Rummaging through old photographs and notes, I came across a list of favorite books, a personal and highly incongruous assortment of titles I jotted down when I was twenty-one. Put together before I moved to New York City and went to college, that paper-thin time capsule is filled with thrillers like Maurice Leblanc’s The Double Life of Arsene Lupin and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There is Truffaut’s wonderful book on Hitchcock, as well as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I eventually got to teach in a college course on friendship in American literature. Also on that chart are the author and work I am featuring today—because they happened to be featured on the previously discussed CBS Radio Workshop.
There was little room for the Workshop in my doctoral study, whose subject is the rise and fall of American radio drama between 1929 and 1954—the quarter century during which audio drama (as a form, rather than radio as a medium) made the most significant advances and had its greatest cultural and socio-political influence in the US. This is not to say that there weren’t any notable radio plays either before or after the period defined by me as the form and the medium’s golden age, even though music and talk once again dominated the dial in the mid-50s as they had prior to the 1930s. The CBS Radio Workshop, however belated it may have seemed to a nation obsessed with television, was certainly first-rate.
On this day, 27 January, in 1956, the Workshop opened with a provocative piece of 20th-century fiction, introduced and narrated by its author, Aldous Huxley and scored by radio drama alumnus-turned-movie composer Bernard Herrmann. Addressing the audience, Huxley sounded very British indeed, avuncular, educated, opinionated, and somewhat frail; rather like E. M. Forster, who read several of his works for the record and was heard on US radio as a commentator on the NBC University Theater. What Huxley has to say, however, is anything but mellow or dated. It is still shocking today, mainly because his dark vision has already become reality.
As a teenager—I was sixteen or so when I first read Brave New World—I thought of Brave New Work as a work of science fiction. It was altogether more inviting than George Orwell’s dreary Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I was forced to read at school. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, none of the characters or situations were agreeable to me; everything described seemed too nasty and bleak to be endured even by the meek or uninspired.
In Brave New World, I was confronted with a seemingly uncomplicated future, a life not devoid of pleasures and comforts, a world not entirely unrecognizable—if cleaner and less hostile—in which I could imagine myself existing happily as long as I didn’t question myself or the system for whose workings I was being conditioned. Gradually, this rendered the novel all the more disconcerting to me: I realized that I was complaisant and complicit, willing to denounce my freedoms for relief and security.
Introducing William Froug’s two-part dramatization of his story, Huxley insisted on its relevance:
Brave New World is a fantastic parable about the dehumanization of human beings. In the negative utopia described in my story, man has been subordinated to his own inventions. Science, technology, social organization—these things have ceased to serve man; they have become his masters. A quarter of a century has passed since the book was published. In that time, our world has taken so many steps in the wrong direction that if I were writing today, I would date my story not six hundred years in the future, but at the most two hundred. The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.
It seems that sixty years would have been more accurate. Perhaps, Huxley’s dystopia has already become our present. As in the novel, we are being nursed and kept alive to keep business going; we are programmed to consume, hate, be shallow, satisfy those of our desires that are economically advantageous, and to go about our life without questioning how much we really are in control of it.
Established democracies are becoming more fascist in their curtailing of personal choice, freedoms whose realization may be harmful to our bodies and those of others and thus detrimental to long-term consumerism, a world of designer-labelled clothes and legalized designer drugs in which anyone who openly contradicts or loudly confronts is argued to be someone who sides with whose who have designs on our supposed liberties.
I’m still not sure what a tolerable alternative would be to such a Brave New World, one to be braved each day anew without the benefit of Soma.