I’ve read many books over these past few months, including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Madeleine Balchan, another GCY Fellow, had read the same book in high school, the following is an excerpt from a discussion we had about the parallels between the book and our GCY experience.
Naomi: Brave New World is set in a futuristic London where everyone is engineered to a specific caste of intelligence which correlates with social ranking and occupation. The society appears to have achieved “happiness” and “perfection” because everyone is conditioned to accept their lot in life and any discontentment is assuaged with the use of a euphoria-enducing drug. Citizens are encouraged to be infantile and take many sexual partners. Bernard, a high-ranking government employee, takes his current love interest, the popular and promiscuous Lemina, out for a date weekend at a Savage Reserve, an isolated swath of land inhabited by primitive peoples living outside the influence of society. On their excursion, the couple encounters Linda who had once been a visitor herself, but was left behind in the “uncivilized” Savage Reserve as a result of an accident. Despite all the contraceptive precautions taken by society, Linda was pregnant when she got left behind and gave birth in the Savage Reserve to a son, John. Bernard and Lemina take Linda and John back to London with them. Though initially John viewed this society as a “Brave New World” he soon comes to see how it starkly contrasts the culture he knows.
Johannes: I don’t know the story but does it have to do with gaining knowledge and breaking out of the system…like, within the system, ignorance is bliss? It makes me think of the story of Adam and Eve, without the forbidden fruit you’re blissfully ignorant.
Naomi: Right. When you don’t know what you don’t have, you don’t care.
Madeleine: Yeah… Which can then be connected to our experience here. We were talking to someone about the problems of the community and he said electricity is now a problem because some of the villages have it and the others don’t. Now they can see what they don’t have and they’re frustrated by the inequality. He said that five years ago that wasn’t a problem. It gets back to the meddling. Sure, any aid organization that comes in, is working for happiness, for the greater good. As they’re doing it, they acknowledge, “Yeah, we’re disturbing the balance. We’re loosing things, we’re loosing language, and we’re losing culture. But it’s for the greater good.”
Naomi: It’s like progress is all relative because the end goal is something that we’ve all just accepted to be “right” or “good” to be moving toward—but who’s to say that that’s right or who’s to say that that’s good? Who’s to say that whatever constitutes happiness? So potentially, we could be doing all this work and trying to get to a goal, but is that goal what we’re supposed to be reaching?
Madeleine: Oh! And I remember when I discussed this book in school, we had a long debate about ideals. London is supposedly the ideal society, right? But is it possible to reach an ideal? Ideal is perfection, so you’re in this perfect society: What do you work toward?
Naomi: I think about religion, or art, or science—knowledge in general—it didn’t exist in their society. All the things we consider human didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, in their “ideal” civilization. But humanity has to have the good and the bad things…
Madeleine: It’s kind of like you need the bad to appreciate the good and that’s what John realizes… it’s a two-sided coin. You can’t truly feel the happiness if you’re not experiencing the negatives.
Naomi: That leads me to gender relations… in their perfect world, there was more equality or whatever, but Bernard kept resenting other men because they weren’t appreciating Lamina and he kept using the reference “looking at her like a piece of meat” and that she thought of herself in the same way, her worth being based on her ability to attract appreciation from men.
Madeleine: Well in the States, gender has evolved, like in the 50s and 60s. Gender roles and the balance have really changed recently. [In Senegal] I’m living in a polygamist family, so I feel like I understand gender dynamics from a different perspective.
Naomi: The thing is, the idea of monogamy in the Savage Reserve was foreign to Linda, and she was like, “’You guys are so weird… the way you live isn’t respectful; I have every right and responsibility to sleep with a lot of men.’ And the village people were like, ‘You are quite the strumpet, we don’t like you.’”
Madeleine: Did she just not ever understand the cultural conditions? What gets me: how do you say which is right? These two cultures clash and she’s saying, “It’s my duty to be pleasurable to many men.” But the society she’s living in can’t accept that way of living. Can you actually call something “right” or is it just a form of right from one perspective? Is there an absolute right?
Naomi: It all comes down to say, happiness or emotional contentedness… and how do you even measure that?
Madeleine: What about just in general when different cultures clash? That’s when there are problems…misunderstandings. Because you come from one culture and you unknowingly have beliefs programmed into you, even though its not with a machine like in the book, and then you meet with another culture who has other norms that they think are right and morally correct. Because both “know” what is right, when they meet there’s bound to be a clash. And so, doing something like what we’re doing with GCY is like coming and trying to understand the norms of this other culture and not clash but accept it and embrace the diversity…. is that taking that way too far off course?
Naomi: No, I think that is totally valid. It’s kind of like we’re trying to come into that cultural confrontation with an awareness that the machine exists, an awareness of the programming, and we’re trying to say, “Okay I’m going to come in and know I have this inside of me but do whatever I can to ignore it,” or say “Okay, yes, this may be true for me but I have to take into account the others’ machine and their programming as well.” That’s not taking this off-course at all.