According to Wikipedia, Huxley wrote Brave New World partly as a response to a 1935 trip to America, during which he was “outraged by the culture of youth, commercial cheeriness, sexual promiscuity and the inward-looking nature of many Americans.” While in many details, his fictional brave new world and our own differ, enough similarities have developed over the last forty years to justify my analogy:
In Huxley’s World State consumerism is extolled as the most exemplary activity. Its citizens are encouraged to buy new goods instead of repairing old ones.
Everyone in the World State is happy, thanks to soma, a ubiquitous government approved drug, and to an uninhibited indulgence in recreational sex. In the real world of the 21st century, anti-depressants, prescribed at the drop of a hat, are the equivalent of soma; and recreational sex, while still subject to some old-timey taboos, is actively promoted by the entertainment industry.
In the World State, it’s reprehensible to spend time alone. While it’s true that in our real world people probably spend more time physically alone than they did previously, they seem to have a compulsion to share everything about their lives, what they are doing and thinking even in their most solitary moments, with dozens, hundreds, thousands of other people, many of whom they do not even know.
In the World State, personal preferences that differ from the popular norm fill others with a sense of impending chaos. In our own world, the expression of quirky values, such as having no desire to watch “American Idol” or not using a cell phone, does not inspire panic, as in Huxley’s world, but does cause a certain amount of disquiet.
Our increasing use of artificial insemination eventually could lead to the equivalent of the World State’s “hatcheries” and “conditioning centers.”
In the World State, a person known as the Arch-Community-Songster is the equivalent of an archbishop (in Brave New World, there is a character known as the Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury). It could be said that, in our own world, when it comes to objects of popular devotion and fervor, celebrities, “songsters,” have replaced religious leaders.
(One amusing arabesque by Huxley in Brave New World, which is set in 2540 A. D., is the fusion of the historical figures of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud.)
Of course, there are huge differences between Huxley’s imagined world and our own:
In the World State there is a rigid caste system. Despite all our inequalities, in our world a certain degree of social mobility still is possible.
In the World State death is not feared and there is a uniform life span of 60 years. In our world, the fear of death – or, to put it more accurately, the desire to avoid death – historically is probably stronger than ever before, while the average human life span has grown longer.
In the World State there is no poverty, while in our world St. Matthew’s assertion that the poor will always be with us is taken as axiomatic.
In the World State any dissatisfaction with one’s lot, which does appear in an occasional individual, is an anomaly, the result of a glitch at a hatchery or conditioning center. In our world a healthy dissatisfaction with life actually is encouraged as an inducement to increased participation in consumerism.
There is one particular social feature shared by both the World State and our own state which imparts a kind of saving grace for each: participation is not required. In both Huxley’s imagined world and our own, it is still possible to drop out.
Such drop-outs, in Brave New World, are known as savages. The intersection of the savages’ outsider lifestyle with the novel’s integrated characters gives the book its story line.
In our own world, dropping-out generally is not an all-or-nothing choice as it is in Huxley’s World State. One can opt out of some aspects of our consumerist society and continue to participate in others. The older a person is, in our world, the more comfortable he or she is with remaining on the periphery of the juggernaut of popular culture. Older people are familiar and comfortable with the ways of the pre-consumerist world, and therefore can pick and choose among what, to the young, are the seemingly irresistible allures of techno-entertainment.
But, while researching a news story – a local tragedy, which I won’t go into (because it’s local and without general significance) – I discovered that there still are young people who seem to have dropped out just as enthusiastically and romantically as young people did back in the 1960’s. Not to the extent of eschewing the internet, of course, otherwise I never would have found them, but still. . .
Take a look at this: It’s the “about us” page of a couple of ex-patriot 20-somethings, (surely they are no older than that) in Viet Nam, Nellie and Gavin Pelisi, who refer to themselves (it’s the only information on the page, other than their picture) as “proud slackers.” (The website is Nellie’s project.)
These kids are throwbacks to fifty years ago.
Check out Nellie and Gavin’s book list:
The first two books of the eight listed are Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Mind you, this is 2012! Under the Volcano, a book by Pynchon, and Catch 22 are also listed, with the Malcolm Lowry book evidently especially beloved. (Not unsurprising, considering Nellie and Gavin’s status as ex-patriots in a strange-ish land.) The remaining three are The Confederacy of Dunces, The Quiet American (again, unsurprising, given their locale) and a memoir of the Bosnian conflict by a British soldier – the only book on the list written after Nellie and Gavin were born, if I’m right about their being in their twenties. (The Confederacy of Dunces, while published in 1980, was written 10 years earlier.)
A look at a more complete book list, found by scrolling way down on the “About Us” page, only confirms these kids’ retro literary tastes.
Admittedly, their music list does not conform to the image I have of them as 60’s throwbacks:
Still, in a world of young strivers swept along in the consumerist craze for the latest i-phone and the latest anti-depressant and the latest entertainment sensation, full of anxieties about health and money and their old age, Nellie and Gavin definitely deserve a tip of this old-timer’s pork-pie.