Posts Tagged ‘Brave New World’

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).

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“Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. Each is an aspect of the other.” – Anthropologist Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive

I led off my last post with a photo of Ishi, perhaps the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, and the caption “Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.”  While this framing makes perfect sense to me, and I did so with some hope of people actually looking him up, I feel like I should explain briefly before finishing the second post (on Brave New World).  What follows are some brief, deliberately provocative, and unfinished ideas about Ishi’s legacy.

Ishi’s story is sad and horrific, and I won’t try to fully summarize it here.  Everyone who is remotely well-read should be familiar with it.  I’ll even use the second person address here since I feel so strongly:  You should begin with the obvious online sources (this timeline is also a good summary) and then you need to read Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds.  Then maybe Ishi in Three Centuries or Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America.  Theodora Kroeber is, incidentally, Ursula K. Le Guin’s mother.  Le Guin’s father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, was one of the scientists who had the opportunity to work most closely with Ishi.  Arthur’s relationship with Ishi, like that of all those who studied the “wild Indian” is one that can easily be criticized in hindsight, and I won’t defend the exhibitionism and exploitativeness of anthropological science at the time.  However, the Kroebers’ interactions with and documentation of his story are invaluable documentation of  a remarkable man and an awful, yet common, story.

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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.

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.

(more…)

A friend recently proposed an interesting exercise in hypothetical course design where one must select a single American novel for each decade of the 20th century to create a teachable arc for the century (and justify said choices).  Given my own interest in genre, I figured I’d adopt/adapt it for utopian/dystopian fiction (dropping the “American” requirement) to see what kind of survey of the genre I might teach (and what works I’d be willing to drop per only having one choice per decade).  The difficult part about conceptualizing this as an actual course is there is no way I would be able to teach this without starting with More’s Utopia and some other relevant earlier texts (Campanella? Bellamy and Morris? Wells? etc.) or doing a bunch of work up front introducing literary utopias via describing those works that lead up to what is really the dystopian turn in the genre that takes place at the beginning of the 20th century.  Not that I couldn’t do the latter, but I’d much  rather have students at least read More to begin.

That problem aside, I’ve still tried to follow a structure that makes sense for how an actual course might play out: works build on previously read works to allow for connections to be made, I begin with shorter texts rather than hitting students with something big and hard to start, and finish with less time-intensive texts so that students in the midst of final papers and finals prep would hopefully still make time for them.

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I don’t know, but I know it when I see it.  It looks like this:

from Wells’ adaptation of The Trial

Having spent too much time reading online material related to The Hunger Games, I’ve been both intrigued and disappointed at how how the media and the books’ fandom interpret and use the term “dystopia” (and its adjectivizations, of which “dystopic” makes me cringe).  As with the everyday use of “utopia,” the general understanding and usage of the term is often extremely vague and distanced from the actual genre of fiction it comes from.  This definition is a very literal one: dystopia=bad place, or the opposite of utopia (defined simply as “good place”).  Or, as one of the lousy online dictionaries defines it:

noun

a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.
Compare utopia.

Origin:

1865–70; dys-  + (u)topia

I’ll ignore the problematic question of origin/etymology in this definition for now.  The real issue here is illustrated by the fact that these definitions (the casual and the online dictionary) don’t fit classic dystopias that define and helped initiate the genre like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.  Sure, one could argue those lives led by the populaces of the World State or OneState are miserable, and that they are “bad” places, but this is a relatively subjective and very dubious judgment.  Are they characterized by human misery?  No.  There’s more complexity to it than that.

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