Literature has always been my biggest pleasure and passion; ever since I can remember, I was reading something. Most people think that literature opens doors to different worlds, I simply think literature is, at all times, a reflection of our world: the most fascinating matter to analyze. This is how I decided to start this series called “Food in books” and explore food-related topics in literature.
Today, we look at G. Orwell’s “1984“, written in 1949 and A. Huxley’s “Brave new world“, written in 1932…otherwise said, an overview of food in the dystopian universe. I’ll start with an introduction about the authors and the worlds they describe, touch upon the forever-old debate that places them in opposition, bring in the food and conclude with a humble set of hypothesis. Let’s go!
Part 1. The authors and the novels
Eric Arthur Blair (pen-name George Orwell) was born in 1903 in the British India from a “lower-upper-middle class” family, as he describes it. In 1922, he started working as a policeman in Burma, but after a serious illness he reassessed his life and resigned with the purpose of becoming a writer. In the late ‘20s and ’30s he split his time between England and France and he had several jobs, as high school teacher or book seller, while writing articles for various publications. After being turned down for military service due to his bad lungs, he worked for the BBC between 1941 and 1943. While one can hold different critical views on the literary and journalistic elements, the fact that his job’s main objective was to write propaganda for broadcast to India should never be overseen. Meanwhile, his wife Eileen, also worked for the Ministry Of Information in the censorship department, until 1944. He later on dismissed his work for the BBC as a “bilge”; however his first biographer, Bernard Crick tried to portray and minimize his propaganda work for the BBC as a presentation of “cultural” broadcasts to educate Indians. Even though the BBC was and still is a private corporation, so-called independent from the state, it was as obvious then as it is today, that we can’t make any dissociation between the two. The assumption that Orwell’s experience at the BBC served as the inspiration for the MiniTruth in 1984 is widely accepted.
I’ll pause here and assume that people reading this article have read the book and will only give avery brief overview. If you haven’t read it yet, please do, as it will help you better understand our fucked-up world. 1984describes a dystopian universe, where the world is divided between three great powers Eastasia, Eurasia and Oceania, always at war between themselves, in various combinations. All three are totalitarian regimes, which reinforce state control over the entire existence of the (de-humanized) human being. Even the thoughts of the population are under state control, “thought-crime” being the worst offence. The people are divided between three classes, the Inner Party Members, the Outer Party Members and the Prols, all under the never-ending rule of Big Brother. Our hero, Winston Smith, is an Outer Party Member and clerk at the MiniTruth, the Ministry of Truth, which is in charge of “informing” the public. In reality, their job is spreading propaganda and re-writing the events that took place to reflect the present realities. Everything is gray and cold; there are all kind of shortages, for example the chocolate ratio goes down from 30 grams to 20 grams. Of course, this is broadcasted as good news, of having the ratio increased to 20 grams and everybody rejoices. It is important to also highlight the mind-binding exercise, called “double think”, which, I believe, is the essence of the entire book. It is a visceral story, that you feel like an ice-cold spike in your gut. In terms of literary analysis, it a wonderfully written piece; I absolutely love the use of vocabulary, phrase syntax and punctuation. Beautiful!
Huxley’s Brave new world
Adolous Leonard Huxley was born in 1894, in England, to the prominent Huxley family: his grand-father, T.H. Huxley was “Darwin’s Bulldog” and his brother, Julian Huxley, naturalist and zoologist, was the the Vice President (1937–1944) and, later on, the President (1959–1962) of the British Eugenics Society. This organization, founded in 1907, is still active today, under the name of Galton Institute. So here you have a bit of context about the Huxley family and Adolous’ background. It is a fascinating topic, so do read more about it if you have an interest in uncovering the links with today’s (more or less subtle) eugenics agenda and the institutions pushing this. Once again, I’m taking a wild guess and assume people have read the book (you must) and only give a brief overview. Brave new world describes an undefined future, 632 AF (After Ford) abiding the precepts of “Our Ford”, the replacement of god. People are not born anymore, but engineered and hatched in bottles; “mother” is one of the most obscene words. The system is structured in castes based on engineered intelligence, ranging from Alpha to Epsylon. Everyone is programmed through hypnopaedia to love their place in society and the tasks associated with it. And “everyone is happy now“. Humanity has “evolved” and everyone has everything they desire, based on a very aggressive consumerism and brainwashing since they were embryos in a bottle (Spending is better than mending). The catch is clearly explained: control the population by keeping them happy and always distracted, high on Soma (sounds familiar?). This is the time of Pavlovian behavioral conditioning, eugenics and chemically induced happiness. There is only one community where life as we know it has followed its course, “the reservation”. The inhabitants are called “Indians” or “savages”. The story follows the reunion (and clash) of the two worlds. As the cherry on the cake, I give you a piece of Huxley’s speech at UC Berkley (wink-wink) in 1962. If you have the stomach for it, you can listen to the entire speech here .
