Laura Frost, in her essay “Huxley's Feelies: The Cinema of Sensation in Brave New World,” states that “Brave New World has typically been read as "the classic denunciation of mass culture in the interwar years"” (Frost 448). This is true to an extent, as Frost points out. The novel explores the effects of mass culture and the implementation of eugenics and mass education to serve an industrialized society of consumption. Aspects of culture, such as the arts, have been reduced to pleasure seeking, and the population as a whole is kept within the machine of culture by means of pharmaceuticals. Much of this vision is drawn from Huxley’s experiences during the interwar period and for that reason, an exploration of his reactions to mass culture and his philosophy of culture prove useful in understanding the novel.
This essay will be exploring Brave New World according to Huxley’s reactions to the culture of the 1920s and the early 1930s, especially to aspects of mass culture, consumerism and scientific and technological approaches to human growth and reproduction. Huxley wrote a number of essays in the late 1920s and early 1930s that deal with these issues and several of these serve as the primary focus of this essay.
“Prophecies of the future,” writes Huxley in a 1927 essay, “if they are to be intelligent, not merely fantastic, must be based on a study of the present. The future is the present projected” (“The Outlook for American Culture” 187). This sentiment must be taken to heart if one is then to read a prophetic book by the author of the quote. Aldous Huxley was living and writing during the so-called “Jazz Age,” an age of increasing commercialism, consumerism and mechanization. The age saw a massive boost in the production of consumer goods and technologies, idealized in the streamlined assembly lines of Henry Ford, which provided goods for consumption, but demanded a larger worker class to fuel the boom. The further development of mass culture, thanks to the growth of music and film industries, was spurned by this growth in the working classes. Aldous Huxley’s novel is, at least to a degree, a product of this present.
Consumerism and materialism are central to Brave New World; any work that features Henry Ford as a god figure would surely have to be. Huxley writes in 1931:
The God of Industry supplies his worshipers with objects and can only exist on condition that his gifts are gratefully accepted. In the eyes of an Industriolater, the first duty of man is to collect as many objects as he can (“On the Charms of History” 131).
Huxley acknowledges that capitalists and industrialists need people to want the stuff produced. He argues that Ford, to whom Huxley refers rather sarcastically as “the saint of the new dispensation,” and other industrialists have no choice but to hate history, literature, the arts and others because all these “mental activities… distract mankind from an acquisitive interest in objects” (131-132). The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning in the opening section of the novel speaks of how mental activities in the lower classes, in this case a Romantic notion of nature, are discouraged in the hyper-consumerist society in Brave New World:
A love of Nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes; to abolish the love of nature but not the tendency to consume transport… We condition the masses to hate the country… but simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport (23).
The goal in the society of the novel is to adhere to what Huxley argues is the first duty of man to industrialists, owning and using the goods produced by industry. Every aspect of the World State is crafted to maintain production and/or to encourage consumption.
Those aspects of culture that occupy surplus time, the time spent not producing, have two functions: the consumption of material or the sedation or comforting of the producer so that he or she will continue to produce. The latter function is expressed by the Twentieth-Century theorist, Theodore Adorno. Shane Gunster, in his book Capitalizing on Culture: Critical Theory for Cultural Studies, summarizes Adorno’s theory involving this idea of “free-time”
Bored by the endless repetition of the assembly line or sales counter, people want novelty in their leisure time… While leisure masquerades as ‘free-time,’ it is an open secret that its true purpose is to replenish one’s working energies… Work and leisure are bound together in an unholy alliance: the culture industry openly celebrates its independence from production, selling its products as ‘freedom’ from the drudgery of the everyday, all the while secretly delivering its consumers ever-deeper into the clutches of a world from which they so anxiously desire to escape (Gunster 42-43).
This theory of the “culture industry,” feeding the consumer with entertainment during free-time so that the work will not suffer, is the driving force behind the Fordian culture that Huxley writes about in the 1920s and 30s and satirizes in Brave New World . Adorno, whose major works were not written until the Second World War, is analyzing a reality of mechanized society and mass culture that Huxley wrote of years before.
