The philosophical issues raised by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are myriad, touching on everything from the philosophy of science to metaethics. As it stands, Brave New World is often named one of the three great dystopian novels of the twentieth century, alongside We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and 1984 by George Orwell. The subject of today’s article is an interview with daring young theatre director Nabra Nelson. What interested me in pursuing this interview is that I became aware that Nelson—approaching Brave New World from what in philosophical terms is essentially an existentialist and pragmatic perspective—considers the society in Huxley’s novel to be a utopia rather than a dystopia. So I sat down with Nabra Nelson at the Casa Escobar Inn in Malibu, California to ask her about her peculiar take on this classic novel.
Hello, Nabra. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today. The meat of our discussion is a novel by Aldous Huxley: Brave New World, sometimes called one of the three greatest dystopias of the twentieth century. But as I understand it, you wouldn’t even call it a dystopia. From your perspective, this might stand alongside works in an older genre (begun by Thomas More’s original Utopia) as a vision of an actual utopian society—regardless of Huxley’s own position. Could you start by talking in general about your experience of reading the novel, and how you came to this conclusion?
NN: Well, I think that Huxley actually thought about all of the elements that go into creating a true utopia in a way that other writers didn’t. I think they used dystopia to reflect the complete opposite of our society, and we of course see it as a dystopia because it’s celebrating how we are free whether or not we are happy. For example, look at the constrictions of a world like 1984, which is so obviously a dystopia that you can’t even put it under the guise of a utopia.
Right, 1984‘s society is almost laughably evil.
NN: Yes, exactly. Many people in 1984‘s world are unhappy with what’s in it and are actively afraid, constantly. And that’s the same in a lot of other dystopias: the people are actively afraid, actively feel constricted, and so there is an act of resistance that is being pushed down. Versus in this world, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I think he’s really written about all of the facets of society in a way that makes it into a true utopian society for their context. And I’m not saying that our world should be their world, but I’m saying that their world in its own right is a utopia. Everybody is truly happy and content within their place, and within their lives. There are certain elements that I think our society would want. Many suffering people would certainly prefer the lives in Brave New World to the painful lives that they are living. And there are elements, like a minimized fear of death, that I think are valid in a general way: allowing children to see death and to understand it is something that our society often lacks.
I want to ask about your initial comment about how Brave New World‘s society can be perceived as a utopia by you and others because it is perceptible as a utopia, as opposed to something like 1984. Some would say that that’s really the problem with it. That’s why many people find the last chapter of 1984 to be the most horrifying one, though there’s no torture in that one; no pain or suffering, just conciliation. Notably in works like Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Huxley’s own Brave New World Revisited, you’ll hear the case made that we are moving toward the model sketched by Brave New World, where what Brave New World argues is that we will be made complacent. We’ll be taught to value ignorance and entertainment. We will be shying away from discovery, curiosity, and true feeling, in exchange for simple pleasures. With that general concern in mind, how do you justify saying that—because it’s perceptible as a utopia by some—that it is therefore a utopia?
NN: Well, it’s not that it’s perceptible by some. It’s because it is a utopia. Everyone in that society is actually happy, actually content. There’s no suppression. In 1984, the reason why the ending is so disliked is an extreme example of obvious suppression. We feel Winston Smith experiencing that suppression of his identity and of his self. And he has something that was taken away from him. Versus these people in Brave New World, although it feels strange and distant to our society (we don’t like the idea of genetic engineering, we don’t like the idea of human experimentation and cloning)—
Do you like those ideas?
NN: No, not necessarily, no. Again, I don’t think that Brave New World is how our society should be or where our society should go towards. But as a society on its own, thinking of it as an isolated case, it works. If you think of it as a succession of where we are now, then it becomes kind of creepy, because you’re thinking of us losing what he have already.
So you’re only willing to accept it as a utopia with the caveat that it was always that way?
NN: I see it as a utopia in its own right. If you look back into its history, one can only imagine a 1984-like era when people were losing their ability to think, were losing their identity, and getting to this place. So you have a period of dark ages. But I don’t get the same impression if I consider it already existing, consider it existentially.
What is the practical difference between Winston Smith in 1984 living a period of his adult life with authentic freedom and then losing it, and someone having that capacity removed in advance before they’re even conscious like the Epsilon Class in Brave New World?
NN: I think that there’s an extremely clear distinction. Because you’re not losing anything, if your identity forms after the change.
I suppose that would depend on a person’s perspective on the idea of ‘losing opportunities,’ but we’ll return to this. For now, I want to move more toward your own areas of expertise by returning to the considerations of art and society. So, particularly as regards the authenticity question: a big point that is made by the “savage” character is that he wants the right to feel unhappy, the right to experience negative emotions, the right to know that there is a depth of emotional context.
