Infinite appetite for distractions

“…reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays….”

Brave New World is one hell of a book. I am so impressed with it, I barely know where to start. This book made me understand why people write fiction. Until now, fiction always seemed lyrical – and only accessible to those with a particularly creative rather than an analytical mind. For example, poetry always made more sense to me than fictional prose – because it doesn’t usually require one to conjure up things that have never happened, but rather seeing things that others mightn’t see in what did happen. Huxley strikes me as analytical – but well able to articulate his analysis through an elaborate metaphor that is Brave New World. The story line didn’t flow and felt contrived to me. However, the descriptions and the dialogue more than made up for it.

The book came out in 1931. Interestingly, it was banned in Ireland “for being anti-family and anti-religion.”

The beauty of the book is that we aren’t strongly drawn to side with one side over the other. While one side is infinitely more familiar and natural, the other eerily makes a lot of sense. Hence, it isn’t just a praise of our “old” values, but an insightful examination. I don’t know that Huxley meant it that way – but that’s how it reads to me today. Consider this, for example. Opposing the brave new world, we have John, a boy who grew up in a close-knit tribe and whose morals are deeply aligned with those of Shakespeare’s heroes. So far – so good. However, he had a troubled mother and grew up without a father. This clearly left a mark on him – and would never have happened in the brave new world. He also self-flagellates. Minutes after confessing his endless love to a woman, he violently disowns her – for wanting to have sex with him. He ultimately commits suicide. Not so good. John is implicitly compared to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, nearly all of them – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Romeo as he is pensive, ambitious, proud and impulsive.

While there are lots of insights to be derived from this book, I am not convinced of how new this brave new world really is. Is this regime really much different to what we have had before?

Most of all, for me, this book is a distilled vision of how human nature shows up when people are put into a very particular set of circumstances.

Brave New World meaning

Highlights

The biggest highlight is Chapter 16. The Controller, the man who runs this new world, is a tyrannical yet highly intelligent and calm person. He is the one who makes the rules of the brave new world. He reveals how he made his decisions. Ironically, it reminds me of the last chapter of every Harry Potter book – where we always find out the real behind-the-scenes from Dumbledore.

/I really need to read more. But while we’re here, could the fact that Dumbledore’s first name is Albus be an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s first name – as J.K.R. took on some of the structure, (even though it’s not necessarily unique to Huxley)?/

What’s interesting is that, on a certain level, the arguments presented by the Controller seem both logical and humanitarian. Here are some highlights:

On the subjected of happiness versus grand feats:

“Civilisation has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism.These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organised society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic […] [In this society] People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. […] The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. […] you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist.”

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

On the subject of social order:

John asks: Why don’t you make everybody an Alpha Double Plus while you’re about it? For those who haven’t read the book, Alpha Double Plus is a genetically superior person who is educated (“conditioned” – and I believe that’s a fair word) to be aware of their individuality.

“We believe in happiness and stability. A society of Alphas couldn’t fail to be unstable and miserable. Imagine a factory staffed by Alphas that is to say by separate and unrelated individuals of good heredity and conditioned so as to be capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities… An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work – go mad, or start smashing things up.

Alphas can be completely socialised – but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work. Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance. His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run. He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed.”

The Controller cites the Cyprus experiment, where Cyprus was cleared and populated with Alphas – resulting in civil war. While this is obviously not a real reason to substantiate Huxley’s assertion that a caste system – whether deliberate or not – makes society more stable, it shows that the Controller didn’t make this decision out of pure tyranny – but instead out of a rather unethical overuse of science. Yes, we usually say it is unethical to experiment on humans – at least in a social way, but perhaps it is also unethical to live in ignorance. Plus, in our real new world, it happens. Notably, Facebook experimented with our moods by adjusting our feeds – without letting us know, of course.

Brave New World philosophyOn the subject of the necessity of stupid work:

“Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?”

… This reminds me terribly of the life of the graduate intake of a corporation. Soma, “a holiday from the facts”, is described as alcohol without a hangover – I think most people wished for that at some point. The feelies are terribly reminiscent of VR. Earlier on in the book there was a reference to conditioning people to love expensive outdoor sports (rather than simply loving nature – as this alone doesn’t generate economic activity). Fancy sports is also a corporate favourite. There are reasons why that is besides a Huxley-themed conspiracy theory, but it’s interesting to note.

