Monday, August 03, 2009


The 30th of July found the Monthly Book Group in exceptionally boisterous form, as they had their annual outing to the seaside. Was it the holiday spirit? Was it the ozone from the Portie shore? Or was it the effect of “Brave New World”? Whatever it was, they zipped around through space and time with reckless abandon.

Kicking off the seaside sports, the proposer said a Radio 4 discussion had stimulated his choice of book. What fun to read a book not read since his teenage years! Huxley, born in 1894, had come from a family of both scientific and literary renown. He went to school at Eton. He had lost his mother when he was 14, a traumatic event perhaps reflected in the treatment of Linda’s death in the book. In 1911 he had developed a serious eye illness, which was to affect him to various degrees throughout his life. An immediate effect was that he could not study medicine as he wished, but instead read English at Balliol. Another was that could not serve in the First World War. He had spent time working as a farm labourer at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell during the war, where he met his first wife.

However, his first proper job was as a schoolteacher teaching French at Eton, where he taught, amongst others, George Orwell, but he could not control pupils and gave it up after a year. He had published his first book of poetry in 1916, and throughout his life was to publish poetry, short stories, novels, travel books and drama, as well as philosophy and biography. He worked for a time in the 1920s in the Teesside chemical factory of Brunner and Mond, and was struck forcibly by its large-scale organisation. He wrote “Brave New World” in 1931 and it was published in 1932. In 1937 he left Britain, concerned by developments in Europe, to live in California. In the latter part of his life he became particularly interested in mysticism and in psychedelic drugs (with “The Doors of Perception” (1954) providing a name for Jim Morrison’s band). Part of his interest in drugs seemed to relate to the colour sensations stimulated in one with poor sight. He also wrote a utopian book in “Island” (1962). He died on the 22nd of November 1963, the same day as John Kennedy and C.S. Lewis, after requesting injections of LSD on his deathbed.

Did “Brave New World” really work as a novel? The plot was weak and there was little character development – was it indeed a novel? But perhaps one should not use “novel” as a value word, and argue about whether it was one – the question was whether it was a good book. There was no set of necessary and sufficient criteria for something being a novel – no essence. And science fiction had developed as a sub-genre of the novel, as had the dystopia.

Novel or not, the ending produced one of the most striking literary descriptions of suicide – perhaps the most striking.

A reader of “Crome Yellow” and “Point Counter Point” noted that these novels had distinct weaknesses because of their limitation to upper-class English life (but wait a minute, what about Evelyn Waugh? – don’t you have to write about the class you know?), their structure of many sub-plots without a main plot or central character, and an unnecessary prosy philosophising. However, in “Brave New World” Huxley escaped the English upper classes, and, although there were characteristic weaknesses of shifting the central character mid-story and philosophising towards the end, these were limited in the overall context. But “Brave New World” certainly did not have the gripping narrative drive of Orwell’s “1984”.

Well, did it work as science fiction? This question put our scientists into hyperdrive. He made much of television, helicopters, zips and Vitamin D, for example, but all were known or discussed in the 1920s. So Huxley was alert to the latest trends – but not totally visionary. Much more original was his vision of the chemical treatment of embryos to structure society, reinforced by sleep-teaching (“hypnopaedia”). This probably reflected his family’s expertise in biochemistry, though he had not anticipated current developments in genetics.

But, hold on, given the extensive satire about Henry Ford, was it not odd that the motor car did not feature as a means of transport? And that there was little sense of capitalism or of the ownership of possessions.

He certainly hadn’t foreseen the computer, nor the impact that the internet and its information flow would have on the ability of totalitarian societies to control their citizens. Although old books had been repressed, there was nothing of the systematic repression of information to be found in 1984. He also foresaw a society utilising technological advances, but in which further scientific enquiry had been rendered redundant and all originality stifled.

On the other hand, surely you should not judge the value of science fiction on its accuracy as a predictor? Science fiction was a work of the imagination, illuminating possibilities implicit in the present. “Dune” (Frank Herbert 1965) was a fine example of science fiction at its best.

Okay, how did it work as a dystopia? The trouble was that Huxley’s brave new world did not seem too dystopic. It was very different to the horror of Orwell's'1984' world. No violent repression. No executions. No poverty. Everyone happy in their assigned role. Little or no unhappiness. An island for dissenting alphas. All that free love with youthful, pneumatic beta pluses. And all that endless supply of psychotropic soma. In many ways it was more pleasant than the world of the Savage.

Ah well, Huxley had later made clear that he was positing a system in which totalitarians maintained control not by force (in the fashion of Stalin) but by manipulating the governed into consenting to be governed by them. “Government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.” (“Brave New World Revisited” 1958).

