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Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
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~~ Analyzing the Brave New World ~~

From the beginning of the novel, we recognize the strangeness of the world that Huxley invents, though it takes several pages to get a full enough glimpse of it. But right from the first line we've arrived at the entrance to a "squat gray building" that's "only thirty-four stories" high. That's striking if you read between the lines and realize that to seem "squat" this high-rise must be dwarfed by towering giants one hundred or more stories high-a forest of Chrysler Buildings and World Trade Centers. In such an environment, the puny human being must seem very small, very insignificant, like ants in a vast colony-and, as it turns out, this is a theme Huxley is greatly interested in pursuing.

We soon realize we're in a world that's been radically transformed by the twin forces of industrialization and science, that these two magicians have allied themselves for the purpose of mass producing "the human product." This opening chapter establishes the biological advances that have made the brave new global village possible. Biological "sameness" and "stability" have replaced biological diversity and the chaos of individuality. The human being has become a predictable, manufactured, packaged product; human ingenuity is now a controlled substance.

Utopia or dystopia? We've yet to discover.

The chapter's first full paragraph is highly ironic, a perspective that Huxley establishes early and carries very effectively throughout the book. The ironies we encounter are sometimes as obvious as jackhammers and sometimes as quiet and subtle as this one, in which the sunlight that comes streaming through the window-that universal symbol of growth, warmth, enlightenment, wisdom, and well-being-seeking something human to enlighten, finds only the cold, dead factory lined shelves of test tubes. The irony is intensified when we learn that this is a "fertility" room. Readers often disagree about Huxley's intentions with these ironies. Is he filled with bitter disgust, or bemused? Is the novel a dark, dreary dystopia, or an entertaining satire? Is there the seed of a real plan for paradise-engineering here, and Huxley just doesn't have the stomach for it? Is this novel intended as a serious critique of modern times, or an amusing cautionary tale? We can only decide these things, I suppose, once we have a vision of the whole place, once we know all its features. A close reading of the novel reveals a world that's as fascinating as it is disturbing, as provocative and as alarming as it is eerily familiar.

Stepping Through the Lab

In the first several chapters of the book we tag along with a group of young students who are being introduced to the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center. This is where they make the babies, we soon learn. It's a useful device, as it allows Huxley to "explain" how everything works, and we are in the same position as the students, seeing everything for the first time, through their eyes. But their eyes and our eyes soon part company, as their wider and wider-eyed incredulity looks nothing like our own clearer-eyed indignation. What is happening here?

First, the D.H.C., the Director, makes it clear that people in the brave new world are only informed on an "as needed" basis-that "generalities are intellectually necessary evils" to be avoided whenever possible. The "general idea," the larger picture, is left for others (the "Controllers") to contemplate-they are the only ones who make decisions, so they are the only ones who need to be concerned. How did a tragic attack on the World Trade Center by a group of extremists sheltering in Afghanistan become an imperative to impose "democracy" in Iraq, or anywhere else in the Middle East? The brave new world tells you not to worry about that-that's not your job; your job is to do the fighting, or to support the fighting; worry about that. We're "bringing freedom" and that's all you need to know. The larger picture is kept as invisible as possible, because it might lead to many disturbing questions that might lead to a challenge to authority, which is destabilizing and to be prevented at all costs. Dissent, protest, opposing views must be muffled and silenced, confined whenever possible behind chain-linked "free speech zones" that are rendered invisible by distance. And by the same token, don't bother making value judgments scientific advances in weapon technology or genetic engineering or mass media-take it on faith that it must all be good because it all represents "progress." Yet it's precisely an understanding of this big picture that might liberate the enslaved citizens of the brave new world-the picture that would show how horribly oppressed they are, how violated, mangled from conception onwards, how they've been pressed, shaped, molded, cut, bottled and packaged at every stage of their "development" (more like "manufacture"). They have become completely objectified, completely dehumanized, and they can't see it.

The Brave New World, as we learn about it in these first few chapters, has things we don't: things like the Bokanovsky Process and Hypnopaedia. But for everything the Brave New World has that we don't, our own culture has provided the manure that is its fertile seedbed-that is the essence and the power of the social criticism that Huxley hurls straight at us.
The Bokanovsky Process

This is the process that allows the controllers to mass produce the human product. What's the goal of the Bokanovsky process? Sameness. We may not have the technology (yet) but we produce that sameness just as effectively through advertising and propaganda. Look around you. Do you see more "sameness" or more "diversity"? Do you see more people striving to express their "individuality" or more people trying to "fit in"?

