The Right to Be Unhappy
By Jonathan DeSousa
When I was in first grade, I struggled as a reader. Every week I was taken aside from our normal class session to work with a reading specialist to bring my capabilities up to the level expected of a young boy of 5. My birthday being at the end of December meant I had started kindergarten at 4 and consequently was a bit immature compared to my fellow classmates. Reading and schoolwork was a struggle for me. Fortunately, our reading specialist was my godmother who helped me to overcome my deficiencies and consequently to develop a strong love for reading. As I grew older, reading became synonymous with my persona. I read far more than my contemporaries, likely overcompensating for my relative immaturity and attempting to keep up with the other kids my age. Even to this day I am a voracious reader; reading four to five books concurrently is not unusual. I realize there is just so much I still don’t know and so much about which I am curious.
In my professional life I am an engineer, providing technical support to customers globally, helping to integrate my company’s products into our customer’s solutions. Although that helps me to exercise the left hemisphere of my brain, there has for years been something lacking in my education so I have spent much of the last two years trying to exercise the right hemisphere by reading literature. Joining Online Great Books has been one step along that journey. Recently, I was reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. This book sparked concern both for myself and for others; concerns which I believe those who are members at Online Great Books are helping to stem. Before sharing my concern it would be helpful to share a summary of Brave New World but better yet, stop reading here and go read it yourself. We can then compare your notes and mine just below the summary that follows.
At its core, Brave New World is a story about a future that may be considered utopian or dystopian depending on one’s perspective. In this world, Henry Ford has been raised to godlike status and the world revolves around the cult of personality he created. As the novel commences in the year of Our Ford 632 (2540 AD) the Director of the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre is giving a tour to a group of boys along with an assistant, Henry Foster, where they discuss the Hatchery’s usage of the Bokanovsky and Podsnap Processes which enable the production of thousands of essentially identical human embryos. The embryos travel through the Hatchery’s factory floor during its period of gestation along a conveyor belt (likely thanks to Henry Ford’s invention of the movable assembly line) during which time the embryos are conditioned to fit into five possible castes ranging from the most sophisticated, Alphas, to the most Neanderthal-like Epsilons. In this new society no one is “born”; rather, embryos are “decanted” from the line. The higher castes are destined to be the new World State’s leadership and the lower castes are used for less mentally and physically demanding occupations. The lower castes are artificially impaired through oxygen deprivation and chemical exposure to ensure they lack the mental and physical capacities to support higher functions. One of the factory workers, Lenina Crowne, explains to the touring young men how she vaccinates embryos that will be destined for tropical climates to ensure their ultimate survival.
In addition to seeing the physical and mental deformation, the boys are taken to the Nursery where a group of Delta caste infants are being conditioned to dislike flowers and books. The conditioning processes used include hypnopædic training so the World State can impose its propagandist messages to it’s creations. All people are conditioned to love their work and their place in society from an early age. This conditioning continues throughout their life to reinforce the messaging and behaviors expected of it’s citizens by the World Society. As the Director explains, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” This unescapable social destiny is not something someone can choose, it is predetermined by senior authority figures including the Director and World Controllers. Young children are also taught to engage in sexual games and play from a very young age to encourage the frivolity and maximize happiness while minimizing their interest in anything which may smack of unique thinking. “Everyone belongs to everyone else” in this society so it is common for people to sleep with many other partners. In this society group mentality is emphasized over individualism. “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely,” and loneliness is something that everyone is conditioned to consider highly undesirable in this future world.
The tour is introduced to Mustapha Mond, one of only ten World Controllers, who introduces himself to the boys and explains that one of the core focuses of the World State is to remove desires, emotions, and stress from human relationships in the society and focus each person’s attention on the pursuit of “happiness” and consumption to the exclusion of all else. “Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness” as Mustapha Mond will disclose. To keep people from focusing on truth and beauty, the World State gives out daily rations of a drug called “soma” which takes away all cares and “allows” people to let their thoughts roam more freely. People are conditioned to say “Remember that a gramme is better than a damn” referring to the dosage of soma that will help someone who is anxious or thinks to much to redirect their thoughts.
