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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
THE PROBLEM OF STABILITY in Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD
We begin to think about these tradeoffs very early into the book.
Chapter Three: Maintaining Stability in the Brave New World
History, art, science, and religion are all threats to the Brave New World because they are too destabilizing.
“Stability” is the primary value in the Brave New World (along with “Community” and “Identity”). Without stability, the wheels wouldn’t turn. Mond often uses this metaphor of the “wheels,” a metaphor for industrial capitalism: the wheels are the process of creating supply and demand. Tending the wheels means tending to supply and demand, making sure they are absolutely balanced, so that economic stability can be achieved.
Would it be such a terrible thing if demand never exceeded supply, and our needs were always met comfortably? What would we have to accomplish to ensure that demand never exceeded supply? What’s the objection?
To create stability, obstacles like religion had to be overcome. How did the controllers get rid of religion?
The Brave New World had to be created forcefully, violently. Humanity did not go silently into this good night. A lot of blood was spilled to create this triumphant stability. But Mond acknowledges that force alone can never maintain stability. Ultimately the battle must be won for hearts and minds because mere force will fail in the end. But why?
Force creates opposition, rebellion, protest. You can beat it down but it will keep cropping up. You have to keep fighting the same war over and over and over again, and that depletes your resources. And so, in addition to “mere force,” the Brave New World relies on additional methods for conquering hearts and minds.
STABILITY IS THE PRIMARY OBJECTIVE
Mond argues that social stability is the modern world’s primary objective because it’s stability that gives rise to utopia. And since you can’t have social stability without stable individuals, every scientific and technological theory is deployed in the effort to stabilize the individual, which means, in effect, getting rid of individuality. In Mond’s philosophy, stability is the utopian key to paradise. It’s the key that gets us in the door.
In the Brave New World, stability is created biologically, psychologically, and chemically.
SOMA: ecstasy or oblivion?
How do Brave New Worlders use soma?
In what ways is SOMA a “wonder drug” and in what ways does it underwhelm?
Soma seems great…
The “wonder drug” tag hangs very loosely and is liable to fall off if you pull it just a little. The “impenetrable wall,” seems at first like “protection,” but on second glance it might seem like something else. Who does that wall benefit, the individual or the ruling powers who are interested in keeping the individual from feeling anything? Would it hurt people to feel pain? Isn’t pain an important source of growth? (No pain, no gain?) Isn’t pain what makes us empathize with the world around us, what makes us sensitive to other people? Furthermore, if you are walling everything out, you are equally walling everything in. The impenetrable wall may as well be a chemical prison. Maybe the prisons of the future will be in the form of a pill instead of a jail cell.
…but what is not so wonderful about Soma?
A real wonder drug would be life enriching, not annihilating; it would act as a catalyst for metaphysical discovery and insight, mystical epiphany, intellectual breakthrough—a real wonder drug would reinforce our most cherished values and ideals, not destroy them or sever us from them as soma seems to do.
Some critics like David Pearce ("A Defense of Paradise Engineering") argue that Huxley gets it all wrong in Brave New World—that a “post-Darwinian” human-engineered “paradise” or utopia is not only possible but probable, and that we have to stop prejudicing ourselves against it by slanted books like this one. Pearce in particular has argued at length about the ways in which Huxley’s world is a straw-man that’s easy to hate. Pearce analyzes how taps our fear of communist totalitarianism and rampant capitalism, and our reservations about Pavlovian-style conditioning and eugenics, in an unfair way; he makes it seem as if happiness has to come at the expense of our most treasured values like “motherhood,” “home,” “family,” “freedom,” and “love.” In exchange for these we don’t even get real happiness but something insipid and inferior that’s not worthy of the name. Pearce seems to think Huxley’s novel is more like propaganda than art, feeding us an emotionally compelling but stacked argument that unnecessarily prejudices us against progress. The “transhuman” (or “post-human” as he sometimes calls it) world that Pearce and others imagine is a world where people “will be endowed with a greater capacity for love, empathy, and emotional depth.” Drugs (much more powerful than soma) will be available to help us reach new states of thought and emotion now inconceivable. Freedom and personal potential will be enriched, not obliterated as they are in Brave New World.
Pearce may be right; Huxley may not envision the kind of future it’s possible to envision in 2005. He is unaware of our modern drugs, modern advances in bioengineering and nanotechnology. Real transhumans may prize diversity and have lots of imagination. New drugs may improve us mentally rather than reduce us to unconscious imbeciles. They may support our morality rather than destroy it. But the novel can be wrong about utopia and still be right as a satire.
I still would maintain that Huxley’s satire is relevant to our world today.
CHAPTER 16 and 17: A Debate
Mond argues for the Brave New World definition of “happiness” (p. 220).
