Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Made of Paper: Huxley, Burgess, and Dystopia

From high school through college, I read through the works of two British novelists, Aldous Huxley and Anthony Burgess, both of whom are best known for their portrayals of dystopia. Huxley's most famous novel, of course, was Brave New World.  If George Orwell later represented the nightmare future as one of open repression, economic scarcity, and obvious thought-policing, Huxley drew this coming dystopia as scientific manipulation, planned comfort, and subtle direction of thinking in the perfected technocracy. While much of our contemporary corporate and academic environment is Orwellian (mandated speech codes, official orthodoxies, and "war is peace" phrases such as "colorblind racism"), even more is Huxleyan. I have suggested previously that social planning in general entails a Brave New World type of dehumanization.

I enjoyed all of Huxley's works, even his final novel, Island, although I re-read this last many years later and found its description of Huxley's own version of utopia somewhat creepy, dealing as it did with a society raised to ideal harmony through the use of psychedelic plants according to the guru-like guidance of a wise leader. Maybe it suffered being read in the wake of the Manson family and the Jim Jones cult. In my view, Huxley's best work was his early novel, Point Counterpoint, a complex roman a clef about English society in the 1920s.  Mark Rampion, one of the major characters in that book, is an educated man from the working class, based on Huxley's friend D.H. Lawrence, who gives a rebellious outsider's view of the elite. Lawrence also, I believe, served as the model for John the Savage, the opponent of scientific utopia in Brave New World.

Burgess saw a dismal future of juvenile violence in A Clockwork Orange, the celebrated film version of which was good, but not as good as the novel. The Russian-English slang used by the juvenile delinquents in the book could be reproduced only imperfectly in the film. This, like Huxley's novel, deals with the problem of free will versus the scientific control of human beings, although a sub-theme concerns the compatibility of high aesthetic culture and evil. Alex, the protagonist, is a fan of Beethoven who, after being sentenced to prison for rape and murder, takes up reading the Bible for the sake of its violent parts. In prison, Alex enters a behavior-modification program, as a result of which he not only becomes unable to engage in violence, but also unable to endure classical music. As a consequence, he cannot protect himself from other delinquents after his release from prison. Eventually, a series of traumatic events reverse Alex's conditioning, and at the end he finds himself with his own family, pondering his child's probable coming delinquency.

The delinquency and the behavioral manipulation are two parts of a morally empty society, directed by social workers and psychiatrists, rather than by transcendent values. Interestingly, one of the lesser known works by Burgess, 1985, was a commentary on George Orwell. This book is in two parts, the first a critical essay on 1984 and the second another dystopian novella. In the essay, Burgess argues that those who see Orwell's book as a prediction of the future misread it. It was, according to Burgess really about 1948, and everything Orwell portrays in the book is an exaggerated version of England and the world after the war. Along these same lines, Burgess gives us 1985 as an exaggerated version of his own society.  In the novella, humanistic education has disappeared, replaced by intellectually mediocre training in prescribed social attitudes and behavior (what we now call "civic engagement education" or "social justice education"). It is a world of dreary conformity, managed by a social work bureaucracy. The juvenile delinquents in this book cultivate whatever bits and pieces of classical learning they can acquire as rebellion against their establishment (Burgess may have repeatedly fantasized too much appeal for high culture to young criminals).

As in the case of Huxley, the books that I liked best were not Burgess's best known. The one that I would rank above all others was Enderby, which later became the first volume of a quartet and was re-titled Inside Mr. Enderby. A middle aged, eccentric poet, Francis Xavier Enderby falls into an unfortunate marriage and unable to write, becomes depressed and suicidal. His treatment in a mental institution "cures" him of writing poetry and he becomes a bartender. Enderby repeatedly comes back in later books in the series, personifying the marginal and threatened values of humanistic culture and morality threatened by feminism, liberation movements, and all varieties of political correctness, as well as by psychiatry.

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