Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Greene/Huxley Continuum

Two of the books that I routinely cite to people as personal faves are Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and Aldous Huxley's dystopian classic Brave New World . I actually think of these books as a diptych, in some ways, because to me they have the same theme. Underneath the superficial coating of genre, whether crime thriller or sci-fi, they deal on a fundamental level with the same concept: the conflict between high-minded ideals and human sentimentality.

The high-minded ideals in Brighton Rock actually emanate from the villain of the novel, Pinkie Brown , a sort of proto-hoodie leading a gang of other young villains on a razor-wielding equivalent of the knife-crime-wave which, if you believe certain hysterical tabloids, will see the lot of us stabbed up good and proper by next Thursday. But Pinkie is more complex than that. Having been brought up a devout Roman Catholic, he's obsessed with ideas of sin and redemption. He knows what he's doing is evil, and yearns to be redeemed - but he puts off his redemption for the time being, on the grounds that he can redeem himself through an act of faith at any point - I can't remember the exact line, but he muses on a phrase he's read somewhere about how a man falling to his death off a horse can be saved 'between the saddle and the ground' if he asks God's forgiveness in the moment of the fall. All the same, Pinkie's still not sure it's that cut-and-dry. Can it really be that simple? A large part of the drama of the novel derives from this internal struggle of Pinkie to reconcile his evil activities with his faith. Pinkie is not quite smart enough to jettison his Catholicism altogether and make a morality of his own in the manner of Nietzsche (and it occurs to me that a case could be made that both the novels I'm discussing, like much else in the twentieth century, can be seen as attempts to deal with the challenge of Nietzsche's ideas), but he's too smart to see the world as black and white.

One character who does see the world as black and white is local busybody Ida Arnold, Pinkie's nemesis. She pursues Pinkie's gang and exposes him to the police, eventually leading him to his death, in an attempt to make him pay for his murder, earlier in the novel, of a man called Hale, with whom she becomes acquainted. An unlikely avenging angel, Ida gives little thought to the contradictions that image embodies: to her, what she's up to isn't vengeance, and it isn't about good and evil. It's about right and wrong.

Greene dramatises the difference between these two characters in the way they think about Hale's murder. Pinkie wonders if it was evil to do it, and worries about whether he can be redeemed if it was. Ida simply tells herself that Pinkie 'shouldn't of done it.'

Summed up thus we have a nice, simplistic morality tale: simple goodness triumphs over evil sophistry. But it isn't that simple. Like Milton's Satan, Pinkie is so compelling in his evil that the reader follows him along for the ride. The reader is enthused by Pinkie's internal battle, and turned off by Ida's simplistic moralising. Narrative justice may be served, but it's Pinkie's ideas that will linger in the mind of the reader, and do their work upon him. Indeed, in a sense, Pinkie wins, because he's still able to wreak havoc on one character in the novel from beyond the grave, as the novel's incredible final sentence - probably one of the best in the history of literature - implies. But Pinkie also wins in the heart and mind of the reader because his seeking redemption is a powerful, dramatic theology - while Ida's black-and-white worldview comes across as mere sentimentality.

The key point is that Ida encounters Hale, and feels sorry for him, before he is killed. Pinkie and his gang have killed lots of people before this point, without impinging directly on Ida's world. Only when someone she knows and likes, even on a minor basis, is killed, does she take action. This is vengeance, not morality. Pinkie has robbed the lonely Ida of a man she felt something tender for, and now she's going to get him back - indeed, one of her (failed) stratagems to punish Pinkie is to try and get his fiancee to leave him. She can say 'he shouldn't of done it' all she wants, but this isn't a moral judgement: it's an emotional one, a sentimental one. The reader sees right through her.

Like Brighton Rock, Brave New World also deals with this issue of the bankruptcy of sentimentality. People who haven't read the book will tell you it's a depiction of hell on earth, like 1984 , but here's the dirty little secret: it isn't hell at all. It isn't really a dystopia , as that phrase is commonly understood. Because the world of Brave New World is one that works, and one that works perfectly. And how has that been achieved? Simple enough, really: an all-out attack on family values .

