- Bill Texas and Chris Gergley, "Is the American Dream Negotiable?"
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World set standards not only for science fiction, but for literature’s popular "dystopia" genre in the 1940s and 1950s as well. Brave New World is a work outlining a horrible future where free will has been displaced by conditioning through the use of tyranny and technology, and is often interpreted as a warning against irresponsible technological advancement and the abuse of that technology as it is applied towards society. There is, however, another interpretation that demands examining, especially when Brave New World’s society is compared and contrasted with our own. One possible reading reveals Brave New World as an existential work, even if the author himself never fully realized the implications of his characters and their reactions to their surroundings. The characters John Savage, Helmholtz, and Bernard Marx are Nietzschian "ubermenschen," or at least potential "ubermenschen," and Brave New World outlines perhaps the ultimate extension of the master/slave mentality, and to a lesser degree, the doctrine of eternal recurrence. In addition, when the conditioning techniques and the reasons for their application are scrutinized carefully next to American society entering the 21st century by using Brave New World and secondary texts written by Huxley and others, primarily his collection of essays Brave New World Revisited, we begin to see a portrait of humanity based on Sartre’s concept of the "Gaze of the Other." When examined along with the three ubermenschen, that portrait gives a clear view of human "freedom" as outlined by psychiatrist/philosopher Viktor Frankl and human "Being" as developed by Martin Heidegger.
This will, ultimately, allow the careful reader to question the final actions of the Savage. Faced with the "truth" about Brave New World, the Savage, after attempting to share this truth with its inhabitants and his subsequent failures to do so, decides that suicide is his only recourse. Following our examinations, we will see that BNW represents a society very close to our own, and the "enlightenment" of the three ubermenschen and the Savage’s ultimate suicide provide us with an important moral question: if we wake up to the truth about our own culture, in its entirety, are we doomed, like the Savage, to see suicide as the only option? We will see, in the end, there is always a choice, and suicide may not be the only conclusion.
Before our careful examinations of Brave New World as an existentialist work, we must first establish important Nietzschian ideas that will be used throughout the paper. Nietzsche saw human society as an interaction between "masters" and "slaves." Although he primarily applied this idea to Christianity, evidence of the master/slave relationship can be found almost every human relation. Integral to the idea of the master/slave is the notion of the herd. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche outlines the herd thusly:
Inasumuch as in all ages, as long as mankind has existed, there have also been human herds (family alliances, communities, tribes, peoples, states, churches), and always a great number who obey in proportion to the small number who command – in view, therefore, of the fact that obedience has been most practiced and fostered among mankind hitherto, one may reasonably suppose that, generally speaking, the need thereof is now innate in every one, as a kind of formal conscience which gives the command: "Thou shalt unconditionally do something, unconditionally refrain from something"; in short, "Thou shalt." (191)
Therefore, the herd is a human social structure – a family, a village, a church, a country – where the members of the herd listen to a few people who command it. Although herds may not always have existed, there is no way to "prove" or "disprove" such a claim; in his view, it is evident that they exist now. Likewise, it would also be somewhat difficult to "prove" or "disprove" their existence in a scientific (read: empirical) way, but this seems to be as good an explanation and evaluation of an aspect of the human condition as any, insofar as our examination is concerned.
Social structures, or herds, are therefore based on the leadership of a small group of people "in command," who somehow illicit obedience from the herd with their "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" – in essence, they more or less dictate the function, especially the moral function, of the herd. The masters control what their slaves believe is right and wrong; what actions are "good" and "evil." The methods of control are somewhat different from herd to herd, no doubt, and the use of the Biblical language "shalt" is probably no accident: the most evident of these master/slave relationships to Nietzsche in Western society is, no doubt, Christianity as it existed in continental Europe in the late 19th Century.
Countries and entire cultures are based somewhat on this master/slave mentality as well. Governments, or, at least, democratic governments, are supposed to represent the "will of the people," but in a democracy the people willingly place control in the hands of a few masters. In the United States, for example, the concept behind our voting structure is that – supposedly – a few qualified men (and women) will represent the larger masses, because the masses will elect an official who believes the same things that they do. Whether or not this is actually the case is a subject for debate, and as we will see at a later time, one that more or less reinforces the master/slave mentality.
In every society or organization, there will always be those people who realize, at some point, that the herd is in fact under the control of a few masters who decide for that herd what is right and wrong, and what the herd ought to be doing. They begin to preach to the crowds or rouse the rabble, and the herd itself begins to realize they were under control this whole time. Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi – these are the names of some of our foremost religious and spiritual leaders. But notice the structure of that title – spiritual leaders. What are leaders but masters?
Although Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence wasn’t necessarily intended to apply to the master/slave mentality, it clearly does. That doctrine reads, in part:
Everything goes, everything returns; the wheel of existence rolls for Ever. Everything dies, everything blossoms anew; the year Of existence runs on for ever (Zarathusra 217, in Raymond 182)
This somewhat ambiguous and metaphysical statement, originally intended as a kind of ethical calculus, if taken to its full extension, would also apply to the master/slave mentality and many other relationships as well. Therefore, those spiritual leaders we discussed, as revered as they are, only substituted a new master/slave relationship for the old one, even if that was not their intention. It is difficult to imagine the Buddha, for example, who worked to eliminate illusory connections to all things, especially master/slave relationships (although under totally different names), ending up spawning a religion that resulted in establishing entire nations that keep people in servitude, but this is exactly what has happened in Tibet and other parts of the East.
Now that we have a basis for examining the human condition, the question on everyone’s mind should be: CAN WE EVER GET OUT OF IT? Are we condemned forever to remain slaves; or, if we realize our herdlike, slave existence, are we doomed to become the new masters, creating a new society of slaves underneath us? Forever the non-dualist, Nietzsche offers us another option: the ubermensch.
Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s Christ-like character, could be seen as the ubermensch, if we understand what the ubermensch is and how Zarathustra relates to him. On page 123 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the old man Zarathustra meets when he comes down the mountain says this:
"Zarathustra has changed, Zarathustra has become a child, Zarathustra is an awakened one; what do you now want among the sleepers? You lived in your solitude as in the sea, and the sea carried you. Alas, would you now climb ashore?"
