Grayswandir (_grayswandir_) wrote,
Grayswandir
_grayswandir_

Brave New World. Also, Walden Two.

Ah yes -- yet another great, rambling book review post.

This time, the topic is Brave New World.

First of all, though this may be a little beside the point, I have to mention that I spent a good portion of this novel just gaping in amaze at the fact that it was written in 1932. I literally did not believe it, and kept thinking the copyright date must somehow refer to something else. I mean, there are televisions all bloody over the place, and according to Wikipedia the very first electronic television -- a rather primitive and inconvenient one -- had only just been invented in 1928. Yet Huxley did not fail to predict that televisions, in the future, would be able to reproduce the most subtle of images, in color and accompanied by sound... and he even went further to predict that even touch and smell would soon enter into the picture; in effect that entire virtual worlds would be created, like the Hologram Deck on the Enterprise, or The Matrix or something. There's even a man wearing some unwieldy headgear that's basically a cellular phone with an earpiece and an attached camera. In 1932.

Which is to say nothing of all the science! The hormone supplements and chemical injections, the genetic engineering and experimentation (years yet before World War II, mind), the behavioral conditioning -- it's simply unbelievable. And the unabashed promiscuity! In 1932! That he was even able to publish such a thing, with its careless references to how children used to be forbidden to have sex, and had to get by with a bit of masturbation and homosexuality... I realize Freud had opened up these lines of discourse quite a bit, but nevertheless. 1932.

Anyway. As to the novel itself.

To begin with, I give Huxley enormous credit for writing his fictional universe as though it were not merely real, but perfectly natural and unsurprising. The technique worked beautifully, especially since he made a point of introducing all the most outrageous customs right away, in the first few pages, so that everything from there on was quite easy to accept.

Here and there, I'll admit, he slipped up, and some inconsistency was apparent. For instance, the changing rooms. In a future where promiscuity is practically law, and children play naked sex games almost from infancy, what the devil is the point of putting men and women in separate changing rooms? Also, the entire last chapter made very little sense to me. (Why would John be allowed to stay at the lighthouse? I assumed he had sneaked away in secret, and that as soon as word of his whereabouts got back to London, Mustafa Mond would have him dragged back so that the "experiment" could continue. At the very least, surely Mustafa Mond would have had to do something about his persistently antisocial behavior, which was becoming a sensation likely to decondition the whole upper-caste population...)

And then there were the London news reporters, also in that final chapter. They behaved very suspiciously like members of a free press, asking all sorts of questions that could not possibly have returned socially acceptable answers. And who would have approved the publication of a feely consisting entirely of John flagellating himself bloody? To show them that solitude is a bad option? But the whole point, I thought, was not to let them realize that they had options or free will at all -- not even the will to choose to suffer. Merely putting the idea of willingly suffering into their heads sounds like a dangerous mistake.

I found Mustafa Mond interesting, though; he reminded me a little of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor and a little of Lord Vetinari. There was something decidedly villainous about him, even though he really did only ever act for the greater good... there seemed something very vindicated and aloof and even hypocritical about his sacrificing himself for the greater good. As for Bernard Marx, I was glad that he turned out to be a coward. At first I imagined that he would wind up a hero in the end -- but no: he remained believable and pathetic, self-important and insecure. I thought Lenina would be converted, too. But I don't think she was. Much praise to Huxley for that.

John the Savage, however, was a bit of a problem.

He reminded me a little of Mike from Stranger in a Strange Land, on account of his impeccable alien saintliness and his ridiculous and inexplicable mental abilities. Look -- the kid grows up on a Reservation with Indians who speak no English and, anyhow, dislike him, so that his sole source of English vocabulary is his mother, who doesn't know a single damn thing beyond what she used to have to know to do her job. And this kid -- he just picks up Shakespeare one day and immediately falls in love with him. Might as well say he picked up the bloody Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English! Even if John were an honest-to-god genius, with an IQ somewhere up in the 200 range, he'd have simply no frame of reference for anything that takes place in Shakespeare, never mind the vocabulary and syntax.

