Whatever happened to the Age of Anxiety? In the post-war years, intellectuals left and right were constantly telling us — left and right — that we were living in an age of breakdown and decay. The pre-war gee-whiz futurists (who’d taken a few too many trips to the World’s Fair) had told us that in just a few years we’d be commuting to work in flying cars. The Cassandras didn’t really doubt that, but they foresaw that the people flying those cars would have no souls. We’d be men at the End of History, they told us; Last Men devoted only to the pursuit of pleasure — and quite possibly under the thumb of some totalitarian Nanny State that wanted to keep us that way. Where the futurists had seen utopia, the anti-futurists saw only dystopia. And they wrote novels, lots of them, and made films — and even one television show (The Prisoner).
But those days are over now. The market for dystopias has diminished considerably. The sense that something is very, very wrong, and getting worse – (something felt forty, fifty years ago even by ordinary people) has been replaced with a kind of bland, flat affect complacency. Why? Is it because the anxiety went away? Is it because things got better? Of course not. It’s because all those dire predictions came true. (Well, most of them anyway).
Dystopia is now, my friends! The future is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives. The Cassandras were right, after all. I am aware that you probably already think this. Why else would you be reading this website? But I’ll bet there’s a tiny part of you that resists what I’m saying — a tiny part that wants to say “Well, it’s not quite as bad as what they predicated. Not yet, anyway. We’ve got a few years to go before . . . uh . . . Maybe not in my lifetime . . .”
Here is the reason you think this: you believe that if it all really had come true and we really were living in dystopia, voices would be raised proclaiming this. The “intellectuals” who saw it coming decades ago would be shouting about it. If the worlds of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and Atlas Shrugged really had converged and been made flesh, everyone would know it and the horror and indignation would bring it all tumbling down!
Well, I hate to disappoint you. Unfortunately, there’s this little thing called “human nature” that makes your expectations a tad unrealistic. When I was very young I discovered that there are two kinds of people. You see, I used to (and still do) spend a lot of time decrying “the way people are,” or “how people are today.” If I was talking to someone simpatico they would grin and nod in recognition of the truth I was uttering. Those are the people who (like me) didn’t think that “people” referred to them. But to my utterly naïve horror I discovered that plenty of people took umbrage at my disparaging remarks about “people.” They thought that “people” meant them. And, as it turns out, they were right. They were self-selecting sheep. In fact, this turned out to be my way of telling whether or not I was dealing with somebody “in the Matrix.”
Shockingly, people in the Matrix take a lot of pride in being in the Matrix. They don’t like negative remarks about “how things are today,” “today’s society,” or “America.” They are fully invested in “how things are”; fully identified with it. And they actually do (trust me on this) believe that how things are now is better than they’ve ever been. (Who do you think writes Mad Men?)
And that’s why nobody cares that they’re living in the Village. That’s why nobody cares that dystopia is now. Most of those old guys warning about the “age of anxiety” are dead. Their children and grandchildren were born and raised in dystopia, and it’s all that they know.
In the following remarks I will revisit some classic dystopian novels, and invite you to consider that we are now living in them.
1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
This is, hands down, the best dystopian novel of all. It is set in a future age, after a great cataclysmic war between East and West, when Communism and assembly-line capitalism have fused into one holistic system. Characters are named “Marx” and “Lenina,” but they all revere “Our Ford.” Here we have Huxley anticipating Heidegger’s famous thesis of the “metaphysical identity” of capitalism and communism: both, in fact, are utterly materialistic; both have a “leveling effect.”
When people discuss Brave New World, they tend to emphasize the “technological” aspects to the story: human beings hatched in test tubes, pre-sorted into “castes”; soma, Huxley’s answer to Zoloft and ecstasy all rolled into one; brainwashing people in their sleep through “hypnopedia”; visits to “the feelies” instead of the movies, where you “feel” everything happening on the screen, etc.
