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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Was and will make me ill, I take a gramme and only am.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Brave New World is about a dystopic utopia. It describes a world in which everyone is conditioned from birth (after being genetically engineered) to believe that they belong in their specific caste (Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, Epsilon) and therefore should perform certain duties and live a certain way. In this world, people are also encouraged to have sex often with multiple partners, medicate with a drug called "soma" each night and sometimes during the day, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that they are never alone. Bernard Marx feels out of place in this world, as an Alpha who "looks more like a Beta" and actually enjoys spending time alone. He even (gasp!) wants to be in a monogamous relationship with one of the women he dates. Lenina (the woman Bernard wants to be with) is pretty "normal" according to this society; she takes soma often, she spews the phrases she was conditioned to believe from childhood, and she sees little to worry about. She travels to New Mexico with Bernard because she likes him (despite what everyone says about him) and they travel to a "savage reservation". The reservation consists of people who were deemed "not worth civilizing" according to the government, and seems to strongly resemble a Native American reservation. Bernard is fascinated by the crassness of the reservation, while Lenina seems merely repulsed. While on the reservation, Bernard meets Linda and John. Linda was formerly a Beta, and she was left by the now-Director (back in London) when they were on holiday because he thought she died. Turns out, she not only wasn't dead, she was knocked up, and because she gave birth to a child (completely taboo now that everyone is born in a science centre from a petri dish, not in a woman's womb) she could not attempt to return to London and rejoin civilized society. Bernard loves this story because the Director (his boss) is trying to get him kicked out of London and moved to Iceland (because he thinks Bernard is weird). So when they return to London with John and his mother Linda, the Director tries to get Bernard moved to Iceland, and Bernard whips out "the Savage" and "his mother". Everyone is fascinated/horrified, and the Director is disgraced. For a while, Bernard is happy, finally achieving recognition and fame in the society which previously shunned him. He shows off "the Savage" as he refers to John, and Linda takes so much soma that she eventually dies. John eventually refuses to let Bernard keep showing him off. After the death of his mother, John attempts to make everyone realize how odd their lives are. He tries to stop the distribution of soma, and Bernard (and his friend Helmholtz) stave off the crowd, but John is ultimately unsuccessful, and his cries are drowned out by the microphone blaring a message of calm and goodness and the "police" spreading fumes of soma to calm everyone down. In this state of delirium, John, Bernard, and Helmholtz have a discussion with Mustapha Mond, the head honcho. This conversation reveals that Mond used to be a dissenter of the society, but was given the option of either being deported to an island or being promoted to Controller, and he chose the promotion. Bernard and Helmholtz are deported to an island, but they are not really upset, because the island contains all sorts of dissenters and non-believers and interesting people. John wants to go with them, but the Controller won't let him. John decides to live on his own and repent for having let his mother die from taking all that soma and attempts to live on his own from society. He is quickly the object of great attention, however, as his monkish existence and propensity for self-flagellation are observed by lurking reporters and distributed widely to the populace. John gains more and more unwanted visitors who want to see "the whip", in other words, they want to watch him whip himself. Eventually Lenina arrives (who, by the way, loves John. I forgot to mention this. Also, she tried multiple times (unsuccessfully) to have sex with him, but he only wanted to read her Shakespeare and talk to her, which she found quite distasteful and odd) and John, who associates her with smuttiness and all that is bad with society, whips her (and, I think, though I'm not entirely sure) kills her. The crowd that had appeared eventually abates, and when they return the next morning, they see only his feet dangling, evidence that he has, presumably in despair at killing his love, hung himself.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

You know, for some reason I think these plot summaries are getting longer, which is not my intention. I think I'm just having a harder time weeding out what details are important and what details are secondary.

I really didn't like this book. I won't go so far as to say that I hated it, as I did see some merit in it, but I just really didn't enjoy the experience of reading it, nor did I feel that I learned some crucial lesson from reading it. Now perhaps my view is sullied by the 75 odd years separating me from the original copyright date of the book, but if it's truly meant to be a "timeless classic" I think the book should still feel relevant.

Maybe I've just read too many dystopia stories back to back (1984, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies) but this one just didn't feel scary, or funny, or really anything at all. I felt no connection to the characters, particularly as the novel went on, and not only did I not like the society, but I didn't care what happened to any of the people in or out of it.

I will discuss some things I found intriguing, as any "classic" always possesses some intriguing qualities, even if I cannot give it a smashing review.

- Soma. According to Google, soma is "a muscle relaxer that works by blocking pain sensations between the nerves and the brain." The drug description also suggests that soma is extremely addictive, and therefore should be avoided by anyone with an addictive personality or a history of drug addiction. I thought the soma was interesting, mostly when Huxley described the soma as a way to keep people from ever really thinking about their existence or about the existence of a god. I also liked the weird nursery rhymes and songs focused on soma, like the one in the title that Lenina recites.

