Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (The Easton Press, 1978) Why is it that, lurking behind the superior existence hinted at by all these clever English satirists, is some kind of High Church Anglicanism with its robust appeal to tradition and sentimental obscurantism? In Huxley’s case High Churchism is tinged by a titillating flirtation with popery and a stout adherence to the bourgeois (What other word really fits?) religion of High Art, sexual repression, true and deep emotion and edifying discourse as a substitute for philosophical rigor. Huxley never exhibits the slightest intimation that the way of life he advocates should be found anything but risible or repulsive to anyone besides himself and his Surrey croquet circle.
And risible it is. I personally find many aspects of Huxley’s anti-utopia to be deeply attractive, particularly the sexual freedom (One man’s promiscuity is another’s freedom) and the dedication to personal physical attractiveness. Other items are at least open to controversy. Soma was not replaced by Huxley’s beloved LSD but by the not entirely to be despised Prozac and its sister drugs. Equally, the fault in the feely and environmental kitsch of Brave New World lies not in the advanced artistic techniques which in many instances have been put to brilliant use by the avant-garde but in other factors that produce bad art today and produced what may have been bad art in Shakespeare’s time (Were Jonson’s masques all on a par with King Lear or were some or most of them simply technologically primitive feelies?) Indeed the only art Huxley admits into his pantheon, namely lyric and tragic poetry, appears to have gone the way of the Dodo, today surviving for better or worse only in the hands of a few clit deprived spinsters and various CUNY sinecures. Finally, as we have not without some justification been drilled to believe by innumerable right wing economists, a consumer society is not at all a bad thing. Consumption fuels production, which in turn provides a living for those who otherwise might still be trying to coax nourishment from a few mealy potatoes. Consumerism is equally good, because through innovation and the demands of good taste, it urges improvement in the consumer product. Benighted Starbuck’s serves an array of products far superior to the weak tea and chicory of presumably more authentic times past.
Certainly there are faults in Brave New World’s utopia. Condemning certain classes of humans to biological underdevelopment is truly unpleasant. Most people can achieve this state on their own and do not need prenatal chemical support. The caste system that results from this biological tampering, in fact any class system, never looks good simply because no class system ever is good. Leave it to an Englishman to make a class system, for better or for worse, part and parcel of his ruminations on society. Huxley’s intellectual universe is infected with that other English disease. He simply cannot imagine any world, Utopian or anti-Utopian, which is not structured in one way or another along class lines. One might almost say that class distinction is the core concept behind the specifically English sense of community.
It is not the case, however, that sexual freedom and artistic and technological innovation are in any way inextricable from the drawbacks of Huxley’s anti-utopia. Why not a technologically advanced society where alphas and epsilons can happily fuck away to the sounds of pre-recorded Bartok or artistically superior trance music? Huxley is no greater a fool than when he assumes that sexual freedom is a sure sign of bad, bad people. He is really no more than a Victorian pansy clucking in disapproval at the very notion of heterosexual sexuality as pleasure untarnished by the family-friendly religion of True Love. Yet at the same time he masturbates over a purely conjured, utterly Chateaubriand vision of a more genuine, more true primitive society much to be prized over modern secularism and utilitarianism and populated almost exclusively by the homosexually titillating hallucination of naked Navajo bodies.
The sexual utopia has not gone all the way to resolving a fault that, as in the case of Bernard Marx, can lead to widening ripples of discontent (Bernard and Lenina are unexpectedly the most sychologically complex characters in the book). The fault is ejection by someone you desire, the inability to have sexual relations with any partner you choose. One suspects the humiliating experience of rejection lies behind the fanaticism of any number of anti-sex crusaders. Recognizing this as a serious problem, however, is not a reason for the wholesale rejection of sexual freedom. It is, rather, something that we should address ourselves to resolve.
The conditioning through pre-recorded suggestion and techniques of association is, as depicted, equally unpalatable. The broader issue, however, is not unreservedly black and white. Skinner makes a case at least worthy for discussion of a type of non-coercive behavioral conditioning. And why is conditioning wrong only because it instills or reinforces ideas we disapprove? Conditioning is a permanent fact of life in society. It begins in civics class and continues through filtered exposure to the news, through the media and the arts, whether or not those institutions are state controlled or simply controlled by the coercion of the marketplace.
Huxley, one may observe, is partially replaying the archaic struggle between Ancients and Moderns. But his ancients include Shakespeare and such intellectual pygmies as Cardinal Newman and Maine de Biran while the moderns seem to consist of elevator music, free sex and motor cars.
Huxley’s hostility to the fruits of technology puts him into uncomfortable fellowship with his sure-to-be Luddite nemeses. Curiously machine smashing is an indigenously English trait that unites socialists and Huxleyan conservatives. One cannot attribute this psychological quirk solely to the fact that the industrial Revolution came to England first since other societies have had plenty of time to nurture their own home grown Ludditism without much success.
The smug ideology of Anglicanism gave intellectual cover to a ruthless and brutal empire, an institution whose most significant result was to bring immense suffering to an immense part of humanity. It did not seem to occur to the Coleridges, the Arnolds and the Huxleys that they could play their rural communal games only because the huge apparatus of the British Empire gave them the wherewithal to do so, that is only because their society thrived on the backs of so many Indians, Irish, Africans or Chinese. Jonathan Swift, to his credit, saw this coming but from his early Cassandra-ish standpoint he had neither the experience nor the intellectual apparatus to see how his own Anglican Christianity would acquiesce to providing a theology for conquest, good reasons for exploitation.
Huxley’s Preface has a comment worth noting and amending. He says that as of his time there remained no true Conservatives. One might add that then and now there are also no true Liberals. There are only nationalistic radicals of the Right and nationalistic radicals of the Left. This should be a tip off that there is something wrong with politics and something wrong with the concept of a nation.
Huxley, or rather Mustapha Mond percipiently notes a phenomenon that has not received a great deal of attention right, left or center. He notes that after a certain point, reducing the workweek results in negative and not positive effects. Given too much free time people experience frustration not opportunity. The anticipated flood of Picassos and Rimbauds fails to materialize. Work, as many retirees have attested, is preferable to leisure. I remain unsure whether this is bad or good. I remain unsure whether it is a matter of conditioning or whether that is just the way some people are. It requires more thought. I am sure that the true Übermensch should seek as much as possible to liberate himself from the sort of work that interferes with or does not contribute to imaginative and intellectual pleasure or that serves no more than to sustain life.
The savage believed that by resorting to the simple life, the life of growing his own food and making his own tools, he would be free. And indeed he did free himself in some sense from the society that surrounded him. But he freed himself only to fall victim to another slavery, the slavery of his needs and his sustenance, the time consuming drudgery of eating and surviving that social and economic innovation was designed to reduce or eliminate. To be satisfied with the Savage’s alternative existence one would have to hold firmly to an ideology that a life in close contact with barely modified nature and devoted almost entirely to subsistence agriculture is a supreme end in itself and that its values far outweigh the values to be had from extended leisure. I for one remain unattracted by the life of a bearded mountain man. Does this mean we must submit ourselves without qualification to whatever society we are thrown into? Philosophers from Hobbes forward have assured us we must submit. But maybe not. (To be continued.)