These things get emphasized for two reasons. First, some of them enable us to distance ourselves from the novel. I mean, after all, we can’t hatch people in test tubes (yet). We are not biologically designed to fit caste roles (yet). We don’t have “feelies” (virtual reality isn’t quite there – yet). So, we’re not living in Brave New World. Right? On the other hand, since we really have almost developed these things (and since we really do have soma), these facets of the novel can also allow us to admire Huxley’s prescience, and marvel a tad at how far we’ve come. The fantasies of yesteryear made reality! (Some sick souls feel rather proud of themselves when they read Brave New World.) But these responses are both defense mechanisms; strategies to evade the ways in which the novel really comes close to home. Without further ado, here they are:
The suppression of thumos: Thumos is “spiritedness.” According to Plato (in The Republic) it’s that aspect of us that responds to a challenge against our values. Thumos is what makes us want to beat up those TSA screeners who pat us down and put us through that machine that allows them to view our naughty bits. It’s an affront to our dignity, and makes us want to fight. Anyone who does not feel affronted in this situation is not really a human being. This is because it is really thumos that makes us human; that separates us from the beasts. (It’s not just that we’re smarter than them; our possession of thumos makes us different in kind from other animals.) Thumos is the thing in us that responds to ideals: it motivates us to fight for principles, and to strive to be more than we are. In Brave New World, all expressions of thumos have been ruthlessly suppressed. The world has been completely pacified. Healthy male expressions of spiritedness are considered pathological (boy, was Huxley a prophet!). (For more information on thumos read Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man – a much-misunderstood book, chiefly because most readers never get to its fifth and final part.)
Denigration of “transcendence.” “Transcendence” is my convenient term for what many would call the “religious impulse” in us. This part of the soul is a close cousin to thumos, as my readers will no doubt realize. In Brave New World, the desire for transcendence is considered pathological and addressed through the application of heavy doses of soma. Anyone feeling a bit religious simply pops a few pills and goes on a “trip.” (Sort of like the “trips” Huxley himself took – only without the Vedanta that allowed him to contextualize and interpret them.) In the novel, a white boy named John is rescued from one of the “Savage Reservations,” where the primitives are kept, and brought to “civilization.” His values and virtues are Traditional and he is horrified by the modern world. In one particularly memorable scene, he is placed in a classroom with other young people where they watch a film about penitents crawling on their knees to church and flagellating themselves. To John’s horror, the other kids all begin laughing hysterically. Religion is for losers, you see. How could anyone’s concerns rise above shopping? Which brings me to . . .
Consumerism. The citizens of Brave New World are inundated with consumer goods and encouraged to acquire as many as possible. Hypnopedia teaches them various slogans that are supposed to guide them through life, amongst which is “ending is better than mending.” In other words, if something breaks or tears, don’t fix it – just go out and buy a new one! (Sound familiar?) Happiness and contentment are linked to acquisition, and to . . .
Distractions: Drugs, Sex, Sports, Media. These people’s lives are so empty they have to be constantly distracted lest they actually reflect on this fact and become blue. Soma comes in very handy here. So does sex. Brave New World was a controversial book in its time, and was actually banned in some countries, because of its treatment of sex. In Huxley’s world of the future, promiscuity is encouraged. And it begins very early in life — very early (this was probably what shocked readers the most). Between orgasms, citizens are also encouraged to avail themselves of any number of popular sports, whether as participants or as spectators. (Huxley tantalizes us with references to such mysterious activities as “obstacle golf,” which he never really describes.) Evenings (prior to copulation) can be spent going to the aforementioned “feelies.”
The desacralization of sex and the denigration of the family. As implied by the above, in Brave New World sex is stripped of any sense of sacredness (and transcendence) and treated as meaningless recreation. Feelings of love and the desire for monogamy are considered perversions. Families have been abolished and words such as “mother” are considered obscene. Now, before you optimists point out that we haven’t “abolished” the family, consider what the vector is of all the left-wing attacks on it (it takes a village, comrades). And consider the fact that in the West the family has all but abolished itself. Marriage is now consciously seen by many as a temporary arrangement (even as a convenient merging of bank accounts), and so few couples are having children that, as Pat Buchanan will tell you, we are ceasing to exist. Why? Because children require too much sacrifice; too much time spent away from careering, boinking, tripping, and playing obstacle golf.