And it’s the kind of emotional context that we tend to use as our gauge for the value of art (in particular, John’s analogue is obviously Shakespeare). With that is mind, doesn’t the society of Brave New World, with its absolute negation of that in favor of only the most superficial pleasures give up something that you would not be willing to sacrifice?
NN: Yes. Well, again, you’re going back to what I would be willing to sacrifice when it’s not what I would per se want.
But by definition, isn’t that what a utopia would be?
NN: Obviously, if I were really a member of that society I would be happy and I would be totally content and it would seem like a great situation.
That’s a fair point, now that you put it like that. In fact, it is a very existentialist point, to say that, if already existing in the context of the society, you wouldn’t be unhappy. The definition or essence would follow the existence, as Sartre said. That’s a necessary condition of your being a member of that society.
NN: Right, but I’m not in the context of Brave New World‘s society, so I can’t imagine myself coming into the context of the society in the same way. If I was able to come into that context I would, as is already thought of by Huxley, I would go off to the islands and live with that group of outcast intellectuals and do my own scientific experiments and write and make art. The society makes space for people that, against all odds, would prefer not to be there. And that’s not something that’s suppressed. That’s not something that’s chided. That’s something that’s discussed. Mustapha Mond, for instance, discusses it.
NN: Yes, but I’m saying that the primary society and systems of Brave New World, taken as a whole, do include these options. You have people who live off the land in the American reservations—live within in a natural world. And this is a very essential thought in regards to the utopia of Brave New World: there are alternatives. After coming into existence in that society, people aren’t forced into basically anything. They’re conditioned, yes. But they’re created in such a way that they are happy; they are content; they are not overworked. Even the Epsilons aren’t overworked.
On a psychological level, what is the difference between conditioning as described in Brave New World and conditioning as described in 1984?
NN: Well, first of all, there’s what I talked about before, which is the hormonal and chemical conditioning, such that you enter the world already content, already prepped to be contented. You’re already a happy human being. And then the other things are kind of like the substitutes for pop culture, if you think about it. Huxley set up the society such that they’re conditioned in a more nurturing environment, such that the society as a whole has accepted the way in which these children are conditioned, as well as the people who have created this conditioning. The one thing that is kind of a nod to—that is kind of in the same realm as many other dystopian novels is the scene in which the babies are brought out and they are conditioned with shock therapy, which I honestly found somewhat forced into the world that Huxley had already created. Such that it seems that these children are inhumanely treated in a way that nobody in this society is treated.
So you’re saying it’s almost contrived, that in Brave New World‘s society as Huxley has rendered it, that those inhumane practices don’t seem that necessary?
NN: They don’t. They seem added in, to help Huxley say, ‘Oh no, this is not actually a utopia; this is actually a dystopia; look at how these children are being shocked.’ You know, it seemed to me that one particular scene didn’t fit in with the rest of the world I saw.
I think the essential question, when you’re distinguishing between a dystopia and a utopia, is, “Would you yourself be happy to live in this society?”
NN: Well, I feel like I’ve already answered that question.
Yes, but rather than couching the terms by saying, “If I was born in the society, I would be happy there,” I think most people—certainly, most of Aldous Huxley’s readers—are not thinking about it that way. They’re thinking, “I certainly myself would not want to live here.” And that’s enough for them to say it’s a dystopia. But you would maintain, despite sort of agreeing with that sentiment, that it is a utopia.
NN: Yes, you know, I think that I identified, or in regards to my own character and how I would be in this society, kind of with Mustapha Mond. Mustapha Mond is completely aware of all the facets that Brave New World‘s society has, but yet he agrees with me that they have made necessary sacrifices in order to remain utopian, with happiness and stability. They’ve made sacrifices from the world we see now, know now—
Are they acceptable sacrifices? Mustapha’s point is that it’s an acceptable sacrifice to give up empathy, deep-felt emotion, deep-felt consideration, deep intelligence (and related institutions like science and art), in favor of universal happiness.
NN: You know, I don’t think that that’s a crazy thing to say. Haha.
Ha. Well, that’s why I’m interviewing you.
NN: I think that it would be an honest and considerable split if that question was asked to our current population.
So, would you consider this to be a hedonistic utilitarian utopia? That’s certainly a respectable position in its own right; in recent years, ethical philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, has shifted to favor hedonistic utilitarianism over preference utilitarianism.
NN: Well, in regards to that philosophy itself, I don’t think that it’s a ludicrous thing to propose. Brave New World, I don’t think fits perfectly into the definition of hedonistic utilitarianism, although they have eliminated constant and mass unhappiness, I think almost entirely. It doesn’t quite fit that school of thought, though, because those who will experience emotional turmoil and who do have the intelligence and desire to explore and investigate and be unhappy have their niches where they can live a life in a similar way to how we live life today. Though, true, meanwhile we see the majority of the population, obviously, prioritize happiness. And then you’ve got the reservation, that prioritizes family and community in a way that none of the other sections of society do. There is—with some outside communities varying from only pursuing happiness—everyone is happy within their own lives.
