Sunday, March 7, 2004

Touchstone magazine on Orwell, Huxley, and C.S. Lewis

The January/February 2004 issue of Touchstone has as its theme "Fantasy and the Christian Imagination." Featured online is a excellent article "Great Escapes & Lesser Stories", by editor David Mills in which he examines Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength (third volume of his classic "space trilogy"). Mills describes the books as:
the “literature of deliverance.” [Because] at their best, such books deliver man from his illusions because they say, with imaginative force and insight, that this is the way the world really is, whatever it looks like at the moment and whatever one’s ideology says it looks like. The literature of deliverance reveals something of the Great Story that has been hidden from sight by the dominance of the particular society’s false stories.
Mills inquires as to "whether "a work in “the literature of deliverance” can succeed as a story if it does not express the Great Story" of Christianity. What I found especially interesting is his examination of how each author's treatment of sex reveals their relationship with the Great Story, and his penetrating analysis of George Orwell -- "the man who did not believe in the doctrine of Original Sin but was too honest a man not to portray it in his stories." The latter part of the article focuses on 1984 and That Hideous Strength with respect to two questions: "Where do they find the source of hope for successful resistance to a socially dominant evil, and where do they find the source of personal integrity and salvation under oppression?" -- Good criteria, I think, for judging the worth of many works of critical fiction.

My one bone to pick with Mills is his criticism of Huxley's Brave New World as a "a shallower book" (in comparison to Orwell & Lewis'), because it offers "a basic idea—the establishment of order and peace through the creation, conditioning, and pleasuring of man -- and develops it brilliantly, but in the end the idea itself leaves no room for exploring the alternatives." I hope his rather abrupt dismissal won't deter any readers from checking out this classic if they haven't already. While 1984 may remind readers of the horrors of the Third Reich or Stalinist Russia, Brave New World prophetically depicted a society that is very similar to our own: the "soft totalitarianism" of a consumer-driven society utterly dominated by self-gratification and pacified by chemical-induced happiness. As Professor Leon Kass remarked in a symposium of great books for First Things in March, 2001:

. . . unlike other frightening futuristic novels of the past century, such as Orwell’s already dated Nineteen Eighty–four, Huxley shows us a dystopia that goes with, rather than against, the human grain -- indeed, it is animated by modernity’s most humane and progressive aspirations. Following those aspirations to their ultimate realization, Huxley enables us to recognize those less obvious but often more pernicious evils that are inextricably linked to successful attainment of partial goods. And he strongly suggests that we must choose: either our misery–ridden but still richly human world, or the squalid happiness of the biotechnical world to come.
Finally, in his foreward to Amusing ourselves to Death (another great book, and scathing critique of society), Neil Postman says of Huxley:
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 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 to the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in [1958's] Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalist who are ever alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feard that what we love will ruin us.

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