The cult of youth. Apparently, much of the inspiration for Brave New World came from a trip Huxley took to the United States, where aging is essentially regarded as a disease. In Brave New World, everyone is kept artificially young – pumped full of hormones and nipped and tucked periodically. When they reach about 60 their systems just can’t take it anymore and they collapse and die. Whereas John is treated as a celebrity, his mother is hidden from public view simply because she has grown old on the savage reservation, without the benefit of the artificial interventions the “moderns” undergo. Having never seen a naturally old person before, the citizens of Brave New World regard her with horror. But I’m guessing she probably didn’t look any worse than Brigitte Bardot does today. (Miss Bardot has never had plastic surgery).
The novel’s climax is a marvelous dialogue between John and the “World Controller.” The latter defends the world he has helped create, by arguing that it is free of war, competition, and disease. John argues that as bad as these things often are, they also bring out the best in people. Virtue and greatness are only produced through struggle.
As a piece of writing, Brave New World is not that impressive. But as a prophecy of things to come, it is utterly uncanny – and disturbingly on target. So much so that it had to be, in effect, suppressed by over-praising our next novel . . .
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1948)
This is the most famous of all dystopian novels, and also the one that is least prescient. Like Brave New World, its literary qualities are not very impressive. It is chiefly remembered for its horrifying and bizarrely over-the-top portrayal of a future totalitarian society.
As just about everyone knows, in Nineteen Eighty-Four every aspect of society is controlled by “Big Brother” and his minions. All homes feature “telescreens” which cannot be shut off, and which contain cameras that observe one’s every move. The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Love with terror, etc. Orwell includes slogans meant to parody Hegelian-Marxist dialectics: “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” ignorance is strength.” The language has been deliberately debased by “Newspeak,” dumbed-down and made politically correct. Those who commit “thoughtcrime” are taken to Room 101, where, in the end, they wind up loving Big Brother. And whatever you do, don’t do it to Julia, because the Women’s Anti-Sex League may get you. In short, things are double-plus bad. And downright Orwellian.
Let’s start with what Orwell got right. Yes, Newspeak reminds me of political correctness. (And Orwell’s analysis of how controlling language is a means to control thought is wonderfully insightful.) Then there is “doublethink,” which Orwell describes in the following way:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.
This, of course, reminds me of the state of mind most people are in today when it comes to such matters as race, “diversity,” and sex differences.
The Women’s Anti-Sex League reminds me – you guessed it – of feminism. Then there is “thoughtcrime,” which is now a reality in Europe and Canada, and will soon be coming to America. (Speaking of Brigitte Bardot, did you know that she has been convicted five times of “inciting racial hatred,” simply for objecting to the Islamic invasion of France?) And yes, when I get searched at the airport, when I see all those security cameras on the streets, when I think of the Patriot Act and of “indefinite detention,” I do think of Orwell.
But, for my money, Orwell was more wrong than right. Oceania was more or less a parody of Stalin’s U.S.S.R. (Come to think of it, North Korea is sort of a parody of Stalin’s U.S.S.R., isn’t it? It’s as if Kim Il-Sung read Nineteen Eight-Four and thought “You know, this could work . . .”) But Orwell would never have believed it if you’d told him that the U.S.S.R. would be history a mere four decades or so after his book was published. Soft totalitarianism, not hard, was the wave of the future. Rapacious, unbridled capitalism was the future, not central planning. Mindless self-indulgence and phony “individualism” were our destiny, not party discipline and self-sacrifice. The future, it turned out, was dressed in Prada, not Carhartt. And this is really why Brave New World is so superior to Nineteen Eighty-Four. We are controlled primarily through our vices, not through terror.