It sounds plausibly utopian, doesn’t it? If you think about it, that could be Adam and Eve in the Garden before they ate the apple. But this Paradise has a few modern flourishes that don’t make it into Genesis:
Happiness is NOT:
A necessary condition for happiness is stability. [major premise]
Stability is created by suppressing all change. [minor premise]
A necessary condition for happiness is the suppression of all change. [conclusion] / [major premise]
To suppress all change, truth, emotion, freedom must be suppressed. [minor premise]
A necessary condition for happiness is the suppression of truth, emotion, and freedom. [conclusion]
You may take issue with Mond’s conclusions, but how will you disprove his premises? Another question: What kinds of premises and conclusions would you argue given the same problem of defining and creating happiness?
Mond admits that “Happiness is a hard master—particularly other people’s happiness. A much harder master…than truth…” What is so difficult about the pursuit of happiness? What makes happiness such a hard master, so problematic?
But Mond insists that “universal happiness” is what keeps the wheels turning, what keeps the social order spinning “productively.” (But for who, for what, is another question.) If it’s true, as Mond insists, that “truth and beauty” are just cogs in the wheels and they can be exchanged for “happiness and comfort” is that an acceptable trade? If you had to choose, which would you prefer: truth and beauty (and instability) or happiness and comfort (and stability)? Do you agree or disagree with Huxley’s critique of modern culture: that it has embraced “comfort” over “truth”?
Mond explains how the Nine Years War led people to abandon their liberty in favor of “peace” and “security.” They sacrificed their freedom in the effort to gain social stability. How different is this from what we did here, passing the Patriot Act immediately after 9/11, uncritically, without carefully reading it, examining its implications or debating it in any way; even now the general public hasn’t fully re-examined or discussed its merits or shortcomings.
Mond, though he is a cheerleader for the brave new world, says he “likes” Helmholtz Watson’s “spirit”—the way he rejects comfort—but this is a real weakness in Huxley’s characterization of Mond. It’s seems to be Huxley himself who admires Helmholtz Watson and he intrudes upon Mond to make sure we know it. Mond would never approve of individual “spirit,” and he would find Helmholtz’s rejection of “comfort” stupid.
In Chapter 17, Mond debates John alone, explaining why he’s rejected God and religion, what makes the Brave New World independent of religion. God just isn’t needed.
Cardinal Newman is there to help Mond establish that we only “need” God in old age, when our capacity for sensation is so diminished that there’s a void that opens up—we cling to something that we hope won’t diminish, a “reality, an absolute everlasting truth.” Mond makes Society that everlasting truth; John clings to God. Does one or the other have the greater claim to “truth” or “reality” in your view?
If God exists, John argues, then you have a reason to be “virtuous,” because God demands that. This is an expression for the moral responsibility of the individual. But if Society is the absolute truth then you have no need of the virtues, Mond responds. What you need is a lot of pleasant vices. Self-indulgence keeps the social wheels turning, keeps the factories humming.
But what about God as “justice”—what about reward and punishment? Mond counters that it’s all human justice in the end; “Providence takes its cue from men.” (p. 236). It’s people who dictate the law, who organize society. The rest is imaginary, inconsequential. There is no “spirit” that continues after the body is gone.
Mond argues, like Cardinal Newman, that “independence” is an unnatural state, that people need to belong to something greater than themselves. Religion, the idea of God, fulfills that need, but in the Brave New World, society can fill it just as well, if not better. Religious practice is irrelevant.
John argues that the Gods have manifested themselves by the way humanity is degraded in this new world, by its spiritual poverty, its immorality. He argues for a moral code that transcends individuals and even societies—a higher law that’s immutable and unchanging. He’s appalled at the vices, but Mond has already explained that vices are necessary for social stability, and that the virtues are absolutely unnecessary. Heroism is passé. Virtue is irrelevant.
John stumbles around for a defense…and finally blurts out: “But God’s the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic.” Sounds good, but—noble? Fine? Heroic? All irrelevant.
John wants to earn comfort and love. His traditions have taught him that comfort and love are valuables that come at a high cost, after much self-sacrifice, after one’s proven oneself worthy in some way. To gain well being without cost is cheating, he believes, so he wants to pay the price…through suffering comes wisdom, as the adage goes. Mond explains that in the Brave New World wisdom is irrelevant, unnecessary, and that suffering when one has the means to alleviate suffering is backwards and stupid.
They reach an impasse: John wants the human as is—warts and all; Mond wants the transhuman. It’s a standoff; neither side is convinced by the other. They square off stubbornly in the end (p. 240):
“We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You're welcome,” he said.
But has it been a fair argument, or did Huxley, as David Pearce charges, “stack the deck”? Is he guilty of trapping us with logical fallacies?
Questions? Contact me.
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