Perhaps the reason we’re no longer able to see into the future like the great writers of the twentieth century, is that we’re in our own version of what they predicted.
Given the title of my previous article – ‘Fascism ain’t what it used to be’ (published in the June 21, 2019 issue of Majalla) – readers may think I have embarked on an unending meditation on the declining standards of our times, with a potentially infinite supply of titles along the lines of ‘such-and-such ain’t what it used to be’. Actually, a finite supply, since I will never come clean and start with the word ‘nostalgia’. These same readers could be forgiven for picturing me as some cantankerous dotard in his slippers, for whom nothing is left but to inveigh against the modern world between extended naps. If only they knew how close to the truth they were. As someone sneers in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:
Work, play – at sixty our powers and tastes are what they were at seventeen. Old men in the bad old days used to renounce, retire, take to religion, spend their time reading, thinking – thinking!’ (p. 47)
By that time (i.e., the year 2540), one shudders to contemplate what old men will be doing, though no senior railcard holder with the tastes of a seventeen-year-old is likely to be a pretty sight (Warning – some readers of a nervous disposition may find what follows disturbing. Is it any wonder Huxley was banned in Ireland?):
Now – such is progress – the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think […] scampering […] from girl to pneumatic girl, from Electro-magnetic Golf Course to…
I admit, it’s a fair while since I scampered. The last time, ironically, was to avoid being hit while crossing a golf course. None of us, but for the mega-rich, can attest to the truth of these predictions. For lesser mortals, Huxley’s future is yet to arrive. However, my first answer would be to assure everyone that I do not take naps; I am far too continually incensed by the modern world to find repose of any kind. It’s true, I read, though only so you don’t have to. I also think; but, although these are wildly unorthodox and archaic forms of inactivity, I consider myself a harmless eccentric.
My second line of defence for the projected series of ‘Such-and-such ain’t’ essays would actually be a question: does anyone seriously believe things are about to get any better? It would seem, on the contrary, that we are poised on the threshold of another ‘low, dishonest decade’, one of a kind Auden himself would not have thought possible, where the next leader of the country has had the finest education money can buy – well, the most expensive on the market – yet displays childlike buffoonery whenever asked a question. It’s a sign of the infantilising of politics (another Huxley idea), the way the ‘populists’ cultivate their anti-intellectual credentials. In fact, it’s so low and deeply dishonest that any self-respecting demagogue from the Thirties would look like an intellectual snob in comparison.
But I shan’t let myself get carried away by indignation again. In that earlier article, I have already shown that today’s fascists (alright, ‘populists’) are not sufficiently imaginative or intellectual. I have amply demonstrated how they lack a proper grounding in the basics of twentieth-century fascism. And so, once again, I call on Steve Bannon’s monks to do something about it. The gauntlet is now well and truly in your court.
In this article, I hope to prove that today’s futurists are also insufficiently intellectual. In fact, they seem to think the future is a simple extension of the awful present, except worse.
YEARS AND YEARS
Take the series that aired recently on the BBC. Written by Russell T. Davies, who has also penned episodes of Dr Who, Years and Years took us just fifteen years into the future, so perhaps it was not the boldest attempt at time travel. The family in the story are pretty hard to like. They come across as arch and knowing, right-on and emotionally null. Maybe that’s a representative sample of the modern British family, but if so, we should be worried.
Emma Thompson, who struggles to maintain a Northern accent for any sustained period of time, plays Vivienne Rook, a sort of monstrous hybrid of Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage, who wears red dresses and emotes a lot.
Emma Thompson as a demagogue with a lectern.
Viv Rook rises to power on the basis of ‘telling it like it is’. The programme does not dwell too much on her politics, since it is assumed that we’re familiar with the type. In a nice moment, Rook names her organisation the Four Star Party, thus evoking some Italian jokers with a similar name, but more specifically in reference to her use of the word ‘f***’ in a panel discussion. Even this rare flash of wit, however, doesn’t really work, as it would be ‘f’ followed by three stars. But hey, one mustn’t cavil.