This is a fair appraisal of what it means to be the ubermensch. The image of becoming a child is one that relates back Buddhist and Taoist ideas of enlightenment. In Taoism and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism, to become child-like is an ideal because children are (relatively) unconditioned by society and, therefore, are less prone to partake in illusory – false – activities; or, in Nietzschian terms, children are less prone to simply accept slavery.
The fact that Zarathustra is "awakened" should come as no surprise; Buddha is simply a title that means "He who is awake," and the concept of awakening after a long sleep to realize that your reality was a kind of dream is certainly not a new one. This, along with the child-like, unconditioned or overcome of his conditioning Zarathustra represents the ubermensch. To break free of the master/slave mentality, one must ultimately realize the futility of eternal recurrence and choose to exist outside of the master/slave mentality that society perpetuates. However, the old man’s questions are important ones to consider: Why has Zarathustra returned? Wouldn’t teaching the crowds the secrets to becoming an ubermensch mean, essentially, that the teacher is no longer an ubermensch? Wouldn’t he simply be replacing the herd’s old master with himself as a new one? This is, perhaps, the old man’s point. Now, let’s jump ahead to where Zarathustra actually teaches about the ubermensch.
On page 124 of Zarathustra, the title character comes to a town and tells an assembled crowd:
"I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome… what is ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… the overman is the meaning of the earth… What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue [do, too]." (124-5; 126).
The ubermensch, then, is that which looks at happiness, reason, and virtue – in short, those things which the masters tell the herd are "right" and "wrong" – with contempt, and therefore can begin to form his own opinions as to right and wrong – what Nietzsche elsewhere refers to as the Will to Power. However, just as the crowd laughs at Zarathustra’s spectacle on the next page, the herds aren’t willing to easily displace what the masters tell them; they are only willing to follow a few master. The true ubermensch, therefore, will realize the futility of attempting to speak to the crowds about his Will to Power. To free the herds, the ubermensch cannot speak to them and say, "find your virtue contemptuous, and mine virtuous." The ubermensch would realize that replacing masters releases no one and nothing, and therefore would encourage – as Nietzsche did – the herds to will their own powers, and not accept even his "virtuous" answers.
Now that we have a firm Nietzschian base to work from, the time has come to examine Brave New World. The book opens with two concurrent scenes intended to introduce the reader both to the philosophies of BNW and how those philosophies translate to the everyday lives of its inhabitants. We start in the bokanovskification chambers, where fertilized human eggs are exposed to a process that causes them to "bud," creating several copies of the original; in essence, creating hundreds or thousands of identical "twins" (Huxley 3). The reason for this is simple: "Bokanovsky’s process is one of the major instruments of social stability!" the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tells an inquisitive student (Huxley 4). Social stability comes from "the whole of a small factory staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg." Apparently, when a factory is run by hundreds or thousands of genetically identical people, it produces a kind of easy stability; the workers are less prone to question their surroundings and the legitimacy of their enslavement to BNW’s masters. In fact, the director, after repeating the "planetary motto" of BNW, "Community, Identity, Stability," informs the students that "If we could bokanovskify indefinitely then the whole problem would be solved" (Huxley 4).
From these first few pages, we learn that social stability is of utmost value to the people of BNW. Most likely, this is because the masters, or those people in control of BNW, are content with their positions, and are not about to yield to other masters should the inhabitants of BNW decide to "wake up." Therefore, staffing factories with numerous sets of identical twins is just one step in a series of measures taken to ensure that these masters will continue to stay in power. We also learn that the "whole problem" is apparently not yet solved, allowing for some people to fall through the cracks of BNW’s carefully planned social order.
The second major method of social control is a strict caste system, augmented by strict social control and conditioning, initiated as soon as children are "decanted" (born from a test-tube, without a mother). The Director mentions that "[w]e decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future.. Directors" (Huxley 9). The Greek letters Alpha through Epsilon indicate social caste, with "plus" or "minus" added to designate intelligence levels within a caste. Epsilon-minuses can barely speak in complete sentences, whereas Alpha-pluses essentially run BNW’s "upper management," so to speak.
Although caste is somewhat determined through heredity, the conditioning of the fetus begins before it is decanted. "The lower the cast, the shorter the oxygen," a lackey explains (Huxley 9). By depriving the fetuses of oxygen, their stunted mental development is almost assured. Although Huxley never specifically states as much, it is assumed BNW’s castes are on a pyramid structure, with Epsilon workers making up the majority of the base and the Alphas serving as the capstone. In addition, embryos are conditioned by radiation to like and dislike certain environmental conditions, based on where the masters have decreed that they will work.
Coolness was wedded to discomfort in the form of hard X-rays. By the time they were decanted the embryos had a horror of cold. They were predestined to emigrate to the tropics, to be miners and acetate silk spinners and steel workers. (Huxley 11).
This carefully planned social system, where workers are created from before birth and carefully crafted throughout their lives for predetermined jobs sounds much like the planned economies of George Orwell’s 1984, and the Soviet-style dictatorships which Orwell used to spawn his dystopia. But it is important to note that Stalin’s true dictatorship had not yet begun in 1932, and Huxley wasn’t concerned so much with communism as he was in the environment he saw around him. The reasons for this will become clear as a greater part of relation of BNW to our culture comes into focus following our examination of the two.
When the crowd of students explores a conditioning room in the next chapter, where babies are being prepared for their future as productive members of society, Huxley notes that
Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks – already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder. (15)
Babies of all castes are made to dislike books, as books and writing are one of the most obvious ways to spread sedition through the ranks of workers (a great way for new masters to create a movement of slaves to displace the old masters). But conditioning toddlers to associate flowers with electric shocks is an interesting idea; when a student asks about it, the Director explains that it "was on grounds of high economic policy" (Huxley 15). Apparently, BNW once conditioned its workers to love the countryside, and therefore take many vacations, which they did, but unfortunately they did little else in the way of recreation. As the director explains, they now condition people to hate the country but love country sports.
