Reflections on Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World

I’ve fallen into the habit of listening to audio books as I drive (through the Audible app on my Kindle).  This is because I realize I will never be able to read all of the great books I’d like to read in my lifetime and, at the least, this gives me the opportunity to hear stories that I may be familiar with but have not actually read.  On a practical note, it has made driving a lot more enjoyable and informative!

The last three books I’ve listened to are Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  I’ve long been a sucker for the futuristic and apocalyptic genre, be it Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or McCarthy’s The Road or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or others along those lines.  Viewing depictions of what the future might look like holds a fascination that, I trust, need not be explained.  What is striking is the shared note of pessimism among these works.  As I listened to 1984 and Brave New World in particular, I was struck by both the similarities and differences between the two books.

For instance, both books depict a terrifying version of the future consisting of totalitarian governments, the dehumanization of the populace, extreme social conditioning from on high, rigid, prescribed caste systems, and the obliteration of Christianity.  A kind of religion survives in Brave New World around Fordism, the worship of “Ford,” based on Henry Ford (thus, the triumph of consumerism and mechanization).  The old Christian crosses have had their tops sawed off, making them all into upper-case “T’s,” evoking, no doubt, the image of Ford’s Model-T.

In both stories there is a “hero” who gradually awakens to the horror of the society in which he finds himself.  In 1984, it’s Winston and Julia.  In Brave New World it’s John, “the savage,” and, to some extent, Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson.

John and Winston both feel the need for a sense of transcendence to help them escape the suffocating confines of State-sanctioned reality.  Winston says this to O’Brien, though he denies he believes in God.  Even so, he appeals to something more, the human spirit, he suggests, or something along those lines.  John, on the other hand, holds to the strange, syncretistic version of God he received on “the Savage Reservation.”  In both stories, the heroes feel that there must be more than State-constructed reality.  Yet in both stories the heroes end in despair and defeat, unable to change the social structure or see the victorious intrusion of greater transcendent reality into their bleak worlds.

In both stories, books are outlawed, individuality is suppressed, free thought is unacceptable, and a suffocating collectivism defined and controlled by the State is enforced.

The differences are striking too.  For instance, Orwell depicts a future of government-enforced sterility.  Sex is essentially outlawed and taboo.  Huxley, on the other hand, depicts a hyper-sexualized society in which sex has not been outlawed so much as desacralized.  Children’s erotic games are encouraged, monogamy and marriage are unheard of, and promiscuity is a virtue.  Sex is simply a mechanical diversion for the pleasure-seeking people.  In this, Huxley was certainly more prophetic than Orwell.

War is another difference.  Orwell depicts the future as one of constant if largely imaginary war.  War is always in the air as a means of keeping patriotic fervor at a fever pitch.  Not so in Huxley’s future.  There is no war and there are no conflicts.  Indeed, the masses are controlled by the euphoria-producing drug, soma, as well as constant tappings of the conditioning the brainwashed people have all undergone since birth.

Another difference is Orwell’s prolonged depiction of State-controlled historical rewriting.  In 1984, Big Brother is constantly rewriting history and controlling it.  Teams of workers, like Winston, spend their days rewriting bits of newspaper articles to make them fit more neatly into the State-approved version of reality.  In Brave New World, the story of the past is allowed to be what it is because the people have been conditioned to find it repulsive (i.e., that people used to born literally of their mothers ((and not in laboratories)) and live in families and marry a single person, etc.).

These two works have affected me pretty deeply, especially where they seem prophetic (which they frequently do).  The disintegration of the family, the conditioning of people to think certain ways, hatred of Christianity and what it stands for, the unquestioned orthodoxy of State-constructed and media-supported narratives of reality, the redefining of ethical mores, homogenous collectivism around, again, State-defined guidelines, political correctness, the dissolution of the Christian sexual ethic (in one way or another), the reduction of human beings to consumers, the redefining of words and language, etc.  It all has a too-close-for-comfort feel about it.

Let me quickly say that I am no Chicken Little.  I do not claim that we live in either Orwell’s or Huxley’s nightmarish visions at present, nor that we necessarily will.  I simply claim that there is an eerie familiarity to certain themes and imaginings that one finds in these books, especially when one compares these themes to certain trends in our country.  Regardless of their accuracy, these books are necessary if flawed warnings about what could be.

