Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

Ivy and Hangovers.

Ivy and Hangovers.

Over the last few days I read Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s essay “Self Reliance“.  I was attracted to it by its title and also because, I am ashamed to say,  I had never read any of his work.  Although I enjoyed it greatly I have reservations about recommending this book to others as I must confess that it is now rather dated. The language to the modern reader is rather inaccessible and many aspects of the vocabulary seem rather archaic. This having been said, I still think that the essay is worthy of your time and effort.

It may seem a little counter-intuitive but I have found that reading classic works like this on an e-reading platform, such as the kindle, is very valuable. It may, at first, seem unusual to suggest using our modern gadgets to access the literature of the ancients but there are two reasons I would recommend this.

Firstly, many of these classics are no longer hampered by copyright issues and are therefore available either freely or at very low prices.  While there are relatively cheap editions of the classics available in the traditional paper format (Dover Thrift Editions for example) but there is still an upfront cost however modest. This can be off-putting when taking a chance on literature which may prove dated and difficult to read.  E-books of the classics are usually available free of charge and this makes it much easier to take the chance and try something we might otherwise have missed. (The Project Gutenberg site is an excellent place to start looking for the classics, in a variety of e-book formats, epub, kindle, html and plain text.) In this manner, there is a whole world of literature and thought available to us at very little expense. These works have already been filtered and selected as they have stood the test of time : these are the works which were not fickle, nor were they unimportant, and the works  which still talk to us and our predicaments thousands of years after they were written.

Secondly, I have found that when I tackle these books I am much less cultured than were the original readers of these books. Though I consider myself well educated and fairly knowledgeable it is clear that a wider, better awareness of The Classics was presumed by these writers. Indeed, it was previously felt that a study of the classics, and the humanities, was one of the cornerstones of a well rounded education. I do not have this so many references are lost on me. For example, Emmerson bemoans that he has “no Lethe” to help him in this essay. This reference, like many others, initially meant nothing to me until, with the help of wikipedia on the e-reader, I discovered that the Lethe was the river of forgetfulness and oblivion which flowed in Hades. With this knowledge everything made sense.

Though I was drawn to this essay by its title; this is an essay on personal, mental or spiritual self-reliance, not self-reliance in the quotidian, material sense. This is an essay promoting individualism and self-reliance of the soul. In this he urges us to be true to our own thoughts and opinions, not to be shackled by unnecessary attempts to be consistent :-

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? .. .. To be great is to be misunderstood.

He reminds us that institutions are the consequence of individual’s thoughts :-

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson.

and that change likewise starts with the individual :-

Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era. Every reform was once a private opinion, and when it shall be a private opinion again, it will solve the problem of the age.

He is clearly of the opinion that discontentment and unhappiness arise from failures in self-reliance and dishonesty with oneself. It is an interesting essay which, I’d venture, gives a useful other strand to aiming for autarky or self-sufficiency – a valuable mental self reliance which helps when one has to cope with adversity or hardship. Those looking for advice on how to be more self-contained and resilient will find much of value in this short essay.

Returning the more prosaic aspects of self-reliance; I found that I needed to deal with some poor hedges and trees this winter. These were heavy with ivy and I needed to co-opt the goats into the job. At this time of year there is little greenery for the sheep and goats to browse and they are therefore very grateful to see the leaves of the holly, ivy and brambles.  I find when clearing ivy it is useful to let the goats at it first. They strip every green leaf and make the movement of the branches much lighter and easier. Also, at this time of year, it is useful winter fodder and saves on out hay usage (both for the goats and sheep).  In this way we make a crop out of weed.

The Billy goat and nannies also providedrinking-bacchus.jpg!HD pleasant company during what is an annoying job. I like to see them eating and enjoy knowing that I have saved some hay rations (especially as we had a poor hay harvest this year). I feel rather guilty that we don’t make more use of the ivy wood as it feels wasteful to throw it away. It does not burn green and is quite difficult to stack , because of the differing shapes, to dry well enough to make kindling. It also seems to take an age to dry properly.

I have looked for other uses for it but have had relatively little success. One option seems to be to make wreaths of ivy. According to folklore wearing wreaths of ivy protects against the effects of alcohol. This is the reason Bacchus, the Roman god of inebriation, wore ivy wreaths to prevent him getting drunk. Sprigs of ivy can also help with marital fidelity, hence ivy is often included in wedding bouquets. Unfortunately, neither of these two uses will consume the amount of wood that I have to deal with and now that Hogmanay is passed I have little need for either. So I remain on the lookout for other, probably more productive, uses for Hedera Helix wood though I think I will cut a very dashing impression next time I am in the pub.