Huxley's fan-letter to Orwell for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Alduous Huxley sent George Orwell a fan-letter in Oct 1949, after receiving a review copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four from Orwell's publisher. Huxley (who, according to Letters of Note, was once Orwell's French teacher) is effusive in his praise, and goes on to directly compare Orwell's masterpiece with his own Brave New World.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

1984 v. Brave New World (Thanks, @brerphoenix!)

(Image: Lawrence Person's Futuramen)


  1. It’s interesting that Huxley appreciated 1984 because there are really two types of dystopia that nearly all later works fall into and they are represented by Brave New World and 1984 respectively (although you can argue that 1984 was presaged by things like Zamyatin’s “We”).

    1) The utopia that’s a dystopia under the surface. As in BNW, things are outwardly great. No war or poverty, plenty of cool toys to play with, but the price is that things are bad for people who don’t fit in.

    2) The obvious dystopia as in 1984. Things are just pretty bad for everyone with constant war and starvation, and the possibility of being sent to prison or a labor camp for minor infractions. Even the elites don’t have it that good — Inner Party people like O’Brien may have a nice apartment and regular access to luxuries like wine, but they only have it good compared to the Outer Party and the Proles — they’d be middle class at best in our society.

    1. I was just going to say that.  I believe Orwell himself acknowledged the debt his book owes to Zamyatin’s work.  I actually prefer ‘We’ to ‘1984’.

      1. Orwell credited Zamyatin’s *We* with inspiring large parts of *Brave New World*, e.g. in the Jan. 4, 1946 *Tribune* article “Freedom and Happiness”. He’s probably right.

        And, as Brainspore notes in a comment below, Huxley’s letter to Orwell sounds more like “ur doing it wrong” than unqualified praise.

        Orwell wasn’t always so nice to Huxley either, in print or in private. Nastiest thing, in a 1949 letter to Rees, re *Ape and Essence*: “You were right about Huxley’s book — it is awful. And do you notice that the more holy he gets, the more his books stink with sex. He cannot get off the subject of flagellating women. Possibly, if he had the courage to come out and say so, that is the solution to the problem of war. If we took it out in a little private sadism, which after all doesn’t do much harm, perhaps we wouldn’t want to drop bombs etc…” Similar comments in Orwell’s last literary notebook drift over into speculation about suppressed sadism in pacifists generally — one of these Orwell hobbyhorses wrt which reasonable minds may differ.

        BTW, digging for the ‘flagellation’ quote online I found John Derbyshire saying some more things about Huxley and Orwell that are thoughtful if you allow for politics and attitude. See .

        1. Actually, if you think about it, “We” is kind of a mixture of the two dystopian styles: At one level, the “Benefactor” is a supposed all-knowing dictator similar to “Big Brother” and citizens can be imprisoned or killed at a whim, but on the other hand it is a prosperous society that favors casual sex over relationships (like Brave New World) rather than a prudish and starving society that wants people to give up sex in favor of artificial insemination (as in 1984)

        2. And, as Brainspore notes in a comment below, Huxley’s letter to Orwell sounds more like “ur doing it wrong” than unqualified praise.

          I think Huxley was basically saying his dystopia was more of a realistic projection for the future than Orwell’s, but I don’t think real-world plausibility is what makes 1984 great, it’s more like highlighting tendencies of totalitarian states by taking them the farthest extremes imaginable.

  2. Do you (other readers of boingboing) think there will be letters such as this one from our time available in the future, since letters are replaced by emails now. Will they be preserved?

    1. Do you (other readers of boingboing) think there will be letters such as this one from our time available in the future, since letters are replaced by emails now. Will they be preserved?

      I worry more about the absurd and excessive enforcement of “intellectual property” laws totally stripping away any semblance of a cultural commons, so that while such letters (and emails) may exist in the future, they could never be referenced without licensing, payments, etc.

      So I think they’ll still exist, but you’ll only see them on big media sites (should they care to post them), because they’ll be the only ones with the resources to post ’em.


    2. Given the way everything seems to run in cycles, it seems like it will only be a little more time before physical letters really make a comeback. I’ve already seen it start to happen, to a degree, in my circle of friends.

    3. Every email sent has at least two copies (one in the originating mailserv, one in the receiver’s). If both sender and receiver use a mail program like Outlook or Thunderbird, there’s two copies “in the cloud” and two copies on their computers.
      I’d say future historians will have their hands full sifting through the correspondance of the great minds of our time…to the point that Bayesian analysis and other statistical methods for exploring huge textual corpuses will likely become required in their training.
      Of course, that goes with a few caveats: people have to care enough to make regular backups, and to remember to arrange for their passwords to be passed on in the event of an unexpected demise (I think Cory wrote something about this problem a few years back).
      Still, recent history of countries with strong Internet penetration is well-documented. For instance, you can find in seconds the original newsgroup post (not an email) that invented the :) smiley (here).
      And that’s not even counting the other way we have of communicating that all leave traces in servers somewhere: texts, Facebook chat/messages, IM, etc.