As a writer during the “Jazz Age,” Huxley would bear witness to the rise of commercial music as the record industry created a popular music that Huxley viewed in a negative light. In a 1925 essay on music, Huxley describes a piece of popular music:
There is a certain jovial, bouncing, hoppety little tune with which any one who has spent even a few weeks in Germany… must be familiar. Its name is “Ach, du lieber Augustin.” It is a merry little affair in three-four time; in rhythm and melody so simple, that the village idiot could sing it after a first hearing; in sentiment so innocent that the heart of the most susceptible maiden would not quicken by a beat a minute at the sound of it. Rum-tiddle, Um tum tum, Um tum tum… By the very frankness of its cheerful imbecility the thing disarms all criticism. (Collected Essays 173)
Huxley finds this example of popular music simplistic and moronic, not even worth a real critique. He continues on the subject by comparing the tune to an eighteenth-century waltz of the same name and to all music prior to the mid-Nineteenth century:
The difference between “Ach, du lieber Augustin” and any waltz composed at any date from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, is the difference between one piece of music almost completely empty of emotional content and another, densely saturated with amorous sentiment, languor and voluptuousness. (173)
Huxley then expands his critique to criticize all contemporary popular music as lacking the meaningful emotional content that was, he feels, characteristic of all pre-mid-nineteenth-century popular music.
In his essay “The Music Industry,” published in 1933, the year after Brave New World’s publication, Huxley writes about the short life-span of popular music and declares his era as “an age of rapid technical progress, and the desire for incessant novelty is a natural product of environmental change” and adds that the tendency for novelty increases consumption and is therefore, “encouraged by manufacturers” (“The Music Industry” 101).
The music show that Lenina and Henry attend towards the beginning of the novel echoes Huxley’s fears from “The Music Industry” regarding the need for novelty in popular culture. The advertisements for the show “invitingly” declare it, in all-capital letters, “LONDON’S FINEST SCENT AND COLOR ORGAN. ALL THE LATEST SYNTHETIC MUSIC” (BNW 76). There is an emphasis placed on the “latest,” favoring that novelty which fuels consumption. Again there is an echo in Adorno. Gunster looks at an essay Adorno published titled “On Popular Music”:
On the one hand, he argues, the ‘fundamental’ property of popular music is that it is unremittingly standardized: ‘every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine’… On the other hand, marketability demands that repetition be hidden beneath the illusion of individuality, difference, and novelty (Gunster 24).
Adorno’s “culture industry” is again reflected in the popular music. His descriptions of popular music are very similar to way Huxley describes popular music as simplistic and standardized. Likewise, both acknowledge that the culture industry markets its goods to consumers based on supposed novelty.
Within Brave New World, Huxley’s critique of popular music comes through in his descriptions of the music of the World State. The music, like the example song Huxley described from Germany in 1925, is cheerful, with simple, formulaic, verses and chorus reeling with meaningless phrases and cliché. An excellent example of this is the Solidarity Hymn of “Orgy-porgy”
Orgy porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One.
Boys at one with girls at peace;
Orgy-porgy gives release. (BNW 84)
This song not only contains little real meaning, a critique that Huxley aims at all popular music, but also contains, as most music in the novel does, strong sexuality. In that same essay on popular music, Huxley is critical of what he calls a “certain vibrant sexuality” of popular music describing it as “vulgar,” “savage” and “barbaric” (Collected Essays 174-175) and maintains that the sexuality and barbarism are pervasive:
Whether, having grown inured to such violent and purely physiological stimuli as the clashing and drumming, the rhythmic throbbing and wailing glissandos of modern jazz music can supply, the world will ever revert to something less crudely direct, is a matter about which one cannot prophesy. (175)
This description of the clashing drums and glissandos certainly is echoed in the scene wherein Lenina and Henry watch “Calvin Stopes and His Sixteen Sexaphonists” with the sexaphones (clearly a play on one of staples of jazz music, the saxophone) “wail[ing] like melodious cats” with moaning tenors and altos “as though the little death were upon them.” (BNW 76). The implication is that of sex and orgasm in music form: Aldous Huxley’s vision of jazz music taken to the extreme of “purely physiological.”
