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Excerpted from the Introduction
"With war in Asia, bankruptcy in Europe and starvation everywhere, what do you suppose Aldous Huxley is now worrying about? Too much happiness."
(Disgruntled reviewer of Brave New World )
Brave New World is not strictly a novel of ideas in terms of Philip Quarles’s much-quoted definition in Huxley’s Point Counter Point: ‘the character of each personage must be implied, as far as possible, in the ideas of which he is a mouthpiece’. As in much satire and science fiction, the characters in Brave New World have little ‘character’, as such. But the novel is an exuberant playground for ideas, the bulk of them dropped in raw from the author’s recent, voracious, reading. Brave New World is also a prime vindication of the veteran science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss’s argument that his genre is rarely ‘prophetic’ – a forecast (accurate or inaccurate) of the future. It is, typically, Aldiss argues, ‘prodromic’.2 That is, SF and dys/u/topian fiction is symptomatic of the present in which it is written. Or, to put it equationally, 1984 = 1948 And Huxley’s novel is similarly more concerned with AD 1932 than far-off AF 632, when the action of Brave New World is ostensibly set. It was, in its day, a novel of the day.
Brave New World is also a highly argumentative novel. Throughout Huxley picks intellectual fights. Three of the fights are central:
1. Huxley versus Henry Ford
2. Huxley versus D. H. Lawrence
3. Huxley versus ‘the Jazz Age’
First, what literary debts does Huxley owe? There are many but the only one he acknowledged was to H. G. Wells whose Men Like Gods (1923) Brave New World specifically controverts (or whose ‘leg it pulls’, as he put it).3 Huxley objected to the conflictless nature of Wells’s utopia, inhabited as it exclusively was by Aò specimens of humanity. But despite his proclaimed differences with Wells, Huxley took over from the other author the idea of the supranational world state and its Controllers’ Council (both writers were inspired by the recently set up League of Nations). It was very much a vision of the time and the time’s thinkers were in two minds as to whether superstates were a good thing or not. We’re still in two minds (viz. the recent fierce pro-and-con ‘debates’, currently raging as I write, over the European Union).
In an essay in Tribune in January 1946, George Orwell inferred that Huxley ‘must have come into contact (presumably via French translation) with Yevgeni Zamyatin’s anti-Soviet-totalitarian We (Nous Autres)’. This source seems unlikely, or not as important as Orwell thought (he was currently meditating Nineteen Eighty-Four which is very derivative of We). Brave New World’s strongest pedigree line seems to ascend via Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes (1910) to the nineteenth-century socialist fables of Edward Bellamy and William Morris. But Huxley was strongly antipathetic to the politics of Fabian utopianists like Wells and George Bernard Shaw (‘one of the very few writers whose works have been permitted to come down to us’, as the D.H.C. (Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning) piously notes in Brave New World). He was equally opposed to what Daniel Kevles has called ‘Reform Eugenics’5 – those who believed that society could be improved by human breeding programmes. But Huxley nevertheless borrowed plot devices from all his opponents. Call it eclecticism.6 No novel carries the sign ‘plot-lifters will be prosecuted’. Huxley is a great pilferer. Forgivable because he invariably improves what he pilfers.
A number of commentators have noted Huxley’s manifest indebtedness in Brave New World to Bertrand Russell’s popular treatise, The Scientific Outlook (1931) which was published almost exactly at the moment Huxley began writing (his biographer, Sybille Bedford, records that he began work on Brave New World in April 1931 and completed it between May and August of that year). Philip Thody, in a jaundiced review, asserted that ‘so much of Brave New World resembles The Scientific Outlook that one wonders at times if Huxley put any original ideas at all into the book’.
Thody is too hard. But Huxley clearly plundered Chapter 15 of Russell’s book, ‘Education in a Scientific Age’. Russell here departs from his expository mode (he was an incorrigible pontificator) to try his arm at a satirical prophecy about the socially engineered and class stratified society of the scientifically managed future. Children, he predicts, will be conditioned ‘some time before birth’ (by ‘thermal treatment of the embryo’) for their station in life. Manual workers (like Huxley’s Epsilons) ‘will be discouraged from serious thought and in general will be bred for patience and muscle rather than brain’. The society of the scientific future will be tranquillized by ‘new forms of drunkenness’ (i.e. ‘Soma’ in Brave New World ).8 The only problem in this perfect world state will be ‘the psychology of the governors’ (i.e. disruptive Alpha-pluses, like Bernard Marx in Brave New World ).
