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Brave New World: I’ve Wished On the Lidded Blue Flames. Feraco Myth to Science Fiction 24 April 2012.

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brave new world i ve wished on the lidded blue flames

Brave New World:I’ve Wished On the Lidded Blue Flames


Myth to Science Fiction

24 April 2012

As we continue through the third chapter, we keep one eye trained on the Lenina / Fanny and Bernard scenes – even though the bulk of the chapter focuses on the conclusion of the DHC’s “tour.”

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.

As it turns out, Lenina doesn’t mind being thought of as “meat-like” – no woman does in the World State, really. (Nor, we assume, would the men.)

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…).

Meanwhile, the DHC and his young charges stumble upon Mustapha Mond, one of the ten most powerful men in the world (a “World Controller”).

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.

Interestingly, we didn’t greet promises of utopia with open arms, particularly not when it came to scientific progress.

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.

So what changed?

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.

The Nine Years’ War began in A.F. 141. Phosgene, chloropicrin, ethyl iodoacetate, diphenylcyanarsine, trichlormethyl, chloroformate, dichlorethyl sulphide. Not to mention hydrocyanic acid. The noise of fourteen thousand aeroplanes advancing in open order. But in the Kurfurstendamm and the Eighth Arrondissement, the explosion of the anthrax bombs is hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag. Ch3C6H2(NO2)3+Hg(CNO)2 = well, what? An enormous hole in the ground, a pile of masonry, some bits of flesh and mucus, a foot, with the boot still on it, flying through the air and landing, flop, in the middle of the geraniums – the scarlet ones; such a splendid show that summer! The Russian technique for infecting water supplies was particularly ingenious.
The Nine Years’ War, the great Economic Collapse. There was a choice between World Control and destruction. Between stability and…

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.

Eight hundred Simple Lifers were mowed down by machine guns at Golders Green. Then came the famous British Museum Massacre. Two thousand culture fans gassed with dichlorethyl sulphide.

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.

The introduction of Our Ford’s first T-Model was chosen as the opening date of the new era. There was a thing, as I’ve said before, called Christianity. The ethics and philosophy of under-consumption…so essential when there was under-production; but in an age of machines and the fixation of nitrogen – positively a crime against society. All crosses had their tops cut and became Ts. There was also a thing called God. We have the World State now. And Ford's Day celebrations, and Community Sings, and Solidarity Services.

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.

Two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were subsidized in A.F. 178. Six years later it was being produced commercially. The perfect drug. Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant. All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects. Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.

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.

Work, play – at sixty our powers and tastes are what they were at seventeen. Old men in the bad old days used to renounce, retire, take to religion, spend their time reading, thinking – thinking!

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…

While it’s interesting, and at least a little disturbing, that both Huxley and Orwell believed a cataclysmic worldwide conflict would be the impetus for our descent into dystopia during the twentieth century, it’s also understandable; that sort of tension isn’t as prevalent today, but it certainly was immediately prior to and following World War II in mainland Europe.

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.

Orwell believed such a move would allow society to degenerate until it was controlled by its darkest elements – fear, hatred, jingoism, and ignorant, bigoted stupidity.

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?

Thus Chapter 3 ends with the table set – the world established, the background covered, the characters introduced and propelled on their merry way.

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?

We’ve now talked about the past vs. the present (what we left behind, what we gained, and our attitudes towards both), the willful rejection of knowledge (history is bunk! + soma soma soma), the pros/cons of social conditioning (Myron Rolle: Gunner Extraordinaire), and the costs of progress (only happy on our heads!)

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.

When we’re overhearing conversations between Bernard and his co-workers in Chapter 3, or between Lenina and Fanny, we see that there isn’t a lot of cross-pollination between the classes, which isn’t that surprising.

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).

Writing Styles and Techniques: We discover that Helmholtz “had realized quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests. Really, and at the bottom, he was interested in something else. But in what? In what?”

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…

“Did you ever feel,” he asked, “as though you had something inside you that was only waiting for you to give it a chance to come out? Some sort of extra power that you aren't using – you know, like all the water that goes down the falls instead of through the turbines?” He looked at Bernard questioningly.

“You mean all the emotions one might be feeling if things were different?”

Helmholtz shook his head. “Not quite. I’m thinking of a queer feeling I sometimes get, a feeling that I’ve got something important to say and the power to say it – only I don’t know what it is, and I can't make any use of the power. If there was some different way of writing…or else something else to write about…” He was silent; then, “You see,” he went on at last, “I’m pretty good at inventing phrases – you know, the sort of words that suddenly make you jump, almost as though you’d sat on a pin, they seem so new and exciting even though they’re about something hypnopædically obvious. But that doesn’t seem enough. It’s not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.”

“But your things are good, Helmholtz.”

“Oh, as far as they go.” Helmholtz shrugged his shoulders. “But they go such a little way. They aren’t important enough, somehow. I feel I could do something much more important. Yes, and more intense, more violent. But what? What is there more important to say? And how can one be violent about the sort of things one’s expected to write about? Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced. That’s one of the things I try to teach my students – how to write piercingly. But what on earth’s the good of being pierced by an article about a Community Sing, or the latest improvement in scent organs? Besides, can you make words really piercing – you know, like the very hardest X-rays – when you’re writing about that sort of thing? Can you say something about nothing? That’s what it finally boils down to. I try and I try…”
I love the way Huxley concludes Helmholtz’s arc near the end of the book; as far as “minor” characters go, I think he’s perfectly realized, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing about his portrayal.

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.

The desire for instant gratification in the World State links with another one of our bullets – happiness, substance abuse, and reality.

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.

As far as the death of innocence and permanent childhood are concerned, it’s particularly interesting to me that one led (paradoxically) to the other – that the Nine Years’ War led to the formation of this mechanical Neverland.

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.

It makes sense; after all, Mond points out that people don’t develop or experience personality shifts anymore.

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.

When someone does face a consequence – say, when Linda gives birth to John, or when Lenina and Bernard end up on an extended stay at the Savage Reservation – he/she invariably deals with it poorly.

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.

By doing so, John continues, the World State has removed the meaning of life entirely; how can you search for meaning when you’re always changing the guidelines?

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.