Thinking about life: Brave New World anew

By PETER COLEMAN  |  Aug. 5, 2002 at 4:34 PM
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SYDNEY, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- No one is "born" any more in "Brave New World," the futuristic novel Aldous Huxley published 70 years ago. Everybody is "decanted" from a bottle.

In one set of bottles the best eggs are fertilized by the best sperm and then given the best pre-natal treatment before being decanted. The members of this caste are called Alphas or Betas.

In another and far more numerous set of bottles, inferior eggs are fertilized by inferior sperm. They are then treated with alcohol. When decanted these creatures are almost subhuman but they are capable of unskilled or heavy work and, if regularly relaxed by sex and drugs, they give no trouble. The members of this caste are called Epsilons.

Huxley, needless to say, saw how repugnant his scientific utopia or dystopia is. In the years immediately following the publication of "Brave New World," Hitler came to power in Germany, the Nazis adopted Aryan eugenics as official policy, and Dr. Mengele conducted his "experiments" in Auschwitz. Eugenics fell into deep disrepute.

Yet when Huxley revisited his book some 17 years after its first publication, he was still wrestling with the principle of eugenics. He did not entirely repudiate the assumptions of his satire or anti-utopia. We are still over-populating the planet, he wrote in "Brave New World Revisited," with people of "biologically poorer quality." Wonder drugs are only increasing "the survival rate of individuals cursed by some genetic insufficiency."

In the overpopulated backward countries, most people are undernourished or worse. How can democratic institutions arise in such conditions? If they are imposed from outside, how can they survive? At the same time the rich and democratic countries are suffering from genetic decline, from "the progressive contamination of the genetic pool." How can individual liberty and democratic government survive in such conditions?

Huxley's answer to the question of what is to be done did not help much. We cannot just do nothing and go to hell on wheels. But surely we should not play god and, like the Nazis, seek to control breeding? Are there to be no limits on cloning? On research on embryos? It is "an ethical dilemma," Huxley said. "To find the middle way will require all our intelligence and all our good will."

But if Huxley the scientific intellectual could not free himself from the appeal of eugenics, controlled breeding and a benign dictatorship of the clever, Huxley the artist and novelist was more far-sighted.

The two views fight it out in the famous chapters 16 and 17 of "Brave New World" in which the Mustapha Mond, one of the new elite, a Controller of the World State, confronts John the Savage, the misfit who by mischance has grown up outside the Brave New World on an American reservation and has read nothing but a tattered old copy of Shakespeare.

People have no interest in Shakespeare now, the elitist Mond explains, because the world is stable, people are happy and there is no place for tragedy, liberty, art, love, scientific inquiry or God. There are no families, no mothers or fathers or siblings. The very idea of them is obscene as breast-feeding or marital fidelity. Nobody is noble or heroic. There is no self-denial. Promiscuity is compulsory. There is no history, no will, no identity. There are drugs and sedatives for all complaints, including death.

John the Savage answers that he does not want any of this. He wants God, poetry, danger, freedom, goodness and sin. "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

"Not to mention," replies Mond, "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 might happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind."

After a long silence the Savage at last says: "I claim them all."

Mond shrugs: "You are welcome to them."

Huxley understands and even feels the pull of both views -- the brave new world and old-fashioned or traditional life and society. He does not or cannot resolve the issue. John the Savage will not or cannot compromise with the new science and technology. In the end he hangs himself. But he is expendable. The brave new world marches on.

In one respect Huxley is more optimistic than George Orwell who wrote the other great modern utopia or dystopia, "Nineteen Eighty-Four." John the Savage remains unrepentant to the end. In Orwell's fable the independent spirit of Winston Smith, the figure of hope who still remembers and yearns for life before the totalitarian nightmare, is finally broken. But he does not hang himself. We last see him drunk and confessional in a seedy café under a portrait of Big Brother. As gin-scented tears trickle down his nose, he feels at last that everything is now all right. The struggle is finished. He has won a victory over himself. He loves Big Brother.

But Huxley and Orwell shared a common vision. In both of their utopias, the past, individual identity, religion, culture and personal life are progressively destroyed. But where Huxley built his utopia on science, welfare and happiness, Orwell built his on power, ideology and fear.

For many years Orwell's seemed to be the more realistic nightmare. Drawing on his own experience in Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, he conveyed the very feel of life in a totalitarian society. Clandestine readers of his book in communist countries were astonished that a man who had never visited the Soviet Union or its satellites could know so much about the way they lived or survived. They found little in Huxley's book that reflected their experience.

But now that totalitarian communism has been overthrown almost everywhere outside North Korea, Orwell's book illuminates the recent past more than the future and Huxley's vision is now taking on a new lease of life. O brave new world that hath such people in it: A woman in her 60s giving birth to her brother's child by another woman is merely a minor incident. Genetic engineering, embryonic stem cell research, cloning are only beginning.

The point is that Huxley's own modest reluctance in his "Brave New World Revisited" to take a strong stand one way or the other, his appeal to intelligence and goodwill, may reflect the public at large. As in so many crises, it wants the benefits without the costs. But in striking the balance, we will learn more from Huxley's John the Savage than from the elitist Mustapha Mond.

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