One of my favorite books of all time is Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s not so much that the book is great literature, because it isn’t. But it remains a favorite because I have never ceased to be amazed by the things that Huxley saw so clearly nearly one hundred years ago. I don’t mean that he predicted we would be able to ride in helicopters one day. I mean he saw clearly what our culture would become: hedonistic and self-obsessed.
The book predicts a day when citizens can flee from pain and anxiety by popping a pill. The citizens of BNW fill their lives with endless diversions and vapid gratifications, immediate and shallow — but certainly not fulfilling. It’s all about doing their thing, whether or not it’s worth doing. Indeed, that question is never raised. History is bunk, of course, because the only thing that matters is the present moment and the pleasure that can be milked from that moment. The citizens of BNW have “. . .no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think.”
There are no meaningful human relationships, and communities are tied together artificially by means of community sings, free sex, and heaps of Soma. The community matters because the brave new world cannot stand individuals, that is, those who stand apart. If the individual dares to assert himself he is deported to an island where he cannot bother others who are intent on making sure they never have time to think or feel much of anything.
Aside from contraceptive pills and tranquilizers, I have always thought the first real step we took in our culture toward the brave new world was the credit card. It came on the scene in a large way in the 1950s and within ten years had pretty much become a necessity in every pocket or pocketbook. In itself it is merely a convenient way to make purchases. But its significance is worth contemplating: it means immediate gratification. We no longer have to wait for anything, we can have it now. “Has any of you been compelled to live through a long time-interval between consciousness of a desire and its fulfillment?” asks Huxley. Not any longer! It doesn’t matter if we can’t pay, we have plastic. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Anticipation greatly increases the delight from receipt of the thing long awaited. We tend to forget that.
But now we simply charge it and take it home. We don’t have to wait another minute. If the credit limit is reached, we merely switch to another company and wait until the new card fills. Credit card debt in this country is staggering — something like $20,000.00 on average. It tells us something about ourselves that we might not care to know. We are rapacious in our desire to have things and own stuff, as though our very sense of self worth is tied up with what we own. The one who dies with the most toys wins, as the saying goes.
In the end, Huxley saw clearly what was coming, and we have realized in so many ways precisely the delights that those denizens of the ant-heap in Huxley’s world reached out for and grabbed with little or no real effort. And we have become just as shallow. It is ironic that many who read Huxley’s book fail to see its implications.
I recall vividly some years ago when I directed a required Freshman college course and suggested that we read BNW. An alarming number of the 300 students couldn’t make the connection. Indeed, a number of them simply couldn’t understand the words on the page — even the page in their “cheaters.” But that’s another story. For the most part, those who could grasp the meanings of the words Huxley wrote insisted it was science fiction, certainly not something we need to take seriously. Jonathan Swift once said that satire was like a mirror in which each reader saw everyone except himself. In that sense, Huxley wrote a satire. But it is one in which we need to admit that we are very much in the frame.