Later, Lenina chats with a friend, Fanny Crowne, in a bathroom, about her ongoing relationship with the assistant Henry Foster. Fanny is surprised that Lenina has been seeing the Henry Foster exclusively for nearly four months. She does admit she has an interest in the quirky and awkward Bernard Marx who works in another part of the hatchery. Bernard meanwhile is furious when he hears Foster talking about “having” Lenina with the Assistant Predestinator, as Bernard has strong feelings for her.
Bernard is seeking approval to go on a trip to the Savage Reservation in New Mexico and after work he asks Lenina if she would like to join him. She says she would be happy to which excites Bernard. He takes a helicopter to meet with his friend, Helmholtz Watson, and tells him about the impeding trip and to discuss their mutual unhappiness with the World State. Bernard is frustrated that he is too weak and small compared to other members of his caste so is frequently treated less kindly by his colleagues while Helmholtz is far too intelligent for his job writing the hypnopædic phrases used for conditioning.
A few days later, Bernard asks the Director for permission to visit the Savage Reservation. The Director becomes concerned about Bernard and explains that when he was younger he visited the reservation with a young woman and that during a storm the woman was lost and not found again. He gives Bernard the permit to go but warns Bernard that his behavior is considered troubling and antisocial.
Bernard and Lenina travel to the Reservation where they get an additional permit from the Warden to enter the Reservation proper. Prior to entering the Reservation Bernard calls his friend Helmholtz and is shocked to find the Director has gotten fed up with Bernard’s difficult and antisocial behaviors and plans to exile him to a facility in Iceland when he comes back to London. Although Bernard has no interest in being relocated to the remoteness of Iceland, he still continues on to the Reservation.
When they travel through the Reservation, Bernard and Lenina are surprised to see how sick and aged the residents of the villages are. In the World State no one has signs of aging in the way these “savages” do. They witness a man being whipped as part of a religious ritual and they find it disturbing. They then meet a young man named John, who is isolated from the rest of the villagers. John tells them he is the son of a woman named Linda who was found by the villagers more than twenty years ago. After further discussing his childhood, Bernard realizes that John must be the son of the woman that the Director had brought with him and that John must be his son. John explains that he and his mother have been isolated from the village since Linda was willing to freely sleep with all the men of the village; a custom which the “savages” found abhorrent. John was consequently raised isolated from many other people. While growing up John was taught to read by his mother, who had limited materials on hand so used a book called The Chemical and Bacteriological Conditioning of the Embryo and The Complete Works of Shakespeare as his primary texts. John tells Lenina and Bernard that he is eager to see this other “Brave New World” that his mother often tells him about. Bernard invites him to come back to London though John insists that Linda must be allowed to go with them.
Lenina, who is disgusted by what she sees on the Reservation takes enough soma that she is locked out for hours. Bernard flies to Santa Fe where he calls Mustapha Mond and obtains permission to have John and Linda accompany him back to the World State. John, meanwhile, breaks into the house where Lenina and Bernard are staying and has to exert significant effort to surpass his desire to touch her. Bernard, Lenina, John, and Linda all fly back to the World State in London where they are met by the Director and a group of Bernard’s Alpha coworkers. The Director, prepared to exile Bernard, is shocked to be introduced to Linda and to the shame of being a father. The Director resigns immediately negating Bernard’s impending exile.
Bernard immediately becomes popular escorting John around the highest echelon of the World Society. He is brought to parties, tours factories, and schools. John becomes very worried about the culture of the society he is seeing. He is also very confused about the strong desire he feels for Lenina, who is also confused that John does not express a wish to be intimate with her. Bernard takes advantage of his new status by sleeping with as many women as possible and continuously hosting parties for the important guests who can help him continue his rise in society. John, who feels he is being prostituted around, refuses to come out of his room one night at a party which includes the Arch-Community Songster who is a very important person within the World Society. Bernard immediately loses all the social status he had recently gained.
