I like dystopian novels. I think that if many of the ideals espoused by most people were executed to perfection the result would be captured by one of the many dystopian novels that have been written. I think this says something very important about ideals, paradox, uncertainty, and truth.
I’ve been reading “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. In many ways it’s the same as the more famous “1984” by George Orwell. In both utopian societies, people are controlled to the end envisioned by a ruling class. In a nutshell, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us, and Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
If you’re unfamiliar, in “Brave New World” everyone is happy…all the time. Everyone is always satisfied. People are genetically engineered (in a test tube), and later emotionally engineered to fulfill certain roles in societies. Some are janitors, some emotional engineers, others are factory workers. Everyone is conditioned throughout childhood to have the set of preferences and proclivities to be a happy, successful, and most importantly content member of society. Early in the novel, as the Director of one of the genetic engineering facilities is taking a group of students on a tour, he remarks:
“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 1
The main theme in society is that everyone belongs to everyone else. If a man wants to have sex with a certainwoman, great (and she is, in a sense obligated to give it up)! Same goes for women. Most importantly is soma, the required drug that makes everyone happy and content. Anytime feelings of sorrow, discontent, depression, etc. arise, soma is taken and the drug induced “vacation” ensues. Indeed soma has
All of the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.
-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Ch. 3
In this society history doesn’t exist, Shakespeare is wiped out, God and Christianity are replaced with Ford (yes, that Ford) and soma. Anything that creates discontent is removed. For recreation people go to the “Feelies” wherein they watch an erotic film while being physically stimulated by a machine.
Everyone is happy, all the time…except one guy. Bernard Marx, the main protagonist, feels like an outsider, a heretic. He remarks several times early in the novel that he longs to experience sadness, unhappiness, discontent. He knowingly avoids taking his soma to avoid the false sense of happiness associated therewith. At one point he states to Lenina (whom Bernard likes):
Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?
to which Lenina responds:
I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.
There are a few points I’d like to explore:
- In Mormonism we often associate happiness with duration, or longevity of that happiness, assuming that pleasure is more short lived. We call the kind of happiness we desire “joy” to distinguish it from fleeting pleasure. But rarely (at least in my experience) do we really distinguish the kind of happiness and joy that is superior to pleasure. Indeed, in “Brave New World” the people are happy, ALWAYS. Their happiness is not short lived, it is constant, and perpetual. But that is different than the kind of “joy” we desire and talk about in Mormonism (indeed in most religions).
What we really want, in Mormonism, is not contentment and satisfaction of the physical body, or the removal of all unpleasant things from our life. I think we’re really seeking a kind of pseudo-buddhist detachment peace that comes from an emotional detachment from our earthly situation coupled with a desire to become like an idealized god, couched in the faith that he loves us unconditionally, and facilitated by the renewal process we call repentance. That’s what we call “joy.”
- We have come to believe that negative feelings and thoughts, sin, danger, temptation are bad. It was very revealing for me to observe that perhaps a world without those things was no paradise at all if the freedom to experience them is taken away, even if that freedom comes by nothing more than a constant stream of happiness and pleasure. Perhaps we need to change how we view those things and instead see them as indispensable experiences that remind us that we are alive and human.
Indeed, too often I believe we are so focused on the end goal, or the outcome, and we judge each of them so quickly that we entirely forget and forsake the process that gets us there. We forget what we’re doing because we’re so focused on the next task that gets us toward our goal. We forget how to be because we’re so focused on what we’re trying to become. But the process itself inherently involves a struggle, usually some pain and suffering, and at least some sacrifice. In chapter 17, Mustapha Mond (one of the great controllers of society) says:
There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that’s what soma is.
I suppose that for me personally, this causes me to take pause to acknowledge the sins, the temptations, the negative thoughts and let them be present in my life. Not as long term residents (an entirely different matter) but as short term guests, as thoughts in the constant stream of consciousness that do not define me but are part of my human experience. And I can appreciate that experience. It reminds me I’m having the experience of being alive.
I’m really fascinated by the idea that we become so focused on satisfying our physical needs, avoiding negative things, and indulging in our passions and desires that we lose contact with the experience that being human has to offer us. Libertarian and rationalist thinkers have long feared the tyranny that would result if we lost our rights and became subject to a dictatorial regime, but they seem to have ignored the enslavement that could come by avoiding conflict at all costs, by distracting ourselves with an infinite array of gadgets, gizmos, social constructs, and the satisfaction of our physical desires at the expense of our right to struggle!