• João Antônio Gomes

Huxley v. Orwell

The Cold War was not indifferent to the imagination of novelists: the looming threat of nuclear holocaust and mutual annihilation left little space for optimism; fiction, therefore, evolved into a device of bleak prediction. Such was the flourishing of dystopia: the supreme hyperbole. As a genre of blueprints for an undesirable future, its purpose is to warn for necessary social change. Proponents of the anti-utopian text include Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and, most illustriously, George Orwell -- author of the perpetually relevant novels 1984 and Animal Farm. As the future became present, academics began contemplating the extent to which their visions were right. Perhaps most notoriously, in 1985 (following the year of Orwell's prophecy), cultural critic Neil Postman developed a compelling argument against media showbusiness and 'excessive' entertainment by comparing Orwell's 1984 with Huxley's Brave New World. He sustains that the latter, not the former, was correct about future society: for him, a populace oblivious from the absurdity of reality was more coherent than a society shackled by an omniscient authoritarian regime. Without a doubt, this claim is essentially unfair with 1984, for numerous dictators since its publishing, from Pinochet to Zedong, used the very same tactics described by Orwell to indoctrinate the masses; however, in regards to the modern West, Brave New World speaks louder. The underlying idea that sets the rightness of Huxley's projection at the expense of Orwell's is that humans are more safely controllable through passion, consumption, and pleasure than brutality, censorship, and fear -- there is no need for a Big Brother. Postman himself would later postulate correctly: "People will come to love their oppression" and live in a silent dystopia.

Many have disregarded Huxley as a source of truths of our present. When the modern reader thinks of dystopias, he thinks of disquieting realities, oppression, dreadful societies; consequently, any comparison between dystopian novels and the contemporary world looks at the aspects that 'sound more dystopian.' That is why, when governments take on authoritarian measures, there is social unrest and extensive citing of Orwell, but little thinking of Huxley in everyday consumerism. Fact is, Brave New World is a dystopia that sounds too much like a utopia -- it is hard to put your finger on what makes it dystopian. Upon reading the book, many would say: "But there are no wars, society is efficient, everyone is happy! How can this be in the same literary genre as 1984?" Huxley answered this question way back in 1946. In a note, he would write that "there is, of course, no reason why the new totalitarianisms should resemble the old," and his words are why most readers fail to realize -- that fascism, Stalinist communism, and other centralized forms of authority are obsolete. Unlike Orwell's immortal regime seems to propose, history has shown us that dictatorships are overly unstable: people resist as soon as they realize their subjugation. Most despots dealt with underground opposition groups: Mussolini had the Partigiani; King George the III, the IRA; Gorbachev, the Mujahideen. Generally, tyranny is short-lived. Ultimately, censorship, telescreens, and oppressive propaganda become antiquated ideas of how the future will be, which is why Brave New World is overlooked by many as a dystopia and utter proof of society's alienation from its oppression and Huxley's correctness.

Faced with the obsolescence of tyranny, Huxley theorized (correctly) that the governments do not need to exert their power with an iron hand to control us, for humans do it themselves. In his book, society's oppression happens through the soma, a hallucinogenic drug that holds people 'happy,' in complacency with the State -- happiness becomes the final cause. Although no such pills indoctrinate and control the mass, they are comparable to several aspects of modern Western life under democracies. For one, the metaphorical narcotic represents the overwhelming entertainment delivered by the internet and its smartphones and computers. At all times, people can consume easy and mind-numbing content, be it on Tik Tok, YouTube, or streaming platforms. Too much content offers too many escapes from reality and keeps us from a meaningful conversation. Whatever is painful, people suppress -- no one is allowed to be insulted, to disagree. Comedians, for example, can barely make polemical jokes without unleashing the wrath of the public, which is unable to coexist with anything that goes against the social norm. An older parallel to soma would be consumption, for meaningless and unnecessary shopping provides temporary happiness. Consumerism molds several aspects of modern life: the modern human has entire buildings dedicated to capitalist desire. The more financially advantaged parcel of the population has pettily attempted to buy their happiness with clothing, cars, houses, and other assets. In sum, Huxley's construction of the soma fits many iniquities of modernity, from the shoes we purchase to the shows we watch; happiness is the norm.

Although Brave New World befits contemporary life, 1984 is not utterly wrong about the future. George Orwell's masterpiece still offers relevant commentary on the present media, governments, and mass manipulation. Take doublethink, a concept developed by Orwell throughout the romance to address the simultaneous hold of contradictory beliefs (switching whenever convenient): does political discourse today not resemble this idea? For example, several pro-life advocates in the U.S. fall into the same group that rejects the COVID-19 vaccine. They hold opposite views depending on the topic: when the issue is abortion, the life of another comes before the mother's choice; when it is the vaccine, they defend they should be able to choose when something concerns their own body. Alongside sheer hypocrisy, Orwell was able to see that, at times, people will censor each other. In 1984, the children would tell on their parents if they acted against the party's desire, and people were mutually vigilant; today, modern society denounces anyone that goes against the acceptable, engaging in canceling. In essence, Orwell thinking the future would be authoritarian does not exclude the relevancy of his work.

If the world today looks more like a Huxleyan novel, that is because Orwell was taken seriously. 1984 has become the cornerstone of 20th-century political thought and part of the reason why Western society is repulsive of anything resembling tyranny. Thus, it is time to listen to what Brave New World has to say. The fight for freedom does not stop at silent oppression. We must claim our right to unhappiness, reality, and truth, as painful as it can be. For soma is "Christianity without tears."


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