s works of literature ever written. An exaggeration? Tragically, no. Brave New World has come to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness. So how does Huxley turn a future where we’re all notionally happy into the archetypal dystopia? If it’s technically feasible, what’s wrong with using biotechnology to get rid of mental pain altogether?Brave New World is an unsettling, loveless and even sinister place. This is because Huxley deliberately endows his “ideal” society with features likely to alienate his audience. Typically, reading BNW elicits disturbing feelings which the society it depicts has notionally vanquished – not a sense of joyful anticipation.
Thus BNW doesn’t, and isn’t intended by its author to, evoke just how wonderful our lives could be if the human genome were rewritten. Let’s say our DNA will be spliced and edited so we can all enjoy life-long bliss, awesome peak experiences, and a spectrum of outrageously good designer-drugs. Nor does Huxley’s comparatively sympathetic account of the life of the Savage on the Reservation convey just how nasty the old regime of pain, disease and unhappiness can be. If you think it does, then you enjoy an enviably sheltered life and an enviably cosy imagination. For it’s all sugar-coated pseudo-realism. In BNW, Huxley contrives to exploit the anxieties of his bourgeois audience about both Soviet Communism and Fordist American capitalism.
He taps into, and then feeds, our revulsion at Pavlovian-style behavioural conditioning and eugenics. Worse, it is suggested that the price of universal happiness will be the sacrifice of the most hallowed shibboleths of our culture: “motherhood”, “home”, “family”, “freedom”, even “love”. The exchange yields an insipid happiness that’s unworthy of the name. Its evocation arouses our unease and distaste.
In Brave New World, happiness derives from consuming mass-produced goods, sport, promiscuous sex, “the feelies”, and most famously of all, a supposedly perfect pleasure-drug, soma. As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does makes you high.
Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order. For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn’t give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill.
Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. John the Savage commits suicide soon after taking soma guilt and despair born of serotonin depletion!?. The drug is said to be better than (promiscuous) sex – the only sex the brave new worlders practise. But a regimen of soma doesn’t deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. It doesn’t catalyse any mystical epiphanies or life-defining insights.
It doesn’t in any way promote personal growth. Instead, it provides a mindless, inauthentic “imbecile happiness” – a vacuous escapism which makes people comfortable with their lack of freedom. If Huxley had wished to tantalise, rather than repel, emotional primitives like us with the biological nirvana soon in prospect, then he could have envisaged utopian wonderdrugs which reinforced or enriched our most cherished ideals. In our imaginations, perhaps we might have been allowed – via chemically-enriched brave new worlders – to turn ourselves into idealised versions of the sort of people we’d most like to be. Behavioural conditioning, too, could have been used by the utopians to sustain, rather than undermine, a more sympathetic ethos of civilised society and a life well led. Likewise, biotechnology could have been exploited in BNW to encode life-long fulfilment and super-intellects for everyone – instead of manufacturing a rigid hierarchy of genetically-preordained castes.
Huxley, however, has an altogether different agenda in mind. He is seeking to warn us against scientific utopianism. He succeeds all too well. Although we tend to see other people, not least the notional brave new worlders, as the hapless victims of propaganda and disinformation, we may find the manipulated dupes have been us. For Huxley does a effective hatchet-job on the very sort of “unnatural” hedonic engineering that