Aldous Huxley Foresaw America’s Pill-Popping Addiction with Eerie Accuracy
We're Now Living in the Brave New World
While it would have been completely unthinkable for Mike and Carol Brady to light up a joint or get rip-roaring drunk on screen, the very first episode of the first season of The Brady Bunch (1969) unproblematically opens with the couple, the very paragons of middle-American morality, casually popping pills on their wedding night: taking a couple tranquilizers to calm their prenuptial jitters.
When Mike complains to Carol that he is nervous about their impending ceremony, she immediately replies that he should just take a tranquilizer, presumably a Valium (diazepam). Then when he responds that he has already taken one, she nonchalantly tells him to just take a second. This apparent ease with which Americans have come to accept Valium—along with its fellow benzodiazepines, from Librium (chlordiazepoxide) and Klonopin (clonazepam) to Ativan (lorazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam)—is comically illustrated in Alan J. Pakula’s Starting Over (1979). When Phil Potter (Burt Reynolds) has a panic attack in a furniture store, his brother asks the gathered crowd if anyone has a Valium, and the crowd immediately replies with virtually everyone pulling out their own bottle of pills to offer the panicked Phil.
As these simple media examples demonstrate, the widespread use of Valium rapidly extended the range and scope of psychiatric medicine as pills were increasingly prescribed to treat a wide range of common everyday anxieties, thereby transforming psychotropic pills into a commonplace staple of modern American life. Everyone from suburban housewives and aspiring celebrities to corporate men in their grey flannel suits all began to turn to Valium for an anxious fix.
Quickly establishing itself as a basic “staple in medicine cabinets, as common as toothbrushes and razors,” Valium became what Andrea Tone describes as the world’s first blockbuster drug, “the first $100 million brand in pharmaceutical history, and between 1968 and 1981, the most widely prescribed medication in the Western world.” At its peak sales, in “1978 alone, Valium’s manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche, sold nearly 2.3 billion tablets, enough to medicate half the globe.”
Like Thorazine before it, then, Valium is much more than just a new medication prescribed to treat another psychological illness. More importantly, it dramatically extended the reach of psychopharmacology itself. Whereas Thorazine and early antipsychotics (i.e., major tranquilizers) were used to treat seriously mentally ill patients suffering from schizophrenia and other readily identifiable psychoses, generally in asylums, a new generation of benzodiazepines or minor tranquilizers, such as Valium, began to “confuse the typical perturbations that are part of everyone’s life with true psychiatric disorder” (Frances).
No longer limited to treating major psychoses, Valium offered a new pill for everyday life: for the home, for the office, for the classroom, for the airplane, for the stage, for suburbia, and for public life at large. Everyone can take it and seemingly for almost any everyday anxiety, from prenuptial jitters to performance anxiety at work or social anxiety at a cocktail party with the neighbors. Consequently, “psychiatrists in the 1960s were faced with the alienation of everyday life in a way that no earlier generation of practitioners had been” with the result that psychotropic drugs became widely available to the masses, en masse, to treat an ever-increasing array of everyday anxieties and minor psychological disturbances for the first time (Healy 2002). Pills were no longer restricted to treating major illnesses; they became new panaceas for almost every imaginable form of quotidian distress, spilling out of psychiatrists’ specialized offices and the halls of asylums into patients’ common medicine cabinets.
As the Rolling Stones put it in “Mother’s Little Helper,” in the emerging age of Valium whenever “mother needs something today to calm her down” she goes “running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper / And it helps her on her way, / gets her through her busy day.” Here the Stones are not proselytizing for the illicit, mind-bending drugs of the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll revolution, but instead they are more modestly merely chronicling the emerging psychopharmacology of everyday life, the ever-increasing proliferation of seemingly benign quotidian pharmaceuticals, especially as these medications were often gendered and prescribed specifically to sedate modern housewives.
