Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Brave New World

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
1932, 384 pp.

There have been times in which I felt I was the only person on earth never to have read Brave New World. I have long considered Orwell's 1984 to be among my favorite books, and I have an affinity for dystopia in general, but cannot prosecute a conversation on the subject without somebody bringing up Brave New World. It seems everyone read it in high school, while I was swimming through the collected works of John Keats and some very trashy novels involving super-vampires and a person who could talk to all dead people. Indeed, Brave New World tends to be held up alongside Orwell's book as the staunchest pillar of the genre, standing proud on the foundation of Evgeny Zamyatin's We, slightly above and to the right of Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, and perhaps (depending on your political and aesthetic sensibilities) in the company of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (decent) Jack London's The Iron Heel (less decent) and Ayn Rand's Anthem (nonsense on stilts). Finally I could bear my ignorance no longer and read the damn thing.

The very first sentence of the book lacks a subject, and I nearly stopped reading right then and there. But (regrettably!) my mother raised no quitter, save where matters of exercise are concerned, so I forged ahead. Three sentences later I was confronted with this malodorous beast:

"Cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory."

I honestly assumed there was some mistake. I consulted another copy of the book, and felt my brain begin to cry when my fears were confirmed. There was no mistake, no disaster of translation. A human being, a natural English speaker, actually wrote that sentence. How can a shape be pallid, when pallid refers to color? How can something shine "bleakly"? What exactly is a "draped lay figure"? Does that distinguish it from a draped clergy figure? Was that clause some sort of horrific accident involving what was meant to be a transitive verb? What does the first clause refer to? I put down the book and poured myself a drink, for courage.

Have you heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Award? Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, the First Baron Lytton, who I am delighted to report that I am not making up, wrote novels that actually began with sentences like "It was a dark and stormy night" or "A shot rang out". San Jose State University gives out an annual prize for "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." Here's a good example: "Gerald began—but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash—to pee." As I folded myself around my reinforcing whisky, I began to wonder if there was an honorable mention for Worst First Page Ever.

I went out for a walk, and looked at the clouds, pondering the immense incomprehensibility of the universe. Perhaps, I reasoned, by the time I got back, the book would have done the decent thing and read itself. But when I returned, there it was, glittering malevolently, and perhaps shining bleakly. I took a running start and tackled page two.

I'm sure you are familiar with the story of Brave New World, since you probably read it in high school. In brief, it depicts a future in which genetic engineering, systematic use of pharmaceuticals, and subliminal messaging during sleep has created an endlessly stable, endlessly boring hierarchical society. Nobody is born, but instead everyone is grown through clever scientific techniques and bred for specific tasks: from the smartish, beautiful, tall, and competent Alphas, to the hideous dwarf Gammas. Probably less well known is that it was written as a satire on H.G. Wells' hopeful Men Like Gods. The tongue and cheek satire of H.G. Wells shows up pretty quick, and the book contains a surprising amount of jokes and sly humor for something ostensibly considered a dystopia. Lumping it together with 1984 strikes me as rather like classifying The Producers with Schindler's List, on the grounds that both involve Nazis. There's quite a bit of sex stuff, though a lot of it seemed rather prurient, with the sort of juvenile sensibility that assumes that women spend a lot of time getting naked together in showers and hitting each other with pillows when men aren't around. I'll give Huxley some credit here: he is fairly encyclopedic in his satire, and seems to have come up with a clever and slightly amusing take on virtually every recognizable aspect of everyday life. The satire never breaks character, which would have been immediately fatal.

However, he has some serious structural problems. The plot is animated by the discovery and return of John Savage, which is the ancient fish-out-of-water scenario, with all the obligatory misunderstandings. Huxley's habit of setting up four simultaneous scenes and then cutting back and forth between them in a sort of montage gets annoying quickly. It builds momentum and at times even tension, but it also repels coherent thought and reflection. That he uses it at critical points for exposition and character development is instructive, and is worth comparison to Orwell, who sustained his scenes almost past the point of tolerance. Consider the moment when Winston Smith finally begins reading Goldstein's book: that excerpt goes on and on and on and has been the defeat of many an ambitious young contrarian. Orwell wants you to think and reflect and have a sustained thought process; Huxley's montage technique prevents this, and prevents taking him seriously.

