In our sinister time after Covid, the worlds of Nietzsche, Huxley and Orwell collide
‘Social Justice Stories: Viruses, Villains, Victims & Victors’ is the result of an annual writing competition for high school pupils. It is a collaboration between the South African Schools Debating Board and the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria. In her entry, Rita Zeefal reflects on the advent of a Brave New World.
High school pupils in South Africa were invited to submit an entry of no longer than 1,000 words on the theme “The Covid-19 pandemic: Viruses, Villains, Victims and Victors”. It could be an opinion piece, a reflective essay, a short story or a poem. The competition is free of charge and submissions could be in any of the 11 official languages.
One of the entries was from Rita Zeefal, a recent graduate of Roedean School (SA), who will be pursuing a bachelor of arts degree at Sciences Po, or the Paris Institute of Political Studies, in August 2023. Her main areas of interest are languages (ancient and modern), letters, history and the arts. She intends to pursue a career in writing, media or diplomacy.
Zeefal said her entry was chiefly inspired by the title of the anthology for which it was written, and the artistic and intellectual material that was of interest to her during the first quarter of 2022. “The literary works which inspired my writing include Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Other influences were the lyricism of Lou Reed, on such records as Berlin (1973), and the current affairs of the period, such as Russian Federation’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine,” she said.
This is her submission.
In our time – meditations
What, if anything, can be said to have been the dominant feel of the early 2020s? Madness? Paranoia? A century ago, the Francis Fitzgeralds of the western world chronicled a zeitgeist of colour, excess, and danger: Al Capone-type gangsters, flappers who chain-smoked and danced the Charleston, and a world in which possibility, if not anything else, existed and mushroomed like the atom bombs of the second Great War that came about twenty years later. The 1920s were the stuff of excitement and legend. However, will the 2020s be able to leave behind as romantic a history? So far, the negative appears to be the most probable answer, and as the world becomes more and more akin to those prophesied by such thinkers as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, it becomes necessary to evaluate what this fledgling decade has brought us thus far and where that may leave future generations.
Aldous Huxley, famed for his 1932 dystopian social science novel Brave New World, commented in 1958:
“If the first half of the twentieth century was the era of the technical engineers, the second half may well be the era of the social engineers — and the twenty-first century, I suppose, will be the era of World Controllers, the scientific caste system and the Brave New World.”
Huxley’s observation indeed seems highly probable, if not absolutely true at this very moment. His Brave New World, for context, tells a tale of a world inundated with pleasure, whose citizens care little for the pursuit of freedom in the face of an authoritarian government which renders them so by means of mass-conditioning and distraction. Our age has seen various governments and corporations having more access to (and more surveillance over) the average citizen’s private life than ever before. This phenomenon has been brought to new and staggering heights as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the now widespread use of social media among the world’s citizens. In Huxley’s world, citizens are placated by such distractions as promiscuity and the super-drug Soma; in ours, many of us are kept occupied by our addictions to technology, recreational drugs, pornography, the capitalist rat-race, etc. Individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg and governments such as that of the People’s Republic of China have, in the technological age, amassed unprecedented levels of power. Among us plebeians, there are the sceptics, the indifferent, and the scared. It therefore becomes apparent that Huxley becomes something of a lost oracle for our age, as the 2020s and twenty-first century at large progress and begin to look truly sinister indeed.
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Making worse the advent of a dystopian world order is the coronavirus pandemic, which has perhaps done more than any of its phenomenal precedents in recent history to turn pear-shaped the global economy. Large sector tech industries, such as those dominated by retail giant Amazon and social media powerhouse Facebook, are now so evolved that along with creating monopolies in their fields (and thus eradicating the existence of true free-market capitalism), they are now more equipped than ever to program, prompt, and map out the personal online data of their customers. The world now sees itself moving into an era of “big data”, mass-surveillance, and mass-compliance among its citizens. This renders it akin not only to Huxley’s world, but to that of Orwell as well.
Did those living through the early 1920s, having come out of a world war and a pandemic, not also think their world to be (or to have been) on the edge of collapse?
Not only has the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the advent of mass surveillance and “big data”, but it has also done much to widen the already distressingly large gap between the world’s über-rich and its shockingly poor. The pandemic has forced millions of children out of school worldwide and has taken away the professional opportunities of many of those reliant on the small-businesses sector. Simultaneously, it has also managed to allow mega corporations to reap billions of dollars in profit during the same period. If it is not the technological and authoritarian advances that make our age truly dystopian, it will most certainly be the socioeconomic phenomena thereof.
Huxley is, however, far from the only thinker of ages previous to have foreseen the crises of the modern age. In his seminal 1883 work of philosophical fiction, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes of how the ultimate goal of every society is to turn its every citizen into the Last Man. Such an actor is devoid of organic ambitions and desires, seeks not to overcome himself (unlike his famed antithesis, the Übermensch), and is content to receive and carry out orders from authority so as to avoid pain and have access to pleasure. With every new age, it seems as though the average citizen becomes more and more like this character. With the aforementioned distractions and ennui of the modern age being ever present, one is rendered capable of seeing the worlds of Nietzsche, Huxley, and Orwell collide and thus beget the twenty-first century.
What redeems the modern age, however, is perhaps the generation of dancing stars which exists in its midst. Indeed, for as long as some of us who constitute the great body that is mankind maintain our dreams and drive, there will always be the possibility of a world that is able to, for the most part, thwart its plagues, whatever they may be, regardless of the daggers that hang before the face of modernity.
The advent of the Brave New World looms before us, as it did for Huxley in 1932, and Nietzsche in 1883. The question must be asked therefore: did those living through the early 1920s, having come out of a world war and a pandemic, not also think their world to be (or to have been) on the edge of collapse? While it may seem always that our fragile egg of reality lies always on the brink of disaster, it is ultimately within the power of our age to carve out for itself a history transcending as that of its famed and century-old predecessor. DM
Social Justice Stories: Viruses, Villains, Victims & Victors is published by The Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria. The official launch will be on 8 October 2023.
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