Monday, 18 February 2008

Aldous Huxley - Brave New World

Aldous Huxley was born in Surrey on the 26th July 1894; he was the third son of the writer and professional herbalist, Leonard Huxley and was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the most prominent English naturalists of the C19, a man known as "Darwin's Bulldog". His brother, Julian Huxley, was also a notable biologist.

Huxley was educated at Eton College and while there he suffered an illness which left him practically blind, something that was to remain problematic for the rest of his life and consequently disqualified him from service in WWI. In 1916, his eyesight sufficiently recovered, he studied English literature at Oxford, graduating with a first class honours. Following his education he taught French for a year back at Eton, where, incidentally, Eric Blair - later known by the pen name George Orwell, was among his pupils.

During WWI Huxley spent much of his time working as a farm labourer at Garsington Manor, home of the Bloomsbury Group socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell. Here he met several Bloomsbury figures, including D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Clive Bell. In 1919 he married Maria Nijs, a Belgian woman he met at Garsington and they had one child, Matthew. In 1937 Huxley and his family moved to Hollywood, California and remained in the states for the remainder of his life until he died on the 22nd November 1963.

In 1932 Huxley published BNW. By this time, Huxley had already established himself as a writer and social satirist. He was a contributor to Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines, had published a collection of his poetry (The Burning Wheel, 1916) and four successful satirical novels: Crome Yellow in 1921, Antic Hay in 1923, Those Barren Leaves in 1925 and Pound Counter Point in 1928. BNW was Huxley's fifth novel and first attempt at a utopian work.

Thinking about the historical context; a widespread fear of Americanisation had already existed in Europe since the mid-C19 and BNW, was well as his later utopian novel, Island of 1962, form the cornerstone of Huxley's damning indictment of American commercialism. It has been suggested that BNW as well as Orwell's 1984 and Zamiatin's We helped form an anti-utopian or dystopian tradition in literature, and they all have become synonymous with a future world where the human spirit is subject to conditioning and control.

BNW is set in London in 2540 AD, or as Huxley has termed it 632 AF (After Ford). The novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology, biological engineering, and sleep-learning that combine to dramatically change society as we know it. It is a utopia: humanity is carefree, healthy and technologically advanced. Warfare and poverty have been eliminated and everyone is permanently happy due to government-provided stimulation. The massive irony with all of this however is that these things have been achieved by eliminating what humans would consider to be central to their identity - family, culture, art, literature, science, religion and philosophy. It is also a hedonistic society, deriving pleasure from promiscuous sex and drug use - particularly 'soma', a powerful psychotropic taken to escape pain and bad memories through hallucinatory fantasies. Stability has also been achieved and is maintained through deliberately engineered and rigidly enforced social stratification.

BNW was inspired by H.G. Wells' utopian novel, Men Like Gods. Wells' optimistic vision of the future gave Huxley the idea to begin writing a parody of the novel, which became BNW. Contrary to the most popular optimist utopian novels of the time, Huxley sought to provide a frightening vision of the future. Huxley referred to BNW as a "negative utopia", somewhat influence by Wells' own The Sleeper Awakes and the works of D.H. Lawrence. Zamiatin's novel We, completed in 1921 has also been suggested as an influence, but Huxley stated that he had not known of the book at the time.

Although the novel is set in the future, it contains the contemporary issues of the early C20. The Industrial Revolution was bringing about massive changes to the world; mass production had made cars, telephones and radios relatively cheap and widely available throughout the developed world. The Russian Revolution, WWI and the Great Depression were also resonating throughout the world.

Huxley was able to use the setting and characters from his futuristic fantasy to express widely held opinions that were a result of the contemporary issues of the time, particularly a fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future. An early trip to the US gave BNW much of its character. Not only was Huxley outraged by the youth culture, commercial cheeriness and inward-looking nature of many Americans, he also found a book by Henry Ford on the boat to America. A combination of the fears of Americanisation felt throughout Europe, by seeing the US firsthand and by having the opportunity to read the ideas and plans of one of its foremost citizens, spurred Huxley to write BNW with America in mind. The "feelies" are his response to the "talkie" motion pictures, and the sex-hormone chewing gum is a parody of the 'chewing gum' that we all know today, which was something of a symbol of America at that time.

Key figures of historical significance that are implicit within the book and clearly at the forefront of Huxley's mind are:

Henry Ford - has become a messianic figure to the World State. "Our Ford" used in place of "Our Lord", as a credit to his invention of the assembly line.

Sigmund Freud
- "Our Freud" is sometimes said in place of "Our Ford" due to the link between Freud's psychoanalysis and the conditioning of humans, and Freud's popularisation of the idea that sexual activity is essential to human happiness and need not be open to procreation. It is also strongly implied that the citizens of the World State believe Freud and Ford to be the same person.

H.G. Wells
- "Dr. Wells" - British writer and utopian socialist, whose book Men Like Gods was an incentive for BNW. Huxley also criticised Wells for his anthropological assumptions that Huxley found unrealistic. It was clear that Huxley almost viewed Wells as a kind of 'enemy', was he asserted that BNW was "a novel about the future on the horror of Wellsian utopia and a revolt against it."

William Shakespeare
- banned works are quoted throughout the novel by John "the Savage". Mustapha Mond is also aware of Shakespeare.

Thomas Malthus
- his name is used to describe the contraceptive techniques (Malthusian belt) practice by women of the World State. Malthus has become best-known for his influential views on population growth, he famously predicted that the population of the Earth would steeply rise after the Industrial Revolution.