The reason for this strange, almost incongruous relationship is not to keep the masses distracted or to make them more effective workers; they already love the jobs they were bred for thanks to their conditioning before their decantation. The reasons, although never stated explicitly, become clear when one considers what would happen if such a plan were put in action: mass amounts of transportation would be consumed, as well as sports equipment, but it would never be used. In fact, the people would get to the country, realize how much they hated it, and then turn around and go back to the city where they would be free to consume something else.
BNW’s rule, far more than stability, is consumption. The inhabitants of BNW are completely and totally convinced, thanks to their conditioning, that they need various things to keep them happy, be they elaborate sports equipment and transportation that they will only use once, or a ticket to the latest "feelie" (a kind of movie where the audience feels sensations along with the picture on the screen). In fact, one gets the impression that BNW’s economy would most likely collapse if massive amounts of produced goods weren’t consumed by people conditioned to think that they needed them.
Neil Postman, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death, which is based on the idea that Huxley "may be right," discusses at length the idea that television and the advertising contained therein maximizes our consumption and keeps us in thrall by essentially the same means as BNW’s controllers use (viii). By shortening our attention span and eliminating in-depth thought about issues political, religious, and philosophical, as well as turning our minds towards distractions from these thoughts: commercials, game shows, and so forth (Postman 6-8, 11). Without being premature, the connections between BNW and our society are already becoming apparent; the hammer of capitalism is run by a society that blindly accepts what the controllers have to offer, and willingly keep themselves under control simply by flipping a switch – or going to the "feelies."
Two more important methods of social control need to be examined briefly before our analysis of BNW can continue. The first is the use of the drug soma, a powerful relaxing drug that doesn’t appear to be addictive or to have nasty side effects, to keep the populace under control. In fact, the Director notes that soma has "all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol and none of their defects." Children are conditioned to use soma to solve problems; a character later repeats "a gram is better than a damn" when another character curses, and then ask him "why don’t you take soma when you have those dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them" (Huxley 70). The "dreadful ideas" she refers to are nothing more than the desire to look at the ocean as a thing of beauty, and to wonder about the purpose of his existence.
Besides soma use, there is one last social control BNW uses to keep its slaves in line, and one that encourages the primary rule of the society by increasing consumption. It is a slightly more abstract form of control, and one not explicitly outlined by the Director in his tour of the facility or by Huxley, but it is certainly implied. People are conditioned to not only think of their caste as acceptable, but to not want to be part of other castes as well. This caste conditioning belies another form of conditioning; when Betas and Gammas are conditioned to consume more, they are also somewhat inadvertently conditioned to look down upon those who do not consume as much. The social pressure they put on others, and others in turn put on them, to buy the "latest and greatest" helps increase the consumption so important to keeping BNW afloat.
Again, we can return to Postman’s analysis of our own society and begin to see the connections: from the earliest age, our children look down on the have-nots; the kids in school without the stylish alligator on their shirts, or the correct kind of superstar-endorsed basketball shoes, are looked down upon and ridiculed unless they pressure their parents into consuming these otherwise needless but expensive goods. The children then learn the lesson that other’s opinions matter, and consumption is a good thing, breeding the next generation of willing consumers.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of the Gaze of the Other reflects the actions of the conditioned characters in Brave New World. In Section IV of Being and Nothingness, appropriately entitled "The Look," Sartre outlines this concept thusly:
If there is an Other [another person], whatever or whoever he may be, whatever may be his relations with me, and without his acting upon me in any way except by the pure upsurge of his being – then I have an outside, I have a nature. My original fall is the existence of the Other. Shame – like pride – is the apprehension of myself as a nature although that very nature escapes me and is unknowable… my nature is – over there, outside my lived freedom – as a given attribute of this being for which I am the Other. (From Raymond 402)
Although Sartre clearly recognizes that the Other remains a presupposition, he nevertheless accepts the presupposition of the Other’s existence and proceeds to outline what exactly the Other does. The Other’s "acting upon" Sartre just by his own being – being himself, if you will – "then [Sartre and all people] have an outside… a nature." From the Other’s existence, and the method in which the Other perceives Sartre – and all of us – then we take from that our own notions of ourselves.
Essentially, the notion of the Gaze of the Other breaks down into the idea that we are constantly aware of how others see us, and we change our actions, our outward appearances, and consequently our thoughts, accordingly based on what the Other dictates we should be. In this way, the people of BNW are encouraged to continue consuming and not to think too much about their existence; decreased consumption and even the slightest rebellious actions invite the scorn and abandonment of the Other. Even if one person were to begin to question the validity of the control BNW’s masters hold over the people, as Bernard Marx does, the Other would inevitably turn against him, as Lenina and Marx’s friends do at the beginning of the novel. As we will see later, the Gaze of the Other is what inevitably dooms Marx when he is forced to make a decision at the last part of the book; he cannot see the final way out of his predicament, and never fully "wakes up," thanks to the way Others will perceive his situation.
Now that we have sufficiently summarized the situation of conditioning, social control, and maximization of consumption in BNW, it is time to examine the philosophies of both Frankl and Heidegger, and how those two thinkers’ notions of freedom and being, respectively, are echoed in Brave New World. That will then allow us to make a far more complete analysis of the book next to our own society, creating a solid base for comparison.
Viktor Frankl’s assessment of human freedom boils down to an old debate: how much of a person’s actions are free will, and how much are conditioned responses to stimuli? When psychologist B. F. Skinner introduced the notion of behaviorism in the first half of the 20th century, he postulated that since he could prove empirically that he could predict the outcomes of animal behavior after introducing certain stimuli into their environment. The most popular example is the pigeon in the "Skinner box," a kind of cage designed to allow for as much control over environmental variables as possible. He could then get the pigeons to perform all kinds of tricks based on a system of rewards for certain behaviors – the pigeons learned to associate a certain behavior, such as turning in a 360-degree circle, with getting a piece of their favorite food.
