Friday, March 9, 2012

Aldous Huxley's Letter to George Orwell

Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were the two great dystopian visionaries of the twentieth century. Huxley, whose Brave New World came out nearly two decades before 1984, saw the ultimate controlled society as a product of the scientific control of humans. Orwell presented the control as much more visible and brutal. In Huxley’s version, there would be no need for a Thought Police because the thoughts would be so easily directed that no thoughts could move out of control. Orwell’s is a brutal, bare-bones totalitarianism; Huxley’s is the totalitarianism of total comfort.
The website lettersofnote has published an intriguing letter from Huxley to Orwell, in which the former praises the work of his fellow novelist, but claims his own version of the nightmare future is more realistic. Why brutalize a population when you can hypnotize them? I think there are elements of both novels in our contemporary society, but I think it may make more sense to take them as displaying tendencies in extreme forms, rather than as predictions of the future. Both saw the leaders of their respective dystopias as possessed of great cleverness, as well as power. They don’t seem to recognize the great part that sheer incompetence plays in human affairs.
In the past, I have often associated the Orwellian kind of ultimate dictatorship with the Soviet  Union, which was undoubtedly the main model for 1984 (although, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Anthony Burgess argued it was really about post-war England). Huxley’s variety seemed to me much more the direction of the consumer societies of the West. But the Stalinist system of terrorism eventually gave way to jokes about the senility of Brezhnev, cynicisms within the USSR about its own ideology, and the project of Soviet Communism collapsed in economic and political failure.  The Brave New World technique of social control has to be able to keep people drugged and happy, to maintain a society as a well-run laboratory. That may be, as Huxley says in the letter, a “less arduous and wasteful” way of governing than the 1984 method, but it requires that ruling elites have much greater command of technique and understanding of events than fallible humans actually possess. So I think that we may never reach either type of dystopia for the same reason we’ll never reach any type of utopia: none of us, including rulers and would-be rulers, really know what we’re doing as we stumble around on this planet.

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