“But industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”
(World Controller Mustapha Mond responding to a question about self-denial by the ‘Savage,’ John)
– Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, p. 237.
***For those who have not read Brave New World a brief summary can be found here.***
The enduring power of Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian book, Brave New World, is found in its quasi-prophetic description of various aspects of modern industrialized liberal society. Of course, we do not live in a time where children are industrially produced in hatcheries and assigned their role in life through genetic manipulation and hypnopaedic instruction. Nevertheless, what we do see is a society with an extreme emphasis on the material, the physical and visceral, and a belief that happiness is the chief end of humanity. We see a society obsessed with trends, consuming unprecedented amounts of goods, and thoroughly over-saturated with the fulfillment of desires. With so much focus on the here and now, as Huxley predicted, there is no time or need for things like God or virtue.
Thus, the arrival of John, the quasi-monastic, conscious, simple-living, individualistic critic of this ‘civilization’ – the quintessential pre-modern man who embodied the old way of the world – from the Reservation to the Brave New World of dystopian London was met with a potent mixture of curiosity and incredulity. The ‘civilized’ people named him ‘Savage’ because this is what he was to them, a primitive and entirely unenlightened individual who knew not what was best for him and for humanity.
The irony, as Huxley skillfully points out throughout his novel, was that John was not the savage they automatically presumed him to be. In fact, it was the ‘civilized’ people who were the real savages because they did not possess any independent thought and were enslaved to their desires because of their complete lack of self-control when it came to the consumption of food, entertainment, psychedelics, and sex. Their so-called civilization was no more than a collection of unrestrained and undisciplined infants who continually fed their most base desires, never considering something beyond what they could physically experience. Thus, to the ‘civilized’ people, John had to be a savage, a madman: a viewpoint many would share today.
Moreover, the existence of a person like John was a threat to the dystopian ‘civilization’ because he rejected the premise of the whole system, thereby ruining the false harmony they had created and perpetuated with indoctrination and propaganda and maintained with the endless fulfillment of pleasures – the real opium of the masses. This was made manifestly obvious during John’s short-lived attempt to awake people from their programming, to sever their dependence on the physical (in this case to the psychedelic soma) so that they could be free, to which he received a response of anger and violence.
Nearly 1700 years ago, St. Anthony the Great prophetically said: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'” Such people as those living in the Brave New World would much rather ignore the deeper reality of things so long as it meant their temporal illusion of happiness remained intact (2 Tim. 4:3). This is why John’s mother Linda was shunned for her actions on the Reservation, she was surrounded by people who lived lives that revolved around more than the pursuit of happiness through strictly material means. In other words, lives of self-sacrifice, pensive reflection, and the acceptance of voluntary and involuntary suffering that accompanies the human experience.
Since Huxley wrote his book in a very different time, it could once be seen as a warning about what the world could become. But as we inch closer to realizing his dystopia in this post-modern age, the question his book poses to readers changes as the worldview of his readers do. The question for our age is not “could we become this,” because in a sense we already have. Rather, the question Huxley asks of our time is: Are we, like those citizens of dystopian London, perpetuating the machine that is keeping us enslaved?