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Huxley’s Brave New World and the Hard Work of Sadness

A society centered on pleasure has no place for mourning, and so has no room for love

Ninety years ago, Aldous Huxley published his prophetic and incisive Brave New World (1932), a dystopian novel that imagines a society of people intoxicated and controlled, not by state power, but by pleasure. Whereas George Orwell predicted an inevitable totalitarian world government in his novel 1984 (penned in 1949), Huxley proposed that human beings wouldn’t need to be coerced into submission but could be coaxed by the allure of pain-erasing drugs.

Both nightmarish visions of the future have already somewhat played out today in American society. The government set up the Disinformation Governance Board in April of 2022, which sounds eerily like the “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s 1984. (The board has since disbanded.) Tech companies can track us more than we like to think, creating what some have named “surveillance capitalism.” We are also a culture of addicts. The opioid crisis in rural America, the social media revolution ruining the mental health of children and young adults, and our national obsession with sugar, sports, and porn all indicate that we are susceptible to the temptations of Huxley’s hedonistic hellscape.  

The protagonist in Brave New World, John, enters the artificial Eden as an outsider, known as the “Savage” for his antiquated views on family, marriage, and “monogamy.” The members of this “brave new world” can’t fathom why John is mourning the death of his mother. In addition, they don’t even know what “mother” means. In this grand new utopian project, there is no such thing as family, marriage, or even friendship, since “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Because existence is all about pleasure, human bodies can be shared, democratized, traded in and out, and consumed like fast food. No sex partner is better than any other. The 2020 Peacock TV interpretation of the novel encapsulates this well. The whole society practices the depraved ethos of the orgy—it’s a sexual, drug-fueled free for all: no boundaries, no limits, and most importantly, no love. As a result, familial attachments are foreign and laughable. All the old world of tradition, morality, and religion can do now is entertain and baffle the public.

Brave New World portrays a morally bankrupt vision of the “good life,” but for a seemingly innocent reason: people in that world want to escape the burden of mourning. It’s the ultimate escape. No one is ever sad, angry, or dis-eased. The drug (called “soma” in the novel) does just the trick—keeping one’s mind preoccupied with pleasure and comfort at all costs. And the cost, we find, is steep.

The late philosopher and writer Roger Scruton wrote a profound essay on mourning that made me see just how much we modern Americans have swallowed Huxley’s pill, too. Featured posthumously in the journal First Things, Scruton writes,

“Not to mourn is to live at a lower level, detached from our real attachments, denying the past and the identity that grew in it. It involves a refusal to be called to account, a stepping down from interpersonal being into the world of carnal appetite…Those who mourn leave the world of animal appetite behind, and reach to the realm of the gods.”

Roger Scruton, The Work of Mourning by Roger Scruton | Articles | First Things

The first time reading this essay, it was hard for me to make the connection between mourning and “animal appetites.” I see now, though, that Scruton is describing Huxley’s Brave New World, and sadly, our own, too. Genuine mourning indicates that we’ve lost something or someone valuable, putting us in a world where relationships are real, and that to find meaning in life, we must embrace the possibility of heartbreak.  

C.S. Lewis also writes about mourning, and how it is inextricable from love:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.

At the end of Brave New World, John rejects the lifestyle of this drug-saturated society, declaring, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Despite all the imperfections and flaws of the “real world,” John still prefers the pain and suffering over a society where citizens are kept in perpetual infancy, never need to relate to anyone else out of love, and so never need to mourn.  

I admire writers like Huxley, Scruton, and Lewis who saw the bleakness of a world without love, stressing the need to place interpersonal relationships above pleasure and power. Brave New World shows us that such a society might not look like a Soviet concentration camp. On the contrary, it might look like an idyllic Garden of Eden. Just don’t be fooled by appearances.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Huxley’s Brave New World and the Hard Work of Sadness