Saturday, May 21, 2005

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)

Totalitarian government. Mind control. Social conditioning. Free will. These are some of the themes that come up repeatedly in Aldous Huxley's classic Brave New World. As I read this book, I was struck by the many similarities between the modern era and the futuristic dystopian world described by Huxley in 1932. Indeed, Huxley predicted such a world might come to pass in about 600 years. After WWII he adjusted his prediction to within 100 years. It's almost as if we are now in the toddler stage of the establishment of socio-economic and political structures that would ultimately lead to a complete fruition of this dystopian vision in the not-too-distant future. Today, such a world may well be on our doorsteps, just decades away.

In Huxley's day, Brave New World was met with derision and ridicule, the lot of many great visionaries. However, we have begun to see the nexus edge of his visions making way into our present reality, but only for those who choose to stop, look, and listen. Huxley, doesn't provide any answers, he simply presents the possibility of what may come to pass if individuals do not act in the face of tell-tale signs of the degradation of society and loss of humanity. The work is markedly different from Orwell's 1984 on many counts, but particularly, in Huxley's world we see an utopian society as viewed by those ensnared by it, and dystopian to those looking in from without. In Orwell's world we see a dystopian society irrespective of viewpoint, and those ensnared by it are conditioned to simply accept their unfortunate lot. Huxley addresses the problem of happiness, and the perception of happiness. As he says, "we have been conditioned to love our servitude."

In Huxley's utopian dystopia individuals have been thoroughly conditioned from the moment of conception, to happily accept the view of the world the Controllers have presented. Here we have a markedly stratified society with specific conditioning and development according to the required function of the individual in society. Of interest is the requirement for creating inferior human beings (Delta and Epsilon) to perform the menial repetitive tasks of society, where little intelligence or creativity are required. Conversely, the superior conditioned classes (Alpha and Beta) possess far too much intelligence to allow a sense of satisfaction to ensue from such repetitive labors. Even the most elite class of Alpha Plus-Plus, in spite of their penetrating intelligence, are sufficiently conditioned so that although they may question and consider, they will ultimately arrive at conclusions that are in keeping with preservation of the status quo as the best avenue for social stability. Obviously, their lofty position as the social elite, destined to be "World Controllers," helps keep them more or less happily enslaved to such views, thinking they are serving the greater good. The dialogue between the Savage and one of the World Controllers, in the second last chapter of the book, is especially insightful.

And then, of course, there is the everywhere-prevalent "soma," a synthesized drug that is taken in a variety of quantities depending on the depth and duration of effect desired. Sought after in any situation where the slightest presence of anything even remotely unpleasant is encountered. "Better a gram than a damn..." is the conditioned catch-phrase for all forms of mental and emotional turmoil. A society that is conditioned to be so alienated from it's feelings; seeking and indulging in all manner of pleasure to the point of neurosis. Coupled to a total rejection and refusal to examine and consider anything even remotely unpleasant, to the point of popping a pill that immediately plunges one into a sensational wonderland.

There is an interesting analogy to religion where everything occurs "in the year of our Ford," suggesting a society that has become religiously dependent on machination, technology, and the industrialized world. The implication is to a distant past, where technocrats had usurped the role of messianic-like saviors, promising liberation to the conditioned masses from all the ills of society. Their goals were realized, with conditioning from cradle to the grave, the social order was established, and the "year of our Ford" had begun.

As one reads, one can clearly feel the profound shallowness of individuals in such a society, of lives completely devoid of any meaning. They act out as on a stage their conditioning incessantly, whilst all-the-while thinking they are free. Their minds have been so imprisoned. One cannot help but to be amused at the parrot-like unconscious utterance of conditioned statements interspersed regularly throughout their interactions with one another. It all begs the question: what is free will? And are we really free?

The inversion of social values as part of the framework to establish a stable social order is quite interesting. A world in which no one is born naturally, and everyone is made artificially. Indeed, to the extent that even to mention the words "mother" and "father" is to engender great disgust and embarrassment. A world in which there is no genuine passion or sensitivity, where everyone belongs to everyone else sexually, and the thought of wanting deep and personal relationships is inconceivable—certainly to be stigmatized.

Enter the "Savage." He comes from a remote "uncivilized" part of the world, where people are born naturally, and raised according to traditional tribal and familial values. When one of these savages comes into contact with "civilized" society, the reality of the situation becomes extraordinarily clear. Although the Savage and members of civilized society share the same language, and each believes and thinks they are able to communicate, there is a clear inability to really understand each other. Each assumes the other shares their unconscious world views, as each have been conditioned (although the Savage less so) to view the world in a particular way. And these "world views" are so in conflict, that personal interactions give rise to tragically comical situations. Alfred Korzybski in his Science and Sanity immediately springs to mind. And with this inability to communicate and understand, comes the ineffectiveness of seeking to "help" individuals who are so deeply conditioned, as seen through the Savage's well-meaning attempt to destroy the local supply of soma pills, resulting in chaos.

One final area explored is the notion of highly intelligent individuals (Alpha's and higher), who somehow become dissatisfied with society. In spite of all their conditioning, a feeling of hollowness and emptiness pervades, a sense there must be more. This, of course, is the beginning of their demise within the structure of the established social order. If they can conceal their dissatisfaction they may be able to continue as seeming members of an inwardly rejected social order. Otherwise, they eventually transgress the various rules and laws of the establishment. After all, everything is and must be in the service of maintaining the social order. And so, these fortunate unhappy people are sent away to remote islands where they can live out their lives free from the constructs and obligations imposed on individuals by a highly structured society. The interesting allusion is that such islands would be composed of all varieties of interesting and intelligent individuals who have had some falling out with society, people with a keen desire to know and understand more than what they've been told. What such a population of individuals would create for themselves is an interesting speculation, and may have been intended to forebode Huxley's later utopian work entitled Island.

An entertaining and thought-provoking read. In his forward, Huxley indicates that in order for such a scenario to come about, there clearly must be an increasing tendency towards centralized governments. In fact, he predicts that almost all the worlds governments will be of a totalitarian nature in due course. Once these have been established, it is only a comparatively small further step to unite totalitarian governments into a one world government. The antidote for this kind of establishment is a massive movement towards decentralization of power. However, he did not see this happening as of post-WWII. And although Huxley certainly would be encouraged by many positive grass-roots movements in modern times, his verdict would likely be the same today.


Mona said...

I really appreciate your perspective on the has been on my mind and in my conversations lately...I never actually read it, but I seem to enjoy discussing its relevance to the world we live in. Thank you for sharing and keep up the writing!

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