Huxley believed that his version of dystopia was the more plausible one. In a 1949 letter, thanking Orwell for sending him a copy of “1984,” he wrote that he really didn’t think all that torture and jackbooting was necessary to subdue a population, and that he believed his own book offered a better solution. All you need to do, he said, is teach people to love their servitude. The totalitarian rulers in Huxley’s book do this not by oppressing their citizens but by giving them exactly what they want, or what they think they want — which is basically sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — and lulling them into complacency. The system entails a certain Trump-like suspicion of science and dismissal of history, but that’s a price the inhabitants of Huxley’s world happily pay. They don’t mourn their lost liberty, the way Orwell’s Winston Smith does; they don’t even know it’s gone.
Siddhartha DebThere is much in Orwell’s novel that translates poorly into the contemporary moment. There exists a comfortably predictable and, to my mind, uninspired approach to the dystopic novel and its powers of prognosis, a Pavlovian response that involves reaching for a copy of George Orwell’s “1984” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” whenever extreme turbulence hits the West. Together they make up a short reading list, if a rather familiar one, redolent of high school literature classes and expanding, if forced, to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” That’s it, we’re done — a brief tour in four books to dystopias where the individual’s sense of freedom is always under threat from the totalitarian state.
The last few months have been hard, no doubt, the news more distressing by the hour, but there is still something perversely groupthinkish in the fact that the impulse of resistance has homed in on the same book, and that a measure of opposition to the horrors of the Trump administration is the climb of “1984” to No. 1 on Amazon. There is much in Orwell’s novel, in fact, that translates poorly into the contemporary moment. From its texture of material deprivation, the loosely packed cigarettes and boiled cabbages recalling wartime rationing in Britain, to its portrayal of Ingsoc, Big Brother and various Ministries (Truth, Peace, Love, Plenty), all of which assume control by a heavily centralized State, it is a work very much of the ’40s as experienced by an English intellectual.
In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” the American media critic Neil Postman in fact argued that Huxley’s novel was far more relevant than Orwell’s when it came to the United States, where the dominant mode of control over people was through entertainment, distraction, and superficial pleasure rather than through overt modes of policing and strict control over food supplies, at least when it came to managing the middle classes. Three decades after Postman’s account, when we can add reality television, the internet and social media to the deadly amusements available, “Brave New World” can still seem strikingly relevant in its depiction of the relentless pursuit of pleasure. From the use of soma as a kind of happiness drug to the erasure of the past not so much as a threat to government, as is the case in Orwell’s dystopia, but as simply irrelevant (“History is bunk”), Huxley marked out amusement and superficiality as the buttons that control behavior.
His relentless focus on the body, too, seems inspired, his understanding of what Michel Foucault identified as “biopolitics,” extending to the individual body as well as to entire populations and, in “Brave New World,” playing out as a eugenic system based on caste, class, race, looks and size. As for his depiction of the “savage reservation” in New Mexico, this seems to foreshadow the fetishization of the natural on the part of one of the most artifice-ridden populations in the history of the world.
A great deal funnier, subtler and darker than Orwell’s book, Huxley’s satire nevertheless has its limitations. A World State? Games of escalator squash? In any case, why stop at one of two books, as if the literary realm must mimic the denuded, lesser-of-two-evils choices of electoral politics? There are other powerful fictional dystopias that speak to the United States of today, including a significant portion of the oeuvre of Philip K. Dick and Octavia E. Butler. There is J.G. Ballard’s hallucinatory Reagan-era “Hello America,” with a future United States that has many contending presidents, including President Manson, who plays nuclear roulette in Las Vegas. Why not read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Sandra Newman’s “The Country of Ice Cream Star” and Anna North’s “America Pacifica” and Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” and Claire Vaye Watkins’s “Gold Fame Citrus” and Vanessa Veselka’s “Zazen” and Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Water Knife”? If the world is going dark, we may as well read as much as possible before someone turns off the light.Continue reading the main story
If Brave New World was Aldous Huxley's technocratic purgatory,
Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four describes a hell beyond Huxley's worst fears.
Compare and contrast the two novels as visions of a future that has gone dramatically wrong.
Brave New World and 1984 were both written by men who had experienced war on the grand scale of the twentieth century. Disillusioned and alarmed by what they saw in society, each author produced a powerful satire and an alarming vision of future possibilities. Although the two books are very different, they address many of the same issues in their contrasting ways.
Huxley's novel sets out a world in which society is kept carefully balanced, with the means of reproduction just as closely controlled as the means of production. Human beings and the goods they make are tailored to one another: people are created in order to fulfil particular purposes, and are encouraged to consume so as to maintain the cycle.
