Two books that shape our world view
Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, revisited
After the election of 2016 in which Donald Trump, against all the polls and all expectations, was declared the President, two books have returned to the best seller lists. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World written before World War II and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written after.
While both books are integral components of the American literary curricula, taught regularly at high schools across the country, a resurgence of interest by non-students, in the face of Trumps’ victory and a growing cadre of international strongmen, has occurred. Just what is it about these books that fascinate us? What do they have to say about our world today?
Almost 90 years ago, In 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World. It is a novel that posits, some six hundred years into the future, a society in which veneration for Henry Ford replaces all religion. Industrial scale bio-engineering and efficiency, even applied to breeding, is the central fact of everyday lives. In this proto-Fordian society people are distracted with sensual pleasure or blunted with narcotics and an engineered meekness is the main feature of citizenship.
Most people were, and maybe remain, frightened at a world in which active suffering is traded for a medicated docility. Some just objected to a world of consequence free sex and easy drugs. Still others objected to the virulent strain of genetic determinism. Variously described as ‘dystopian’ and a ‘negative utopia,’ the novel is now, more and more, used in comparison, without flattery, to our own world, particularly in the way our world offers and we citizens partake of distraction and pleasure seeking. Some have gone so far as to call Huxley prophet for his vision of pharma-leash — his soma is a drug that government uses to foster tranquility and avoidance in the citizens — and one which many find a clear parallel with our modern day perspective on opioid usage.
The question is whether Brave New World really is a ‘dystopian’ novel. It is about a mechanistic, purportedly idealized, and outwardly successful, bio-utopia that does not deliberately inflict direct harm upon its citizens. The motives of the leaders are unclear but the gears of the society functions to provide for the citizens every desire and offers them the means to avoid any and every fear. By some measures, then, Huxley’s is an Utopian scheme: war is absent; as is poverty; and the pleasures, according to genetics, are freely provided. It is a world in which freedom from objectionable emotions is bio-engineered, resulting in a widespread servility. It is the reaction at this servility, as seen from the point of view of an outsider, called ‘the savage,’ that is the central conflict of the novel. Huxley contrasts this ‘negative Utopian’ view with the words of William Shakespeare, because that is all the literature to which the savage has been exposed.
The problem with Brave New World — what truly makes both the utopian and dystopian descriptions invalid — is that Huxley merely iterates over the remarkably un-killable notion that science is predictable, perfect-able and tractable: that, we can safely and even easily bio-engineer, not just for ‘pleasure’ but for manipulation and control. Huxley’s novel is the anti-theses of Frankenstein’s monster, and yet Huxley, perhaps unwittingly, adopts the mantle of Victor Frankenstein’s hubris: that science is, first, servant, and second, benefactor.
Whenever someone makes reference to the opioid crisis in relation to Huxley, that is the opportunity to point out that Huxley is not prophet and, in fact, got this part exactly wrong: Pleasure always dulls and the pursuit of it always escalates in scale, scope and in consequence, so that the pleasure seeker needs more and more of the stimuli to less and less affect. If the world did not turn in just this manner the opioid crisis would not be a crisis and, in fact, we never would have met the Buddha. As mechanism for control, pleasure, either as reward or distraction, simply does not work. The novel is not dystopian: The attempt at utopia did not go sideways, somehow. The novel may posit a version of utopia that is simply not possible.
Less than twenty years after Brave New World was published, George Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a clearly dystopian vision that described a bleak world, with clear — but even bleaker — motives. Oppression is the central fact of citizens’ everyday life. and nowhere are the citizens more ground under foot than in the outright denial of the simple ability to discern objective truth. This, too, finds comparisons to our present world — a world in which ‘alternate facts’ and ‘fake news’ find, not just plausibility, but active purchase.
Orwell got underneath the whole thing in a way that Huxley could not because Orwell knew that fear never dulls. Also, he saw, more clear than others, the relationship of power to paranoia: that is to say, a personal, transactional, fear. Further, he saw clearly the closed loop of fascism: paranoia as power: that peculiar state of mind in which, first, one fears the state of mind of the other, and then works assiduously to bring the other to that suspected state of mind.
It was, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien who first gave the main characters, Winston and Julia, permission to rebel. Then he crushed them for yielding to his enticements. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher used a similar dynamic to take power, first giving people permission to fear and to hate the government, and then giving them a government worthy of hate. Reagan, in fact, was forthrightly invoking fear in his first inaugural stating that “Government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.’’ And, in American at least, most Republican politicians since Reagan have employed just a balder, more obvious, version of this dynamic. Just like Orwell, the Republicans have long known that the secret spine of paranoia is narrative. Trump just wields that more forcefully.
The two novels have formed opposing poles of thought, regarding citizen control and dystopian life: the one Brave New World about distractions and pleasure seeking in place of civic duty and the other, Nineteen Eighty-Four fealty is straightforwardly compelled via fear. Huxley’s vision is, on the whole, an extrapolation, wholly mechanistic, deriving from set principles. Whereas, at the core of Orwell’s novel is, in fact, an interpretation of what he believed was actually happening in the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin and might yet happen to his native England. To Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four is only a lightly fictionalized biography of a fascist.