I confess I did not sit through the first four episodes. Like everybody these days, I have a small attention span to think of. Things got a lot more interesting by the fifth episode, so I watched quite a lot of that. After a run on the banks resembling the failure of Northern Rock, the character of Stephen Lyons (played by Rory Kinnear) finds himself short of a million quid and is forced to seek work with a very dubious old schoolmate, Woody (played by Kieran O’Brien), who is trying to land a major contract with the government and needs to employ ‘monkeys’ to help him. It’s complicated, but Woody is one of those irritating and vexatious spirits who question what they are told on the news and then exercise selective gullibility, i.e. believe whatever rubbish they are told by the people they choose to listen to. Stephen, in contrast, is a man of reason, and thus sadly at odds with the times. When he demonstrates a stubborn attachment to facts, his old school friend becomes impatient and very nearly loses faith in his employability:
Woody: What I need in the office is someone who says yes. What do you say?
Stephen (nodding): Well, um, I suppose [the disputed fact] was debatable.
Woody: Is that a yes though, mate, because I really need to hear it.
Stephen: Oh, I can say yes. It’s all I ever do. You okay? Yes. You alright? Yes. [He enumerates all the ways in which he has compromised himself lately], but yes, I’m fine, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, I can say yes, Woody.
Woody (laughing): I think I found myself a monkey.
This compliance leads to Stephen attending a secret conference at Chequers where he bumps into the rabid Rook, still wearing her distinctive red, in an otherwise empty committee room. She is somewhat abrupt, but intimates that she would gladly leave the country if given half a chance. When Stephen innocently reminds her that, as the Prime Minister, no one could stop her, she contradicts him ominously saying “They’d kill me. They would have me killed.” We are left to imagine who ‘they’ might be. Deep state, most likely.
In the following scene, as the camera zooms slowly in over the heads of an attentive audience that includes Stephen and his old school chum, a young woman is explaining the kind of work the government intends to initiate. There is talk of camps. Rook then suddenly explodes into the lecture. She has recovered her poise and is every inch the demagogue. She explains that the word ‘camps’ has all the wrong connotations, and these places will in fact be known as ‘erstwhiles’, as they are erstwhile facilities, such as military bases or hospitals. The idea is to deal with the vast influx of refugees. There follows a chilling explanation from Rook for the use of such places. “Let’s look at the words,” she says, “let’s stare them down. The word concentration.” Her policy is based on the British methods for dealing with the Boers:
Rook: They [the detention centres] will never stop filling up, never. These problems will never go away. […] So, the British found a way to empty those camps in South Africa. They simply let nature take its course. The camps were pestilent […] rife with disease, which on the one hand was regrettable, on the other hand fitting […] The population of the camps controlled itself. You might call it neglect. You might call it efficient […] Some people called this genocide, but have you ever heard of it? The camps, the Boers, the result. Have you? Have you read about it? Were you taught it? Do we remember it? We forget it, because it worked.
This history lesson would have more shock value if one was indeed hearing about the treatment of the Boers for the very first time. Somehow the ignorance of the audience in Chequers, upon which the whole point depends, reflects more on the modern curriculum than on our morality. The problem with this kind of simulated nastiness is that it doesn’t look like our future – it looks like our nauseating present, but written in very big capitals, like a shouty tweet.
There’s a lot of this short-sighted prognostication about. There’s a new game called Watch Dogs Legion, for instance, a sci-fi open world adventure by Ubisoft Montreal. Set in a post-Brexit, post-Scottish independence and post-democracy London, it depicts a dystopia where the pound has been routed, the citizenry has switched to cryptocurrencies and the government has been bankrupted by the resulting fall in tax revenues. Meantime, a wave of inward migration has sparked a political crisis, leading to more people than ever before being rounded up, placed in multiplying deportation centres and...
It’s more than a little disappointing that Russell T. Davies, despite having a Tardis at his disposal, could only come up with a vision of the future as subtle as a video game.
Mind you, perhaps it’s a sign of how little future he thinks we have left. He would hardly be alone in that presentiment. Recent events have seen a huge surge in anxiety about the future. Children have bunked off school to protest about it, and been duly scolded by the Prime Minister (the real one) for doing so. I’m not sure the next Prime Minister will have the same moral authority, given that Boris Johnson is a living and breathing argument against having any education at all.
