What Huxley’s Got on Orwell

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Aldous Huxley wasn’t as good a writer as George Orwell but in several ways his Brave New World exceeds the prescience of 1984.

Huxley understood how society would respond if the laws of human ecology were to change. In a mechanised age, useless activity would become a necessity, while medical revolution and sexual deregulation in turn become the germ of totalitarianism. Orwell and just about everyone else since have had the opposite idea – that the libertines would be the liberators – and the fever-pitch of this very delusion forms the central tenet of Huxley’s dystopia.

Both visionaries describe state censorship, but in Huxley’s Brave New World one recognises eery pre-echoes of ‘Woke culture’ of an opiate-addled society which has to conceal its own operational ethos from general consciousness in order to keep itself functioning smoothly. 

With Orwell – the human struggle is represented as Man versus The State. Huxley recognised, as we are now encouraged not to, that society is the product of biology and, provided that people’s biology can be conditioned correctly, the state can foster grass-roots totalitarianism without the use violent coercion.

Neither dystopia has been fully realised – but in Orwell’s case this has been because progress has provided its own remedies (nobody could have imagined in the 1940s that telescreens would also be a conduit of private interaction for dissenters’ online discourse). One gets an unsettling feeling that Huxley’s medical dystopia is still developing in 2021 with no solutions in sight.

Rather than solve the riddle of human happiness, the citizens of Brave New World condemn those who fail to gloss over their displeasure with life through the mollifying comforts of sex and tranquillisers. Science becomes a branch of pragmatism, wielded by social engineers who can no more observe their own fields than look at their own eyeballs.

We are left with the question of how an outsider, possessed of higher directives than his own hedonism, might react to such a society?

Huxley answers this by introducing a Linda and her son, John, who live in a ‘savage reservation’ where medical advances have not been imposed. Traditional sexual morality is thus observed by the occupants along with – shudder! – family life and religious practices and other pursuits which lend meaning to their backward lives. 

Linda arrived in the reservation by accident, having been born and acculturated in the ‘civilised world.’ She teaches her son how to read, but brings them both into disgrace with her promiscuity, so that John retreats into the comforts of a book which happens to be ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.’ In Shakespeare, John finds the words that enable him to assert himself both on the reservation and – to the curiosity of his minders – when he finally returns to civilisation.

I sense that Orwell would have furnished John with a lowlier reference-point to human nobility and driven the same points home more poignantly with a dog-eared copy of Paris Match. But, as I said, Huxley was a better visionary than he was a wordsmith.

Once in the ‘civilised world’ John falls in love and faces a problem which, less than a century after Huxley’s work was published, defines what is perceived as a ‘crisis of masculinity’: how to court a woman who gives herself out to dozens of men regardless of merit. Unable to disabuse himself of his chivalric values – and unwilling to accept her worthless sexuality when she freely offers herself to him – John becomes what we would now call a proto-“incel” and dies, as the carnal realists of the toxic chatrooms might anticipate, on the end of a rope.

Smokescreens of happiness and delusion are maintained with a tranquilliser called Soma. Much as anti-depressants are a major feature of modernity – their use strongly suggesting that they are employed where artificial economies and casual sex are normalised – one senses that we have not yet perfected the Brave New World’s capacity for total bafflement. Nor has any welfare state or medical advancement completely collectivised the process of raising children.

This tranquillised social order is upheld by World Controller Mustapha Mond, Huxley’s benign analogue to Orwell’s Big Brother and on that account one of the few people in this dystopia who has achieved any kind of true satisfaction himself. Mond’s discourses bring Huxley to the place of scientific observation in the stable technological order: 

‘once you start admitting explanations in terms of purpose – well, you don’t know what the result might be…’

In other words: Heaven forbid anyone should question the dogmas of settled science.

In terms of who may be allowed to see through the delusion, Mond likens the social hierarchy to an iceberg – with 10 per cent above the surface and 90 per cent below. Maverick, enquiring minds must either be sent to isolated communities or – like himself – shoulder the burden of everyone else’s delusion.

Despite Orwell’s predictions of people cowering under state tyranny and violence, Huxley’s work remains the creepier for its ability to get under the skin of the liberal society that we find familiar. 

How much worse is it to read of a dystopia in which, by our own liberated will, we are complicit?