Monday, November 19, 2007

the good place that doesn't exist

Margaret Atwood checks back in with Huxley to see how Brave New World holds up.

In a foreword to a new edition of Brave New World published in 1946, after the horrors of the second world war and Hitler's "final solution", Huxley criticises himself for having provided only two choices in his 1932 utopia/dystopia - an "insane life in Utopia" or "the life of a primitive in an Indian village, more human in some respects, but in others hardly less queer and abnormal". (He does, in fact, provide a third sort of life - that of the intellectual community of misfits in Iceland - but poor John the Savage isn't allowed to go there, and he wouldn't have liked it anyway, as there are no public flagellations available.) The Huxley of 1946 comes up with another sort of utopia, one in which "sanity" is possible. By this, he means a kind of "high utilitarianism" dedicated to a "conscious and rational" pursuit of man's "final end", which is a kind of union with the immanent "Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahmin". No wonder Huxley subsequently got heavily into the mescaline and wrote The Doors of Perception, thus inspiring a generation of 1960s dopeheads and pop musicians to seek God in altered brain chemistry. His interest in soma, it appears, didn't spring out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, those of us still pottering along on the earthly plane - and thus still able to read books - are left with Brave New World. How does it stand up, 75 years later? And how close have we come, in real life, to the society of vapid consumers, idle pleasure-seekers, inner-space trippers and programmed conformists that it presents?