The society presented in 1984 is less comfortably balanced. The population is kept content with a rather meagre lot because of the constant war, which, as is explicitly stated in the Book, is a convenient means of maintaining the status quo, and the Party keeps a very close watch on those members of society who are deemed capable of disrupting it.
Although set in Orwell's future, 1984 does not put great emphasis on technological advance—indeed, within the society of Oceania, there is effectively none any more, because the methods required for proper scientific enquiry are antithetical to the demands of the Party, and thus real science has been abolished. Orwell posits a certain level of technological advance—the two-way television screens and the ever-present surveillance equipment, the novel-writing machines,, but not much else. His purpose was not to imagine the details of such technologies, but to present the use to which they are put.
Huxley goes considerably further in imagining scientific advance. In his World State, humans are engendered and grown in artificial wombs. There are also such things as 'the feelies', an extrapolation of today's cinema (in Huxley's case, 'the talkies' were quite a novelty). However, the idea of automation seems to have passed him by, so that people are grown for the purposes of toiling in factories or operating elevators. Again, however, the author is not attempting to present a detailed picture of what life would be like in the far distant future; he is showing the effects of such things on human nature.
For both authors, a necessary action in their future societies is the abolition of the past. In Brave New World, the people have embraced Henry Ford's misquoted dictum that 'History is bunk', and have no interest in it. Anything from the past (with occasional exceptions like 'Our Ford') is perceived as unimportant. Thus the richness of human history is cast aside.
The rejection of history takes a more aggressive form in 1984, where it becomes impossible to understand the past, because the details of the past are constantly rewritten to conform with the requirements of the present. The concept of historical truth is irrelevant: truth, and history, becomes what the Party wants it to be. Winston Smith himself takes part in this, rewriting the news: he therefore knows that the details of the past have been tampered with, and is unable to discern or discover what the truth might be.
Just as history is effectively abolished in both societies, so is the family. Huxley extrapolates the trend for elective childbearing until it becomes grotesque: no-one bears children any more, and the concept of motherhood is obscene. In Orwell's world the family is not obsolete, but it has been subverted. Children are taught from their earliest years to give their loyalty to the Party and to Big Brother, and are encouraged to spy on and betray their own parents. Thus the family becomes one more means of surveillance, so that everyone is surrounded by people who cannot be trusted. The horribly inappropriate behaviour of the children in 1984 has a counterpart in Brave New World, where children are expected to indulge in 'erotic play'. The reader can only be thankful Huxley does not go into details.
Sigmund Freud's impact on the world shows up in both novels, which both put considerable emphasis on the importance of sexual behaviour to human beings, but in vastly different ways.
In Brave New World, sexual intercourse is completely separate from reproduction. The females who are not rendered sterile are obliged to wear 'Malthusian belts' and to maintain their contraception. Along with the family unit, exclusive partnerships have been abolished. 'Everybody belongs to everybody' is the slogan, and proper members of society are expected to couple with anyone. Lenina Crowne's behaviour in remaining faithful to one man at a time (and her aberrant interest in Bernard Marx) dismays her friend Fanny, who encourages her back towards a 'normal' promiscuity. Naturally, this sort of behaviour is incomprehensible to The Savage, who has been brought up on the edges of a quite different society—and in a close relationship with his mother, to boot.
The consequence of such absolute promiscuity is that sex becomes a mindless and meaningless act of no more significance than eating a bar of chocolate. In Oceania, sex is treated in a quite opposite manner. Sexual activity is discouraged, and divorced from pleasure. Winston's wife's attitude was to endure it for the sake of the Party, in order to reproduce. Winston considers sex to be a political act, an expression of freedom. Julia puts her finger on it, explaining to Winston that sex makes people happy and relaxed, while the Party prefers that their energies be channelled into other activities. Privation increases tension, and can be forced into such activities as 'Hate Week' and so forth.
With familial and sexual relationships either gone or terribly distorted, it is not surprising that both worlds also trivialise death. In Brave New World, individuals barely exist in the first place: their lives are so banal and interchangeable that it is not surprising death is made meaningless. The members of the World State do not grow and mature, and they never really come to terms with death. Grotesquely, young children are 'conditioned' by visiting wards of the dying and being fed chocolate eclairs afterwards.
In 1984, people merely cease to exist. One day, Winston comes to work to find that all traces of an erstwhile colleague have been removed—Symes has ceased to exist. he may well not be physically dead as yet, but he has gone—and no-one ever dares to mention that he had existed. Yet Winston does retain a normal human dread of actual death: incarcerated, and hoping to be delivered a razor blade, he nonetheless wonders whether he would be able to use it to commit suicide—it is a natural human impulse to keep on living.
