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Brave New World: I’ve Wished On the Lidded Blue Flames. Feraco Myth to Science Fiction 24 April 2012.
Myth to Science Fiction
24 April 2012
Once Lenina accepts Fanny’s advice regarding promiscuity, she reveals that she’s had her eye on Bernard, who’s seething over a conversation between two men that treats Lenina like so much meat.
This is a neat bit of misdirection by Huxley; people who read Chapter 3 and stopped at its conclusion might believe that Bernard really feels something for Lenina, and that Lenina’s attracted to his eccentricity (as his way of proposing a date, he suggests visiting a Savage Reservation).
We’ll pretty quickly discover this isn’t the case, but the fact that Huxley pulls the trick off while letting the characters behave authentically makes it more impressive.
That odd adjective Henry uses to describe her – “pneumatic” – further dehumanizes her, but he means it as a sincere compliment; had she overheard him saying it, she would have accepted it gratefully.
As for Bernard, he’s quite a bit shallower than we’re led to assume; we’re thrown off the scent because his reactions mirror our own, were we to hear someone we cared about in our world described as such.
But this interplay isn’t just about misdirection: by employing a little bit of trickery, Huxley’s able to flesh out our understanding of the World Staters’ attitudes and hierarchies much more memorably than he would have been able to with a straightforward approach (which his narrator wouldn’t have been able to pull off…).
Mond’s speech remains the most compelling material in the chapter, particularly as it moves from a condemnation of our old social / sexual / familial ethos into a description of how the World State arose.
This gives a chance to evaluate the believability of Huxley’s world – its “origin story,” so to speak – as well as compare it to Orwell’s tale of Oceania’s rise.
Mond posits that Christianity kept many people from following “the first reformers,” and that others irrationally prized their “horrible” emotions.
Sleep teaching was actually prohibited in England. There was something called liberalism. Parliament, if you know what that was, passed a law against it. The records survive. Speeches about liberty of the subject. Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.
Or the Caste System. Constantly proposed, constantly rejected. There was something called democracy. As though men were more than physico-chemically equal.
Quite simply, the Nine Years’ War.
Let’s look at the fractured narrative of the War Mond provides, without the Bernard/Lenina material separating it.
I’ve gone through the end of the third chapter, when everything fragments (splintering into three separate stories) and reconstructed the Controller’s words without interruption.
Liberalism, of course, was dead of anthrax, but all the same you couldn’t do things by force. Government’s an affair of sitting, not hitting. You rule with the brains and the buttocks, never with the fists. For example, there was the conscription of consumption. Every man, woman and child compelled to consume so much a year. In the interests of industry. The sole result was conscientious objection on an enormous scale. Anything not to consume. Back to nature. Back to culture. Yes, actually to culture. You can’t consume much if you sit still and read books.
In the end, the Controllers realized that force was no good. The slower but infinitely surer methods of ectogenesis, neo-Pavlovian conditioning and hypnopædia…the discoveries of Pfitzner and Kawaguchi were at last made use of. An intensive propaganda against viviparous reproduction accompanied by a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments (luckily most of them had already been destroyed during the Nine Years’ War); by the suppression of all books published before A.F. 15O. There were some things called the pyramids, for example, and a man called Shakespeare. You’ve never heard of them, of course. Such are the advantages of a really scientific education.
There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same they used to drink enormous quantities of alcohol. There was a thing called the soul and a thing called immortality. But they used to take morphia and cocaine.
Stability was practically assured. It only remained to conquer old age. Gonadal hormones, transfusion of young blood, magnesium salts…all the physiological stigmata of old age have been abolished. And along with them, of course, all the old man’s mental peculiarities. Characters remain constant throughout a whole lifetime.
Now – such is progress – the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think – or if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions, there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon; returning whence they find themselves on the other side of the crevice, safe on the solid ground of daily labour and distraction, scampering from feely to feely, from girl to pneumatic girl, from Electromagnetic Golf course to…
That said, both men predicted that society would respond to the horrors of death and destruction on a mass scale by running screaming into the arms of science and technology…only to diverge completely from one another.
Huxley believed we’d flee into the arms of a different kind of stupidity – the ignorance bred from permanent happiness, retreating into pleasures much like a child searching for comfort in its mother or blanket upon being frightened.
Which is a more likely response to a threat, both on an individual and societal basis?