A teenager from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, has been part of the inspiration for these mass truancies. She is an eloquent opponent of carbon emissions and can see the dangers of our preoccupation with the economic demands of the present. Thunberg has spoken of the need for ‘cathedral thinking’ instead, to extend our imaginations beyond the immediate moment. Our ancestors in Europe often began building cathedral they knew would not be completed in their lifetime.
It is a compelling analogy. One thinks of the first millennium of the Christian era when, according to Christopher Frayling, most people had ‘expected the end of the world’. The relief that followed led to a huge boom in cathedral-building:
the passing of the year 1000 demonstrated that Armageddon was not worth holding one’s breath for. A monk at Cluny, writing three years after the great non-event, said: ‘It was as if the whole world, having cast off its age by shaking itself, were clothing itself everywhere in a white robe of churches (Independent, 28 May 1995).
Time, perhaps, for a rather less aesthetically pleasing robe, this time of wind turbines, to cover the earth. They are already here, across swathes of the earth’s surface. Even in China they advance in serried ranks across vast expanses, placidly rotating. Sadly, they still cannot supply half the country’s energy needs, hence its continuing dependence on coal. But if something is afoot in China, something that could potentially spur the rest of the world into abandoning fossil fuels, maybe there is an unexpected advantage to the centralised nature of their system. Opaque, definitely, and undemocratic, the one thing you can be sure of getting with Communism is a plan, and we shouldn’t be surprised if big ideas and forward thinking come more naturally to totalitarians. In contrast, we have witnessed recently how little forward thinking is inherent to parliamentary democracy.
For Roman Krznaric, a social critic speaking at this year’s Hay Festival, the fixation of liberal democracy with the short-term future is an affliction of the electoral cycle, a ‘design flaw that produces short political time horizons.’ The media aid and abet this short-termism, dwelling on trivia and ephemera at the expense of the bigger picture issues, and too many ordinary people are bewitched by the news cycle.
…representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people. The citizens of tomorrow are granted no rights, nor – in the vast majority of countries – are there any bodies to represent their concerns or potential views on decisions today that will undoubtedly affect their lives. It’s a blind spot so enormous that we barely notice it: in the decade I spent as a political scientist specialising in democratic governance, it simply never occurred to me that future generations are disenfranchised in the same way that slaves or women were in the past (BBC, 19 March 2019).
Could it be that our epoch is oblivious to the future? As I shall argue, the old futurists had a helpful zeitgeist. They lived at a time when plans for the future, big utopian plans of huge ambition, were considered normal. People (even artists) wrote breathless manifestoes. They argued about ideal forms of society and expended vast amounts of energy trying to lay the foundations. It is hard now to imagine the eagerness with which those previous generations beheld the future. Instead, we prefer to look away as we pillage what’s left of it. Here’s Krznaric again:
…modern democracy – especially in wealthy countries – has enabled us to colonise the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please. When Britain colonised Australia in the 18th and 19th Century, it drew on the legal doctrine now known as terra nullius – nobody’s land – to justify its conquest and treat the indigenous population as if they didn’t exist or have any claims on the land. Today our attitude is one of tempus nullius. The future is an “empty time”, an unclaimed territory that is similarly devoid of inhabitants. Like the distant realms of empire, it is ours for the taking.
We are already busily trashing the place, exploiting its resources, despising its indigenous inhabitants – in the case of tempus nullius, the conveniently unborn. Surely the future was treated better than this back in the past, when writers such as H. G. Wells could write Men Like Gods and visualise a perfectly ordered and happy society. No matter how deluded they might have been, they meant well. Now, so indifferent have we become to the inhabitants of the future, we treat them like aliens from a foreign land. We, the ones alive at this moment, are entitled to their resources. It’s as if we’ve democratised the words of King Louis XV so we can all cry “Après nous, le deluge!” in unison. There may not be a land of opportunity out there, but tempus nullius is up for grabs, and you don’t have to be a time traveller to exploit it. On the contrary, the best thing is not to go there, not even in your head.
