Review: Brave New World

Posted: August 15, 2007 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy, Writing

I don’t read much fiction, but from time to time I get twisted about some classic or standard I haven’t read. (No, the Harry Potter series doesn’t count.) With that in mind, I pulled Brave New World by Aldous Huxley off the library shelf, which is published by Perennial Library together with Brave New World Revisited. Whereas the former is a novel written in the early 1930s, the latter is a nonfiction essay written in the mid-1960s that provides social commentary on the dystopian world of the novel compared to the real world. Thirty years’ hindsight makes for some especially thoughtful commentary in the essay. Indeed, though I’m not really familiar with current fiction, it’s difficult to imagine writers today with an ambition to contribute to 21st-century intellectual history the way the writers of previous centuries did.

I’m probably in a small minority, not having read and studied Brave New World in high school or college. So I’m completely ignorant of the themes and motifs one would uncover and discuss in a English teacher-led classroom analysis. (Frankly, I don’t care about such analyses anymore, so any bonehead mistakes or omissions of mine are just fine. I’m not taking a test.)

The novel lays out its premises slowly and consistently. The sameness and uniformity of the people and situations definitely speaks to the progression of scientific development toward unity, which Huxley describes in the essay. The narrative conflict is a simple juxtaposition of the civilized world with the savage world, which becomes all the more striking when the Savage is brought to London from an Indian reservation in New Mexico. It’s clear that the civilized masses cannot escape their conditioning and cannot question the social order. However, I was irritated that the antagonist had no apparent ability to adapt to the civilized world and that the incipient rebellion of Bernard Marx (a pseudo-antagonist) was quenched once he acceded to the appeals of temporary celebrity.

Almost all the characters are Alphas in a social order made up of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, each level being tightly circumscribed by physical and mental conditioning. It’s a fairly transparent device that readers identify only with the Alphas and therefore project themselves to the top of Huxley’s caste system, which may similarly translate into unfounded self-congratulations as superior humans in real life. Third-person narrative runs that risk, even when it purposely avoids a god’s eye view.

Lots of small touches enhance the tone, such as the names of entertainments (centrifugal bumble-puppy), clothing (zippicamiknicks), and characters (Mustafa Mond). I especially liked the repeated jibes at Henry Ford, who must have earned this particular karmic retribution for his development of the assembly line and other mechanisms of efficient production (read: dehumanizing production). To avoid dating the work, Huxley is also careful not to be too specific in his technical jargon, of which there is a lot. For instance, there is no mention of the tools brought us by the communications revolution (Internet, e-mail, webpages, etc.). In fairness, who truly anticipated even as late as, say, 1984, how significant these things would be in the modern world?

The story didn’t really draw me in fully, though my reading pace was considerably quicker than with the nonfiction I usually read, until the Controller’s response to the civil disruption of the Savage. This moment is the denouement, the opportunity to draw back the curtain and reveal in summary the inner workings and rationales behind the entire social structure of the novel. The question-and-answer exchange isn’t magisterial exactly. Rather, it’s matter of fact and merely administrative. The Controller stands slightly outside the established order, like the misfits banished to secluded islands, but is in his own way condemned to perpetuate the system rather than pursue his own interests. The cold, irredeemable logic of the Controller is utterly without pretense, emotion, or deceit, as none is required. All is revealed, and that revelation is both consistent and in contradistinction with the banality of the story up to that point. The epilogue seemed to me frivolous, unnecessary, and only reinforced the characters’ well-established inability to grow or change.

The essay, Brave New World Revisited, is a wholly different sort of work. It discusses and elaborates many of the details of the novel and critiques world history in the intervening years in light of the themes of the earlier work. Being nonfiction, it’s a slower read and much more explicit in its arguments. I was especially intrigued by this bit about the nature of science:

Science may be defined as the reduction of multiplicity to unity. It seeks to explain the endlessly diverse phenomena of nature by ignoring the uniqueness of particular events, concentrating on what they have in common and finally abstracting some kind of “law,” in terms of which they make sense and can be effectively dealt with. For example, apples fall from the tree and the moon moves across the sky. People had been observing these facts from time immemorial. With Gertrude Stein they were convinced that an apple is an apple is an apple, whereas the moon is the moon is the moon. It remained for Isaac Newton to perceive what these very dissimilar phenomena had in common, and to formulate a theory of gravitation in terms of which certain aspects of the behavior of apples, of the heavenly bodies and indeed of everything else in the physical universe could be explained and dealt with in terms of a single system of ideas.

Huxley has treatments of topics including over-population, over-organization, propaganda, democracy, dictatorship, salesmanship, brainwashing, chemical and subconscious persuasion, and education, with a final, hopeful search for solutions. As social criticism, it’s much more interesting to me than the novel that precedes it, but familiarity with the novel is indispensable.

With the advantage of yet another 40 years’ hindsight, it’s remarkable how accurate were Huxley’s themes and admonitions. It’s impossible not to wonder what he would make of our current plight, where so many of his ideas and observations have been carried forward, if not to their ultimate conclusions, then to a maturity that has considerably intensified their treachery. And yet the antidote, education and citizen awareness, has not rescued us from our current trajectory. Perhaps it’s really part of a cultural cycle from which there is no escape.

  1. presentpeace says:

    Are you sure that we’ve taken the antidote at is greatest potency? I would argue that, had we done that en masse, we most definitely would have rescued ourselves from this current trajectory. With full knowledge, how could we not?

    There are no cultural cycles from which there is no escape, since people are the culture and people can always make choices…the choice to escape, for instance. We may be as dumb schools of fish, but we still have the ability to change direction when we are compelled to.

  2. greywhitie says:

    “Indeed, though I’m not really familiar with current fiction, it’s difficult to imagine writers today with an ambition to contribute to 21st-century intellectual history the way the writers of previous centuries did.”

    You certainly are not familiar with current fiction, Brutus. I would like to be more familiar, but I haven’t got time for the pain. I only read “The Ladies No. 1 Detective” series and some other series, but I believe that humanity’s collective knowledge builds on one another throughout time. The knowledge of medicine is by no means complete or necessarily all accurate, but it is the best we can do under the circumstances. We know more than we did a century ago. With all else, have the benefit of hindsight over the previous centuries, and the next century’s denizens will say same about us.

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