Sunday, February 24, 2019

Lessons from A Brave New World

Imagine a world with no conflict or warfare, a world free from physical suffering or the pains of old age, a world of contentment where each person is satisfied with his or her position in life.  

It seems, at first glance, like a kind of utopia.  Yet, the society visioned by Aldous Huxley in A Brave New World is the exact opposite: it is dystopian.  Different from other novels in that genre, Huxley's characters do not suffer from a society that oppresses or controls through violence; instead, the government conditions and predestines people for happiness and then provides them with entertainment and drugs to maintain that state.  

A Brave New World is one where there is no family unit.  Instead, children are manufactured in labs and assigned to a certain social class from conception.  They are conditioned in artificial wombs (for example, children who will eventually work in tropical regions doing manual labor are exposed to more heat).  This conditioning continues as children, raised collectively in the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, listen to recorded messages in their sleep, disposing them to particular attitudes and perspectives (such as feeling content with his or her social class).

The World State upholds three virtues: Community, Identity, and Stability.  In the name of stability, strong emotions are suppressed--hence, why the family unit is no more.  Consider the passion of parenthood and the feelings that it provokes.  In A Brave New World, speaking of motherhood or giving birth is akin to uttering a blasphemy or base insult.  

A proverb in the World State asserts that "every one belongs to every one else."  People in this society find their identity in the community.  There is no time for solitude--in fact, those who seek time alone are marked as suspicious and warned for their misbehavior.  There are no exclusive relationships between man and woman.  Again, such behavior provokes too strong of emotions (passion, jealousy, yearning) and dangers the stability of the World State.  So instead men and women freely and openly engage in sexual behavior with multiple partners, with no commitment or consequence (women, in fact, wear fashionable belts that keep a safe supply of contraceptives at hand).  

"Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today..."

And if, in spite of their class contentment, the ready availability of sexual pleasure, and absence of emotional suffering, someone is still unsettled or disturbed, the World State has manufactured a drug called soma that transports its user to an ecstatic state of pleasure.  With soma, depression, distress, and unease are wiped away.  Everything is made right again.

There is no need for God.  God is invoked in times of trouble, particularly toward the end of one's life when disease and crippling health conditions make one stop to consider, reflect, and contemplate.  That need is eliminated: science has developed medication that curbs the outward affects of old age.  People do not become ill now or physically deteriorate.  Instead of invoking the name of Our Lord, people honor Our Ford--Henry Ford, manufacturer of the Model-T and the assembly line model.  They even make the Sign of the T on their bodies (a cross with the top cut off).  

Stability is the "primal and the ultimate need."  Without it, there can be no happiness and here, in A Brave New World, the whole purpose is to be happy.

"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 lovers 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." 

The key question at play is: what is happiness?  Is it the fulfillment of desire?  The absence of suffering or pain?  One character, Bernard, engages in the usual entertainments and amusements of the World State, but is not consoled or at peace.  A member of the highest class, Bernard is actually a source of ridicule because he is shorter than his peers (some speculate there was an error made in the lab during his embryonic development).  On a date with Lenina, a popular girl many men have enjoyed, Bernard reflects:

"Don't you wish you were free, Lenina?"

"I don't know what you mean.  I am free.  Free to have the most wonderful time.  Everybody's happy nowadays."

He laughed.  "Yes, 'Everybody's happy nowadays.'  We begin giving the children that at five.  But wouldn't you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina?  In your own way, for example; not in everybody else's way."

By conditioning people and providing them with what they need, the World State has created a society of people who do not even recognize what they lack.  They are entirely ignorant, failing to understand that the lives they lead are less than fully human.  They will not rebel because they see no reason to do so ... they are chained by their "happiness."  As Rod Dreher explains in his article "Christianity in the Brave New World," this government "is a totalitarianism that is welcomed by those enslaved to it because it makes them comfortable, and because they don’t recognize it for what it is."

This happiness is an empty one.  God created the human person for a greater end than being happy: we are meant to be holy, made consecrated through God's grace.  In doing so, we become even more than human.  Through divine filiation, we become children of God, citizens of Heaven.

Our Lord gave us the path to this blessed state in the Beatitudes, which present quite the juxtaposition to the means of happiness in the World State.  Who does He call blessed?  It is not the ones who are rich, who are filled and laugh, or who are lauded by others.  No, those people--while happy now--will weep.  Instead:

 “Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way."

To be unhappy by earthly standards, is to be happy by eternal ones.  Suffering in these various ways makes us reliant on God--we turn to Him in our time of need and pain.  We realize we can't do it on all on our own; we are not our own gods.  Suffering is also a wake-up call to turn from sin.  If we never felt the negative consequences of our transgressions, we may remain the dredges of our wrongdoing.  Lastly, suffering is a training ground.  It helps us to practice virtue and sharpens the will in its effort to choose the good in the face of temptation.  

We are members of something greater and more powerful than the World State.  God forbid there should ever come the day when all of society becomes blind to that reality.  But we can take comfort in the fact that "the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against" God's holy Church.

"But I don't want comfort.  I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness.  I want sin."

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

May we be unhappy, too, and in that unhappiness, we will find eternal joy.

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