Huxley and Orwell: Fire and Ice

It is fitting to begin this with the appropriate word from Frost:

Fire and Ice
Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

And I follow with a book that is now very old news, but one that I had not encountered before in actual book form (mostly in excerpts here and there).  I saw it on the bargain tables at Borders (thus my two visits) and debated the question of simplicity v. desire and finally decided that rather than the three I really wanted, I would get only this one that I was fairly certain I would read.

In commenting on the complementary dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, Postman has this to say:

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

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 geared 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, 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 feared that what we love will ruin us.

And all I can say is both/and.  Why does one undo the other?  Why can't we hide some things and put others out there to be drowned in the tide of information that flows over us every day.  I don't think we need to choose between Orwell and Huxley, but we need to tease out the predictions of each that have come true.  We've really gotten very close to the world of the memory hole, starting in the communist countries, but entering into our own world of Kennedys and their covered over scandals.  The government continues to inflict pain in the form of restrictions, taxes, and penalties, while the media help us drown our sorrows in an ever expanding sea of waste.

And wouldn't it be wonderful if I were to say that I were exempt, and sitting on my high Olympus I could look down on all of these happenings with a  knowing look and separate my self from hoi polloi. But I am every bit and more the media consumer that anyone else I could point a finger at.  I have my iPod and my laptop and my cell phone and my blog, and my constant seeking after more and more--information, commentary, input.  All of these are ways of avoiding real thought.  Not that the media cannot be a source of things to think about.  But as commonly abused, they are merely a source of more--more to the point of inebriation and catastrophe. 

I can't wait to get further into the book, because it speaks to where I am now.  The problem is not defining the situation, but seeking remedy.  And remedy is sought societally one person at a time, one disconnect at a time.  Perhaps it is cable news to start, preferring only longer, more in-depth coverage--perhaps.  But I suspect the disconnect is only the beginning.  It is then the problem of figuring out how to reconnect wisely--or otherwise we doom ourselves to the lives of luddites and irrelevance and we have nothing to say to those around us.  Wise use of media is probably one of the most difficult exercises of will imaginable, because we are programmed to want more and more and more.  After all, there is an infinite God-shaped hole that we seek to fill with all manner of things that are not infinite nor godly.


  1. Great post on a topic that seems even more relevant now than when the book was published a few years ago. I just ordered the book from the library and look forward to any additional comments you have on the remedy.

  2. Postman has some interesting ideas--the use of triviality as a tool for the control of the people.

    I think I shall have to get this book also.

    I just checked and found it in the public library. I put it on hold.

    I like the idea of perhaps both being prophetic--the carrot and the stick.

    Thanks for the post.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Structures--Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway

Another Queen of Night

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce