Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
‘They entered. The air seemed hot and somehow breathless with the scent of ambergris and sandalwood. On the domed ceiling of the hall, the colour organ had momentarily painted a tropical sunset. The Sixteen Sexophonists were playing an old favourite: “There ain’t no Bottle in all the world like that dear little Bottle of mine.” ‘
I can’t believe I’ve never read Brave New World from cover to cover before and, no, that isn’t a typo! Written in 1932, and set in a futuristic world where everyone knows his/her place and is happy in it – principally due to hypnotic conditioning and drug-induced stupor, Aldous Huxley’s brilliant and enduring dystopian novel explores methods of population control by velvet glove. He writes a lot about bottles, and organs, and sex; the above quotation is from one of my favourite episodes, when two of the characters, Lenina and Henry, go on a date to the Westminster Abbey Cabaret.
‘Zip! The rounded pinkness fell apart like a neatly divided apple. A wriggle of the arms, a lifting first of the right foot, then the left: the zippicamiknicks were lying lifeless and as though deflated on the floor …. “Darling. Darling! If only you’d said so before!” She held out her arms.’
However, let’s for the moment strip away character and plot and consider Huxley’s method, language and style. His Brave New World is a world, a society, that is superficially benign but underneath which lie sinister currents of disorder. These are presented, like the surface itself, as satire and sometimes dark grey humour, which nevertheless pricks in a disturbing way our twenty-first century sensibilities. Many of the ideas and constructs of Brave New World, whilst being futuristic and outrageous in 1932, we can recognise today as already part of our own society. Flashing neon lights and loud piped music are commonplace. Sexual promiscuity, whilst not perhaps the norm, is not regarded with the same distaste as it undoubtedly was in the the early years of last century.
‘Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One.
Boys at one and girls at peace;
Orgy-porgy gives release.’
In Huxley’s imaginary (and prophetic) world, pregnancy has been abolished, children are made in test tubes by genetic engineering, a process called bokanovskification, hatched in incubators – hundreds, thousands at a time -and human beings are classified at birth in one of five categories – Alpha to Epsilon. Alphas are the intelligent upper class; Epsilons are the moronic workers at the bottom of the social scale. The very words ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘family’ and even ‘love’ are obscenities. As a consequence, free, promiscuous sex is on tap. It is the objective of most decent people, men and women alike, to ‘get laid’ as many times and with as many partners as possible. [Huxley does not use the expression ‘get laid’ of course, but his euphemistic ‘have’ seems to suggest the same degree of vulgarity.]
‘Streptock-Gee to Banbury-T,
To see a fine bathroom and WC.’
Education (conditioning) begins at birth and involves the process of hypnopaedia, or ‘sleep-teaching’. Neuroses and other unpleasant psychological conditions are held at bay with daily doses of the drug Soma, a sort of LSD-cum-ecstasy that instils a happy acceptance of one’s lot in life. By the simple transposition of four letters of the alphabet, x to t and l to f, Huxley creates at once a new religion and a new politics. The supreme being is Ford (late Henry Ford), his creed is mass production and consumerism, and his cross is the mighty T.
A few titles will suffice to convey the general idea:
- The Ford Chief Justice
- The Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury
- The Professor of Feelies (if you want to know what feelies are you’ll have to read the book)
- The Chief Bottler
- The Director of Predestination
Lenina Crowne works in the the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. She has ‘had’ quite a few men, but has set her cap at Bernard Marx. Bernard is a malcontent who likes to be alone and when threatened with banishment to Iceland he devises a plan to save himself. Bernard and Lenina on their date travel to the reservations and bring back John Savage, the unintended product of an illicit relationship between the Director of the aforementioned Hatchery and a woman called Linda, who has been left behind among the savages (in America, as it happens).
‘As soon as they got back . . . [Lenina] swallowed six half-gramme tablets of Soma, lay down on the bed, and within ten minutes had embarked for lunar eternity.’
John, like Bernard, is a misfit in his society, an outsider, a white European among Indians. However, he fits even less into the Brave New World. He believes in God, in Love and in flagellation. The object of his love is Lenina but when she tries to seduce him, his reaction is not quite what you would expect and, thereafter, his choices are (as you WOULD expect) limited. Bernard is at last banished to Iceland, which does not sound too unpleasant a fate, and life for the others goes on much as before.
Comparisons between Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four are tempting; Margaret Atwood makes the point in her stimulating introduction to my edition of the book. Indeed, on opening the first chapter of Orwell, one is immediately faced with a sentence reminiscent of this one from Chapter III of Huxley:
‘In the few thousand rooms of the Centre, the four thousand electric clocks simultaneously struck four.’
However, the resemblances, it seems to me, are few. We view both novels with the benefit of history and we want to see similarities of intention where none exist.
Brave New World is an easy read, unlike many of the modernist works of the early nineteen hundreds. Less daring now than it was in 1932, it’s brilliant and fun – though it carries a message and a warning!