Huxley's dystopia also does not stand up to much consideration. It is a very precarious sort of tyranny, based on the suppression of human nature, and one gets the sense that one day without narcotics would end the whole affair. I was also a bit murky on why the strict hierarchy was exactly necessary. Apparently Alphas would be unhappy if forced to do menial Gamma work (though that leaves open the question of why Beta through Delta is necessary instead of just two classes) which does not seem to add up with how heavily medicated and conditioned everyone is. There seem to be captains of industry and pillars of civil society, though their organizations are unclear, their relations are unclear, and the extent of their status is unclear. There is apparently a Deputy-Governor of the Bank of Europe, for instance. How does one get to be in that position? Did he have a better education? Is he richer than everyone else? What are his views on monetary policy? The one member of the elite we do get to see is quite underwhelming, and rather than the pitiless evil of the functionary in 1984, he's sort of a sympathetic, affable chap. There is no organized violence (the police use narcotic gas and water pistols filled with anesthetic) no paranoia, no poverty, no real persecution. And if (as the Controller concedes) Shakespeare is better than their empty synthetic rhetoric, why not steal it and say they invented it? Then Savage would not be a danger, and their prose would improve.

Nor do the personal relations carry much credibility. If Savage is meant to be a sensitive Shakespeare-reader with a real concept of human relations and genuine, why does he love Lenina? She's an idiot and he knows it, and he dislikes everything about her. Is it just because she's beautiful? If so, that's a pretty shallow motivation for an ostensibly thinking and feeling person, and apparently incorrect because he turns her down when she propositions him. Why does he like Bernard Marx, and why does Marx begin the book a brilliant individualist contrarian and end it a mindless apologist? While we're on the subject, why does Huxley set up the Bokanovsky process at the beginning, allowing for genetically identical clones of people, but not exploit it as a plot device? If Bernard Marx and, say, the Controller had been genetic twins, there could have been some interesting exploration of the concepts of self and identity, nature vs. nurture, and so forth. An opportunity entirely missed, in favor of a pseudo-philosophical climactic conversation which reads like an over-bright but under-experienced college freshman who annoys you by raising his hand and blathering out his opinion on Kierkegaard in your 8 AM microeconomics class. That the conclusion seems to be in favor of an eternal and loving God with a dash of Catholicism only makes the conclusion all the more intellectually bankrupt. There is also a twinge of "savage is savage, civilization is civilization, and ne'er the twain shall meet" philosophy which turns up in the closing scenes, and the way Huxley just refers to "civilization" rather than the one particular dystopia seems to suggest a neo-Luddite, slightly pastoral anarchist vision, instead of functioning social and economic democracy, the very concept of which Huxley apparently finds abhorrent.

So I didn't like the book. Then I made a terrible, terrible mistake. I turned the page, and saw Brave New World Revisited. An inveterate completest, I forged ahead, to my eternal regret. This review is already too long. The rest of it is going to consist entirely of furious spittle-flecked vitriol. Stop reading here, go outside, and read a book.

"The prophecies made in 1931 are coming true much sooner than I thought they would," Huxley begins. Revisited was written in 1958, which is a notable year for its total absence of genetically engineered castes, cloning, mass-hypnosis, subliminal messaging during sleep, or systematic, government-mandated drug use. Fortunately, Huxley was kind enough to organize his essay to inform me about how thoroughly correct he was about everything. He begins with "Overpopulation."

Any time an intellectual other than Amartya Sen begins holding forth on the issue of "overpopulation," you can be entirely certain that you are about to receive unadulterated Mathusian fallacies which have not been updated or amended by any knowledge produced since 1830. There will be no discussion whatsoever of the enormous body of knowledge which has arisen in the field of population growth, demographics, family planning, food production and distribution, and the role of population in development. You will not hear about the Harris-Todaro Model, I assure you. Huxley does not disappoint: "[Birth control] must be practiced by countless individuals, from whom it demands more intelligence and will power than most of the world's teeming illiterates possess," he writes. "In parts of Asia and in most of Central and South America populations are increasing so fast that they will double themselves in little more than twenty years. If the production of food and manufactured articles, of houses, schools and teachers, could be increased at a greater rate than human numbers, it would be possible to improve the wretched lot of those who live in these underdeveloped and over-populated countries. But unfortunately these countries lack not merely agricultural machinery and an industrial plant capable of turning out this machinery, but also the capital required to create such a plant. Capital is what is left over after the primary needs of a population have been satisfied."