This critique of mass music is also repeated in a supposed alternative to mass culture, the “Savage Reservation.” Huxley, at the time of writing the novel, had never been to New Mexico, in spite of the fact that his friend D.H. Lawrence owned a ranch there beginning in 1924. Peter Firchow, in his essay “Wells and Lawrence in Brave New World” writes that the fact troubled Huxley, but quotes the author as having done “’an enormous [amount] of reading up on New Mexico’” since he had not yet been there (Firchow 272). Huxley relied on Lawrence’s writings about the Pueblo Indians as well as Smithsonian reports of the place (Firchow 272-273). In spite of of his relative inexperience with historical New Mexican native cultures, Huxley creates a culture for the Pueblo and, in doing so, creates one that is at times incredibly similar to World State. Lenina draws comparison between the drums of the Pueblo religious dancing to the music of the Solidarity Service hymns in the World States “religion” of Fordism.
Lenina liked the drums. Shutting her eyes she abandoned herself to their soft repeated thunder, allowed it to invade her consciousness more and more completely, till at last there was nothing left in the world but that one deep pulse of sound. It reminded her reassuringly of the synthetic noises made at Solidarity Services and Ford’s Day celebrations. “Orgy-porgy,” she whispered to herself. The drums beat out just the same rhythms (BNW 113).
Here we have a sexual response to music as Lenina abandons herself and allows the music to take her, in spite of it coming from a foreign place and culture. The drums here are strikingly reminiscent of the way that Huxley describes the Jazz and popular music of the 1920s. He talks about how popular culture has “grown inured to such violent and purely physiological stimuli as the clashing and drumming” and this he attributes to the influence of “barbarous people” (Collected Essays 175). By supplying the Indians and the mass culture of the world state with similar music, music that Huxley himself finds void of real emotion, he is equating the two cultures intellectually.
The Reservation within Huxley’s novel becomes a mirror to the World State culture, an echo of Huxley’s fear of growing barbarism in popular culture. There are some points of contrast between the two. For instance, materials in the reservation are made by the individuals and are valued enough to be repaired rather than replaced as is the expectation in the World State when, say, an article of clothing becomes worn out. There is a passage on labor wherein John is working clay and through this action he becomes “filled with an intense, absorbing happiness” (BNW 134). However, these differences are superficial. There is still a value placed on productivity just as in the World State. John is made happier and feels more a part of his culture when he is allowed to work the clay.
Just as the World State has the Community sings to promote “Community, Identity and Stability”, religion of the pueblo serves a function for productivity. John explains the whippings that Lenina and Bernard witness as being “For the sake of the pueblo – to make rain come and corn grow.” Adherence to religion provides Stability and Community for the Indians. To further the comparison between the Savage culture and the World State, Huxley gives the Indians their own drug, mescal, to help cope with life just as soma does the job for the World State citizens. Similarly, John’s position within, or rather without, the Pueblo society is similar to Bernard’s position within the World State culture. Both are outcasts for their appearances and therefore both seem more alone than the others; “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely. They’re beastly to one” (137). This mentality mirrors the values of Community and Identity contained within the World State’s motto. Identify as an individual and you are hurting the community; “when the individual feels, the community reels” is what Lenina recites, which is most likely some hypnopaedic verse (94). These characteristics, exemplified most clearly by the music of the two cultures, show that the reservation society is not a true alternative to the degradation of culture prevalent in the World State; it is just many of the same processes in a different form and to a different extent.
A second form of mass culture within the World State is the “feelies.” Laura asserts that “[t]he ‘feelies’, a cinema of titillating, pansensual stimulation, are clearly a response to the ‘talkies,’” and that Huxley is extending the inclusion of sound in film to the rest of the senses (Frost 447). Huxley’s reaction to the “talkies,” specifically to the first “talkie” The Jazz Singer, expressed in an essay titled “Silence is Golden” is, as Frost points out, one of “scorn and fury” (Frost 443). He is absolutely disgusted by the film as he writes:
Oh, those mammy-songs, those love-longings, those loud hilarities! How was it possible that human emotions intrinsically decent could be so ignobly parodied? I felt like a man who, having asked for wine, is offered a brimming bowl of hog wash. And not even fresh hog wash. Rancid hog wash, decaying hog wash. (“Silence is Golden” 21)
He sees in film the same degeneration of human emotion and integrity that he sees in popular music. That the first “talkie” he saw was about a singer of popular music only solidified his dislike and in the end he feels “ashamed for [himself] for listening to such things, for even being a member of the species to which these things are addressed” (“Silence is Golden 23).