Essentially, the Party manages to persuade its members that mere feelings are of no account. Each person is kept in a state of persecuted fear, and distrust of those around him—who ought to be the 'nearest and dearest' but may well turn out to be betrayers. In Huxley's World State, human interaction is simply reduced to the shallowest possible level, so that feelings become unimportant because they are trivial.
To both authors, this lack of decent human feeling means the death of art. Mustapha Mond says:
"...you can't make tragedies without social instability"
when he is explaining to John why the World State has sacrificed high art. Winston's thoughts take much the same direction:
"Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason."
In 1984, novels are written to formula by machines; in Brave New World, the 'feelies' aim at the audience's immediate sensual gratification, not at their minds or their emotions.
As a result of the insistent reduction of human feelings to the least possible level, the people in both societies treat other people as objects and do not experience decent emotions with regard to them. The Savage attempts to create a world for himself (taking his own problems into it, of course, but escaping as far as he is able from the society into which he cannot fit), but his privacy is invaded and a 'feelie' is made of his life. Then a crowd of sightseers come to see him, and treat him as though he were an exhibit at the zoo, chanting at him to use the whip, and turning his frenzied behaviour with Lenina into an orgy.
Winston himself shows this kind of insensitivity when he writes about the war film he watched, refugees being bombed in a lifeboat. He presents the callous laughter of the audience as perfectly normal, and does not recognise his own lack of humanity either.
Essentially, Winston has been conditioned to behave with craven selfishness. Every aspect of his life is regulated, and he can hardly call his thoughts his own, since the concept of Thoughtcrime makes it plain to him that his rebellious thoughts are forbidden, and the existence of the Thought Police makes him certain that he will be caught and horribly punished. The conditioning in 1984 is less explicit than that of Brave New World, but again there are similarities—the 'Two Minutes Hate' and the 'Solidarity Service' both encourage frenzied, animalistic emotions from the participants, and enhance their obedience to the state's imposed lifestyle. In Brave New World, of course, the conditioning is done openly and for the acknowledged purpose of fitting different people to their different roles in life. The scene in which lower-caste babies are conditioned by terror and pain into a loathing of books and flowers demonstrates that under the smooth surface, this society can be as ruthless as the Party.
There is an interesting difference in the way in which these novels treat the 'proles'. Both authors seem to make the uncomfortable point that the masses are easily contented. Huxley's lower castes, the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, are easily content—work of a non-challenging nature, followed by relaxation, drugs and sex, are all they require (although the existence of police capable of dealing with a rioting mob suggests that there can sometimes be trouble). They are so unimportant that they are not even individuals at all, but are bred in batches called Bokanovsky Groups, dozens of identical specimens at a time. The lower castes do not really have any influence in Huxley's book, and are simply the background to the doings of the upper-caste characters.
The 'proles' in 1984 resemble the lower castes in their lack of aspiration and their capacity to be content with what little they can get. They are also unimportant in the eyes of the controlling Party—although there must be some surveillance of them, as we are told that any potentially subversive proles (ie those who demonstrate an ability to think for themselves) are 'eliminated'. These ordinary people do conform to low expectations—they enjoy the banal songs which are manufactured for them, and the most excitement that Winston sees generated among them is in a fight for some tin saucepans. However, the proles —not as heavily controlled and conditioned as Party members—have not lost their humanity. Winston recognises this, contrasting his own callousness with their willingness to care even when the caring will make no actual difference. He also dreams of the proles breaking free and overthrowing the Party, which they vastly outnumber. He is logically correct in realising that they could do so, but at the same time it is clear that the proles are extremely unlikely to take such action. The Party does not bother to control them because, in fact, it is unnecessary to do so. The proles are very much like those Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, and are content with the easy comforts of life. They do not strive. There seems to be a similarity of attitude between Orwell and Huxley which incorporates a kind of contempt for 'ordinary people', who do not have high aspirations or deep perception, though Orwell at least grants them potential.
Huxley's dystopia is, all the same, a less terrible place than Orwell's. Although it is the 'World State', there are tiny pockets of escape. There are the Reservations, where primitives live and practise a quite different lifestyle; there are also islands, to which awkward members of society can be sent if necessary. Mustapha Mond points out that Bernard Marx is in fact privileged to be sent to such a place, although the prospect terrifies him. And although the effect of such a society is to dehumanise human beings, removing their need to strive, and keeping them emotionally immature all their lives, it is at least (apparently) done for a benign purpose. The difficulties of twentieth-century life have been smoothed over in order to keep the members of society happy—and by and large, they do seem to be happy, at least in a trivial sense.