In this world, the means of reproduction have been nationalised by the state. People are cloned in factories, divided into classes by a process of genetic manipulation in vitro. The man who, in the hands of a lesser writer, might seem to be the villain - World Controller Mustapha Mond - delivers a powerful speech early in the novel about how natural reproduction, and the crude, animalistic sentimentality it engenders, is what buggered everything up before he and his Fordist brethren fixed things up real good. I can't find the full quotation online, and I can't rember it offhand, so, y'know, I guess you're going to have to buy the goddam book but, suffice to say, Mond's depiction of family life is terrifying. Terrifying. I read it in a pub in Keswick on a holiday with my family and I can date my own decision to never have kids to that precise moment.

In place of family life, the Controllers have created a world in which the state has become a kind of parent, directing its citizen-children to work and rewarding them with 'feelies' (a kind of virtual reality), bizarre games, all-in wrestling and the ubiquitous soma - a literary precursor of ecstasy . It works for most, but the novel's dystopian hero, Bernard Marx, ain't buying it. He rebels, finds a savage in an Indian reservation outside the industrialised world who turns out to originally be of it, and tries to overthrow society by bringing this noble savage back and showing people another way of life, but in the end, Mond makes room for this - Mond explains why their society really is the best of all possible worlds and sorts the discontented Bernard and his friend Helmholtz out with postings to remote islands where they will be free to live the life of the mind to their heart's content. In the end, everyone gets the ending that's best for them.

Everyone...except the savage and his mother, a former member of Marx and Mond's world who gets lost in the reservation after her helicopter crashes there. The 'savage', John, is her natural-born child, and Bernard hopes he can be an exemplar to the bottle-born people of his own world. But alas, Mond is proved right about family life. John grows up with the shame of having a mother who is an alcoholic (a poor, but tolerable, substitute for the soma to which she was once habituated) and who, on her return to civilisation with her son, now Bernard's cause celebre, goes on a permanent soma-holiday which ends in her death. This death destroys John leading to his eventual suicide at the end of the novel.

Mond is proved to be right about families. John suffers horribly because of the sentimental weakness of his mother, and this leads to both their deaths. All the 'unnatural' clones, however, end happily. As in Brighton Rock, the expected conclusion is subverted. We're meant to feel the world of Mond and Fordism and soma and centrifugal bumble-puppy is horrible and wrong and unnatural - but it's the 'natural' characters who wind up destroyed, and it's because of the toxic nature of the very familial relationship Mond identifies as poisonous in his speech early in the book.

In both of these novels, the simplistic, sentimental basis of much of everyday life is called into serious doubt. While we might like to believe that love is the answer, family values will save us and there's a clear line between right and wrong, these novels say different. We are left with the uneasy feeling that those nice, warm feelings we have when we tickle a baby, or feel part of a righteous crowd condemning some hate-figure for doing wrong, might be the real cause of evil in the world.

And the reason that idea is so disturbing is that it's true. Because I have, sitting in my lap as I type this, a victim of those cute warm feelings we so love: Alfie, the dog I'm looking after. Alfie's a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed bred to provide companionship for humans. And he's cute, and he's lovable, and most of the time I want to pat him on the head and feed him biscuits but -

- leave the room for a second and he goes mental. Because he needs to be around people. We've bred dogs like Alfie this way, because we like those cute warm feelings we get when we pat them on the head - but when they're separated from us they go through agony. An agony I could never describe.

Somewhere along the line Alfie's genotype was that of a wolf: a proud, beautiful, efficient predator. But we decided we didn't like the wolf. So gradually we bred as much of the wolf out of Alfie's genotype as we could until we wound up with something smaller and cuter and more lovable. And we bred in traits to make that dog love us and come to us and want cuddles.

And in the process we made it into a thing that feels abandoned if left alone even for a second. But we didn't care about that. Because it felt so good to cuddle, didn't it?

Bullshit. We should have left the wolf alone. The fact that we didn't speaks to our weakness as a species. And that weakness is sentimentality. And until we get beyond that, we will continue to do evil without measure, because we will choose to listen to those warm, misleading emotions which make us feel good, rather than the reason which tells us what's right.

We need a brave new world: and if bringing that world into being cuts like a razor, then so be it.

While we wait for the birth of that world, here's Jonathan Meades on why dog owners are as fucked-up as their unfortunate canine charges .In case you haven't guessed, I'm more of a cat man.

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