“It seems to me that the nature of the ultimate revolution with which we are now faced is precisely this: That we are in process of developing a whole series of techniques which will enable the controlling oligarchy who have always existed and presumably will always exist to get people to love their servitude. This is the, it seems to me, the ultimate in malevolent revolutions shall we say, and this is a problem which has interested me many years and about which I wrote thirty years ago, a fable, Brave New World, which is an account of society making use of all the devices available and some of the devices which I imagined to be possible making use of them in order to, first of all, to standardize the population, to iron out inconvenient human differences, to create, to say, mass produced models of human beings arranged in some sort of scientific caste system. Since then, I have continued to be extremely interested in this problem and I have noticed with increasing dismay a number of the predictions which were purely fantastic when I made them thirty years ago have come true or seem in process of coming true.”
Finally, in terms of literary expression, this novel is nothing more than a cheap feuilleton, written without any sort of literary feel or talent. Yet, it is a very important work to read…for the vicious ideas, and not for the literary thrills -there are none, rest assured.
Part 2. The opposition
Many, including Huxley himself, have argued that the two views of the future are opposed. And yes, at a first sight, how can they be the same thing? The plentifulness and perceived happiness of Brave new world and the shortages and utter depression of 1984? The “freedom” versus the “oppression”?
This is what Huxley thinks about Orwell’s work, you can read the letter he sent his former student (Orwel was Huxley’s student at Eton).
“And here I would like briefly to compare the parable of Brave New World with another parable which was put forth more recently in George Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty- Four. Orwell wrote his book between, I think between 45 and 48 at the time when the Stalinist terror regime was still in full swing and just after the collapse of the Hitlerian terror regime. And his book which I admire greatly, it’s a book of very great talent and extraordinary ingenuity, shows, so to say, a projection into the future of the immediate past, of what for him was the immediate past, and the immediate present, it was a projection into the future of a society where control was exercised wholly by terrorism and violent attacks upon the mind-body of individuals.
That if you can get people to consent to the state of affairs in which they’re living. The state of servitude the state of being, having their differences ironed out, and being made amenable to mass production methods on the social level, if you can do this, then you have, you are likely, to have a much more stable and lasting society. Much more easily controllable society than you would if you were relying wholly on clubs and firing squads and concentration camps. So that my own feeling is that the 1984 picture was tinged of course by the immediate past and present in which Orwell was living, but the past and present of those years does not reflect, I feel, the likely trend of what is going to happen, needless to say we shall never get rid of terrorism, it will always find its way to the surface.”
This is, obviously, false dialectics, very much in line with today’s approach of placing in opposition seemingly different views. In reality, both works explore exactly the same themes, in the exact same manner:
- Authority, power and control- “the ultimate revolution”
- Population engineering
- Cultural and creative destruction
- Stratified society
And what better proof that the two views are not opposed and do actually converge and co-exist, than our world today? Huxley’s pleasurable approach, promiscuity, mind-numbness perfectly merges Orwell’s nightmarish approach of control, lies and propaganda, continuous war and permanent population spying.
Part 3. The food
Food is such an integral part of who we are; it shows where we come from, what we love and hate and it says so much about us. It’s cultural, but so, so personal! Food defines humanity and humanity defines its food. And these two worlds would not have been complete without mentioning it. Surely, food is not the central theme, but it does contribute greatly to sketching the entire universe.
Orwell introduces it from the second paragraph of the book, setting the tone, when Winston enters his building, where the elevator is still not working: “The hall way smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats“. It immediately transports the reader into the story: you are actually able to feel the cold, the dampness, the dim light, the rancid smell and the boiled cabbage. Cabbage, an otherwise delicious vegetable, becomes the horror of horrors when boiled. Everyone in Winston’s building seems to be eating boiled cabbage. They could have cooked cabbage differently, but Orwell chooses to boil it, I like to think, on purpose. It shows the resignation of the people, the norm, the settling and abandonment. Because everybody does it. The boiled cabbage that everyone eats is symptomatic of the world they live in. An already depressing universe is beginning to shape up. Winston is smoking cheap, rationed cigarettes, with dry tobacco, that keeps on falling out and he’s drinking synthetic gin: “In any time that he could accurately remember, there had not been quite enough to eat……bread dark-colored, tea a rarity, coffee filthy-tasting, cigarettes insufficient- nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin“. Gin, the quintessential British drink, is present throughout the book as a mockery of the good old days. As a gin lover, I can actually taste the intoxicating, cutting flavor of the synthetic gin in my throat and in my stomach. I am not sure- and neither is Winston, if the sweet, clove-oil flavored gin served at the Chestnut Tree is any better. Probably not, but the Chestnut Tree is the meeting place of fallen intellectuals and former, now-reformed dissidents, so they may as well have something different because they are different- regardless of how bad it is.