The arresting image from 1984, however, is that of a boot grinding into a human face. There is no benign intent behind The Party, only the desire for Power, absolute and unceasing. The power is not to be used to improve the world, but is simply to be maintained, and it is because this power must be complete that the Party goes to such lengths to 'convert' Winston to its preferred way of thinking. Most societies are content to determine what people do, but in this one, every thought must be controlled. Moreover, there are no islands to which nonconformists can be sent—it is clear that the two balancing powers of Eurasia and Eastasia are identical in their repressiveness to Oceania. The remainder of the world is a permanent war zone—but in any case, Winston has no means to escape thither even if he considered doing so.
The style and presentation of these novels varies quite considerably. 1984 is very much the experience of the central character, Winston Smith. His thoughts and feelings and his fate are the story of the novel, although there is also the long (and very dull) section of The Book which explains how the world functions, and the extensive appendix on 'Newspeak'. Brave New World presents a less taut, less tense story, and the story-line moves from one focus character to another: initially it seems as though the Director may be the main character, then the story moves on to Lenina and to Bernard, and eventually to John, the Savage. There are some didactic passages here, too, most pointedly when Mustapha Mond explains how the World State functions, but this is more carefully integrated into the storyline than is The Book. However, neither novel really makes a point of presenting realistic characters—or even particularly likeable ones. Winston's many flaws are ruthlessly exposed as he writes in his 'diary' or moves through life without doing much to make us like or admire him. Bernard Marx is an outsider and in a situation which ought to evoke our sympathy—he is not a 'proper' Alpha, and acutely conscious of his shortcomings—but he is too selfish and whining to be very attractive. The Savage is in a far more pitiable situation, but even he is not really an endearing character, and Huxley makes sure that we are distanced from him by the elements of humour and the grotesque which are used to convey his story. There are, interestingly, some moments of close correspondence between the books. O'Brien and Mustapha Mond have some similarity of role and character. Bernard, at the 'religious' ceremony, is unable to feel the ecstasy along with the others and has to fake it—just as Winston cannot entirely enter into the spirit of the 'Two Minutes Hate', even though other people are screaming abuse at the figure of Goldstein. In addition, there is the resonance of the presence of death. Brave New World is full of death imagery, from the grisly description of the Hatchery right through to John's suicide. And Winston Smith regards himself as 'already dead', right from the beginning.
Both novels also present the importance of language to human thought. In Brave New World, language has been changed in many ways. 'Mother' is an obscene term. Behaviour is trained into people and reinforced with banal slogans like "I take a gramme and only am". The Savage is unable to understand the emotions he feels towards his mother's lover, until he reads the works of Shakespeare and learns the words with which to express himself. His understanding is far from complete, as he has no context for most of what he reads, but the words do give him the chance to understand and express himself.
Orwell takes the importance of language theme much further, with the invention of 'Newspeak'. This is a conscious and determined attempt by the Party to make it impossible for people to think 'Thoughtcrime', because the words to formulate such things will no longer be available. Newspeak seeks to reduce language to the functional minimum, to eliminate nuance and eradicate style. In the tenth dictionary of Newspeak, we are told, certain words have been made obsolete—the opposite of what naturally happens to a language, for words become obsolete because they have ceased to be used, rather than because they have been erased. Of course, by this invention Orwell has actually augmented our own language, for 'Newspeak' and 'doublethink' are very handy words.
These novels were not written as prophecies, but as warnings. Nevertheless, they do both contain predictive elements (which were not necessarily intended as such!). 1984 bears a strong resemblance to the state of Soviet Russia, as far as I understand it, although the Party is even more ruthless than Stalin. Surveillance to the level described is actually more possible, technically, these days than it was when Orwell was writing—we do have interactive televisions, and spy satellites, and are told of various government schemes to keep an eye on our email transactions. However, the book does tend to give an impression of being out-of-date, because now that communism has fallen in Eastern Europe, the most obviously Orwellian state is over and done with. Though perhaps we do not know enough about other societies to know whether they are perpetuating this kind of environment.
Brave New World, being set much further into the future, has not been overtaken by events in the same way. In fact, advances in reproductive science and cloning technologies have made it appear all the more prescient. In social terms, too, Huxley seems to have emphasised many elements which have become quite normal today—sexual freedom is not quite on the 'Everybody belongs to everybody' level, and family life is not obsolete, but there has been a good deal of movement in these directions. Even the 'feelies' seem that much closer than Huxley could have expected, with the improvements in 'virtual reality'.
In essence, there are a great many points of comparison between these two novels. They address many of the same issues—language, control, production, sex, and so forth—and simply treat them in quite different ways. Of the two, I find Brave New World the more enjoyable read, mostly because it is not completely devoid of hope. 1984 is relentlessly determined to portray a world in which there is no hope.