The feelies in Brave New World are described in similar fashion as Huxley’s description of The Jazz Singer. The film that John and Lenina see, “Three Weeks in a Helicopter,” is described as having an “extremely simple” plot, with the real focus placed on the effects of the movie, as with the “famous bearskin… every hair of which could be separately and distinctly felt” (168). The images and effects come off as “more solid-looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality” just as Huxley, whose vision had worsened following an eye infection during his teenage years, described the images in the “talkie”
A beneficent providence has dimmed my powers of sight, so that, at a distance of more than four or five yards, I am blissfully unaware of the average human countenance. At the cinema, however, there is no escape… Nothing short of total blindness can preserve one from the spectacle. The jazzers were forced on me; I regarded them with fascinated horror. (“Silence is Golden” 21)
“More solid-looking” than real life is exactly the reaction Huxley had to seeing the film, since the real world was not that solid to him because of his impaired vision. Frost accepts that Huxley is at least “half feigning” his reactions to the films (Frost 443) but she points to a moment in Huxley’s “Silence is Golden” when he condemns film as “the latest and most frightful creation-saving device for the production of standardized amusement” (“Silence” 20). The standardization of amusement is what frightens Huxley, be it in music or film or in literature. In his fictionalized culture, these devices for amusement standardization are taken to the extremes. They are “more than human,” more real than reality at the same time that they are void of substance.
The subject of substance within art is brought to the foreground in the conversation between John and Mustafa Mond in the later parts of Brave New World. The Controller argues, “You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art,” and he concludes “We’ve sacrificed the high arts. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead” (BNW 220). There is a hierarchy wherein pleasure replaces the need for aesthetics. John responds by stating that the “feelies” and the other elements of mass culture in the World State do not mean anything. Mond then replies that these things “mean a lot of agreeable sensations to the audience” (221). The feelies are horrifying to John because the end result is not knowledge of the human condition, but rather pleasure seeking. And in the world of hyper-pleasure, it is difficult to find anything on which to base meaningful art. That is the problem Helmholtz Watson struggles with: “writing when there’s nothing to say” (221). In an essay from 1923, Huxley writes “The poetry of pure sensation, of sounds and bright colors, is common enough nowadays; but amusing as we may find it for the moment, it cannot hold the interest for long” (Collected Essays 93). One can easily draw comparison to the “feelies” and the music of the World State here as something that amuses but that fails to, as John or even Mustafa Mond might say, mean anything beyond itself.
The inclusion of Helmholtz Watson brings up another issue of mass culture, namely the place, if there is one, for the intellectual or the artist within mass culture. Towards the end of the novel, Bernard and Helmholtz are to be sent to an island. Mustafa Mond speaks of Bernard’s fate
He’s being sent to an island. That’s to say, he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who’s any one (BNW 227).
This is a clear separation between the intellectual free-thinkers and the mass population. As Mond points out, there is no room in the World State for individuality and the search for truth and meaning since “truth’s a menace.” He concludes by adding that
Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t (228).
In the movement towards mass culture, artists and intellectuals, like the aspiring poet Helmholtz Watson, and individualists have no place. In a 1929 essay Huxley raises this question of the possibility for the individual in a mechanized state
Is it possible for a human being to be both a man and a citizen of a mechanized state? Is it possible to combine the material advantages which accrue to those living in a mechanized world with the psychological advantages enjoyed by those who live in pre-mechanical surroundings? Such are the questions which future politicians will have to ask and effectively answer in terms of laws and regulations. What sort of answers will they give? Who knows? Not I at any rate. I am even a little doubtful whether the questions are answerable (“Machinery, Psychology, and Politics” 221).
