I found ‘Brave New World’ far more relevant to the divisive cultural issues of today than I had thought possible.
A world where history is forgotten or despised, and classic English Literature derided or unknown, one where critical thought is replaced by slogans, is grimly apposite to today. I was alarmingly reminded of the woke attack on European history and culture, and the sinister replacement of reasoned debate with slogans from those who equate having ‘progressive ideas’ with identity politics.
‘Brave New World’ might be called a ‘soft’ sort of dystopia of conformist horror, as distinct from George Orwell’s ‘boot in the face’ nightmare society, which depicts a grotesque level of surveillance, brutal oppression, poverty and general joylessness. It interests me that Huxley’s dystopia was written in 1932, and yet seems a more sophisticated approach than that of Orwell.
It always struck me that Orwell’s society was impossible, economically and otherwise. The amount of surveillance required would surely be unobtainable, even with today’s technology.
Above anything, though, I found it massively inefficient.
Of course, the lack of personal privacy and comfort of Orwell’s dystopia is clearly based on the drab lifestyle, food shortages, censorship, spying and grim ‘Five Year Plan’ work ethic of the USSR between the wars – with a bit of World War II British rationing thrown in.
By contrast, Huxley’s New World State is a place of hedonism and unthinking consumerism, where the name of Henry Ford is worshipped (ironically, though, nobody uses anything so old fashioned as a car; people travel about by helicopter). There is very little privacy here, either, as you are expected to be as sociable, as unthinking as toddlers.
However, almost everyone fits in happily to the world order, as they are all genetically engineered and then subjected to years of sleep hypnosis to suit their future role in society. The family has been abolished, babies are grown in giant test tubes, children raised in state nurseries. The idea of romantic love, marriage, the family or a biological mother is seen as obscene. So are any emotional ties, for ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’.
Everyone is kept looking young to the point of death, and encouraged to spend leisure time in sports and having casual sex. Any unhappiness can be driven away by taking the drug Soma, and in fact, generous rations of the drug are dispensed after every working day.
Oddly enough, while there is little humour in Orwell’s ‘1984’, ‘Brave New World’ made me laugh out loud in places. For instance, at the depiction of the ludicrous obligatory fortnightly orgies:
‘Round they went, a circular procession of dancers, each with hands on the hips of the dancer preceding, round and round, shouting in unison, stamping to the rhythm of the music with their feet, beating it, beating it out with their hands on the buttocks in front; twelve pairs of hands beating as one…And all at once, a great synthetic bass boomed out the words which announced the approaching atonement and final consummation of solidarity…
‘Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One,
Boys at one with girls at Peace,
Orgy-porgy gives release.’
What struck me more even than the horror of Orwell’s society is its inefficiency. The amount of time and money that must be spent on surveillance of those who work for ‘the party’ must be phenomenal, what with the CCTV in each room, the spies everywhere, the constant outpouring of propaganda from harsh loudspeakers. Where the citizens of the New World State engage in orgies, the inhabitants of Ingsoc have to participate in daily sessions of ‘Hate Time’ where the public enemies are derided. Both are supposed to serve as a form of release, but the orgiastic one strikes me as infinitely more effective. Then, the citizens of 1984 (except for the proles) are not allowed any such pleasures as drugs or sensual enjoyment; procreation is part of ‘our duty to the Party’.
Nobody bothers about happiness in the world of ‘1984’. In Huxley’s futuristic society, there is the ready available doses of Soma to keep everyone in a drug induced state of blissfulness. This is besides the everyday luxuries such as taps running with scent, canned music on demand (of course, that is nothing out of the ordinary now), films which stimulate all the senses, etc. People are discouraged from instrospection or ever spending any time alone. Instead, they must be sociable at all times – and being constantly youthful, they have the energy to handle it – and spend much of their leisure time playing sports.
In fact, there are some misfits in this society. One of these is Bernard Marx, who is one of the specially bred intellectual ‘Alpha’s’. Unlike the others, however, he is considered a poor specimen.
It is suggested that something must have gone wrong with the environment in which his embryo was cultivated: ‘Bernard’s physique was hardly better than the average Gamma. He stood eight centimetres short of the standard Alpha height, and was slender in proportion. ..Hence the laughter of the women to whom he made proposals…Each time he found himself looking on at he level, instead of downwards, into a Delta’s face, he felt himself humiliated. Would the creature treat him with the respect due to his caste? ’
Bernard has struck up a sort of friendship – though close friendships are discouraged, as ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’ – with a professional writer of slogans, the athletic ‘Escalator Squash’ champion and popular lover, Helmholtz Watson (rumoured to have had 640 different girls in under four years), who suffers from a feeling of social isolation through his sense of having excessive intellectual gifts. The two men sometimes spend time alone talking together, rather than doing sports or philandering, watching ‘feely’ films or engaging in other communal activities. This is subversive in itself. Helmholtz knows he has something important to say, but doesn’t know what. Bernard longs for all the emotions of which he suspects he, and everyone else, has been deprived. This sense of deprivation brings them together.
Another person who doesn’t quite fit in is Lenina Crowne. Though very pretty and popular, in fact, notoriously ‘pneumatic’ – people, with their limited vocabularies, invariably use that description rather than ‘voluptuous’ ‘curvaceous’ or any variant –she has an unfortunate tendency to prefer to have only one man on the go at a time. She is also eccentric in liking Bernard Marx, due to his unusual eyes.
Bernard’s attempt to have a deeper communication with Lenina than is normally encouraged fail miserably, he does take her on a visit to a Mexican Native American Reservation. On these, people surrounded by high fences, lead life in the old way: babies are born, young men and women grow up and fall in love, get married, and have more babies. People age and die. There is ignorance, dirt and disease, but there is also intensity of emotion.
