Modern Library Revue #5: Brave New World

November 15, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 11 7 min read


On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

coverWhen someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.

But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.

After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.

In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers).  Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.

I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.

There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.

We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.

Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”

covercovercoverSatire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:


This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.

Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”

I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.

So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.

People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Very good! Here are the thoughts I had after reading your piece: “I am white, heterosexual, the great great granddaughter of German immigrants, middle-class, fairly intelligent, fairly prosperous. I have suffered from patriarchy, misogyny, organized religion (both mainstream and cult), loss, and depression. I can consciously, intentionally document white supremacy because I have been harmed by it. Any woman has. Whether or not I ever finish my memoir/autobiography, I can infuse it with disdain.”

  2. 1) Reducing the election down to racism and sexism is seeing from a dim ideological viewpoint. This election was about way more than that, and I think you have fallen into the DNC tactic of emotionalizing and rallying its base. Nobody tried to shoot our black President. The DNC didn’t wield its message effectively. Trump wielded his message of economic reform effectively. Elections are always about soundbites and emotions and the people telling themselves a story of who their country is.

    2) Books are still revered in our culture. Cut people some slack–the 21st century has created an overwhelm of things demanding our attention. Disdain don’t solve this ‘problem.’ The fearful projections of the decline of book sales with the advent of the internet has not held true.

    3) Writers strive to paint a true and accurate portrait of reality, not perpetuate their ideological biases. Your writing would be strengthened by honest, real conversations with those who don’t think and feel as you do, rather than writing to those who do. The reason Anna Karenina cannot compare to Middlemarch is that the characters were manipulated towards an ideological purpose. Middlemarch, on the other hand, is a rich tapestry of human experience.

  3. Amanda’s comment deserves a moment’s attention from Millions readers. It’s interesting to see that some stray Russian trolls from sites like The Guardian might be moving over to The Millions.

    Here’s a bit of context for anyone who might not know how pro-Trump Russian trolling works:

    Note some of the awkward language from Amanda’s comment: “a story of who their country is” and “an overwhelm of things demanding our attention” and “Disdain don’t solve this ‘problem.'”

    Note too the odd disconnect between what Kiesling wrote and Amanda’s three points: Amanda clearly didn’t quite follow the arguments Kiesling was making. This often happens with pro-Trump Russian trolls because they go from site to site quickly, posting comments before they’ve properly read the text they’re attacking.

    If Amanda isn’t one of these trolls, she sure sounds like one.

  4. Russian Troll? should shut the fuck up. Conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. If the Russian government has taken to infiltrating The Millions of all places, then hand me the samovar and let me die lamenting the death of Bulgakov’s reputation. Obviously Putin’s a dumb limbless son of a bitch, but fuck every single voice in the internet at this point. At this point I think that fascist Celine had the best argument of all

  5. @Dunbar Humbly: I live in Europe, where we have years of experience of watching the Russian troll farms hit social media sites much smaller than The Millions. If the Russian trolls are willing to spend time in the comments sections of tiny local sites in Amsterdam and Berlin (where they support right-wing nationalist candidates and viewpoints), they’re willing to do it here. Anyway, the existence of the pro-Trump Russian troll farms isn’t some fringe conspiracy theory. It’s a fact of the modern Internet, and you can read more about it at The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine:

  6. Russian Troll

    The problem with your dumb fucking conspiracy theory is that nothing Amanda said was pro-Trump in the least. As long as the left solely blames racism for Trump’s win, and labels all dissenting opinions as the work of Putin, they will fail to learn the lessons of this election and lose the next one.

    I’m also super tired of hearing Europeans condescend to Americans about what’s really going on here. The intellectual arrogance on display is astounding. Just shut the fuck up already. You are not nearly as smart and enlightened as you think you are.

  7. You see how it works. One troll after another will insult me while misrepresenting anything I — or anyone else — might say. They’ll keep coming back, and you’ll know them by their aggressive and relentless hostility towards anyone who disagrees with them. The best thing to do is not to engage with them, but I figure somebody needs to point them out to the rest of The Millions’ readers so it’s easier for everyone to steer clear of them.

  8. “The intellectual arrogance on display is astounding.”

    The refined intellectual qualities of the raging, hissing, bile-spitting, floor-stomping, breath-holding, toy-smashing, ad-hominem-slinging contributions from the baffled and wounded Clintonites, across these threads, clearly deserve anything but a bemused or arrogant response, right, Tiger? It shouldn’t remind anyone of the audience at a cage match at all! Those damned Ferners!


  9. Given Steven Augustine’s persistent, knee-jerk anti-Clintonism, mocking, and past statement that Americans ” deserve” whatever consequences come to us from a Trump Administration, I don’t consider him a friend to our interests or ally in our real concerns about threats to our democracy.

  10. Moe (and other book folks), let’s just ignore him until he goes away. I’ve been feeding him, but no more. He thrives on attention and the ability to demonstrate to anyone who will listen just how smart he is, and if he can’t get that here he’ll just take his Scare Capital-littered screeds lifted directly from “Clinton Cash” elsewhere. Then we can get back to the books.

  11. @You Cuddly Guys

    Still no facts , in rebuttal, after all this time? Just more angry, empty ad hominems: QED. I am deeply shocked and hurt! Laugh

    On the other hand: hats off to your Brainwashing! It pays to buy the best.


    “I don’t consider him a friend to our interests or ally in our real concerns about threats to our democracy.”

    Your “democracy”!!!! I love that. However: hilariously, you nailed it, Moe, because, no, I’m not a “friend” to the endless Neo-Liberal Wars you’ve been shrugging at for 8 years… profit-driven genocide is not my thing. Now that a “Republican” will be taking the wheel, however, I guess you’ll actually start *noticing* again. Which will be great. I look forward to it.

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