Conformity and Resistance: Thoughts on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
A constant counterpart and, generally speaking, poorer critical cousin to George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has a tendency to be considered the other great dystopian novel of the first half of the 20th century. Much cheekier and more ironic and satirical than the deadly serious totalitarian future imagined by Orwell, Huxley’s vision of the world in A.D. 2540 (or 632 in the Year of Our Ford) springs from more cultural and scientific sources where Orwell’s was focused on politics and language. As such, Huxley’s vision now seems based on more dated social elements, and yet is also much nearer to fulfillment in the real world than Orwell’s bleak authoritarian nightmarescape.
Or, rather, a pessimist would consider it nearer to fulfillment (the dystopian novel being the definitive novel of pessimism). Although he was (in)famous in his later years for his dedication to mysticism and use of psychedelic drugs, the Huxley exposed by Brave New World is more of a pedantic, moralizing Old Etonian prude. He looks askance at the very measures of social progress that tend to be considered as indicative of liberty and choice and scrutinizes them as the tools of mass enslavement, even as he gives Britain’s legendarily rigid class system an even firmer biological basis. In this very prim, pent-up British way, he seems especially horrified by the concept of widespread sexual promiscuity, as well as the inevitability of its preeminence as the rise of birth control unmoors intercourse from reproduction. It isn’t difficult to imagine him making fuzzy, idealized arguments about the “sanctity” of marriage in our present time, on the basis of such a stance.
Despite these squeamish tendencies, Huxley’s is at least nominally the perspective of the proto-counter-cultural figure, hinted at through Bernard Marx and Hemholtz Watson, but only fully personified by John, the Savage, with his mix of soulful sentiment and mystical self-denial. The Savage (the moniker is Rousseau-vintage Romanticism at its purest and least reflective, as is the character himself) and his individuality is gawked at, mocked, and then eventually destroyed by the mass-produced, mass-conditioned world order of infantilized efficiency.
But Huxley subtly complicates and even sends up the stereotypical image of the brooding Byronic hero who opposes dehumanizing civilization. The Savage comes across as naïve, unfocused, and ineffectual, quoting Shakespeare at length not as a supplement to knowledge and wisdom but as a substitute for them. No wonder the smug, realistic Mustapha Mond wipes the floor with him when the Savage meets the Controller and they argue about the philosophical basis of the highly ordered and conditioned civilization (their impromptu debate is Huxley at his most ostentatiously pedantic, as Mond literally opens books and reads block quotes from thinkers to support his position and John tosses memorized lines from Othello back at him).
While Huxley demonstrates what he feels to be the inescapable automation of humanity as a consequence of industrialization and mass culture, his chosen culprit for this crime of mechanization marks him out as a man of his era. Like Orwell, Huxley was living and writing in an age marked by the rise of powerful, centralized, often authoritarian nation-states whose leaders imposed their ideas on their respective populaces (it’s no coincidence that Brave New World features characters named after Mussolini, Lenin, and Ataturk, after all), and it is therefore understandable that both forward-looking authors located their imagined oppression in the hands of a ultra-controlling central government. Putting aside the fever dreams of the Tea Party and their ilk, however, the true center of social and cultural hegemony in the past century or so has been corporate enterprise.
The ever-expanding power and influence of corporations on the hopes and desires of the masses was something that Orwell, with his laser-beam focus on state authoritarianism, did not fathom, at least not in the pages of his dystopian masterpiece. Huxley, for his part, grasped this aspect of the modern world a little better. This was perhaps owing to his greater level of contact with America, where he would later settle but, when writing Brave New World in the early 1930s, he found slightly horrifying in its acquisitive, amoral, hyper-capitalist excess. By turning assembly line pioneer Henry Ford into the future’s new deity, Huxley sketches a suggestion of the exorbitant influence that capitalist thinking has had on Western democracy’s conception of itself. His portrayal of music, radio, sport, and the movies as drug-laced mass stupefying agents both reflects and anticipates the cultural criticisms of academic Marxism and post-structuralism. There’s no doubt that Horkheimer, Adorno, and Neil Postman all must have been nodding knowingly while perusing Brave New World for the first time.
What Huxley gets most right in Brave New World is the helpless, rootless feeling of having one’s every decision controlled and pre-conditioned by a complex and unknowable system of inhuman immensity. Despite some of the dated technological elements (personal helicopters, much?) and its prudish sexual misapprehensions, the invocation of not only the defining post-modern malaise but also of the impossibility of resisting it makes Brave New World not only one of our finest dystopian novels, but one of our most penetrating philosophical satires as well. As emotionally and psychological untenable as the Fordian system is to the philosophic individual, resistance to it is similarly fraught. The chains are unbearable, but the idea of picking the locks with flowers or pens or paintbrushes is simply silly.
Unlike in, say, The Matrix or David Mitchell’s dystopian section of Cloud Atlas, Huxley does not suggest that the Controllers have inscribed resistance into the system, although Mustapha Mond seems hardly surprised when it presents itself (being a former resister himself who chose elitist enforcement of the soma-derived order over perpetual exile, Mond warily represents the unavoidable compromises stipulated by the system). If anything, Huxley gives us to believe that truth, art, and beauty, subjective as they are, have no absolute value as raw materials of industrial capitalism, and can be just as easily marshaled for domination as they can for liberty. A Romantic like the Savage can no more use art to free himself (let alone the masses) than he can use self-denial to escape the smothering sameness of the Fordian monoculture. In satirizing not only the dominators and the dominated but the self-styled free-spirited rebels as well, Huxley gives us a pessimistic vision of the future that is practically airtight, but also occasionally light as air.