I suppose it has always been possible to get space and time mixed up in this way. One can see it in L. P. Hartley’s phrase about the past being ‘a foreign country; they do things differently there’. The phrase took root in the collective imagination and became proverbial because, with a simple verbal trick, he represented the past spatially, as if it still existed as a remote place with very odd customs – customs such as the use of sundials, for instance.
In the past, people depended on sundials to tell the time and they worked tolerably well in sunny climates, but in England they were very inefficient, verging on pointless. They had to write ‘tempus fugit’ (time flies) underneath so people didn’t think time had stopped for weeks on end. It’s possible, of course, that the meaning of the Latin phrase was lost on a lot of people, and that they took it for granted that the world was ending, just as we do today.
But sundials are just one example of how strange the past can be. You only have to consider the sheer profusion of horses back then. The whole past stinks of horse.
For Hartley, it was as if the people there were still getting on with the things people in the past were wont to do. They still spent every working day painting pious frescoes on church walls, only to relax by watching heretics being burnt on the sabbath. But the past is a rich feast. It’s a veritable eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet. There are lots of different foreign countries, not just the one called Medieval. In another country known as Enlightenment, for instance, people take little interest in frescoes and are quite relaxed about heretics. Elegantly dressed and bewigged, they snort snuff and ponder the implications of deism, before settling down to hear the latest Haydn symphony.
These past countries, for all their inaccessibility, are vividly imaginable. We have so much information we can make effortlessly convincing costume dramas. The future, being another kind of foreign country, is far harder to describe. People have tried to write about it, of course, but they struggle when it comes to the inhabitants, for the simple reason that the inhabitants have yet to be born.
It’s a pity, in a way, since we all inhabit the future vis-à-vis the inhabitants of the past, and they could not have dreamt of the lives we live, but then they would undoubtedly have said the same about their own ancestors. At any one time, people have always lived in the unforeseeable future of their forebears. The difference is that, at certain points in history, those same forebears made more of an effort to imagine us. I mean, they really cared, apparently. They imagined our mores and our laws, our social structures and our modes of transport. They even pictured to themselves our clothes and our haircuts. You name it, they strained to imagine it. No one can say it was easy for Mother Shipton (1488-1561) to predict EasyJet, but she did, and in a rhymed couplet too, bless her!
Whereas we barely take any interest. Gadgets will get better, obviously, and there’s every likelihood more will get done by robots. There will be life on Mars, or death if you’re Elon Musk. However, none of this represents a big, paradigmatic change, since we’ve already done that sort of thing on the moon. We think nothing of conversing with machinery. To all intents and purposes, we are the future.
PROPHET OF THE NEW STUPID
Little wonder that even the far-sighted among us are unable to see further than our own noses; that counts as far-seeing these days. The whole job of seers is to see. Not literally of course; seers (and Huxley was no exception) are often cursed with very poor eyesight. The inner eye is what they have always depended on. If the inner eye is failing now, maybe it’s because we have so little time left. Or is it rather that we hardly believe what we see, whether with the inner or the outer eye? If we cannot believe our fleshly eyes, how much harder it is to trust our intuitive ones.
Yet this is not a unique period of confusion. As I said, it has the very hallmark of the ‘low, dishonest’ decade, with the same turmoil that our greatest visionaries lived through. Take the section called Guatemala City in Huxley’s Beyond the Mexique Bay. It was written in 1934, two years after Brave New World was published, and shares a lot of the concerns of that book, not least the needs of a consumer society and what he calls ‘our orgy-system’, which makes more sense when compared with the passage in the novel describing a ‘Solidarity Service’. But he is angriest about the growth of nationalism. It’s an oddly familiar theme. Consider the freshness of this passage in particular:
Universal education has created an immense class of what I may call the New Stupid, hungering for certainty, yet unable to find it in the traditional myths and their rationalisations […] in place of the dogma of religion they have accepted (with what gratitude!) the pseudo-religious dogmas of nationalism.
