“Aldous Huxley and the Limits of Happiness”

by Sam Buntz

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a book that has had an unusually prolonged shelf life.  There is something uncanny about the book—no one would’ve expected that a satire on contemporary political, social, and technological trends from the ’20s and ’30s would somehow seem to continue to predict the future lying ahead of us, well into the 21st Century— but that still seems to be the book’s effect.  Its satire has proven to be continually relevant in ways that Huxley probably didn’t fully anticipate (though he anticipated plenty).  Some readers—not the brightest bulbs in the bunch—have argued that Brave New World really isn’t that bad, and that it would be, more or less, something like the ideal state.  But this isn’t a very subversive statement to make, and satirizing the sort of people who would make it was really a central part of Huxley’s purpose in writing the book in the first place.  His dystopia is the straight-up utopia of enlightened techno-fascists like H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, seen from a different angle, as the Canadian critic Northrop Frye pointed out.  That certain people should find the lineaments of a utopia in BNW is therefore unsurprising.

What’s primarily valuable about the book isn’t so much the specifics of its predictive power—although those are impressive, particularly with regard to virtual reality (the “feelies”), the widespread prescription of anti-depressive and anti-anxiety meds (“soma”), sexual liberation, and the evolution of mass entertainment (there are roughly two copies of Shakespeare left in the world)—but rather its satire on the pursuit of happiness, which encompasses and guides Huxley’s most accurate predictions.  The way we approach happiness is still the same, and the methods we’ve devised to attain it, through various scientific and social innovations, are skewered by Huxley, in order to expose the desperation of the pleasure-seeking impulse underlying those innovations.   BNW takes the search for worldly happiness to its logical conclusion, as Dostoevsky attempted to do in “The Grand Inquisitor.”  Dostoevsky knew that if temporal happiness really was the primary goal of humankind we might as well surrender ourselves to a more benign version of Kim Jong Il, since our insistence on imaginative freedom and independence would never allow us to be fully satisfied.  Thus, imagination and freedom are the first two things that need to go for the Brave New World-ers and for scientists like B.F. Skinner, who believed that, in order to attain “happiness,” we needed to go “beyond freedom and dignity.”  Brave New World has utterly transcended both, and to say that it “might not be so bad” is just to say that you believe temporal happiness is all we can hope to achieve.

This sort of utopianism may be understandable—more comprehensible than the mindset that would create the world of 1984—but for those who really believe in it (and they’re out there) a technocracy that has gone utterly beyond any notion of human liberty or dignity, needs to be the end of the road, rationally.  The controllers (like the archons of Gnostic myth) who govern Brave New World know that most people can’t or won’t grow up—that is, they won’t use their freedom effectively or rationally.  There is no need for 95% of the population to read great books or study philosophy or lead an “examined life”, because it won’t make a damn bit of difference.  And there is a sad edge of accuracy to all this: it is disconcertingly hard to argue with the suggestion that the great mass of human beings require only a hand that can feed them—and feed them in a slightly more than merely nutritional sense—with maximum care and efficiency.   People worship that hand like God, as evidenced by the popularity of certain institutions, from the all-encompassing Medieval Church to the Apple Corporation, and of certain personalities, like Steve Jobs.  That is exactly what Brave New World provides—a God who offers you tangible benefits, who dispenses earthly bread like heavenly bread.  In fact, the role played by Henry Ford in Brave New World would, more sensibly, be filled by Steve Jobs today, since he was a perfect personification of the hand that feeds, that dispenses the nutritive substance of earthly life in its electronic form.  If Huxley had written his book today, he would doubtless envision us chopping crosses into “i”-shapes instead of into Ts—which would be a bit less elegantly simple, but still manageable.

Though it doesn’t seem that “narco-hypnosis” has yet been used by the government—which has not, presumably, raised up collectivized nurseries of drugged and hypnotized infants, in a more than metaphorical sense—to further any agenda of enforcing temporal happiness from the top down, and so Huxley’s predictions, taken literally, aren’t totally accurate, we can draw limitless analogies with advertising and consumerism.  But this is what informs everyone’s analysis of Brave New World, so I see no reason to dwell on it.  What’s most crucial, for our purposes, is to understand that which is repressed in order to pursue this agenda of perfect temporal happiness, since this is the same in our society as it is in the fictive dystopia, though differing by degree.  What’s repressed is really the whole battery of literature, imagination, religion, spirituality, art, and the feelings associated with them.  Since these things entail a quest for imaginative freedom, and spur dissatisfaction with the happiness provided by everyday existence, they lead to unhappiness, to the frustration and despair common to artists everywhere and to some novice saints.  Ultimately, religion and art—for I take the two to be part of the same creative human phenomenon—always aim for more than temporal happiness and for more than dissatisfaction in the wake of the departure of said happiness, though they probably involve the latter, inevitably, at some point.  They aim for bliss or joy—a state notably different from that of mere happiness.  This is the distinction between the feelings experienced while zoning out on your iPod for a few hours and those experienced when being reunited with your beloved family members after twenty years alone on a desert island.  Advocating a Brave New World-style idea of happiness—which millions of people do, unwittingly—is to fail to grasp this distinction.

For John, “The Savage,” in Brave New World, it is reading and re-reading one of the few remaining copies of Shakespeare’s plays that kindles his sense of imaginative possibilities beyond the temporal and the given.  The power of the literary imagination intimates a religious understanding of reality in him, as well, hinting at Huxley’s future development into an adherent of Hindu Vedanta.  Huxley later said that, rather than concluding the book as he once did, with its rather nasty ending, he would’ve attempted to depict the Savage finally pursuing the goal of ultimate union with God, Brahman, the Tao—“The Ground of All Being,” described in his book The Perennial Philosophy.  Yet it is interesting that Shakespeare is the figure whose writings would spur this quest, initially.  It suggests that imagination, applied as thoroughly as it can be, leads one onward, ceaselessly, to a spiritual understanding of reality.  The limitless creative power of Shakespeare provides a figure for the Infinite.  But it is the failure of the imagination both at the social and the individual level and the perversion of the energies that would have driven it on to such a spiritual goal, which form the real theme of Brave New World.  It is a problem that we will, no doubt, wrestle with—resolving it in scattered personal instances—well into the 21st Century and beyond.

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