In addition, pigeons could be prevented from performing certain kinds of behavior through a system of punishments. Using painful but relatively harmless punishments like mild electric shocks, Skinner could prevent the pigeons from, say, touching one wall of the box with their beaks. The system of rewards and punishments, Skinner postulated, could be extended to humans as well, since we are essentially animals and therefore subject to the same psychological laws as the animals.
In fact, many systems already existed in Skinner’s society that provided a means of rewards and punishments to encourage certain kinds of behavior somehow deemed "beneficial" to society. One of the most obvious is the prison and criminal justice systems; although capital punishment is intended as a deterrent to crime, the prison system’s design specifically caters to rehabilitating the offender. Instead of committing a crime again, the prison system theoretically works on some level as a negative stimulus; after all, is stealing a piece of bread really worth spending another two years in a cell as Bubba’s little girl? Probably not.
Schools also encourage "good behavior" through their grading systems. An "A" grade is better than a "D"; when a student is subjected to the Gaze of the Other with his "D", whether that Other comes in the form of disappointed parents or mocking classmates, then the shame the student feels might – theoretically – encourage him to perform better on the next test. However, the students themselves punish behavior that is "too good," and the student who constantly receives an "A" is outcast as well. John Lennon articulated this strange, conditioning dichotomy quite well in his song "Working Class Hero: "They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool / ‘till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules."
Of course, Huxley’s novel takes the conditioning of behavior as a given; much of their social stability is based on the conditioning the inhabitants receive from before the time they are decanted to their teenaged years. There is a direct allusion to conditioning on page 37: the Director states that "[y]ou rule with the brains and the buttocks, never with the fists," indicating that BNW’s society isn’t conditioned through punishments, but almost exclusively through rewards. But, I remind the reader, the Director of Hatcheries still admitted that there is a slight problem, and the fact that Helmholtz and Bernard both begin to question BNW to the point that they attract the attention of Mustopha Mond, the World Controller himself, indicates that conditioning doesn’t always work correctly. As anyone who has dealt with children for an extended period of time can attest, although some behaviors may be conditioned, something certainly exists somewhere that allows people to overcome their conditioning.
Enter Frankl. In the excerpt from Determinism and Humanism: Critique of Pan-Determinism, Frankl addresses this "problem" directly. In his introduction, Frankl begins with this enigmatic statement:
The mind-body problem can be reduced to the question: How is it possible to conceive of that unity in diversity which could be the definition of man? (344).
The diversity to which Frankl refers, and which any behaviorist or determinist must take into account, is the ability to seemingly sidestep conditioning, as Helmholtz and Marx do in Brave New World. Determinists would argue, however, that Helmholtz and Marx didn’t sidestep any kind of conditioning at all, but merely that at some point in their life, they were conditioned to begin questioning BNW. Lenina, a woman intent on "seeing" Marx at the beginning of the novel, and Fanny, her friend, both think that Marx’s strangeness comes from an incorrect mixture of alcohol introduced while he was still a fetus (Huxley 34). Although not behavior conditioning directly, alcohol mixed with the blood-surrogate of Gammas and Epsilons is designed to stunt the growth and the intelligence (Huxley 34-5). The strict determinist might reduce this to simply another environmental variable that helped shape Marx’s character before he was even decanted.
Frankl’s critique of that point of view is first expressed somewhat metaphorically. Frankl describes nature, or the human condition, or the human psyche, as a cylindrical object, and then discusses two cross-sections of that cylinder – one of them a square, created by bisecting the object from the circular top to the circular bottom, and the second a circle, created by taking a sample anywhere from the "side" of the cylinder. Both are valid samples, and both shapes appear to be completely enclosed – but, both samples are shaped differently and both samples show totally different parts of the whole shape.
Frankl applies this conceit to the view of various sciences and philosophies to the world. Although they may accurately represent a small part of the whole, it is a part the view of which is determined by the placement of the sample from that particular branch of thinking. Within the layers of this metaphor lies the basis for Frankl’s critique of pan-determinism. Although pan-determinism seems to be a complete, closed "system" of thought and explanation for human behavior, it doesn’t necessarily take all of human behavior into account, and "misses the bigger picture" by being a two-dimensional cross-section of a three-dimensional object (human nature and the state of the world, whatever that may be).
As previously mentioned, in Brave New World, Helmholtz’s revolt and questioning of the precepts of BNW that he had been both taught and infused with since before he was born, and Marx’s nearly doing the same, are behaviors unexplainable by determinism. But perhaps we are jumping ahead of ourselves. Frankl makes several very important assertions before coming to this conclusion. Importantly, Frankl believes that determinism is closely related to a phenomenon similar to Sartre’s Gaze of the Other. On page 346, he says:
What I have called the self-transcendence of existence denotes the fundamental fact that being human means relating to something, or someone, other than oneself, be it a meaning to fulfill, or human beings to encounter. (346)
The self-transcendence of existence is part of our conclusion about that which pan-determinism does not take into account. Transcendence, though, echoes certain religious ideas of overcoming human limitations. Most certainly, the transcendental experience is evident in Buddhism, especially considering Buddhism teaches that people are attached to objects and Others in this illusory world, conditioned to be here by the (illusory) pleasure we receive from these things.
But just as "human freedom implies man’s capacity to detach himself from himself," the determined attachments to objects, Others, and ideas in Buddhism can be overcome, and this overcoming is what it means to achieve Enlightenment or pass into Nirvana (Frankl 347). Again, Frankl’s choice of the word "detach" cannot be a mistake; people, although conditioned to like things or, in the case of BNW, be utterly ruled by them, it is possible to transcend the need for both these things and the ideas of society. As a corollary, this notion of overcoming determinism can also be applied to Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch: the ubermensch is the person who has overcome the conditioning society forces upon its members.
