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Brave New World - a Defence of Paradise-Engineering

Essay by review  •  November 12, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  10,866 Words (44 Pages)  •  3,037 Views

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BRAVE NEW WORLD ?

A Defence Of Paradise-Engineering

Brave New World (1932) is one of the most bewitching and insidious works of literature ever written.

An exaggeration?

Tragically, no. Brave New World has come to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness.

For sure, Huxley was writing a satirical piece of fiction, not scientific prophecy. Hence to treat his masterpiece as ill-conceived futurology rather than a work of great literature might seem to miss the point. Yet the knee-jerk response of "It's Brave New World!" to any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.

So how does Huxley turn a future where we're all notionally happy into the archetypal dystopia? If it's technically feasible, what's wrong with using biotechnology to get rid of mental pain altogether?

Brave New World is an unsettling, loveless and even sinister place. This is because Huxley endows his "ideal" society with features calculated to alienate his audience. Typically, reading BNW elicits the very same disturbing feelings in the reader which the society it depicts has notionally vanquished - not a sense of joyful anticipation.

Thus BNW doesn't, and isn't intended by its author to, evoke just how wonderful our lives could be if the human genome were intelligently rewritten. In the era of post-genomic medicine, our DNA is likely to be spliced and edited so we can all enjoy life-long bliss, awesome peak experiences, and a spectrum of outrageously good designer-drugs. Nor does Huxley's comparatively sympathetic account of the life of the Savage on the Reservation convey just how nasty the old regime of pain, disease and unhappiness can be. If you think it does, then you enjoy an enviably sheltered life and an enviably cosy imagination. For it's all sugar-coated pseudo-realism.

In Brave New World, Huxley contrives to exploit the anxieties of his bourgeois audience about both Soviet Communism and Fordist American capitalism. He taps into, and then feeds, our revulsion at Pavlovian-style behavioural conditioning and eugenics. Worse, it is suggested that the price of universal happiness will be the sacrifice of the most hallowed shibboleths of our culture: "motherhood", "home", "family", "freedom", even "love". The exchange yields an insipid happiness that's unworthy of the name. Its evocation arouses our unease and distaste.

In BNW, happiness derives from consuming mass-produced goods, sports such as Obstacle Golf and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy, promiscuous sex, "the feelies", and most famously of all, a supposedly perfect pleasure-drug, soma.

As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It's not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it's more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate - or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac - than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.

For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn't give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill. Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. John the Savage commits suicide soon after taking soma [guilt and despair born of serotonin depletion!?]. The drug is said to be better than (promiscuous) sex - the only sex brave new worlders practise. But a regimen of soma doesn't deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. It doesn't catalyse any mystical epiphanies, intellectual breakthroughs or life-defining insights. It doesn't in any way promote personal growth. Instead, it provides a mindless, inauthentic "imbecile happiness" - a vacuous escapism which makes people comfortable with their lack of freedom. Soma is a narcotic that raises "a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds."

If Huxley had wished to tantalise, rather than repel, emotional primitives like us with the biological nirvana soon in prospect, then he could have envisaged utopian wonderdrugs which reinforced or enriched our most cherished ideals. In our imaginations, perhaps we might have been allowed - via chemically-enriched brave new worlders - to turn ourselves into idealised versions of the sort of people we'd most like to be. In this scenario, behavioural conditioning, too, could have been used by the utopians to sustain, rather than undermine, a more sympathetic ethos of civilised society and a life well led. Likewise, biotechnology could have been exploited in BNW to encode life-long fulfilment and super-intellects for everyone - instead of manufacturing a rigid hierarchy of genetically-preordained castes.

Huxley, however, has an altogether different agenda in mind. He is seeking to warn us against scientific utopianism. He succeeds all too well. Although we tend to see other people, not least the notional brave new worlders, as the hapless victims of propaganda and disinformation, we may find it is we ourselves who have been the manipulated dupes.

For Huxley does an effective hatchet-job on the very sort of "unnatural" hedonic engineering that most of us so urgently need. One practical consequence has been to heighten our already exaggerated fears of state-sanctioned mood-drugs. Hence millions of screwed-up minds, improvable even today by clinically-tested mood-boosters and anti-anxiety agents, just suffer in silence instead. In part this is because people worry they might become zombified addicts; and in part because they are unwilling to cast themselves as humble supplicants of the medical profession by taking state-rationed "antidepressants". Either way, the human cost in fruitless ill-being is immense.

Fortunately, the Net is opening up a vast trans-national free-market in psychotropics. It will eventually sweep away the restrictive practices of old medical drug cartels and their allies in the pharmaceutical industry. The liberatory potential of the Net as a global drug-delivery and information network has only just begun.

Of course, Huxley can't personally be blamed for prolonging the pain of the old Darwinian order of natural selection. Citing the ill-effects of Brave New World is not the

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