    4. It’s important to remember that there were many, many letters in the past which were never preserved. The letters we can look back on now and learn about the past with are just the very small sampling that, for one reason or another, made it to the present. There’s no reason to think that the same process will not happen for email.

      We will not be able to read *all* email from the turn of this century at the turn of the next but we will have something to look at.

  3. An interesting letter, particularly in that it finds echos of  Huxley’s notions that Orwell probably never thought of. The use of various mental control technologies in Huxley, such as drugs, subliminal indoctrination, sleep-learning and etc. looked good in 1949, but have since been found to be either useless or not very effective. He mentions Freud and hypnosis, but the stranglehold Freudian ideas had on psychology in the 1950s has long since faded, as we discovered that the Couchmaster fudged his data, and the human mind isn’t as neatly malleable as we might wish.

    The other point is that Huxley doesn’t see to see that 1984 is not so much a critique of the “Ultimate Revolution” as it is a critique of the then fully operational Soviet Stalinist state of the 1940s. If you read Trotsky for Goldstein and the Hitler-Stalin Pact for “We have always been at war with Eurasia” then everything snaps into place. Orwell’s great insight was that Bolshevism always ends up in the Gulag, or the Killing fields of Cambodia.

    1. That’s particularly evident if you’ve read Animal farm, in which the “free” animal’s flag is a crossed hoof and horn on a solid green background.
      That being said, I don’t think Orwell was particularly anti-communist so much as anti-totalitarianism. 

      1. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it. ”

        Why I Write – George Orwell (1946)

        1. The problem is that “democratic socialism” is an incredibly vague term. What does it mean in a concrete sense? Scandinavian-style social nets? He didn’t get along with self-described communists, that’s for sure (the fact that he saw them as the murderers of his anarchist friends in Spain didn’t help), and in the “The Road to Wigan Pier” he rails against self-described socialists whom he stereotypes as bohemian vegetarians with no understanding of the working class (basically “dirty hippies” before the term was coined).

          1. Well, Scandinavian-style social nets didn’t really exist in Orwell’s time and would have been pretty radical by the standards of the day, right? So I think it’s actually possible this is basically what he meant, although he may also have been more optimistic than most people today would be about the the workability and efficiency of a centrally planned economy (but with elected central planners instead of ones picked by a totalitarian communist party).

    2. >….Orwell’s great insight was that Bolshevism always ends up in the Gulag

      I think that’s more FA Hayek who won a Nobel Prize in economics but emberassed himself pretty badly when he tried his hand at sociology.  For him, everything from vaccinations to school lunches was the first step down the slippery slope to the gulag. Those were popular idea during the McCarthy era, but history showed he was 100% wrong.   And he later became a big fan of Pinochet (yikes!).

  4. “The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.”

    Replace efficiency with safety and I think he’s got us (the US, and much of Western Europe) pegged. A “felt need.” Not a real need.

    1. But isn’t the felt need for efficiency and safety a response to a real lack of control we now have in our lives? (A mental/psychological problem?)

      1. But isn’t the felt need for efficiency and safety a response to a real lack of control we now have in our lives? (A mental/psychological problem?)

        I think that it is, but on the other hand, I think the control we attempt to apply to the world is largely illusory anyway.

        On that score, I would direct interested parties to Charles Eisenstein’s brialliant The Ascent of Humanity (it’s available for reading for free on the web). It’s probably not a popular book in these here parts — it could be perceived as anti-technological to the casual glance, but I think his analysis can be seen to be much deeper on a careful reading. It’s admitedly a little woo-woo at times, but I think it is insightful regardless.

        At least on one level, one could reasonable see the history of humanity as a history of control being applied at increasingly deeper and broader levels. One could also see it as a history of unintended consequences, and I don’t think these two are uncorrelated.

        1. Yes. But I would have to say that the deeper control is psychological/linguistic suppression and repression creating greater oppression between people as part of a genetically determined process which comes right in the end – not so much intelligent design as method in madness. The consequences are not unintended but create a lot of collateral damage. The brain knows what it is doing even if we do not.

          1. …method in madness

            I hope there is method in the madness, but increasingly I see only the madness….

            The book I referenced above was somewhat optimistic (in a way) as seeing the natural flow going from to control to reunification.  I hope this is the case, but I can’t help but have a somewhat pessimistic streak. The control in question seems to be applied indiscriminately towards everything, from linguistics to people to biospheres. While this was probably an adaptive strategy for a while, it seems to have run its course, and I don’t see that we humans have the flexibility to change.

            Perhaps there is some method baked in — we can only hope.

      2. I don’t think there particularly is a real need for more control in a typical western person’s life.  I think people just instinctively like the idea of being more safe.

  5. I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.

    Huxley obviously liked Orwell’s work but I do think there’s a slight undertone of “know what’s an even better book?” in there…

  6. Brave New World uses the method of the carrot, while Nineteen Eighty-Four uses the method of the stick. I’m surprised that Huxley, with his keen interest in Behaviourism, didn’t seem to realise that they work best in combination. Without the stick, the donkey might tire of chasing the ever elusive carrot. Without the carrot, too much of the brutal stick may break down the donkey’s will to live, let alone obey. Together, carrot and stick keep the donkey obeying in a system of cybernetic equilibrium.

