Thursday, February 10, 2011

Apocalyptic Lit: Brave New World

I want to do a short series on some of the apocalyptic literature that I think is part of Classic Literature canon.  Many authors have written novels about a possible future, filled with some variety of disaster.  Although I am not usually a big fan of science fiction, I have really enjoyed some of these apocalyptic stories.  So the first one I'm going to discuss is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written in 1931.

Ironically, the great problem with Huxley's society is that everyone is happy.  The whole world has been united in a global peace and universalism, but this can only be accomplished through the government's excessive control.  Everyone has enough money and resources to survive without complaint.  Within each class, people are 100% equal in what they have.  Competition and jealousy are extinct.  Every citizen is encouraged to indulge in a dream-like drug called "soma" that allows them to escape into fantasy.  Yet people are severely limited in what they are allowed to do, think, and feel.  No one is allowed to be in a relationship with anyone else, nor is anyone allowed to spend time alone.  The population has a maximum that cannot be surpassed, which is enforced by replacing natural reproduction with a sort of hatchery.  With no sense of family, the baby's development is further stunted by being assigned a specific class status at birth.  People have no control over the direction their lives take.

With all of these controlling forces, individual identity has been eliminated.  People cannot think for themselves, nor do they want to.  In the story, the main character, Bernard Marx, leaves civilization to visit a "savage" reservation in which people have maintained the old version of community.  In this reservation, the people are horrified by the lack of emotion and individualism the "civilized" people display.  Bernard takes two exiles back with him: John, who was born in the reservation, and his mother, who escaped there and yet never fit in.  When John comes to the "perfect" society, he instantly becomes a celebrity because of his individual attitude and yet he is absolutely miserable in this society.  I won't give away the ending, but it's worth reading what happens.

The moral of the story is that "happiness" is not as valuable as it appears.  Perhaps our end goal in life is not to be happy.  Perhaps we just need to redefine happiness.  Many philosophers over the years have claimed that all we want is happiness.  But in my life, I think it is the difficult things that have made me learn and grow the most.  It is in the tough times that I was able to figure out who I am and become better.  Yes, I treasure being happy, but that is not what life is all about.  In the form of satire, Huxley criticized many of the ideals that were held in his society.  Moreover, he did this explicitly, giving his characters easily recognizable names of his contemporaries.  I loved this book and ate it up in just one day.  I think it illustrates some very important problems within our culture in an interesting, apocalyptic way.


Becky (Page Turners) said...

ah! I can't wait to read this. Another friend recommended it to me and now you have made it seem so fabulous I can't wait!!!!

IngridLola said...

Great thoughts. I liked this book a lot, but I think I liked 1984 a little bit better.

Amy said...

Ah yes, that review (1984) will be part of the series

the Crow himself said...

I just finished reading this one for the first time. You're right - it was really easy to get through, the pages flew by. Great review, Amy.

What struck me most was the limitation on feeling. Like you focused on, the 'civilized' people were told to be happy (actually, they were told that they already were happy, in one of the hypnopaedic statements), but really they were lulled into a sort of apathy and, encouraged not to feel anything at all. Every time they started to feel a swell of anger, jealousy, or even joy, they took soma. The members of society were not only totally dispassionate, they were conditioned to be satisfied with that lack of feeling.
You noted that perhaps the story is pushing for a redefinition of 'happiness'. I think that's a good reading of the novel. It seems to me that Huxley tried to show the way that happiness has been emptied of meaning because it was said to apply to everyone, everywhere, all the time, and all these people were themselves emptied of any kind of emotion or passion. The moral, or the central thrust, of the story seems to me to be not only that 'happiness' is not this escape from feeling, but that, on the contrary, it is precisely the chance to, as you say, 'learn and grow' by meeting difficult things and fully feeling their impact - intellectually, emotionally, and physically.

If you're interested in reading more of Huxley's thoughts on society, particularly in relation to Brave New World and how it expresses his hopes and fears for the political and social development of the western world, I recommend Brave New World: Revisited. Written some twenty-seven years after the original novel, it's about eighty pages of Huxley's reflections on the ways in which the nations of America and Western Europe are moving toward certain aspects of the BNW civilization.
Including his thoughts on the ramifications of Nazism and Stalinism, it shows a huge leap forward in his contemplation of society since the completion of the novel. It is also just as easy to read, despite being more of an extended essay, rather than a piece of fiction.
I found it on his website and read it there.

Amy said...

Carl, thank you so much for your reflections! I think you are right to highlight the importance of "fully feeling" that Huxley seems to show us. I am also interested to read his thoughts about the novel almost thirty years after he produced it. Stay tuned, because I plan to come back to Brave New World's implications for today when I wrap up my short series on apocalyptic lit.