Brave New World
Aldous Huxley (1932), Vintage,
229 pages; £8.99. ISBN: 978-0-099-51847-1
The New Year had just started and I had just finished the draft manuscript of my book, Bioethical Issues, in which I recommended the reading, or re-reading, of this classic. So I did! And, by the way, the title comes from ‘O brave new world, that has such people in’t’, as spoken by Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act V, Scene 1).
There is no doubt that Aldous Huxley was a rather disturbing and disturbed man. He was born in 1894 into the famously high-flying Huxley family, with his mother, the niece of poet Matthew Arnold, and his father, the son of Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous zoologist and atheist, also known as 'Darwin's Bulldog’. His two brothers, Julian and Andrew later became eminent biologists as well as the first director-general of UNESCO and a Nobel laureate respectively, while a third, Trevenon, was a depressive, who later committed suicide.
Aldous was schooled at his mother's knee, Eton and then Balliol College, Oxford. He briefly taught French at Eton before working at the Brunner and Mond chemical plant in Billingham. It is said that three events traumatized his early life - his mother died of cancer when he was just 14, at 16, while at Eton, an eye infection rendered him almost totally blind and left him with impaired vision for the rest of his life, and at 20 the death of Trevenon robbed him of his closest family member. He spent a good deal of his formative years among the Bloomsbury set, including luminaries, such as Bertrand Russell, D H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey. During his first trip to the USA, while on board ship, he read My Life and Work, by Henry Ford – it alarmed Huxley, but its vigorous endorsement of mass production, consumerism and the consequent threat to personal identity became the undergirding subjects of Brave New World. In 1919, he married a Belgian refugee, Maria Nys, they had a son and eventually moved to Italy, where in 1931 he actually wrote this book. In 1937, the family moved to California. It was here that he further developed his fascination with parapsychology, philosophical mysticism and hallucinogenic drugs. He became convinced that these 'spiritual' habits were the key to both personal and world peace, though he called himself a lifelong agnostic. He died on 22 November 1963, helped by two doses of LSD administered by his second wife, Laura. The news of his death was overshadowed by those of President Kennedy and C S Lewis on the same day.
Understanding something of the author and his times reveals the raison d’être of his Brave New World. Huxley never forgot the production and consumerist ideas of Henry Ford. And his world was still passing through the profound repercussions of the First World War of 1914 to 1918, plus the Russian Revolution of 1917. These, together with his search for meaning and spiritual realities, triggered an apprehensiveness and pessimism about the future of mankind and civilisation. He feared the Americanization of Europe. He began to fear the abuse of technologies, the growth of personal materialism, political elitism, social organisation, centralisation of power, all of which Huxley saw as threats to the freedom, peace and happiness of men and women – were they destined to become mere slaves, automatons, unfeeling biological material? As Huxley states in his Foreword, ‘A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control the population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.’ These anxieties were to shape the disturbing themes of Brave New World.
It is not a straightforward novel and therefore not such an easy read. It contains deep, thought-provoking topics, complex structures, intricate dialogues and discontinuous sub-plots. Yet it is wonderfully inventive, the prose flows and the mind pictures it creates are bold and expansive. Huxley liked to quote Stéphane Mallarmé that the mission of the writer is give 'a purer meaning to the words of the tribe.'
Huxley’s thesis is simple. The impending utopian world is totalitarian. Personal conformity and social stability are ensured by engineering babies in bottles, and once hatched, these offspring are hypnopaedically conditioned and classified into one of five pre-ordained castes. This future world quietly hums and everyone is happy because of boundless consumption and state-enforced promiscuity – ‘You can’t have a lasting civilisation without plenty of pleasant vices’, says the Controller. And when life gets unpleasant, the freely-available drug, soma, is the solution.
In many ways, Huxley could see where civilisation was heading – the book has a prophetic edge. Eighty-two years on, in 2014, who can fail to recognize his predicted emergence of assisted reproductive technologies, the reappearance of eugenic thinking and functional transhumanism, government propaganda, low-brow entertainment industries, shopping and excessive consumption as lifestyles, unfettered sexual encounters, adultery and fornication, and finally, a pervasive drug culture, be it fuelled by alcohol, Prozac or cocaine? Need I say more?