For further proof of the lack of validity of pan-determinism, Frankl turns towards several critiques, the first – and simplest – of which is applying determinism (or causality) to pan-determinism (348). Since pan-determinism implies that all things are caused by something else acting upon them, and all human actions must be caused by determining factors, then all human behavior must be motivated – and caused – by outside influences. But, just as Aristotle and Aquinas’ "primary mover" theories begin to fall apart when one considers the source of all movement, so must one wonder at the initial source of pan-determinism. Although the conclusion Aquinas drew was that the "primary mover" was the "unmoved mover," this assertion rests on an ultimately unprovable presupposition that all things must have a cause. So, too, does pan-determinism rest on an unprovable presupposition that all human behavior must have a cause. Simply because some human behavior is caused or determined, or even a vast majority of that behavior is conditioned, it does not follow that all behavior at all times must be conditioned or determined behavior. In fact, the only way this assertion could be taken as true is if all human behavior up to this point, and in the future, was entirely ascribable to determined circumstances, which is not only unfeasible, but utterly impossible; there are many cases of unconditioned behaviors, not the least of which is the possibility of Enlightenment / Nirvana / Transcendence / Ubermensch-dom given the conditioned – but not pan-determined – nature of society.
Now that a firm ground has been laid for the exploration of Helmholtz, Marx, and the Savage as ubermeschen – or possible ubermenschen – one more aspect of BNW must be examined before an argument for these characters’ "Enlightenment" and the subsequent application of BNW to American society moving into the 21st century can be made. Martin Heidegger’s notions of human "being," also referred to as "what it means to be human" and the "human condition," often relate back to notions originally posited by Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, but are presented in his essay "What is Metaphysics?" in a rather concise, and slightly original, form. "What is Metaphysics" is obstinately about constructing an argument for the existence of metaphysical questions, and in a traditionally Heideggerian move, Marty takes one of the most obtuse, roundabout routes possible to make his point. "What is Metaphysics?" rehashes much of what Heidegger outlined in the first section of Being and Time, "Being," except it manages to construct the argument in less than ten pages as opposed to about three hundred and fifty meticulously groomed, "presupposition-free" pages in the Big Black Book.
As Heidegger explains his groundwork for metaphysical questioning, he postulates that "every metaphysical question always covers the whole range of metaphysical problems," indicating that answering or examining one of these metaphysical questions will lead to a complete discussion and overview of the nature of human Being (251, 252). Science, Heidegger rightfully claims, is concerned with the what-is; that is, the nature of reality and how things work (252). Likewise,
The fields of the sciences lie far apart. Their methodologies are fundamentally different. This disrupted multiplicity of disciplines is today only held together by the technical organization of the Universities and their faculties, and maintained as a unit of meaning by the practical aims of those faculties. (252)
Much like Frankl, Heidegger believes that because the sciences lie so far apart, even though the individual disciplines are interested in examining the same "cylindrical object," to use Frankl’s metaphor, that each science can only see a small part of the greater "whole" of what-is, and because notions of human existence and Being are contained within "what-is," then the sciences not only fail to explain "what-is," but human Being as well. Therefore, the question of Being becomes a metaphysical one, and this argument establishes the groundwork for Heidegger’s exploration into "what-is" and, by extension, Being.
The discussion then turns to a very specific metaphysical question, that of "Nothing" (253). Science, Heidegger states, operates under the presupposition of the existence of Nothing, but science ultimately destroys its own notion of nothing (254). Scientists admit that there "is Nothing," therefore acknowledging the existence of something, or at least a concept, of Nothing, but when scientists begin to "question the where and when of Nothing," Nothing is turned into its opposite – a thing or a concept with boundaries and knowable attributes (254). The problem in this method of inquiry ought to be obvious to the casual reader, because as soon as people begin to attribute various properties to Nothing, Nothing is no longer Nothing, and therefore the line of inquiry and thought is at an end.
But, Heidegger suggests on page 254 and 255, what if the logical path used to arrive at that conclusion were suspended for a moment? Heidegger concedes a point and then makes another thusly:
It is in fact only with reason’s help that we can define Nothing in the first place and postulate it as a problem – though a problem that consumes only itself. For Nothing is the negation of the totality of what-is: that which is absolutely not… how then, in our enquiry into Nothing and into the very possibility of holding such an enquiry can we dismiss reason?… We assert: "Nothing" is more original than the Not and negation. (254)
Heidegger no doubt recognizes the almost silly approach of dismissing reason when attacking a problem that reason itself created; that is the thrust of his concession at the beginning of this passage. However, it would probably behoove the reader to ask what presupposition one operates under when one defaults to using logic to solve problems? Are not the possibilities of other forms of problem solving at least just that – possibilities?
When Heidegger explains that "Nothing" is more original than the "Not and negation," he is really making a somewhat arbitrary but otherwise important distinction between the two concepts: Nothing is not simply the "not" and the logical method of "negation." Therefore, the previous assessment of Nothing being a concept arrived at by reason and refuted through the use of reason might be false – after all, if Nothing is different than "Not" or "negation," its definition or Being is different as well.
It is to discovering the definition or state of affairs of Nothing that Heidegger now turns. If one were to work from the Medieval Christian or traditional Buddhist beliefs of arriving at a definition of something, either God or Nirvana respectively via negativa, then one might come to the conclusion to that "Nothing is the complete negation of the totality of what-is" (Heidegger 255). Unfortunately, this definition also falls into the same trap as the others – "is this not once again that latent and nonsensical idea of a Nothing that is?’" (Heidegger 255). Again, the use of logic to solve a problem has led to the premature demise of the question before it can even attempt to be answered.
Now, Heidegger’s inquiry into Nothing turns to the human condition that we are concerned with.
As certain as we shall never comprehend absolutely the totality of what-is, it is equally certain that we find ourselves placed in the midst of what-is and that this is somehow revealed in totality. (255, emphasis added)
Heidegger now returns to a very Kierkegaardian/Platonic idea: that what-is (all of reality, including, one must think, God) is impossible to comprehend absolutely. We can "know" parts of it with some degree of certainty. For example, I can walk up to a tree, experience said tree with my senses and comprehend the possibility of said tree’s existence with my mind, but I can never, ever be 100% certain that the tree exists, much less the rest of reality – sense data, our only way of experiencing the world, can never assumed to be wholly accurate or truthful, as there is no basis for this presupposition. But – and here’s where Heidegger borrows from Keirkegaard and Neitzsche (and, of course, Plato, from whom the other two drew as well) – as we exist in the world, we somehow, and not necessarily logically, can experience the world and it becomes revealed. Our assumptions and experience of the world may not even be correct or accurate with any degree of certainty, but like Knights of Faith we make them and, in so doing, what-is becomes revealed.
