Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Huxley's Brave New World: A Hedonist's Response

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

- John the Savage repudiating Mustapha Mond in Brave New World.

There is common comparison made between Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. One that remarks that while Orwell described the authoritarianism of his time, Huxley predicted the "soft-power" at work today. Read in this way the core theme of Brave New World is similar to that of emanicpatory writers like Rousseau: humans are frequently complicit in their own enslavement. This comparison suffers however from a certain level of western-centrism and misses some of the finer details of the dystopia which Huxley created.

Firstly, and a similar point is levelled by Nadya Tolokonnikova against Slavoj Zizek, the notion that modern capitalism controls its subjects through pleasure ignores the sweat-house labour and dictatorial right wing governments that have arguably played a big role in shaping modern global capitalism. Secondly, in Brave New World there is no evidence that humanity willingly gave up its Bibles or poetry; such things are banned and an inescapable system of social conditioning is required to force these artefacts of ancient pleasure into obsolescence. The depravity of the new world's citizens is artificial it is not an organic product of Huxley's subjects and their desires. As a hedonist of sorts,  while I could cry that Huxley's society is the product of authoritarianism and not pleasure seeking humans, that would do Brave New World a dis-service: the book did give me cause to reflect on hedonism and the relationship between pleasure and authenticity.

 The first thing that struck me as of particular philosophical interest was "Soma". Soma is the fictional drug taken by the new world's inhabitants and it functions as a very trenchant iteration of Nozick's experience machine. Unlike Nozick's original machine, soma requires very little in terms of metaphysical "jump": one could liken it to heroin without the side effects. Furthermore soma highlights the escapist tendencies of Brave New World's inhabitants. By taking soma the characters leave the reality which they ostensibly cannot deal with and submit themselves to a realm of pleasure inaccessible to more sober minds. This idea of "pleasure as escapism" may present some problems for a hedonistic outlook and raises questions about the dialectic between "fake pleasure" and "real pleasure".  Are there pleasures that fail to be valuable because they have no relation to objects outside of the subjects experience? Are mind altering substances providing fake happiness or real happiness?  Is a drunk happy to see you or do they merely think that they are in a welcoming mood?

Currently, I see little reason to make a hard distinction between the pleasures that are accrued through synthetic chemical manipulation, such as alcohol or soma based pleasures, and the organic chemical manipulations achieved through sugar, salt or a caressing touch. Furthermore if the thing that scares us about Soma is that it "merely creates pleasure" then what is that missing ingredient that allows us to be satisfied even if we are not enjoying ourselves? Pain? The outlook of John the Savage is rather reminiscent of Seneca: the roman philosopher who believed that suffering and tribulation should be cherished as a source of meaning in an otherwise empty life.

I can empathise with the Senecan position: life would become very boring if one was absolved of all tragedy. This I do not think is necessarily a problem for hedonists as the hedonic treadmill ensures that we will never run out of tribulations to give purpose to our growth. It may be that the reason we want struggle is that it gives context to our successes. We want struggle and heartbreak not because we don't value pleasure but because struggle and heartbreak make our pleasure worthwhile. 

My response to those who raise up Huxley's Brave New World as a warning against hedonism is that its citizens are not really committed hedonists. They are cattle who have been forcefully deprived of a range of pleasures, primarily intellectual ones, and conditioned to accept passivity as a state of enduring desirability.

When it comes to the relationship between pleasure and eudemonia what Brave New World articulates is a critique of lazy infantilization posing as the good life. As I have argued before, empty gluttonous carnality is not the same thing as an ethical and well-disciplined regime of hedonism.


  1. "Secondly, in Brave New World there is no evidence that humanity willingly gave up its Bibles or poetry; such things are banned and an inescapable system of social conditioning is required to force these artifacts of ancient pleasure into obsolescence."

    In fact, Huxley didn't give us enough societal history to know how or when humanity gave up such things as natural child birth or when the Bible or poetry began as taboo. Instead, we only see that society as a point in time snapshot after these things are truths. Were a backstory written on how The Brave New World society came to exist, where Soma comes from, how the technology came to exist to create clones, then we might have a better understanding of this entire story. Instead, Huxley only treats us to a glimpse of this society already in action and we must just accept that it is so without that history. We must accept the technology exists to support their society, but not from where or how it originated or how it is maintained.

    This is typical of utopian stories. Instead of bogging the story down with a huge amount of history to support how a given utopia came to exist, we are simply immersed into that world and we are expected to accept things at face value. It happened here in Brave New World. It also happened in Logan's Run (another similarly utopian/dystopian society). It even happened in Star Trek.

    By not having to devise and document volumes of back history, it frees the writer to get his story under way quickly. The only back story that becomes necessary is anything that becomes contained within and relevant to the story (i.e., the news reels in Brave New World).

  2. Hey Brian,

    Thanks for stopping by! It's been a good while since I last read Huxley but I do remember it being hinted at that bibles, in particular, were "taken away".

    I could be totally mis-remembering this but I recollect that there was a glimpsed backstory to the effect of there being a great war which sparked the rise of the world controllers who looked to remove things like religion, poetry, art etc so that they could create a world free of conflict and pain.

    It's certainly not a fleshed out backstory but it does feed into Huxley's dichotomy of "the man who accepts pain vs the child who refuses it".

    1. Huxley doesn't need to provide volumes of backstory to get his point across in A Brave New World. A story author only needs the bare story minimums to set up a world that leads to a poignant morality play at the end. In fact, while the dichotomy is but one takeaway, another takeaway is just how much A Brave New World was intended to be a satirical commentary on our present society.

      Though, I will say that a condensed version of Huxley's Brave New World would have made a stellar Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode, where these show's endings tended to leave the viewer pondering what they had just witnessed and what it all meant.