Insanity, on the one hand; lunacy on the other.
Are these humanity’s only options? The only red and blue pill actually on offer?
That’s the bleak proposal of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s dark prediction from the early 1930’s of a future many years hence, which I read only a few days ago.
Dark? Really? As a general rule everyone in Huxley’s vision of the world centuries from now is quite happy. Disease, suffering, war, disappointment, grief and anger are virtually unheard of. Free, casual and pretty much daily sex is everyone’s lot; free drugs without harmful side effects, offering a sense of well-being and a blissful escape from any negative emotions, are handed out by the government (‘Christianity and alcohol without the side effects’); although death is still a reality, no one ages; everyone who could possibly care is beautiful; and everyone’s job is specifically tailored to suit them (or rather they’re specifically tailored to suit their job) so that it’s always completely satisfying. What could be wrong with that?
So many of us feel horrified by recent footage of the attempts by oppressive dictators in North Africa and the Middle East to grip onto power by ruthlessly crushing and beating down their own people. But what if the people of the world were subjugated, not unwillingly but willingly? What if it’s what people wanted? What if people were oppressed, not from without, but from within?
What if that were the cost of a perfect world? Would it even be a cost?
I admit that I picked up this book thinking there wouldn’t be much in it relevant for me. Another modernist warning against fascism at a period of history when that was a real threat. But now…now we live in free society. Personal autonomy is up and everyone’s got a suspicious eye on the governments…just in case. Regardless of how far into the future Huxley’s world is from our own it’s hard to imagine where we are now that we’d ever get there. We had the 60’s (or something) and went the other way.
I deplored the aforementioned depiction of humanity’s lot as a choice between Insanity and Lunacy – that modernist howling, maniacal laugh of despair to the cold night of the fragmented, shattered world of that failed philosophy. However it seems even Huxley repented of that sentiment in future years.
And yet I was surprised at the ways Brave New World made me think. I can’t say for sure whether the book was written before fascism or communism as philosophies came into existence, however the Messiah of Huxley’s world isn’t Hitler or Lenin but Henry Ford. It is economic convenience and stability that lies at the foundation of Huxley’s world – the happiness of all is the highest goal. No question our fragmented post modern western society with its myriad perspectives and pathways looks very different to the smooth, clean homogeneity of Brave New World. But its commitment to delivering instant gratification of our every whim through buying another commercialised product (on which our social stability is based) – its commitment, in other words, to ease and happiness – looks unnervingly similar.
Disconcerting was how acutely I connected with one of the main characters in the book, Bernard Marx. A thin, odd little man for his caste who doesn’t ever feel that he fits in his society, who can never feel a part of the happiness of all the beautiful people around him and who yearns for something he can’t name. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I see my society as Marx sees his, nor everyone around me as superficial slaves and I somehow wiser and ‘deeper’ as a person. And yet I somehow have never felt quite at home in my now. In the rush to progress, the embracing of efficiency and the realisation of pragmatic goals – of being ‘useful’ – today, I confess to a yearning for a beauty, a quiet, a creativity… a slowness that I often hear scoffed at. But what was disconcerting was the degree to which I continued to identify with Marx as he turns from potential hero of love and beauty to someone who will eagerly embrace the salacious world he once pushed against if only it will finally hand to him what it had always withheld from him – whose desire for love and passion is exposed as having been mere envy of those around him. Cuts a little too close to the bone. But then, who wants to resist a life of ease, of playfulness and everything we ever wanted at our fingertips? What could be wrong with that?
What would eradicating pain and grief and delivering continuous happiness be worth?