Huxley sees the war between individual and the industrialized state but provides no solutions to this issue and even has doubts whether the issue will ever be resolved. In his novel he has the rulers simply separate those that become too individualistic from the mass-minded because they are dangerous to the sedated, pleasure-driven masses.
Furthermore, Huxley fears that through mass education, those intellectuals might be eliminated. In a 1927 essay titled “Education” Huxley writes on the defects of Mass education
Under the present system of mass education by classes too much stress is laid on the teaching and too little on active learning. The child is not encouraged to discover things on his own account. He learns to rely on outside help, not on his own powers, thus losing intellectual independence and all the capacity to judge for himself. The over-taught child is the father of newspaper-reading, advertisement-believing, propaganda-swallowing, demagogue-led man… (“Education” 205-206)
This analysis of mass education makes the learner dependent upon the system, which Huxley sees as fueling advertising and propaganda. Huxley wrote in 1929 on the effects of mass education on society
We have had universal education for about fifty years; the supply of [Isaac] Newtons, however, has not perceptibly increased. Everybody, it is true, can now read – with the result that newspapers of an unbelievable stupidity and baseness have circulations of millions. Everybody can read – so it pays rich men to print lies wholesale. Everybody can read so men make fortunes by inventing specious reasons why people should buy things they don’t really want (“The New Salvation” 212-213).
Huxley’s view on mass education is that it does not better society. No more geniuses are to be found in a wholly educated society as in a partially educated one. The effect in his mind is that capitalists have more means through which they can influence people into desiring and buying the goods they produce. His obvious prejudices and elitism aside, the note about separate newspapers that target certain intellectual class levels of society is reflected in the various periodicals aimed at the classes of the World State like The Delta Mirror or The Gamma Gazette. The process is taken one step further in Brave New World by having the education system emphasize the value of consumption of goods, rather than that consumption value being pushed by the writers of the newspapers as Huxley wrote about in 1929. Consumerism is more standardized.
Education is not the only means of control of the masses employed to maintain production, the population itself is in the management of the state. The populous is bred systematically in a process much like that of a Fordian assembly line: using bottles and genetic manipulation instead of the natural process of human reproduction. With the bottling, the creation of the sterile “free-martins” and the rigid implementation of contraceptives like the “Malthusian belts,” the population of the world is entirely in control of the industrialized state. This culture also employs scientific methods such as “Bokanovsky’s Process” and Pavlovian conditioning to carefully craft a society of rigid castes. The function of education is to teach the members of those castes their respective roles and the roles of others and the necessity of these roles in the greater context.
This process of industrialized reproduction makes raising and educating citizens much easier for the World State since they can begin that conditioning during the embryonic stage of production. Additionally, the levels of society, the castes alpha through gamma, can be predetermined and separated strictly. Education is begun at the fetal level, thanks to hypnopaedia, saving time. Since reproduction is standardized and contained wholly within a factory, the leaders of the mechanized society do not have to wait until a semblance of character starts to show in people to condition them towards a certain way of life; the genetics do that for them. This process reflects Huxley’s views of the potential of science from his 1930 predictive essay “Babies - State Property.” He writes
Psychologists having shown the enormous importance in every human existence of the first years of childhood, the state will obviously try to get hold of its victims as soon as possible. The process of standardization will begin at the very moment of birth – that is to say, if it does not begin before birth! (231).
He goes on to predict that this process of standardization at or before birth will be destructive to the family. But, unlike in his novel, he predicts that the family “will emerge again when the danger is past” (231).
This careful selection of genetic material is the idea of eugenics, a term that is hard to separate from the fascists of the 1930s and 1940s, especially the National Socialists in Germany. Prior to that period though, Huxley often expounded on the ideas of eugenics. In a 1927 essay called “A Note on Eugenics” Huxley expresses a common fear of the time period that scientific and technological processes were preserving “physically and mentally defective individuals” and that the quality of human reproduction was diminishing (“A Note on Eugenics” 281) In her essay “Designing a Brave New World: Eugenics, Politics and Fiction,” Joanne Woiak addresses this subject by writing “[Huxley’s] ongoing support for so-called race betterment was typical of left-leaning British intellectuals in the inter-war period” (Woiak 106).