If there were patent-protection in fictional scenarios any lawyer would have taken Russell’s case. The whole framework of Brave New World is to be found in the fifteenth chapter of The Scientific Outlook. But the two writers’ conclusions are strikingly different. Huxley’s narrative ends with the demonstration of the scientific state’s invincibility. John Savage is dead. Helmholtz and Bernard are banished to where they can do no harm. Russell – having mischievously sketched out his scientific utopia – concludes that it would ultimately be destroyed by its own repressed libido and humanity’s invincible irrationality.
HUXLEY VERSUS HENRY FORD
The epigraph to Brave New World is taken from the Russian religious philosopher Nicolas Berdiaeff and his assertion that ‘les utopies sont re ́alisables’. Utopia, in other (English) words, is nigh.9 Other fabulists were more telescopic in their visions. Social perfection, for them, was far from nigh. Bernard Shaw, for instance, in Back to Methuselah (1921) conceived of human apotheosis – but some thirty million years in the future. In Last and First Men (1930) Olaf Stapledon foresees the end of evolution some two billion years hence. By contrast Brave New World is set in ‘AF’ (i.e. ‘After Ford’) 632. Given Henry Ford’s birth in 1863 this means a narrative time setting of AD 2495 – virtually the day after tomorrow in SF’s cosmic chronologies.
At the leviathan level of global-scientific organization there are two principal tools used by the masters in Brave New World. The most powerful is ‘Control’, as opposed to ‘Government’. At this period of his life Huxley was a student and disciple of Pareto’s General Sociology. He pays glowing tribute to the philosopher in the preface to Proper Studies (1927), the only thorough and extended exercise in social theory he ever wrote (in it he says, ‘the author to whom I owe the most is Vilfredo Pareto’). In Pareto’s model the state eventually comes to be ruled not by ‘lions’ – dictators, that is, possessed of brute force – but by ‘foxes’. Foxes operate by secret manipulation and guile. They are men without idealism, or ideology, interested only in management. Keeping the show on the road.
Brave New World is run by ten such ‘World Controllers’. Their rule, as evident in the final judgements on John Savage, Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson, is cynical but benign in a vulpine kind of way. They use their principal instruments of control – ectogenesis (babies bred in bottles), hypnopaedia (sleep teaching), Pavlovian conditioning, tranquillizing Soma – for the good of the population as the Controllers conceive that good.
Like many European intellectuals of the day (notably Shaw), Huxley in 1931 attributed epic historical significance to Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, as the manifestation in political action of Pareto’s theory. In Brave New World, for all their faults, the World Controllers contrive to keep the intercontinental passenger rockets running on time, as Il Duce reputedly did the Italian trains.
The second tool for social control in Huxley’s dystopia is the universal application of the principles of ‘Fordism’. Whereas the workings of Pareto’s pervasive management machine are necessarily hidden from the duped subjects of Brave New World (who perceive only a ‘natural’ state of things, based on the proverbial ‘common sense’ they absorb hypnopaedically at night), Ford (‘Good Ford!’) has been elevated to the status of a deity. His My Life and Work (1922) is (hilariously) a biblical text. ‘T’ is as sacred a sign as the cross was two millennia ago.
By means of the Pareto and Ford apparatus, and with an ensemble of practical techniques furnished by modern science, a great stasis is envisaged in Brave New World. The biological motor of evolution has been stilled. And, at the level of human organization, democracy has been similarly ‘turned off’. The state, the nation, the individual have withered and been replaced by the benevolent assembly line, which imposes its own caste hierarchy, yields surplus value (‘comfort’ in Huxley’s lexicon), creates consumers for its products, absorbs energy without exhaustion. It is a system sans entropy. Time, to borrow another of Huxley’s titles, has found its stop.
