Saturday, December 5

Huxley’s hedonistic dystopia

Since The Republic of Plato, there have been many intellectuals seduced by the utopian dream. The humanism of the Renaissance forged the utopias of Thomas More, Campanella or Bacon. Humanitarian socialism, those of Fourier or Saint-Simon. But was it possible to continue dreaming social harmonies after the carnage of the First World War? Doesn’t the century of the Holocaust and the Gulag prove that ideological paradises always lead to totalitarian hells? Hence the twentieth century is, in literature as in life, the century of dystopias; that of inverted, perverse utopias: that of broken dreams.

A happy world (1932), by the British Aldous Huxley, is the first great dystopia of the 20th century. This “philosophical fiction”, in the author’s terms, is a work of thought strung together as fiction: an essay disguised as a novel. At the level of narrative art, the book is uneven: the characters take time to acquire a life of their own and appear overshadowed by the environment that surrounds them.

However, as an essay work, it is among the most lucid in contemporary literature. No work anticipated our social reality with its clairvoyance. This is how Huxley explained it in 1958: 1984 [de Orwell] the lust for power is satisfied by inflicting damage; in A happy world, inflicting a slightly less humiliating pleasure. […] In the immediate future, the punitive methods of 1984 will give way to the stimuli and manipulations of A happy world”.

In Huxley’s dystopia, the state designs the population genetically, dividing it into castes according to size, beauty and intelligence, and conditioning it – in the manner of Pavlov – so that “people love their inevitable social destiny.” Simple slogans are hammered at the population, day and night (“hypnopedia”). The past is despised, literature and flowers are forbidden, considered useless. Death is hidden, which is stripped of all transcendence. And the population is subjugated through pleasure: perfumes, massage machines, talcum powder, synthetic music, stimulating audiovisual media (the “sensorama”) and sexual games.

The family is abolished (for generating deep emotions, dependence and suffering) and promiscuity is enthroned (“everyone belongs to everyone”): sex without love, beauty or commitment. And, to drive away the inner emptiness, the population is continuously administered the “soma”: a drug “euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinating”, which offers “a vacation from reality.”

S. Eliot wrote: “The human being cannot bear much reality.” It is too harsh, too challenging. Hence, he seeks the escapism of fun, which frees him from thinking about suffering, loneliness or death. In ancient Rome the people loved bread and circuses. In Huxley’s hedonistic dystopia, sexual pleasure, sensorama, and soma. Today many are slaves of Netflix, pornography or dopamine downloads that produce continuous messages on the cell phone. What is preferable: the epidermal happiness of an unreal life or the dramatic risk of freedom?

Enrique Sánchez Costa is a Doctor of Humanities from the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF, Barcelona). Professor at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Piura (UDEP, Lima). Author of a book (translated into English) and of a dozen academic articles on comparative literature and literary criticism.

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