Summer 2005, after finishing seventh grade I spent long hours at ELITE Pre-SAT bootcamp. I don’t remember a lick of any of their thousand-dollar tips or whether they helped. But I do remember this: hating Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I don’t think I even finished it.
Why ELITE thought it was a good idea to have a bunch of middle schoolers read a dystopian about a utopian society with endless sex and enough drug trips to literally soothe large swaths of humanity into social-prison is beyond me. All I wanted then was to play StarCraft (and I still do).
Spring 2020, I finished Brave New World (thanks, Audible and, I guess, Covid-19, since after the tenth hour of TV my eyes starts to throb). I must have not even tried back in 2005: I don’t remember anything. But I’m glad I read now. It’s a classic and a model for dystopians.
What’s freakiest about the brave new world is not its predetermined, genetically-modified, socially-engineered classes nor the indoctrination fortifying the distinctions but “a gram of soma.” Soma is a happiness-producing drug. It soothes away all forms of pain. Taking soma is also called going on holiday—slipping from one utopian to another. One can emulate effects of soma with mezcal but with an awful hangover the following day. Soma, however, does not have any side-effects, just bliss. It’s the perfect reward. No, more than that, it’s the perfect means to stabilize utopia. Without it, no amount of genetic modification or indoctrination can quell humanity into such happy subservience.
Mustapha Mond, one of the World Controllers leading the brave new world was a promising scientist when he was younger. But as he aged, he sacrificed truth, scientific freedom, and personal happiness for “Community, Identity, and Stability”—the brave new world’s utilitarian motto. Everyone belongs to everybody for universal happiness. Mond states:
“Universal happiness keeps the wheel turning; truth and beauty can’t…. What’s the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled–after the Nine Years’ War. People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness.”
Happiness at the cost of truth and beauty is the bedrock of this brave new world. The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right of every human being, so says the United States Declaration of Independence. Mond rather says that it is the unalienable right of collective humanity, and every human being must sacrifice to guard and fulfill it.
The pursuit of happiness is also found in religious circles. But happiness according to, say, Augustine or Aquinas looks acutely different from Mond. For Augustine, the source of all happiness is found in God, not in stability. Happiness is lived in virtue formed and virtue enjoyed. Sacrificial charity softens hardened hearts to experience a kind of love that would not be otherwise. These virtue-forming sacrifices are not genetically-modified and socially-engineered like in Mond’s world: Deltas and Epsilons have to play their lower parts and Alphas and Betas their greater parts. Most of all, happiness is not automatic of the output of some formula: one sacrifice does not give a trip like a gram of soma does. In fact, the most substantial difference between religious happiness and Mond’s is how the former relinquishes control of happiness. Truly, if God is the source of happiness, then happiness cannot be formulated, engineered, and administered. Therefore, it is a pursuit, not a dose.
The brilliance of Brave New World is how at face-value such utopian society is terrifying, but reasons why are not so apparent. When John invoked his right to be unhappy and isolated from the happy, collective society, it eventually led him hanging. The chilling last words betray how unfamiliar suicide is to such happy society:
Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east. …
And isn’t that a grand sign of society—where suicide is wholly alien? Then why be so afraid of “Community, Identity, and Stability”? I won’t deny it: as freaky as this brave new world is I found myself thinking: “Damn, life would be so easy: no aging, no aliments, no pain. Everyone is beautiful, and all is stable.” Then I would quickly add: “But only as long as I’m an Alpha.” Brave New World is repulsive because we think like Alphas. We know instinctively that not all will be Alphas; some will have to be Deltas and Epsilons—though they’ll gladly be because of their genetic modifications and daily dosage of soma. Hence, it is called brave new world: it involves such high risk. So, we hate the brave new world: we would rather live in chaos and instability than risk losing our Alpha-like status.
Such is our right to be unhappy, which demonstrates that unhappiness is not an enemy of life. Unhappiness is life’s unhappy companion. It’s not necessarily a problem to be solved but to be faced and integrated into life’s larger whole. This process invokes a different kind of bravery: the bravery to risk some unhappiness for a grander happiness yet to come.