One of the magical things about Classic Literature is that it can be read, and re-read, through generations of people. Everyone who reads this piece or that piece takes away something different from the experience. Even as we are different people throughout our own lifetimes, we form different interpretations of the same piece of literature as we read it again.
nrlymrtl and I have been friends for nigh two decades. We see eye-to-eye on a lot of the more recently published books. But these classics? Interestingly enough, we’re often in the Blog Bar fighting about some of the YOBC selections. She wasn’t as enamored of Beloved (Toni Morrison) as I was. She loved Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) but I couldn’t stomach a re-read. And if you mention “Sherlock Holmes” around us, you’ll just get a cat-fight.
Here, for your entertainment, is a Review Double Feature (fortunately for you this review is neither “feely” nor “smelly”). We both read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley for Jan’s YOBC, the selection inspired by LittleRedReviewer’s Vintage Sci-fi Month. I had never read this book before, and nrlymrtl had read it once before in high school. Turns out, after discussion, we actually get pretty much the same reaction out of Brave New World. However, she claims it as a “like” and I as a “dislike”.
(note to parents: there are some concepts below the cut that, if I were a parent, I’d want my kids discussing with me.)
Whenever picking up a YOBC selection, I have to set my frame of mind. Nearly all these books were written by a white male at a time when damn near only white males were getting published. So, I crack the covers with the expectation that there will be white superiority and male superiority. Saying that, neither of those reflect my own personal attitudes. Once I have my expectations tweaked (set back 100 years), I can then (usually) get something out of these books. I don’t read them to relate to the characters or the times. I don’t admire the attitudes towards people with melanin in their skin or towards women. I read them to find out if the Critics of the Ages are right – is this book worthy?
I enjoyed Brave New World because it makes me FEEL. I feel uncomfortable, I feel anger, I feel sorrow, and I feel chagrin. Summary: The Utopian society, set in the UK, has done away with art, science, families, and religion. In place, we have bottle-grown children, psychological conditioning from pre-birth, massive consumerism, lack of passion, rampant society promiscuity, government-endorsed mellow-you-out drugs. There are also bastions of science, art, and religion – the savage reservations and some designated islands for misfits. In this case, a white male savage, who has grown up on a NM reservation, is taken to the UK to be introduced to ‘real civilization’. The works of Shakespeare, the Bible, and languages such as Spanish and Zuni are considered uncivilized and are outlawed by the Utopian government.
With that summary, I think you can get where I feel the anger – those things aren’t uncivilized and the use of a NM pueblo as a savage reservation (Malpais) had my angry squinty eyes going. But by the end of the book, Huxley redeemed himself a bit through some discussions between The Controller and John Savage about all the good things from the reservation and all the bad things about the Utopian society. The sorrow I felt came from the ending. Yes, I am going to spoil it for you, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. [SPOILER] John goes off by himself to a light house where he can hunt rabbits and grow a little garden. Soon he becomes a tourist attraction with his odd ways. He turns away Sex object #1 in a fit of fury and then later that night hangs himself. End of book. [END SPOILER].
The feelings of uncomfortable and chagrin sometimes went hand in hand. We are a consumer society, even more so than when Brave New World was originally published (1931). Much of the consumer attitudes reflected in this book I can see clearly in my own society, and even in my own life. And that is one of the reasons I like this book – it gently points out something in my own life and character that I want to change. I also see a good chunk of modern society is self-medicating – instead of facing those difficult feelings and working through them. So much of the current entertainment is about sensation and not about reality; we don’t currently have the technology for ‘feelies’ and smell-o-vision, but if we did nigh on near everyone would have such a unit hooked up to the TV. Overall, I enjoyed this book because it pointed out so many human foibles, many of them still prevalent in modern society.
Darkcargo: I’m just not a fan of the dystopian novel. I have no doubt in my mind that there are horrid, hopeless futures ahead for humanity. For me, Brave New World goes in the pile with Ender’s Game (Card), Lord of the Flies (Golding), 1984 (Orwell), Jude the Obscure (Hardy), and the Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood): necessary harbingers, but for me, not enjoyable reading.
