Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering

I finished Brave New World this week.  It's one of those books that I'd always hear about in comparison to other novels, but I never really got around to the original text.  I knew it was about babies in bottles and a future in which everybody took happy pills and that was about it
Reading it was a bracing experience, not because it is a dystopian masterwork, but because it feels so real and dumb and true in the way it investigates the future without being portentous and without pointing fingers.  The prose is very quick and bright, and horrible things are kept away while you feel the horrible things somehow simmering inside sentences, throbbing out of each paragraph.  The brilliance of the book is its hermetically sealed sense of itself.  Huxley must have dreamed about this world a billion times before writing anything down because there is a logic and a circumstance in every scene that feels both lived in and surrealistic, a banality branching out of sci-fi trance.  The governmental jargon has a jazzy, flashy fever to it:  "The Chief Bottler, the Director off Predestination, three Deputy Assistant Fertilizer-Generals, the Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering, the Dean of the Westminster Community Singery, the Supervisor of Bokanovskification..."  The posh creamy set design of living spaces, the sleek helicopters they all ride around in, the vinyl primary-colored clothes everyone wears -- all of it has a sort of cartoon-like garishness to it and yet a grim perfunctory prefab believability.
Everyone is happy in this future.  They take soma, a drug that allows them to drift into personal paradises for extended periods of time.  They have sex with multiple partners.  They freak out when they hear the words "mother" and "father" because they have all been programmed to understand the limits and nightmares inherent in the family dynamic.  There's a crazy logic to everything Huxley does both narratively and thematically.  This thing snaps together like an Ikea set of shelves.
And yet you feel inside the locomotive of story a deep almost religious sadness, a yearning, if not a nostalgia, for a return to some kind of god to be afraid of.  At the time of Brave New World, eugenics and other scientific endeavors were being used to create a better future, to rid the world of sickness and also to rid it of any semblance of what might be the reason for sickness, and in that scientific wave of perfecting people and worlds came a rush of institutions, laws, sterilizations, deaths, metaphors, visions, etc. The dictate of how people should be became the rule of law, and the government and its power tried to "fix" problems in ways that simplified them to cause and effect, when many times there was no cause and there was no effect, just reality.  So those endeavors only created outposts of control, and now here we are still trying to figure out how there's no heaven on earth but oftentimes a whole lot of hell being created in pursuit of it.
The characters in Brave New World aren't characters as much as circuits, but the one that stands out the most is The Savage named John, who is brought back into civilization after living all of his life on a reservation only to find civilization maddeningly oppressive, even while everyone is smiling and telling him how great he is.  He can't stand that creepy crass indistinct mob of people interested in his status of "not them."  They ogle him.  He symbolizes both a way out of the mass-produced hysteria and amnesia as well as its biggest mistake.  His journey out of the civilized world and back to his own devices, though, is not a triumph in the end.  That's what makes the farce in Huxley's book tragic:  there's no way to be a human being, he seems to be saying, unless you are in the process of escaping being human.