Huxley Revisited

My friend Emily January wrote an excellent exposition and commentary on Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World. In commenting on Emily’s blog, I made mention of the extended conversation toward the end of the novel between two of the main protagonists, John (the “savage”) and Mustapha Mond (“The Controller”). The former came lately to the Brave New World from wild and uncivilized America and brought with him the perspective of Shakespeare’s collected works to a world that had lost any desire it may ever have had to read anything. Mustapha Mond runs the show and has a most provocative discussion with the savage about the values and goals of Brave New World in which, the savage insists, “everything is too easy.”

Regarding this novel (which Aldous Huxley, Emily and I all admit is not great literature) I mentioned in two earlier blogs [and here] that a disturbing number of the students I had assigned to read the book in bygone days had no idea whatever what it had to do with them. I will now answer that question: everything.

Our part of the world is rapidly becoming the dystopia Huxley envisioned, though it may differ in certain particulars. But the central issue, as Mond explains to the savage, is that the sole meaning of human life in B.N.W. centers around experiencing pleasure, which we have also come to identify with happiness. As is the case in Mond’s world everything else today has been jettisoned that might stand in the way of our enjoying ourselves. Sex is free with no strings attached. We are not permitted to suffer. We have lost the desire to read. History is bunk (or “irrelevant” as the kids like to say), and if we are sick or sad we can just take a pill….or two. Or we party hardy.

In one of the late chapters the savage asks Mustapha, “Art, science — you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness. Anything else?” Mond replies, “Well, religion, of course…” And the conversation proceeds from there. But let us pause. Have we also sacrificed science to pleasure or happiness? Of course we have. We have done it in two stages: we first reduced science to technology, ignoring the “why” question that is central to theoretical science and focusing exclusively on the “how” question which is key to the technical approach to solving problems, easing pain, and making our lives easier. It’s all about reducing stress and avoiding pain at all costs while we mindlessly pursue diversions that will fill our lives.

We have also replaced religion with “pop” psychology, the analyst’s couch, and the escapist “religion” of the televangelist and the “free” churches. The idea here is to get in touch with our inner selves and to replace the uncomfortable demands of traditional religion — which requires sacrifice and self-denial — with feel-good sessions every week in which parishioners are told that all is well with the world and they should go on doing just what they want in the name of Jesus who loves them no matter what (though we’re not sure about those damned secular humanists).

But we need to think seriously about the elimination of all pain and suffering in our Brave New World. We take it as a given that this is a good thing, but the savage may be right: it’s too easy. We might be much better off if we suffered a bit more, strange to say. Fyodor Dostoevsky, for one, thought suffering made us more human and was the only possible route to real human freedom. If we don’t suffer, we float along on the surface of human experience and never really feel the deprivations and losses that deepen our perspectives and bring us closer to one another and to our common humanity.

Furthermore, as we are now finding out, a society that revels in animal pleasures will never produce a Jane Austen, a George Eliot, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Dostoevsky, a Beethoven, or a Dante. All of these people suffered during their lifetimes and many of their greatest creative inspirations often came as a direct result of some of the darkest moments in their lives. Dante, for example, wrote The Divine Comedy while exiled from Florence where his family was held captive. Mustapha Mond thinks the sacrifice of great art and literature is worth it. The savage disagrees.

In a word, the Brave New World we would create which eliminates pain and suffering is worthy of denizens of an ant-heap (as Dostoevsky would have it) but not human beings. That, it seems to me, was Huxley’s point in writing this novel and the fact that young people could read the novel and wonder what on earth it could have to do with them tells us that they are sadly deluded: the prison bars that Huxley points to and which surround them are invisible to them. These people are amused and easily diverted; that is all they ask of the world in which they live — just as Huxley feared.

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13 thoughts on “Huxley Revisited

  1. I found your blog through my lovely friend Emily January. I really enjoyed this post; it echoes my feelings on the subject. I love your way of putting things.

  2. Perhaps what appears to be happiness is not happiness at all, but rather an indication, or, a reminder that we are sinking deeper and deeper into the so called “Age of Depression”. When someone tells us… “I’m happy”… it does not matter at all if he got there clubbing baby seals, fighting poverty, viewing child pornography or being elected leader of a skinhead gang.

    Consumer culture fills people with false needs and simultaneously disconnects them from essential human needs. It is ridiculous to think that so called “primitive” people would put an emphasis on what we call personal happiness. Having not yet been evicted from the natural order of life they had no need to make an effort. They new what they were feeling having not yet been sold on emotional fraudulence and Happy Face stickers.

    Perhaps it’s instructive to note that when you are observing a seriously depressed person for signs of suicide the thing to keep an eye out for isn’t a turn toward increased sadness…. It’s when they get very happy that you better not look away.

    Great topic Hugh
    Kiss, Kiss
    Mrs. N.

  3. Great post, as usual Hugh. I feel we are definitely on the downside of the civilization curve, with fluff and mindless entertainment the priority of the day, our future as a country to be lead by the guy with the best smile, haircut and sound bite. How sad for all of us.

    • I dare say you are correct. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out…..”interesting” being the operative term.

      ________________________________

  4. Great post. I enjoy this reliving of great literature that makes you think. Maybe you can make this a trend and help us relive others. Well done.

  5. The beauty is in the contrast. Van gogh is another great example of someone who suffered and produced great art. It is seductive to think about not having suffering, but I know you are right. The low points in my life have made the high points feel much higher. Thanks for another thoughtful post!

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