I’m going to be reading Brave New World soon (and by “soon” I mean in like a month, after I get through reading Walden and doing my taxes), and today I stumbled upon a comic strip which illustrates a quote contrasting the fears of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, author of 1984. Those two authors are veritable geniuses when it comes to extrapolating the ills of our current society in order to illustrate a message through a future fictional dystopia. Admittedly, I have not read 1984 yet, though I’ve seen the old black-and-white movie that seems to portray it pretty well. A long while ago I read approximately half of Brave New World, and even that brief exposure was enough to shake up my perspectives and get me thinking about stuff – specifically about how Huxley’s vision of the future is related to our own reality.
I won’t post a copy of the strip because it was removed by the artist due to copyright, but if you google it I’m sure it’s posted plenty of other places (otherwise how would I have found it, right?). I’d really like to post it here, but I suppose it’s better just to just be safe and post the original quote, which is moreso what got me contemplating:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
In case you can’t find the comic or don’t want to go searching for it, here’s a quick description of the relevant images which I want to focus on – the lines about Huxley:
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one.
A family sits in front of the flickering light of big screen TV, enraptured by the current TV program. The TV announces, “‘The Biggest Loser’ will be back after these messages…”
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.
A man sits at his desk, alone in his apartment, surrounded by the light and noise emanating from his television, dual computer screens, iPad, cell phone, mp3 player, printer, coffee pot… he is walled-up on all sides by comfort and entertainment. The world comes to him, while the city looms outside, unexplored.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
A blaring radio tower, posted atop a building labeled “Media Center” shouts commercials – “Try the new drug to lose weight without dieting or exercise…” “Stay tuned to win c-c-cold hard cassshhh…”
Meanwhile, semi-trucks drive away from the factory building, shipping out “celeb gossip,” “starsigns,” “horoscopes,” and “hollywood goss[ip].”
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
A geek, accompanied by R2D2, plays Mortal Combat. Another guy sits isolated in front of his computer, tweeting the night away. A couple watches A Current Affair on television. A woman listens to the radio which announces “Remember to collect all of the Beanie Babies!” as she surveys her current collection, frowning. A bodybuilder checks himself out in the mirror, surrounded by the accoutrements of his regime, as his radio instructs, “You gotta carb up!” A man, drinking in front of his large television, waits in anticipation for tonight’s winning lottery numbers.
As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
A television, illuminated in the dark, is presented as a symbol of the noise and obsessions of our society.
Now, these are pretty familiar examples, and pretty common criticisms. You know – television, internet, all that. It’s poison for our minds, blah blah blah. That’s so middle school. However cliche it may be, they’re easy examples to quickly establish what the general issue is, in the context of our current era. Despite the elementary quality of such examples, consider why those particular examples are so often cited as evidence for the failings of our world.
I feel that it’s pertinent that I am currently reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which is basically an 1840’s version of every rant you’ve ever heard which exclaims “modern life is ruining us!” He goes on for chapters and chapters – quite beautifully, sometimes – detailing every bit of society that he finds to be worthy of such criticism: anything that is contrary to nature, to “living deep,” or to discovering the magic of introspective quietness. He criticizes everything from fashion to housing to the telegraph – claiming it’s all bullshit, a masquerade, an overly anxious routine obsessed with maintaining the trappings of society at the expense of real, true, genuine life. He romanticizes the lifestyles of various Native American tribes – harsh and “primitive,” yet simple and full – and attempts wholeheartedly to get to the basic essence of human life and discover the rest from there. Take one of the most famous quotes, for example:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, see if I could not learn what I had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live sturdily and Spartan-like as to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
It seems, to me, that Thoreau taps into the underlying desire that perhaps causes the impetus to fear what Orwell and Huxley expound upon: it is the liberty to be real and true and deep. Whether this sort of liberty is taken away from us by control and threats of pain, or by indifference and obsession with pleasure and over-stimulation (which, incidentally, is Thoreau’s criticism of society too), the fear of becoming distant from our own humanity is inextricably pervasive. It is not simply the propaganda-drenched patriotic liberty that we hear shouted by every patriot waving a flag – it’s the liberty that enables us to “live deliberately,” to discover, to think, to feel the good and bad and to experience life and the earth as it really, truly is.
The paranoia of losing that liberty is manifest in the question that ignited the motivation for Huxley and Orwell, perhaps. It is, I think this: How might we be barred from genuine thoughts, from the “essential facts of life,” from the rich depths of human-ness? How might we be restricted from our own humanity? How might we be become nothing more than cardboard cut outs of humans? If such a thing is possible – if it possible to crush the human spirit in that way – how would it happen? Is it already happening? Has it happened to you, me, society in general, just a few people, or all of us?
