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Claiming the Right to Be Unhappy: Brave New World and Failed Peace

    Trigger warning – suicide

    “Most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.” 

    “‘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.’” 

    Aldous Huxley’s most famous novel, published in 1932, depicts a dystopian world in which genetic engineering, severe social stratification, and subjugation through drugs and social conditioning are common, and great emphasis is placed on consumerism and homogeny. Huxley wrote the novel in 1931 with the idea of satirizing the more utopian science fiction novels of H. G. Wells and others.1 The novel was in part also a reaction to American culture, particularly the influence of Henry Ford, American youth culture, and the Great Depression of the early 1930s.2 Interestingly, Huxley predicted to varying degrees of success several technologies which became available in the latter half of the 20th century, such as artificial wombs and genetic engineering. The novel has a history of being banned in school systems, especially in the Unted States, and was banned in Ireland in the same year as its release as well as in India in 1967.3 Despite this history, Brave New World has been praised as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and of all time by the Modern Library as well as by the BBC. In 1962, Huxley wrote a Utopian counterpart to Brave New World entitled Island.4

    Covers of various editions of Brave New World.

    Brave New World is interesting for anyone trying to ‘visualise peace’ because the society it depicts has – in theory, at least – eliminated all desire for conflict or war. The World State has created a completely peaceful civilization which, as far as most of its citizens are concerned, has no flaws or problems. The reader, however, can see a multitude of flaws: the genetical engineering of embryos clearly amounts to eugenics; society is highly stratified, and hatred of other social classes enforces stability; and the population remains sedated by the drug ‘soma’ which makes them feel happy and which they take willingly because it is so addictive. It is this drug above all which keeps society ‘peaceful’, and it is even used by enforcers at one point to ‘keep the peace’ during a riot. As a result, we are invited to consider how artificial some forms of peace-keeping can be – and the difference between organic peace and top-down pacification.  

    Some characters within the novel critique the world they live in and struggle not just with pacification but with the absence of conflict and sorrow – with enforced or artificial ‘happiness’. One character, Helmholtz Watson, is a writer who struggles to be creative in the absence of pain. In the end, he welcomes exile to the islands for outcasts, where conformity and social engineering do not dominate. He thinks that the variety of life and bad weather will improve his writing.  

    Another character, John, has grown up in a ‘Savage Reservation’ – a kind of ‘zoo’ or ‘nature reserve’ where citizens of the World State can watch natural-born people live ‘uncivilised’ lives, without the dubious ‘advantages’ of social engineering and soma. John struggles when he is ‘rescued’ from the reserve and made to live in the new world order. We are encouraged to sympathize with John, who at the end of the novel famously proclaims, ‘I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’ He rails against the artificiality of the World State and craves a more authentic life; but his desire for creativity and real emotion comes at a price. It disrupts the ‘peaceful’ world around him, and seems incompatible with inner peace. John commits suicide just a few chapters after his evocative statement. It should be noted that John’s suicide is sparked not by his raw emotions themselves but by the incompatibility of his feelings and desires with the controlled, socially engineered world he cannot escape. The novel’s message, then, is not that people’s natural emotions and desire for independence shatter inner peace but that the suppression of them does so. 

    Illustration of a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, from which Brave New World takes its title

    Huxley’s visualisation of a ‘peaceful’ or pacified world is thus not a utopian or idealistic one. He examines problematic pathways to peace (the top-down homogenisation and pacification of society), and what is lost when everyone is appeased or pacified. Controversially, he gets characters within the novel to articulate the idea that the absence of peace can be better than its presence; or, at least, better than an artificial peace imposed from above. We, as readers who are invited identify throughout the novel with John, witness this equation being calculated and are forced to grapple with the implications of both a utopian, peaceful society and the one we have now. 

    What do you think?

    • Would you describe what you see in Huxley’s Brave New World as ‘peace’? 
    • What is the difference between peace-building and pacification? 
    • What do we gain or lose by suggesting that a entirely ‘peaceful’ life may not always be desirable? 
    • Have you come across other arguments that invite us to critisise peace as an ideal?  
    • What are Huxley’s motives – and why do other people sometimes ‘problematise’ the idea of peace?  
    • When is peace not effective or counterproductive?   
    • Is peace worthwhile at all costs?  

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    Arden Henley, May 2022

    1 Huxley, Aldous (1969). “letter to Mrs. Kethevan Roberts, 18 May 1931”. In Smith, Grover (ed.). Letters of Aldous Huxley. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row. p. 348. ”I am writing a novel about the future – on the horror of the Wellsian Utopia and a revolt against it. Very difficult. I have hardly enough imagination to deal with such a subject. But it is none the less interesting work.” Cf. e.g. Wells, H. G. A Modern Utopia. London: Chapman and Hall, 1905; and Wells, H. G. Men Like Gods. London: Cassell, 1923.

    2 Bradshaw, David (2004). “Introduction”. In Huxley, Aldous (ed.). Brave New World (Print ed.). London, UK: Vintage. 

    3 Sharma, Partap (1975). Razdan, C. K. (ed.). Bare breasts and Bare Bottoms: Anatomy of Film Censorship in IndiaBombayJaico Publishing House. pp. 21–22. 

    4 Some further reading: Beauchamp, Gorman. “Island: Aldous Huxley’s Psychedelic Utopia.” Utopian Studies 1, no. 1 (1990): 59–72; Beauchamp, Gorman. “All’s Well That Ends Wells: The Anti-Wellsian Satire of Brave New World.” Utopian Studies, no. 2 (1989): 12–16Clement Semmler, “Aldous Huxley Revisited”; Firchow, Peter E. “The Satire of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’” Modern Fiction Studies 12, no. 4 (1966): 451–60; Nicol, Caitrin. “Brave New World at 75.” The New Atlantis, no. 16 (2007): 41–54Peter C. Herman, “More, Huxley, Eggers, and the Utopian/Dystopian Tradition”; Woiak, Joanne. “Designing a Brave New World: Eugenics, Politics, and Fiction.” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (2007): 105–29

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