When Bernard has his trip to the Reservation authorised by the director of his department, the man is startled into recounting a trip he took their himself, with a young Beta Minus woman. In a grotesque accident, he lost her on a mountain in a thunderstorm. Though he comforted himself with the (implanted) thought that, ‘The social body persists although the component cells may change’ (this sounds like Durkheim), he fretted about this.
After this, ‘Furious with himself for having given away a discreditable secret, he vented his rage on Bernard. The look in his eyes was now frankly malignant. “And I should like to take this opportunity, Mr Marx’”, he went on, “Of saying that I am not at all pleased with reports I receive of your behaviour outside working hours. You may say this is not my business. But it is. I have the good name of the Centre to think of. My workers must always be above suspicion, particularly those of the highest castes…’
Though the director threatens to have him transferred to Iceland, Bernard is, ‘exalting, as he banged the door behind him, that he stood alone embattled against the order of things’. Later, he boasts that he told him to go to ‘the Bottomless Past’.
At the reservation, Bernard is fascinated. Lenina is appalled, and has run out of Soma. However, they do meet a fair haired, blue eyed youth named John, whose mother, Linda, was taken in by the inhabitants of the Reservation when she was lost on the mountain over twenty years ago. He has been educated partly by Linda, who retains happy memories of life in ‘The Other Place, to which she could never return, because she had suffered the ignominy of giving birth to a child. He has discovered a tome of Shakespeare’s collected works, and has all his ideas from this, combined with some of the myths and legends of the Native Americans. Though mistreated by the others on account of his skin colour and his mother’s careless promiscuity, he is native, idealistic, and at once besotted by the ornamental looking Lenina. To her dismay, she finds herself becoming intrigued by him in return.
This changes everything. Bernard, having lost interest in persuading Lenina to join him in his subversive ideas, decides to exploit his finding of ‘The Savage’, unintentionally fathered by the Director.
John agrees to go with them to London, so long as they take his mother as well: he quotes Miranda from ‘The Tempest’: ‘O brave new world, that has such people in it.’
‘You have a most peculiar way of talking, sometimes,” said Bernard, staring at the young man in perplexed astonishment. “And, anyhow, hadn’t you better wait till you actually see the new world?”
John’s arrival in the outside world leads to the director’s disgrace and fall, when he is in the very act of denouncing Bernard for ‘Heretical views on sports and Soma, by the scandalous unorthodoxy of his sex life, by his refusal to obey the teachings of Our Ford and behave out of office hours ‘like a babe in a bottle’. Bernard’s mother appears and confesses that the director made her have a baby, and John claims him as his father. Mortified, the director accepts banishment.
Everyone is fascinated by the handsome ‘Savage’, even apart from Lenina, whose life is being ruined by her unaccustomed feelings for him. Bernard capitalises on ‘The Savage’s’ fame, and becomes lulled by it into feeling suddenly quite happy with his place in society.
But then, John starts to become disillusioned with this world outside, and this eventually leads to disaster for them all.
Winston Smith breaks when faced with having his face gnawed by starving rats. Bernard breaks much more easily, at the prospect of being exiled to Iceland. I assume that Orwell expanded this scene, adding massive depths of horror and brutality, in 1984, both in the behaviour of the man on his way to Room 101 at the beginning of Smith’s torture in the Minstry of Love, and in Smith’s betrayal of Julia there (As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the man on his way to Room 101 has broken already, and his going there is a waste of time and energy. He has already offered to cut his children’s throats: how could you be capable of any further turpitude? This seems to be one of several structural weaknesses in the story, unless the implication is that there is some further hideous betrayal that he can make, but goodness knows what it could be: perhaps this is the point of the episode, to keep this horror shrouded in mystery).
Bernard, in fact, is fairly contemptible in this scene of the confrontation with authority, where, faced with nothing worse than exile, he grovels before Mustapha Mond, one of the ten World Controllers: ‘Send me to an Island?…You can’t send me, I haven’t done anything. It was the others. I swear it was the others.’
The similarities between the two scenes at the heart of both novels are obvious. What is interesting, however, is that in Huxley’s scene, Helmholtz is not even angry with Bernard for is betrayal. This is partly his conditioning, of course; deep friendship being incongruous to these people, I suppose that high expectations of loyalty are too.
No doubt there are impossibilities in Huxley’s dystopia. There are almost certainly inefficiencies. For instance, he seems not to have anticipated the development ugly industrial scale farming, which has incarcerated so many animals in prison camps, and so damaged the plants and wildlife, especially the butterflies, in Britain since World War Two. One third of his workforce, in fact, works in agriculture.
Another weakness of the novel is the characterisation, though this is partly a necessary result of the plot, and one which it certainly shares with Orwell’s ‘1984’. After all, the main characters in these dystopias are all necessarily emotionally undeveloped, because of their conditioning. Therefore, while Bernard and Helmholtz suffer from conflict, as does Lenina in her ‘anti social’ exclusive longing for the savage, they are still not, and can never be, rounded characters.
Maybe I am being obtuse, but I didn’t fully understand whether, during the general orgy that takes place in the penultimate scene, after the Savage begins to flog Lenina, is she only slightly hurt? Does she still willingly accept him after that? Why do we not hear any more about her? Where has she gone after the orgy? We are not told.
The implication is that Bernard and Helmholtz are developing as characters and will develop further as a result of their banishment. But what of Lenina? This is one of the most unsatisfactory parts of the unsatisfactory ending.