‘All right, then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’
‘Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’
There was a long silence.
‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last. ~ Aldous Huxley, ‘Brave New World’
I love Brave New World; I must have read it at least four times in the past three years. Dystopian fiction is one of my favourite genres, and not because I’m a pessimist or because I oppose science and progress, but because I exult in the ability of great literary works to bring us to question our values.
The society Huxley presents to us is a stable, prosperous one, yet the reader is repelled by this seeming prosperity. What is wrong, the novel asks, with this kind of happiness? It is not an intelligent, adult happiness, one which has been earned through hard work and suffering, but instead a drug-induced, infantile state of ignorant bliss. Happiness is given in exchange for the annihilation of the self, the suppression of any emotional or artistic capacity, and the re-conditioning of the mind to rid us of the very fear that makes us human: the fear of death.
The Savage Reservation, however, isn’t presented as a particularly appealing alternative to this nightmare of bliss. Huxley thwarts the image of the noble savage and instead presents another kind of bleakness: life on the reservation is a life of pain, disease, and gradual bodily decay.
Ultimately, though, we sympathise with John the Savage. Despite all the suffering reality entails, we would rather live with the pain than waste our short lives away on a soma-holiday. The novel’s strength lies in its ability to confront the reader with what appears at first to be a utopian vision, and leaves us with the puzzle of figuring out precisely what it is about this blissful world that offends our humanity so deeply.