Are We Happy Yet?

Toward the end of that incredibly prescient novel, Brave New World, the Controller is having a discussion with Helmholtz and the Savage who have come to the point where they cannot accept the Brave New World and are about to be shipped off to an island where other malcontents live, though the Savage will hang himself before that can happen..

The Savage has been brought up in a reservation as an outcast reading, of all things, Shakespeare and he has been asking the director if such books are read any more in the Brave New World. Of course, they haven’t. Folks like Shakespeare simply don’t happen in the Brave New World. This world, the world Huxley sees as our future, has traded great artists and creative minds for “happiness.” As the Controller says:

“. . .our world is not the same world as Othello’s world. You can’t make [fast cars] without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they are safe; they are never ill; . . . they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. . . . that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art.”

Hopefully the reader will recognize the allusions to what is going on in Huxley’s dystopia. But there are several points I want to make that do not require any familiarity with the novel. To begin with, we might note the comment at the very end of his snippet: “we’ve sacrificed high art.” I used to assign this book to my students many of whom simply could not see what it had to do with them. But it has everything to do with them, because in so many respects ours resembles Huxley’s world. We have, consciously or not, traded high art for what we deem to be happiness. But, then, we have no more idea what happiness is than do the citizens of Huxley’s world. We think it’s all about pleasure as we live our hedonistic lives eating, drinking and making merry (or Sally or Ruth, or Ben) while our minds atrophy on the constant bombardment from television and electronic media and we gleefully replace the real world with social media. We even have soma — or any number of reasonable substitutes.

Huxley’s world is based on the premise that stability is better than unrest and discontent. Those who are discontented are simply removed. We haven’t gotten to that point yet — certainly not the elimination of discontented people. But if one of the two principals running for president of this country has his way we will get there. The man is deluded, of course, and wouldn’t recognize high art if it bit him in the butt. But he’s all for stability and insularity, getting rid of those who just don’t fit — i.e., those who would disagree with him and his insane policies.

It is, of course, discontent and even resentment that have formed the warp and woof of this country since a group of rebels got together and threw off the yoke of British rule and then declared their independence and wrote a constitution which is, for the most part, one of the truly great documents created by the human mind. But since that time we have seen the country gravitate more and more in the direction of Huxley’s dystopia. We seem to want to rid ourselves of those who would disagree with us or who are simply different. We certainly won’t listen to them. Rather than embrace difference and dissent, which are the lifeblood of any democracy, we seem to be content to see the country head further and further down the road toward oligarchy: let the rich buy the country and tell us what we want. After all, they are the ones who provide us with entertainment and keep our minds off real problems while, with their other hand, they rake in the profits. If this means that a great many people will die from guns going off haphazardly it matters not as long as they don’t go off in my direction. If it means that the wealthy will continue to suck the life out of a dying planet, so be it, as long as the planet lasts long enough for me to get in another round of golf.

Like the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World, we know about diversions and having fun. We avoid strong feelings of love and affection — though we allow hatred to run rampant. We don’t have any Shakespeares any more, or any Beethovens, or build buildings that inspire deep feelings, such as the Cathedrals of old. Instead, those few with creative minds invent and tinker with inventions, ways to make our lives easier, make sure we don’t have to suffer or do without.  What is left of the arts is largely ignored in our haste to get back to our iPads. We no longer have the attention spans or the imagination necessary to engage art fully.

The fact that so many of my students couldn’t see what Brave New World had to do with their world is the thought that shakes me the deepest. We cannot possibly address our problems if we refuse to admit that  they are there, and we seem perfectly content to be….content..

Generation In Motion

I am reading a book written by a good friend of mine about the troubled sixties. It is, in large part, an apology for the age that has commanded such critical scrutiny by traditionalists like myself and it finds its strongest arguments nestled in a close look at the poetry and music of the period. There is no question that some of the best popular music ever written appeared during those years by such song writers as The Beatles, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. The author of this book, A Generation In Motion, happens to be an expert on the period and especially on Bob Dylon; he has written a book about the man and his songs that nicely complements this book. The author, David Pichaske, is an English Professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. At one point in the book, he remarks about the sixties generation, in contrast with later generations:

“A less aware or educated generation or one distracted by a war or a depression might have ignored the injustices and irritations that so troubled the sleep of sixties children. It would have slumbered blissfully and ignorantly and quite comfortably. A more cynical generation would have been less obsessed, less righteously angry. It could maybe have laughed or shrugged its shoulders. A less motivated generation would have despaired and retreated to the safety of distance.”

Now there are several points that the author makes in this passage that deserve our attention. To begin with, Pichaske is convinced — in contrast with critics of that period — that the children of the sixties were idealists who had a definite program. They were not anarchists bent on bringing down the “establishment,” simply. To be sure, they did want to attack the established powers and throw off the cloak of servitude they were convinced they were burdened with. But they did so with a purpose: they advocated complete freedom from outrageous constraints together with a determination to make the world a better place, to bring about peace and love and better communication among all humans.

“What we had in mind was something a little more humane, a little more free. Less of a ‘niche for everyone and everyone in his niche.’ More flexibility. Fewer rules. . . .  And we wanted it now.”

So says the author. I will not debate the point, except to say that the generation saw gray issues in black and white. Furthermore, their notion of freedom, which was a cornerstone of their program, is confused and weakens the case for the plan in the minds of those undoubted idealists during those troubled days.

Freedom is not to be confused with license, as it is so often, and is so assuredly in this case. Freedom is not possible, as John Locke pointed out many years ago, without law and order. True creativity and a full expression of human endeavor requires discipline and self-restraint. Imagine a group of people all trying to get to a rope tow on a snowy day to get to the top in order to ski down the hill. If there is no order, no discipline, there is chaos. Indeed, complete freedom is chaos, nothing more and nothing less. (In response to this comment, my friend said that if the tow rope were pulling you toward a cliff you might prefer chaos!) In any event, the attack on the establishment by the young during the sixties was based on the notion that freedom was an inherently good thing, that more is better, whereas, in fact, it is not — at least not the kind of freedom most of them espoused. All of the truly great contributions to humankind, from art to literature to science, were made by men and women who knew — and held themselves to — the necessity of restraint and order. The rebels of the sixties may have had a program, as Pichaske says, but it was confused at its core. As a result it is no wonder it could not be sustained.

But Pichaske’s larger point is well taken. By and large, these were not cynical young people and the generations that followed them appear to be — perhaps because the dreams of their idealistic parents and grandparents came to naught. The gap between those ideals and reality became increasingly apparent to increasing numbers of people. In any event, the current generation, together with their parents (including myself of course) do appear to prefer distance and separation from others. This is especially the case given the current explosion of electronic toys and the internet that stress a “social network” in which people seldom meet and communication is stunted and incomplete.

In the end I think the rebellion during the sixties brought to light a number of illnesses that were beneath the surface and deserving of serious attention. But that rebellion became an end in itself for many of the rebels and it rested on a fundamental confusion about what is and what is not important. As a result, the colleges and universities jettisoned those courses that were essential to a good education, at the insistence of groups like the S.D.S., and the culture at large awakened briefly to the inequity of segregation, the horrors of unjustified wars and acquired some beautiful poetry and music — but very little else of permanent value. In the end more and more people went deeper into themselves and grew farther apart than ever. The hope of peace, love and better communication among all people turned out to be a pipe dream.