Auden and Science Fiction

Continuing the tradition of making texts speak to each other, this time what I found particularly exciting was the sixth stanza.

“Though some believe (some even plan

To Do it) that from Urban Man,

By Advertising plus the aid

Of Drugs, an insect might be made.”

The reference of this paragraph seems to be pointing towards Brave New World by Aldous Huxley published in 1932. The future as imagined by Auden after Science has taken over and destroyed the charm of Nature is a certain sense of dystopia. Dystopic worlds don’t always necessarily imply an incorrect system of governance. It could also imply a flawed perception of lifestyle. Brave New World focuses on a lifeworld where existence seems to be driven by the sole purpose of consumption. Everyone is happy. Natural reproduction has been done away with and children are decanted and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres. Once the charm of nature is destroyed and the Bestiaries are out, even the natural ways of reproduction can be altered. These children are conditioned from birth to value consumption with such platitudes as “ending is better than mending,” i.e., buy a new one instead of fixing the old one. Everyone is encouraged to consume the ubiquitous drug soma. Soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free “holidays”, and it was developed expressly for this purpose. Soma seems to be reference point for the mention of ‘aid of Drugs.’

The reference to ‘Advertising’ seems to be an allusion to how a society could be manipulated within the constant construct of broadcasting the same message again and again. This conditioning could also be seen as an allusion to sleep-learning. In the novel, it is used for the conditioning of children into the novel’s fictional future culture. Sleep-learning was discovered by accident when a Polish-speaking boy named Reuben Rabinovitch was able to recite an entire radio broadcast in English after a radio receiver was left on in his sleep. The boy was unable to comprehend what he had heard via this technique, but it was soon realized that it could be used to effectively make suggestions about morality.

The novel proceeds on to look at how this world would be perceived by a person who has not been brought up and conditioned to believe what this society believes in. Through the viewpoint of this individual, it tries to understand the place for non-conformity in this society. His disillusionment with the entire setup that he is exposed to and the lack of sensitivity to human existence beyond consumption makes him ultimately commit suicide. Auden looks at this Brave New World by exploring the possibility of “how from Urban Man […] an insect might be made.”

The seventh stanza is equally exciting.

“No. Who can learn to love his neighbor

From neuters whose one love is labor

To rid his Government of knaves

From commonwealths controlled by slaves?”

This stanza seems to be an allusion to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell published in 1949. The ‘Government of knaves’ could be read as referring to the idea of Big Brother – the dark-eyed, mustachioed embodiment of the Party governing Oceania (viz. Josef Stalin), whom few people have seen, if anyone. There is doubt as to whether he exists. In the society that Orwell describes, everyone is under complete surveillance by the authorities, mainly by telescreens. The people are constantly reminded of this by the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”, which is the core “truth” of the propaganda system in this state.

The ‘commonwealths controlled by slaves’ is a reference to the political world geography that Orwell describes in 1984. There are three perpetually warring totalitarian super-states or ‘commonwealths’ in the Auden sense, that control the world. Emmanuel Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism explains that the super-states’ ideologies are alike and that the public’s ignorance of it is imperative so that they might continue believing in the detestability of the opposing ideologies. The allusion to slavery in the poem is in reference to the ideology. The three super-states are controlled by people who are slaves to their ideologies, which are not really different from each other, but necessitate war to maintain order.

In a world where ignorance is pervasive nobody can learn to love his neighbor and abstain from war. In this Orwellian world where government practices public mind-control, the only love imaginable is labor. Auden uses ‘neuters’ a Spanish word for castrated male to represent the citizens of this Orwellian world. In the essay “Why I Write” (1946) Orwell explains that the serious works he wrote since the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) were “written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism”. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a cautionary tale about revolution betrayed by totalitarian defenders previously proposed in Homage to Catalonia (1938) and Animal Farm (1945), while Coming Up For Air (1939) celebrates the personal and political freedoms lost in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). With reference to Orwell’s inspiration, it seems appropriate that Auden uses Spanish to describe Orwellian citizens.

I guess it would be appropriate to end this post with a comparison between the two worlds that Auden alludes to in this poem. Social critic Neil Postman wrote in the foreword of his 1985 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 egoism. 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 what we desire will ruin us.”

Sources:

Huxley, A. (1932) Brave New World. London: Chatto and Windus.
Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Secker and Warburg.
Orwell, G. (1946) Why I Write? accessed at http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/whywrite.html
Postman, N. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin.

Advertisements

About this entry