Huxley’s own feelings on the subject seem mixed. Also in 1927, Huxley wrote an essay dealing with the subject of equality and democracy
We no longer believe in equality and perfectibility. We know that nurture cannot alter nature and that no amount of education or good government will make men completely virtuous and reasonable, or abolish their animal instincts. In the Future that we envisage, eugenics will be practiced in order to improve the human breed and the instincts will not be ruthlessly repressed but, as far as possible, sublimated so as to express themselves in socially harmless ways (“The Future of the Past” 93).
He continues to predict that education will not be the same for everyone and that this education system will teach “the members of the lower castes only that which is profitable for the members of the upper castes that they should know” (93). Huxley is arguing that the nineteenth-century ideals of democracy and universal equality are not a reality and predicts a future of selective reproduction and a defined caste system based on genetic stock. Brave New World certainly reflects this prediction; eugenics policies have been implemented but there are certainly instinctual processes, like violent passions, that have to be expressed in “socially harmless ways” – the Violent Passion Surrogates.
But that sort of hope-filled view of the possible benefits of eugenics is not wholly what is at work in Huxley’s Brave New World. In that 1927 prediction, the intellectuals control the selective processes for determining the caste system. However, in 1932, the year of Brave New World’s publication, Huxley returns to the issue of eugenics by writing that “The humanist would see in eugenics an instrument for giving to an ever-widening circle of men and women those heritable qualities of mind and body which are, by his highest standards, the most desirable” (“Science and Civilization” 153). This is in line with his earlier views on the possible benefits of eugenics. But Huxley acknowledges that it might not be the humanist that is in charge of the process.
But what of the economist-ruler? Would he necessarily be anxious to improve the race? By no means necessarily. He might actually wish to deteriorate it. His ideal, we must remember, is not the perfect all-around human being, but the perfect mass-producer and mass-consumer. Now perfect human beings probably make very bad mass-producers. It is quite in the cards that industrialists will find, as machinery is made more foolproof, that the great majority of jobs can be better performed by stupid people than by intelligent ones (154).
This is the society of Brave New World. As Mustafa Mond puts it, “The optimum population… is modelled [sic] on the iceberg – eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above” (BNW 223). The population, as mentioned earlier, is conditioned to consume and to produce, and the eugenics policy helps create the society can perform the necessary tasks. Taken that way, the novel seems to be a satire and condemnation not of eugenics, but of eugenics run by the industrialist to create masses of dumber humans to buy and consume stuff.
This then returns the mind to Huxley’s 1927 prediction of eugenics and those instincts that have to be expressed in “socially harmless ways” (“The Future of the Past” 93). Realizing the necessity for emotion, they employ “Violent Passion Surrogates” to “flood the whole system with adrenin” in order to satisfy what Mustapha Mond calls “one of the conditions of perfect health” (Brave New World 239). In short they are simulating the dangers of life in a safe and systematic way. Freedom of sex covers the sexual instincts and has the benefit also of providing pleasure during free-time.
One of the greatest forces of keeping the workers producing is through the drug soma.
“The perfect drug… Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant… All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of the defects” (BNW 53-54). Soma is the release and the reward for the obedient mechanized worker of the world state. Combined with the “feelies” and all the other aspects of mass culture in the World State, soma helps keep the society in order by keeping the workers pleased. “Industrial civilization,” as Mustafa Mond puts it, “is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self indulgence up to the very limits of imposed hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.” (BNW 237).
As with eugenics, Huxley’s writings on drug use varied, especially following the Second World War with his explorations into psychedelic drugs in The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. But even around the time of Brave New World’s publication he often was writing on drug use. In 1931 he addressed the issue of drug as an escape in a brief essay titled “Treatise on Drugs”
Everywhere and at all times, men and women have sought, and duly found, the means of taking a holiday from the reality of their dull and often acutely unpleasant existence. A holiday out of space, out of time, in the eternity of sleep or ecstasy (“A Treatise on Drugs” 304).
For Huxley, drug use seems inevitable. This holiday is certainly mirrored in Brave New World. “The cause of drunkenness and drug-taking is to be found in the general dissatisfaction with reality,” he writes in a 1932 essay titled “Poppy Juice,” an essay talking about the effects of drug policing. But Huxley continues by including the sort of people that might not be dissatisfied with life and the possibility of drug use among them.
