Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a classic dystopian novel.
In which everyone is happy.
It’s quite wonderfully insidious; usually a dystopian novel shows us a world where no one is happy, and challenges us to find a way to imagine happiness in it: in 1984, everyone suffers all the time, until Winston Smith tries to find a way to, well, live, laugh, and love; the jackboots of Big Brother and the Thought Police stomp that dream out of him. In Fahrenheit 451, the people are committing suicide and killing each other, while screaming at their television sets and cringing away from their devilish firemen; but when Clarisse McClellan tries to think for herself, she is vanished (and probably killed), and when Guy Montag wants to read books instead of burning them, he is arrested and forced to murder his former friend and then run for his life. In The Handmaid’s Tale, happiness is not the thing; purity is. Nobody gives a shit about happiness, and so that’s exactly what they get: shit happiness.
But in Brave New World, when John the Savage wants to be different from the people of the Brave New World, he demands the right to be sad and miserable and angry. And then he is chased out of society, because everyone there is happy, and no one has the freedom to frown, so to speak. Really, no one has the freedom to be alone, which is probably the more disturbing part; that is a common thread in all four books, and I think in all dystopias; everyone is watched, all the time, and it’s horrifying.
I should point out here that we are also watched all the time, and it’s no less horrifying for being real; but there is still some difference for us: the government has the ability to watch us all the time, but they don’t actually care about what 99% of us do. And while our friends and neighbors are in our business every day, it’s usually because we put our business on social media, or on the grapevine. We still, generally speaking, have the option of privacy. Corporations building data profiles of us are involved in every second of our day that they can be, and that’s probably the most ominous; but really, they just want to sell us shit, so while it’s creepy that the Facebook ads reflect what we were just thinking or talking about, it’s nothing more than something to scroll past. At some point the corporations will realize that they can create markets for their products by screwing with us; that’s when it will get bad. It’s also incredibly dangerous that the data collected on each of us could very easily be turned over to the government (I was going to write “seized by,” but really, what corporation would ever say no to Uncle Sam come looking for intel? They can still sell things to people under NSA surveillance, after all. Maybe rotate some ads for firearms or “Don’t Tread On Me” flags into their feeds.), because the government is certainly willing to screw with us; but as of this moment, to quote the Doors, “They got the guns, but we got the numbers,” and so these tools are not yet effective. Certainly something to watch out for.
But in the Brave New World, the people don’t have to watch out, they don’t have to suspect their government: they are happy. All of them. All the time. The Big Speech — another common thread through all these books, and perhaps in some form in all dystopian novels, as every dystopian novel has a message to give, and an important one, so the authors don’t want to take a chance on us missing it — given by World Controller Mustapha Mond (Huxley was a brilliant writer, but really, his names are lame. The use of Communist/Socialist names — Marx, “Lenina,” Trotsky — is annoyingly on the nose, and while it’s kinda clever that Mustapha in Arabic means “chosen” or “selected,” the fact that “Mond” means “world” and Mond controls the world… well.) at the end of the novel explains why the society of Brave New World chose happiness and stability over freedom and progress: because there was a terrible war, and afterwards, people wanted to be safe. So they chose to create a stable, safe society, and the only way to do that was to make everyone happy, all the time — or rather, maybe the goal was to achieve happiness for everyone, and the only way to do that was to make sure society was stable, was safe, was static. Every aspect controlled, nothing left to chance.
The result? A society where everyone is designed to be happy. Where the people are cloned, genetically and chemically modified, conditioned and trained from birth to have specific needs and specific wants and specific fears and specific aversions, all of that intended simply to make them happy with their life exactly as it is. They are built to do specific tasks in society, to enjoy simple things like sex, sports, and soma, the wonder euphoria drug that eliminates all chance negative emotions, and never to want to do or be anything other than exactly what they are.
And I read this, and I think: are they right?
Isn’t a happy, stable society better than one that has misery and suffering? Even if, as John the Savage (The one person in the society born to be a part of society, but not raised in it, so not controlled by it) argues — rightly, I think — that sorrow is necessary for tragedy, which is necessary for great art and great genius? Do we really need art and genius? It seems like a reasonable argument to say that most people would prefer to be happy, rather than great, and that happiness — contentment — seems much more likely to make us productive and useful members of society, and to ensure the continuation of the species. Aren’t those the goals?
Even if they aren’t, isn’t the loss of freedom worth the great benefit that the society actively seeks in the novel: the elimination of war? There is not a doubt in my mind that war is the greatest evil, the most abhorrent atrocity, that humanity has ever created or faced; what price should we be willing to pay to free us of it?
