Tuesday, August 13, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Aldous Huxley Revisited

Aldous Huxley Revisited
Hugh Mercer Curtler
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

A few years before I retired from college teaching, I was asked to direct a freshman course designed to introduce new students to the university. It was a one-credit course that met for one hour each week. I was especially excited about the academic portion of the course which focused on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I have always thought the novel was a great book–not great literature, as Huxley himself admitted, but remarkable for its prescience and the well-told tale that holds the reader’s attention and raises so many provocative questions.

My plan was to have a professor from English, biology, psychology, and philosophy each talk about the novel from the perspective of their particular disciplines. I thought this would not only give the students insights into the novel itself, but also give them an idea how different academic disciplines approach problems: killing two birds with one stone.

Well, like a stone tossed into the air, the plan fell with a thud. An astonishing number of the students couldn’t read the novel: they couldn’t understand the words. Many of them bought “Cliff Notes” and some of them complained they couldn’t understand those either. Others simply didn’t bother to buy the book at all; many students just dropped the course. Very few actually seemed to enjoy the experiment. We started with over two hundred students and ended up with a little over one hundred. The course evaluations filled out by the remaining students were nearly unanimous: what does this have to do with me?

I would like to take the opportunity in this short essay to answer that question. I think Huxley’s novel has everything to do with not only those students, members of what some like to call the “millennial” age, but also about all of us and, more to the point, about our culture. The book is set in the future in London, but it applies to all of Western culture and, increasingly, many Eastern cultures as well.

Let me begin by alluding to another provocative book written in 1985 by Neil Postman, to wit, Amusing Ourselves To Death, in which he promises to discuss the question whether Huxley might have been right in his predictions in the 1930s about what was to become of Western culture. In his “Foreword,” Postman contrasts Huxley’s remarkable book with Orwell’s equally remarkable book, 1984. I shall largely ignore what Postman said about Orwell, but will take a quick peek at what he said about Huxley since it is most apt and provides an excellent point of departure.

In America, especially, we love to boast about our freedoms, which we would insist are numerous. But I often wonder if it is possible that this freedom is merely an illusion. Huxley certainly suggests that it is. We have a great many choices, but we seldom think about those choices. Freedom would seem to presuppose some sort of thought process, not just unfettered reaching and grabbing. Is it possible that our conviction that we are a free people is a delusion? Is it possible at the very least that we are bound by invisible chains we are unaware of to the gadgets that make our lives easier?

In Huxley’s view, Postman tells us, “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” Anyone who claims it is possible to remain free despite their inability to think is indeed deluded. Moreover, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” Further, Huxley feared that we would be so inundated with information that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalence of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.” Now we don’t have those specific diversions, but we do have Disneyworld and its imitators; and we have countless games, around the clock sports, and “reality” TV. And if you live in the vicinity and have a spare $150.00 you can enjoy a “simulated killing of bin Laden experience” in a Minneapolis suburb that will leave you so jazzed up you will have trouble falling asleep the night after. Or so I am told.

In a word, “As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’” In 1984, Postman added, “people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we loved would ruin us.” With this as a preface, I will return to the students’ question: what does this have to do with me?

The fundamental similarity between Huxley’s world, and ours is that the sole purpose of human life in Brave New World centers around experiencing pleasure, which we too have come to identify with happiness. As is the case in Huxley’s world everything in our world has been jettisoned that might stand in the way of our enjoying ourselves. Sex is readily available with no strings attached. Marriage is becoming passé. We have limitless entertainment. We are not permitted to suffer. We are rapidly losing the desire to read. History is bunk (or “irrelevant” as the kids like to say); and if we are sick or sad we can just take a pill. . . . or two. Or we party hardy.

The novel predicts a day when citizens can flee from pain and anxiety by popping a pill. The citizens of Brave New World fill their lives with endless diversions and vapid gratifications, immediate and shallow–but certainly not fulfilling. It’s all about doing their thing, whether or not it’s worth doing. Indeed that question is never raised. History is bunk, of course, because the only thing that matters is the present moment and the pleasure that can be milked from that moment. The citizens of Brave New World have “ . . . no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think.”

There are no meaningful human relationships, and communities are tied together artificially by means of community sings, free sex, and heaps of Soma. The community matters because the brave new world cannot stand individuals, that is, those who stand apart. If the individual dares to assert himself, he is deported to an island where he cannot bother others who are intent on making sure they never have time to think or experience genuine human emotions.

Let’s consider the dialogue between Mustafa Mond, the Controller of Brave New World, and John the savage, a late-arriver who has spent his early years on a savage reservation in far-off America trying unsuccessfully to fit in and finding solace by reading Shakespeare. In one of the late chapters of Huxley’s novel John asks Mustapha, “Art, science–you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness. Anything else?” 

Mond replies, “Well, religion, of course…” 

And the conversation proceeds apace. But let us pause. Have we also sacrificed science to pleasure or happiness? Of course we have. We have done it in two stages: we first reduced science to technology, ignoring the “why” question that is central to theoretical science and focusing exclusively on the “how” question which is key to the technical approach to solving problems, easing pain, and making our lives easier. Among other blessings, this reduction has delivered to the world in excess of 80,000 nuclear weapons, a fraction of which can end all life on earth. And we have no idea why but we continue to produce them not knowing how we would ever use them. But for most of us the technological imperative translates into reducing stress and avoiding pain at all costs while we mindlessly pursue diversions that will fill our empty lives. In the second stage we have allowed pseudo-science to pass for the real thing and even to be taught in the schools. An alarming number of high school biology teachers, for example, teach their students that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. And then there is “creationism” posing as science in many schools–officially sanctioned in Texas–and the various biological fictions that lead half-witted politicians who deny climate change to speak with a straight face about “legitimate” rape.