- Huxley describes various games and sports in the novel that the people are encouraged to play, such as Obstacle Golf, Musical Bridge, and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. Supposedly the sports are created so as to force people to consume as many products as possible in playing them, so simple sports with a single ball or a racket and a ball are eliminated. I thought this was pretty funny. I'm not sure what Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy looks like, but it sounds kind of fun.

- One of the major features of society is "the Feelies". Sorry if I'm about to offend anyone here, but the Feelies are basically 3-D porn. John attends them with Lenina, and is completely horrified. I suppose this is indicative of simplifying our society to the most brainless and purely pleasurable activities possible (sports and sex) but I really think that reading and alone time aren't valued highly enough. Besides which the Feelies sound pretty messed up.

- Everyone is "death conditioned" from an early age, so that they will view death as a normal part of the world. Children are exposed to the dying and offered treats on "dying days", like chocolate soma creams and scavenger hunts. When John comes to see his mother Linda as she's dying, the nurse is (1) confused that he wants to see someone who's dying, as it's so normal there's no reason anyone should be near anyone else when it happens and (2) worried that he will mess up the conditioning of the children. He ends up yelling at several children when they appear behind his mother's bed, chocolate creams smeared on their faces, and ask dopily, "is she dying?" The funny thing is, I'm not sure children really get dying, so the concept of death conditioning at an early age seems nonsensical to me.

- The idea of conditioning everyone not only not to be equal (they tried an island of all Alphas and they killed each other) but to be pleased and happy with their various levels in the caste system is simultaneously brilliant and morbid. But what I think was odd was that there was not only no real system of punishment, no fear that anything truly bad would happen at the hands of the government, but that there seemed to be no one pulling the strings. In Animal Farm, the pigs are all ruled by Napoleon, in Lord of the Flies, it's first Ralph, then Jack, but here, there seemed to be no one leading this complex system. Everyone was complicit in the continuation of the society, but no one person stood out. Maybe because I didn't really hate anyone, I didn't really like anyone either.

- Ford is used to replace God in every context. Presumably this is in reference to Henry Ford, the creator of the modern assembly line, and therefore an icon in a world where people roll off the assembly line in the factory. Characters frequently say things like "Oh, Ford!" and "Our Ford" throughout the novel. I'm sure Bernard Marx is supposed to be a reference to Karl Marx, Lenina a reference to Lenin, and many more I can't recognize or don't care to.

The back of my copy of this book says that Huxley was "unquestionably the most brilliant social satirist of his time". Maybe it's because I'm not "of his time", or maybe I just don't get social satire (which is entirely possible) but I was not wowed by this one. If others have read it and remember strong feelings about it, please please share them. I'd love to hear what you think and perhaps be enlightened about what Huxley was hoping to convey. I mean, I get the whole, "watch out! our society is so amoral and we're heading somewhere crazy and if you don't wake up we'll just get worse and worse!" thing, but doesn't that ever get old? And maybe I just don't believe him because I live in the 21st century, and the Feelies don't really exist (as far as I know) any more than they ever did, and we're not all playing Obstacle Golf or sleeping with everyone we see. And we're certainly not all genetically engineered to be happy little Alphas or Betas or Gammas or Deltas or Epsilons.

Ugh. Now I just feel frustrated and annoyed. I am not amused, Aldous. If you hadn't died 47 years ago, I'd write you a letter and ask what you meant by this book. I suppose I could read various literary criticisms and studies, but I want to know what you meant, Aldous, not what they think you meant.

Ah, such is life. I may take two weeks for this next one, that ultimate challenge, Ulysses. I'll let you know when I come out on the other side.

I'll leave you with this - a conversation between Mustapha Mond and the Savage.

"We prefer to do things comfortably," said the Controller.

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind." There was a long silence.
"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. "You're welcome," he said.

Okay, I'll admit it. I liked that part. ;) Maybe I did get it. Happiness without suffering is shallow and empty. Our trials define our triumphs.

1 comment:

  1. mere, you are brilliant. all i remember about this book was being fascinated by the opening sequence of assembly line births and being upset at the final suicide. i'm glad that you found a good way to wrap up your post; i do also agree that it's hard to take seriously more futuristic novels warning at a freefall into hedonism. then again, can you think of any modern dystopias that are getting any attention? perhaps it Has all been said?? hm. or the novel is simply dying. which might be true, too. Or we just haven't lived long enough to have books which are being written now enter the canon of what is taught in school. hm.