The Dystopian Death of Mindfulness

This blog will include some spoilers for the books Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World.

Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World are iconic works of dystopian fiction – I would actually go as far to say that they are iconic works of 20th Century literature full stop, regardless of genre. I recently read them back to back. I saw a great number of similarities between the two novels; themes of class, control, propaganda, the destruction of intellectualism, revisionist history, and the suppression of free speech.

Being such iconic works many people much cleverer than me have written extensive texts on these novels, therefore writing a simple review discussing a few of the most obvious themes seems like rather a pointless exercise. Therefore I reflected on what stood out most to me, not the English Literature graduate me who is trained in spotting themes and literary devices, but the me who enjoys picking up a good book and having an enjoyable weekend reading. I saw in these novels the destruction of mindfulness, something which I am attracted to as a concept as I try to regularly attend classes in meditation at the Manchester Buddhist Centre and use long-form journalling to attune my awareness to the events in my life. Here is a basic definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

In Fahrenheit 451 the focus of the novel is the destruction of literature (the title being a reference to the burning point of paper), our protagonist Guy Montag is a Fireman whose job is to conduct raids and destroy literature where it is found. Books are symbolic of thoughtfulness, freedom of expression, and of moments of solitary reflection – ideas which are all very much in tune with the practice of mindfulness. Similarly in Brave New World, beyond instructional manuals, books are forbidden; they are aligned with individualism and savagery – the works of Shakespeare are found on a savage reservation (places in the world which were not deemed worthy the effort of civilising). To want to spend time alone reading in this brave new world is remarked as being incredibly strange, the desire to read denotes a person, an individual, who doesn’t want to work for the good of society.

The society in Brave New World has not only done away with literature, it has done away with personal progress. From birth each person is conditioned exactly to fit their destined place in the chain-mail of society, this conditioning encourages a complete lack of self reflection and self improvement. One character, Linda, becomes lost in a savage reservation whilst on a research holiday, when she finds out she is with child and with no hope of returning to civilisation she must raise this child within the savage world but to her own ideas of civilisation. John, her son, has so many questions about the world that she has no answers to because she never reflected on her place, she never attempted to better herself, she only did her assigned job and has only the information that was necessary for her to fulfill her tasks. Thus mindfulness is dealt another blow, as people do their jobs unaware truly of what they are doing or why.

In both novels there is constant need for entertainment to prevent moments of silence or reflection, moments of mindfulness. The houses in Fahrenheit 451 are fitted with surround screen televisions (much like the ‘Screen X Cinema‘ which recently opened in Manchester). Huxley takes this even further and fitted his universe with sensory orchestras which incorporate scents as well as sound and visuals into their performances, sports with require complex arsenals of equipment to take part in, and euphoria enducing drugs called ‘soma’ which help distract people from pain, discomfort, ugliness, and boredom.

Of course it seems not only cliche but also hypocritical (as I’m posting this blog on social media) to compare these worlds of conformation and sensory excess to our own in which some form of entertainment – whether it be music, video, or simply images of beautiful people, are available at the scroll of a fingertip, but it would certainly pertain to an oversight not to mention this parallel. These two novels did not reach their legendary status without their applicability to every generation, each enthralled with the new age entertainment of their era, each forgetting about and causing the slow death of mindfulness.

Spoilers upcoming for the end of the novels!!

In Brave New World John attempts to live as a hermit, this is after not being able to find his place in the world after himself and his mother are returned to civilisation. The rest of society sees his retreat as a novelty, something that they can gawk at and make fun of. For making fun of something is the simplest way to reject it and not have to reflect upon it. Each person in the crowd that surrounds his home to watch his novel way of life creates to reject mindfulness, there is no sympathy with John or reflection on why he is doing this – only mockery. The only option to not being part of the crowd is being John – an outsider, alone, sad, and freakish.

In Fahrenheit 451 we see a similar retreat into the wilderness where the distractions provided by society can no longer reach us. Montag, after reading one of the books he found on a raid, joins a group of outlaw intellectuals and in doing so become more than himself – he becomes a book. The fragments of the books he remembered are allowed to live on through his mind, he for the first time feels purpose and intent in his life. He is able to talk freely and also spend time in reflection. He can focus his mind on the task of memorising literature and understand why he is doing this – the exact opposite to his career within society which symbolised mindless destruction.

In both novels therefore in order to achieve any sense of peace in which self reflection can be done both characters reject society, and in turn reject safety, the people they love, and to some extent happiness. Conformity always provides a sense of happiness, this is further reinforced by the drug soma in Huxley’s novel, mindfulness can provide happiness it just involves a lot more work to get there. It is the happiness that comes with completing a long hike, or finishing a long book – requiring focus, effort, and time. Characteristics that are repeatedly undermined in these dystopian universes, and increasing in own our world of instant reactions and fast paced work.

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