    The trick is to give the subject the impression that it is maintaining its individuality by offering it a choice, depending on the subject’s temperament, how much it wants to be motivated by desire for reward (Brave New World’s “Feelies”, “Centrifugal Bumblepuppy” and Soma) and how much by fear of punishment (1984’s “Room 101” and jackboot stomping on face), when, in reality, any combination of reward and punishment leads to the same outcome: the subject obeys. What’s more, the subject has a tendency to fine tune itself for maximum efficiency of control.

  7. 1984 mocked the use of  diaelectics (“War is Peace” yadada yadda yadda) which intentionally  sounded jarring to the English and American ear.  Both Hegelian dialectics and Marxist dialectics were foundations of European “Continental” philsophy, which gave rise to Nazi and Socialist movements.

    In modern America, it is the movement conservatives that have adopted dialectics. “Clean Skies Initiatives” abolish air pollution control.  Ditto for “clean coal.”  The “Constitution Party” has been around forever, and they want to abolish constitutional rule in favor of Old Testament theocracy.  The people who yammer the most about “freedom” seem to be aspiring warlords, and the folks who rant about “independence” have usually spent their lives attached to the teat of federal subsidies and handouts.  The Federalist Society exists to promote anti-Federalist ideas.

    Likewise the press has adopted dialectics – in every discussion the truth is supposedly in the middle.   And so belief in every institution can be destroyed by a few screamers attacking the Post Office, Planned Parenthood, the Girl Scouts, the Muppets, whatever.  If someone shouts “fire!” the press repeats it every time, and eventually the public is convinced of the crisis and lets something else be torn down.   And so dialectics is used to dismantle all institutions outside the control of the Party.

    And let’s not forget the unity created by the Two Minute Hate, except you can catch at least 18 hours a day of hate on AM radio.  Boogey man Emanuel Goldstein has been replaced by Saul Alinsky, even though Alinsky has been dead for 40 years.

    In today’s world, our society is like Brave New World but our public discourse is 1984,

    1. I think it is not so much a problem of dialectics as the problem of belief and the ideological freedom to redefine words ad infinitum masked by the ‘combat of ideas’ in order actually to control meaning.

      1. That’s still dialectics as it was used in politics, because when ideas were in conflict, dialectics would adopt the other parties terminology (redefining words ad infinitum), which hopelessly muddles the arguement. When the goal is the eventual destruction of institutions outside the party (and not the creation of anything in particular),  reducing every debate to meaningless noise is a win for the party using dialectics.

        The main criticism of political dialectics was that it resolutely refused to answer anything, it would just keep ratcheting up the level of confusion until debate became impossible.

    2. When we had a Save Our Mountains campaign to stop development in scenic areas, the developers immediately incorporated as Save The Hillsides. Motherfuckers.

  8. It might be interesting to consider how Huxley’s predictions of the utility of hypnosis in combination with narcotics has played out. As M. Walsh says above, the human mind has proven less malleable than was thought in the 50s. This is true or at least very difficult to effect at root level of identity and survival-level struggle, (think Manchurian Candidate). At “trivial” levels, E.G., buying and voting, we have proven extraordinarily adaptable to manipulation by persuasive inputs (hence Thighmaster, Justin Beiber, Ronald Reagan…) A cathode-ray tube, timed to elicit a Startle response coupled, with direct and indirect suggestion turned out to be vastly superior to narco-hypnosis at suspending critical thinking almost entirely. We require 10 to 15 seconds to fully recover from a Start, by then we have typically been startled five more times. It’s a remarkably bad idea to consume in front of a television, “There’s always room for Jello.” Or WMD. Or Mitt, Newt or Skippy. 

  9. Huxley was right about the “infant conditioning” and “narco-hypnosis”…we don’t call it    by those names, we call it Television.  It doesn’t work by quite the mechanisms he predicted, but the effects are basically the same.

    Orwell’s 1984 method of beatings and physical violence and surveillance are old-school… they have a long history and are still with us.  Double-speak has been around since Machiavelli (and probably before that) and is still around.  

  10. From the comments above, I assume that Orwell has now been co-opted entirely by the Right, despite his being an avowed state socialist?

    1. Not entirely, but it has certainly been tried. Sometimes I halfway think the practice of teaching *1984* and *Animal Farm* to schoolchildren is intended to inoculate them against criticism of the grownups by causing them to associate it with boring old Cold War anticommunism.

      (*State* socialist?)

  11. Neither book explains  what sort of utopia the regimes are pursuing, probably because they have gotten beyond the aspirational stage and moved on to repression.  

    But dictatorships need a goal or vision to sell the masses. more than that it has to be a sort of inevitable “destiny,” so that if they merely destroy the existing order fast enough, their paradise will self-assemble.  You can see that today with libertarians. 

    The other thing about destiny and vision is that it always demands purification and purges.

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