November 17, 2007

"Brave New World" or "1984" — "Which template would win"?

We used to wonder, Margaret Atwood writes.
During the cold war, Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to have the edge. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, pundits proclaimed the end of history, shopping reigned triumphant, and there was already lots of quasi-soma percolating through society. True, promiscuity had taken a hit from Aids, but on balance we seemed to be in for a trivial, giggly, drug-enhanced spend-o-rama: Brave New World was winning the race.

That picture changed, too, with the attack on New York's twin towers in 2001. Thoughtcrime and the boot grinding into the human face could not be got rid of so easily, after all. The Ministry of Love is back with us, it appears, though it's no longer limited to the lands behind the former iron curtain: the west has its own versions now.

On the other hand, Brave New World hasn't gone away. Shopping malls stretch as far as the bulldozer can see. On the wilder fringes of the genetic engineering community, there are true believers prattling of the gene-rich and the gene-poor - Huxley's alphas and epsilons - and busily engaging in schemes for genetic enhancement and - to go one better than Brave New World - for immortality.
Atwood's fear: We get both.

Read the whole thing.

I especially like the part about how she, as a 14 year old girl, struggled to understand Huxley, who wrote things like:
"Zip! The rounded pinkness fell apart like a neatly divided apple. A wriggle of the arms, a lifting first of the right foot, then the left: the zippicamiknicks were lying lifeless and as though deflated on the floor."
(Here's the line in it's chapter, which includes this sex talk: "'Hug me till you drug me, honey.'...'Kiss me till I'm in a coma. Hug me, honey, snuggly …'")

She asks:
[H]ow close have we come, in real life, to the society of vapid consumers, idle pleasure-seekers, inner-space trippers and programmed conformists that it presents?...

We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe... that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses, and that immediate gratification will never be enough.

22 comments:

oldirishpig said...

Why would this post immediately bring the Democratic Party to mind?

halojones-fan said...

"Thoughtcrime and the boot grinding into the human face could not be got rid of so easily, after all."

I just love the way people say things like this and have no idea of the inconsistency it implies. "We clearly live in a massively oppressive society, where our very thoughts are subject to the approval of the Great Leader! Why, our society is so repressive that I can't even speak my mind in public without worrying that I'll be D-noticed!"

Er...so the jackbooted thugs will be arriving soon, then?

"We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe... that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses, and that immediate gratification will never be enough."

Amazing, she's perfectly described the Dem/Left mindset.

P. Rich said...

"...often described as a feminist writer"
"...frequestly identified with the Left..."

from her Wiki bio, and for good reason. Not difficult to see why AA is attracted: Leftist word merchant driven by female hormonal urges. She's a "sister". Bonding is in the air.

Pogo said...

Well-written. I wonder if she notices Britain's current shift towards soft fascism making these stories come true today.

Christy said...

While I've only read 5 of her books, I've yet to come across any sex that was neither abusive or manipulative. I recall no good relationships. No sex as intimacy. Anyone else?

She fascinates as a writer and improves upon discussion. In her many layers I can read into them what I want.

In Oryx and Crake wherein gene manipulation gone crazy is central, the only good guy is the non-genius normal who survives (or not) as a natural man, barefoot and in the wild lands. Even so, she hints at understanding the value of gene manipulation, but still finds no happy result. A Luddite to her bones.

She is very much afraid of the single strong smart man who rules society as a tyrant. She seems to have little faith in a free people willing to fight to prevent such. It is as though in her heart of hearts she believes the only proper response is negotiation and accepts that negotiation will fail. So be it. She strikes me, in spite of the complexity of her novels, as a digital person. Black or white and nothing in between. Is this a Canadian thing, wherein their freedoms come from a benevolent monarchy, never having fought for them?

BTW, Atwood's 1985 A Handmaid's Tale, her most celebrated novel, is practically a straight retelling of Heinlein's 1939 If This Goes On but from a woman's point of view. Talk about a dystopian view of the future!

Sorry if I'm disjointed. Tried to keep it down to a reasonable size.

Freder Frederson said...

Is this a Canadian thing, wherein their freedoms come from a benevolent monarchy, never having fought for them?

You might want to check the casualty rates in both world wars (and in the current war in Afghanistan) before you accuse the Canadians of never having fought for freedom.

Your ignorance is astounding.

Hey said...

It is a constant struggle to keep my car on the road when I pass her in our neighborhood. She is the ultimate in limousine leftist, decrying the state of the world and our horrid culture, while living in a genteel multi-million dollar house, inventing a robotic pen so that she doesn't have to do book tours, and spending time with the rich and well connected.

Literary geniuses are horrendously overrated, mainly because their audience is only the intellectually stunted liberal arts professors and students. Having a bunch of 40th percentiles (who think they're 90th percentiles) claiming that you're in the 99th only means that you don't always breathe through your mouth.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

"The Ministry of Love is back with us"

It's been with us at least since the 60's radicals began their Long March through the halls of academe.

dick said...