What is perhaps most striking about the Stones’ song, however, is not simply that mother needs her little helpers, or even that she has such easy access to them, but that she needs so many: First she takes one, then two more, followed by two more sets of four. That’s a full eleven Valiums just to get her through her day, and when it is the Rolling Stones who are giving you a sermon about your drug abuse you probably do have a problem even if it is a problem that you share with many of the other mothers—or even fathers, if not children—on your cul-de-sac.
In addition to extending psychopharmacology into the realm of everyday life, Valium also, more broadly speaking, provided a new generation-defining pill, an anxiolytic, for a newly anxious generation. W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety (1947) was one of the first texts to discern the emerging anxieties of a new Cold War era or the “incomprehensible comprehensive dread” of a new “future, / Odorless ages, an ordered world / Of planned pleasures and passport-control, / Sentry-go, sedatives, so drinks and / Managed money,” a world that will be conquered by a “new barbarian” who is “no uncouth / Desert-dweller; he does not emerge / From fir forests; factories bred him; / Corporate companies, college towns / Mothered his mind, and many journals / Backed his beliefs.” And Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center (1949) was not far behind, diagnosing mid-20th-century America as “tense, uncertain, adrift,” a “time of trouble, an age of anxiety.”
Soon these personal and social anxieties would find lucid expression in everything from James Dean’s performance of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967) and Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate’s performances in Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Valium would provide the perfect anxiolytic for this anxious age, promising peaceful respite in a pill form.
Consequently, there is almost a kind of cultural history to psychotropic pills with each distinct historical moment gravitating toward its own characteristic medication, a pill for its time, and Valium seemed the perfect pill for what Andrea Tone describes as Cold War America’s “quintessentially anxious age.” Scott Stossel has even suggested that Valium and its fellow travelers may have been “aimed less at treating actual psychiatric disorders than at treating the age itself—at mitigating the effects of what Berger in this talk called ‘today’s living pressure.’” With new pressures and rapidly growing anxieties, Cold War America needed a new drug, and Valium gave it its angry fix.
In many respects, however, Valium—and the new everyday psychopharmacology that it helped unleash—was perhaps imagined in literature long before it was actually created in a scientific laboratory. After all, Valium was not invented until 1963 by Leo Sternbach who was working for the pharmaceutical company Hoffman-La Roche, but Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World, more or less anticipated its discovery, describing the emergence of a revolutionary new psychotropic pill, soma—which could cure virtually all mental disturbances, from anxiety and depression to alienation and anger—at a time when the emerging field of psychopharmacology itself barely even existed. As David Knott explains in Richard Hughes’ The Tranquilizing of America, the similarity between soma and Valium is almost uncanny: “Roche created the idea—and doctors bought it— that you can have better living through chemistry. They have created what Aldous Huxley envisioned in Brave New World. They have given us soma, and it is called Valium.”
Huxley, then, truly stood at the vanguard of an emerging psychopharmacological revolution which would soon begin to explore how human minds can be controlled by psychoactive chemicals contained in simple pills, titrated gram by gram, making him far more of a groundbreaking pioneer than a mere interloper as far as his thinking about psychopharmacology was concerned. More perceptive than his peers, Huxley recognized almost avant la lettre that psychotropic pills would be the wave of the future. Not only would they soon be invented, but they would also be distributed on an almost unimaginable scale—not unlike his own soma—and they would come to exert a pervasive, almost all-encompassing, impact on people’s day-to-day lives and how they would deal with quotidian anxieties and stresses.
Huxley’s soma was not simply a drug for the demonstrably sick. It was even more importantly consumed most avidly by the seemingly working well, who simply sought to optimally maximize tranquility and minimize distress with chemicals. In a sense, Huxley may have even invented the first true psychotropic pill, albeit only as a literary trope. Certainly, he was the first to write an entire novel perceptively focused on exploring the new possibilities opened up by the emerging field of psychopharmacology, or to predict the scale and scope with which psychopharmacology would soon rapidly transform everyday life in the modern world.