The Class System

The Director tells us that the secret to happiness and virtue is "liking what you've got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny." In the Brave New World, all the people are "pre-destined"-they have no destiny other than the one that's been planned out for them by the world controllers. They aren't merely "born" into their inescapable class, they are violently imprisoned it from conception onwards. Whether an Epsilon, the lowest class, or an Alpha, the highest class, they will never transcend or descend. In that sense, they really do have an "inescapable" destiny; but what about us? We may scoff at the rigidity of the class system laid out so plainly this way, but how free are we? Don't we have the same stratification? Do the same people who need to shop at Wal-Mart ever wander over to Banana Republic? Sure, we're free to descend as low as we want-no problem. But how many of us, what percentage, freely ascend, freely partake of the "alpha" lifestyle? Many people dream about it, fantasize about it…sometimes even chase it. But for a lot of people, it's like chasing a carrot on a stick. Are there ways in which our own society "conditions" us, therefore, to "like what we've got to do"?

In Brave New World Huxley extrapolates the kind of social "conditioning" he observed (in 1932)-due to the meteoric rise of propaganda and advertising made possible by new mass media; due to an emerging understanding of human psychology and sociology-and projects it forward, advances it. He puts it in the hands of a totalitarian power and makes it more conscious and more efficient than perhaps it is now (as powerful as it is now). He industrializes it, institutionalizes it. The result is not more freedom but less, not more happiness but more meaninglessness.

Huxley proposes that science, as miraculous as it seems, poses a threat. In the hands of totalitarian power, it spells the end of freedom, the death of the individual, and the beginning of "inescapable social destiny."

Dehumanization

One obvious fact about the citizens of the Brave New World is that they're dehumanized. And we should explore what that means. These are a people who are completely objectified, imprisoned, trapped in their "inescapable social destinies," like so many drones in a hive. They haven't freely chosen this world they're "decanted" into; they've been pre-programmed to populate it efficiently. They've been forced into it at needle point. And like so many cattle, they are shuffled around like so much meat, only to be recycled when they die. Their lives seem completely meaningless to us. How did it get this way? What does it mean to be "dehumanized"?

First you have to ask: what does it mean to be human? What is a human being? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) seems to imply that to be "human" is to have an "inherent dignity" and to have "equal and inalienable rights" which include the right to "freedom, justice and peace in the world." Some of our "highest aspirations" are "freedom of speech and belief" and "freedom from fear and want" and the right to reject "tyranny and oppression." There are thirty articles in this idealistic universal declaration, drafted after the horrors of the Holocaust, and the word "free" or "freedom" is mentioned in almost every single article. The notion of freedom is central to the notion of what it means to be human. We see it in Genesis, we see it in The Eye of the Giant, we see it in the Inferno, we see it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in our own Declaration of Independence-and we see it missing in the dehumanized world of Huxley's dystopia.

If to be human is to be a free, independent, individual, rational and autonomous and creative being, then the humans of the Brave New World are clearly under attack, nearly defeated. They've been stripped of their "free will," coerced into conformity, exploited for their labor and their eggs, and treated like so many pieces of plastic on an assembly line. "Bokanovsky's Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!" the Director howls. The ideal is laid out: "Standard men and women in uniform batches." The Director muses, "If we could bokinovskify indefinitely the whole problem would be solved." Is there a problem? That's interesting. What is that problem? It turns out the problem is that even in this mechanized world there are still occasionally people like Bernard Marx, Helmholtz Watson, even Lenina Crowne. But they'll keep trying because now they have learned to apply "the principal of mass production…to biology." They have figured out how to standardize people, who are denied all dignity, individuality, freedom, who are given no meaningful choices. Their lives are completely routinized, from birth to death. There are no surprises, no spontaneity. They've learned to suppress all emotion, all rational thinking; they've replaced their hearts and minds with entertainment, soma, and blind obedience.

One of the poignancies of Huxley's book is there between these lines: the incredible fragility, the vulnerability, of our humanity in the face of modern science and technology. Dante showed us how dehumanizing "sin" could be, how corrupt it could leave us, in what dehumanized condition we finally arrive in when we find ourselves given over to it. Dante insisted that this was something the individual did to himself or herself from the inside, but Huxley shows how it can be done to us from the outside as well. Both authors demonstrate how fragile we are, how vulnerable.

Once you dehumanize your subject, you can justify all manner of cruelty. (You can see that clearly in the Inferno.) You can do things to an object (a debased sinner, a human embryo) that you'd never consider doing to a human being. Every tyrant dehumanizes his or her victim: the plantation owners did it to their African slaves; the Nazis did it to their Jewish scapegoats; the prison guards at Abu Graib did it to their Iraqi "detainees." "The lower the caste the shorter the oxygen" explains Mr. Foster. "The first organ affected was the brain. After that the skeleton. At less than seventy eyeless monsters." Obviously they've tried it, for in this world (ours?) human life is very cheap.