There are also explicit political references in the names of some of the bottle-grown citizens of the World State:

Bernard Marx
- Karl Marx

Lenina Crowne
Vladimir Lenin

Polly Trotsky
- Leon Trotsky

Benito Hoover
- Benito Mussolini and Henry Hoover

Darwin Bonaparte
- Charles Darwin and Napoleon Bonaparte

Herbert Bakunin
- Mikhail Bukanin (Russian philosopher and anarchist)

Mustapha Mond
- Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (founded the Turkish republic after WWI, pulling his country into modernisation and official secularism) and Alfred Mond (charismatic British businessman and politician - founded the Imperial Chemical Industries Corporation)

Primo Mellon
- Miguel Primo de Rivera (prime minister and dictator of Spain from 1923-1930) and Thomas Mellon (American entrepreneur, lawyer and judge)

Sarojini Engels
- Friedrich Engels and Sarojini Naidu (Indian politician, child-prodigy and freedom fighter of early C20)

Arch-Community Songster
- parody of Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Church's decision in August 1930 to approve limited use of contraception

- Native American rebel, responsible for the conflict known as Pope's rebellion (uprising of the natives against Spanish colonisation in 1680). [Pope has an accented 'e'].

BNW has come to serve as a false symbol for any regime of universal happiness; Huxley's satirical fiction has turned a future where we are all notionally happy into an archetypal dystopia.

Huxley's character Mustapha Mond himself obliquely acknowledges the dystopian sterility of BNW when he reflects on Bernard's plea not to exile him to Iceland, when he says "one would think he was going to have his throat cut. Whereas, if he had the smallest sense, he'd understand that his punishment is really a reward. He's being sent to an island. That's to say, he's being sent to a place where he'll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community life.

Huxley has endowed his "ideal" society with features calculated to alienate his audience and what makes it truly dystopian is that BNW doesn't and isn't intended by its author to evoke just how wonderful our lives could be. Nor does Huxley's comparatively sympathetic account of the life of the Savage on the Reservation convey just how nasty the old regime can be. In BNW Huxley has managed to exploit both the anxieties of his bourgeois audience about both Soviet Communism and Fordist American capitalism.

Comparisons that can be mode with other utopias -

It is notable that the society of BNW has no historical dynamic. "History is bunk". It is curious to find a utopia where knowledge of the past is banned by the Controllers, perhaps they feared historical awareness would stir dissatisfaction with the "utopian" present.

Individualism - In BNW there is no depth of feeling, no ferment of ideas, no artistic creativity, individuality is suppressed (See Mond quote above where people have got "too self-consciously individual to fit into community life")

Religion - BNW inhabitants do not worship God. Instead they are brainwashed into revering the concept of 'community' and formally the community is presided over by the spirit of the apostle of mass-production, Henry Ford. He is worshipped as a god and with the abolition of history, for the Brave New Worlders it is implied that salvation has already occurred, the utopians are static and not going anywhere.

Politically, BNW is a benevolent form of totalitarianism under ten world controllers. A government bureau decides prospective citizen's role in the hierarchy, children are raised and conditioned by the state bureaucracy. There are only ten thousand surnames, value has been stripped away from the person as an individual and respect belongs only to society as a whole. BNW then is centred around control and manipulation.

Socially, BNW is a classed society, with a 5 way genetic split, with no social mobility. Alphas invariably rule while the Epsilons invariably toil.

The role of education for Huxley in BNW is rather complex to fathom. Generally, it is a stupid society. For the most part even the Alpha's don't do anything more exalted than play Obstacle Golf, but there are a handful of Alphas who are delineated; Bernard, Helmholtz and Mustapha Mond are truly clever. John the Savage as well is articulated and with a desire to learn. But in the main the utopians are empty-headed.

Consumerism, property, ownership, these are recurring themes within the utopian genre and BNW is no different. It is a "Fordist" utopia based on production and consumption. The world motto is "Everyone belongs to everyone else", which also emphasises ideas about ownership and property. This is in particular reference to the BNWer's conditioning to be sexually promiscuous. No one belongs to anyone else. Therefore BNW is an essentially loveless society.

With regard to the family and love, both romantic love and love of the family are taboo. The family itself has been abolished throughout the civilised world. We learn that the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning was guilty of an indiscretion with a Beta-minus when visiting the Reservation twenty years ago and when John the Savage falls on his knees and greets him as his father, the director puts his hands over his ears, clearly seeing the word as obscene, he is embarrassed and in his opinion publicly humiliated and so flees the room.

The role of John the Savage is arguably the most important part of Huxley's BNW. John stands as the voice of the modern reader. He sees the hollowness of existence that results from consumerism and instead of viewing its ease as a utopia, he begs for the right to suffer his unhappiness. In perhaps one of the most important quotes in the book, he pleads, "I don't want comfort, I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin." To John all of the 'happiness' that he seems before him in the 'brave new world' is vacuous and artificial. No one experiences anything that makes us all essentially human because the state regulates experience through products such as soma. He, like the reader, sees this lack of humanity as a disturbing warning about the dangers of modern consumerism and understands that the pain and emotion of Shakespeare, nature, art and God are more real and useful than tactics to produce mindless obedience. He is, in essence, the foil to every character in the book and is the true outsider - the only one who seems to see that utopia and consumption cannot exist simultaneously and can only breed infantile dependence and thus a lack of individuality and truth. As the reader is also an outsider, having never been exposed to the bizarre culture presented in the novel, we find John's statements even more compelling and it becomes clear that even though fiction has exaggerated the potential reality - there are definite dangers imminent when consumption becomes the means to create a utopia.

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