Sex, Drugs, & Totalitarian Control
March 27, 2017 § 9 Comments
Since the end of my Disney-princess days and the start of my adolescence I have been taught that apathy is beautiful and to love is to submit yourself to ruin. There are about five different abbreviations to say to your friends via text, “I don’t care,” and countless others to describe a sexual relationship you’re having without ever using the word “dating.” “Seeing each other.” “Hooking up.” “Hanging out.” “Chilling.” “We’re in a thing.” “Talking.” Sometimes we even resort to an anxious shrug and launch into a conversation having to do with just about anything else.
When you’re with the person you’re “chilling” with, talk of God or poetry or desires beyond drugs or alcohol or sex is completely off limits. Time spent in the daylight is too risky because white light has a way of exposing flaws and the feelings in your eyes that are much easier to hide when it’s dark and only the moon is watching. There’s an art to apathy, or at least, to pretending not to care. It involves a lot of leaving texts on “read” and silences when conversations start to sink their feet into something concrete. It involves a lot of smiling when you’re not the least bit happy and “keeping your options open” when you really just feel like committing.
Having become well versed in this science, reading about the romantic entanglements in Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World felt more like reading a slightly exaggerated version of a millennial hookup story than any science fiction future. Throughout the novel, both men and women describe having sex with one another as “having” another individual, alluding to temporary ownership or possession rather than intimacy or even reciprocal action— like “sleeping with” or “having sex with.” This is seen in a lot of today’s colloquialisms as well, “banged her,” “tapped that,” “hit that,” all of which have no romantic undertones and in fact, allude to violence.
The character of Lenina is a perfect embodiment of the incredibly sexual, carnal sort of reality that Huxley crafts. She is no stranger to sexual encounters; once in the novel upon entering the Alpha Changing Rooms, she is said to have been, “a popular girl and, at one point or another, had spent a night with almost all of [the men in the room]” (63). Her only understanding of the word “love” and her only understanding of relations with men, is sexual. We see this both in her relationship with Bernard and with John, however even she, the poster child, the pin-up girl, for hookup culture, struggles at times with this way of life.
During a conversation she has in the beginning of the novel with her friend Fanny, Lenina confides in her, saying, “‘Somehow, I hadn’t been feeling very keen on promiscuity lately. There are times when one doesn’t. Haven’t you found that too, Fanny?’ Fanny nodded her sympathy and understanding. ‘But one’s got to make the effort,’ she said, sententiously, ‘one’s got to play the game. After all, every one belongs to every one else’” (48). This notion that ‘every one belongs to every one else’ is repeated often in the book, relating the concept of human relationships to both the communist desire to eliminate individuality as well as the capitalist-encouraged relationships we have with material goods. To ‘belong’ to a person, to ‘have’ a person, is reflective of the idea that the commodification of the human body is the same as our commodification of all other goods. This is the only way Lenina understands relationships. Whenever Lenina has an encounter with John that leaves her pining for him, she resorts to taking soma, nor can she understand his declaration of love spoken with grand metaphors and poetic references towards the end of the novel (174). These irrational human inclinations to pine after someone, to allow someone other than ourselves to wield such power over our own happiness, to devote our lives to a relationship, and to love in language as flowery and impractical as poetry—these are not conducive to the society Huxley has created because they are not rational and cannot be satisfied by material goods.
However, there are some positives to Huxley’s future view of sexual relationships. For one, female sexual agency. John does not understand the sexually liberated, emotionless way in which both men and women operate in the World State. Throughout the novel, John places Lenina on a pedestal as an ethereal creature. He yearns to shield her from anything lewd or ‘unholy.’ He ‘loves’ her for the beautiful image he has made her out to be, not for who she really is. By making John this way, Huxley demonstrates that the commodification of women specifically has a history that started well before the concepts of capitalism and communism were introduced. John commodifies Lenina into an object he wants to possess—a pure, holy, innocent object. When Lenina attempts to be sexual with him after he declares his love, he calls her a whore and eventually calls for her death (177). While Huxley’s future eliminates the possibility of great love and feeling, it also eliminates the virgin-whore dichotomy that has shackled women for centuries. In theory, John’s ‘love’ for Lenina sounds grand and it feels tragic that it cannot be reciprocated and nurtured, however, in reality, his perception of women is flawed just as the perception of women has been for all of history. If there is any remnant of true feeling, of true romantic love in the novel that should have gotten the chance to be expressed, it is at the start of the novel in Bernard and in his respect for Lenina, although it is snuffed out.
Rather than being romantic or emotional, the society in which Huxley’s characters operate is an expensive one, where people fly planes and play elaborate golf games and rely on drugs for contentment and it is intentionally designed that way: “We do not want want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones,” (198).The things that the “Savage” John cares about—God, poetry, freedom, those are not as easily commodified and thereby go discouraged in such a society. In order for the totalitarian rule in Huxley’s book to function, John’s desires cannot exist, people need to fully buy into the capitalist understanding of ‘happiness.’ A New York Times article discussing Huxley’s vision for the future described it as, “The totalitarian rulers in Huxley’s book do this not by oppressing their citizens but by giving them exactly what they want, or what they think they want — which is basically sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — and lulling them into complacency. They don’t mourn their lost liberty…they don’t even know it’s gone.” While there are definitely criticisms of communism as well as capitalism in this novel, looking at it from a modern day lens the problems Huxley points out with capitalism are of more significance as is the threat of becoming someone constantly searching for happiness through material goods.
But how different is Huxley’s fabricated society from our own? In much of the discussion surrounding artificial intelligence and personhood, many say that the reason why AI will never be equal to humanity is because it won’t be able to have empathy, to love, to feel the way human beings are capable. However, we live in a world where the suppression of those very same feelings is encouraged, where those qualities hailed in arguments about AI are shunned and seen as shameful in our relationships with one another.
While I applaud the sexual agency seen much more frequently in today’s society and in Huxley’s novel and I disapprove of the slut-shaming and sexist idolization of women as seen in John’s view of Lenina, I also worry that human beings may be trying to act too much like machines and also, what this means for women specifically. If John’s virgin-whore dichotomy persists and yet Lenina’s attitudes towards sex are trendy—how does a woman win? And should she want to? Is being rational always preferable—is it sustainable—is it healthy? The inner turmoil faced by both John and Lenina is the same as it is in the many American children who grow up to see that after a first kiss it’s far more likely to hear “see you never,” than “happily ever after.” What makes us aspire to live such an apathetically sexual life? Is it fear of vulnerability? Is it the threat of being out of control? Do we really search for the kind of happiness described in the novel, one that is “never grand” because we are afraid of the rough waves that come with fluctuating human emotion (199)?
Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater. By Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. Perf. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Columbia, 1995.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. London: Vintage Classic, 2014. Print.
McGrath, Charles. “Which Dystopian Novel Got It Right: Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.