One of the greater ironies that Huxley pursues in the Brave New World is that it's this debased society which has finally determined definitively that science must be "socially useful" (see p. 15). In the brave new world it's too late to make science an instrument of freedom; instead it's become the means of control, our prison warden. Huxley argued vehemently elsewhere that scientists needed to take more responsibility for working only for peace-that scientists should take a "Hippocratic Oath" which would compel them to work only for the good of mankind against any destructive forces. He argued against scientists being nationalistic because nationalism fosters war; the scientists needed to see him or herself as a citizen of the world, not one individual state. Huxley strongly believed that the future belonged to science and technology and that scientists had an enormous responsibility to ensure the world's survival. (It's a little arrogant for us to talk about the "world's survival," isn't it? Don't we really mean "human survival"?)

In the brave new world, however, science has been corralled and brought into the service of "usefulness." It is science that makes the human obsolete, invading spaces we thought were inviolate:

  • conception, birth, growth is conducted in test tubes, bottles, and conditioning rooms
  • individuality, the self is submerged in the larger "state identity" and "everyone belongs to everyone else"
  • the ability to rebel, to resist, to defend ourselves is annihilated
  • religion, spirituality is replaced by endlessly repeated, clichéd "catechisms" and hypnopaedic soundbites
  • the bonding and attachment of marriage is replaced by casual sex and personal attachments are frowned upon
  • mental and physical stimulation is artificially aroused by "feelies" a trivial form of superficial entertainment
  • nature, anything organic, has been supplanted by artificiality

By the end of Chapter Two, we'll have witnessed the most violent attack on individuality western literature had ever explored: everything from test tube tampering, oxygen shortages, electric shock and purposely induced post traumatic stress to hypnopaedia. Chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology will have all been depressingly implicated. They've all been put to the service of enslaving people. Brave New World brings the notion of "Progress" sharply into question.
In the hands of the totalitarian-minded controllers, science and "progress" have provided the means for completely obliterating the individual! What makes a human being unique, individual?

  • Our emotions that inhabit our minds, our hearts. They are the fuel for our beliefs, our actions, our dreams, our desires. The plan is to eliminate desire, obliterate feeling, reduce it to a simple equation-If every impulse is instantly gratified, then the human being will never have to feel any unpleasant emotion. The immediate gratification of every impulse is equivalent to mindlessness.
  • Our choices, the decisions we make. These are completely eliminated. You are provided with an "inescapable social destiny," and there are no decisions for you to make at all.
  • Freedom, free will. This is removed by pre-natal, biological tampering and relentless conditioning.

Individual consciousness? We'd be kidding ourselves. The key piece of the puzzle, it seems, is to eradicate a person's emotional inner life. If you can eliminate deep passions, powerful feelings, you will think you are "happy."

When you really stop to think about it, how much of what Huxley observes happens six hundred years in the future and how much of it is happening right now?

  • Propaganda-mass media news and advertising
  • Psychology-conditioning, hypnopaedia
  • Biology-genetic engineering ("build-a-baby")
  • Sociology-crowd psychology; caste system
  • Entertainment-distraction, sensation
  • Drugs-escape
  • Physical environment-comfort, monotony, stability, class-based
  • Consumption-artificial substances over natural, organic substances (food is genetically engineered or synthetic; shelter is cookie-cutter; clothing is produced by cheap 3rd world labor; services are outsourced overseas; pets are cloned)

And how much that's been eliminated from the Brave New World is also disappearing in our own world?

  • Art-replaced by mindless entertainment (the "feelies")
  • History-the Director reminds his students, "History is bunk."
  • Religion-"Our Lord" is replaced by "Our Ford"; prayer is replaced by singing orgies
  • Freedom/Autonomy/Individuality/Identity-replaced by pre-programmed conditioning. Embryos are "predestined," not by God, but by the number-crunchers.

The psychological foundation of the Brave New World is explored in Chapter Two.
Beginning with another ironic observation related to light and color, Chapter Two opens with a description of colorful roses, which seem more colorful and full of life than the people we've been with. The light accordingly seeks them out and finds them a bit further on. The psychology of the brave new world, as we'll see is based on hypnopaedia and conditioning and it engenders a kind of blind obedience, a suspension of all independent moral will. This is so vividly expressed in the scene with the 8-month-old babies.

What is disturbing about this scene is its cruelty, of course, but also the blind obedience with which the nurses carry out the torture. She's just "following orders," of course. We don't really "blame her," do we? I do. As much as I place blame on the ordinary soldier who shuffled the Jews into the gas chambers, just following orders… Here we have striking evidence that these people are completely robotic, completely dehumanized. How else explain their ability to torture little babies?

In Chapter Three we're introduced to three of the novel's key characters: Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne, and Mustapha Mond.


 

 

 

     

 


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