Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, my favourite website, I was directed to a very interesting letter, sent by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell in 1949.
Orwell had sent Huxley a copy of the newly-published novel 1984, and Huxley wrote to thank him for the book. At least, that was the occasion for the letter — but the letter itself was more about Huxley’s conviction that Orwell’s terror state would inevitably evolve into Huxley’s pleasure state.
Very early in the life of this blog, I wrote an article comparing the dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. In my article, I made the case that “1984 describes the culture of the state, while Brave New World describes the state of the culture.” It was an attractive turn of phrase, and it has the added benefit that I believe it to be true.
Huxley, however, took a different view. In his letter to Orwell, he argued that the sadistic repression of Oceania would eventually prove to take too much effort, to consume too many resources, to be a stable, final governing model.
Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.
As I wrote in my earlier post on the subject, I think that it’s entirely possible for some of the controlling patriotism and xenophobia of 1984 to operate within the vacuous consumer culture of Brave New World. I think that it’s happening now, most completely in the United States, where fighter jet flybys punctuate the nipple-slip halftime performances of pop icons in stadia filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans.
By 1949, Huxley was devoted to his ever-stranger indulgence in Eastern philosophies and Western pharmaceuticals, and it is this perspective that gives a context to his statement to Orwell that it was infant conditioning and prescription drugs that would finally dull the minds of the people.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.
Near the end of his letter, Huxley restates his belief that “the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”
If these writers were alive today, how would they react to the future as it happened? Would they see the hopeless worlds that their books had imagined?
I suspect that both men would feel vindicated. It seems reasonable to argue that each would pay attention today to the parts of society that interested him then.
Huxley wrote about how the state might shape the psychology of the individual mind, and there is little in our culture that does not resonate with the infantilization of thought and desire.
And Orwell wrote about the methods the state might use to control the mob of the populace. He, too, would find much that was familiar, especially in the United States after 9-11.
In my view, then, Huxley was wrong to assume that ultimate repression and control would occur as one of the other kind, or as first one kind and then the other. What he failed to consider was that the state would be quite capable of being both things at once: controlling father and nurturing mother, stick and carrot, pain and pleasure.
To bring in another dead writer here at the end, imagine how much Sigmund Freud would have loved the chance to parse our current culture!