We have also replaced religion with “pop” psychology, the analyst’s couch, and the escapist “religion” of the televangelist, and so many of the “free” churches that have sprung out of thin air. The idea here is to get in touch with our inner selves and to replace the uncomfortable demands of traditional religion–which requires sacrifice and self-denial–with feel-good sessions every week in which parishioners are told that all is well with the world and they should climb back into their SUVs or pickups and go on doing just what they want in the name of Jesus who loves them regardless (though we’re not sure about those damned secular humanists. And we sure as hell can’t stand the homosexuals).

But we need to think seriously about the elimination of all pain and suffering in our version of brave new world. We take it as a given that this is a good thing, but the savage may be right: it’s too easy. We might be much better off if we struggled and suffered a bit more, strange to say. Fyodor Dostoevsky, for one, thought suffering made us more human and was the only possible route to real human freedom. If we don’t suffer, we float along on the surface of human experience and never really feel the deprivations and losses that deepen our perspectives and bring us closer to one another and to our common humanity.

Furthermore, as we are now finding out, a society that revels in animal pleasures will rarely produce a Jane Austen, a George Eliot, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Dostoevsky, a Beethoven, or a Dante. All of these people suffered during their lifetimes and many of their greatest creative inspirations came as a direct result of some of the darkest moments in their lives. Dante, for example, wrote The Divine Comedy while exiled from Florence where his family was held captive. Mustapha Mond thinks the sacrifice of great art and literature is worth it. The savage who knows his Shakespeare disagrees.

In a word, the brave new world we would create which eliminates pain and suffering is worthy of denizens of an ant-heap (as Dostoevsky would have it); it is not worthy of human beings. That, it seems to me, was Huxley’s point in writing this novel, and the fact that young people could read the novel and wonder what on earth it could have to do with them tells us that the chains Huxley points to which bind them are indeed invisible to them. These people seek amusement and are easily diverted; that is all they ask of the world in which they live–just as Huxley feared.

Among the many parallels with Huxley’s world, we too have become a society of people who want what we want when we want it. I have always thought a major step we took in our culture toward the brave new world was the credit card, strange to say. It came on the scene in a large way in the 1950s and within ten years had pretty much become a necessity in every pocket or pocketbook. In itself it is merely a convenient way to make purchases. But its significance is worth contemplating: it translates into immediate gratification. We no longer have to wait for anything, we can have it now. “Have any of you been compelled to live through a long time-interval between consciousness of a desire and its fulfillment?” asks Huxley. No indeed! It doesn’t matter if we can’t pay: we have plastic. But what have we lost in the process? What price have we paid? Anticipation greatly increases the delight from the receipt of a thing long awaited. And the discipline that comes from postponed gratification helps build character in our children. We tend to forget these things.

In the end Huxley saw clearly what was coming; we have realized in so many ways precisely the delights that those denizens of the ant-heap in Huxley’s world reached out for and grabbed with little or no real effort. And we have become just as shallow. It is ironic (but not puzzling) that many who read Huxley’s book fail to see its implications.

I suggest, however, that it is not Huxley’s fault; it is ours alone. In this regard it might pay us to take a closer look at those students who wondered what this novel had to do with them, the representatives of the “millennial” age (or “Gen-Y”), many of whom find novels like Huxley’s hard to read and/or irrelevant to their lives.

A new study of “Millennials” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education tells us a great deal. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and was conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University. In the minds of many, the newest generation of young people now attending high school and college were the hope of the future, committed to helping others and making the world a better place. They would surely clean up the mess we are leaving behind. Unfortunately it happens that the generation that was supposed to be “we”-oriented turns out to be even more “me”-oriented than the generation that produced them.

The study shows that, contrary to popular opinion, those born since 1982 are increasingly self-absorbed and unconcerned about others or their environment. They are focused on “money, image, and fame” rather than such things as “community involvement or acceptance by others.” Countering the popular image of today’s youth as engaged, high-achieving, confident, and concerned about their world, Twenge rejoins, “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.”

The article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle because educators were being alerted that the students in their classrooms may not be the least bit interested in what they are being taught. This will come as no surprise to the men and women in front of those students who have become increasingly aware that it’s all about entertainment and dumbing down the curriculum to disengaged students. I saw it happening before my eyes in my 41 years of college teaching. I mentioned above my unfortunate experience with the freshman course, but I can readily recall other examples. As the years went by since I started teaching in 1964, I simply could not ask the students in 1990 to read the same material I routinely required twenty years previously.

Their reading skills were seriously lacking and their interest in and openness to new ideas was practically nil, though there were occasional exceptions that kept me hoping. We should not be surprised if the young people growing up today are self-absorbed. After all, theirs is the world of “self-esteem” in which they have been told since day #1 that they are great and can do no wrong.

Indeed, they have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter and they deserve only good things. They are the spoiled product of busy families and our child-care and education system that demands little and rewards greatly. The chickens are coming home to roost.

But this study has important implications for more than just the teachers around the country who must figure a way to get through to increasingly disengaged, self-absorbed young people. It has ramifications for society in general. As Twenge says, “Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems in the nation and the world, are generally good things.” But this is not happening. These young people are “more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems. It doesn’t bode well for society.” In a word, the individualism that Huxley hoped would save the Brave New World has in our world turned into ego-centrism, which is not the same thing at all.

At a time when we need people who can see beyond the stunted world of self to others and the larger world, it is unsettling to learn that the trend is in the opposite direction. What the world needs now is not more self absorbed egoists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and people around them. Let’s hope enough of them continue to sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference.

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