Thursday, 11 September 2008

Words like X-rays?

I've been reading Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' this week. I picked it up partly because a couple of you mentioned it for our prose reading list a while back but mainly because I bought a copy in that second hand bookshop in Ballater on holiday this summer (and our list just gave me that shove to read it a little sooner than some of the other books in the pile at the end of my desk). Written in 1932, my copy was printed in 1942 and so it is old enough to remind me that it is now really quite an aged book despite its futuristic content. My copy even has one of those fabulous handwritten extras “With best wishes, Bunty. Christmas 1942” on the inside. I love that kind of thing...who was Bunty? What was happening that Xmas... in the middle of WW2? What did the reader think of the book? What did the reader do in the war? My 'Brave New World' cost me £10 which is quite a lot for an old book. I'm usually quite a cheapskate (I visit a lot of charity shops) so it was nice to splash out for a change.

I'm not exactly sure why I didn't read this novel when I was younger. My eternal excuse is the old linguist one (I was busy reading Maupassant and Lorca and Büchner) but I can't keep on using that one forever now can I? I did read Orwell's '1984' when I was about 17 and in fact I can remember that reading experience very vividly. I got to the Room 101 section whilst reading on a long distance train and it fairly freaked me out (could that explain some of my travel problems just now.? Some hope...). After reading '1984' it is just possible that my know-all teenage self felt she didn't need to read 'Brave New World' as it would probably be very similar. Stupid girl! They are completely different books but, in her defence, she was young, she had much to learn. She's learning still...

Reading 'Brave New World' now it does make me wonder what I would have made of it if I had read it at 17 years of age. All that stuff about sex and reproduction and child development...I know I feel very differently, no COMPLETELY differently about all those subjects now. If I had read this book at 17 would it have altered my behaviour back then in any way? Or would I have just not understood what it was saying very well and concentrated on other bits of the story instead? Spending a lot of my day child rearing (as I do now) means all that stuff about kids playing sex games really jumped out at me this read...but would I have just read through that at 17, thought it a bit weird and rushed on to, frankly, more interesting subjects? I barely knew young children existed when I was 17...I was the baby of the family, the only way was up.

All the soma stuff in the book cannot help but be of interest to someone who immersed themselves in a drug-led culture too - as I did with the land of the rave. In fact the book used to get a lot of namechecks in that world and there is/was a dance music record label, Glaswegian I think, called Soma. If I'd read this at 17...would I have felt differently about drugs later on? Would I have behaved differently...made different choices, as they say these days? We'll never know. I don't have regrets, you should understand, just questions.

It's interesting too that it's really about idealism. One of my favourite bits is the prologue quote from the Russian philosopher Berdiaeff (or Berdyaev you might see now... he lived 1874-1948). It's in French but I can just about remember enough French to read it and give you my rough translation “Utopias seem more realisable now than we believed in the past. And so today we find ourselves with a worrying question – how can we make sure they do not get realised? Utopias are possible. Life is marching on towards utopias. Perhaps there will be a new century when intellectuals and the educated classes will dream of ways to avoid utopias and we will long to get back to a less utopian society, one that was less 'perfect' but more free”.

So what does that make you think of (apart from is 'realisable' a word in English...well, it should be, if not)? Maybe you might think about all the daft contradictions of modern life? Like “how can we stop obesity?” Might that possibly have anything to do with the fact that all many of us do now is sit on our arses all day? Or “why can't our children concentrate?” How the hell can anyone concentrate when the TV is on ALL DAY LONG? Or “I don't feel relaxed even after a holiday”. Well, packing yourself in a jet, polluting the planet, packing yourself on a crowded beach, drinking yourself that really the best way to relax? I could go on with this for some time. Modern life is bizarre. Maybe it always has been but it does seem to be particularly bizarre just now. And that's before you even start on the contrasts between the rich world and the poor.

Speaking as one of those “politically concerned idealists” Colin Will mentioned in the comments here a couple of posts ago I think about things like this a lot. I wonder, quite often, about change too. Like, is it ever worth trying to change anything? Can people change? Is it a good idea to even think about it (as I know idealism of any kind can make a person crazy and heck, I never need much help on that score)? I can play the pessimist quite convincingly but when it comes to people I tend to think most people have the potential to be good, to be kind, to be the right circumstances. I don't know why I feel this way...much evidence is to the contrary... and yet I still feel it. Maybe I'm just sick. I read this phrase in an article about environmental issues* recently “This is partly because, as the Marxists found, the human character is sadly unreformable...” and it has bothered me for the past couple of weeks. Really unreformable? Human beings are doomed to their own crapness? I write quite a lot of very optimistic poems (as well as lots of miserable, gloomy ones). I think a lot about how things could be better and I do (sometimes) write for change...even if that makes me stupid in the eyes of those who think writing is only ever about art. That's the thing about idealists – we don't care how stupid we look!

