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Haec Fabula Docet: Anti-Essentialism and Freedom in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 35, Number 2, October 2011
pp. 348-359 | 10.1353/phl.2011.0017

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When Huxley quotes the famous Jefferson line in Brave New World Revisited—"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be"—there is something, on the face, humorously explicit to it. The state of civilization the brave new world is in seems to speak directly to this point. Brave new worlders are ignorant and conspicuously not free; they "[like] what [they've] got to do" because they have been decanted and conditioned by the corporate government, the World State (an ironical reversal of government by the people to a people by the government). This cursory assessment, however, obscures another possibility, one that touches on the satirical poignancy and relevance of Huxley's dystopic vision. Huxley insists that we take seriously the possibility that human institutions might actually acquire the technological means to usher in what he calls the "really revolutionary revolution" (BNW, p. xi), which is characterized by the radical discontinuity of thoughts and beliefs from one era to the next. This kind of revolution signifies the emergence of a future where, to borrow one of the conditioning, hypnopedic slogans of Huxley's dystopia, "history is bunk" (BNW, p. 34). This discontinuity is expressed in no better way than through Brave New World's apparent negative freedoms, or what Theodor Adorno describes as Huxley's attempt "to derive the idea of human dignity from the comprehension of inhumanity."

In the spirit of Brave New World, Richard Rorty claims, "Some day we may have ways of talking about life that we cannot now imagine." While this does not necessitate the discontinuity Huxley hoped to achieve in the brave new world, it does not preclude such a possibility either. Indeed, Rorty can be read as suggesting a trivial expectation of difference—that mores and customs evolve and change over time. This perhaps highlights the difficulty to instantiate the radical discontinuity Huxley speaks of. We can still trace the legacy of the brave new world's freedom from the burden of participatory government, from Locke's freedom from tyranny to the American founders' freedom to self-rule, even if brave new worlders cannot. This is simply to note that Huxley's vision is, of course, a vision of the world that we can now imagine. In the process of imagining a world so divergent from our expectations, the spirit of radical discontinuity might be rehabilitated in the fact that the novel achieves a sufficient level of discomfort and dissonance on the part of the reader's assumptions. One might say that Huxley's dystopia is uncomfortably familiar in its unfamiliarity (e.g., the protagonists are enough like us for us to take hope in their defection, but radically dissimilar because they have been, on all other accounts, enslaved by their conditioning). But also, the world is familiar enough for us to take its disjunction seriously. This is because, as one immediately discerns, the story is a satirical, though sincere, prognosis and sociopolitical warning: unless humans are careful, we just might permit political realities to emerge that redefine and fundamentally subvert what we consider human freedom and dignity to be; and, more pessimistically, even if we are careful, these realities might still come to pass.

Perhaps this begs the question, but what does the imagining of Brave New Worlds (and, one might add, 1984s) indicate in terms of our reflections on freedom manifested in political futures? It seems that it is difficult to disentangle the project of imagining negative utopias from appreciating current freedoms without taking seriously the disconcerting reflection that Sartre provides in his essay "The Humanism of Existentialism": "Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are." Inasmuch as we are concerned with our present freedoms, this is predicated on the possibility, if not likelihood, that "some day we may have ways of talking about life that we cannot now imagine" (Rorty) and...



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