06 December 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 8: ‘city in speech’ and world state

Apologies, gentle readers; I had planned to wrap this series up at the end of part six, but each time I come back to the topic it seems there is something more to say. In particular, I wanted to get down my thoughts on Brave New World and the points of similarity I tracked between that work and the Republic.

It strikes me that I really ought to have read Brave New World far, far sooner than I did. Orwell was the preferred dystopian author in my high school and college English courses: Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Burmese Days were all to be found on the curriculum; Brave New World was not. Which is a pity! Brave New World is an endlessly-fascinating work, and remains relevant to our experience in late capitalism today in ways which make Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm seem dated. Huxley’s work seems even more relevant and fascinating when read in concert with Plato’s Republic. It strikes me that there is an element in Huxley’s dystopian work which aims directly at Plato’s ‘city in speech’, even though Huxley himself may not have intended it.

I can’t be the first person to have noticed this (in fact, I know I am not). But there are a number of intriguing similarities. For both Plato’s Socrates and the designers of the world state, communal stability is the primary consideration, and this stability is guaranteed through the use of a ‘noble lie’ about procreation. The ‘city in speech’ and the world state both depend on assigning class statuses to children at birth, and educating them into their assigned rôle in the polity. Whereas in the Republic, the biological facts linking coitus to pregnancy and childbirth are all carefully kept hidden from its guardian class (though not necessarily from the lower classes), in Huxley’s world state they have all become completely untethered: coitus is rendered completely sterile by means of chemical sterilisation and contraceptives; all children are born in factories and assigned a class from the time they are an embryo in a test tube. The ‘lie’ at work in the world state comes from a suggestion that ‘viviparous’ birth is uncivilised and distasteful. The logical sequel is this: in Plato’s ‘city in speech’, women and children are shared communally among the guardian class, as ‘friends have all things in common’; in Huxley’s world state, this abolition of the family is guaranteed by a hypnopædic platitude that ‘every one belongs to every one else’.

Plato notes the influence of music on the psyche; in Huxley this influence is transfigured into ‘hypnopædia’: using poetic rhythm and metre to implant suggestions into children while they sleep. In Plato’s ‘city in speech’, poets are exiled if their work produces social discord, just as Helmholtz Watson is exiled from the world state to the Falklands for his own poetic work. Plato and Huxley also each emphasise the need to educate the citizens not to fear death, or at least to fear death less than other things. In Huxley’s world state, human beings have a ‘planned obsolescence’ at the age of sixty, which is taken in stride by the people who are subject to it.

But here we begin to notice a difference, or at least an inversion. In Huxley’s world state, citizens are cushioned from the reality of death, or at least distracted from its enormity, by means of various forms of bodily pleasure. Plato took the opposite view, that death should be greeted stoically and philosophically. At heart, I think Huxley and Plato are actually agreed on the question of death (and therefore also of erōs), yet the two of them take opposite approaches to highlight it.

For Plato, erōs is both enlivening and dangerous. He sees in the erotic impulse a direct line between the body and the divine that bypasses the mind. Even if as a form of ‘divine madness’, the erotic impulse can’t be controlled, at least it can be tutored by attempting to get the lover to ‘forget the body’ for a brief time. In fact, Plato’s justice, driven as it is by eroticism, requires such ‘forgetting’ to be glimpsed in its ‘large print’ form in the ‘city in speech’.

In Huxley, conversely, we see no such eroticism in the ‘large print’, despite the fact that sex is everywhere in the world state. The genuine erōs in Huxley’s novel is all on the personal level among the characters. Bernard seeks to feel it (but shies away from it repeatedly). Lenina begins to feel erotic desire for John but can’t break through her own conditioning to understand it. And erōs completely overwhelms John to the point where he lashes out – at Lenina and at himself. But for the world state, for Mustapha Mond and the Director, erōs is something dangerous that has to be stamped out and conditioned away, rather than tutored. Thus, in Huxley’s world state, sex has been completely emptied, not only of its procreative meaning but also of its erotic, desiring content! Sex is simply there, suffusing everything. It becomes a product to be consumed like any other, available for a nominal price. It’s a dire mistake to see John the Savage as some kind of body-hating Gnostic, even and especially by the end of Huxley’s novel. He is all embodied erotic impulse, and that frightens the people of the world state – not least Lenina, the object of his desires.

Ultimately what makes the world state a dystopia rather than a utopia is precisely this lack of eroticism, this total dearth of higher striving – and this is how the novel culminates in John’s philosophical conversations with Mustapha Mond (a conversation which quotes, among other people, Cardinal John Henry Newman). Huxley may not ever have referenced Plato either in his original manuscript or in Revisited, but I think he understood exactly what Socrates was trying to do. Huxley fashioned a world in which the ‘policy’ prescriptions of Socrates’ ‘city in speech’ can be and are fulfilled through the use of assembly-line automation, in vitro fertilisation, contraceptives, psychological conditioning and drugs – but out of which all of the erotic longing and tragic sensibility has been emptied. Even the foremost poet of this ‘brave new world’, Helmholtz Watson, cannot understand Romeo and Juliet before his exile to the Falklands – and laughs at it. Plato would have us ‘forget the body’ briefly, but the controllers of the world state would have us forget everything else completely!

Plato’s ‘city in speech’, too, is meant to be something of a comedic distortion of justice (the image of men and women, young and old, training naked together in the palæstra is meant to draw laughter), but one which is necessary to get Adeimantus and Glaucon to understand the demands of citizenship upon them. The ‘city in speech’ can never be realised as long as people have separate bodies and are compelled by erōs. But persons can behave as though they are citizens of the ‘city in speech’, which in turn is but a shadow of justice. To understand this is to begin to turn around and look toward where the light is coming from.

There is no such ‘wiggle room’ in Huxley’s dystopia. The world state, in its concern for happiness on a utilitarian level, does not permit of the dangers of eroticism, and therefore it cannot permit of citizenship. The attempts to ‘turn around’ and see where the shadows are coming from ends up in exile (for Bernard and Helmholtz), in madness and suicide (for John) and in an unspecified (but cruel) fate for Lenina.

At the same time, I still feel that Plato and Huxley would have been in agreement on the nature of justice; they simply took mirror-image and opposite routes to find it. In his Foreword Huxley called, against both the world state and the anarcho-primitivist alternative of Malpais, for something like ‘sanity’: a ‘decentralist’, ‘Kropotkin-esque coöperative’ with appropriate applications of technology and an eschatological religion informed by the Dao and an ethics oriented to the ‘final end’ of man. I’m not sure Plato would have approved all of this; he and Huxley lived in two very different times and we must do Plato the justice of speaking for himself and to his own circumstances rather than shoehorning him into anachronistic projects. Still, it’s interesting to note the similarities when they occur.

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