Alcohol and drugs offer means of escape from the prison of the world and the personality. Better and securer conditions of life, better health, better upbringing, resulting in more harmoniously balanced character, would do much to make reality seem generally tolerable and even delightful. But it may be doubted whether, even in Utopia, reality would be universally satisfying all the time. Even in Utopia people would pine for an occasional escape, if only from the radiant monotony of happiness (“Poppy juice” 317).
This idea of people using drugs to escape monotonous Utopia seems one of the probable reasons for soma’s pervasiveness in the World State. The hypnopaedic chorus “A gramme is better than a damn” reflects those moments when reality might not wholly satisfy; rather than cursing the situation, just take soma to escape on holiday.
But escapism is not the only use of soma. Or rather, the effect of escapism soma has is not just beneficial for the individual. John Hickman, in his essay “When Science Fiction Writers Used Fictional Drugs: Rise and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Drug Dystopia,” writes that “[The] use of the recreational drug soma is one of several aspects of dehumanization made possible by the scientific expertise wielded by amoral elites” (Hickman 144). Whether or not the industrialists of Brave New World are “amoral” is beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, Hickman’s point about the dehumanizing effects of soma remains true. The drug is used by the World State to keep the masses in check. One of the hypnopaedic lessons Lenina recites is “Was and will make me ill… I take a gramme and only am” (BNW 104). The sentiment here is that thinking of past occurrences or having ambitions or fear does not help, and that soma can help keep you in the present. There is no need for rebellion or trying to better one’s position if soma can take the individual out of the negative moments. The lack of downside and the steady stream of governmental supply of soma ensure that the citizens are kept in a pleasure-filled world so that they might continue to produce and consume more. Hickman concludes, based on those later novels by Huxley and on the comparison with the mescal used in Pueblo society, that Huxley is not against drug use “as a more direct route to spiritual development, but was instead opposed to recreational drug taking that would render a population docile” (Hickman 145). In the 1931 “Treatise on Drugs”, Huxley was dreaming of a super soma-like drug when writing about the history of drugs and how all of the drugs present in the world are “treacherous and harmful”:
The way to prevent people from drinking too much alcohol, or to becoming addicts to morphia or cocaine, is to give them an efficient but wholesome substitute for these delicious and (in the present imperfect world) necessary poisons… The man who invents such a substance will be counted among the greatest benefactors of suffering humanity (“Treatise on Drugs” 304-305).
Huxley’s perfect drug was achieved in the fictional soma. But as was the case with eugenics policies, this too fell into the hands of the industrialists who used it to benefit the mechanized society by keeping the mass culture satiated with pleasure and escapist trappings. The drug, as Hickman points out, is used to keep the masses producing and consuming, just as all other aspects of the culture had those goals in mind.
Brave New World is a vision of a future that is based on Huxley’s reactions and interpretations of the 1920s. His strong favoring of an intellectual culture over a mass-produced comfort driven culture is abundantly made clear in the novel. In a different 1931 essay titled “To The Puritan,” Huxley pushes the idea that Fordism as a philosophy could prove destructive to humanity if pursued fully.
There is no place in the factory, or in that larger factory which is the modern industrialized world, for animals on the one hand, or for artists, mystics, or even, finally, individuals on the other. Of all the ascetic religions Fordism is that which demands the cruellest [sic] mutilations of the human psyche – demands the cruellest [sic] mutilations and offers the smallest spiritual returns. Rigorously practiced for a few generations, this dreadful religion of the machine will end by destroying the human race (“To the Puritan” 238-239).
Although one can hardly call the human race completely destroyed in Brave New World, it is easy to see how Huxley’s opinions of Ford and consumer-based society are reflected in the work. There is a real fear of the mechanized world destroying the intellectual and the individual as mass culture becomes more and more obsessed with pleasure-seeking and consumption. From the “feelies” to soma, the elements of the World State culture mirror Huxley’s fears. Brave New World tells of a world wholly consumed by the need to produce and consume and every aspect of culture is tuned to that goal.
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