At its core, Huxley’s novel depicts a brave, new dystopian world in which the “principle of mass production,” the Fordian assembly line, is “applied to biology” at all levels of human existence: A new reproductive technology called the “Bokanovsky process” is used to manufacture human beings in test tubes and incubators, multiplying each human embryo into 96 identical genetically engineered individuals; extensive “neo-Pavlovian” conditioning—with hundreds upon hundreds of “electric shocks”—is administered to “indissolubly” forge “instinctive” psychological reflexes in infants; and hypnopaedia techniques brainwash older citizens in their sleep, cementing their minds with “suggestions from the state.” Taken collectively, these bio-engineering processes ultimately mass produce an “elementary class consciousness” which conditions every individual to accept the state’s official ideologies “not merely as true, but as axiomatic, self-evident, utterly indisputable.” The fruits of this bio-engineering can be seen in the state’s complete indoctrination of its citizens to accept such sociopolitical bromides as:
Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse.
Bolstered by these psycho-biological means of production, the state’s complete control over the human mind is considered virtually foolproof, producing a citizenry that functions as a single seamlessly integrated machine:
And, in effect, eighty-three almost noseless black brachycephalic Deltas were cold-pressing. The fifty-six four-spindle chucking and turning machines were being manipulated by fifty-six aquiline and ginger Gammas. One hundred and seven heat-conditioned Epsilon Senegalese were working in the foundry. Thirty-three Delta females, long-headed, sandy, with narrow pelvises, and all within 20 millimetres of 1 metre 69 centimetres tall, were cutting screws. In the assembling room, the dynamos were being put together by two sets of Gamma-Plus dwarfs. e two low work tables faced one another; between them crawled the conveyor with its load of separate parts; forty-seven blonde heads were confronted by forty-seven brown ones. Forty-seven snubs by forty-seven hooks; forty-seven receding by forty-seven prognathous chins. The completed mechanisms were inspected by eighteen identical curly auburn girls in Gamma green, packed in crates by thirty-four short-legged, left-handed male Delta-Minuses, and loaded into the waiting trucks and lorries by sixty-three blue-eyed, flaxen and freckled Epsilon Semi-Morons.
What could possibly go wrong in such an assiduously programmed world? As Huxley himself suggests, “What man has joined together nature is powerless to put asunder.”Soma is not a drug of the people but of the state—and the authoritarian state at that.
But the crown jewel of Huxley’s dystopia, the lynchpin which secures its infallibility, is a brave, new psychopharmacological wonder drug, soma, which chemically fills in any and all remaining cracks in the state’s meticulously bioengineered ideological armor. For social stability in this new society does not become “practically assured” until AF (After Ford) 178 when “two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were subsidized” to produce the “perfect drug,” soma, an all-purpose psychotropic drug with tranquilizing, anxiolytic, sedative, hypnotic, stimulant, psychedelic, and anti-depressant properties all rolled into one.
Whenever individuals encounter any kind of psychological obstacle whatsoever—from sorrow to rage, from alienation to despair—the state always offers them the exact same universal solution: “What you need is a gramme of soma.” For a single gram of soma can shine the “inner light of universal benevolence” across “every face in happy, friendly smiles,” a second gram can raise an “impenetrable wall between the actual universe and [the] mind,” and a third gram will produce a “complete and absolute holiday,” lasting at least “eighteen hours.” Soma, then, is the psychopharmacological icing on the State’s ideological cake, providing instant relief for any quotidian psychological stress, thereby calming, pacifying, and even sedating citizens into a state of perfect tranquility and hence of perfect compliance at all times. As Huxley concludes, soma’s power is all-pervasive:
And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are.
Like the Bradys who would later turn to the tranquilizing effects of Valium to solve the most mundane trials of everyday life, Huxley’s characters can chemically resolve any possible psychological stress just by taking a little soma, precisely titrated to perfectly fit each personal psychological need.
