Two novels from the twentieth century, each in its own way, stand out above all others as signposts of a kind on the human journey. Each was the kind of signpost which warns you of danger. One was clearly so. The other, more focused on the apparent progress and benefits to mankind of science and technology, was also a warning – although the extent to which its author was beguiled by those scientific advances himself is still something that is disputed.
The first is George Orwell’s classic nightmare, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, a nightmare which for a period of the 20th century seemed to have a real possibility of coming true. The other, written earlier, is Aldus Huxley’s “Brave New World”. It is another nightmare but one with elements which seemed to hold certain attractions for the author himself at the time in which he dreamed it up.
For any human being with a love for freedom, beauty and truth, both novels presented a shocking picture of a world in the future. The implicit message of both was that these were worlds in which we might all be living some day. Of the two, Orwell’s dystopia at one time seemed the more horrific and the more plausible. It was more so because of the spread of Stalinism across eastern Europe and the lowering of the Iron Curtain between East and West. But with the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war that threat of global totalitarianism seemed to fade.
The world portrayed by Huxley, however, has not only seemed to become more possible but in fact many of the elements on which it is founded seem already to have been built into our own way of life and become part and parcel of the very world we live in today – test-tube babies, genetic engineering, embryonic manipulation and all.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four the world of that year is described by Winston Smith, a disaffected bureaucrat and member of “The Party” who works for the dreadful Ministry of Truth. He explains its elements and the intricacies of “thoughtcrime”. “Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death.” The Thought Police who detect all thoughtcrime have two-way telescreens with which they monitor everything that happens in private and in public – and spies are everywhere. The Party is supreme and tolerates no opposition. Children are taught to inform from their infancy.
Smith’s life is devoted to revising historical records to match the official version of the truth as it is decreed at any time. It is a perpetual job and involves, among other duties, re-touching official photographs and deleting from the historical record people now declared to be “unpersons”. The Party’s slogan is “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” On that basis war is perpetually maintained between the so-called power-blocs of the world. Love is banned for all Party members – who are the elite and distinct from the “proles”.
In the course of the novel it is revealed that the motivation of the Inner Party – which really rules everything – is not its stated aim of achieving a future perfect society but simply to retain power. It becomes clear that what is really being engineered is a society where there will be no family, no love of any kind and a society where the “love” of Big Brother will be all. It will be a society without the slightest trace of mercy and one in which art, literature, science, any unorthodox thought or anything that would distract from devotion to the Party will be impossible.
I suppose most of us might have feared at some stage that such a society was a real prospect – and was indeed already a partial reality for people living in large swathes of the planet. We are now less concerned about that – with the exception of the fears we might have for the people of Afganistan of Pakistan should the Taliban prevail.
Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, seventeen years before George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book is now considered a classic but was criticized for a weak plot initially. It was shocking to many and was frequently banned. Many were not quite sure whether it was for or against the world which it depicted and for or against eugenics and drug-taking in particular. Was the brave new world a Utopia or a dystopia?
Whatever it was, reading it today there can be no doubt but that we have travelled far farther along the road to this world that we have to the world depicted by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The “enlightened” people in this brave new world – ironically the phrase is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest which, along with all of his works, is banned in the brave new world – live on “soma” and on blatantly carnal pleasure. “One cubic centimetre (of soma) cures ten gloomy sentiments” is the advice to someone who is a bit down. “A gramme is better than a damn” is the motto for someone feeling frustrated or angry. Does that sound familiar?
“There’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that’s what soma is.”
People in this world are manipulated into utter dependence on the system. In the novel Huxley portrays a society where stability and order are everything and are maintained by the sacrifice of freedom and all sense of personal responsibility. None of the people challenge the caste system where people are classified as Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and lower down the alphabet, according to their abilities, dispositions and docility to the State.
At the heart of this idea is the belief that technology is the supreme benefactor of mankind. Its God is Ford and the great gift of this God to mankind is the flivver – that is, the motorcar, standing in for everything that technology offers us today. “Our world is not the same as Othello’s world,” one the characters tells us. “You can’t make flivvers without steel – and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get.” And flivvers, standing in again for all our mod cons, can’t be repaired. “Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches.” That is another motto from Brave New World. Remember that the next time you bring your digital watch, your microwave or whatever, for repair and are told that to repair it will cost much more than buying a new one.
All this is the very same danger which Pope Benedict is drawing our attention to in his new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, where he tells us that “the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the “wonders” of technology, just as economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the “wonders” of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it. To this end, man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts.” But in the brave new world men and women cannot look inside themselves because there is nothing of themselves to look at. Superficiality is all and what is there has been put there by others.
And of course the God of the Brave New World is not a god at all. He is man himself: “The Gods are just. No doubt,” we are again told. “But their code of law is dictated, in the last resort, by the people who organize society; providence takes its cue from men.” An echo here of all those who go to our legislatures and leave their God outside the door as they go in to do their work in the name of harmony and stability and what they mistakenly call the common good by which they really mean the common denominator.
Education is, inevitably, a kingpin in the whole system and it is education with a terrifying agenda: “Till at last the child’s mind is (made of) these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too – all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides – made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… Suggestions from the State.”
All this, remember, is in the context of a total denial of human freedom”. Yet again we might ask ourselves the question, “Are we there yet?” Maybe not, but we need to ask ourselves if that is where we are heading – fast, with our eyes wide open. Huxley’s “brave new world” seems a much more imminent threat to our civilization today than the now happily faded dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four.