End Times

February 05, 1994|By HAL PIPER

Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice. Aldous Huxley voted for fire, George Orwell for ice.

Huxley and Orwell both knew, as we all know, that the world is in sorry shape and geting worse. Both looked into the bleak future and wrote powerful novels describing the death of civilization. The titles, ''Brave New World'' and ''1984,'' have entered the language as terrifying synecdoches for the horrors and tribulations spawned by progress and bureaucrats, and the adjective ''Orwellian,'' meaning ''nightmarish,'' or at least ''displeasing,'' is used by millions who have never read a word Orwell wrote.

The manner of civilization's demise was where Huxley and Orwell parted company.

Orwell portrayed a Soviet-style tyranny in which private life and even objective reality were pre-empted by ''Big Brother.'' In 1984, our sex lives were to be put at the service of the Party. Our very thoughts were to be limited by Newspeak, the language whose vocabulary steadily shrank as words with socially unapproved associations were systematically discarded. Eventually, unorthodox thoughts would be literally unthinkable, because the language to think them would no longer exist.

The image of the future, said the Party agent O'Brien, was a jackboot smashing a human face, over and over again, forever.

Huxley's ''Brave New World'' was to be a much more pleasant place. Where Orwell imagined future technologies of domination and control, Huxley imagined technologies of pleasure and liberation. Human embryos were cloned and enhanced or stunted to be smart enough to do society's thinking, or steady enough to do its artisanship, or dull enough to do its drudge labor.

Sex was freed from reproduction, and thus from consequences or guilt. Everyone had all the sex they wanted, and all the food and entertainment, too. Everybody was happy and well-adjusted, and nobody got jealous or angry or old; when it was time to die, people were shut away so as not to depress others. The tranquil mood was maintained by a wonder drug named ''soma.''

The people in ''1984'' were enslaved by their oppressors; those in ''Brave New World'' by their pleasures.

''Brave New World'' was written in 1932; ''1984'' in 1948. Although we spent the Cold War period worrying more about the Orwellian forecast, it now seems that Huxley's prophecy is closer to realization.

In ''Amusing Ourselves to Death,'' published in 1985, Neil Postman, a communications professor at New York University, contrasted the two dystopias:

''What Orwell feared was that there were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared 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 that truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. . . . In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.''

The current Newsweek cover story describes the use of drugs to fine-tune our emotions and keep us mellow; but Neil Postman identified Huxley's feel-good drug ''soma'' with television. It keeps us passive not only by entertaining us, but by weakening our resolve.

In a pre-television time, C.S. Lewis wrote that he refused to read newspapers because they simply directed his attention to problems he could do nothing about. Television does the same. We see Somali children starving, but when we try to help, things get worse. We see politicians and pundits debate the issues, and it only polarizes us.

It isn't the trash on television that is sickening our society, Neil Postman said; it is television's ''good'' programming.

The Soviet ''1984'' collapsed quickly when the power-holders lost the will to inflict pain on the people. But how likely is it that the power-holders in our ''Brave New World'' will stop inflicting pleasure on us? Well, it might happen; that is what the debate over censoring television violence is about.

The Roman Empire is sometimes said to have been rotted by pleasure, making it easy prey for conquering barbarians. That can't happen to us. Barbarians there are aplenty. But where on our planet does television not reach?

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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