Oh dear. Those silly, stupid, lazy brown people! They’re much too stupid to understand how condoms work, which is obviously why they choose to be too poor to have access to them, and choose to live in tradition-bound patriarchic societies in which women have no say over their reproductive health and family planning decisions, promote the high infant mortality rates that engender high birth rates, and continue to select repressive demagogues as their leaders to tell them that condoms cause AIDS. That certainly is what prevents us (whoever that may be) from creating more houses than people (because everyone needs their own house, plus some extras) and creating teachers faster than people (because everyone needs their own teacher, plus some extras, and teachers are not part of the population, but instead are grown in orchards near Atascadero). If only Huxley could properly define what capital is, then perhaps he would see that everything he thinks is goddamn stupid. It gets worse. Why, pray tell, is it dangerous for there to be so many poor brown people? Well, I'll tell you:

"Communism has been invented. Given this fact, the probability of over-population leading through unrest to dictatorship becomes a virtual certainty. It is a pretty safe bet that, twenty years from now, all the world's over-populated and underdeveloped countries will be under some form of totalitarian rule -- probably by the Communist party." Twenty years from 1958 makes 1978. In 1978, Ethiopia had just gone communist, Vietnam and Laos were communist, and Yemen had gone communist in 1970. Mozambique and Angola were nominally communist, but engaged in terrible, long-running civil wars. That makes six out of a hundred and twenty-odd “underdeveloped countries,” though none of them is or was particularly overpopulated. And their Communist parties were of a variety of stripes, instead of one ever-present monolith of over-populated rabble-rousing. Of course, any thinking person knows that over-population does not "lead" to dictatorship, nor are all dictators communists, so perhaps these details skewed Huxley’s highly scientific prediction. And since communism, for all its faults and permutations, at least is correlated with a very low birth rate, if over-population really is his worry, Huxley should have breathed a sigh of relief had he been correct. He does not. Instead he delivers this little gem:

"In this second half of the twentieth century we do nothing systematic about our breeding; but in our random and unregulated way we are not only over-populating our planet, we are also, it would seem, mak¬ing sure that these greater numbers shall be of biologically poorer quality." Up until this point I had been struggling manfully to take Huxley as a serious, if misguided and uninformed thinker. In retrospect, I was reading the reputation, not the writer, and biting into a mouthful of eugenicist gristle was enough to bring me back to reality. At this juncture I threw the book across the room. I was in the cafeteria at work, so this provoked some controversy, principally from the large woman I hit when I threw it. I took the book outside and threw it again across the courtyard, and was marching over to kick it a few times when somebody stopped me.

How anyone could sustain this argument with a straight face after the Second World War is utterly beyond me. I am aware that Huxley comes from a long line of wealthy white eugenicists, so perhaps bigotry and dribbling pseudo-scientific stupidity ran in his family. I am aware that he is considered by many to have been brilliant, and that lots of people think Brave New World is one of the best books in the English language. I want very much to find where Aldous Huxley is buried, to dig him up, and to throw stones at him. Had he simply been a lone bigot, a sad crank in a corner somewhere obsessively filling notebooks with this sort of unexamined detritus of an exploded ideology, that would be one thing. But no, he is considered a genius and read by everyone in high school. He is worse than a garden-variety bigot filled with juvenile self-righteousness and narcissistic hatred for the unwashed masses who clutter up his planet and breathe his air: through some terrible mistake, he has been taught to generations of blank-minded youngsters. The only thing worse than a bigoted idiot is one who is the cause of bigotry and idiocy in others. Slogging through his self-congratulatory remarks as to the superiority of intellectuals and their imperviousness to lies and government propaganda, I began to think of all the other asinine eugenicists the world has endured, trumpeting their vulgarized Nietzsche and perverted pseudo-science. It made me consider the old refrain of the Allied Expeditionary Force: the only good person with a world-view like this is a dead one. Now if only Mr. Huxley’s influence would die.

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