I'm not too sure about his religious mania, either, given his upbringing. His mother certainly didn't teach him to be devout or self-sacrificing, but encouraged instead just the opposite behavior, while the Indians -- the only ones from whom he could have learned to be devout -- mocked him and refused to include him in their ceremonies, and insulted his mother. And since he loved his mother and hated that the Indian children called her a whore, how is it that he came to despise Lenina as a whore.

But admittedly, his conditioning was rather haphazard, and who knows how he would have grown up. Anyway the ideas he expresses to Mustafa Mond in their conversation together are very, very nice. I think Huxley perhaps availed himself a little too much of Shakespeare's eloquence, but even so, that scene was the highlight of the book for me.


Now then, I also recently read another utopian/distopian novel, Skinner's Walden Two. Skinner is a great deal more systematic and rational than Huxley, and probably would have liked to point out that Huxley's most effective tools are rhetoric and pathos (often courtesy of Shakespeare), and not reason. I think this is true. And yet I'm afraid I side with Huxley all the same.

To give an overview of Walden Two would take some time, since Skinner makes a point of never speaking in generalizations, but always in details. But basically, the book is about a professor who goes to visit a utopian society called Walden Two, and learns just how the society is run. At its root, the whole system is based on honesty and positive reinforcement. I think it's easiest to explain by beginning at the end.

Near the end of the book, the professor has a conversation with Frazier, the mastermind behind Walden Two. In this conversation, Frazier admits that he himself is not as pure and selfless and genuine as those who live in his society; he has always had a lust for power and control. But, he says, over the course of his life, he realized that the only way to really exercise control without being sure to lose it in the end, is to actually act in the best interests of those you are controlling. It's not enough to convince them that you mean well: you must really mean it, and do it.

Frazier does not believe that men have free will; he believes they are programmed by genetic and environmental factors to desire certain things more than others, and can't help acting in accordance with their programmed desires. In the perfect utopia, men don't even need free will, because they're always able to choose the thing they want most. Why would they want to be free to choose anything else?

This is very much like Brave New World. The community of Walden Two is designed so that every member is behaviorally engineered, from birth, to want to do the things that will be best for society as a whole. Unlike Huxley, however, Skinner doesn't think deception or punishment are necessary.

He also sees nothing unethical in the idea of behaviorally engineering people, and points out that in normal society, people are manipulated and programmed by all sorts of people -- parents, teachers, priests, managers, advertisers, officials, and so on. To manipulate a child's behavior is not evil; it's the very meaning of parenting. The idea of Walden Two is to turn parenting into a precise science, thus developing a society full of stable, capable, and genuinely happy individuals.

Frazier actually compares himself to Christ. He considers Christ the first behaviorist, and "love thy enemy" the first example of a man preaching positive reinforcement rather than negative. He very literally identifies "love" as being identical to positive reinforcement, and on that ground, he claims to love all the citizens of Walden Two in a truly godlike fashion. He considers himself almost superior to God, in fact -- because he did not throw his people willy-nilly into a garden full of forbidden fruit without any defenses; he was careful to instill in them every possible defense, and to plan their future so that they are almost certain to be happy.

But besides making men happy, Frazier is also interested in something else: developing a precise science of human behavior -- something that can only be done by experimentation, not mere theoretical speculation. It was necessary for him to set up an experiment which was totally genuine, and to have test subjects who were sincere and undeceived. He expects that in time, genetic engineering and behavioral engineering will allow mankind to develop a better mankind: to breed better artists, mathematicians, musicians, architects, and even better behavioral engineers.

Which is an idea that I find, frankly, more than a little unnerving. So, On with some general reactions to all this -- both Huxley and Skinner.


