What does Soma represent in Brave New World?
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 cautionary tale Brave New World is a timeless political critique. Huxley writes about a seemingly dystopian society, one ruled by class structure and strong societal norms. However, upon further inspection, the reader is able to see that Huxley is not describing an imaginary society, but rather a political satirization of the society he was observing around him. As the novel was written in 1931, Huxley was observing regimes such as Nazi Germany and the USSR. He wrote this cautionary tale to warn us about how society could become in the near future. And he hit it spot on. Many of the things that he metaphorically warned us about can be seen in modern-day America. However, the most mysterious of Huxley’s rampant metaphors was soma: a drug that was consumed regularly by most, if not all, of the state’s citizens to ease temporary pain. But the question arises: what does soma signify in the Brave New World?
We can see Huxley’s inspiration for this drug in Brave New World Revisited, a retrospective work he published almost twenty years later. In it, he states, “The original soma, from which I took the name of this hypothetical drug, was an unknown plant (possibly Asclepias aeida) used by the ancient Aryan invaders of India in one of the most solemn of their religious rites. The intoxicating juice expressed from the stems of this plant was drunk by the priests and nobles in the course of an elaborate ceremony. In the Vedic hymns we are told that the drinkers of soma were blessed in many ways. Their bodies were strengthened, their hearts were filled with courage, joy and enthusiasm, their minds were enlightened and in an immediate experience of eternal life they received the assurance of their immortality. But the sacred juice had its drawbacks. Soma was a dangerous drug — so dangerous that even the great sky-god, Indra, was sometimes made ill by drinking it. Ordinary mortals might even die of an overdose. But the experience was so transcendently blissful and enlightening that soma drinking was regarded as a high privilege. For this privilege no price was too great. The soma of Brave New World had none of the drawbacks of its Indian original. In small doses it brought a sense of bliss, in larger doses it made you see visions and, if you took three tablets, you would sink in a few minutes into refreshing sleep. And all at no physiological or mental cost.” (Huxley). Huxley poses the question of how a drug would be used if it were to be seemingly free of drawbacks or side effects. However, this drug may not represent a drug at all. The famous philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx once called religion the “opium of the people.” And that is exactly what Huxley writes of. Any short or long term stress or discomfort is handled by doses of soma. Although due to drug stigmatism in our society, if we were to replace this action with religion, moreso prayers or acts of faith, it would perfectly align with today’s society. While this is by no means a critique of religion by Huxley, it is an accurate example of how humans choose to distract themselves with short term pleasures rather than face the problems at hand. It is also important to note the transitive effects of Huxley making a drug a religion to portray his belief that religion acts like a drug.
We soon see that this is not a commentary on drug abuse, but rather Huxley’s interpretation of human psychological nature. He says that humans would rather forget their problems than face them. In our current society, religion or faith is not the only way to ease suffering. Our rampant increase in the production and consumption of media has far overtaken it. People today will consume media or goods in unnecessary quantities to ease them from their existential dread. From constant music or use of social media to an obsession with material items such as clothes or cars, we have our new soma at our fingertips to distract us from the pain of reality. Famous absurdist philosopher Albert Camus labels this a “philosophical suicide”. He talks about the myth of Sisyphus, who is tasked to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity to watch it fall down every time. Instead of committing a said “philosophical suicide” by opting for those metaphorical opiates, Camus encourages Sisyphusto to find joy and triviality in what he does, as his existence and labor are enough to fill his heart. We have strayed away from these ideals. We are no longer capable of living with our own negative thoughts or emotions. Many people find discomfort in being alone. And the existence of things such as social media or applications has transformed masses into dopamine junkies who opt for minuscule pleasure over entanglement with reality. Huxley was right to warn us.
The last point Huxley makes through soma is the simplicity of controlling people. He himself states, “ That a dictator could, if he so desired, make use of these drugs for political purposes is obvious.” Huxley definitely makes this claim from a place of historical context. In the Old Ages, many malicious leaders twisted religion to come to power and oppress their oppositions. Nazi Germany manipulated the media. Today, our technology is engineered for us to be dependent on it. We use it for communication, news, laughter, motivation, and many other things. It has led to the power of some questionable individuals because of their powers to take control of our sources of media.
The novel is most definitely a cautionary tale, from its class structure to its societal values. However, a commonly overlooked element, in soma, cautions us of many of our societal dangers. We have many soma’s in our society, from social media to religion, to consumerism, to even actual drugs. But ultimately, Huxley cautions us to not succumb to these, and gain comfort with ourselves, our emotions, and our dread, to truly be complete and societally aware individuals.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World with the Essay “Brave New World Revisited”. Harper Perennial, 2010.