Ultimately, however, Huxley’s novel depicts not a utopia but a dystopia. Huxley may describe a world in which all quotidian troubles are chemically ameliorated through perfectly designed, infallible psychotropic pills, but that does not mean that he advocates for such a world. On the contrary, Huxley depicts soma as a destructive crutch which props up the authoritarian state by creating docile, directionless, and even dehumanized citizens incapable of feeling or expressing—much less living—the full range of human emotions, especially any that might be considered dangerous or subversive. Cocooned in a state of chemically induced stupor, Huxley’s characters lack ambition, curiosity, or even any meaningful understanding of the human experience. At its most extreme, Huxley’s characters become mere addicts like Linda Cooper who “greedily clamoured for ever larger, ever more frequent doses. Dr. Shaw at first demurred; then he let her have what she wanted. She took as much as twenty grammes a day.”
Moreover, Huxley’s soma addicts are not enlightened human beings who achieve some superior state of never-ending peace and tranquility, but rather they are powerless pawns manipulated and constrained by chemical forces beyond their own control. In Brave New World Revisited Huxley even explicitly describes soma as “one of the most powerful instruments of rule in the dictator’s army.”
Soma is not a drug of the people but of the state—and the authoritarian state at that. What Huxley offers us, then, is not some unquestioned validation of psychopharmacology as an upward ascent on some ever-improving path toward scientific and humanistic progress but rather a damning critique that our soon-to-be psychopharmacological future might eviscerate our very humanity—even, or perhaps especially, if psychopharmacology’s promise of being able to malleably mold human identities can be fully realized. According to Huxley, the more daunting problem posed by psychopharmacology is not that it might fail in its Promethean ambitions, but rather that it might succeed. As Huxley reminds us in Brave New World Revisited, the biochemical state, in its “drug induced euphoria,” can only lead to a “new medieval system” which “for the majority of men and women” will still remain a “kind of servitude” with this servitude only being rendered “acceptable by regular doses of chemically induced happiness.”
Consequently, the novel focuses not simply on the incredible power of the bio-State itself—with its seemingly invincible arsenal of psychopharmaceuticals—but rather more perceptively on the individual forces who eventually, albeit unsuccessfully, oppose it: principally the novel’s rebel protagonist, Bernard Marx, and his fellow traveler, John Cooper, a “savage” who was raised on a native reservation in New Mexico and hence outside of the long reach of the bio-state. Longing to be “more on my own,” Bernard tries to imagine what it would be like “if I were free—not enslaved by my conditioning.” Consequently, Bernard refuses to take soma: “I’d rather be myself . . . Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly.”
Rather than regulating his every thought and emotion with soma, instead of manipulating his individual identity and reality through chemistry, Bernard desires instead to “try the effect of arresting my impulses,” to “know what passion is,” to “feel something strongly,” and ultimately to stand “alone, embattled against the order of things,” preferring even “persecution” and “affliction” over soma’s never-ending holiday. Like Bernard, John also rebels against the State, and his rebellion is figured precisely by his rejection of soma.Huxley’s own attitude toward psychopharmacology would evolve dramatically over his intellectual career.
Like Bernard, John also “refuses to take soma,” and when John explains to Bernard how he spent an afternoon standing with his arms held out, so he could “know what it was like being crucified,” Bernard replies that there is “after all, some sense in it. Better than taking soma.” Ultimately depicting the victory of mind over medicine cabinet, John attempts to bring “freedom” to the people by “throw[ing] the little pill boxes of soma” by “handfuls through the open window” while shouting, “Don’t take that horrible stuff. It’s poison, it’s poison.”
John’s rebellion, however, is short-lived and quickly aborted when men with “spraying machines . . . pumped thick clouds of soma vapour into the air” and a “fresh supply of pill-boxes [is] brought in from the Bursary.” Ultimately, soma aids and abets—even ensures—the victory of the police state, rendering its citizens docile and powerless before their chemical master. The only truly human characters in the novel then—the only ones with agency, will, imagination, passion, and determination—are the ones who oppose the state, refuse its soma, and rebel against its biochemical determinism.
