“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”
These lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” are often quoted, but seldom taken to heart. Even those of us who consider ourselves students of Eliot’s work on civilizational decline tend to overdramatize what is really a quite tawdry cultural age. Many of us (including me) are wont to paint our predicament as one of Herculean struggles against a great and towering foe who will bind us tightly with chains of overt oppression. We wish to see ourselves as heroes in some dystopian novel, fighting, even if hopelessly, to restore humanity’s recognition of the importance of dignity, responsibility, and recognition of the natural order of existence. For good and ill, the reality is neither so dramatic nor so exciting.
The brutal, dishonest, and omnipresent oppression of Orwell’s 1984 or the aggressively conformist, anti-intellectual violence and bullying of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, with its “firemen” burning the books and homes of those who dare seek to salvage a life of the mind, seem to many of us a more likely, even comforting vision of where our society is headed than is the sad, self-indulgent reality. For, where Orwell and Bradbury give us grand drama and the possibility of heroic resistance, the reality today is more self-inflicted and banal. We clearly are a less free as well as a less virtuous society than we once were, but we live in no Soviet-style tyranny. Fires and firing squads rarely await those who challenge the orthodoxy of liberal America. Far more likely is the bland, if excruciating, visit of the IRS agent, sent only to “make sure you are not being partisan,” lest you be put out of business, or “counseling” for the politically incorrect child or parent. Bankruptcy, browbeating, and shunning are painful and, under these circumstances, unjust. But, sadly, they lack drama and its accompanying possibility to generate public empathy and reasoned resistance.
When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New Worldin 1931, the West was in the throes of economic depression. Centralized industrialization, like the first war of “national liberation” (World War I, with its goal of national “self-determination” and “making the world safe for democracy”) had failed the people, launching them into a chaos of unemployment and class and ethnic strife many claimed presaged apocalyptic disaster. Yet Huxley’s dystopian vision was not one of particularistic violence and want, but of peace and plenty. The result is a book that speaks much more to our current predicament than the more dramatic visions of Orwell and Bradbury (so well drawn for the age of hard, Soviet totalitarianism), and a vision that, when combined with Huxley’s sequel, Island, betrays the assumptions and fantasies that have made dystopia all-too-imaginable.
We should see ourselves in Huxley’s caricature of a peaceful, prosperous society; indeed, we should see the very dreams of liberal culture made real. People are kept happy through psychological conditioning, responsibility—and meaning—free sex, and a plethora of diversions including games and, of course, chemical “vacations.” Peace has been achieved by world governance, with the problems of local administration and the bother of neighborliness and public responsibility eliminated. Plenty has been achieved by strict management of the population—2 billion people populate the Earth, no more, so we now have the “balance” so many environmentalist radicals demand.
And how has this all been realized? Science, of course. Most important, childbirth and child rearing have been finally and fully separated from familial relations. Children are not merely brought up by the state, they are created by the state and programmed, pre-birth, to fulfill and enjoy the role “scientifically” chosen for them to play in a thoroughly planned economy. There is no government oppression in the Brave New World, only therapeutic “help” and encouragement to consume and play.
Huxley doesn’t even give us the pleasure of a grand struggle, with misfits and malcontents standing up for human dignity. His heroes are a neurotic and self-centered technician, a confused “savage” raised on Shakespeare who ends his own life out of disgust and an aversion to fame, and a scholar who accepts an easy exit to a kind of exile colony where he can pursue his own interests. And the world state goes on, swallowing higher longings into a pit of mass conformism or spitting them out onto various forms of quaint reservations for the few whose intellectual proclivities make them unsuited to its “good life.” As for the highest callings, faith and religion have been stamped out through biochemical and consumerist means. Not even an underground church has survived; apparently too few people with the attention span to consider the infinite remain and they have too little tradition on which to call in formulating a way of life or even point of view incorporating our natural orientation toward the divine.
The non-climax of the book is in its way entirely appropriate to our spiritually and culturally impoverished age. It makes more, and less happy, sense, however, when one looks more deeply into Huxley’s own thought and purpose in his literature. For, where Brave New World clearly presents the dark side of scientism and the conformist pursuit of individual pleasure, his elimination of theological understandings and pursuits is no mere plot device or indication of his dystopia’s impoverishment. Rather, it is an indication of his own view of the nature of the person and his ultimate end.
Island is not a sequel to Brave New World. It is, however, a logical extension of Huxley’s concerns as an author and a theorist of human nature and the common good. In his less known, final novel, Huxley presents his vision of a truly good society. The Island of Pala is a kind of neo-Buddhist paradise, at least as Huxley seems to view it. In many ways it is the mirror image of Brave New World, complete with hallucinogenic drugs, economic communalism, loosening of family ties, and “free love” encouraged through the universal availability of contraception. The difference between Pala and the Brave New World? An emphasis on humane methods, voluntarism, and a more robust individualism rooted in a conception of each person as intrinsically complete, though in need of self-knowledge. A kind of 1960’s era “utopia” of psychedelic and faux-Eastern pursuits is the result. That is, what Huxley actually looks to achieve is simply a kinder, gentler, and more enlightened “voluntary” empty, self-involved grouping of beings. As always with such progressivist utopianism, left unanswered is the question why humane, voluntarist structures would exist, particularly over the long haul, given the natural tendency all of us have toward selfishness. Faith in Man—provided that Man is properly programmed through inculcation of the author’s ideology—remains the central conceit of modernity. It is instructive that Huxley could glimpse half this truth, and so give us a highly relevant dystopia, yet miss the other half—the limits of the supposedly natural pursuit of self-knowledge—and so give us yet another trite, self-indulgent and unconvincing portrait of utopia.
In more than one place Eliot pointed out that cultures need not succumb to violent death; they can die of their own, internal causes, sinking society into a death-like boredom that may last for centuries. The Brave New World is a culture of supreme boredom; and what makes the boredom worse is the hopelessness arising from the fact that the people are too craven and self-involved to notice. What makes this portrait of our society worst of all is that even the author was unable to notice the roots of the dystopian society in the substitution of self for God, of mind-altering drugs for spiritual experience, and of overly-intellectualized communalism for the habits, traditions, and very practical love (as well as the myriad problems) of genuine family and cultural life.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 24, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.