Wednesday, 7 October 2015

O Brave New World, That Has Such Minor Irritations In It

I saw a play based on Huxley's Brave New World tonight, and it was a pretty good effort, even if the novel is clearly tricky adapt to the stage. It did, however, remind me of one of my least favourite tropes.

It happens with dispiriting frequency when you have a fictional future society, cut off from the modern world, and with a vastly different set of cultural values. Someone in this future finds A Book (usually Shakespeare, but any other western canonical author will do) and - despite the aforementioned vastly different set of cultural values - they are enormously moved by it. They usually understand it *identically* to the way that 20th and 21st century readers would understand it. Often, the Timeless Truth and Beauty will disturb and shock the complacent masses of this future society, who see their shallowness reflected in its depth.

At least in the play of Brave New World*, John (who finds a complete works of Shakespeare when he can barely read, and grows up in a culture that has never even heard of theatre) quotes the *exact* lines of Shakespeare that would be famous to a modern audience. In Fahrenheit 451, rebels are sentimental and protective of Greek philosopers, renaissance playwrights and victorian poets, but seemingly unfazed by the burning of anything less respectable, and people with no knowledge of literature and history are brought to tears by, of all things, Matthew Arnold. In a fairly awful Dan Simmons novella called "Muse of Fire", a group of starfaring actors from the distant future discuss their favourite Shakespeare plays as if they were schoolteachers in the 1990s. The idea that context might colour reception is totally absent.

The thing is, we *know* what happens when we encounter literature that is contextually alien to us. I remember being an arrogant fifteen year old, studying Pride & Prejudice for my GCSEs, and despising every page of it. I didn't have the skill or sensitivity to empathise with the class anxieties of regency women. Working out why Austen is revered took a bunch of growing up, and a hefty widening of cultural reference points. But most importantly, it took living in a culture that was happy to point to why this stuff was so enormously popular.

And we *know* that we don't receive Shakespeare now in the way that it was received in any century since it was written. The idea that someone in a distant future would be instantly moved by the same words that move us today is bizarre. Most of the time, we like the stuff we like because we can grab onto it, find points of common ground, seize phrases and ideas and situations that resonate with us. If it's distant, alien and strange, that can be fun too, but parsing such works takes effort: it won't fire off the instant beauty and knowledge that this process seems to bring in dystopias.

(It's also creepily imperialist to assert that the most respected bits of English literature will be considered timeless by any imagined future; works by non-western cultures don't tend to get a look-in. But that's a whole other argument).

Right now, I'm reading Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and it's much, much smarter when it deals with this stuff. In a society where women are forbidden from reading or writing, it's not canonical works of literature that bring relief or freedom from an oppressive culture, but whatever scraps of writing can still be found: old magazines, school textbooks, scraps of graffiti, words sewn into cushions. To believe that great wells of feeling or thought can only survive in the most canonical texts devalues the rest of literature. And to believe that canonical texts can show up in radically different cultures with their interpretation untouched devalues what an exciting mess a culture can make of anything.

If someone in the distant future did find a long-forgotten copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, I'd much rather they *didn't* understand it. What they'd make of it would be so much more interesting.

*and probably in the novel too. I haven't yet put the books in my new flat into a searchable order, so hunting for my copy would time-consuming. And it's already half midnight.


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