When we think about Brave New World, we envision what is almost become a cliche, panem et circenses, the ancient Roman figure of speech, that translates to ‘bread and circus’… or, according to devotees of Huxley, translates to ‘food and distraction’. But the circus part, at least in ancient Rome, is more easily understood in the context of the Orwellian view of power and fear, based as it was upon taking pleasure in cruelty, and the joy of participating in state sanctioned brutality, as well as the safety found in watching that brutality fostered unto someone else.
Both novels take a long hard look at language: At the heart of Huxley’s novel is a contrast of linguistic visions; he reaches into the past to the words of Shakespeare to contrast them with some of the emerging views of Henry Ford and a technocrats desire for clean solutions; in Orwell language is a tool to assist in the policing of thought. Where, in Brave New World, Huxley explores the contradictions of past language expansion, a la Shakespeare and the concepts of Fordism and technocracy, Orwell introduces the very concept of language compression in NewSpeak and dissonance in doublespeak. In crafting a language that narrows the range of thoughts allowed, alongside the techniques of doublethink that require immense cognitive load to employ, the leadership elevates narrative above truth and subjugates the citizens simply by blunting their wills: where obvious lies are told as an exercise in power and in service to a compelled rapport, even a complicity, with the victim/citizen.
What is also clear is that this Orwellian view of narrative as blunt force trauma is absolutely central to our everyday politics in the here and now. Without it, in 2004 in the USA, the GOP (the self-styled party of the patriots and the military) would not have been able to wear ‘purple heart’ band-aids mocking a decorated vet in service to electing a draft dodger. From there to 2016 and Trump is but a small step. The whole and entire rationale for Confederate Monuments rests upon a narrative that is distinctly at odds with history, but the narrative is wielded precisely so that the history be elided. If it were not so, no monument to a Confederate anything would ever have been erected. The entire notion of ‘dog whistles’ depends upon a complicit passing of deliberate lies. Narrative above truth. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is an attempt at rebuke to the doublethink of ‘all lives matter’ in a world where all lives, clearly, do not matter. Nor is this methodology particular to American politics: the so-called ‘Brexit’ was entirely constructed from an amalgam of this sort of ‘doublethink,’ amid a frenzy of potent, but patently untrue, narratives.
And, most clearly, the rampaging, and demonstrably false, stories that were all over social media in the run-up to both the 2016 elections and the Brexit vote are the undistilled essence of this thinking. Hillary Clinton was a secret satanic pederast, being one of the more ridiculous examples.
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress we were again wringing hands over how something that is supposed to bring us together is, in fact, alienating us with a rapidity that should alarming. But why should Facebook bring us together? It is, in fact, a ready made narrative assist, and it used as such. Perhaps the alienation we feel is a human recoil at the ceaseless image making, re-making, half-truths and outright lies we tell about — and to — ourselves. Maybe the alienation is a sort of societal gag reflex at the predicate assumption that we are, by and large, telling the truth about ourselves online and digitally. But whatever led us to believe that this could or should be the case? If we’ve serried over this sort of thing in ‘real life,’ eliding meanings with coded speech and grafting intent (good and bad) unto placid sloganeering and bluntly disingenuous surface prose, why should our social media utterances be any nobler?
Both Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four hinge on the very human desire to avoid pain, but it is only in Orwell’s vision that the pain has any meaning: Huxley elides anything real in favor of a diffuse image of something messy and far-away, disaffected and scary and simply to be avoided, until the last chapter where the savages’ own, mechanistic and spiteful, self-mortification and the gathering fascination of the ‘civilized’ mob, is played mostly for — rather thin and denuded — laughs.
Orwell, on the other hand, allows that the very attempt to avoid pain, causes suffering… and here is the real terror of Nineteen Eighty-Four: the last chapter of which is a foggy, raw and ragged mockery of redemption: a corruption as fervently held as truth because it is the path of least resistance. In the aversion to the world — that is to say, in a retreat to what we wish to believe, rather than what is — is the most confusion and inexhaustible wellspring of, and return to, suffering.
Except for one thing… This inability to provide pleasure and distraction in the long term has in no way deterred many people from giving it a go: Many make attempt after attempt to flee their pain with more and fleeting pleasures; Trying, either on a personal level or with mass media to endlessly distract and entertain. Despite the ever growing evidence of our direct experience people keep trying to use science to perfect society: Henry Fords own experience with ‘Fordlandia’ his engineered society in the Brazilian rainforest that collapsed; the opioid crisis in which a bad product with a propensity for misuse was sold as being immune to abuse; to brexit; to the 2016 elections in the US.
As well, there is a growing list of books, movies and TV shows that posit un-intended, often harrowing, consequences to science and lays bare the naivete inherent to the engineers simplistic problem solving, many people continue to both place faith in the clean promise of science, first as servant and then as benefactor.
The lesson, if any, to be drawn from Brave New World has less to do with possible futures but how we see the possibilities of the future: A naive view of science and psychology as simultaneously uncorruptable and tool of corruption, allowing us to attempt to mechanize our petty vices in order to cede control.