The best description I have encountered of the differences between the two novels comes from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
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 egotism. 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, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
And here is Christopher Hitchens (in his essay “Why Americans are not Taught History”) on the differences between the two novels:
We dwell in a present-tense culture that somehow, significantly, decided to employ the telling expression “You’re history” as a choice reprobation or insult, and thus elected to speak forgotten volumes about itself. By that standard, the forbidding dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four already belongs, both as a text and as a date, with Ur and Mycenae, while the hedonist nihilism of Huxley still beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus. Orwell’s was a house of horrors. He seemed to strain credulity because he posited a regime that would go to any lengths to own and possess history, to rewrite and construct it, and to inculcate it by means of coercion. Whereas Huxley . . . rightly foresaw that any such regime could break but could not bend. In 1988, four years after 1984, the Soviet Union scrapped its official history curriculum and announced that a newly authorized version was somewhere in the works. This was the precise moment when the regime conceded its own extinction. For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.
I believe this just about says it all.
3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
This one is much simpler. A future society in which books have been banned. Now that all the houses are fireproof, firemen go around ferreting out contraband books from backward “book people” and burning them. So, what do the majority of the people do with themselves if they aren’t allowed to read? Why, exactly what they do today. They watch television. A lot of television.
I read Fahrenheit 451 after seeing the film version by Francois Truffaut. I have to admit that after seeing the film I was a bit disappointed by the book. (This would be regarded as heresy by Bradbury fans, who all see the film as far inferior.) I only dimly recall the book, as the film manages to be more immediately relevant to current pathologies than the book does (perhaps because the film was made fourteen years later, in 1967).
I vividly remember the scene in the film in which Linda, Montag the fireman’s wife, asks for a second “wallscreen” (obviously an Orwell influence). “They say that when you get your second wallscreen it’s like having your family grow out around you,” she gushes. Then there’s the scene where a neighbor explains to Montag why his new friend Clarisse (actually, one of the “book people”) is so different. “Look there,” the neighbor says, pointing to the television antenna on top of one of the houses. “And there . . . and there,” she says, pointing out other antennae. Then she indicates Clarisse’s house, where there is no antenna (she and her uncle don’t watch TV). “But look there . . . there’s . . . nothing,” says the neighbor, with a blank, bovine quality.
Equally memorable was a scene on board a monorail (accompanied by haunting music from Bernard Herrmann). Montag watches as the passengers touch themselves gently, as if exploring their own sensations for the very first time, while staring off into space with a kind of melancholy absence in their eyes. Truffaut goes Bradbury one better, by portraying this future as one in which people are numb; insensitive not just to emotions but even to physical sensations. In an even more striking scene, Montag reduces one of Linda’s friends to tears, simply by reading aloud an emotionally powerful passage from David Copperfield. The response from her concerned friends? “Novels are sick. All those idiotic words. Evil words that hurt people. Why disturb people with that sort of filth? Poor Doris.”
What Bradbury didn’t forsee was a future where there would be no need for the government to ban books, because people would just voluntarily stop reading them. Again, Huxley was more prescient. Lightly paraphrasing Neil Postman (from the earlier quotation), “What Bradbury 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.” Still, you’ve got to hand it to Bradbury. Although books still exist and nobody (at least not in America) is banning them, otherwise the world of today is pretty much the world of Fahrenheit 451.
No one reads books anymore. Many of our college graduates can barely read, even if they wanted to. Everywhere bookstores are closing up. Explore the few that still exist and you’ll see that the garbage they sell hardly passes as literature. (Today’s bestsellers are so badly written it’s astonishing.) It’s always been the case in America that most people didn’t read a lot, and only read good books when forced to. But it used to be that people felt just a little bit ashamed of that. Things are very different today. A kind of militant proletarian philistinism reigns. The booboisie now openly flaunt their ignorance and vulgarity as if these were virtues. It used to be that average Americans paid lip service to the importance of high culture, but secretly thought it a waste of time. Now they openly proclaim this, and regard those with cultivated tastes as a rather curious species of useless loser.
Nobody needs to ban books. We’ve made ourselves too stupid to deserve them.
4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
You’ve heard that before, right? But it’s true. I read this novel when I was twenty years old, and it was a revelation to me. I’ve since moved far away from Rand’s philosophy, but there’s a part of me that still loves and admires this book, and its author. And now I’ll commit an even worse heresy than saying I liked the film of Fahrenheit 451 more than the book: I think that, purely as a piece of prose fiction, Atlas Shrugged is the best of the four novels I’m considering here. I don’t mean that it’s more prescient or philosophically richer. I just mean that it’s a better piece of writing. True, it’s not as good a book as The Fountainhead, and it’s deformed by excesses of all kinds (including a speech by one character that lasts for . . . gulp . . . sixty pages). Nevertheless, Rand could be a truly great writer, when she wasn’t surrounded by sycophants who burbled affirmatively over every phrase she jotted (even when it was something like “hamburger sandwich” or “Brothers, you asked for it!”).
