Sunday, January 04, 2015

Brave new world

Aldous Huxley's Brave new world is one in which everyone is superficially happy. Everyone is content with their occupation, because they are genetically engineered to have just the right "skill set" for the job they are destined to be doing. They have no families (embryos grow in bottles) and their sexual desires are fulfilled quickly, so that they don't develop strong emotions for anyone. Some evenings they attend the 'solidarity service,' which starts as sort of a religious gathering and culminates in an orgy. In their free time they play communal sports, which require expensive gear, or watch 'feelies,' which are basically movies that allow you to feel the action on the screen via electrodes attached to your hands. And they question neither their social standing nor the moral value of any of this, because as small children they are conditioned to believe that everything is as it is supposed to be. Despite all this, if they feel less than happy for any reason, they can take a drug called soma, which has no adverse side effects. Not immediately, anyway.

In this civilization, people, objects and the pleasure you derive from them have no meaning beyond themselves.

There is a reservation where civilization hasn't reached; you can think of it as a crowded, filthy, smelly underdeveloped country. A young man from there, the Savage, who has grown up with a mother, local religious teachings and Shakespeare, is "conditioned" entirely differently. He has strong moral values, more refined tastes and attachments; he values solitude and hard work and suffering as a welcome price to pay for meaning and real happiness. When he is taken to the brave new world for an "experiment," he becomes miserable.

The civilization described in the Brave new world has some parallels with our lives: a stronger resemblence to the lifestyle of the 20- and 30-somethings in western societies, but if we just take the distinction between superficial and deeper happiness as the main point of the book, then it applies to vast populations who seek happiness (or at least, distraction) in shopping and cheap entertainment (including social media and messaging). The display of strong emotions are discouraged at work and at home, and people are advised not to become too invested in anyone or anything lest one develops strong emotions. People remain detached even from their children, who are raised by nannies.

But I agree with the Savage that there is a deeper kind of happiness, which can only be achieved through hard work and time invested in something or someone. You don't know what it feels like until you put in the time and the effort, so it is easy to underestimate it. This is because you don't know how it is to understand or discover something as you do research and write, you don't know how it is to come across a beautiful passage in a long book or feel really connected with a friend, your husband or your child. And you don't know when or if you'll ever feel like that. You'll only know once you put in the time and the effort, when you are already too invested, when you've already developed strong emotions.