Bernard, having no important friends, introduces John to his friend Helmholtz Watson. They fall in together quickly and when John reads some parts from Romeo and Juliet to Helmholtz, specifically parts about parents, love, and marriage, Helmholtz loses control of himself by laughing explaining that these ideas are nonsensical in the culture of the World State.
Lenina becomes obsessed with John though is very anxious about seeing him. She takes some soma and visits him at Bernard’s apartment, hoping to seduce him. John, completely confused, curses her and attacks her while reciting lines form Shakespeare. She hides in a bathroom and John receives a call from the Hospital for the Dying that Linda, who has been in a soma-induced coma since she returned is about to die. When he arrives at the hospital he sees a group of lower caste boys undergoing “death conditioning” and are curious why Linda is so old and unattractive.
Shortly after this Linda dies and John departs, clearly upset. John meets a group of Deltas who are receiving their daily ration of soma. He tries to convince them to revolt and not partake in the soma ration but they only become agitated. He grabs the soma and throws it out a window inciting a riot. Bernard and Helmholtz rush to the hospital to help John when they hear of the riot, which is subdued by the authorities with the help of Soma vapor. All three are arrested and taken to the office of Mustapha Mond.
Mustapha Mond and John discuss the World State and the value of it’s policies. John rightly argues that the policies are dehumanizing to all though Mond argues a very different perspective, specifically that stability is more important than humanity and the key to ensuring stability is to keep people happy. He argues, “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art.” John counters that life without the high art is not worth living. Bernard and Helmholtz are told that they are being exiled to a distant island. Bernard loses his sanity and is taken from the room; while, Helmholtz takes his punishment with happiness knowing it will give him time to write and think more freely. He likewise steps out leaving John and Mustapha mood to continue their discussion.
Mond continues: “In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. When there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended – there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving anyone too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is.”
John chastises this world view and criticizes the lack of new literature being created and the elimination of human emotion except to provide temporary enjoyment. He asks why Shakespeare has been banned. Mond responds that “You can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they out to behave.” Ultimately Mustapha explains, “. . . most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”
John, unable to restrain himself any further, defiantly proclaims: “All right then, I’m claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat, the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind. I claim them all.”
Mond and John finish their argument and John, not given the option to join Bernard and Helmholtz in exile choses to retreat to a lighthouse in the country where he purifies himself with self-flagellation and spends his free time gardening and reading. Curious people catch him in the act and reporters from the World State begin to show up at the lighthouse to film reports about him. Lenina comes and approaches John with open arms. John, losing himself, brandishes his whip screaming, “Kill it! Kill it!” The situation becomes intense and breaks out in an orgy. When John awakes he is overcome with resentment, anger, and sadness that he submitted to the norms of the World State society and hangs himself.
I find the story that Huxley gives us is intense and troubling. We see a future society in which people willingly give up their freedom of thought to a World Society which cares nothing for their ultimate well-being. The focus in this future world is on an imagined happiness that does not rely on reality. One can be “happy” but lead a completely unfulfilled, unexamined life.
As Mustapha Mond cautions: “Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning, truth and beauty can’t.” I would charge that keeping the wheels steadily turning, while helpful for some, does not result in the best possible outcome for all. The loss of feeling and emotion that come from the work we do in studying the Great Books is our chance to foment revolution as individuals and prevent ourselves from being maintained in a state of servitude by a higher authority.
Mond admonishes that “You can’t consume much if you sit still and read books.” and I agree with him wholeheartedly. We should focus our time not on consuming and trying to achieve a temporary, imagined state of happiness but on following a more virtuous path . . . a noble path.
So I ask, my fellow readers, will you continue to follow that noble path? Will you expend your energies preventing the potential formation of a future world where people are automatons, unable to think for themselves? Will you put in that effort and join me in exercising the right to be unhappy? I certainly hope you do.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Harper Perennial, 2006.