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.