Mass literacy, mass education and popular newspapers were to blame. It’s fair to say that Huxley was what our current newly (and proudly) stupid like to call ‘elitist’. To quote another arch elitist, Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Criticism:
A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
In case, like me, you haven’t been drinking deeply enough, that was the spring in Macedonia sacred to the muses.
People could read these days, but they didn’t know how to criticise what they read. They rejected dogma from the church, but accepted dogma handed down by chauvinists. Because the New Stupid had what Huxley calls ‘positivistic tendencies,’ they preferred nationalism over the intangible nature of God. Truth value did not come into it: ‘What matters to the New Stupid is that the subject of the theory is real.’
It is almost a hundred years since these words were written, yet they could have been written yesterday. Sometimes Huxley refers to the New Stupidity, but whenever he abbreviates this to the New Stupid there is a genuine twenty-first century ring about the phrase. It seems to belong to the era of alternative facts, post-truth and fake news. One suspects Huxley would have had no trouble getting his head round any of these phenomena.
And as nationalism is on the rise again, stupidity is becoming a mode of doing politics. The quantity of stupid utterances has increased exponentially with the invention of social media. On the right, we have English nationalists offended by the charge of being stupid, while voting for leaders of ever-deepening mindlessness. On the left we glimpse a similar trend. The prominent Corbyn supporter and union boss, Len McCluskey, recently told the BBC’s Pienaar’s Politics: “Tom Watson’s already out, surprise surprise, trying to take on the role of Prince Machiavelli, but I’ve got news for Tom. Machiavelli was effective. He’s a poor imitation of that.”
The Age of Prince Machiavelli has dawned. No longer just the title of a book, The Prince is now incarnated in a form that once seemed harmless and rather jolly:
Personally, I blame his subsequent loss of weight. Actually, no, I’m just jealous.
Aside from the deputy leader of the Labour Party, there are certainly some scheming ‘princes’ about, though oddly enough not our actual princes, whose public demeanour is unimpeachably nice.
In Huxley’s day, of course, there were what he calls ‘Duces and Fuehrers’, heroes of the masses who would always arise to feed the baser appetites of the stupid. In ‘Ends and Means’ (1937) he says that the proper attitude towards the hero was not Carlyle’s, but Bacon’s attitude to the tyrant: ‘He doth like the ape that, the higher he clymbes, the more he shewes his ars’. The hero’s qualities are brilliant, adds Huxley, ‘but so is the mandrill’s rump.’
For Huxley, nationalism depends on the wrong kind of emotion. While desire of a sexual nature can be sated and thus brought to an end, at least temporarily, hate is unending. Only while the ‘objects of mass detestation’ were a long way off could nationalism be enjoyed ‘platonically’. As soon as these hate objects were close at hand, violence broke out. He thought the only possible cure for the rampant growth of nationalism would be a World Psychological Conference, to which the delegates would be ‘propaganda experts.’ Here he goes with the elitism again. Experts! But these are experts among whom Goebbels might be considered a shining example, because only propaganda experts could determine ‘how much emotional excitement, how many orgies, people need to keep them contented and in health.’ What was needed was a well-intentioned Goebbels, a brilliant manipulator of public opinion, who could supply those who had not drunk deep enough from the spring in Macedonia with the right kind of refreshments.
Fortunately, Huxley didn’t need to elaborate further on this. He’d already written the book which would make the achievement of social stability by such means akin to common knowledge. The answer could be summed up in one word: soma. So confident of the benign power of drugs was Huxley that he tried lots of them and even asked for an injection of LSD on his death bed. Soma, then, a kind of ideal drug of his own invention, would keep the people somnolent and content. And then there was genetic conditioning, of course, and telling people stuff while they were asleep. That was where the propaganda came in.
At the time of writing this chapter that had so little to do with Guatemala City – I take that back, having been to Guatemala City, it’s a living dystopia – Huxley was a card-carrying eugenicist. Obviously, Hitler would go on to trash that brand, but before the war people of all political confessions were proud eugenicists. This means that we read Brave New World with an assumption that the author dislikes the whole world order he has predicted as much as we do. Well, that is true inasmuch as his brave new world was the New World. Huxley was definitely not enamoured of the American system. Nonetheless, he was at that time a definite fan of stability, and even expressed (in 1931) his dismay at the chaos of the parliamentary system:
we must abandon democracy and allow ourselves to be ruled dictatorially by men who will compel us to do and suffer what a rational foresight demands […] dictatorship and scientific propaganda may provide the only means of saving humanity from the misery of anarchy.