'Brave New World' must be a great book to teach to older kids in school for many reasons but largely because it is so packed with fantastic lines – the kind that make great quotes in an essay. I wrote a few down as I found them. There's the obvious “everyone belongs to everyone else” (can you imagine? Eugh.). There's “history is bunk” (Mr McMillan, sir, it says history is a load of crap in our book). There's “Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they'll go through anything” (that must have been used by a poet or two by now, anyone know?). There's “no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour” (hah!). There's “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery”...and finally, one of my favourites, “Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that's philosophy.” I knew there was a reason I always found straight philosophy books hard to get through!

There is just so much that's good about this book. It is kind of simplistic compared to so many of today's convoluted novels that jump around here and change tack there. This one does start at A and end at Z, in a way, but I think that's one of the things I liked most about it. Whilst written about the future it is now almost's almost about the good old days when stories where stories....well, you know what I mean. It would be such a great novel to write essays about that it almost makes me want to go back to school just to write them. Maybe that's what I'm doing here (feel free to grade me if you like). Best of all though 'Brave New World' is full of Shakespeare (something I wasn't expecting) and, you know, I was right to mention him in the reading list for poetry earlier this week because that old Will Shakespeare – he really wasn't half bad.

*'A simple plan to save the world' by Michael McCarthy in “The Independent” (22nd August 2008)


Poetikat said...

I've been reading this "essay" through bleary eyes and a semi-conscious state and I'd still have to give it an "A".
Having read 1984, pre-1984, I thought I'd encountered enough of the future and didn't want to read Huxley. I am now, most definitely intrigued.

Oh, and I love finding inscriptions in old books! "Bunty" - sounds so Wodehouse, don't you think?


Poetikat said...

Come to think of it, my current state of being is probably similar to that of my university professors as they marked my work. The only difference is that I'm not hung over.
(They would undoubtedly have been harsher in their marking, than I.)

I signed up for a Philosophy course, once. I lasted about a week. I couldn't grasp logic. Go figure.


(More to come when I'm awake.)

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks, Miss.
Wikipedia's BNW page has some interesting quotes about contrasts between '1984' and 'Brave New World'. Go take a peek - it's quite far down the page.


hope said...

I think some of us tend to lean more towards optimism [the hope that the majority of people are good rather than evil] because the opposite is just...depressing. Wouldn't seem worthwhile to get out of bed if all you thought you'd run into were bad people up to no good.

Nice job. I will leave the grading, however, to Professor McMillan. :)

Colin Will said...

I'm very glad you found so much in the book. I think I've probably said enough about in in earlier comments, so I won't say much more, except that I'm delighted you found the Shakespeare in it. The title is from The Tempest, where the innocent (and possibly 17-year old) Miranda says, "Oh, brave new world, that has such creatures in it." Huxley takes her viewpoint.

Sorlil said...

I never stand near the edge of a railway / metro platform just in case some lunatic thinks it would be fun to push me onto the track. Call me a cynic but I'm constantly surprised by how much I have to trust total strangers not to cause me harm and the fact that things like that don't happen more often than they already do!

Jim Murdoch said...

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery” is underlined in my copy of the book. It was one of those lines that was worth waiting the whole book practically for. I quote it often. I think it is one of the most meaningful things I'd ever read at the time – nineteen I would guess. I also have a copy of Zamyatin's We with all the bits Orwell and Huxley nicked off him underlined, at least all the ones I could find at the time – again about nineteen I expect. I've been meaning to write a blog about it for months now but other things keep getting in the road.

Rachel Fox said...

Now Colin, I don't how long it is since you read this book but if I hadn't found the Shakespeare in it I would have to be declared a Class A idiot! The whole second half is packed with it!

Sorlil...I'm surprised at this admission. Still...all neurotics welcome here! Im more of the 'go on, push me, put me out of my misery' school of neurosis myself.

And Jim, look forward to that post when it arrives.


Sorlil said...

Lol, I don't think of myself as neurotic, just cautious!

Dick said...

The book to check out now is Huxley's 'Island'. From dystopic pre-war visions to post-war utopian speculations.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Dick. I will add it to my now ridiculously enormous reading list!

For a complete change I started 'Brideshead Revisited' last night...not a book I've ever fancied and I never watched the TV series either but one of my regular visitors insisted it is worth the effort. I'll let you know how I get on...


BarbaraS said...

Hey Rachel, what a great post, reading a classic like this. It's so long since I've read it I've practically forgotten most of it, so I think (a) a re-purchase is necessary and (b) definitely a re-read. Looking forward to seeing how you get on with Brideshead Revisited.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Barbara. It's always nice to know that these pieces are of interest to someone other than me!

I'm reading your book too of course. 'Christmas Eve' and 'Shopping Trolley' my favourites so far. And I'm much truth is there in 'Death of the Innocent'? You don't have to tell me but if you do want to that would be...grand!


BarbaraS said...

LOL, Rachel; truth has a funny way of coming out. 'Tis true. Glad you're enjoying it.