Heidegger then applies this concept to Nothing, and within that argument lies that which is important to our analysis of the human condition. Heidegger introduces the concept of Dread (Angst), which is the mood that brings us face-to-face with Nothing itself (256). Dread, although it can be loosely defined as "fear," is a mood which stretches far beyond the concept of fear and being-afraid; I am afraid of a lion eating me on the savannah, or I am afraid of the criminal who might rob me as I walk home in the inner city, or I am afraid of the racist who might string me up simply for having a different skin tone, or I am afraid of flying because the airplane might crash. Perhaps these fears are all irrational; statistically speaking, none of them are terribly likely events, but this does little to allay my fears. Underlying each of these fears, however, is a common thread: I do not wish to be harmed. This instinct for survival has probably served my ancestors well, allowing them to pass along their genes to me.
Dread goes much beyond this simple fear, but owes its existence somewhat to these simple phobias. Dread might be described as the fear of Nothing, but this, too, is slightly misleading: Dread is that which appears when one confronts the possibility of Nothing, a concept which, like the totality of the world, is somewhat indefinable and incomprehensible, but at the same time, can be revealed to the inquirer.
Dread reveals Nothing, and we learn that
Nothing is neither an object nor anything that "is" at all. Nothing occurs neither by itself nor "apart from" what-is, as a sort of adjunct. Nothing is that which makes the revelation of what-is as such possible for our human existence. Nothing not merely provided the conceptual opposite of what-is, but is also an original part of essence. (Heidegger 259)
Nothing, being the "antithesis" of what-is, can only be that which unites us as people: the ultimate, inevitable termination of our being, or the great "unknown" that occurs after death. No other thing unites people in the way that the inevitability of death does, and dread is simply the Nothing that comes after – the complete and total opposite of "what-is." Of course, this Nothing is simply an unknown, there are always possibilities – like God, Heaven, Brahman, Nirvana, or a void of nonexistence. But it is in the utter impossibility of knowing or comprehending after-death that we find Nothing, and because of this that we experience Dread.
Because Dread is usually perceived as negative, we will do almost anything to avoid it (259, 260). To avoid thinking about "Nothing" and ambiguity of Nothing, we cling to absolutes like religion, politics, or ideologies; even the possibility of an existence that contains no absolutes is enough to drive some to suicide. When faced with overwhelming Dread, we must flee in the face of it (260). Heidegger specifically cites religion and science as the methods of tricking ourselves with false absolutes (260-1), but BNW makes a veritable industry out of avoiding Dread – after all, Dread might cut down on consumption and increase instability, plus killing Dread seems almost a "natural" condition. The drug soma is just one method of doing so; we are back to Lenina’s urging Marx – by placing him within the Gaze of the Other – to take the drug instead of taking the time to consider his surroundings, just as she was conditioned to do. As World Controller Mustopha Mond says near the end of the novel, "Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is" (Huxley 183).
We now have a clear picture that humans are conditioned creatures, but the possibility to escape our conditioning exists, whether we call that escape enlightenment, transcendence, or "ubermensch-dom." We also have a clear picture that the "human condition" is one of Dread and the constant attempts to escape Dread, whether it is burying ourselves in religion, drugs, material goods, or anything else that causes us not to consider the possibilities of the lack of absolutes, especially after death – our soma, in other words. These two concepts exist not only in our real world, but in BNW as well. We must now turn our attention to comparing BNW to our own society as we enter the 21st century, for it is only in establishing the connection between the two that we can properly understand and examine the Savage’s ethical decision to commit suicide at the end of the novel.
To establish Brave New World’s place as a work of science fiction, it would be prudent to examine the book next to another widely-read novel of a dystopic future, as Huxley does in first essay in Brave New World Revisited. When Brave New World was published in 1932, the world was in the grips of an economic depression, Stalin’s dictator-like brand of communism had yet to take firm hold in the Soviet Union, fascism was on the rise in Europe as leaders appealed to emotion over reason, and the Cold War was nearly twenty years away. This is important to remember, as the other major dystopic future novel, Orwell’s 1984, was as much a propaganda tool against a world communist state as it was a book about loss of freedom and dignity (Huxley Revisited 2). Where 1984’s society was a factory-produced group of clones who were constantly watched by Big Brother and forced to produce simply enough food and resources for the entire society to continue, without the hope of freedom or even being human, BNW, although interested in security and stability, was interested only in the increase of consumption. Therefore, Brave New World was not an indictment of a communist dictatorship, but rather the ultimate extension of unregulated capitalism.
As previously stated, Postman made this extension in the Reagan-era 80s in his indictment of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death. When Big Brother’s world and BNW are examined side-by-side, as Postman does in the introduction to his work, it is all too clear what members of the global community are dealing with today:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. (Postman vii)
The tempo of this trend has only increased since then, where American companies are increasingly attempting to move production of goods abroad, under the auspices of cheaper products at home and more jobs for the impoverished worldwide, increasing the standard-of-living in third-world countries. This indeed may be the case, as factory workers making shoes or any number of other products can now afford things they could not ten years ago. And, thanks to the same trade bills that allowed American companies to relocate in the first place, the same companies are there to sell these workers televisions, shoes, and soft-drinks, merely bringing more and more of the world into the fold of complete consumerism. Even the Others in China are not immune; in a recent CNN.com article, it was reported that the gigantic poster of Chairman Mao in Tiannamen Square, perhaps the world’s greatest symbol of Big Brother, was not long ago supplanted (but not replaced) by an even larger poster of Colonel Sanders, advertising for the world’s largest KFC nearby. The watchful eyes of the Chairman have been replaced by the watchful Gaze of the Colonel, and the Chinese workers that the American company will employ – and suck into the same Gaze as the rest of the world, thus stoking the boilers of the consumerist locomotive.