Skinner's utopia is certainly much harder to attack than Huxley's, which is in keeping with their respective intents. But it's interesting that utopia and distopia don't really seem to be opposites. Rather, in a utopia, everyone is happy. In a distopia, no one is free. Huxley makes this the theme of his whole novel -- what are the relative merits of happiness and freedom? There are huge sacrifices that must be made for happiness, and they include glory and passion and dignity and grandeur and the pursuit of truth. Is it worth such sacrifices, to be happy? Huxley seems to think not. Nevertheless, his future-London is both a distopia and a utopia. No one is free. But everyone is happy.

Skinner, meanwhile, considers it possible to create a future where men are both happy and free -- because he takes a much more scientific view of what "freedom" actually means. This is where Huxley, invoking freedom and truth and glory, persuades by rhetoric. But Skinner is much more sober and literal, and I kind of hate it that he's probably, technically, right.

What is it that's so horrible about the idea of Man improving himself by genetic and behavioral engineering? It's just so impersonal and clinical. We want to be our own gods, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; we want free will to enter into it somehow, and we want our progress to mean something. We recoil at the idea of genetically improving Man because that sounds like Frankenstein, like molding the sacred clay of life with our own grubby mortal fingers, and, worst of all, like mechanizing the whole beautiful mystery that is the spirit of a human being.

And yet science proves ever more irrefutably that there is no beautiful mystery of the human spirit. There are genetics and complicated systems for interpreting and responding to stimuli, but there is no mystical secret. If we want to improve ourselves, what sense in mucking about with poetry? Hard science will do the trick.

The thing I can't help thinking is that, once we've proven and accepted that Man is merely a system, to be improved with each new edition like a damned household appliance... isn't it simpler just to kill him off and be done with him?

I mean, why trouble with a utopia at all? Who cares?

Who cares about Man, in such a case?

Skinner would be sure to argue, very reasonably, that the worth of Man is in no way reduced by improving him. If anything, his worth is increased. How should he be more valuable when he's miserable and poorly adapted? Surely his faults are not what make him divine. Skinner would say this, and all the logic in the world would be on his side... yet the very devil if I don't still think he's wrong.

(Skinner would classify my reaction as some sort of neurosis, I've no doubt—one of the unfortunate side effects of growing up in a world where one is taught to cherish pain, because the alternative is to succumb to it. Well, very well: I'll keep my neurosis, Skinner, and you may keep your utopia. Being a behaviorist of course means knowing exactly how every human being ought to be...)


But in any case, I have one objection that concerns both Huxley's and Skinner's utopias, and it is simply this: I really don't believe Man is capable of existing without conflict.

If we're going to deal with this scientifically, then it isn't difficult to show that there are merits and even advantages to negative reinforcement and the use of fear and force. Evolution did not occur by everyone getting along happily together. Skinner baldly dismisses history and says that its variables are too many to prove anything, but even he agrees that competitive behavior was necessary to Man in order for him to attain his present intellectual (and other) abilities. For some reason he believes the time has come, however, for this kind of evolution to cease; he thinks that in order to evolve henceforth, men must cooperate completely, stop competing, learn to love everyone equally, and never again seek praise or distribute blame.

But survival of the fittest is one of the most fundamental principles of evolution, and the only thing that causes men to strive at all is their competitive nature, that instinct that knows that to fail is to die. Shall we then breed competition out of Man? Skinner asserts that a well-adjusted and well-engineered man works just as well or better without the ambition to conquer anyone. I think he is mistaken.

I can't prove it, but for that matter, neither could he. And if Mustafa Mond is right about philosophers -- that their whole enterprise consists of inventing bad reasons for the things they already believe for other bad reasons... still, then, where is the man so impartial that he can be sure his own reasons are not just as bad as the next fellow's?


Anyway. I was going to try to write some kind of actual conclusion for this ramble, but as usual it's quite long enough without that, so...
Tags: aldous huxley, b f skinner, books, utopias/dystopias
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