Nov 38, 2013
Aldous Huxley’s death was overshadowed by Kennedy’s, but his artistic legacy lives on
Aldous Huxley was famous when he died on November 22 1963, but the coincidence of the assassination of President Kennedy that day meant that his death received less attention than it would otherwise have got. Perversely, however, the coincidence may now be working in his favour. But for that, I wonder if we would be writing articles noting the 50th anniversary of his death.
He made his name in the Twenties with witty and thought-provoking novels. They were conversation pieces; most of the characters practised the arts or aspired to do so. Others were scientists. Huxley was the grandson of T H Huxley, populariser of the theory of evolution and known as Darwin’s bulldog. These novels delighted me in my youth; they seem dated now, too wordy, and their comedy feebler than Evelyn Waugh’s. In the late Thirties, Huxley moved to the US, where he worked on film scripts in Hollywood. He wrote essays and books about his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, but few novels, and these poor ones. He seemed no longer able to care if X was in love with Y, or if Z was oppressed by his parents, and in the writer who has come to experience such indifference, the novelist is dead.
One book does survive. This is Brave New World, often, and with reason, compared to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both are visions of a horrifying future. Orwell saw a world dominated by three superstates, engaged in permanent warfare. Huxley presents us with a world government, all-powerful except in territories designated as reservations for “savages” who think, feel and behave like people of the 20th century. That is to say, they are still recognisable human beings.
In the world state, with its population divided from before birth into five castes (Alpha down to Epsilon), everything is geared to contentment; everyone is programmed to be satisfied with his or her lot. Families – those breeding grounds of love, aspiration, and strife – have been abolished. Sex is recreational, without emotional commitment. The drug “soma” induces a mind-state of empty bliss.
Readers today are likely to be puzzled by the importance Huxley attached to the motor industrialist Henry Ford, the presiding deity of his dystopia. The reason is that Ford was the pioneer of assembly-line manufacture in Detroit. Huxley wasn’t alone in being alarmed by the effect of such repetitive work on the individual; think of Chaplin’s film Modern Times. Moreover, as John Sutherland remarks in an introduction to the Everyman edition of BNW, what Ford wrote in his autobiography of “the nature of conveyor belt labour… is strikingly coincidental with Brave New World’s Alpha-Epsilon caste system”. Huxley got this wrong. Conveyor-belt labour is now performed by robots. And yet, when one thinks of the depersonalised nature of call-centre work, one may be inclined to say, the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.
Orwell’s dark view of the future envisaged a boot stamping on the human face for ever. Huxley’s view is every bit as frightful: he sees a perpetual mindless smile on that human face. The motto of the World Controllers is “Community, Identity, Stability”. “Identity”, one should say, has nothing to do with individuality; it means recognition of where you belong, attachment to your group. Well, we have our “Identity politics” today.
“The theme of BNW,” Huxley wrote in an introduction to the 1946 edition, “is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals, the application of the results of future research in biology, physiology and psychology.” This application would lead to “new totalitarianism… in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude”. Fanciful? Perhaps. And then you think of the rise of China: Community, Identity, Stability…
In 1946 Huxley thought that some characteristics of his “happier and more stable world are probably only three or four generations away”. “Nor,” he added, “ does the sexual promiscuity of BNW seem so very far distant. As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase.”
Huxley’s disturbing vision is now more credible than Orwell’s; we are more likely to be controlled by the provision of entertainment and stimulants than by brutal repression. However, in one respect, both Huxley and Orwell got it wrong. Both foresaw a totalitarian government; neither envisaged that technical innovations would lead to power seeping away from political institutions. Neither anticipated the irresponsibility of global finance or the subversive possibilities of the internet.
Dystopias are warnings, occasioned by an author’s alarm at current trends. We may now be sure that Nineteen Eighty-Four will not become a reality. But there is enough truth in Huxley’s vision to put us on our guard. Community, Identity and Stability are all words bandied about today as in the centuries AF (“After Ford”). So Huxley’s legacy is more alive than that of the US president who was killed on the same day that he died. Ars longa, vita brevis.
- Aldous Huxley: Prophet of our brave new digital dystopia (rawstory.com)