a past vision of the future

I spent an hour this morning doing nothing but reading Brave New World. I do not recommend this. I’ve read Aldous Huxley’s novel once before–I think I was in college–and I remember being mildly traumatized by it, but I wasn’t sure if it would still have the power to upset me on this second reading–or, more accurately, whether I would still be vulnerable to its power.

This question of external imposition versus internal responsiveness is important when comparing Brave New World with its more popular 20th-century dystopian classic counterpart, George Orwell’s 1984. (It’s worth noting that Brave New World predates 1984 by 17 years.) I recently came across a comparison of the two novels that made a lot of sense. (I wish I could remember where I read it.) Brave New World, it said, provides the more insidious vision of the future. 1984 is all about a government that imposes external controls on free thought, personal choice, and open communication. That’s frightening. But in Brave New World, the government doesn’t need to impose such controls because citizens are conditioned from birth to look, speak, act, and even desire like members of their caste. That’s more frightening.

This is horrifyingly illustrated by the one scene I always remember when I think of this novel: Infants from one of the lower castes are placed on the floor in front of brightly-colored books and bowls of flowers. When the babies begin crawling toward the items, the behaviorist operatives who are raising them in place of parents (“mother” and “father” are dirty words in this efficiency-worshiping society) play loud sirens and send electric shocks through the floor, causing the babies to scream and retreat from the books and flowers. (I can’t even type this without tears coming to my eyes.) A scientist who is giving students a tour of the child-rearing facility proudly explains that after 200 repetitions of this experience, the infants will develop a lifelong revulsion for books and flowers, which are deemed economically pointless for people of their caste.

It’s scenes like these that make Brave New World powerfully prescient, decades after its original publication in 1932. There are some details that don’t work as well. The flying machines that have replaced cars sound like something you’d see at Walt Disney World’s deliberately kitschy and nostalgic Tomorrowland. Huxley’s descriptions of the music that plays such a key role in the social and religious lives of the citizens are hard to mentally convert into something you could actually imagine hearing, so the point he is evidently trying to make about the power of music is blunted. There are also some racist overtones in his descriptions of the music.

But, as I discussed with my independent study student today (did you think I was rereading Brave New World for fun??), the dystopian future that seems the most relevant today is not a vision of a tyrannical government imposing restrictions from the top down (not that those aren’t a concern) but rather a vision of what we might do to ourselves. That’s why in more recent dystopian classics like Feed and The Hunger Games, the entertainment industry seems more threatening even than the government. And that’s why Brave New World is still worth reading–or more worth reading than ever before. I just recommend frequent breaks and somebody to debrief with.

a pep talk for me

I’ve been feeling a little down the past week or so, and while I think there are several reasons for this, probably the biggest one is that my much-anticipated first summer of freedom (since college, that is, and with “freedom” defined as not having to report to work) has come to a close. I spent basically the whole summer going from one trip to the next, with people I enjoy being around and with something to constantly look forward to. I didn’t have to go grocery shopping or mow my lawn or take out the trash–all tasks that I don’t mind (sometimes even enjoy) when I’m home but that it feels exciting and slightly transgressive to be able to ditch for weeks at a time. Now that I’m back home but not yet back into the rhythm of the school year, I feel let down, broke from all the money I spent on my travels (I’m not, but it feels that way), and a little lonely. This last part has surprised me–normally, I’m all about my independence and totally capable of entertaining myself, but the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like I’m suddenly not an introvert anymore.

I’m sharing all this not to whine but because I think this particular brand of mild seasonal depression may be more common among adults than we realize. It might not be an end-of-summer thing for everyone; I think it happens after Christmas for many people. But it’s something we should talk about so we know that we’re not alone. If you’ve ever felt this way, I’d be happy to listen to your story in the comments. (Or, if we know each other, let’s chat off the blog!)

Because it’s started off so poorly, I’ve been dreading the remainder of August, so I’m going to spend the remainder of this post listing reasons I have to be optimistic–if not manically excited like I was at the beginning of the summer–about what’s to come. I realize this is a totally self-indulgent use of my blog, but maybe it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own.

  1. School starts in 21 days, and classroom teaching (NOT meetings or assessment or filling out forms, though I understand why those are important) is the part of my job that I really love. I’m looking forward to meeting the freshmen in my composition classes and seeing some former students again in my literature class. I’m also teaching my first-ever independent study, on dystopian literature, with a really great, motivated student. And I’m excited to restart the creative writing group that meets at my house. I can’t wait to make food for this little community and share stories with them.
  2. I have a new boyfriend! He’s the sweetest, and that’s all I’m going to say about him here because, frankly, it’s none of your business, blogosphere. 🙂 (Yes, I tend to overshare, but I do have boundaries.) I’m excited about the adventures we have planned, such as Hippie Fest in Angola, Indiana, next month (I already know what I’m going to wear)–as well as the less adventurous but no less precious times we will be able to take walks, share meals, and keep getting to know each other. (I like what I know so far.)
  3. Fall in West Michigan is beautiful, but I didn’t maximize my enjoyment of it last year because I was still getting used to my new job and home (actually, I was still renting and home shopping last fall) and generally getting on my feet. This fall, I intend to hike, pick apples, go to festivals, and be outdoors as much as possible. As my siblings and I ironically-but-secretly-unironically like to say, it’s almost time for hayrides, hoedowns, and all things pumpkin spice.

Next year, I’ll probably spend my summer a little more quietly (then again, who knows?). But although I’m feeling the crash right now, I don’t regret my summer of carpe diem. (I know that’s grammatically incorrect in Latin.) And, especially now that I’ve written this post, I’m looking forward to what comes next.