As we see in the quote by Neil Postman, Orwell thinks the danger that will end our liberty is external control and fear of pain. Huxley thinks it is losing ourselves in the numbness of over-stimulation; the pursuit of pleasure. One is imposed by the state sneakily expanding its power; the other creeps up on us by our own failure to see how we’re soma-ing ourselves into nothing.
Postman, in his book, basically argues that perhaps Huxley is right. Perhaps we’ll lose our human spirit through the indulgence of modern society. This brings me to my next thought: Recently, I watched American Beauty with my boyfriend. It’s a film which explores the lives of one family and their neighbors in upper-middle-class American suburbia. The core of the movie is that, beyond all of the consumerism and obsession with image and shortsighted self-pity of the characters, there is a culture that created these fake people with their petty problems and disgruntled ennui. It’s a culture that loses its suburbanites in fancy couches and nice cars and attention-seeking image-propping. It’s a universe where underneath it all, there is only emptiness and severe disconnect with ourselves and with the world. Or, to go further, there is something that caused this culture to be the way it is.
My boyfriend and I got into a bit of a loose debate over this movie – is it really deep or is it just a rehashing of that same “modern culture is ruining us!” circle-jerk ranting that we hear so often? Is the motif of a plastic bag floating languidly in the wind merely a shallow attempt at eeking out some kind of profound lesson from an overly pretentious blockbuster film? Maybe I’ll acknowledge that it is a little bit pretentious, but pretension is a silly reason not see how it has some kind of idea to offer.
I argue that the movie (whether it did it well or not) is attempting to present the absence of the thing that Thoreau was getting at when he went to live in the woods, and it is the same thing that Orwell and Huxley are afraid of us utterly losing. Where Orwell and Huxley present that absence in a futuristic dystopia, Postman sees it emerging in our current context as internet and television, and American Beauty sees it as emerging through consumerism and status. Plenty of other writers, artists, and thinkers of all sorts probably see it in innumerable other ways.
He (el boyfriend) made an excellent point, though, in the course of our argument: we can analyze all day the extent to which modern life, whether through fakeness and ennui or control and fear or pleasure obsession, is destroying us and destroying our ability to live deep. But where do we go from there? He said he’s bored of the conversation – the national conversation – because no solutions are offered. How many times are we going to go over the same diagnosis, and propose faulty band-aids, without actually doing anything about it?
Well, what is there to do about it? I think we’re all a bit aware, to some extent, the cultural problem that we have at hand.
He also pointed out this: Is it really a problem? How much of a problem is it, really? Is it really a bad thing to mindlessly browse the internet, or waste away at a soul-sucking job to maintain a standard of living, or do any number of things that Thoreau, and Huxley, and scores of others have cited as putting us on the road to cardboard dullness? To the spiritual death of humanity, while our bodies live on as nothing more than a machine (I say only to reflect the kind of hyperbole associated with this line of inquiry)?
Perhaps it’s more of a question of balance. Perhaps it’s the challenge to balance distraction on the internet with putting in the effort to forge intimate relationships. To balance work with play, pleasure with pain, selfishness with altruism, pursuit of status with letting social expectations take the back burner… et cetera. But, the question comes to be – how do we strike that balance? What would be balanced, and what wouldn’t be balanced? What does balance even mean, in a practical sense?
And, here is where I connect all this to the other ideas I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about: Daoism, and the Tao Te Ching. What has interested me in my study is the social & cultural context of the growth of Daoism. Unfortunately I am running out of time (and perhaps space… this blog is turning out to be more of a book) to elaborate on that right now, but I think it can tie in quite nicely to this thing about living deeply.
The Tao Te Ching spends a great amount of time pointing at the same thing Thoreau criticizes (or, more accurately, Thoreau spends a lot of time criticizing the same things that the Tao Te Ching gets at): the obsession with social standards, and the way that we lose the core essence of life and human-ness and nature and reality when we focus too much on the day-to-day requirements of fitting into culture and society, and when we forget to step back and just be. The deliberate living that Thoreau pursues, as well as the liberty that Orwell and Huxley fear losing, is quite possibly what the Tao Te Ching calls Dao (Tao). It’s the Way.
I don’t mean that in any metaphysical, woo sense as if I believe there’s a magical energy force or something. I mean, simply: It’s that human thing that we feel disconnected from too easily, and fear getting ripped away from us.
Maybe it’s a stretch for me to make that connection, but I only make it to offer the idea that this is a conversation we’ve been having across the world for millenia, and which is continually explored in literature and film and philosophy.
That Postman quote got me thinking about all this…and it’s quite a quick thought. Going forward I hope to explore this all more thoroughly.
In the mean time, I leave you with this: What is there to do about it?