A reprise from my old blog…
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World includes a character named Helmholtz Watson, a eugenic specimen so perfect his superiors describe him as “able, perhaps too able.” All of the novel’s main characters have imperfections, but Watson’s may be the most interesting, as he is a writer and thus in the position to suggest Huxley’s view of his craft. What does it mean for a writer to be “too able”?
Strictly speaking, Watson isn’t a writer. He’s an “emotional engineer” charged with indulging and titillating his audience, with giving them precisely what they want and making them want precisely what he gives them. He’s really a propagandist, and he is well versed in inspiring feelings in his readers. To that end, his subject is incidental. The sale is more important than the product.
Part of Watson’s being too able, however, is knowing something is wrong, seeing what he is and realizing it isn’t enough. A tickling absence possesses him. Watson complains his tasks waste his talent. He senses he needs a subject, and the anaesthetized brave new world offers no tears or fury, no envy or unrequited affection.
The trouble is, Watson seems uncertain those things exist. It’s not entirely clear he even has the apparatus to understand them if he were exposed to them. Introduced to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Watson laughs and laughs. He has been so thoroughly conditioned, the contents of the play are too absurd to consider, so implausible he can’t identify anything human in them. The story is, in the end, a story and nothing more.
Ironically, Helmholtz Watson alerts Huxley’s readers to disturbing, real possibilities Watson can’t himself consider. Properly engineered and propagandized, human beings can be rendered insensitive to feelings people like to believe innate. In fact, the human appetite for entertainment and stimulation is so deep and vast, it can make empathy into merely an imaginative tool, a handy means of getting into art rather than an intimate connection to another human’s emotion. Worse, Watson’s callousness suggests intellect—of which humans are so proud—aids dissociation. Being too able means Watson can think around and think away feelings. Big brains can convince themselves of anything, even that everything we experience is a construction of the mind, not real. From there, it’s a small step to believing empathy is dispensible.
Like any good satirist, Huxley gives no viable solution to these possibilities. He doesn’t say they need solutions. They just are.
His warning seems more clear: the material is not the excuse for the technique. Writing about life is dangerous because it isn’t life, and an artist courts insensitivity, artifice, propaganda when he or she forgets to focus on the subject and not the artifice of creation. Nothing as horrifying and sad as Helmholtz Watson can happen as long as artists recognize being “able” is only one of the demands he or she faces…and, relative to other demands and responsibilities, maybe not so important.