A Brave New World

There was something called liberalism. Parliament, if you know what that was, passed against [sleep teaching]. The records survive. Speeches about liberty of the subject. Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.

You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.

Civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic.

I had to read A Brave New World over the summer before my senior year of high school, the first book for AP English. I hated it, and it was from that experience that I developed my theory that I had a natural aversion to books I had to read. (My love of The Great Gatsby is the exception that proved the rule.) While some of the books read for high school still hold no appeal for me, this is one I’ve been meaning in to re-read for some time now. As with Fahrenheit 451, 2018 seemed like an appropriate year to work through some of these classic dystopian stories.

The brave new world in this book is a perfectly stable global utopia achieved through artificial reproduction, genetic manipulation to create a clear caste hierarchy that descend from “alpha double plus” through “epsilon”, and conditioning to ensure the each person not only accepts their place in society, but embraces it as ideal. Free love is mandatory as a way to prevent jealousy and possessiveness, and everyone is regularly treated with powerful emotional stimulation and, more importantly, with doses of soma, a drug distributed by the state. Doped up by pleasure, people abandon interest in anything else.

There are drips and drabs of how this utopia that worships Henry Ford came into existence, a compromise after a series of destructive wars in the distant past. Despite genetic engineering, the world is not even. Places deemed too inhospitable are left as “Savage Reservations” and islands like Iceland and the Falklands, far from the Metropole, are the preferred landing place for people with mildly heretical ideas.

A Brave New World follows two arcs, tied together by the mildly unorthodox alpha, Bernard Marx. In the first arc, Bernard sets a date with the “pneumatic” Lenina Crowne. Lenina is herself under scrutiny for becoming too attached to her current partner, and so she sets to date the uncommonly short and aloof, particularly for an alpha. The arc concludes with the pair going on a vacation to the Savage Reservation in New Mexico. The second arc carries forward their return from New Mexico, taking with them a dark secret from another vacation taken decades earlier: a woman who had been left behind and the child she bore–not entirely by choice–against all strictures of society.

The narrative tension of A Brave New World largely centers on the fate of John, “the Savage,” and his choice between submitting to the constraints of a society that would provide his every pleasure and the pain of freedom. (In his forward to the volume I read, Huxley wrote that if he were to write the book over again, he would include a third option.) I appreciate Huxley’s social commentary more now than I did in high school. This new world is one of abject consumerism were it is verboten to repair an item when you could just replace it and maximum pleasure is the highest calling. Possessiveness breeds jealousy, pain breeds strife, and independent thought leads to both. Thus the central authority maintains its power by tamping down those instincts.

And yet, I found the characters rather flat and the plot thin such that it becomes reduced to a deterministic parable about freedom and happiness.

The larger question I had going into this book, though, was how it stacked up against Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. On the one side, A Brave New World shares with Bradbury’s dystopia an emphasis on pleasure and freedom from heretical thought, but the latter suggests communal enforcement. On the other, it shares totalitarianism with 1984, albeit one of a consumerist make.

1984 receives too little appreciation because it was assumed that it could never happen here where society is governed by liberal political institutions. (Note: this judgement may be undergoing revision in light of recent events.) Where the state in 1984 exploits difference, the one in A Brave New World has a single world state that erases them in any meaningful way other than caste, but then conditions each caste to appreciate its position in society—and then only see the world from the perspective of people in the top two classes. This is a world that doesn’t have to address the consequences of unapologetic waste and that has no enemies outside certain tendencies in human nature. In short, A Brave New World is a dystopia for a happier time.

ΔΔΔ

The semester is in full swing, but I’m still carving small slivers of time to read. I finished Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, a slim, irreverent novel about a poor family in small town Mexico with middle class delusions, and started reading Sarah Kendzior’s collection The View from Flyover Country.

American Doublethink

Doublethink, n, the acceptance of contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time.

Listing examples of modern American doublethink (as developed by George Orwell in 1984) in even a cursory manner would require too much time, but out of this past election cycle there has been one particular example bandied about with disconcerting frequency: the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

  1. Lincoln was a Republican.
  2. The Civil War was caused by the failures of (northern, Republican) leadership.

On the one hand, Lincoln has to be considered among the greatest US presidents for him to be worth claiming for his Republican lineage. After all, his face is on a mountain in South Dakota and he has a Doric temple that you enter through a queer side door to see him seated in all his majesty.

On the other, though, there are people who consider the Civil War to be a war of Northern aggression and certainly a trauma in American history that the country would have been better off avoiding. Clearly it was a failure that a forceful leader would have resolved in short order.

Now, I suspect that most people in America hold one or the other of these two positions, but both have been discussed by the president in just the last three months. I am horrified by the general lack of understanding about the historical evolution of the American party system and therefore seem to spend disproportionate amounts of time going through it with my students, but that is not unique to this particular situation. The collective doublethink that is fronted by the figure of the president I find more troubling. It is emblematic that 2017 is formally the first year of the post-fact era that had its soft opening some time ago.

Top novel summaries, 10-1

Here are summaries for 20-11 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here, summaries for 30-21 here and 20-11 here.

10. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
A dystopian novel upon which Orwell drew for 1984. The entire society has been turned into a panopticon–the city is surrounded by a glass wall, everyone lives in glass house, there is no personality or identity and society is designed solely for productivity, including sex and reproduction. The story takes off when the protagonist becomes interested in one person who does show individuality and decides to oppose the will of the state himself.

9. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
A close second to The Sun Also Rises for me among Hemingway’s novels, To Have and Have Not is on one level a story of rum running between Havana and Key West during the 1930s, but Hemingway manages to broaden the story and weave together the stories of several different male-female relationships that come to dominate the narrative. See a full review here.

8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gatsby is the only novel assigned to me in high school English class that I actually enjoyed and I have reread it twice in recent years (once for the purpose of teaching it to a class). I still feel a connection to Gatsby himself and Nick Carraway is still a creepy little man. Overall the story holds up well.

7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
Objectively, this may be Orwell’s best novel since 1984 may is at times over-blunt and simplistic. Set in 1930s London, his novel tells the story of Gordon Comstock, a young writer whose grandfather was wealthy, but the family has since frittered away the fortune and Gordon has declared war on money and the money society. Despite his best intentions, life has a way of drawing Gordon back to the money society that he detests.

6. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Jake Barnes is an American ex-pat living in Paris, impotent from a war wound suffered during World War One and he is in love with the twice divorced and again engaged Lady Brett Ashley. The story takes place between Paris and Spain, where the companions go fishing and watch bullfights and nearly come to blows over Lady Brett. The novel is loaded with themes, but the one that drew me most strongly was the relationship between Jake and Lady Brett and the affection and desire that is impossible to consummate.

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The story of the town of Macondo and the Buendia family written in parallel to the modernization of Columbia. It follows seven generations of the family, from the founding of Macondo through its expansion into the world and eventual decline caused by the arrival of a foreign fruit corporation that sets up shop in the neighborhood. I should also add that Marquez is one of the most notable authors in the Latin American magical realism genre that I have a great deal of fondness for.

4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
The Devil has come to Russia, wreaking havoc with the bureaucrats who don’t have the wherewithal to realize what is happening–only a small number of authors actually know this. The second setting for the story is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate and the decision to execute Jesus, which is the topic of the Master’s novel that has been rejected by the literary bureaucracy. It is a brilliant satire of the Soviet system and the conditions of the literati that reflect Bulgakov’s experiences in the Soviet Union and the book was banned for decades.

3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse
Like most Hesse novels, Magister Ludi is a story about individuals seeking enlightenment, this time through the Glass Bead Game, an exercise and celebration of pure intellectual activity in one of a select number of disciplines. Joseph Knecht, whose biography contains the greater part of the story, is a successful practitioner of the game at its home in the semi-autonomous province of Castalia. Members of the order of the glass bead game are supposed to find their strength and growth from inside the order, but Knecht finds himself questioning the validity of this approach, daring to broach the question whether intellectuals have the right to withdraw from the affairs of the world at large. These questions take on an additional importance since the contemporary backdrop for the novel was the rise of Nazi Germany.

2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
There are a variety of reasons why this sits so close to the top of the list even though I might recommend some of the books higher up over this one. The main reason is that it was a revelation, not of prophetic genius but of elegant writing and insights about humanity, when I first read it five or six years ago. I also maintain that the best known phrase “big brother is watching,” is a misleading interpretation of the work. Like other dystopian novels, Orwell draws out what happens when individuality and free will are eliminated from society, but the real terror of the book was not being constantly watched, but in the ability of a bureaucratic state to fundamentally rewrite existence as though the past never existed. Sure, the watching is a means of control, but to control the narrative is much more powerful.

1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
Kazantzakis advances the idea that though Christ may be free from sin, he is nonetheless subject to the rest of the temptations and concerns that other humans face, particularly doubt and depression. It presents a more human Jesus who is forced to overcome the same difficulties as everyone else in order to fulfill his role as the redeemer of mankind. One particular scene that has stayed with me since I read this book close to ten years ago (it is on my list to reread this year) is one where a disciple is recording the gospel at the direction of an Archangel when Jesus becomes enraged because the account is disingenuous, but is forced to accept that this is beyond his control.

When to Read

Rarely have I had an English class that I enjoyed. I liked the teachers, I liked many of the classmates and some of the activities and assignments, but I did not enjoy the class. This is perhaps because there was one assigned book (Shakespeare aside) that I truly enjoyed reading (and another two that I got to choose from a lengthy list). In part this could be the contrarian in me, but I see two larger systemic reasons.

The first is that I don’t like structurally analyzing literature. I’m sure that it has value and it is good to understand what a climax is, but I also steadfastly maintain that literature broken down into constituent parts loses something. Literature is story telling and is about drawing the audience in, so while breaking the story down some ways can help understand it better, other divisions end up leaving it empty. I want to experience my literature. In just one example, one of the reasons that I love 1984 as much as I do is that I have a visceral reaction to the story each and every time I read it. Few other books do that for me.

The second is a larger issue with teaching classic literature in high schools at all. While I do believe that there are great books, whether canonical or not, that everyone ought to read, I am becoming more and more convinced that high school is the wrong time to read them. However hard my teachers tried there were certain messages and certain elements in the books we read that I was only capable of understanding or absorbing in a shallow way. For some books that is still the case, and for others I will never really be ready (though accepting this as a basic truth actually helps make me able to read those books anyway). My point is that now, in my third year of graduate school (which is to say my fourth year out of college), I am realizing that I have more of an affinity for absorbing classic literature than I did ten years ago. Perhaps, then, English programs in high school would be better served finding creative ways to get children to read books of any stripe and let classic literature stand upon its own merit in the years to come rather than forcing people to read those books at a young age and thereby leave a bitter taste in their mouths.