Grinnellians would be loathe to jam to Brave New World, but at least there I would have more than a snowflake’s chance in Hell with the book.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World remains a classic because its narrative world endorses and extrapolates contemporary grievances to the point of hyperbolic crisis. Unlike its peers–Fahrenheit 451 or The Time Machine–Huxley’s work strikes a chord of impenetrable sarcasm even while it envisions a reality chilling to the reader. This trait estranges it from today’s readership, who crave fantasy, but only in the declarative tones of the science fictions above or, more readily, a Harry Potter or a Lord of the Rings.
In the haziest clouds of the most common drug of today, I found myself appraising Brave New World to a young man who had spied the title upon the spine on my lap. I hadn’t anticipated relating British Lit to my present company. I had taken to the subject extremely heartily and preternaturally since starting Grinnell College. But something was off here. The youngsters around me in this chic den of ill-repute had no pretensions to prestigious degrees; “Self-Gov” meant nothing to them, though they got on well enough with “One Love;” and our blazing abstraction bore no homage to the moniker “social constructionism.” These kids just wanted to have fun, and I had no idea how Brave New World would get the party popping at Mother Turf’s underground concert. Grinnellians were loathe enough to jam to the novel, but at least there I would have had more than a snowflake’s chance in Hell with the book.
Perhaps the milieu that night–among stoners who, appearing in the novel discussed, would be described as pneumatic (i.e. charming, young, and fuckable); among bongs, psychadelia, and Grateful Dead posters–didn’t lend itself to literary talk, but the young person became defensive at my enjoyment of the text, and told me, in short, that he hated the book. He made little attempt to justify this, except to say that 1) the hypnopaedic (sleep-learning) indoctrination in the book had annoyed him and 2) the end would make the work contemptible even to me. Though my memory here becomes hazy, I believe that he abruptly turned back to his friends’ blazed chatter. I soon put away the book, which I had been using as a writing surface, and I packed another bowl to share among my friends, the philistines.
My obvious love for Huxley’s novel, the only one I’ve read—and at that point I was only halfway through it—did not heighten or diminish the shock I felt at his statement. I am grateful that Mary Jane’s waxy veil softened my distress, for I doubt troubling my neighbors over bookish merits would have gained me any friends at a party. My surprise, I suppose, is that he should have retained the concept of hypnopedia enough to have expressed his resentment of it–even under an influence so disorienting as cannabinoid. My own favorite subliminal aphorism was one he would have done well to recollect: “Was and will make me ill. I take a gramme and I truly am!” Take another rip, my friend! Don’t be so grumpy!
The greatest irony of my bacchanalic experience that late evening is one that may easily be universalized. The youth of today evade and aver concern, mimicking the sentiments of a Lenina or a Linda. And whether they lose themselves in marijuana, the current television revolution (on the TV and the Internet), or a pair of earbuds, the childish affect that today’s generations covet drives intellectuality and struggle into the abandoned corner of history. Brave New World is a serious amusement the public wishes to believe it has no use for. Of course, such a dismissal is unjust, in the most objective sense of that word.
The sleep-conditioned social catechisms for the youth’s sublimation recall good language. Many of these friendly reminders—“Science is everything!” “The more stitches, the less riches!”—the reader recoils from. They ring familiar to our educational economy, and we wish to prove them wrong. Huxley’s joke is and was reality to us, but we simply don’t like being laughed at, even when the grounds are evident. At these intervals, Brave New World assumes the guise of a tyrannical Mother Goose; but, as many of us never advance very far beyond Mother Goose, we don’t wish to be reminded of her, our own inadequacies, and what we believe to be our own individualistic strengths.
Huxley’s most clever thrust is memorability, a device honed to a blistering point. Out-classing (to this very day) its peers, Brave New World risks much and gains more by etching itself into history and the more limited scope of cognition. Shakespeare, Henry Ford, and original nursery rhymes find their way into its narrative. The book survives chumming about with the canonical greats by welcoming them into its humorous discourse; it doesn’t strain itself to out-verse the Bard, nor to out-enlighten the Gospel. Its saving grace is nimble, pervading all its diction, sacrificing no humility for the leisure of notability.
The professed disinclination of my acquaintance the naysayer was a case in point. But to consider his second suit: What is wrong with Brave New World’s swift conclusion? John commits suicide by hanging, after Lenina dies at the lash of his frenzied penitential whip. These are very disheartening circumstances and lamenting them merits no grudge from this qualified sentimentalist. But at stake is not a matter of feeling, but an issue of quality and even more provocative morality. I can’t begin to consider or contest the author’s liberty to do as he wishes with his own oeuvre, but, then, I remain optimistic that this was never contested, even in the rad den that got my gears grinding. Rather, a succinct paraphrase: Was the ending “bad”?
Huxley’s reputation and presentation, fictionally, nullifies suspicions of ineptitude. But even the author states in foreword to a reissue in 1946—15 years on the heels of first release:
If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between utopia and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity. […] Thus altered, Brave New World would possess artistic and philosophical completeness, which in its present form it evidently lacks.
In a later edition of Huxley’s masterpiece, the author and scholar accompanied the text with the supplementary Brave New World Revisited. Twelve chapters of social, scientific, and cultural theory extrapolated the course Huxley had observed the world trekking down, toward its Brave New World state; caution and reserve wrack him as he points new ways to save the West its world-controllers. If Huxley feared for the philosophical integrity of his earlier work of fiction, this kind of amendment risks none of the former incompletion. As blank-faced nonfiction, though, it is utterly inartistic, complete but soulless.
It is for this reason that I cannot agree that Brave New World might actually benefit from a “good” ending. Ignorance is not bliss. The idea of “completeness,” wholesomeness, is a high-minded notion, but when social commentary is concerned, a moral imposition of integrity neglects sensibility. The fiction’s drug “soma,” the ultimate guarantor of happiness by the gramme, mirrors misplaced right-mindedness. The demand for a peaceable greater good is a delusion that no drug nor logic can spontaneously generate.
In his book, Huxley meditates upon the affective communication of art that is not art (e.g. the cinematic “feelies,” soma-induced orgies called Community Sings). There, everything is tone and texture, a world of feelings, pleasure, and delight where “[t]here’s a love scene on a bearskin rug; they say it’s marvelous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects.” And “Orgy-porgy!” is as good as anthem. All is indulged in perfection; even the full range of sentiment is available at the clinic. But, really, the narrative tone, British sarcasm par excellence, brings a virtuoso’s graduation of notes and senses to the text otherwise artfully artless in its emptiness.
Christopher Hutchens introductorily describes Huxley’s style as a thinly-veiled projection of one “didactic and pedagogic and faintly superior: … the voice of an Etonian schoolmaster.” But I find none of the literary pupil’s discomfort in regards to Huxley. That he is British and well-read are perhaps the simplest facts in the upside-down wonderland we encounter here.
The tricky and trite author does little to mollify sour feelings. The somatic quality of the rocket-fueled future “After Ford” is a window into the coming days of a world bombarded by un-literary text that Huxley opens almost a half-century ahead of schedule.