Brave New World? Eh. Not my fave. I understand its message, I understand the point that Huxley is trying to make, and I find a whole crapton of analogies between the “Civilization” and where it seems our political sphere is going and our over-decadent American society; I can hear the fear of unstable society ringing loud and clear, the fear of eggshell stable Europe about to explode into another world war; there’s a lot I do like about this book– that’s the strength of classic literature, that it still has meaning and relevance to readers throughout the ages. It just made me ill, the way 1984 did, or listening to The Wall; it gives me a sense of dischord, or of that gut-certainty that something terrible is going to happen. I was snapping and Duncan (my hubs) and the dogs while reading it. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not going in the re-read pile.
I spent more energy trying to justify WHY I didn’t like the novel than reading it or thinking about its message. For my two cents, that’s not an enjoyable read, I’ve got better things to do.
I didn’t like Bernard. The characterization of him is inconsistent, one chapter he’s decisive and defiant, in the next he’s slurping up the Soma with the rest of them. In the beginning he’s disdainful of what others think of him, by the end, he’s devastated that his display of the Savage isn’t bringing him the fame it did previously. Why is he so enamored of Lenina if he finds her to be such an airhead?
For me, the racial and gender issues in the book went beyond the author’s storytelling purpose. I don’t like BNW because of its ridiculous and stupid depiction of American Indians. When reading this, I interpret that Huxley didn’t know much about American Indians and so just smushed them all together and placed them on a pedestal. No society or people are perfect, and the false idealization is as much a prejudice as false negatization. In Huxley’s Civilized Utopia, the lowest rung of society is black and the highest is white–can’t get much more blatant than that. And gender? Sigh. The only two female characters in the book are significant only because one is beautiful and the other is ugly. The story still could have been told with the society classes divided up by plaid skin, or purple paisley skin. I’m NOT saying that this (or others that do this) should not be read or studied or revered, or censored or “fixed”, but that this is my interpretation and reaction to it. What do I take from this book? I am always going to be handicapped in my reading of older novels by my discomfiture with racism, no matter how literate or excused it may be as being “just a reflection of the times”.
With that “of the times” in mind, the di-polar prudishness of the novel was interesting to me. There’s outright orgy going on in this book, little kids masturbating, and the end is a showering climax of sado-masochism, ending the dystopian story in a guilt-ridden night of sex and violence. But Huxley doesn’t say these things. If you wanted to close your eyes to these parts, it’s possible to read the novel that way. And Bernard & Hemholtz = Love? If this society is so Utopian, why not just let them be a match made in heaven? But of course, in the 1930′s, we can’t say that.
I just thought it was weird. In this novel, we can in-vitro create slews of Octaroons, but we can’t say “the kids were jacking off in the park”.
The book exemplifies what, to me, is the purpose of Science Fiction. It allows the writer to discuss the human condition in a controlled environment of story–the author can create a thought experiment: What If humans were put in this kind of situation? The discussion at the end between the “Savage” and Mustapha Mond got me thinking about whether or not the people in the book–any of them–were even human. Can you call these decanted, passionless, goal-less, purpose-less, unfeeling …moving bodies… “human”? They don’t exist for any real reason. (The Humanoids by Jack Williamson discusses this same point. What becomes of humans when they don’t have anything to do? I’m curious now to read that one.) They don’t strive to become better, they don’t fear the future, or wish for more than what they have. They don’t have to move on past grief or deal with the days and nights of loneliness or aches and pains.
My biggest argument with the book is “Why?” What’s the purpose of all this engineered societal stability? An altruistic attempt at making as many people happy as we possibly can in the most stable society ever formed? Not likely. Who’s making money here? Having my cynicism formed in the last quarter of the 20th century, I’m looking for the subterfuge, the deep secret, the power players, the CEO at the Top Raking in the Profits of this Ponzi scheme.
I did like the prosy bit at the end of chapter 3 that flipped, one line at a time, back and forth between the different characters. I did like the references to Shakespeare, and I like the Savage’s decision: ” ‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’ “
This book made me think quite a bit (*ouch, pass the asprin*), but can I say I like it? If I like Don Quixote, like Sherlock Holmes, love Beloved, and Watership Down, read and remember these books with joy, then no. I’m claiming the right to not like this book. Blech.