By Jef Costello
Whatever happened to the Age of Anxiety? In the post-war years, intellectuals left and right were constantly telling us — left and right — that we were living in an age of breakdown and decay. The pre-war gee-whiz futurists (who’d taken a few too many trips to the World’s Fair) had told us that in just a few years we’d be commuting to work in flying cars. The Cassandras didn’t really doubt that, but they foresaw that the people flying those cars would have no souls. We’d be men at the End of History, they told us; Last Men devoted only to the pursuit of pleasure — and quite possibly under the thumb of some totalitarian Nanny State that wanted to keep us that way. Where the futurists had seen utopia, the anti-futurists saw only dystopia. And they wrote novels, lots of them, and made films — and even one television show ( The Prisoner ).
But those days are over now. The market for dystopias has diminished considerably. The sense that something is very, very wrong , and getting worse – (something felt forty, fifty years ago even by ordinary people) has been replaced with a kind of bland, flat affect complacency. Why? Is it because the anxiety went away? Is it because things got better? Of course not. It’s because all those dire predictions came true . (Well, most of them anyway).
Dystopia is now, my friends! The future is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives. The Cassandras were right, after all. I am aware that you probably already think this. Why else would you be reading this website? But I’ll bet there’s a tiny part of you that resists what I’m saying — a tiny part that wants to say “Well, it’s not quite as bad as what they predicated. Not yet , anyway. We’ve got a few years to go before . . . uh . . . Maybe not in my lifetime . . .”
Here is the reason you think this: you believe that if it all really had come true and we really were living in dystopia, voices would be raised proclaiming this. The “intellectuals” who saw it coming decades ago would be shouting about it. If the worlds of Brave New World  , Nineteen Eighty-Four  , Fahrenheit 451  , and Atlas Shrugged  really had converged and been made flesh, everyone would know it and the horror and indignation would bring it all tumbling down!
Well, I hate to disappoint you. Unfortunately, there’s this little thing called “human nature” that makes your expectations a tad unrealistic. When I was very young I discovered that there are two kinds of people. You see, I used to (and still do) spend a lot of time decrying “the way people are,” or “how people are today.” If I was talking to someone simpatico they would grin and nod in recognition of the truth I was uttering. Those are the people who (like me) didn’t think that “people” referred to them. But to my utterly naïve horror I discovered that plenty of people took umbrage at my disparaging remarks about “people.” They thought that “people” meant them. And, as it turns out, they were right. They were self-selecting sheep. In fact, this turned out to be my way of telling whether or not I was dealing with somebody “in the Matrix.”
Shockingly, people in the Matrix take a lot of pride in being in the Matrix. They don’t like negative remarks about “how things are today,” “today’s society,” or “America.” They are fully invested in “how things are”; fully identified with it. And they actually do (trust me on this) believe that how things are now is better than they’ve ever been. (Who do you think writes Mad Men ?)
And that’s why nobody cares that they’re living in the Village. That’s why nobody cares that dystopia is now. Most of those old guys warning about the “age of anxiety” are dead. Their children and grandchildren were born and raised in dystopia, and it’s all that they know.
In the following remarks I will revisit some classic dystopian novels, and invite you to consider that we are now living in them.
1. Brave New World  by Aldous Huxley (1932)
This is, hands down, the best dystopian novel of all. It is set in a future age, after a great cataclysmic war between East and West, when Communism and assembly-line capitalism have fused into one holistic system. Characters are named “Marx” and “Lenina,” but they all revere “Our Ford.” Here we have Huxley anticipating Heidegger’s famous thesis of the “metaphysical identity” of capitalism and communism: both, in fact, are utterly materialistic; both have a “leveling effect.”
When people discuss Brave New World , they tend to emphasize the “technological” aspects to the story: human beings hatched in test tubes, pre-sorted into “castes”; soma, Huxley’s answer to Zoloft and ecstasy all rolled into one; brainwashing people in their sleep through “hypnopedia”; visits to “the feelies” instead of the movies, where you “feel” everything happening on the screen, etc.