In Brave New World Revisited, written before Postman’s work, Huxley says that "we can say that it now looks as though the odds [are] more in favor of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984" (2). In the forward to Brave New World, Huxley discusses the state of America in 1950, which seems chillingly like his own BNW:
Power has been centralized and [control] increased… [but] there is no reason why the new totalitarianisms should resemble the old. Government by clubs and firing squads... is demonstratably inefficient – and in an age of advanced technology, inefficiency is a sin against the Holy Ghost. A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive… control[s] a population of slaves that do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. (xviii, emphasis added)
Huxley later states that "Without economic security, the love of servitude cannot possibly come into existence" (xix). The language Huxley uses throughout his introduction and in essays in Brave New World Revisited and Science, Liberty and Peace is the language of the corporate, capitalistic world. Executives, management, workers – these aren’t the rigid, militaristic people living in a communist state, but the rigid, bureaucratic inhabitants of the corporate world – the capitalist world – the United States.
Fifty years after Huxley wrote those words, America is witnessing a consolidation of economic power like no other in history. Five men now control 95% of the world’s television stations, radio stations, newspapers, and Internet access companies, and every day more companies "merge" under one management to form larger companies (Moore 1999). Approximately twenty major corporations account for approximately 80% of profits made on both the stock market and in world markets (Moore 1999). The only question one must ask after processing such chilling figures is this: what will these companies do to maximize consumption?
Already, these companies have many BNW-like devices in place; hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on advertising each year just to target children between the ages of 2 and 10; the budget is nearly twice that for 11 to 19-year-olds. Advertising, whether obvious forms like billboards, television or radio commercials, and magazine ads, or more subtle forms like television shows like pro-wrestling, sports, or even sitcoms, begins to condition children to need to buy the latest and greatest: Furbys, thin scooters, Tamagochis, DVDs, Britney Spears music, WWF action figures, or any number of "must-have" items. TV is labeled as "must-see," and if the children don’t have the latest and greatest, other children will make fun of them; the Gaze of the Other begins to work early, condition the have-nots to want to work to maximize their consumption. Before they know it, they are adults who spend incredible amounts of money on clothes for a small label, or a certain type of car, or a new video game, or a special edition of a movie, or any number of "essential" items.
But, like the members of BNW, Americans love their servitude to these companies that seek to maximize our consumption so that their profits increase. Other nations are jealous of our apparent success, since success in the Gaze of the Other is apparently measured by a tag on your clothes that cost you more money that most third-world families see in a month. The juggernaut of American capitalism is slowly subjugating the rest of the world, as corporations invade with advertising and products, beginning the conditioning process there as well. The KFC poster in China is merely one example.
And how many people would be willing to give these things up? How many would want to go without their 500-channel cable television, or their pump-shoes, or their video libraries? Not many. We go to church to avoid the Dread, and when we can’t go to church, we watch the Rams and the Chiefs clobber each other between advertisements for more useless junk that we have to acquire. We don’t have soma or the feelies yet, but we don’t really need them as we continue to maximize our consumption for the twenty people who have somehow lassoed the other 5,999,980 of us on the planet at the moment. If we cannot consume so as to appear acceptable in the conditioned Gaze of the Other, we turn to other ways to kill of our Dread – video games, television, pop music, alcohol, drugs, religion, humanism, and political ideologies. We give up one herd existence for another, over and over, all the while continuing to serve some master or another. The failure of the communist revolution wasn’t because communism was somehow evil or anti-American, it was because people eventually realized that they wanted what they perceived as American success – a bunch of mind-numbing, spirit-crushing shit that would kill off their Dread and take away their freedom.
The problem is not America anymore than it is BNW; it is the compliance of the herd with their conditioned world of consumption and killing off of Dread by any means possible. As previously stated, if the ubermensch is he who can overcome this conditioning, then the three characters who manage to do so in Brave New World demand examining, if for no other reason than for the sake that they might provide an inspiration for the rest of us to awaken.
Helmholtz, Bernard Marx, and John Savage are all brought into World Controller Mustopha Mond’s office after trying to disrupt soma distribution among some factory workers. Each of them realized the truth about BNW, and the fact that their conditioned reality contained no choice, and therefore no freedom. Overcoming this conditioning led them to attempt to help others to do the same; certainly an admirable action, as they were trying to free others so that the others could make choices about their existence as well, instead of taking the conditioned answers as absolutes.
The key to analyzing these three as ubermenschen is their different responses to their imprisonment and impending punishment. Bernard Marx, when faced with the judgment of the World Controller, "started to blink and look horrified. What would the World Controller think? To be labeled as a friend of a man who said that he didn’t like civilization." (Huxley 168). When faced with the ultimate Gaze of the Other, Marx is still unable, for all his talk and previous actions, to overcome the conditioning that causes the Gaze to matter. In addition, Marx literally "freaks out" when told he would be sent to Iceland. Unable to deal with the shame of exile to an island, Marx breaks down, requiring four men and a soma vaporization before he can be dragged out of the room to a cell. Mustpoha Mond tells Helmholtz and the Savage, the two who can still escape the Gaze and their conditioning (and, therefore, the only two ubermenschen – Marx, I report with a gleeful sense of double-meaning, just didn’t have what it took to transcend), this:
If he had the smallest sense, he’d understand that his punishment is really a reward. He’s being sent to an island. That’s to say, he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who’s any one. (174)
This admission, first that there are others who have escaped the conditioning of BNW and that there are entire, (unofficially) sanctioned communities of them, is thrilling; unfortunately for those of us locked in America’s BNW, we cannot merely escape by moving to Iceland. Merely distancing ourselves through geography is simply not an option. As you will see, we must make our way like John Savage, within the BNW that surrounds us.