The Brave New World’s slogans tell the same story, but from a different perspective. For a start there is, ‘Everybody is happy now.’ What kind of hollow assessment is ‘happiness’ for a consumer product-mad generation? Yet nowadays in the UK, a government-sponsored ‘happiness index’ is published each year by the Office for National Statistics. The World State's motto, ‘Community, Identity, Stability', has become the watchwords and targets of many modern governments. The ‘Bokanovsky Process’, whereby one human embryo is split and as many as ninety-six clones are produced, is a prediction of the all-too frightening kind! The terms, ‘parent, mother and father, home, marriage’, what are they?, people of the Brave New World would ask, just as our present generation is beginning to. The hypnopaedic proverb was, ‘Everyone belongs to everyone else.’ So because family structures and social strictures had been eliminated, there was full-blown sexual abandon. Perhaps we are not quite there yet. ‘The more stitches the less riches’ and ‘Ending is better than mending’ are the jingoes of a consumerist society – buy, buy, buy. ‘Everyone works for everyone else’, because ‘All men are physico-chemically equal’ are the mantras of an equality-based society, except the elite remain just a little bit extra-special. Huxley’s fear of world overpopulation is summarised by, ‘I did all the Malthusian drill’, meaning that every fertile woman conforms to a strict contraceptive regimen because in the Brave New World only artificial reproduction is allowed. Are pills, contraceptive and abortifacient, and assisted reproductive technologies the future for us too?
The book’s characters provide additional insight not only into Huxley’s satirical mind, but also into his apprehension concerning the forthcoming world. Their surnames tell of Huxley’s dread of totalitarianism, from either the Left or the Right – Polly Trotsky, Bernard Marx, Mustapha Mond (aka, the Controller), Ford and Lenina.
Half of the book describes life in the Brave New World, the other half tells the tale of the Old World, the Savage Reservation, the peublo, visited and envied by the rebellious misfit Bernard Marx, and inhabited by John the Savage, the illicit son of Linda and Thomas, the latter being Bernard’s boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. In the Reservation, life is rough and tough, but God, or deities of some kind, are honoured, marriage is esteemed, social relationships are prized, and so on. When John visits the Brave New World, he hates its so-called civilisation. He chides its inhabitants, ‘Do you like being slaves … babies? I come to bring you freedom. Don’t take that horrible stuff [soma]. It’s poison, it's poison.’ But his protestations are in vain – nobody listens. He therefore seeks privacy and solitude – the right to be unhappy – but he is relentlessly pursued as an Old World freak by journalists. Finally, it is all too much, he cannot cope, and he hangs himself. The book thus ends in despair.
The Christian analysis
Huxley was so affected by Henry Ford’s philosophy that ‘Ford’ becomes synonymous with ‘God’. So ‘Ford’ is worshipped, ‘cleanliness is next to fordliness’ is a World State's catchphrase, and ‘Oh Ford’ is an execration. The narrative is even set in 632 AF, ‘After Ford’, which corresponds to AD 2540. Throughout the whole book there are Huxley’s mystical fingerprints as well as his scornful rejection of orthodox biblical Christianity. So in the Old World, ‘There was something called Christianity.’ And the disdain that, ‘Women were forced to go on being viviparous.’ ‘Crosses had their tops cut off and became T’s. There was also a thing called God. We have the World State now. And Ford’s Day celebrations and Community Sings and Solidarity Services.’ The Bible and the works of Shakespeare, and other books are abandoned simply because they are ‘old’. How could they possibly fit into this Brave New World? That sounds too much like some twenty-first century vicars and school teachers! Huxley gives no answers. The ideal society is not utopian, but rather dystopian. So there is a lot here for the Bible-believing Christian to savour, as well as denounce.
Brave New World is a challenging book. I enjoyed it, it made me think, it made me reflect. I came to appreciate how it echoes Huxley’s fragile life, his weird ideas and his feeble values. For me, the test was to understand them, reject them and replace them with a robust biblical worldview. If a book does that for me, I regard it as a good read. And this undoubtedly was!