Another (thought)-experiment to back this:

“Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them… We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability.”

On the subject of the natural instinct to believe there is a god: 

“You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those old fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons–that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to.”

Indeed, the premise of effective “hypnopaedia” (repeating statements to children in their sleep for the purpose of teaching them) is that one doesn’t need to understand ethical statements to be able to use them (unlike science – where hypnopaedia fails). It seems that that’s true to me: groups of people tend to have similar values because everyone around them has those values. Most people’s values aren’t derived from first principles, they are adopted through repetition. There are, of course, many reasons for this, e.g. it is a survival strategy and the basis of any community, but… it’s still a dangerous instrument. A particular aspect of hypnopedia seems quite realistic: people are convinced that their caste (a proxy for position in life) is the happiest place they could be. While gratitude is a virtue, it has gotten quite compulsive these days, much like in the book. Every self-respecting Instagram user reminds us of it daily. Then again, before Instagram & co., we had other sources who told us to be grateful – they know who they are. The author also talked about god in Chapter 17, very elaborately with lots of references to philosophy. I don’t think I can dissect that even to the same standard as above. I did very much enjoy his look at Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son from King Lear. The Edmund of the brave new world would have been chilling with the ladies and “looking at the feelies” – not being killed off by the gods as in Shakespeare. Huxley’s argument that this mindless chilling is as good (as bad?) as death – it just depends what standard one holds themselves to.

brave new world analysis

On the subject of truth:

“I’m interested in truth, I like science. But truth’s a menace, science is a public danger.” … We […] carefully limit the scope of researches. […] We don’t allow it to deal with any but the most immediate problems of the moment.”

This applies today. The usual argument is economic necessity determines whether research should be carried out. Indeed, Huxley believes so too, but in a rather twisted way: he says that truth and beauty don’t lead to economic growth. Economic growth, however, is the ultimate value: the goal is to be a “happy, hard-working, goods-consuming citizen”. Brrr.

Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate… Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t… Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.”

Huxley also points out that there is real science – and then there are applications of that knowledge for the good of society – that may have little to do with the bona fide scientific method. Indeed, the fact that Ford is a god in the brave new world is scary. While in the real world, we don’t have a conveyor belt mania to the extent that Huxley feared, we have indeed sanctified phenomenally successful people. While countless people still look to god for guidance, we have seen humongous growth in these business school types (or just, types) who “study successful people.”

On the subject of love:

The indoctrination concerning love is particularly chilling. Perhaps the most likeable character, Helmholtz, who belongs in the brave new world explains what he thought of Romeo and Juliet:

The mother and father […] forcing the daughter to have some one she didn’t want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having some one else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred!

It’s chilling because it’s not wrong. It is robotic. Helmholtz acknowledges that Shakespeare wrote in a way that provokes strong emotions and admired his craft, but Helmholtz wasn’t able for any empathy. Lenina, John’s romantic interest, however, seemed to have some real feelings for him. Her friends though thought that she was unwell.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman said:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

I think this has happened even during my own lifetime. Even among the most educated people I know, coming out with interest and knowledge in some obscure subject often provokes the question why do you know this?  Was your primary degree in X?  I am pretty certain that knowledge acquisition has lost a lot of its perceived value during my lifetime – now that we have Google. The deeper layer, of course, is that the process of acquiring knowledge yields much more than just the knowledge. At the same time, I wonder, has it ever been different? At the end of the day, if nobody wanted to read books or write down their thoughts, why is blogging such a big thing these days? I wonder if back when this book was written – writing – and especially reaching an audience – was primarily the province of those who had gone to Oxford and could afford to not have a day job?

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Welcome to social media. This, I think, is quite unique to our age. Furthermore, in the brave new world, people are never alone – leading to the distractions that perpetuate lack of insight.

Brave New World Revisited

Huxley later wrote in a non-fiction reflection of where the world is now in relation to his Brave New World that we “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Indeed, he even sees religion as part of this distraction:

“’The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.’ But there aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?”

As a concluding remark, if I could, I would definitely make this mainstream in schools. I know in some places it is, but not everywhere. 1984 is a much bigger deal in most places -perhaps as it served a political purpose. This book deserves more attention, I feel. Most school kids struggle to understand Hamlet and King Lear through generating their own insights, but I think they would be able to relate to this much more.

