Of late, I’ve found myself returning quite frequently to the thoughts and words of two literary giants of the 20th century—Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
Every few days, on some issue, on some extended debate (usually in the social media), I find myself murmuring to myself, ‘O Brave New World, that has such people in’t!’ and it is not Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest (whose words these are originally) that I’m referring to, but Mr Huxley’s 1934 masterpiece, that in time-honoured tradition referenced the Bard’s words in his title. Or, alternately, I think of Napoleon, and again I’m not thinking about the French Emperor, but the eponymous pig who’s eventual lord and master of Animal Farm, I mutter ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’, and I doff my imaginary hat to Mr Orwell’s creative genius.
I can imagine it isn’t quite a simple matter to write a dystopian novel, set in the future. You could get it horribly wrong, couldn’t you? After all, what you do know is some parts of the present and the past: the bits of the present you have observed for yourself through your particular subjective filter, and the versions of the past you happen to have read and reflected upon. To then extrapolate to what might happen a century out, select which of the current trends in their infancy are likely to branch out and bear fruit, which ones will die an inevitable faddish death, and which ones will sustain unchanged as they have done across the centuries…that is no easy task. In Brave New World and in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Messrs Huxley and Orwell got plenty wrong, sure, but what they got right, they got frighteningly right.
Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963) was a gentleman, born in a family of high intellectual accomplishments. His grandfather was a zoologist of some repute, his father was a writer and schoolmaster, his mother founded a school and his brothers were outstanding biologists. Due to an eye disease in his childhood, he couldn’t follow his family into medicine (and he couldn’t’ serve during the First World War on the same grounds)…but medicine’s loss was literature’s undoubted gain.
Huxley’s early novels were social satires (Point Counter Point is a very good example). ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ is pacifist in theme. ‘The Doors of Perception’ recounts Huxley’s experiences taking psychedelic drugs (and it is from this novel that Jim Morrison took the name for the popular rock band ‘The Doors’).
Huxley moved to the United States in the late ‘30s and lived in California till his death. He was a successful Hollywood screenwriter (helping write the screenplays for Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, both filmed in the ‘40s).
Huxley had a strong connection with India. He was a close friend of J Krishnamurti and the two exchanged several letters, engaging in various debates around spiritualism and humanism. He wrote an introduction to J Krishnamurti’s ‘The First and Last Freedom’. Huxley also became a strong adherent and proponent of Vedanta, under Swami Prabhavananda.
In his book, ‘The Perennial Philosophy’, Huxley presents his understanding of Vedanta in four fundamental doctrines:
‘First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness—the world of things and animals and men and even gods—is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be nonexistent.
Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine
Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to untie knowledge of the Divine Ground.’
As an essayist, humanist, pacifist and explorer of the boundaries of science, philosophy and human society, Aldous Huxley was recognized as one of the greatest intellectuals of his age. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times and was offered a knighthood, which he refused, without ascribing a reason.
But it is his dystopian novel, Brave New World, published in 1931, for which Aldous Huxley is most renowned, and it is to the ideas in this book to which we turn in this article.
Eric Arthur Blair (1903 – 1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was born in India. His father worked in the Indian Civil Service (in the Opium Department!) and his mother grew up in Burma. As a one-year old, Orwell was taken back to England, and he returned to serve with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma between 1922-26. While Orwell was also a member of the upper class gentry, the family was quite impoverished in George’s time and he described himself as a member of the lower-upper-middle-class (in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’)
Orwell’s books, read in chronological order, reflect the fascinating development of a curious, passionate and devastatingly honest intellect.
His first novel ‘Burmese Days’ takes a hatchet to the contradictions inherent in the British Raj, and the pretensions of English society in India. He calls it ‘an unjustifiable tyranny.’ Elsewhere he has this to say: ‘Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation—an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.’
