Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Brave New World - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 3

This year I'm doing the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge by reading two books that start with each letter of the alphabet. So far, I have read:

=> Amos Fortune Free Man
=> Around the World in 80 Days

This week I moved onto the letter "B" and read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It was written in 1932 is a satiric vision of a "utopian" future where humans are genetically bred and pharmaceutically-anesthetized to passively serve a ruling order.

The book - though fictional and satirical - has some elements that have an uncanny resemblance to elements of everyday life in 2014. Others, though not exactly what is or has happened in the world, still mirror challenges that are present in life.

For example, one of the key components of ensuring that life runs smoothly and without conflict in this utopian world is the repetitive messages that are softly broadcast to babies and youth in their sleep.

The goal is to play the recorded messages thousands of time "...till at last the child's mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child's mind. And not the child's mind only. The adult's mind too - all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides - made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions! .... Suggestions from the State."

One could contemplate that messages - whether positive or negative - are ones that a parent imparts to a child...a teacher to students...employer to employee. How important it is, in our lives, to surround ourselves with people who are positive and uplifting rather than negative and controlling.

Yet, in Brave New World that sense of control of not only attitude and  beliefs, but of the human body itself, is what works for this new world. The people in the utopian world are preserved from disease by keeping their bodies at an elemental ratio at "what it was at thirty. We give them transfusion of young blood. We keep their metabolism permanently stimulated. [And] because most of them die long before they reach...sixty, and then, crack! the end."

So, when a couple of the people in this "civilized" world visit a parallel world that exists in New Mexico, they are shocked by what they see: human bodies in various stages of the aging process, particularly extreme old age.

One of the visitors is disturbed at "his face [that] was profoundly wrinkled .... The toothless mouth had fallen in .... His body was bent and emaciated to the bone." When she asks her friend what the matter is with the man, he said, 'He's old, that's all,' as carelessly as he could. He too was startled; but he made an effort to seem unmoved."

Just as in any world - real or fiction, utopian or ordinary - there are always difficult feelings one has to experience. Interestingly, in Brave New World the feeling that is the most uncomfortable in both worlds is loneliness. As Bernard, one of the more intelligent beings in the utopian world says, "I'm rather different from most people I suppose .... If one's different, one's bound to be lonely."

The same feeling of loneliness is expressed by John who was raised in the reservation and who was different from the other people who lived there. He said, "If one's different, one's bound to be lonely."

In the middle of the book, Bernard (from the utopian world) brings John and Linda (from the reservation) to the utopian world as part of a secret campaign. Initially John is thrilled at going to this world that he's "dreamt of all [his] life ... the beautiful Other Place, whose memory, as of a heaven, a paradise of goodness and loveliness." Yet, it turns out to be far from the ideal world that he has imagined based on what his mother, Linda, has told him.

Feelings of mockery, rejection, and grief all permeate John's experience from the initial arrival in the utopian world to the process of watching his mother die to his intentional escape from the world to live, ironically, alone...something he had felt negatively when he was living in the reservation.

John listens to Bernard explain some of the new world's views with increasing puzzlement. Some of the core philosophies differ so greatly from what John believes are assets in the world. For example, in the new world, "We haven't any use for old things...particularly when they're beautiful .... We want them to like the new ones."

Bernard continued, "The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get. They're well off; they're safe; they're never ill; they're not afraid of death; they're blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they're plagued with no mothers or fathers; they've got no wives, or children, or loves to feel strongly about; they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there's soma."

To help themselves cope with any uncomfortable feelings, people in the utopian world consume soma. This commonly-used drug would transport people to another mental world...a way for them to take a "vacation" of sorts from everyday life.

Soma, as one reflects upon it, is no different in this world than any vice a person would choose to escape the realities of their life. Just as in our present-day world, people abuse activities, beverages, or drugs as way to not face some aspect of their lives, soma was used in this manner as well in the utopian world.

Brave New World is a thought-provoking, philosophical book that I found to be particularly sad near the end. Although some people have the opportunity to leave the utopian world if they "for one reason or another have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community life," that doesn't guarantee their happiness.

So what does guarantee happiness? What is a utopian world? Is a utopian life an individual experience or the way a community is constructed?

There are so many questions that Brave New World  doesn't answer, but rather leaves the reader reflecting upon long after putting it down. It is a book definitely worth reading.

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