In 1932, Aldous Huxley published his dystopian novel, Brave New World. Initially criticized, the book has gained great popularity over time and, today, can be found on many lists of the most important books of the 20th Century.
Brave New World is set in the United Kingdom during the year 2540. A new
world order has come into being following civil wars between competing political
ideologies. The winning faction, World State, has implemented a totalitarian
society administered by elites. The population is controlled by genetic
engineering so humans are conditioned, from birth, to occupy a pre-determined
role in society. Those roles are designated by five castes (alpha to epsilon),
and one’s caste determines career choice, social position, and behavior. Socially,
members of each caste mix only with members of their own caste. All life’s
pleasures are available in this world, including travel, food, and sex.
Depression and sadness do not exist because the population is provided with
euphoria producing drugs whenever needed. For enjoyment, people attend feelies,
movies that give the viewer a multi-sensory experience.
Brave New World explores individuality, freedom, and the problems of a
mass-production society. It’s a world without sickness, suffering, sorrow, and
pain, but it’s also one devoid of freedom, faith, love, and pride. People have
been programmed to live like robots and are satisfied with their way of life. Blatantly
obvious to the reader, however, is the extinction of their humanity.
In 1937, Huxley, his wife, son, and friend, the historian Gerald
Heard, moved to the United States, and settled in Southern California. Heard
introduced Huxley to Vedanta meditation, and vegetarianism through the principle
of ahimsa, which emphasizes respect for all living things and the rejection of
violence. In 1938, Huxley befriended Jiddu Krishnamurti, a well-known Eastern
philosopher, whose teachings he greatly admired. Huxley and Krishnamurti enjoyed
debating about life, with Krishnamurti taking the role of idealist and Huxley,
Huxley developed an interest in mind altering drugs and began
experimenting with Mescaline and LSD in the early 1950s. An aspiring mystic for
most of his life, he wanted to explore hallucinogenic drugs to see if they
could provide him with a mind-expanding experience. Huxley wrote about his
mescaline experience in the autobiographical The Doors of Perception,
published in 1954.
In 1958, twenty-six years after Brave New World was
published, Huxley updated his ideas with the non-fiction work, Brave New
World Revisited. It served as a platform to express his thoughts about the
destiny of Western society and the likelihood of a dystopian future. Huxley
devoted each chapter to a single factor in modern society that threatened human
survival. His list included overpopulation, over-organization, and
Huxley believed over-population posed the greatest threat
because the human population was growing so rapidly the planet will eventually run
out of resources. Only population control could prevent this impending
calamity. Over-organization was also seen as a significant problem. The world
has become too complex, particularly in large metropolitan areas where the population
density requires enormous bureaucracies. Human organizations must be divided
into smaller units in order to be effective.
Huxley stepped through the human control weapons used in Brave
New World, including brainwashing, chemical persuasion, subconscious
persuasion, and hypnopedia (learning while asleep). He discussed each with
respect to their current status and how they might be used in the future. In
each case, he saw an opportunity for great good or great harm.
Nearing the end of his life, Huxley detected the growing
spirit of a new generation in the United States, and it helped revive his
utopian ideas. His novel, Island, published in 1962, was an anti-Brave
New World tale about a utopian civilization.
The story centers around Will Farnaby, a lackey for oil baron
Joseph Aldehyde, who sinks his boat near the south sea island of Pala. He hopes
to come ashore to negotiate a business deal with island’s queen to buy the
island’s oil assets. The people of the island are non-violent, practice
Buddhism, and use psychedelic drugs for mind expansion. The island was under the
threat of invasion, but its people were not willing to save themselves if it
meant abandoning pacifism. After experiencing the wonders of life on the
island, and aware the invasion is imminent, Will realizes he was wrong to think
the island should be exploited. The book’s themes and ideas include overpopulation,
ecology, pacifism, democracy, mysticism, and mind-altering drugs, but their application
is reversed from Brave New World. For example, drugs are used for social
bonding and not control, trance states for learning rather than indoctrination.
Aldous Huxley was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1963. On
his deathbed, he asked his wife to inject him with LSD to ease his transition
into the afterlife. He died the same day President Kennedy was assassinated.
Huxley was a hero to the counterculture movement of the 50s
and 60s because they were attracted to his advice on how to stop civilization's
march to the apocalypse described in Brave New World. Specifically, he
told them “Do anything not to consume and go back to nature."
Brave New World uses the conflict between consumerism and freedom to stimulate
a debate about culture. The tangible prospect of a technology-driven, inhuman
future can only be stopped by a retreat to the utopia offered by nature. That
retreat can only be achieved by not consuming. To the counter culture movement,
Huxley’s pronouncement was not a demand, and the rejection of consumer culture
did not necessarily require a return to nature.
Technology came from culture, not nature, and, because of its
investment in popular music, the counterculture movement had to reconcile technology’s
role in their belief system. Rejecting materialism and participation in the values
of the mass society did not did not necessarily include a rejection of consumer
capitalism. The focus on nature obscured the counter culture’s reliance on
technology and other capitalist structures of mainstream 1960s and permitted an
engagement with them.
In his 1969 book, The Making of a Counterculture,
Theodore Roszak (1933-1977) asserted that the movement had two separate
components: protesting the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and hard-core poverty
were attacked from within the culture while their interest in the psychology of
alienation, oriental mysticism, psychedelic drugs, and communitarian
experiments placed them outside the culture.
Huxley’s writings about taking hallucinogenic drugs and his
focus on Eastern religions influenced many in the counterculture movement, and
the Doors of Perception became a “how to” manual for taking Mescaline.
The Beatles admired Huxley and placed his image on the cover
of their “Sgt. Pepper” album. The rock group, The Doors, took their name from
the book’s title.
Sixty years after his death, what would Huxley have to say
about the world today?
Undoubtedly, his greatest fear would be the breath of postmodern
communication systems and the use of propaganda to control the public. He might
even agree this problem is approaching the level described in Brave New
World. Today’s media is saturated with propaganda, representing competing
ideologies and driving a political wedge between the people of America. In Brave
New World, there was only one voice, because the battle of ideologies had
already been won. The winner of today’s propaganda war is unknown.
 Roszak, Theodore. The Making of a Counter Culture.
Faber & Faber, London, 1970.