03 May 2011

+JMJ+

Reading Diary: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

"You all remember," said the Controller in his strong, deep voice, "you all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's: History is bunk. History," he repeated slowly, "is bunk."

He waved his hand; and it was as though, with one invisible feathered whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossson and Mycenae. Whisk, whisk--and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk--and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom--all were gone. Whisk--the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk . . .
Can you imagine living in a world where youth is worshipped, sex is free, the family is obsolete, individuality is anti-social, art is a corporate product, consumption is the national pastime, and yes, history is bunk?

Aldous Huxley didn't have to imagine it: he visited it. The brave new World State of his most famous novel is greatly based on what he saw of American society during his visit to the United States in 1926.

And this is the point where I snip what could be a review of Brave New World in the bud. You can get reviews lots of places online (even, on occasion, this blog); but now I'm feeling like writing a proper Reading Diary entry.



Synthetic Music from the Westminster Abbey Cabaret!
Lyrics by the Department of Writing, College of Emotional Engineering!!!

It turns out that there is a whole tradition--practically a genre--of writing by British authors who visited the United States and didn't like it were culture shocked by the experience. I'm sure they hadn't expected to be: having a language in common makes us imagine we have a culture in common, yes? I learned first-hand how untrue that is when I moved to New Zealand, where I lived for two years. Although I'd been fluent in English for nearly my whole life, speaking to the natives was like struggling through a foreign language. The only other international student with a similar experience was a girl whose English parents had raised her in Sweden: although fluent from the cradle, she had trouble with a style of English she had never encountered before. Had we gone to countries where we'd still need regular language lessons to keep up, we would have found it harder . . . but also less strange.

If I wanted to write a thesis about the similar experiences of those who've actually been published, I'd start with Charles Dickens's American Notes or Fanny Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans . . . but I just want to write a blog post, so I'm going to narrow it down to Britpop band Blur.

Over half a century after Huxley wrote his damning satire, Blur paid their own visit to the US and absolutely hated it. I'm sure it had more to do with homesickness (which is never anyone's fault) than with Americans actually being offensive--and quite a lot to do with the band feeling put out that their brand of guitar-heavy psychedelic funk wasn't as well received in America as grunge music was. (Bwahahahahahahaha!) By the time they returned to home sweet Britain, they were determined to call their next album Blur vs. America. (At least that's what I fallibly remember. Other sources say the working title was Britain vs. America.)

The great producer Stephen Street talked them out of it, probably pointing out that the greatest of insults is to ignore the "offender," and got them to create an album that is both a tribute to guitar-driven English pop and the pure Blur sound: Modern Life is Rubbish. I'd put a lot of tracks from there on my personal "Brave New World Playlist".

Yes, the Westminster Abbey Cabaret--a beautiful medieval church converted into a nightclub--was inspired by jazz rather than Britpop. And yes, the embedded Blur single, Girls and Boys, is from an earlier album. But oh, do they fit!

***** 

Another reason I didn't want to write a "proper" review of Brave New World was that what I really wanted to write was a Top 5 List.

My favourite part of the novel was the complex triangle of Bernard Marx, Helmholtz Watson and John Savage. They are the only ones in the World State who are disenchanted with "civilisation" (which should really be called "conditionisation"); they are friends because they are all emotional outsiders. And they'd make a great entry in a "Top 5 'Triumvirates' in Literature" list!

If I made lists for the sake of making lists, I'd be all set. I've already read about Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good of King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (which has its own Reading Diary entry--one which doubles as a proper review!) . . . Bud White, Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes of L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (I read the book but never watched the movie) . . . and John Galt, Francisco d'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (a great book to have read, but not to read). And it seems to me that all I have to do to get a fifth group of three is to read The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas! Because I'm an optimist like that! =P

And how convenient is it that when my grandfather became unable to read anything but the special large-print editions of books and turned over his regular small-print library to me, The Three Musketeers happened to be one of the classics in his collection?!?! Yes, it's in my bedroom, waiting for me to read it and love it . . . but I'm all booked for May and June--not counting the Reading Challenges I signed up for. Do I really want to do this to myself?

When I put it that way, of course the answer is no . . .

Then I remember the way Brave New World ends and know I have to say something about the breaking of that "triumvirate."

If you know of similar all-male character triangles in literature, please let me know. Thanks!

Image Source: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

10 comments:

lisa :) said...

So a lot of this is rather over my head since I haven't read Brave New World but I didn't realize it was inspired by Huxley visiting America. I also didn't realize the book was written so long ago.

I wonder how artists in the UK view the current culture of the US. Obviously there are still differences, but I imagine they aren't as drastic as in the 1920's (Granted I think the Blur song was from the mid 90's but I still think the countries were more similar then than in Huxley's day.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Brave New World actually came out in 1932, although Huxley was definitely working on it--subconsciously, at the very least--since that mid-20s visit. And I, too, was a bit surprised to remember, earlier this week, that it is over fifteen years older than the fellow Dystopian novel it is usually paired with, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's kind of funny to think that Huxley was turned off by such innocuous things as zippers, which he called America's national "crest." All the clothes in Brave New World zip up: not so strange to us now, but probably just as fantastic as the mass produced test tube embryos to the first British readers! (LOL)

On the US and UK cultures being more similar these days: ironically, Huxley wrote Brave New World partly out of despair that there would be no way to check American culture from spreading all over the world! =P

lisa :) said...

ironically, Huxley wrote Brave New World partly out of despair that there would be no way to check American culture from spreading all over the world!

Looks around...

Wow.

Definitely gonna have to read this one.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Isn't it both fascinating and awful that the best writers of Dystopian Fiction intended their books to be timely warnings but only ended up being prophets?

Shaz said...

Interesting ... and a bit scary. I'll have to look up Brave New World next time I'm at the library.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Hi, Shazz! I'm afraid this isn't really the review you were expecting. I find that the issues in a book, the way it was written, or even the story behind it can get me more excited than its plot or even my own opinion does! =P

But I do think Brave New World is a great book to read, if only because we still reference it a lot in our modern media and culture. When you do get to read it, I hope you have a great reading experience!

lisa :) said...

intended their books to be timely warnings but only ended up being prophets?

Definitely scary. I remember the first time I read Fahrenheit 451 and there was a description of people who would tune out the world around them by placing something like little seashells in their ears - and then I looked around at my fellow train passengers and saw how few of them were talking or even looking at each other because every other person was wearing a pair of ear buds plugged into an iPod, iPhone, laptop or other digital device. Creepy, creepy stuff.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Lisa, I think you just helped me decide which Dystopian novel I'm going to review next! ;-)

(The creepiest thing of all about living in a dystopia? We can talk ourselves into relaxing and actually be okay with it!)

Melanie B said...

Interesting. I didn't know that about Huxley visiting America.

When I read and taught Brave New World a few years ago what jumped out at me was how perceptive Huxley was about the consequences of the 1930 Lambeth Conference where the Anglican bishops became the first to fold against birth control. He saw so clearly how birth control leads to IVF and test tube babies and the commodification of sex.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I think all Catholics immediately notice Huxley's prescience when it came to "reproductive technology." =) The Lambeth Conference was definitely a major influence of Brave New World, but I find I like the American visit better. =P Compared to the "culture of death" (Oooh! Catholic fighting words!) which contraceptives have brought about for us, 1920s American culture was pretty benign. And yet Huxley wanted to warn the world against it.

(Now how is this for prescient: birth control may have become socially acceptable--even respectable--in Britain first, but it was American culture which ended up spreading that attitude to contraceptives all over the world.)