In good tradition, Winston takes his lunch at the MiniTruth cafeteria which is not much better than the boiled cabbage. “Winston and Syme pushed their trays beneth the grille. Onto each was dumped swiftly the regulation lunch-a meal pannikin of pinkish-grey stew, a hink of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of Victory coffee and one tablet of saccharine.” Ever since I read the book first time, in high school, I wonder what exactly could be the pinkish-grey stew they serve at the cafeteria. I imagine it as a gooey chewy meaty stuff with watery, salty taste. So here’s how the day to day food for Outer Party members looks like. The Prols are not more fortunate, but goods do circulate more freely on the black market. Plus that they have beer- cheap beer, but beer nonetheless. It is below a Party Member to drink beer, but then again, the Prols are not even considered humans.
And then there’s the contraband food (coming from the Inner Party), the one Julia brings. The association is beautiful and, once again, the food sets the tone. In the old room, atop Mr. Charrington antiques shop in the prols’ neighborhood, everything seems so normal and, therefore, great. The light is beautiful, there’s an old-fashioned clock, the double bed is comfy, the prol woman in the courtyard sings while hanging the laundry. And the food is good, too.
The first package she passed to Winston had a strange and vaguely familiar feeling. It was filled with some kind of heavy, sand-like stuff which yelded wherever u touched it.
“It isn’t sugar?” he asked.
“Real sugar. Not saccharine, sugar. And here’s a loaf of bread- proper, white beard, not our bloody stuff- and a little pot of jam. And here’s a tin of milk-but look! This is the one I’m really proud of. I had to wrap a bit of sacking round it, because-“…
“It’s coffee”, he murmured, “real coffee”.
Everything hints to past times, the so-called “good old times”. Can you imagine the smell of coffee, real coffee invading every part of your body? It is such a sacred thing that Winston can only murmur its name. As simple as it may be, I found this scene one of the most powerful and heart-tearing part of the story. “It’s coffee”, he murmured, “real coffee“.
Now, can you imagine a world where gastronomy has disappeared? Where the pleasure of food, of eating, of savoring, of tasting, of yearning and craving is not even known to a large chunk of the population? Yes, there are things more morbid than this going on in Orwell’s London, but this food bit is a big contributor to the dehumanization and decay of the people. Because, it was cooking that made us humans, after-all.
In Huxley‘s world everything is wonderful and synthetically made, but not like the gin in Orwell’s world. It is deliciously engineered “…take a carotine sandwich, a slice of vitamin A pate, a glass of champagne-surrogate“. This scene takes place at the party given at Bertrand Marx’s house in the honor of Mr. Savage: the best of the best for all the Alphas attending this event. All food seems to be enhanced, vitaminized, with almost no natural ingredients. By the look of these foods, it appears people don’t cook at all. Of course, they would have better things to mindlessly enjoy. Eliminating cooking is, indeed, part of the dehumanization process. As all art and literary works have been destroyed, as science progress is kept at bay, within in “reasonable” limits, as theater has been replaced by the Feelies, all creative activities are simply not part of this world anymore. Cooking included. Obviously, there’s no mention of this fact in the book, but one only needs to connect the dots.
As most things in this novel, I have the feeling the future of food that Huxley paints might just be the one we’ll be facing soon. We’re already growing meat in the lab (beef surrogate for real), we have powders that can substitute an entire meal (because, really, who has the time to eat anymore?), we have synthetic cheese (pardon me, vegan cheese), vitamin water and oh! so many other ridiculous things. Now, I don’t know how much food itself was on Huxley’s mind and I have no idea if this was even a point of interest for him, the thing is the man nailed it. Unfortunately. As a side note, I read an article about a Taste Museum, a virtual reality fair where people’s brains are stimulated to feel certain tastes and smells. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Feelies!
There is absolutely no mention about the food the Deltas, Gammas and Epsylons are getting, yet, one can only imagine. I’ll go on a limp here and try to guess (and my guess is as good as yours) what these lower castes are eating. It needs to be something to keep them in good health and high on energy, something that is cheap and easy to make, something that requires no effort to prepare, something like a magic powder, something like this .
