The simple divisions of civilized versus primitive or civilization versus wilderness are rarely actually simple.

Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.

To reiterate what I said in the first part of this post . . .

Dystopian fiction is often concerned with what can easily be presented as simple dualisms: freedom/restriction, happiness/misery, individual/collective, logic/passion, reason/emotion, civilization/wilderness, and so on.  When I have taught dystopian works, I use these to give students an anchor and rubric for their reading and thinking about the texts.  However, these pairs can also become blinders for analysis of such works, allowing critics, including authors of the works themselves, to over-simplify the complexity of ideas therein into a simple “this or that” option that neglects so many questions of politics, philosophy, and definition.

To my mind, the most glaring examples of this over-simplification are in the spacially-oriented conception of civilization versus wilderness and, by extension, the more complex idea of civilized versus primitive.  In the two posts that will follow, I’m going to take a look at how these concepts are flattened, simplified, and misrepresented in the two defining texts of dystopian literature: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Part 2: Huxley’s Brave New World and the Not-so-primitive “Savage”

Like Zamyatin (who he claimed to have not read), Huxley builds his dystopian world off of the examples of H.G. Wells’s utopian fiction.  Likewise, he situates in a world of what seem to be mutually exclusive binary categories.  And again, a central question is the distinction between the civilized (manifested in the World State, its logic of stability, and its citizens) and the primitive (ostensibly all that is necessarily eliminated from the World State).

Within this context of exclusion as definition, the spacial location of the primitive is the Reservation at Malpais (the bulk of which is seen in Chapters 7 and 8).  However, the primitive and uncivilized is also usually read as embodied in the character of John “the Savage,” a young man born (in the old-fashioned way) on the Reservation of parents from the World State.  He becomes the primary protagonist of the novel’s second half when he is brought  to civilization (the World State’s London), and the central conflicts in the book are illustrated most extensively through his dialogue with World Controller Mustapha Mond (in Chapters 16 and 17).

Weird cover for the “Brave New World” BBC radio broadcast LP release

John’s inability to adapt to the ways of the World State, along with Mond’s desire to “go on with the experiment” as some sadistic test of nature versus nurture, adaptability, or the like (243), are the basis for the tragic ending of the novel.  Reflecting on his book, in a foreward produced for the 1946 reissue of the novel, Huxley discusses how John is trapped by the circumstances imposed by his author, and seems to lament the tragic ending:

[It] seems worth while at least to mention the most serious defect in the story, which is this.  The Savage is offered only two alternatives, an insane life in Utopia, or the life of a primitive in an Indian village, a life more human in some respects, but in others hardly less queer and abnormal.  At the time the book was written this idea, that human beings are given free will in order to choose between insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other, was one that I found amusing and regarded as quite possibly true . . . If I were to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the utopian and primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity–a possibility already actualized, to some extent, in a community of exiles and  refugees from the Brave New World, living within the borders of the Reservation.  In this community economics would be decentralized and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque cooperative. (viii-ix, emphasis added)

Thankfully, Huxley did not rewrite the novel after the fact and screw it up with a George Lucas-like revision.  The lack of this third alternative, which is more extensively outlined in the text than what I’ve excerpted here, gives the book’s climax and denouement its strength and prevents the whole from becoming too overtly polemical.  This is not to say that the binary presented as such by Huxley works; it doesn’t. However, the lack of multiple options and sense of entrapment are central to the book’s success and its place as one of the most important literary dystopias.  (As an aside, how many dystopias with a truly happy ending are any good?)

As for the civilized/primitive binary assumed from the juxtaposition of London/Malpais, which Huxley and many critics oversimplify, it is far from a question of two opposing terms or even a question of places on a spectrum between two polar extremes.  This is, in part, a product of the muddled, exclusionary definition of “primitive,” but it is also due to a lack of sufficient thinking about the actual settings of the novel.

While I’m not here to nitpick at Huxley’s essay, I do think his comments were too off-hand and given too much weight by critics.  My basic, central point is this:  the Reservation is exactly that . . . a reservation.  The conditions may be categorized as primitive, but the inhabitants are by no means living in what anthropology would call a primitive state (much less the monadic state of nature envisioned by Rousseau’s thought experiment often trotted about in any such discussion).  The Indians of Malpais are, first and foremost, captive people living on a marginal plot of land surrounded by high voltage fences.  They are prisoners even more so than one might argue the vapid citizens of the World State’s utopia are.

Unlike the Mephi outsiders in Zamyatin’s We, these people do not have the ability to determine the lives they might lead and how they might live.  They scrounge a meager existence off the land allotted to them with the means they have at hand.  Such a life cannot be a stand-in for whatever we mean by primitive . . . in social order, subsistence, economics, politics, religion, or anything else.

If the spacial embodiment of the primitive is thus flawed, John is obviously by no means a primitive (or a savage, as he is repeatedly called).  His thinking, his sense of ethics and aesthetics, leads directly to the irreconcilable internal and external conflicts that help make him an outcast on the Reservation and end in his suicide.  And this thinking is directly a product of civilization.  Indeed, it is a very specific body of civilized art that has shaped him: Shakespeare’s plays and poems.  John, then, is largely a product of a different era of civilized thinking, one that values the art and tragedy and romance and nobility that the World State has to purge for the sake of its stability.  The debate that happens in Mond’s study is not a conflict between primitive thinking and civilized thinking; it is a clash of two varieties of civilized thinking, which are both rigid unable to allow for the other.  This rigidity, I would argue, is typical of the usual basis (earlier alluded to as definition by exclusion) for what we usually refer to as civilization.

As for third paths beyond the Reservation or World State, John does try one when he retreats to the lighthouse at the end of the novel and tries to enact a solitary, primitive mode of existence.  Such a manner of living would likely be unsustainable without a society of others and one could definitely say more about this; however, most importantly, the civilized people of the World State cannot leave him alone.  They are drawn to him as a curiosity and spectacle due primarily to his self-flagellation, and this ongoing interaction ultimately leads to his death at his own hands.  While there is obviously a personal tragedy here, it is also an explicit example (an allegory, if you must) of the kind of curiosity-seeking and interference that has been part of even well-meaning civilized societies for a long, long time.  While the World State citizens are not at his doorstep for conquest or slavery or the plundering of resources, the effect is still one of destruction.

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