After reading this book — though it did genuinely give me pause and make me think twice, and then a couple more times after that — I think the answer is No. No, the price of safety and stability is not worth it. No, the goal is not simply happiness and contentment for all people at all times. Even, I think at least half of the time, if we achieved the end of war.
Because what makes war such an abomination is that it degrades our humanity. In addition to creating or multiplying every other horror we face — death, famine, pestilence, cruelty, greed, deception, hysteria, you name it and war is where you will find it more often and to a greater degree than anywhere else — war takes away everything that ennobles us. In the midst of famine, we can find unmatched ingenuity, and inconceivable endurance, and breathtaking altruism and generosity and self-sacrifice; in the midst of plague, we find kindness and grace and dignity in the midst of and because of the suffering; and so on, through all of it.
But war does quite the opposite. War makes kind people cruel, and healthy people sick, and civilized people into savages. War is the triumph of inhumanity over humanity.
But so is the Brave New World. Because whatever those people are, they are not human. Humans are not designed, and humans are not crafted and shaped like pottery on a wheel, and humans are not set into a groove out of which they will never skip. Humans cannot be perfectly ordered: we are chaos, we create chaos. It’s one of the reasons we are so good at war, because we are so very, very good at destroying things. Especially ourselves. We’re good at building — or else there wouldn’t be any targets for war to aim at — but we’re even better at burning it all down.
And that’s necessary. Because without destroying what is there now, you would never be able to build anything new. Creation implies destruction, but it is valuable when destruction is for the purpose of creation, when it is part of a continuing cycle: whereas if we end destruction, and end creation too (The people in the book are not created as humans are, through the act of love and the processes of nature; they are built like machines, which is origination, but not, I would argue, creation — and I’m not even touching on the religious argument, which would be a much more poetic way to say the same thing), what we achieve is — stasis. The end of movement.
Death. And not a death that continues the circle of life, giving rise to something new to replace what is lost; here nothing is lost, and so nothing can replace it. Everything is just — still. Stopped. Perfectly motionless, without growth, without progress, without change. Which is no less dead than death itself. And while I will often argue that progress for the sake of progress is cancerous and absurd and deadly, I certainly wouldn’t prefer the final end of all progress.
Not even if it made me happy.
I do not think that this means we need to accept war. I still believe it is the extreme end, the Ultima Thule, of human malignancy; which means we can draw back from it, lessen it, even essentially eliminate it; though it is probably also true that some shadow, some residue, will always remain to harm and torment us. It is in our nature: not that we are made to war, but that we are made to try and reach and explore and find new ways to do things, and one of the ways to do things is to go to war; so even if we forgot it, we would rediscover it again, and again. Curiosity killed the cat, and we are forever curious. But just as more freedom and individuality is better than less, even if it is an imperfect freedom and individuality (which is what we have now), less war and more peace is better than the reverse. So I think there is a goal, and a way to achieve it, without also losing everything that we are.
I also recognize that there are events and actions that might be labeled war, but are not the horrors I’ve been describing; there are times when people have taken up arms to put an end to the horrors, when military intervention is the only way to save people. I don’t want to use the phrase “police action,” because Vietnam was a lie and the police as saviors is a fraught idea anyway; but there are times when force is both necessary and humanely applied. Someone who uses force to defend themselves or another from an attacking force has done nothing wrong. I don’t mean to either denigrate that, nor argue that even that should be (or could be) eliminated; that is the shadow and the residue of war that probably should remain — though ideally, since that sort of violence is triggered by the inhumane violence of dictatorship and oppression and vast chaotic upheavals, if we could end those, we wouldn’t need to send the Marines to intervene. But I’m not sure we could end those, either, because I think having the good and valuable tool of a defensive force can very quickly be turned to evil purposes (Which is why the Founding Fathers of this country pushed for a militia and abhorred the idea of a standing army — COUGH COUGH LOOKING AT YOU, MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX), and then the solution becomes the problem. So it goes. We can’t close Pandora’s box.
So no. I don’t think we can live like the Brave New World. (And let me point out that, we discover, neither can they, not entirely, because there are people who don’t fit their molds, and who cause problems, and who are eventually exiled; Mustapha Mond is grateful that there are so many islands in the world to send misfit toys to — but that’s not a solution, it’s just pretense.) I don’t think we can all just get along.
But I think we can get by. And get to be ourselves. And that’s probably better. Because that way we get to have art and beauty and truth — and that, I think, is really the point.
Shakespeare, as usual, (and as Huxley himself recognized) probably said it best:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
The Brave New World, for us, is wondrous because of the people in it; it is brave because it faces turmoil and tribulation and suffering; it is new because it moves through the cycle of destruction and creation. It lives, and it changes, and it grows. Like us.
In the book, the quote is used ironically. We have to make it true.