After being confronted with the modern civilization, the Savage decides to cleanse himself and to lead a recluse life, away from the wonders of the brave new world. This is what he decides to take with him, in the middle of nowhere “…two dozen packets of seeds, and ten kilograms of wheat flour. “No, not synthetic starch and cotton-waste flour-substitute”, he insisted. “even though it is more nourishing”. But when it came to pan-glandular biscuits and vitaminized beef-surrogate, he had not been able to resist the shopman’s persuasion.” Yes, even the messianic figure the Savage is cannot resist the “pan-glanular biscuits and the vitaminized beef-surrogate”. This seemingly unimportant, trivial gesture of buying food captures what Huxley called “the ultimate revolution“. It is about luring people in, offering the ultimate comfort and luxuries and make them accessible to everyone that desires them. Yes, one may resist and even despise some of the temptations, in the Savage’s case the soma, the free sex, the Feelies, the scents, the being served and adulated, BUT there’s always something they catch you with. It’s not sex with Lenina, whom he is obsessed with, but the “pan-glanular biscuits and the vitaminized beef-surrogate”. In good fashion, he will later feel remorse and regret for purchasing these items. He throws them away, and punishes himself in an act reminiscent of penitence and old religious practices- remember, we’re in the year 623 AF.
Another glimpse of the future briefly appears when the Savage is mentioning rabbits and fowl, and the fact that, by next year, he will be able to grow a garden and become completely independent. Food independence and breaking with the existing food system can, indeed, be an interesting exploration. Somehow, I see the Savage’s persona similar to all the young bobos, dressed in fashionable, expensive rags, in touch with their spiritual ego, raging against everything because they can’t cope, growing aromatic herbs on their windows’ sills and thinking they are saving the world. I don’t need to tell you the Savage fails in this endeavor, as in all the rest he undertakes.
Part 4. Ending notes
Two dystopic worlds that seem miles apart are actually closer than one suspects. Leaving besides the political, economic or even social aspects, let’s have a look at the food scene. One has everything the people can dream of, the other one barely has anything. You have carrotine sandwiches and vitaminized paté on one side with boiled cabbage and pinkish stew on the other. Yes, yes, so different! Yet, there are a few major attributes they do have in common.
Firstly, in both worlds, food is a control instrument, keeping the people in a trance state, with all the implications that come out of it. In Brave new world, food is a pleasure instrument, keeping the people entertained and taking their minds of other important issues. In 1984, food is linked to survival and it comes from the state, hence the state equals survival. Furthermore, there is the psychological component of not having enough food or of eating bad quality stuff, which I do understand better. I was born and lived the first years of my life during the Communist regime, at its peak and even though our family did not suffer from food shortages, I do have a good understanding of what this approach can do to society. It keeps people resigned, afraid and horrified. It can even turn people against each other for a simple piece of bread. Which, in this context is never “a simple piece of bread”, but it’s the guarantee that you’ll live till tomorrow.
Secondly, there’s the stratification of food according to the social classes. We’ve seen what the elites of the Outer Party, the workers of the Inner Party and the Prols are eating. Sometimes, somehow, I think the prols might have it better than the Outer Party members, as there’s the contraband market and the Party does close a blind eye, simply because the Prols are not seen as a potential danger to the establishment. So they do have a bit more freedom. There’s no specific, factual mention of the castes’ food in Brave new world, but all arguments point in the same direction: everything is stratified, so the food must be, too. Important to mention is the fact that this food hierarchy is not financially driven, but socially. The ruling powers consciously decidewho eats what.
Thirdly, people of both worlds have lost the art of cooking and eating. Because, regardless of the “catching fire” debate, we can say that it is cooking that made us humans. The people in Orwell’s world can’t even imagine the pleasures of gastronomy, the refinement of taste, the act of combining flavors…simply because they have never done anything like this. All creative, imaginary expansion is blocked by thought-crime, so that’s that. No gastronomy, no real cooking. And the wonderful people of the Brave new world don’t have it much better, either. True, they do have the taste explosion and there is a mention of an “excellent dinner” somewhere in the book, however, the act and art of cooking is not there. Because making “beef surrogate” doesn’t really seem a gastronomical achievement. Furthermore, the people have oh! so many distractions to fill their time with, rather than slave at the stove. Everything is prepackaged and served up to them, so no cooking, no gastronomy.
Finally, I would like to invite you to ponder and think about the gruesome similarities between these imaginary, dystopic worlds and our own world today. And resist!
Thanks to all known & unknown artists for the illustrations. If you enjoyed this, head on to my blog for more https://thepickledspruit.org/