This was a different model to that of '1984', but in principle an equally sinister one, and one that might prove more durable. As Huxley wrote to Orwell:

"Within the next generation I believe that the world's leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience."

Well, yes, but it still does not seem sufficiently unpleasant to validate his thesis. Huxley’s protests that happiness alone was not enough did not sound totally heartfelt. He sets up a dialectic, but never reaches a synthesis, a middle way. Indeed there was no real conflict. And Huxley had later acknowledged that he had been ambivalent about the brave new world he had imagined.

It was perhaps not surprising that the world of 1931 saw Huxley write a famous dystopia – given the the Russian Revolution, the aftermath of the First World War, the Crash of 1929, emerging fascism, and science apparently running out of control while religious faith was disappearing. Huxley’s other early novels show a sense of lost direction and uncertainty – as in Yeats’ famous lines:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

So…not much of a novel, not outstanding as a prediction of the course of science, not a particularly unpleasant dystopia and not a fully thought through philosophy. Did it really deserve to be such a renowned book in 2009?

On balance we felt it did. It was outstanding as a playful creation of the imagination. It was full of wit, ranging from playing on the names of communists for leading characters such as the pneumatic Lenina, using Henry Ford as the basis of a new religion, making fidelity immoral and reference to the family obscene, inventing garments such as pink zippicamiknicks, and weaving Shakespeare and the Tempest into the plot. It created a convincing and provocative alternative world. And it did persuasively convey serious messages about the dangers to freedom of genetic and psychological manipulation.

Following this high-octane discussion, your correspondent paused to rest, refuel on grape-based soma, and furtively scan a dictionary for the meaning of “dystopia” (a form of indigestion?).

Having rather overdosed on the soma in the best Huxley style, the rest of this record consists only of the fragments of the soaring philosophical discussion I can recall:

“a clear, engaging, simple style of writing. Very easy to follow apart from all these disjointed bits of conversations at the end of Chapter 3. Had to read them four times to understand them…"

“ I can understand his idea of the soma orgies. It reminds me of what I feel in the crowd when H…….n score a goal..."

“ we thought we invented sex in the sixties, but reading Huxley’s novels you see that they thought they invented sex in the twenties..."

“but when do H…….n ever do that? and do they ever get a crowd?"

“ no they didn’t, not in the twenties"

“often I sit next to women in planes who spend the whole journey reading 'Hello!' magazine. Isn’t that just soma?"

“yes they did – it was the jazz age”

“…well, at least they’re not in court with the Revenue suing to wind them up like H….s”

“aren’t there lots of drugs to help you reach utopia today – slimming pills, tanning studios, drugs to take before exams…”

“well they didn’t in Edinburgh”

“ and I thought you were a liberal…”

“Orwell claimed to be looking forward 35 years whereas Huxley was looking forward 600 years. Perhaps the invention of soma to control the populace is still to arrive”

“ it won’t do for Huxley to claim that he was shocked by American consumerism and easy morals, and thought drugs such as soma are a terrible thing, for all he writes about is sex and then he upsticks to live in America and do drugs….no consistent philosophy there…”

“when Huxley experimented with drugs many people believed that – at least in moderation - psychedelic drugs were not harmful. You wouldn’t think that now"

“but we already have soma. Isn’t living on benefit and alcohol in front of TV just like keeping the lower classes happy on soma…”

“well sex didn’t reach Edinburgh in the sixties either”

“ if you’re an alpha can you enjoy free love with all the other classes? I liked the outfits of the deltas…alphas only seem to want to do it with betas, and alphas only seem to be male –was Huxley being sexist?..."

“ oh yes, you might. We’ve become so politically correct about disapproving of drugs. Legalise them and crime will drop dramatically. Much of the repression of drugs round the world was the result of pressure from American Prohibitionists”

“ Talk about Hello!” magazine – what about beer and football?”

“well, you do have to be careful. I was out walking in Amsterdam recently, just looking around, as one does, when I came across a little cafe…I ordered my usual 'carrot' cake, as I know how to handle myself in these places, but soon staggered out to be violently sick…”

“you’d have thought Huxley who came from Hampshire would have known how to spell ‘Bordon’"

“you’ve forgotten about Marx’s fling with the Headmistress of Eton, she sounded pretty alpha...”

You get the picture – a typical Monthly Book Group jaunt to the seaside. I tried but failed to pour myself another glass of soma. Fortunately my neighbour pointed out that this was because the top was still on the bottle.

“it must have been the carrots”…

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