Got a gramme of soma? You do? Excellent. Well, strap in and fade out. Scottish techno wizards Slam were so taken with the designer drug in Brave New World that they named their illustrious label after it. In a letter to Orwell, whom he briefly taught, Huxley wrote: “my own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing”. Soma acts much like alcohol does in Nineteen Eighty-Four, albeit on a harder scale to create a world where the subjects are “not listening, not thinking at all”. This is the goal of all totalitarian societies: to dull the critical faculties of its citizens who merely watch “the flower of the present rosily blossom” and get high and fuck all day.
If Orwell’s classic is about a state-run dystopia, then Huxley’s is of a right-wing capitalist one where the Ford corporation controls the world. Huxley leaves us with the district impression that ideas, both left and right, are the issue: “The greater a man’s talents, the greater his power to lead astray”. I cannot help thinking that Huxley is Bernard Marx. Incidentally, although it attacks capitalism, the names of the characters are telling: Polly Trotsky, Sarojiji Engels, Herbert Bakunin and Lenina. Marx thinks freely. As Camus, who understands all too well the risk that totalitarian societies pose for artists, writes in Create Dangerously: “If art insists on being a luxury, it will also be a lie”. Huxley, as Marx, understood this. Or perhaps he is the “Savage”, John, who goes home to read Othello (infamously dumbed down to Three Weeks In A Helicopter) rather than having sex with Lenina. Indeed, the use of the word “Savage” is important. Society must dehumanise John. “Savage” also has imperialist conations and it is redolent of Arendt’s thought in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the “superiority of man over man, of the higher over the lower breeds” leads to a virulent form of racism. All the more reason why human beings need, as Erich Fromm beseeches us in Escape from Freedom, to think critically and to impose our individuality on society.
The Savage knows this and recognises the real value of art in a totalitarian society: “you’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art”. He does not subscribe to the vapid society where “liberalism, of course, was dead of anthrax, but all the same you couldn’t do things by force” and fights back vociferously against the senseless consumerist materialism where “ending is better than mending”. Conservatism, as well as liberalism, is dead: “never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today”. This is a world akin to The Matrix and Patrick Ness’s More Than This, where we are materials. It is the Savage who understands that we cannot exist on pleasure alone: “but I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin”. And so say all of us.