For this reason, if for no other, they should be taken seriously.

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

If any writer can be truly said to have taken up where Faulkner let off, it would be Cormac McCarthy.  All the Pretty Horses is but one example of why this is so.  Simply put, this is a phenomenal novel.  That does not mean it is always pleasant.  Often times its power comes in its bleakness and its shocking brutality, and this is because neither of those two attributes are arbitrary or gratuitous.

This is the story of John Grady Cole, his cousin Rawlins, and the young drifter, Blevins, who takes up with them and who inadvertently involves them in the great conflict that rests at the center of the story.  There is a love story here as well, also wrapped in tragedy.  Above all else, in my opinion, the story is about the human search for transcendence and the war that the brutalities of life wage against that search and hope.

Now, that is my opinion.  It is based not only on my own reading of this novel but also on my reading of McCarthy in general.  I believe that the tension between the seeming purposelessness of life and the human awareness of some transcendent truth or reality beyond this theatre of the absurd is one of McCarthy’s great explorations and contributions.

All the Pretty Horses fairly teems with this tension.  One can feel the struggle in the repeated conversations between John Grady and Rawlins over issues of transcendence.  Consider, for instance, their conversation about judgment.

You think there’ll be a day when the sun won’t rise?

Yeah, said John Grady.  Judgment day.

When you think that’ll be?

Whenever He decides to hold it.

Judgment day, said Rawlins.  You believe in all that?

I don’t know.  Yeah, I reckon.  You?

Rawlins put the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and lit it and flipped away the match.  I dont know.  Maybe.

I knowed you was a infidel, said Blevins.

Or consider their discussion on the possibility of Heaven.

You ever think about dyin?

Yeah.  Some.  You?

Yeah.  Some.  You think there’s a heaven?

Yeah.  Don’t you?

I don’t know.  Yeah.  Maybe.  You think you can believe in heaven if you dont believe in hell?

I guess you can believe what you want to.

Rawlins nodded.  You think about all the stuff that can happen to you, he said.  There aint no end to it.

You fixin to get religion on us?

No.  Just sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off if I did.

Or consider their conversations on the possibility of providence.

You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.

Yeah.  I guess He does.  You?

Yeah.  I do.  Way the world is.  Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some d— place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell.  You dont know what’s goin to happen.  I’d say He’s just about got to.  I dont believe we’d make it a day otherwise.

John Grady nodded.

Or consider their conversation about prayer.

You ever pray?  said Rawlins.

Yeah.  Sometimes.  I guess I got kindly out of the habit.

Rawlins was quite for a long time.  Then he said:  What’s the worst think you ever done?

I dont know.  I guess if I done anything real bad I’d rather not tell it.  Why?

I dont know.  I was in the hospital cut I got to thinkin: I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t supposed to be hrere.  You ever think like that?

Yeah.  Sometimes.

The topic of God comes up even between John Grady and the kidnapped captain.

The captain nodded at the wound in his leg, still bleeding.  The whole trouserleg dark with blood.

You going to die, he said.

We’ll let God decide about that.  Let’s go.

Are you no afraid of God?

I got no reason to be afraid of God.  I’ve even got a bone or two to pick with Him.

You should be afraid of God, the captain said.  You are not the officer of the law.  You dont have no authority.

Perhaps most poignant of all is the brief but telling comment made by an old man to John Grady as John Grady is making his way back to Texas.  In the scene, the two are watching a young and newly-married bride and groom emerge from the church building.

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.

There you have it:  “the truths of life” (i.e., the reality of evil, the struggle for survival), God (i.e., the great transcendent reality Who is there if seemingly distant at times), and “or else they’d have no heart to start at all” (i.e., the struggle to reconcile these two realities).  I believe McCarthy’s novel The Road is about the exact same thing.  So is No Country for Old Men.

McCarthy is a breath-takingly good writer.  Truly.  And All the Pretty Horses is a serious and important novel.  It is what a great book should be.  It tells a great story in a masterful way struggling with fundamental issues of existence along the way.

Read it.