These things get emphasized for two reasons. First, some of them enable us to distance ourselves from the novel. I mean, after all, we can’t hatch people in test tubes (yet). We are not biologically designed to fit caste roles (yet). We don’t have “feelies” (virtual reality isn’t quite there – yet). So, we’re not living in Brave New World . Right? On the other hand, since we really have almost developed these things (and since we really do have soma), these facets of the novel can also allow us to admire Huxley’s prescience, and marvel a tad at how far we’ve come. The fantasies of yesteryear made reality! (Some sick souls feel rather proud of themselves when they read Brave New World .) But these responses are both defense mechanisms; strategies to evade the ways in which the novel really comes close to home. Without further ado, here they are:
The suppression of thumos : Thumos is “spiritedness.” According to Plato (in The Republic ) it’s that aspect of us that responds to a challenge against our values. Thumos is what makes us want to beat up those TSA screeners who pat us down and put us through that machine that allows them to view our naughty bits. It’s an affront to our dignity, and makes us want to fight. Anyone who does not feel affronted in this situation is not really a human being. This is because it is really thumos that makes us human; that separates us from the beasts. (It’s not just that we’re smarter than them; our possession of thumos makes us different in kind from other animals.) Thumos is the thing in us that responds to ideals: it motivates us to fight for principles, and to strive to be more than we are. In Brave New World , all expressions of thumos have been ruthlessly suppressed. The world has been completely pacified. Healthy male expressions of spiritedness are considered pathological (boy, was Huxley a prophet!). (For more information on thumos read Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man – a much-misunderstood book, chiefly because most readers never get to its fifth and final part.)
Denigration of “transcendence.” “Transcendence” is my convenient term for what many would call the “religious impulse” in us. This part of the soul is a close cousin to thumos , as my readers will no doubt realize. In Brave New World , the desire for transcendence is considered pathological and addressed through the application of heavy doses of soma. Anyone feeling a bit religious simply pops a few pills and goes on a “trip.” (Sort of like the “trips” Huxley himself took – only without the Vedanta that allowed him to contextualize and interpret them.) In the novel, a white boy named John is rescued from one of the “Savage Reservations,” where the primitives are kept, and brought to “civilization.” His values and virtues are Traditional and he is horrified by the modern world. In one particularly memorable scene, he is placed in a classroom with other young people where they watch a film about penitents crawling on their knees to church and flagellating themselves. To John’s horror, the other kids all begin laughing hysterically. Religion is for losers, you see. How could anyone’s concerns rise above shopping? Which brings me to . . .
Consumerism . The citizens of Brave New World are inundated with consumer goods and encouraged to acquire as many as possible. Hypnopedia teaches them various slogans that are supposed to guide them through life, amongst which is “ending is better than mending.” In other words, if something breaks or tears, don’t fix it – just go out and buy a new one! (Sound familiar?) Happiness and contentment are linked to acquisition, and to . . .
Distractions: Drugs, Sex, Sports, Media . These people’s lives are so empty they have to be constantly distracted lest they actually reflect on this fact and become blue. Soma comes in very handy here. So does sex. Brave New World was a controversial book in its time, and was actually banned in some countries, because of its treatment of sex. In Huxley’s world of the future, promiscuity is encouraged. And it begins very early in life — very early (this was probably what shocked readers the most). Between orgasms, citizens are also encouraged to avail themselves of any number of popular sports, whether as participants or as spectators. (Huxley tantalizes us with references to such mysterious activities as “obstacle golf,” which he never really describes.) Evenings (prior to copulation) can be spent going to the aforementioned “feelies.”
The desacralization of sex and the denigration of the family . As implied by the above, in Brave New World sex is stripped of any sense of sacredness (and transcendence) and treated as meaningless recreation. Feelings of love and the desire for monogamy are considered perversions. Families have been abolished and words such as “mother” are considered obscene. Now, before you optimists point out that we haven’t “abolished” the family, consider what the vector is of all the left-wing attacks on it (it takes a village, comrades). And consider the fact that in the West the family has all but abolished itself. Marriage is now consciously seen by many as a temporary arrangement (even as a convenient merging of bank accounts), and so few couples are having children that, as Pat Buchanan will tell you, we are ceasing to exist. Why? Because children require too much sacrifice; too much time spent away from careering, boinking, tripping, and playing obstacle golf.
The cult of youth . Apparently, much of the inspiration for Brave New World came from a trip Huxley took to the United States, where aging is essentially regarded as a disease. In Brave New World , everyone is kept artificially young – pumped full of hormones and nipped and tucked periodically. When they reach about 60 their systems just can’t take it anymore and they collapse and die. Whereas John is treated as a celebrity, his mother is hidden from public view simply because she has grown old on the savage reservation, without the benefit of the artificial interventions the “moderns” undergo. Having never seen a naturally old person before, the citizens of Brave New World regard her with horror. But I’m guessing she probably didn’t look any worse than Brigitte Bardot does today. (Miss Bardot has never had plastic surgery).
The novel’s climax is a marvelous dialogue between John and the “World Controller.” The latter defends the world he has helped create, by arguing that it is free of war, competition, and disease. John argues that as bad as these things often are, they also bring out the best in people. Virtue and greatness are only produced through struggle.
As a piece of writing, Brave New World is not that impressive. But as a prophecy of things to come, it is utterly uncanny – and disturbingly on target. So much so that it had to be, in effect, suppressed by over-praising our next novel . . .