Aldous Huxley and George Orwell wrote arguably the two most popular novels portending the West’s dystopian future.
For decades, thinkers have opined on which of the two starkly distinct totalitarian nightmares–that of Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984–was more likely to come to pass (or, as some contend, had come to pass).
What has garnered rather little attention is the fact that Huxley himself actually chimed in on the subject. Shortly after the release of 1984 in 1949, Huxley penned a letter to his former student. (Orwell studied French under Huxley at Eton College in Windsor, England.)
A transcript of the letter follows:
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large-scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds. [Editor’s note: emphasis mine]
Thank you once again for the book.
Huxley’s tone is polite and congratulatory. However, from the emboldened passage above–“I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World”–it’s apparent that Huxley believed his nightmare would ultimately come to pass.
It’s unclear if Orwell ever replied to Huxley. But, to paraphrase Neil Postman, if 1984 promised a system that sought control over humans by inflicting pain while Huxley’s book foretold a system of control by inflicting pleasure, one can argue that Huxley might have been on to something.
(H/T to Letters of Note.)