided quotations from critics who disliked the book upon its initial publication. Some argued against his "undergraduate jest" of marking the years by A.F. (After Ford) - a purile joke that persisted with diminishing impact - while others criticized the rampant sex lives of the characters. Eh... not so concerned about all that, except - as with the A.F. issue - his critique was repeatedly hammered home... and then hammered again. We get it. They're sluts. Move on.

The critique I found most intriguing came from a man named Granville Hicks who, at the time, was the literary spokesman for the Communist Party USA. He wrote:
[Huxley] has money, social position, talent, friends, prestige and he is effectively insulated from the misery of the masses. Of course he wants something to worry about - even if he has to go a long, long way to find it (267).
Ouch! But intriguing...

Imagine Aldous Huxley. He is a well-educated member of the upper class, and he holds a culturally significant job writing for publications that reach and influence the masses (Vogue and other magazines). He longs for a scenario of sufficient "madness and violence" to compell the creation of serious, wrenching fiction, but the present just "won't do" (185). Wait... that's Helmholtz Watson, the Alpha Plus lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering, Department of Writing. Helmholtz says to John the Savage - after the latter just finished reading a passage from the forbidden text of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, "I know quite well that one needs ridiculous, mad situations like that" - like a distopic future, perhaps? He continues:
One can't write really well about anything else. Why was that old fellow [Shakespeare] such a marvelous propaganda technician? Because he had so many insane, excruciating things to get excited about. You've got to be hurt or upset; otherwise you can't think of the really good, penetrating, X-rayish phrases (185).
Maybe Mr. Granville Hicks, Communist, had it right. From Wikipedia, I quote Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: "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." That's a generous summation. Maybe, as a member of the world's elite, Huxley was in an excellent position to exploit the fears and curiosities of potential readers - readers who would be, in 1932, quite enthralled with the fantastic scientific advances and altered sexual mores he describes at length - in the guise of a futuristic (dis)utopia. Here, proles: read this and contemplate a bizarre-o future, but do not, under any circumstances, wake up from the present.

Ok, probably a bit much toward the realm of anti-elitist conspiracy theories, but it was more entertaining to write than a straight-forward examination of what has been a microscopically examined text. On the something new...

Vocab: ossuary, Procrustes, chypre, pneumatic (an allusion to breasts), solecism, dolychocephalic, neurasthenia

Blogger Tess said...

Thanks for your review! I taught this together with Pride and Prejudice, which was great fun. The students had to write a paper comparing the social rules and expectations in the two societies--both of which are rigid, but in very different ways.

12:03  
Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Interesting, but BNW pales for the obvious lack of Darcy ;)

13:38  
Anonymous popscene7 said...

Elizabeth Bennett is so pneumatic

15:57  
Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Ehle's Elizabeth, not Knightley's.

22:09  
Anonymous RfP said...

So, what if it isn't a dystopia? What if it is just an exaggerated representation of society as it stands?

I sent the Bitches a review from this starting point too. We'll see if they all get posted!

And for P&P, I choose the Elizabeth Garvie version (with David Rintoul, yum).

12:13  

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