Cowardly New World

One of the things that made 2020 such an awful year to live through (apart from COVID-19, and all the rest of it) was the realisation that humanity has, in fact, taken its first somnambulant steps into a dystopian future this year

John Malkovich and Iman in a movie adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
John Malkovich and Iman in a movie adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

I imagine most people will immediately recognise the literary allusion in that headline. After all, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ – originally published in 1932 – is still regarded as a major classic of the dystopian genre; and I suspect its reputation is set to grow further still, in an age when Genetics – the futuristic technology that informed Huxley’s darkest and most unsettling predictions – is increasingly becoming more ‘science’ than ‘fiction’…

Ah, but how many people would also recognise Huxley’s original title as being, in itself, another literary allusion (a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, to be more precise)?

OK, the answer to that one is: probably, quite a few. But I have to admit that I wasn’t one of them, when I first read that book in… ooh, more years ago than I care to remember. No, the Shakespearean reference went clean over my head: which also means that – no matter how much I felt I ‘understood’ Huxley’s novel, at the time – a significant chunk of its entire ironic thrust was actually lost on me altogether.

To see why, you have to go back to Huxley’s original source-material. The words themselves were uttered by Miranda – a 15-year-old girl who had been raised in exile on a remote island, with only her father Prospero (and a misshapen monster named Caliban) for company – upon seeing other human beings for the first time.

“O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

To which the older, wiser Prospero (who, unlike his daughter, had past experience of both the wider world, and the people Miranda was actually talking about) ominously replies: ‘’Tis new to thee…’

It is, admittedly, a subtle nuance: but an important one nonetheless. In the specific context of Shakespeare’s play, the ‘new world’ that impresses Miranda so much had already been revealed as anything but ‘brave’: after all, the same people (some of them, anyway) she describes as ‘goodly’ and ‘beauteous’, were actually the ones who had marooned both her father, and herself, on that tiny island to begin with…

By the same token, recognising the literary allusion will also prepare the reader for exactly what to expect in ‘Brave New World’: only in Huxley’s vision, it is not just a mistake made by a sheltered, naïve little girl, who has no real reason to even know any better.

No, it is humanity as a whole, that – having placed far too much naïve trust, in a science it understood far too little – ends up sleepwalking its way into such a dark, soulless and positively nightmarish future…

Ok, at this point you might be wondering why I’m even writing about two major world literary classics – from the early 17th and 20th centuries, respectively – in the first place. And yes, fair enough: this is, effectively, my last column of 2020…  so why not do the traditional thing, and take a ‘retrospective look at the year that has just ended’ (or, even worse, a ‘speculative look at the one that has just begun’)?

Well, part of the answer is that – to be brutally honest – it was bad enough having to actually live through the past 12 months: still less, having to revisit the experience for an article.

But another part is that… let me put it this way: one of the things that made 2020 such an awful year to live through (apart from COVID-19, and all the rest of it) was the realisation that humanity has, in fact, taken its first somnambulant steps into a dystopian future this year… even if, at the time of writing, it seems to have more to do with Raymond Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, than Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.

As it happens, the last article I read in 2020 was about an attempt – all too successful, I fear – to ban yet another literary classic from the school curriculum. And this time, the chopper fell on (of all unearthly things) Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’: which was deemed too ‘violent’ and ‘sexist’ for young readers today.

And granted: so far, this has only happened in one particular school in Massachusetts, USA – and even then, only on the insistence of one particular schoolteacher (who even tweeted: “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!”)…

…but I draw little consolation from that myself; if nothing else, because the same was once true about other literary classics such as Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’: and – despite being the archetypal ‘anti-slavery novel’, par excellence – it is now considered ‘racist’ enough to be banned in schools and universities across America. (As, for that matter, is Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’: though it was written more than a century later…)

Much more seriously, however: this latest act of censorship also seems to form part of a wider, more concerted effort to suppress all literary works that “do not conform to modern norms of behaviour”.

As author Megan Cox Gurdon recently put it in the Wall Street Journal: “A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss…”

And as elsewhere described: “the proponents [of #DisruptTexts] believe that any world literature that does not portray the norms that they hold today in terms of gender roles, violence and racial equality must be banned in the interest of shaping a new generation that will not be allowed to come into contact with concepts that they consider repugnant – or even just outdated…”

Applied to Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, such ‘outdated’ norms would include the fact that his long-suffering wife Penelope waited 20 years for her husband’s return from a war overseas… which is (let’s face it) not exactly a very ‘feminist’ thing to do, by early 21st century standards.

But then again, ‘The Odyssey’ was not exactly written in a very ‘feminist’ age, either; and besides… last I looked, the whole point of studying ancient classics was not so much to emulate the actions or cultural attitudes that these works portray… but rather, to understand that – whatever we ourselves think of such attitudes, from our comfortable position around 3,000 years later – there once was a time when people did indeed feel (and act) that way; and that, for better or worse… those people were our predecessors, in the long, slow and occasionally painful march towards societal progress.

And there is plenty of evidence (at least, for as long as those works remain available to actually read) that they, too, must have regarded themselves as the ‘pinnacle of human civilisation’ in their own age… just as we do today.

So to remove Homer from the school curriculum – and presumably all other relics of the Classical World: replete as they all are with ‘violence, sexism, racism’, etc. – is also to permanently close a window which offers us an invaluable glimpse onto our collective past.

And you don’t even need dystopian novels like ‘Brave New World’, to figure out what fate will inevitably befall a culture that refuses to ever learn the lessons of its own history…

And besides: why stop at Homer, anyway? The #DisruptTexts movement certainly does not limit itself only to ancient epics. One of its proponents – a certain Padma Venkatraman, described as a ‘young-adult novelist’ – would take the chopper to Shakespeare, too.

In her own words: “Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric…”

Leaving aside the obvious flaw in that argument – i.e., that what appears ‘hateful’ to us today, appeared less hateful in Shakespeare’s time: and if we are to truly understand who we are, and where we’re coming from… that fact, in itself, should give us more reason to study his works, not less – the real problem is that those words actually apply to every single work of literature, from all ages, ever written before the last few years of the 20th century.

There are, in fact, no literary works of any kind at all – written at any point before around 1990 – which ‘portray the norms that we hold today in terms of gender roles, violence and racial equality’. And there can’t be, either: for the simple reason that many of those ‘norms’ did not even exist, anywhere at all, in the cultural mindset of people born before the 1950s (still less the 1500s… or, for that matter, 5,000BC).

For this reason alone, I suspect that – lurking somewhere beneath this ideological, extremist, Khmer-Rouge style ‘pogrom’ of world literature – there is also a deep-seated, primal fear of ever confronting the fundamental lesson bequeathed to us by all those past literary classics.

It can be discerned in Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’… and Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex’… and Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’… and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’… (all certainly destined for censorship, if these fanatics get their way)… all of which point towards the inescapable fact that our entire civilisation (including the so-called ‘modern norms of human behaviour’) are ultimately built upon the foundations of violence… sexism… racism… and all the other ‘isms’ that ultimately hark back to humanity’s earliest (and most primitively savage) origins.

The difference was that those authors – and many more beside – had the courage to confront that ghastly realisation head-on; and the result of their bravery was timeless literature, that can still be appreciated today.

Those who would suppress their works, on the other hand… and, worse still, deny the possibility of that discovery to others… are ignorant, benighted, and fearful. And it is a ‘Cowardly New World’ that they intend to create…