I remember writing Brave New World for my Key Stage 5 coursework aged 17. Guitar-playing and anti-industrialist (or at least I imagined so…), I enjoyed it as a foil to 1984, an often-expected contrast for city youth dabbling in literature. Returning to this twenty years later, I found my enjoyment deepened.
The first thought that struck me was how the text read like a Nolan film (or, rather, that Nolan films read like Huxley texts!). Like almost all 20th Century novel-as-social-commentary, the book is driven more by moral ideology than plot, its forward movement signposted better with interesting set-pieces than conventional story arcs. The free indirect narration (something I teach to my youngest students now) patterns the text well, contrasting the elegantly unsettling justifications of the director.
Huxley’s erudite introduction, more understandable now I am in my 30s, frames these social questions well. Rereading now, I am seized by this depiction of a society where the quality of life is simply happier, especially from the perspective of the community. However, the desire for flawed authenticity, and the cowardly failure of Bernard’s ambition to be authentic, still challenges us. We cannot help but see and desire a better world for everyone, as long as we ourselves aren’t pooling in predestined mediocrity.
The mantra of this world is Community, Identity, Stability. An unusual collection of abstractions, it is the final word that perhaps is most unsettling, suggesting forced stability. Nourishing communities are in short supply in the 21st Century West, especially whilst identities are freely buffeted by market forces. The farcical call to the neoliberalist deity – ‘Oh Ford!’ – condemns this secular society to a different kind of slavery, one that seems to repress authentic connection. Even now, the shocking scene with the ‘savage’s’ mother, repressively British in its repression of emotion, makes clear the flaws of this society. The extra dimension given in the past twenty is years the desire to eradicate privacy. Facebook take note. That everyone belongs to everyone else is an attractive notion to the broken communities of our neoliberalist world: that such belonging comes at the price of soma’d salaciousness is dangerously contentious.
Yet these inhumane systems of control do not seem far from lived experience in the West. Where the British are obsessed with their class system, I see instead a caste system. Even this morning the tabloids are running stories warning of the angst of traversing classes. Huxley, like the born Alpha he is, explores such class determinations with trenchant panache. Like Orwell, he reveals that it is very possible for society to organise working hours in a way far more efficient fashion, allowing its citizens more free-time for hobbies and reading. Yet with stark disdain, we are told that common people simply cannot fill their time productively, and indeed need a holiday from the empty angst of their easy lives(!). It is into this wasteful space that the masses indulge their physicality and lust. On the one hand there is an easy acceptance in how easily people become docile with pleasure; on the other we see a contest to the romantic ideology that experientialism matters most. Neither road is comfortable, and we are still left with questions as to what is good for the individual, and what is good for society.
It is into this space that Huxley positions the savage, his romantic anti-hero who pines for ugly, crooked teeth authenticity. I cannot help but admire this man railing against a perfectly conditioned world. Upon this reread I can see that it is Bernard’s privileged lack of conviction that makes the savage seem so potent in comparison: despite his position as an Alpha, his concerns retreat at the point of consequence. In comparison, the masses are conditioned not to mind their lowly status. In action, both are the same.
In literary celebration of the savage’s futile bursts of authenticity, Huxley foregrounds Shakespeare as the language of human experience. In his human complexity, we see the human face of Bradley and Hume’s philosophies. Do we believe and live based on instinct or reason? Yet is reason not entirely social? Do we even need reason to form authority for our choices, especially if they sit ill with the society in which we find ourselves?
Huxley’s questions are as worthwhile now as they were in the 30s. Without doubt worth a reread and a good chat afterwards!