It’s odd that one feels inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. These words, from a newspaper article written at the same time as he was writing the novel, suggest that he really meant it: the world would need to sort things out and parliament was almost uniquely ill-equipped to do so. Bring on the propaganda experts.
Huxley is nothing if not complex, and his prescient book, weird and witty and wry and scarily apocalyptic by turns, is probably all the better for his confusion.
BRAVE (MEANING SPLENDID) NEW (MEANING NOT ALL THAT NEW) WORLD (MEANING THE GOOD OLD US of A)
Before continuing, it is as well to note that the title is misleading. Brave had nothing to do with courage in the context of The Tempest, but rather meant splendid or handsome. It is uttered by Miranda, a young girl who has lived a sheltered life thus far and has stars in her eyes on seeing so many men, three of whom are of very dubious moral character:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
Her father’s reply – ’Tis new to thee – is withering. Prospero instantly deflates her enthusiasm. That’s the way with the real world, there’s always somebody hovering at your elbow, ready to administer the wet blanket.
Thus, ‘brave’ does not mean courageous, ‘new’ falls well short of novelty, and far from being a shiny modern future, much of the book was intended as a satire on the tacky American present.
SO, WHO GETS TO PLAY MIRANDA?
In the forthcoming second part of this meditation on The Future, I shall look in more detail at the way Huxley described the dystopian aspects of his dystopia and compare them to Orwell’s equally famous prophecy, 1984.
For the moment, though, I want to dwell on what Huxley might well have considered the redeeming utopian aspects. We have seen he was not averse to the occasional psychotropic substance, nor did he think there was any chance of civilisation persisting without a means of keeping people happy. It’s true that his insistence on consumption might have been intended as a side-swipe at Keynes’ economic nostrums. Huxley was very partial to taking side-swipes. However, as a dabbler in drugs he could imagine the likely comforts of what he called soma. In the Doors of Perception, he described how, released from time, mescaline takers could enter a Shangri-La where ‘there is neither work nor monotony’ but only ‘a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse.’ He was probably thinking of the word as equivalent to revelation. In this state, the ‘divine source of all existence’ could be glimpsed in a flower – there are times when Huxley sounds uncannily like the forefather of all hippies – or even, he says, in the creases of one’s trousers.
Here, again, we have the idea of a future without future, the end of time from which one does not see the future anymore, because one has entered it. This is the future that most of the characters in Brave New World inhabit. Tellingly, no one speaks much about the future – in the future. Like history (which Ford, true founder of the book’s civilisation, famously dismissed as ‘bunk’), the future has no currency. Even death is something people are conditioned into accepting. These received ideas are universal unless you come from outside the perpetual present. This is where the so-called ‘savage’ comes in.
Now we know that Huxley was somewhat preoccupied with Shakespeare. It was a habit that probably dated back to Eng. Lit. at Oxford and beyond. Even when he wrote an essay on the future, he entitled it ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’. The extent of this preoccupation would be more obvious if it wasn’t shared by the entire Anglosphere. But in Brave New World, despite its setting in London, no one is preoccupied with old writers. Indeed, they may not even have heard of the Bard, any more than the people in Danny Boyle’s latest film have heard of The Beatles. Only John, ‘The Savage,’ is haunted by the dead poet’s shade, and particularly by his language, having learnt to read with a copy of the collected works. The result is occasionally comic. I shall come to that in a moment.
There are characters in the book – like the main one, Bernard Marx, or the writer, Helmholtz Watson, not to mention Mustapha Mond himself, benign Controller of the World State – who are able to see the flaws in the perfections of Utopia. There is, however, one character who really struggles to see them. Her name is Lenina Crowne.
