A bit less than a month ago, there was an exchange in alt.fan.pratchett about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and how it relates to happiness and fulfilment. One of the posts in the discussion (available here and including a fair amount of quoted material that the writer is responding to) makes the claim that eliminating suffering does not lessen humanity. The post struck me as wrong when I read it, but I couldn’t quite nail why it was wrong.
The core of the wrong lies here: “Well he shouldn’t. Mond is manipulating him as he does everyone else, and managing to convince him that poetry and goodness require suffering, which is nonsense.”
It took me a while to unpack the layers of wrong and get to the core of it – which also happens to be, to a certain extent, the core of Brave New World itself, namely that being an adult is hard work and requires a certain amount of suffering. People don’t grow unless they fail first – then overcome that failure. Which takes more than a little discomfort, and sometimes a lot of suffering. Similarly, you can’t experience the heights of emotion without some idea of the depths. (Doctor Who fans might like to look back to The Happiness Patrol for a rather cheesier treatment of the same basic theme – which reached the same conclusion).
In Huxley’s dystopia, only a very few people every grow up emotionally. The rest are kept in a state of drugged happiness – which is really not happiness at all, just absence of negative emotion – and encouraged to be distracted by sex and a whole lot of expensive consumer goodies. Poetry can’t happen in that environment. There’s no emotional meat for it. Ditto any of the arts, actually – which is what I find disturbing about that person’s view.
To create art of any sort requires suffering. Not necessarily at the time of creating the art, and certainly not all the time, but if you don’t know what the emotion is, you can’t depict it. As for goodness, a state of existential goodness can really only have meaning if there’s badness or evil to contrast it with. Otherwise, it’s just something else you take for granted. Huxley clearly understood this – it’s part of what makes Brave New World a more frightening and disturbing dystopia for me than 1984.
The flip side of the equation, though… How long is it since any form of art that came through the mainstream USA channels truly engaged your emotions? (Pratchett – or Rowling for that matter – don’t count, being Brits). When did you last see, or read, or hear something that left you shaken and wondering how much else you missed?
We live in the Brave New World now, distracted by our toys and our designer drugs and our circuses, a handful of adults trying desperately to catch the attention of all the overgrown children around us who refuse to grow up – refuse to hurt, and to stretch, and above all to learn from their suffering. So now, instead of suffering for our art, our art is suffering for us. O Brave New World indeed.