Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.
When it comes to critical theory there are, broadly speaking, two opposing schools of thought regarding how one should view a work of art – whether that be fine art, literature, film, music or a well-made lasagne. One side would argue that it is impossible to review a work outside of the contexts in which it was created; the contextual date provides valuable insight that can inform one’s perception of the work in question. The other side would say that this is exactly what ought to be avoided; that a work should be examined completely independently of context in order to judge it purely on it’s own merits, and that a critic should try their best not to have their opinions coloured by any extraneous information pertaining to a piece of work that does not originate within the work itself. As with many things, I usually fall somewhere in the middle of this when I review a book – I try to remain a little sympathetic to the environments and contexts surrounding the creation and release of a book as I read it and write about it in order to increase my understanding, but I rarely use this information to excuse the flaws of a book or to showcase it’s merits.
But rules are made to be broken, and as I was thinking about the imaginative scope of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, it struck me as a breathtakingly inventive novel even before I thought about when it was written. But when it is placed within this context it becomes, to me, more amazing and more interesting still. Consider at least the following two trivial details of his fictional society – the prevalence of helicopters as transportation for the rich, and the use of “synthetic bass” in popular music. Both of these things can be found in our present day society, and yet both were complete flights of fancy when he write the book. Consider also an important incident of history relating to one of the central ideas in the story. Between the book’s initial publication and it’s “Revisited” edition, a certain World War broke out in which the effects of establishing a caste-based hierarchical society were, for a while, made horrifyingly real. (As a result, Huxley later denounced the efficacy and moral substance of such a system.)
The details our author provides about how his future society came to be are both terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. Like the best of history, it’s like watching a car crash play out over many years; tragic but unstoppable, and grimly compulsive to read. This effect lingers even when examining the world he has created. As a writer, he somehow manages to conjure some impossible and horrifying concepts that shock the reader, yet also seem to tap into some fundamental ideas about how society and human nature could be optimised with the right tools to hand.
Huxley’s central idea is one which is ever-present in our own world: the benefit of society often matters more than the benefit of individuals, and this means that human behaviour must in some way be controlled for society to function. If people were allowed to do whatever they wished all of the time, it would lead to chaos and anarchy, which is something that most societies in our world expressly attempt to avoid. We all suppress natural whims and desires every day in order to make life easier. Think about all the times you wish you could scream at someone but don’t, times where you don’t say aloud what’s happening in your head, situations that you wish you could run away from but don’t – because we are given to understand that, in the grander scheme of things, it’s important that we don’t do everything we wish to do 100% of the time. The Alpha-Pluses in the novel, and therefore Huxley himself, explicitly state their sympathy with this view too, but it manifests in completely different ways. The extremity of conformity and state control exhibited in Brave New World may, in fact, promote the value of at least a little anarchy, even while demonstrating how calm a society can be produced under such extreme measures.
One of the most brilliant things about the novel is that though it contains a great deal of shocking, even appalling ideas, they are not there simply to shock; instead, they communicate the central themes of the novel with a swiftness and poignancy that could not be achieved otherwise. Some simply lay the foundations of the society, such as hypnopaedic teaching and the mechanistic nature of the caste system. Others are by-products of the society that act more as support structures, such as the blatant racism of the societal setup, erotic play among children and the widespread use of soma. I’m aware of how clinically I’ve just posed these examples, but the fact is I have to – these ideas are so abhorrent to me both in theory and in the practice of the novel, and yet so astonishingly cohesive and plausible in their narrative context that it made me slightly nauseous, but gave me pause for thought. Hypnopaedic conditioning flies in the face of how highly we tend to regard the value of freedom and personal autonomy, yet in pure terms of population control and satisfaction it absolutely works. The specifics of creating the caste system that open the novel are hugely unsettling, with their mix of scientific efficiency and complete disregard for any moral element that could interfere with it; yet it’s integral to creating the stable society Huxley presents. The way “everyone belongs to everyone”, the widespread use of soma, the religious services which are more like the masses’ opiate than I’m sure Karl Marx ever intended, reduces the population to babies; and yet when someone stands up and tries to explain to them how awful this is, it provokes nothing but derision and confusion in equal measure.
I’ve realised I’ve managed to get to the final paragraph without mentioning even one of the characters by name, which I think probably says a lot. They all have clever names that relate to real people somehow, and all are there purely to service the huge themes of the plot and communicate them to the reader, which they duly and effectively do. It was hard for me to really get attached to any of our London-dwelling characters though – to me, the hypnopaedic teaching that informs a large part of who they are is too high a price to pay for stability, and to my mind it actually robs them of a little of their humanity. That said, Bernard was a fairly compelling and nicely complex protagonist, Lenina was often fun yet frequently unsettling, and Mustafa plays a huge part in realising the themes of the work through an incredible discussion towards the end of the story which brings all the ideas at play to their natural climax. But it is John who fascinated me the most, and who utterly breaks my heart. His relationships to other characters were complex and interesting, and his willingness and ability to question the status quo made him able to legitimately voice ideas I had to other characters within the context of the narrative. But what truly convinced me of the book’s strengths were the way his character’s journey created narrative tension until literally the very last page, with the book reaching a crescendo of horror and despair before closing with a funereal sense of calm. It was during that calm that I realised the melancholy I felt wasn’t only for John, but also for all of the human race as they were presented in the novel. I know I don’t often say this at the end of my retrospectives, so I shall be completely explicit here: read this book, and then tell your friends to read it, because it’s the kind of book that significantly improves when you have someone to discuss it with. (It’s also much improved if you have a decent familiarity with Shakespeare, as I shall leave you to discover for yourself.)