Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley


Is life an illusion and love but a dream? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is art subjective, or objective? Is art a mirror? Or a hammer? Upon such complexities I sometimes ponder. What makes for a legendary band? And what makes for a classic book?
At this moment, that latter question is the one I'm asking myself.

Every once in a while a list is published of 'The 100 Greatest Books Ever' or 'The Best 100 Novels', or there's such books as '100 Books To Read In a Lifetime'. These lists always contain the most obvious books such as Ulysses or Moby Dick both of which, as examples, I would heartily agree belong in the top 10. Ulysses, in fact, often makes the number 1 spot though more often than not with the proviso of 'begun by many, finished by few'. I happen to have read Ulysses twice now and it gets my vote too for being the greatest of books. There are some, however, that appear in these lists that I'm in complete disagreement with. On The Road by Jack Kerouac? It's good but it's not his best. Finnegan's Wake by Joyce? Life just isn't long enough. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad? Very debatable. And then there's Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

Having just read it, I must say that frankly I'm not impressed. I dig Huxley's groove, as his acolytes might have said in the Sixties but in no way is Brave New World one of the greatest books ever.
For anyone not au fait with the story, it depicts a future society where everybody's happy; this state having been achieved through the advancement of and domination by the forces of capitalism and science. People are no longer given birth to but instead are hatched in test tubes then during infancy inculcated through subliminal messaging virtues such as passive obedience, material consumption and unrestricted copulation. In later adult life the population is kept occupied by sports, mild labour and mindless entertainment, and kept under sedation by a freely distributed drug by the name of soma.
We are introduced to Lenina and Bernard who in their own particular ways and for their own particular reasons are not quite content with the ways things are. Together they visit what is called a Savage Reservation in New Mexico; a place where primitive civilization still exists and where people still marry, give birth, die of old age, and use such antiquated terms such as 'mother' and 'father'. There they encounter a savage called John and his mother, Linda, who are brought back to London. The mother ends up strung out on soma before dying, whilst John ends up as a freak to be gawked at until after being unable to take any more, hangs himself.

This is, of course, just a brief synopsis of the story-line and isn't really doing it justice because the true point of Brave New World as I see it, is for it to be a vehicle for ideas. And what are those ideas? Well, I presume Huxley knew what he wanted to say when he started writing the book but a lot of it feels as though it was being made up on the hoof. It's as though he took bits and pieces from here, there and everywhere, and tried to knot them all together into a coherent whole. He didn't exactly fail in his task but when main characters are given names such as Marx, Bakunin, and Lenin it just comes over as a bit... ham-fisted.

Huxley depicts a future society where the human spirit has been extinguished and where the control systems that maintain the staus quo are all that matters. He also depicts a savage society where science doesn't exist and the human spirit is apparently unfettered. The problem, however, is that both societies are shown to be just as bad as one and other. There's a false dichotomy between them and presumably this was fully intentioned - to present both worlds in the same dim light? So, on the one hand Brave New World warns against the danger of a totally controlled society yet also despairs at an uncontrolled society.
Now, in a foreword written 14 years after the first publication of Brave New World, Huxley considered adding a depiction of a third type of society to his story; one where economics would be decentralist, science would serve rather than dictate, and politics would be Kropotkinesque. An anarchist society, essentially. He obviously chose not to do this but I rather wish he had because if Brave New World is a vehicle for ideas then perhaps it would have done away with any ambiguity about those ideas.

There are a lot of readers who like Brave New World precisely because of the ambiguity of it but for me, all it does is to shift attention away from what the book is meant to be about and on to the author himself and where he's coming from. And of course, where Huxley's coming from is the public school education system of the early 1900s - Eton, to be precise. And however much of a freethinker Huxley presented himself as, he would still have been inculcated with all the attitudes and indeed, prejudices that would have come from such an education. You don't have to look far into the book either to see these attitudes on full display, particularly in the hierarchical make-up of his controlled society where there is a class of Alpha-Plus intellectuals who are bred to govern and a mass of Epsilon-Minus Semi-Morons bred for menial labour.

When first published in 1932, Brave New World was viewed as being prophetic and has been deemed as one of the most influential and important books of the 20th century. I've no argument with it being prophetic as indeed, Huxley has in many ways been proven right - more so, in fact, than George Orwell in his own particular vision of the future, 1984.
Brave New World, however, is now out of date because social control systems (rather by accident than by design, I feel) have superseded anything Huxley envisaged and we are now (or at least those in the First World) in what is essentially a virtual state. We are removed from what might actually be reality and are living and thinking in a virtual reality where our opinions, thoughts, ideas and perhaps even our dreams are not our own but simply versions of others. And when I say 'virtual reality', I don't mean as simulated by computers or the Internet but as in shadows of the form and substance of life itself, those shadows being far more complicated than they ever were in Huxley's day.
I suspect that some years after Huxley wrote Brave New World, he himself began to realise that his book was a mere tinkering around the themes he was exploring - simply an entertaining sideshow; which would explain his growing interest in mescaline, leading to him writing what is probably his most famous essay, The Doors of Perception.

Compared to say, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, Brave New World has now lost its power and I suspect also that if Huxley were around today then he too would refute the idea that it's one of the greatest books ever, and that puts me in good company. Me, the uneducated lout from a council estate in Bristol, and Huxley; a polymath of the highest order and one of the greatest British thinkers of all time....
I may even have one up on Huxley because I've got a sense of humour and as far as I know, Huxley was never really renowned for his jokes.

I must admit, however, that until reading Brave New World I never realised that it took its title from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: "How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it." And also that the song Everybody's Happy Nowadays by the Buzzcocks was derived from it....
John Serpico

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