And Happy Christmas, of course.

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brave new world essay personal response

10 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a very interesting post philosophically. There is so much in this I want to comment upon. I will read it carefully and then only I can be in a position to write a comment without making an ass of myself—– not that I am claiming that I am not an ass.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, thanks so much. The book is really deep, I highly recommend it!

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  2. A really wise post. I have not read the book, or rather I read parts of it a long time ago which I have forgotten now, but your commentary on it is very insightful. I am stymied because I can hardly find anything to disagree with or criticize what you have written.

    You wrote, “It seems that that’s true to me: groups of people tend to have similar values because everyone around them has those values. Most people’s values aren’t derived from first principles, they are adopted through repetition. There are, of course, many reasons for this, e.g. it is a survival strategy and the basis of any community.”

    It is certainly true. One can see examples of this everywhere. I find it so sad that people, educated or uneducated, do not want to think for themselves. If somebody honestly thinks for himself, he will get in to trouble perhaps? Just think that if you openly question the religion or ideology of the society you live in, you can face social ostracism or worse. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks again. Yes, definitely agreed about the difficulty of being different. In fact, Brave New World describes 3 characters – one is completely different to the rest (John), the other was brought up the same but came to the realisation that he is different (Helmholz) and the third feels compelled to be different in a needy narcissistic way (Bernard). I guess the bottom line is that even if you are different, there are people out there that are like you – somewhere. Thank heavens for blogging and being able to find them 😉

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  3. Dr. Klopek says:

    Huxley has long been a favorite thinker of mine, Heaven and Hell; Doors of Perception, Island, Eyeless in Gaza and Brave New World are some of my favorite books, not just of his. I like odd facts regarding the man and his life especially – later in life as his eyesight dwindled, a lover of literature, he learned braille so he could read in bed in the dark with his hands under the covers. (and to rest his eyes, but I still love that) and
    he was a prolific researcher of psychopharmacology and happened to have passed away the same exact day as President Kennedy, seemingly unrelated, and after (in an almost catatonic state at near death-also unrelated causally) being injected with a higher dose of LSD than anyone had recorded.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting! I would love to read something by him next – what do you recommend? Thanks for connecting:)

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      1. Dr. Klopek says:

        Well, Brave New World is a great start to Huxley, but being part of the prescribed cirriculum for standard education in America ( if that’s still a thing, I went to primary school in Japan late 80s) but his essay work is amazing. Heaven & Hell is my favorite, and I believe Island is his bookend, matured idea of a dystopian future he explored in Brave New World but not published – I want to say until 62, at least a quarter of a century after Brave New World and long after Orwell’s ( did you know that’s a pen name? only learned that recently) 1984 rip off, Animal Farm and the McCarthy era and WWII. Island for fiction – Heaven & Hell or The Doors of Perception for non-fiction. I saw you organized/helped start?( forgive me ) an Irish Education Center (?) I will admittedly have to read more on it, but that caught my eye, I am a Joycean and over the last few years have been exploring more Irish storytelling history, mythologies, creatives and artists etc. I love the headspace of a lot of these artists, Dylan Moore, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Swift, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Joseph O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, Aphex Twin, Chris Cunningham, Robert Sheenan, The Fall (tv). and my favorite “How Many Examples Are Enough?” Point is, as I’m sure I had one, Are you Irish and/or based in Ireland? Do you work respectively with or attached to Irish artists, of any medium, and/or has this missed it’s mark or have I struck a chord? I’m one of the few Joycean scholars of the younger generations – maybe living because they are hard to find. Any way I’m just looking for like minded individuals to either have discourse with, collaborate with ( I’m a writer, lyricist, painter, chef and film maker) or avenues/contacts/information on the best way to pursue this. Thanks, sorry

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      2. Thanks for the recommendations re Huxley, I will be reading those for sure as BNW rocked my world. He’s not on the curriculum in Ireland, 1984 is (and I feel that BNW is so much more insightful). I am afraid I am not a Joycean – being 27 I don’t know anyone my age who is. If I come across any, I will make sure to put you in touch. I studied a few of the people you’ve listed – and love love love Oscar Wilde (though he’s not on the Irish curriculum either for some reason!)

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