Huxley’s message is clear: Psychopharmacologists may, in the imminent future, soon be able to devise new pills that can manipulate and mold human identities, like biochemical marionettes, but this future does not bode well for real human beings whose lives will inevitably be diminished rather than augmented by these neurochemical interventions.
Whatever side we may personally take in this debate for or against the widespread expansion of psychopharmacology, however, Huxley’s novel does perceptively situate psychopharmacology at the vanguard of scientific “progress,” or regress if you prefer. If nothing else, Huxley prophetically anticipates that in his near future, the world of today, there are few things which shape—both for better and for worse—the human brain and human beings’ quotidian psychological battles more profoundly than psychotropic pills. Contemporary society may only be beginning to tentatively explore Huxley’s broader vision of genetically engineering or psychologically conditioning human lives, but soma—and its avatars—have long since widely permeated the fabric of modern life, and they are without question here to stay.
Whereas Huxley’s soma-saturated world existed as a dystopian science fiction fantasy, it has for all practical purposes become our world. The only difference is that psychotropic pills have proven both less effective and more unpredictable than soma, but Huxley’s prophesy of pills’ ever-increasing pervasive influence was spot on: People do ubiquitously and voraciously consume a wide range of psychotropic pills on a daily basis, not just to cure serious illnesses but also to help them at least try to manage a bewildering array of common, every-day, and quotidian psychological distresses of all kinds.
Curiously, however, Huxley’s own attitude toward psychopharmacology would evolve dramatically—even outright explicitly reverse course—over his intellectual career. By 1954, two decades after Brave New World, Huxley’s The Doors of Perception would optimistically celebrate how “chemistry and physiology are capable nowadays of practically anything.” Meanwhile, his Brave New World Revisited (1958) would praise how a new “tidal wave of biochemical and psychological research” was beginning to “alter the chemistry of the brain and the associated state of the mind without doing any permanent damage to the organism as a whole.”
While he admits that new drugs such as Thorazine and Miltown, a precursor to Valium, still fall short of being “perfectly harmless” and are not yet capable of perfectly “curing mental illness” outright, he now argues that these new psychiatric pills are “remarkably effective” remedies, even going so far as to claim that they now “come fairly near to being” his idealized “imaginary synthetic,” soma, offering ever increasingly powerful new psychotropic elixirs with ever decreasing negative side effects. With “pharmacology, biochemistry, and neurology . . . on the march,” he boldly proclaims that “new and better chemical methods” will continue to be developed with “far-reaching effects on our mental and physical functions.”
In the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1957, he would still more brazenly, and perhaps presciently, exclaim that recent advances in psychopharmacology would prove “more important, more genuinely revolutionary, than the recent discoveries in the field of nuclear physics.”
Nowhere is Huxley’s volte-face more evident than in his later utopian novel, Island (1962), which reverses course entirely to embrace psychopharmacology without reserve, ecstatically praising how the condition of humanity can be improved through the pervasive and enlightened use of a new drug, moksha-medicine—also known as “the reality revealer” and “the truth-and-beauty pill”—which offers its own brave, new “chemical answers” to the problems of modern life. While the scientists of Huxley’s fictional island paradise, Pala, “haven’t yet found out” exactly how moksha works, a mere 400 mg of it promises to “liberate” anyone “from his bondage to the ego” and “open one’s eyes and make one blessed and transform one’s whole life.” Rejecting religion with its empty “words about sibling rivalry and hell and the personality of Jesus” as “no substitutes for biochemistry,” the inhabitants of Pala believe that “three pink capsules a day” provide a more coherent and certain path to “eventual wisdom and compassion.”We are literally drugging the planet itself.
Moreover, instead of hollowing out people’s individuality and humanity, moksha reveals one’s true self, illuminating “what it’s like to be what in fact you are, what in fact you always have been.” Whereas soma is mechanical and mind-numbing, moksha is transcendent and life-affirming. In fact, the entire philosophy, religion, law, and ethics of Pala are fundamentally grounded in biochemistry—rooted in the “glands and the viscera, the muscles and the blood”—with proper medication offering solutions to a wide array of human predicaments based simply on “human physiology.” Aside from true proselytizers such as Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, few intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s would come to celebrate psychotropic drugs as avidly or as unabashedly as Huxley, but Huxley’s evolving, even oscillating, fictional explorations of psychopharmacology offer a wide range of perspectives on the psychopharmacological revolution—and its discontents.