Lenina is popular. It would be a real joy to know who Huxley was visualising when he wrote her story. Almost certainly a starlet, perhaps a ‘pneumatic’ one. He was well-acquainted with the star system and eventually moved to Hollywood to write screenplays. The following lines not only demonstrate Lenina’s popularity, but offer a glimpse of the weird world and language Huxley patented:
Hardly less flattering had been the attentions paid her by conspicuous individuals. The Resident World Controller’s Second Secretary had asked her to dinner and breakfast. She had spent one week-end with the Ford Chief Justice, and another with Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury. The President of the Industrial and External Secretions Corporation was perpetually on the phone… (p. 144)
Judging by her conversation, however, they do not admire Lenina for her mind. She has a habit of repeating phrases like ‘One cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments’ and ‘A gram is always better than a damn.’ These were the things all her class were taught in their sleep. She basically speaks as if she were asleep, like a true soma-head.
Into Ms Crowne’s humdrum life of frivolous pleasure comes John the Savage. Predictably, he falls head over heels in love with her, virtually at first sight, but coming from a culture where men still have to impress women and woo them with compliments, he feels unworthy of her affections. The problem is how to demonstrate his devotion. Eventually, out of pure gallantry, he offers to sweep her floor, no doubt in the hope of sweeping her off her feet.
Sadly, for all her undoubted charms, Lenina is no romantic. She is bewildered by the old-world charm of her far too noble savage and rapidly loses patience with his verbosity. She’d be far more at ease getting down to the carnal matter in hand. A woman has needs. John perseveres:
He squared his shoulders, he ventured to look at her and was met with a stare of annoyed incomprehension. Confused, ‘I’ll do anything,’ he went on, more and more incoherently. ‘Anything you tell me. There be some sports are painful – you know. But their labour delight in them sets off. That’s what I feel. I mean I’d sweep the floor if you wanted.’
But we’ve got vacuum cleaners here,’ said Lenina in bewilderment. ‘It isn’t necessary.’
‘No of course it isn’t necessary. But some kinds of baseness are nobly undergone. I’d like to undergo something nobly. Don’t you see?’
‘But if there are vacuum cleaners…’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘And Epsilon Semi-Morons to work them…’ (p. 167)
‘Their labour delight in them sets off’ – John is quoting Act 3 Scene 1 of The Tempest. In the play, Ferdinand is compelled to move heavy logs about and Miranda, witnessing his exertions, becomes very upset. For Lenina, however, it is incomprehensible why such chores should not be done by lower beings. What on earth do we rear them for, if not to sing while they slave?
The brave new woman, never having swept a floor in her life, is motivated entirely by her sexual needs. That is how it should be. It’s true, at one point her good friend Fanny thinks Lenina is taking a little bit too much interest in Bernard Marx. Love interest. ‘I hadn’t been feeling very keen on promiscuity lately,’ Lenina admits. ‘There are times when one doesn’t.’ Fanny gently reminds her how everyone belongs to everyone else and monogamy is out of the question. ‘You’re quite right Fanny. As usual. I’ll make the effort.’
So, we know Lenina has a heart. Nonetheless, if anyone is playing Miranda in this novel, it is definitely not Lenina. When her exasperation with John’s wordiness finally reaches the point of no return, she does what comes naturally to her and, after unzipping a few zips, stands before him in nothing but her shoes, socks and ‘rakishly tilted round white cap’. The sudden nudity does not have the desired effect:
…he caught her by the shoulders and shook her. ‘Whore!’ he shouted. ‘Whore! impudent strumpet!’
‘Oh, don’t, do-on’t,’ she protested in a voice made grotesquely tremulous by his shaking.
‘A gra-am is better…’ she began.
It’s a language barrier that stands between them, as much as cultural conditioning. The Savage has been conditioned to speak fluent Shakespeare, after all. Lenina cannot possibly compete. Only having the good sense to take refuge in the bathroom saves her from further discord.
We are used to fluid gender in the plays, but with John it’s a case of fluid identity, fluid morality, fluid the lot really. He is Caliban turning into Miranda. Then back into Caliban.
Later, he manages to cause a full-scale riot. The police arrive and squirt soma over the rioters to pacify them. Dystopia definitely has its good points. I reckon we could all get behind that particular method of crowd control.