Our friend Ross Douthat’s latest column looks at the curious combination of anomie, social atomization, and sexual surfeit that is more and more central to our culture and notes that Aldous Huxley saw this coming in Brave New World. Immersive entertainment and porn on demand are among the factors that are driving us away from genuine intimacy as “our hedonic forms of virtual reality are catching up to [Huxley’s] pornographic ‘feelies’ and his ‘Violent Passion Surrogate.’ . . . And on the evidence of many internet-era social indicators, they increasingly play the same tranquilizing and stabilizing roles.” We’re amusing ourselves, maybe not to death, but at least into a stupor.
Huxley’s vision of our humanity being eroded by what would have been unimaginable material and sexual plenty in the 1930s, when he wrote the book, makes for a stark contrast to the gray impoverishment of Oceania in 1984, a vision of a Stalinist state predicated on what must have seemed to Orwell like the new norm of privation caused by wartime rationing. Today, however, some of our most serious problems are diseases of plenty: Drugs and food and porn are omnipresent, and so are opioid overdoses, type II diabetes, and loneliness. Charles C. W. Cooke wrote in 2015: “1984 may be often cited by critics of linguistic corruption and security theater, but it ultimately forecast a landscape that is ascetic and austere and, in truth, wholly unfamiliar to us. In fact, our present arrangement is quite the inverse of that imagined by Orwell.”
On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Brave New World‘s publication, I wrote, in a 2012 essay entitled “Brave New World (Is Here!),” that we’re so overstimulated that we’re depressed: “People have become like the famous depressed Central Park polar bear who became listless because he didn’t have to work to catch his dinner.” I noted that the book’s iconoclastic throwback figure, John the Savage (a fellow who stands athwart technology yelling, “Stop!”), falls for one of Huxley’s brave new women but “as she obligingly unzips her clothes for him he becomes despondent and flees.” Life has become too easy. “Compare the dismal reports you hear from campuses that meaningless hookup culture and midnight booty-calling have replaced romance and courting,” I wrote at the time. “Women whose grandmothers marched for sexual liberation wonder why they can’t find a man willing to commit. Huxley foresaw that this soul-hollowing effect would follow from making sex purely recreational.”