Atlas Shrugged depicts an America in the not-so-distant future. Collectivism has run rampant, and government regulation is driving the economy into the ground. The recent godawful film version of the first third of the novel (do yourself a big favor and don’t see it) emphasizes this issue of government regulation at the expense of Rand’s other, more important messages. (Rand was not simply a female Milton Friedman.) Rand’s analysis of the roots of socialism is fundamentally Nietzschean, though she would not admit this. It is “hatred of the good for being the good” that drives people in the world of Atlas Shrugged to redistribute wealth, nationalize industries, and subsidize lavish homes for subnormal children. And at the root of this slave morality (which Rand somewhat superficially dubs “altruism”) is a kind of primal, life-denying irrationalism. Rand’s solution? A morality of reason, where recognition that A is A, that facts are facts, is the primary commandment. This morality is preached by Rand’s prophet, John Galt, who is the leader of a secret band of producers and innovators who have “gone on strike,” refusing to let the world’s parasites feed off of them.
Despite all her errors (too many to mention here) there’s actually a great deal of truth in Rand’s analysis of what’s wrong with the world. Simply put, Rand was right because Nietzsche was right. And yes, we are living in the world of Atlas Shrugged. But the real key to seeing why this novel is relevant to today lies in a single concept that is never explored in Atlas Shrugged or in any of the other novels discussed here: race.
Virtually everything Rand warned about in Atlas Shrugged has come to pass, but it’s even worse than she thought it was going to be. For our purveyors of slave morality are not just out to pillage the productive people, they’re out to destroy the entire white race and western culture as such. Rand was an opponent of “racism,” which she attacked in an essay as “barnyard collectivism.” Like the leftists, she apparently saw human beings as interchangeable units, each with infinite potential. Yes, she was a great elitist – but she believed that people became moochers and looters and parasites because they had “bad premises,” and had made bad choices. Whatever character flaws they might have were changeable, she thought. Rand was adamantly opposed to any form of biological determinism.
Miss Rand (born Alyssa Rosenbaum) failed to see that all the qualities she admired in the productive “men of the mind” – their Apollonian reason, their spirit of adventure, their benevolent sense of life, their chiseled Gary Cooperish features – were all qualities chiefly of white Europeans. There simply are no black or Chinese or Hispanic John Galts. The real way to “stop the motor of the world” is to dispossess all the white people, and this is exactly what the real-life Ellsworth Tooheys and Bertram Scudders are up to today.
Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Fahrenheit 451 all depict white, racially homogeneous societies. Non-whites simply do not figure at all. Okay, yes, there might be a reference somewhere in Atlas Shrugged to a “Negro porter,” and perhaps something similar in the other books. But none of the characters in these novels is non-white, and non-whites are so far in the background they may as well not exist for these authors. Huxley thought that if we wanted epsilon semi-morons to do our dirty work the government would have to hatch them in test tubes. Obviously, he had just never visited Detroit or Atlanta. Epsilon semi-morons are reproducing themselves every day, and at a rate that far outstrips that of the alphas.
These authors foresaw much of today’s dystopian world: its spiritual and moral emptiness, its culture of consumerism, its flat-souled Last Manishness, its debasement of language, its doublethink, its illiteracy, and its bovine tolerance of authoritarian indignities. But they did not foresee the most serious and catastrophic of today’s problems: the eminent destruction of whites, and western culture.
None of them thought to deal with race at all. Why is this? Probably for the simple reason that it never occurred to any of them that whites might take slave morality so far as to actually will their own destruction. As always, the truth is stranger than fiction.
The dystopian novel most relevant to our situation is also – surprise! – the one that practically no one has heard of: Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. But that is a subject (perhaps) for another essay . . .