Sunday will mark the twenty-sixth anniversary of Aldous Huxley's death, an occasion for mourning that was upstaged at the time and will continued to be upstaged, at least for most people, by the assignation of John F. Kennedy, which occurred a few hours before Huxley's passing. Indeed, his doctor, according to Nicholas Murray's Aldous Huxley: A Biography, was absorbed in watching the news coverage of Kennedy's assassination during Huxley last hours, when he was high on LSD, a drug that his second wife, Laura, had administered to him earlier in the day.
Most of those who will remember Huxley will remember him, unless some shift in social consciousness turns future readers' attention onto one of his many other books, as the author of Brave New World (1932), a book that has, like his passing, been upstaged, this time by another novel that imagines a dystopian future, that is, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the apparently superior vision of the future that awaits us, if not in 1984 perhaps in 2084.
Huxley himself seems to have foreseen the power of Orwell's view but continued to prefer his own. In October of 1949, he wrote Orwell, who had asked his publisher to send Huxley a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, that his novel was "profoundly important," but later in the same letter, Huxley observed, "Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power. And these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World."
Huxley may have been suggesting a progression from an Orwellian dystopia, which couldn't indefinitely last with its boot-on-the-face approach, to a Huxleyan one. If so, he provides an explanation for those who would come to believe that Orwell, not he, was right. (Of course, Orwell would seem more correct before the stage that would be followed by his prediction began.) These days, there seems to be a growing feeling--one first pointed out to me by the Playful Librarian, whose post on the subject can be read at http://playfullibrarian.blogspot.com/2009/06/huxley-vs-orwell-west-vs-east.html--that Huxley was more correct than those in the twentieth century realized.
Perhaps the most important publication to suggest Huxley's wisdom is Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, the forward of which notes, "We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
"But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another--slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. . . . [I]n Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."
Huxley seems to have been wrong about the boot-on-the-face stage, if that is what he was suggesting would precede his own dystopian vision in his letter to Orwell, at least in the America context. People here seem perfectly happy to ignore what is on in Washington so long as their pleasures--or if they have insurance and are healthy, their healthcare--are not interfered with. Elsewhere, however, the progression Huxley seems to suggest would occur may seem to be more accurate. A few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, one of my graduate-school professors lamented the Russian embrace of frivolous gadgets, noting that those who had suffered Soviet oppression seemed to be abandoning their chance for freedom in favor of being sedated in the same way Americans allow themselves to be.
It's time, it seems, to take Brave New World seriously, something earlier reviewers, for the most part anyway, could not even bring themselves to do, one calling it "a thin little joke, epitomized in the undergraduate jest of civilization dated A.F., and a people who refer reverently to 'our Ford.'"