Ultimately, then, if we trace the complex arc between Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World (1932)—which critiques psychotropic pills’ power to manipulate and control human thought—and its utopian counterpart, Island (1962), which celebrates these same pills’ abilities to resolve the tensions and contradictions of modern life, we can see how the evolution of Huxley’s positions about psychotropic drugs—from antagonistic gadfly to fervent proselytizer—in many ways mirrors society’s own evolving—and frequently ambivalent—attitudes about the extraordinary power of ordinary pills. Like Huxley, the modern world has by and large come to accept, even celebrate, the new possibilities opened up by modern psychopharmacology, but it has perhaps not altogether forgotten the brave, new dystopian undertones and warnings of Huxley’s own earlier cautionary tale—and with good cause.
In fact, if anything what Huxley got most wrong was not the idea that powerful psychotropic drugs could—and indeed would—soon be developed to shape the human mind, nor even his paradoxical if not outright contradictory positions first against and then in favor of psychiatric pills, but rather his now seemingly quaint idea that any single drug such as soma alone could ever suffice to satisfy human beings’ complex range of psychological needs, thereby producing a one-size-fits-all model of psychiatric medicine. Our world today is not just psychotropically somatic with its widespread use of pills, it is also far more poly-somatic than Huxley could have ever imagined.
What is perhaps most remarkable is not simply that we have indeed developed psychotropic pills as Huxley foresaw, or that we have come to accept them as Huxley himself would, including with his own nuanced reservations about their effectiveness and desirability, but that we have produced such a bewildering array of pills with the ever-increasing production of ever-new psychotropic drugs seeming to endlessly spiral ever more out of control. Yesterday’s Thorazine and Valium have become today’s lithium, Prozac, and Adderall—not to mention Celexa, Lexapro, Ritalin, Ativan, Zyprexa, Xanax, Klonopin, Seroquel, Abilify, Effexor, Trazodone, Paxil, Zolo , Depakote, and whatever pill du jour tomorrow may bring—as each new generation strives to treat not only its ever-increasing quotidian psychological maladies but even its evolving generational psyches and the existential quandaries of the human condition itself with an ever proliferating, almost blinding, arsenal of ever-new psychotropic pills.
As Brian Thill points out in his Object Lesson volume, Waste, our production and consumption of pills has become so pervasive that even the “Great Lakes have been absorbing tons of residual chemicals from our flushed pharmaceuticals,” enough to leave discernible traces of carbamazepine (Tegretol) in the lakes as they are flooded by “an enormous pharmaceutical cocktail filled with the detritus of drugs designed to help us endure many of the terrible realities of our moment,” the “chemical offal of our anxious, terrified, medicated age.” We are literally drugging the planet itself.
Moreover, this rapid proliferation of psychiatric pills has proven conclusively that there are few medical panaceas. Modern psychopharmacology may expand our biochemical toolkit by offering us new “chemical answers” for modern living, but few of these pills has proven to be anything resembling simple and straightforward. Cures, especially neurochemical and psychotropic ones, remain partial at best, if not outright illusory; the scientific basis for psychopharmacology has proven hazy, when not troublingly contradictory; pharmaceutical progress is dogged by setbacks; and pills frequently come at the cost of significant, if not staggering, side effects. Like the magical creatures who inhabit Prospero’s own island, the pills that now overpopulate the ever-changing, shifting psychogeography of modern psychopharmacology’s own ever-expanding neurochemical archipelago have proven to be nothing if not both brave and new—with all of the irony, satire, and double meanings intended by both Huxley and Shakespeare before him.
Excerpted from Object Lessons: Pill. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Bennett