Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"Even a Broken Clock..." Dept.

John Derbyshire, in the course a long meditation on the successes and failures of John Paul II, makes some despairing observations about why technological advance seems destined to eliminate humanity:

Looking back across the past few decades, it's hard not to think that post-industrial modernism is headed all one way, everywhere it has taken a firm grip. Pleasure-giving gadgets and drugs are ever cheaper and more accessible. The distresses of life, especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed to the margins. As scientists probe deeper into the human genome, the human nervous system, and the biology of human social arrangements, that divine spark of person-hood that we all feel to be the essence of ourselves is being chased along narrower and darker passageways of the brain and the tribal folkways. Happiness itself, it seems, is genetic. And all this is headed--where?

We all know the answer to that one. It is headed to Brave New World. Our flesh is supposed to creep when our adversary in argument plays the Brave New World card. Brave New World! Empty and soulless! Eeeek!

This gravely underestimates the power of Aldous Huxley's tremendous novel, which he sat down to begin writing just 74 years ago this month. The issue posed by the novel, as every thoughtful commentator has pointed out, is: What exactly is objectionable about the world of Year 632 After Ford? As Kass says, the dehumanized people of that world don't know they are dehumanized, and wouldn't care if they knew. They are happy; and if they feel any momentary unhappiness, a pharmacological remedy is ready to hand. If being human means enduring sorrow, pain, grief envy, loss, accidie, loneliness, and humiliation, why on earth should anyone be expected to prefer a "fully human" life over a dehumanized one?

Most people won't. So far as it makes any sense to predict the future, it seems to me highly probable that the world of 50 or 100 years from now will bear a close resemblance to Huxley’s dystopia — a world without pain, grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility of spirit. It’s not what I want, personally, and it’s not what Huxley wanted either (he was a religious man, though ofa singular type). It’s what most people want, though; so if this darn democracy stuff keeps spreading, it’s what we shall get, for sure. If we don’t bring it upon ourselves, we shall import it from less ethically fastidious nations.

Derbyshire is absolutely right about the power of Huxley's book: it's precisely the seductiveness of the dystopia which makes the book so chilling. Only aristocrats and savages have the foresight and wisdom to make the masses suffer, so that they can appreciate their humanity.

It is precisely this vision of a humanity gone so soft that it has lost all nobility that galvanizes the followers of Leo Strauss, who wish to use the fear of impending death or catastrophe to inspire the selfish, slothful, and indolent masses to rise above a brutish existence dedicated only to such are ephemeralities as wealth and pleasure.

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