After returning to England, still in his mid twenties, Orwell decided he had to find out about the lives of the working class and the poor (then numbering in millions during the Great Depression) first hand. He dressed up as a tramp, stayed in boarding houses and worker’s lodges, went down coal mines and spent months in squalid, run-down miners’ cottages. ‘Down and out in Paris and London’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ are incredibly vivid, first-hand accounts of the desperate condition of the working class of the time. In typical fashion, Orwell pulls no punches: some of what he says are broad, sweeping, generalisations that one just cannot accept, at least in entirety; there’s a fair bit of polemic and invective, and his targets are many; but there is much in these novels that rings true and Orwell’s mirror to society is on the whole a true one, without too much distortion.
‘Homage to Catalonia’ is an account of Orwell’s experiences in the desperate Spanish Civil War, a time when revolutionary ideals were rapidly being stamped out under the Fascist jackboot.
‘Animal Farm’ is a brilliant satirical take-down of Communism, especially of the Stalinist variety: It is one of those books that you can never forget, once you’ve read it. Orwell was a lifelong Socialist, but he was especially critical of heavy-handed ways to trying to enforce Socialism, preferring to argue for democratic socialism, and appealing to the exploited across all classes to make common cause. ‘…we could do with a little less talk about “capitalist “and “proletarian” and a little more about the robbers and the robbed. But at any rate we must drop that misleading habit of pretending that the only proletarians are manual labourers. It has got to be brought home to the clerk, the engineer, the commercial traveller, the middle-class man who has ‘come down in the world’, the village grocer, the lower-grade civil servant and all other doubtful cases that they the proletariat, and that Socialism means a fair deal to them as well as for the navvy and the factory-hand.’
And ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s last and final novel, is of course a clarion call, warning us of the dangers of totalitarianism.
THE TWO GREAT WORKS: ‘BRAVE NEW WORLD’ AND ‘NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR’
In Brave New World, future society is characterised by mass production and consumption taken to their seemingly inevitable but entirely logical extremes. ‘Ending is better than mending’ is a Government slogan in that world that encourages mass consumerism. It represents the use-and-throw culture that was at its infancy at the time the book was written, but as we have seen subsequently has quickly taken over, and not just to material objects like watches and wallets and shirts and spoons, but to careers and relationships. Huxley anticipates the use of eugenics to order society into predetermined classes, and the use of mass-consumption, mindless entertainment (‘feelies’ where you can experience what we might today call a 7-D film) and constant use of a happiness-inducing drug (called Soma), which keeps the citizens happy, brainless and orderly.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian state exerts complete control over its populace in a different way. Terms such as Big Brother (the constant surveillance and information control by the State), Newspeak (a language explicitly created to restrict freedom of thought and expression, by the elimination of ambiguity and nuance), Doublethink (a Newspeak word which allows you with perfect self-deception to claim, for instance, that Black is White, without dissonance) have passed into common idiom. In Orwell’s oxymoronic dystopia, the Ministry of Peace organizes and supports perpetual war, the Ministry of Plenty rations and controls food and goods, The Ministry of Truth constantly revises historical facts and controls news and information flow (essentially propaganda) and The Ministry of Love deals with law and order, including torture and brainwashing.
Today when I look around me, I can see elements of both dystopian worlds all around. Mass consumption? Mindless, perennial, perpetual distraction? Fake news? Fake fake news? Historical revisionism? Surveillance? Control of information flow? Drugs and psychotropic substance abuse? They’re right here, all around us.
The social critic Neil Postman contrasted the two worlds of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four in the foreword of his 1985 book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. This is what he had to say:
As we stand today in a world of infinite information at our fingertips, infinite distractions, States and Governments being about trustworthy as they always are (which is not much), and concerns about the impact of materialism and consumerism on our fragile environment, we would do well to reflect on the warnings that these two great men left behind for us.
PS: Huxley and Orwell knew each other well. When Orwell was at Eton, Huxley was his French schoolteacher for a year. As a literary critic of some repute, Orwell has written extensively on Huxley’s work, including on Brave New World. And when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Huxley wrote to Orwell, complimenting him on the power and creativity of his work and wishing him all success.
PPS: And to these two worlds, if we now add Margaret Atwood’s world in ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ and the misogyny and explicit gender discrimination that it so starkly portrays, we’ll get an even better simulation of the frightfulness of the ‘progress at all costs’ future that we must do everything in our power to avoid.
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