We’ve had plenty of time to recoil from the things the narrator presents so dryly – from the second-grade-aged children running around naked and playing sexual games with each other to the forceful abolition of family, religion, emotion, thought, and politics.
Never has happiness looked so…ugly.
We may have dreamt of a world where everyone could be free of unnecessary misery, but was this what we had in mind?
And is there any way for our pursuit of that ancient human urge – to see one’s fellow men and women live happy, un-oppressed lives – to avoid ending in this sort of world?
What about the rest of the original “bullet list” from Happiness is All the Rage?
Let’s take Class Distinctions and Self-Segregation: the message here is that it’s usually safer, easier, etc., to self-segregate, even in our own individualistic society.
In something like the World State, whose motto basically amounts to “fit the mold!”, self-segregation is central to stability – so much so that the class distinctions between citizens are unconsciously acknowledged and followed thanks to hypnopædia.
Everyone possesses the “proper prejudices,” in a way.
Bernard Marx doesn’t quite fit the mold of an Alpha-plus, and while Lenina may not care, the way others treat Bernard – and the way he invites their mistreatment – speaks volumes.
We see the flip side of this when we meet John in the Savage Reservation, for he doesn’t seem to belong to his world either.
We’re also reminded that class distinctions are reinforced by everything – clothes, language, physical appearance, profession, and so on; if you move across those barriers, you’ll stick out (causing instability!).
Finally, it’s not respectable to spend much time alone; it’s not a crime here, but it’s another sign that you’re trying to break away from the social body.
Our society may be individualistic, but there’s no virtue to individuality here; it’s a destabilizing force in an environment that prizes consistency.
This isn’t just a problem for Bernard or John; even Helmholtz struggles with this (without knowing he’s doing so).
Helmholtz takes that hunger and ends up repurposing it as a desire to write something that means something.
After all, he’s quite good at producing aggressively polished tripe – feelies that people enjoy, work that satisfies everyone but himself.
They’re satisfied with trash, words and ideas that don’t fully interest him, and he’s struggling to come up with something that’s personally – individually – fulfilling.
This leads to one of my favorite passages in the book…
“You mean all the emotions one might be feeling if things were different?”
“But your things are good, Helmholtz.”
I also like how Huxley uses him to repurpose the mysteries of the heart in the language of a struggling writer.
When he says, “You read and you’re pierced,” he might as well be talking about love – a language as dead as hieroglyphics here, and as easy for World Staters to understand.
Yet while the World State may no longer have any use for museums or galleries, Huxley uses Helmholtz to argue that as long as humans retain a piece of…well, humanity, we’ll always need art and expression; we’ll always need outlets.
One of the reasons soma use can be so prevalent – and can be accepted so easily – is that the World State actively discourages the formation of individual identities (the IDENTITY in the central motto referring to the one determined for you prior to decanting, the role you’ve been assigned that you inevitably perform perfectly).
It seems that you don’t lose anything by disengaging from reality when you never really engaged with it to begin with.
Innocence requires morality in order to exist as a state of being, and since we’ve chucked one out the window, we’ve chucked the other along with it.
Thus our adults exist in a state of perma-childhood, never having to face insurmountable obstacles and never having to form their own moral codes.
Life for them exists in a state much like you seem to describe when recalling the happiness you felt at the age of five.
Meanwhile, the DHC pointed out in Chapter One that one of the Hatchery’s main goals was to figure out how to make humans more like horses, in the sense that the onset of adulthood happens extremely early in horses.
By applying this ideal to humans, the World State’s technicians are essentially pushing adulthood into childhood at the same time that they’re pushing the consequence-free pleasures of early youth into adulthood.
In a world where no one has to face anything that can’t be beaten, coping skills are vestigial and unwanted.
In a later segment of the book, John points out that the World State has eliminated tragedy because it’s eliminated the consequences that usually follow peoples’ actions – that the society in question has decided it doesn’t wish to play by life’s rules anymore.
As much fun as Calvinball can be to play…don’t you have to stop at some point?
Don’t you have to live at least a little dangerously, leave a few things to chance?
This is why John finds value in suffering – and why John believes the tears are necessary…
…For it’s not a gamble if you can’t fail, and it’s harder to appreciate something that can’t be lost than something you had to fight to earn, whether it’s your most hoped-for accomplishment…or another’s heart.