1984 v. Brave New World
In October of 1949, a few months after the release of George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he received a fascinating letter from fellow author Aldous Huxley — a man who, 17 years previous, had seen his own nightmarish vision of society published, in the form of Brave New World. What begins as a letter of praise soon becomes a brief comparison of the two novels, and an explanation as to why Huxley believes his own, earlier work to be a more realistic prediction.
Trivia: In 1917, long before he wrote this letter, Aldous Huxley briefly taught Orwell French at Eton.
(Source: Letters of Aldous Huxley; Image: George Orwell (via) & Aldous Huxley (via).)
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual's psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. 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. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
Getting There Too Quickly:
Aldous Huxley and Mescaline
Between his 1932 vision of a sterile dystopia in Brave New World and the 1962 novel Island about a spiritual utopia, the author Aldous Huxley experienced two things; the Hindu religious philosophy known as Vedanta and psychedelic drugs. In Brave New World, people are addicted to Soma, a hallucinogenic that artificially simulates a kind of dull transcendent state, and so makes religion irrelevant. In Island, the Palanese (residents of Pala where the book takes place) ritually use the drug moksha for spiritual and mystical insights. It wasn’t that by the time he was writing Island Huxley no longer believed that civilization was potentially doomed to a homogenized over-indulgent consumer culture, but rather that there was another possibility for human destiny. Soon after writing Brave New World Huxley saw this other opportunity but believed it would take work, a disciplined and rigorous adherence to a spiritual ideal. By the time he got around to writing Island he was convinced there was a faster, less strenuous way to find the higher purpose of human consciousness: mescaline.
Huxley had long been interested in the hallucinogenic properties of certain plants but it wasn’t until 1953 that he encountered the work of Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist who had set up shop at a mental hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, and who was interested in the common features of hallucinogenic drug experiences and schizophrenia. Huxley began a correspondence with Osmond that resulted in one of the most pivotal (and written about) moments in the history of the counterculture and psychedelic drugs: Huxley’s ingestion of mescaline, under Osmond’s supervision. Told in The Doors of Perception, no story, other than the infamous LSD bicycle ride by the chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938, has had more influence.
Earlier writings by Huxley suggest that he was skeptical about the use of drugs to attain spiritual insights. He once referred to their use as a path to “downwards self-transcendence.” But as the date of his own planned mescaline intake got closer, Huxley was very excited. He was so concerned it would take too long to procure the drug after Osmond’s arrival at Huxley’s West Hollywood home that he mailed Osmond again. “Meanwhile,” he wrote, “do you have any of the stuff on hand?”
California and Vedanta