Learning The Wrong Lesson

April 27, 2013

Recently, I had occasion to read Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World. My dad expressed surprise that I hadn’t read it in high school; must have been due either to time constraints or budget cutbacks. Anyway, for those unfamiliar, the book is about a future society where humans are no longer born, but essentially bred in test tubes, identical batches or clones of each other, and, because of genetic sequencing, they are all programed to have their place in life, and free will is pretty much taken away. When they are children, they are taught that consumerism is of paramount importance, that sports and frivolous entertainments should occupy all of their free time, and that questioning authority is the worst thing you can do. They are taught to have a healthy interest in sex, but not for the purpose of procreation, but rather, because it provides another suitable distraction from weighty issues that would otherwise trouble the mind. The aging process is retarded, so that everyone looks youthful and wrinkle-free, right up till the day they die. Death itself is kind of sterilized, so that people need not fear it or think about it overly much, and people aren’t buried, but rather reduced to their vital elements and re-synthesized right back into society again. The government distributes a drug called “soma” to the people, who use it to take a kind of holiday from their troubles, if they’re ever feeling the least bit sad or unsatisfied about something.

All in all, it’s an excellent book, the work of a satirical master, as Huxley unquestionably was. He makes a great case for striving to break free of the mold, for trying to individuate yourself, for distancing yourself from the herd, for not letting the government (and genetics) tell you what to do, and all that good stuff. It’s pretty obvious what the lessons are you’re to take from this book. There’s just one problem, though. As I was reading it, I kept on thinking to myself “yes, I definitely understand exactly what Huxley is saying, and it’s a valid point. However, just in terms of myself, personally, the characters that I keep identifying with aren’t the ones who are trying to break free of the mold. They’re the other ones…the ones who want to do exactly what the government, the ones in charge, tell them to do!” See, there’s always been kind of an interesting duality to my personality. On the one hand, I think individuation is great. We can’t all be the same, at least not now, when genetic engineering of the kind Huxley imagines can’t be accomplished, at least not to that extremely evolved extent. We therefore have it in all of us, based on whatever unique talents nature has seen fit to give us, to accomplish things unlike what anyone else has accomplished…even if we choose instead to squander our gifts, and instead spend most of our time lounging around, watching TV. I appreciate the desire to break free of the mold, to question authority when that authority seeks to control us that much. I know that sometimes the government, or whomever is in charge, is wrong, and the individual is right. There are plenty of things that I think are wrong with the country, and with the world, that I would like to see changed.

On the other hand, sitting on your ass and watching TV, watching sports, and engaging in anything frivolous, is pretty great too. Government mandated drug distribution, to keep me pacified? I think you can sign me up for that one, double quick! Shopping, materialism? Yeah, I think I can get on board with that one. I love retail therapy. As much as I think of myself as being counter-cultural, there’s still a big part of me that wants to assimilate, wants to go with the flow, wants to buy things and see movies and dull my brain with substances. Why? Well, it’s pretty simple. The ultimate reason is because I know I’m mortal. Knowing that I will die one day, and fearing it as I do, I realize that there’s nothing I can do on this earth that will last when I am gone. Cynical, I know, but the reality is that everything we do on this world, the family we have, the friends, and all of our individual accomplishments, will not outlast us on this mortal coil, or if they will, it will only be for a short time, when viewed through the spectrum of how old the earth itself is, and the solar system, and the galaxy. In that regard, we’re all the most insignificant of specks, and who cares how good of a book we might write, or a picture we might paint, or even how good of a child we might raise, or how much money we donate to a local animal shelter? We might be contributing to the arts, we might have brought something good into this world or tried to sustain it, but ultimately, it’s not going to matter. Again, I know this is the height of cynicism, and maybe you feel differently. But guess what, this is my blog, not yours, and I feel compelled to express what I feel. So even though I can get behind what Huxley was saying, in my more sunny moments, even on the rare occasions when I can say, “Right on! Fight the power!” and mean it, it’s always going to be overshadowed by what I think so much more of the time, namely that killing my brain with beer and baseball while lying on the couch is better than the most dazzling of intellectual pursuits. I like the way the pleasure feels. After all, it’s pleasurable. That’s the whole point of it. And thinking too much has never led anyone to be happy, in fact, quite the opposite. The smartest people in the world are always the most miserable. Sorry Huxley, but the happiest of us are always the most well assimilated. And call me a coward, but I usually prefer to take the easy way out. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

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