a bit of what our ancestor’s called ‘eternity’

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World flies in the face of dogmatism. It does so boisterously, sparing no one creed or program its parodic gaze. Even the Bard sounds a droll and hollow note in the mouth of our well-meaning Savage. In other words: BNW makes a splash! But, provided that the book has a polemical bent (and I think it does), might A. Huxley have profited by Darwin’s example, that is, by gradually, modestly, making one’s case known? Why not argue as Darwin does by an almost imperceptible accretion—those innocuous-seeming speculations and examples, harbingers and overtures, which, by the time the reader of Origin catches on, turn up as a formidable volcano? Why not move in on the sly?

Yet BNW reads as though, to borrow from A. Huxley, its author has wolfed down civilization, only to later regurgitate the worst of it back up. Indeed, A. Huxley operated by the Light of the Day, i.e. the ZEITGEIST (not dissimilar to the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man stalking through Manhattan in Ghostbusters). But that Light of the Day passed first through a magnify-ing glass and then rebounded off a carnival mirror before it ended up in BNW. Which is why the (I dare say) “virtue” of BNW has less to do with its predictions about the future and everything to do with the particular historical present it aggravates. What we find detailed in BNW is the ascendancy and modishness of the many anatomies of thought particular to early modernism: traces of Freud’s iceberg (pg 197), his metulomania; a travesty of Bakunin’s communalism; the tenure of Pavolvian conditioning (of a more marked effect, in BNW, than heredity); specters of Marx; to name a few; and the steady purr of Darwin throughout. One could even make the case, if I understand correctly, that the book dramatizes the Arnold vs. T. Huxley debates (pg. 200-03).

But beyond mere dramaticization, A. Huxley takes these fledging master narratives to their pragmatist nib, exaggerating them so as to suggest the efficiency with which such ideas may be appropriated and instituted by the POWER ELITES. I should qualify by saying that I mean “pragmatist” in the Jamesian tradition. It was W. James who insisted that theory qua theory had better be ready to demonstrate itself as true. This is the very spirit of scientific protocol. Otherwise, we’re still talking metaphysics. Put differently, a theory can be intoxicating for the reason that it seems to account for anything short of everything. I once did a Marxist reading of my friend’s garage. I told my father once, report card in hand, that there was no document of history that was not a document of barbarism. But theories are never good for improving one’s score in Obstacle Golf. They won’t help woo the beautiful Beta one has one’s eye on. They cannot be eaten.  (Trust me!) For this reason, nowadays, deconstruction is often invoked in debates as having little in the way of applicability for individuals outside the academy. Yet the irony is that deconstruction itself did much to dislodge imperial intellects inside the academy.

But to bring this back to BNW, before I am compelled further down that would-be road. In reading BNW, I found that a certain phrase from the “Docile Bodies” chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment had been following me around like t.p. stuck to one’s boot. It read: “The machine required is the machine constructed.” Powerful words, to say the least. If true, we might well expect something of Huxley’s BNW somewhere not too far down the road. But in what form will this “machine required” appear? Will it be something like the Feelies? Something like soma or Dylar?  Work—and some of us know this kind of work—that has lost its immanent satisfaction as “our work,” and the results of which, moreover, come to be so many instruments of commodity satisfaction? The inventions that someday invent us! So it is that, in the end, it all comes down to is that familiar tug-o-war, Truth & Beauty on the one side, Comfort &Happiness on the other, all the while in an age that has revealed each to be a tyranny in its own right. The machine required is the machine constructed.

But I cannot agree. The machine required is not always the machine created. Consider those early linguists who started from the principle that to understand how the mind constructs its thoughts is to understand how the mind itself can be constructed. But they met their match in the complexities of the human mind. Skinner’s Behavioral principles have likewise lost their color overtime in the waves of newer intellectual trends. Common sense tells us that it takes “62,400” repetitions to make one truth. But it takes just one new question to keep truth in flight.

A novelist should deepen the mystery, said Flannery O’Connor. But mystery, she added, is a great embarrassment to the modern mind. I would add to this mystery “obscenity,” but that special kind of obscenity, present in BNW, that is willing to tell one when one’s stuff stinks. And some of modernism stank! Although A. Huxley lacks Darwin’s mellow mischief, to be sure, the monkey business of Brave New World is not without purpose. Darwin on the one hand deflated the arrogance of man, so content to see himself as the center of it all. But on the other hand, with considerable imagination, A. Huxley suggests what it might look like if this arrog-ance (nitrogen) was cross-bred with absolute power (glycerin).

Ben Lesousky

~ by B.L. on February 12, 2009.

One Response to “a bit of what our ancestor’s called ‘eternity’”

  1. Garrulous!

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