Brave New World opens with a twisted Genesis, a trip conducted by its Director round the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in Bloomsbury. (The choice of site is sly, given the Bloomsburyites’ – Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, et al. – skittishness about physical sex.) In terms of narrative this opening is a fairly crude expository device (the tour d’horizon) of the kind ‘new world’ fiction is routinely obliged to resort to. But Huxley is an agile narrator and his precious tone (half Stracheyan belletrist, half Woolfian stream of consciousness)11 disdains by manner the barbarism it describes.
Commentators have suggested that Huxley is indebted for the ectogenesis gimmick (‘babies in bottles’) to J. B. S. Haldane and his essay-cum-fable Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924) Huxley, however, can claim priority for the idea. As early as 1922, in Crome Yellow, Mr Scogan outlines his vision of the future ‘Rational State’ in which mankind will be procreated from ‘gravid bottles’ in state incubators.
Huxley, whose mind was magnetically drawn to grand syntheses, combines a whole bundle of other innovatory techniques in his depiction of the future ‘educational’ (i.e. ‘control’) system. In vitro, the foetus, according to its grade, is subjected to ‘hard’ x-rays to retard or damage its development. Radiation-induced gene-mutation by the controlled application of x-rays was first demonstrated by Herman Müller in 1927. Huxley’s ‘Bokanovsky’ budding (i.e. cloning) process is a literary invention (at the time) as is the slyly named ‘Podsnap technique’ (after Dickens’s arch-hypocrite).
Once born, Brave New World infants are ‘conditioned’ on neo-Pavlovian lines, so as to fit the predestined roles society has planned for them. Mothers and fathers are obscene anachronisms. Huxley alludes, here, to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Education (1917–29) and his programme to replace the ‘bourgeois’ family by the modern Soviet state. More directly, Huxley took his ideas about conditioning from the American J. B. Watson’s Behaviorism (1924, revised 1930). Watson’s confidence in his power to predestine children is scarcely exaggerated by Huxley’s satire. ‘Give me a dozen healthy children’, Watson wrote, ‘well-formed and my own specified world to bring them up in’:
and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief – regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.
Youngsters in Brave New World are ‘taught’ largely by hypnopaedia, an idea which Huxley took from Pavlov’s writings on the subject. The notion of sleep-learning, the nocturnal voice in the sleeping ear, is elegantly at home in Brave New World, combining as it does passive consumerism with subliminal control.
In their daylight school-time the children of Brave New World indulge in de-repressive sexual play. We encounter them doing this in the chaste surroundings of what Huxley’s contemporaries would have recognized as Coram’s Fields – the best known children’s refuge in London (adults are not allowed in unless, as the signs say, ‘accompanied by a child’). Huxley had in mind Bertrand Russell’s scandalous Beacon Hill school, founded in 1927. As R. W. Clark recalls in his biography of Russell (1976):
The sexual freedom of the school was a subject of constant prurient amazement. The children were allowed to remove all their clothes in the summer if they wished to, especially for outdoor dancing and exercise. Special sex instruction was never required, since fundamentals were incorporated in biology lessons.
Compare the opening of Chapter 3 of Brave New World:
Outside, in the garden, it was playtime. Naked in the warm June sunshine, six or seven hundred little boys and girls were running with shrill yells over the lawns, or playing ball games, or squatting silently in twos and threes among the flowering shrubs. The roses were in bloom, two nightingales soliloquized in the boskage, a cuckoo was just going out of tune among the lime trees. The air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters.
The flaw in Huxley’s vision in Brave New World is the consolidation he assumes between eugenics, obstetrics, psychoanalysis, behavioural psychology, biology, pedagogy and so on. The tendency of scientific thought is schismatic and self-protectively compartmental. It is not collaborative by instinct; just the opposite. Pavlovians, Fordians, and Freudians are as likely to join forces as lions and lambs to lie down together. In the Hatchery, the eugenists work in the basement and their ‘colleagues’ upstairs do the conditioning, in an atmosphere of harmony. In the real world Watson’s theory of Behaviourism was polemically directed against the hated heresies of the eugenists. He would no more have teamed up with them, as happens in Brave New World, than he would have joined up with a circus hypnotist. The totalitarianism which Huxley depicts depends on a wholly improbable alliance of scientific schools and disciplines. What it reflects is less the future of civilization than the extraordinarily jackdaw quality of Huxley’s mind.