Would you—and this is a very manipulative question, and it’s a hypothetical—would you give up your intelligence in exchange for contentment and happiness for the rest of your life?
NN: I think that’s a manipulative question. Haha. Well, I think that’s the capital question of all the readers of this book, but it’s also kind of a trick question.
NN: Because honestly if you asked me at various times of my life, I would have given different answers. And that’s the nature of humans. I think that at a time in my life when I feel miserable and I feel a consistent span of pain or unhappiness, then yeah, I would give up everything for happiness.
Including intelligence? And art and science?
NN: At times like those, I certainly would. Because I’ve been in extreme pain before and all I can think is that I would do anything to not be in that pain. People think that way. That is how our society works, because we are absorbed humans. We can’t think objectively about ourselves. Each part of life is another isolated period of existential context. At most times, like right now, when I’m feeling completely contented, I would say, no, I’m contended and I enjoy my art and I enjoy my creativity and I enjoy my philosophical ponderings. In everyday life they bring me joy in a way that the hedonism described in Huxley’s book would not. So that’s why it’s a trick question, or at least an unhelpful question. Because I think all humans, if you asked various people at various situations in life, they would give different answers. And I think there would be a significant percentage that would answer either way.
Again, I take your point about the existential context. Through that lens, you’re right that it’s a trick question, because if you were already unintelligent or in pain, you would be content to have unintelligent pleasures.
So it’s a non-starter to say, “But as you are now, would you choose unintelligence?” when it is rather the case of whether this is a good society for people that are brought into it unintelligent.
NN: Yeah, because, again, if I was choosing unintelligence it would be akin, as we were talking about with 1984, to a loss of something. I would thus be losing a life and identity that I currently have.
This all reminds me of what I wrote in this week’s Thursday Theater article on Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers: by almost never breaking his fascist-parody style, he may have presented something that some viewers (especially those already inclined toward aggressive nationalism and militarism) might accept as sincere.
NN: The way that Aldous Huxley’s novel was written was as a critique of Huxley’s society; it’s written to comment on our society. So, yes, that’s obviously the way it is written. I accept that, of course. However, I was able to read Brave New World‘s society also as a utopian society in its own right, as an isolated utopian society, not as a commentary on our current society. There’s obviously many merits and more small supporting details for reading the book as Huxley intended it. But if you are to look at it as an isolated utopian society, yes, from some perspectives you can read it from both sides. If we’re looking at the society already in existence on its own, as its own world, I stand by that I think he has been one of the most successful writers ever in drafting a feasible utopia.
To transition toward a conclusion, and as I have you here—a young theatre professional—I wanted to ask you if there is any particular play that you think is not read enough, that you think comments on these issues and that you recommend?
NN: I actually have one that is extremely relevant to this interview, and to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which is Vladimir Mayakovksy’s The Bed Bug. I think that a lot of people don’t know much about Mayakovsky, but he is a great practitioner and director, and his plays in translation from Russian are also fascinating if you are interested in utopian and dystopian literature. The Bed Bug‘s a utopian/dystopian drama, which you don’t see very much. And it’s funny! It’s the story of Prisypkin, who is, with a series of ridiculous and hilarious circumstances at his wedding, transported into the future to a utopian society where they make him into a zoo exhibit along with a bedbug that traveled with him. And it’s just wonderful.
Sounds weird and interesting. And, finally, what projects are you working on at the moment?
NN: Well, currently I am an Emerging Professional Resident in Directing at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, where I assistant direct several mainstage productions and direct short plays. I’m also working on a reading for American Players Theatre, a Lanford Wilson Event at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and doing some event organizing for the new play American Song.
My last question: what is your personal philosophy in your theatre work?
NN: I think that my main focus and what I appreciate the most are the community-building aspects of theatre, and I try to bring that into my rehearsal processes by creating a very collaborative atmosphere in a way that’s akin to how devised works and ensemble theatres work. But I bring that into rehearsal processes for any project I’m working on. I believe that the collective mind is the most creative mind, which I don’t think is how many modern directors work, so I’m trying to bring that back. That’s kind of how a lot of great practitioners curated their practices.
Sounds great. Nabra Nelson, thank you so much for being here today.
About the Interviewee:
Nabra Nelson is presently an Emerging Professional Resident in Directing at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. She holds a degree in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in Directing from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she did her honors thesis work on the “bad” quarto of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. She focuses her work on issues of community that necessarily involve the topics of diversity and conformity as discussed by Aldous Huxley. Other notable biographical details include that she is half-Nubian, trilingual, and holds a minor in Physics. The next project whose production involves Nabra, American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith, will be showing at Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse from March 15 to April 10.
Interview with Nabra Nelson,