It strikes me that she mainly seems to speak to those feminists who are lashing out at anyone who disagrees with them as being oppressers and that everyone is either oppressing someone or being oppressed by someone. Does she ever meet anyone who is happy just being themselves and being alive?

Revenant said...

I'm suddenly reminded of why I don't bother reading Margaret Atwood.

Blake said...

We always figured the USSR would go fully into Big Brotherhood while the USA would go into Brave New World.

Could still happen with some acronym rearranging.

howzerdo said...

Christy,
I've read almost all of Atwood's work (she is my favorite contemporary author) and I agree there are almost no good relationships (there are a couple but they are not central to the story). I tend to like her newer books more than her older ones; not sure if this is because I identify more with her middle aged female main characters at this point in my life. You may be right that she is black and white in her views; I've never thought about that question before. I hope the BNW and 1984 references mean she has another sci fi tale in the works (though I'll welcome anything).

jeff said...

"Is this a Canadian thing, wherein their freedoms come from a benevolent monarchy, never having fought for them?

You might want to check the casualty rates in both world wars (and in the current war in Afghanistan) before you accuse the Canadians of never having fought for freedom."

You understand you're refuting an arguement that isn't being made, right? I would ease off throwing the "ignorant" slur around under those conditions.

Freder Frederson said...

You understand you're refuting an arguement that isn't being made, right?

I thought the argument being made was the Canadians are a bunch of whiny pansies who have been handed their freedom on a platter and never had to fight for it. This of course is nonsense and insulting.

jeff said...

"I thought the argument being made was the Canadians are a bunch of whiny pansies who have been handed their freedom on a platter and never had to fight for it. This of course is nonsense and insulting."

I thought the point was that they never had a revolution in their country to free it from oppressive leadership. Is that not the case?

Bringing in WWI, WWII, Korea, etc is irreverent to that statement.
The whiny pansy thing seems to be coming from you. I don't see anything contained in that statement that even hints at such a thing.

Revenant said...

I thought the argument being made was the Canadians are a bunch of whiny pansies who have been handed their freedom on a platter and never had to fight for it.

Freder, Canada was a British dominion during World War 1 and World War 2. It was *told* to send troops to fight in those wars!

Mind you, they would almost certainly have gotten involved anyway, given their close ties with the British. But even then, the fact is that they weren't fighting for THEIR freedom -- they were fighting for the freedom of their parent nation. The claim that they never had to fight for their freedom is entirely accurate, and is why they didn't achieve complete independence from the UK until over 200 years after America did.

tjl said...

I've never understood why the society envisioned in "Brave New World" is thought of as such a dystopia. Everybody stays youthful and beautiful, has a job precisely matched to their abilities, and gets all the sexual opportunities they could possibly want ("Orgy Porgy ..."). And if all else fails, there's plenty of Soma and, in extreme cases, the Violent Passion Surrogate. Aside from galloping senility at the age of sixty, what's not to like?

Chip Ahoy said...

This woman baffles me, I must say. Mary, a blind woman, asked me to read the dystopian A Handmaiden's Tale. I didn't like it one bit. It felt like the author was dragging us through her own psychosis, and I was sorry to ever hear of Margaret Atwood and her fear of, at that time, Christians. It was boorish. Mary thought it was genius. It was the most difficult book ever to read out loud. The meter was stream-of-consciousness irregular, short sentence, short sentence, short sentence, short sentence, l-----0-----n------g l-----0-----n------g l-----0-----n------g sentence. Drove me nuts. Plus, I can't escape the nagging notion of bearing with a Canadian freaky afraid and critical of an overly-analyzed American society.

M. Simon said...

Too much of everything is just enough.

Sydney Carton said...

Everybody stays youthful and beautiful, has a job precisely matched to their abilities, and gets all the sexual opportunities they could possibly want ("Orgy Porgy ..."). And if all else fails, there's plenty of Soma and, in extreme cases, the Violent Passion Surrogate. Aside from galloping senility at the age of sixty, what's not to like?

It's fake, for starters. Fake mentality, fake emotions, fake sex, fake jobs. It is enslavement by seduction and by sloth. Real emotions are a form of thoughtcrime, and real love would bring banishment. Real truth would also be a downfall, because the dehumanization of man into castes means that no one is special, no one is unique, and everyone's just a cog. Although banishment was one form of punishment seen in the book, have no doubt that they'd kill you without a second thought if you actually tried to live life to the fullest.

reader_iam said...

I disliked "Handmaiden's Tale," but there are others of work, including some beautifully written short stories, which I admire.

Weirdly, on Friday evening I happened to read a chapter in Richard Posner's "Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline" in which he discusses the "1984" vs. "Brave New World" templates, explicitly and in terms of politics and literature, among other things.

I don't know whether you'd enjoy reading that or not, Althouse (well, that assumes you haven't already, which I shouldn't).

Kirk said...

The Margaret Atwood? Excuse me if I am entirely uninterested in her opinion.

Though it is ironic, come to think of it, that our biggest risk right now is neither of her feared dystopias.