When Helmholtz is offered his choice, a choice that might very well be the first unconditioned decision in his entire life, he not only must choose the course of his future, but whether or not he can escape the master/slave relationship and the doctrine of eternal recurrence as it applies to masters and slaves. In short, it is his final test as an ubermensch in Brave New World. The choice is simple, and it is the same one that Mustopha Mond faced when he overcame his conditioning so many years ago. Helmholtz can either choose to become a World Controller, a new master responsible for conditioning, maximizing consumption, and polishing the wheels on BNW’s machina, or he can choose to live on an island community like Marx would have been forced to do (175-6). Helmholtz then makes the decision that confirms his transcendence of the eternally recurring master/slave relationship and chooses to live out his days on the Falkland Islands (176).
But what "good" is an enlightened person who cannot help others to enlightenment? Of course Mond isn’t going to do anything to jeopardize BNW’s stability or the consumption of goods within it; Helmholtz recognizes this as well, and is probably fairly thankful that Mond isn’t going to have him executed or "erased," as would probably befit a person who attempted to disrupt stability in such a drastic way. The other ubermensch, though, has no such option. Since John Savage was never a member of BNW, he has the ability to somewhat easily transcend that which he was never conditioned for, but cannot indulge in the benefits of BNW’s "prisons" on its islands.
Today, potential ubermenschen are like the Savage: consumerism has slipped into every corner of the globe, and we have no Iceland or Falklands to run to. The notion of relaxing on a deserted island might appeal to some, but it is realistically unfeasible for all but the most wealthy and resourceful. John’s election to stay within BNW might have been motivated by the desire to help other members of that society reach the level of enlightenment he had achieved, much like the Bodhisattva figure in Buddhism delaying his or her entry into Nirvana to act as a beacon for others, but he must also serve as a model for us – for those who have no choice about whether we can leave.
Although he realizes his precarious position, the Savage elects to remain within BNW instead of returning to the Savage Reservation. He never once gives a reason why, although one can only assume that he might hope beyond hope to perhaps offer himself as a kind of karma beacon, an example of what can be accomplished if conditioning is overcome (although, to be fair, neither Mond, Marx, or Helmholtz needed such a figure to overcome their conditioning). This seems to be the noble path, especially if he can avoid offering an absolute route as a new master and encourage people to simply choose. However, the Savage, most likely on Mond’s orders, as the World Controller possibly realizes why John chose to stay, becomes a circus monkey for BNW’s media – the madman that everyone laughs at. News cameras wait outside of his house to see what kind of antics the Savage will do next, no doubt to increase the consumption of the news and all that is advertised within. At some point, when the Savage has not emerged from his house, the cameras enter and find that he has hung himself from the rafters.
The Savage’s suicide, then, is of utmost ethical importance to us, especially if we are ever to overcome the conditioning of our own world. The reasons he chose to take his own life can only be speculated upon: perhaps he realized the futility of attempting to free BNW’s citizens through either an example or active action. Perhaps he fell back into the Gaze of the Other, allowing his conditioned response to the media’s attention and portrayal of him as an insane madman that others laugh at to destroy his sense of self. The romantic in me would like to think that the Savage’s suicide wasn’t such a simple waste as the fact that he slipped back into the Gaze, and of course there are other possibilities, but his realization of the futility of challenging BNW’s status quo is probably the most likely option for this ultimate extension of his despair.
Or is it? This, perhaps, may be the impetus for the Savage’s suicide, but wouldn’t that indicate he succumbed to his conditioning at some point as well? Isn’t the one who fills with despair because he cannot be the messiah caving into the master/slave relationship? Keep in mind that the only "learning" the Savage had was an old copy of Shakespeare’s plays; his conditioning would certainly be more romantic than his counterparts’ conditioning in BNW. The futility of his position, or the terrible Gaze of the media, were probably the reason the Savage killed himself – therefore succumbing to his conditioning, losing his "status" as ubermensch, failing himself and others. Was Mustopha Mond aware of this when he (perhaps) commanded the media to make a monkey of the Savage? Maybe. The reader will never know for sure, but it seems very likely considering how our world, and BNW, operate.
But where does that leave us? As previously mentioned, we have no Iceland or Falkland Islands to go to. The media does make monkeys out of the "madmen" that attempt to overcome their conditioning, and perhaps inspire others to do the same. We lock our ubermenschen in asylums, putting them in padded cells where they will not hurt themselves, others, stability, or the maximization of consumption, or we intentionally turn them into new masters so the old masters might be able to maintain some semblance of control by embracing the new leaders. Should we overcome our conditioning, are we doomed to slip back into it? If that were so, then suicide would be the only ethical, logical option; who wants the knowledge that they escaped but could never tell the Others? Despair certainly appears to be the only option at this point – but only if one examines the situation within the context of the BNW he or she is attempting to escape, leave, or transcend.
As always, we are faced with a choice. We can run through the streets, proclaiming our transcendence, and wind up in a "special hospital," or we can sit quietly, telling no one, living our lives but never buying into the stability, capitalistic consumption, or the multitude of "drugs" available to us to kill our Dread in one way or another. We can slip among the herd, unnoticed by the masters, cloaked creatures of the shadows, offering our children a different story than the one they will constantly be bombarded with when they turn on the idiot box or go to school and face the Gaze for the first time. We can face our Dread and the possibility of Nothing, having overcome the conditioned need to kill that sense within us. We can think about the future, and choose every moment to live in the present while equally considering the past. We no longer need absolutes, and can find comfort within the fact that, no matter how others Gaze upon us, we are because we have chosen to be so.
Frankl, Victor. "Determinism and Humanism: Critique of Pan-Determinism." In
Raymond (below): 1978, pgs 344-352.
Heidegger, Martin. "What is Metapyhsics?" In Raymond (below). Translated by R.C.
Hull and Alan Crick: 1949, pgs 251-264.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper and Row, Inc., 1960.
____________. Brave New World Revisited. New York: Harper and Row, Inc., 1960.
____________. Science, Liberty, and Peace. London: Chatto and Windus, 1950.
Nietzsche, Frederich. From Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Class handout.
_________________. From Beyond Good and Evil. In Raymond (below). Translated
by Helen Zimmern. No Year Given, pgs 190-195.
Raymond, Diane Barsoum. Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition. New Jersey:
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1991.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. From Being and Nothingness. In Raymon
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