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Artillery Row

Soma-ed to the max in Seville

Partaking of the delights of the capital city of Spain’s Andalusia increasingly feels too Aldous Huxley for comfort

Amid the 18th-century Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza bullring, the gargantuan gothic cathedral—the fourth largest church in the world—that contains Christopher Columbus’s tomb, arabesque flourishes adorning Moorish-influenced architecture, the locals remain consistently smart and chic beneath the kiss of the tropical sun as they revel in the vibrant café and bar terrace culture. But the degree of compliance with Covid-19 mask wearing is starting to give me the Aldous Huxley heebie-jeebies about the dreadfully un-brave Brave New World that seems to be emerging.

“It has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behaviour is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behaviour by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children,” Huxley wrote in Brave New World Revisited

Written in 1957, it compares the modernising world of the time with his prophetic dystopian classic published in 1932 and also with that offered seventeen years later in George Orwell’s 1984. Huxley concludes that his prophecies “are coming true much sooner than I thought they would”, and that the world is shifting more in the direction of the polite and inconspicuous totalitarian state of his renderings than the more aggressive, jackboot-styled one suggested by Orwell. Huxley puts this trend down to advancements in mass communication and techniques of non-violent manipulation combined with “immensely powerful forces generated by the very advances in technology of which we are most proud.” 

Those advancements and forces haven’t slowed down or diminished in the intervening period taking us into the twenty-first century—which Huxley envisioned as “the era of World Controllers” and “the scientific caste system”—and now we have the Covid-19 global pandemic added to the febrile and fear-saturated mix. The result, in Seville, bestows a rather sinister undercurrent to the undeniable loveliness of the environs.

“Under favourable conditions, practically everybody can be converted to practically anything,” Huxley said. 

I’m starting to wonder. Even heavily tattooed young hipsters flashing dangerous midriffs are leaving me looking the risqué, rebellious one in Seville as, unlike them, in an effort to achieve some form of resistance and autonomy I pointedly keep my mascarilla off my nose and mouth when outside. It languishes somewhere on my chin that with my Camino pilgrimage beard leaves it looking like some sort of grotesque parody of a fetid jockstrap-cum-bikini bottom dug up from the grave. That may explain all the agonised stares I seem to get from sultry dark Spanish eyes hovering between mask and immaculately coiffed hair.

“There has been a trajectory of our fears from the huge nuclear weapons of far-away countries in the Cold War, to weapons concealed on the body smuggled over borders in the War on Terror, to invisible weapons stowed away on our breath in the War on Viruses,” says Laura Dodsworth, a photographer and writer who has emerged as a prominent lockdown critic and has a book coming out called A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised our fear during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have become walking biohazards and the geo-political borders in need of ‘protection’ have shrunk from the national to the personal.”

One way the supine population is kept sated in Brave New World is through the government-supplied drug soma that has none of the usual drawbacks associated with chemically induced mind alteration: “The Brave New Worlders could take holidays from their black moods, or from the familiar annoyances of everyday life, without sacrificing their health of permanently reducing their efficiency.”

Across much of the Western hemisphere during Covid-19, it took only a combination of government furloughs, Netflix and efficient online delivery services for populations to acquiesce to a loss of civil liberties that historically was only possible through defeat at the hands of an enemy nation state.

“In the Brave New World the soma habit was not a private vice, it was a political institution, it was the very essence of the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness guaranteed by the Bill of Rights,” Huxley wrote. But the inalienable right that is the pursuit of happiness is “one of the most powerful instruments of rule in the dictator’s armoury,” Huxley warned.

Identifying politically as an anarchist she said Covid-19 had confirmed her suspicions about democracy’s false veneer

“The systematic drugging of individuals for the benefit of the State (and incidentally, of course, for their own delight) was a main plank in the policy of the World Controllers,” Huxley says. “The daily soma ration was an insurance against personal maladjustment, social unrest and the spread of subversive ideas.”

After enduring one of Europe’s severest lockdowns last year that I imagine has likely left some sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder imprint on the population’s psyche, it appears the Spanish, especially those in Seville, have come to an accommodation with the State regarding wearing masks. Total, absolute and unquestioning adherence as long as bars, cafes and restaurants remain open and the soma of the day keeps flowing: tasty tapas, ice cream, cheap beer and excellent wine, legalised marijuana.

Perhaps it is a reasonable compromise, and I am just reading too much Aldous Huxley. But I am not the only one put off by the strangely compliant atmosphere in Seville.

“It’s odd how so many women have the same hair style and dress conservatively,” a 30-year-old Argentinian woman with dyed hair in a funky style told me in the hostel we were sharing. She said that while Seville was an attractive city, she found the lack of diversity she knows in Barcelona, where she lives, unsettling.

Identifying politically as an anarchist—and I have to say a particularly charming and reasonable one at that—she said the responses of governments to Covid-19 had confirmed her suspicions about democracy’s false veneer. Hence she didn’t have much time for the ubiquity of Spanish flags draped on balconies all over Seville, nor their appearing on the side of many people’s masks. I can only agree with her on the latter: perhaps it is an entirely innocuous adornment on a mask, but it might also be a meeting of nationalism and the new science and philosophy of the moment as described by Dodsworth in a fearful dystopian blend of Orwell and Huxley.

I haven’t had any serious trouble from the locals or the Spanish state yet, though I tug my mask into position whenever I see the Policía Local patrolling streets (Spain has three police forces). After all, Seville was the epicentre of the 16th-century Spanish Inquisition and is the setting in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for Jesus Christ’s encounter with the Grand Inquisitor. After returning to earth but finding himself arrested and imprisoned as a menace to the Church’s efforts, Jesus is criticised by the 90-year-old Grand Inquisitor for burdening humanity with too much freedom. People do not actually want to have to choose, the inquisitor argues, rather they desire to be led, and “they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.”

The Grand Inquisitor is onto something. For as that tropical sun caresses your face with its vivifying ardour and the church bells ring out over Seville, the gorgeous azure of the southern sky above the city cut by the cathedral’s soaring Giralda bell tower, it is all too easy to imagine that all is well, and to order another caña glass of Cruzcampo cerveza along with the locals sating themselves. Huxley, Orwell, Dostoevsky, they had to write about something, after all, didn’t they, and so they decided on promulgating the supposed ambiguities of human nature and freedom. Those warnings about what people will tolerate as long as they get their kicks and stimulants may well have been much ado about nothing.

But perhaps not. To be on the safe side, I take note of Jesus’s response after the Grand Inquisitor finishes his long admonishing soliloquy and demands an answer. Jesus approaches “the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer.” The Grand Inquisitor shudders, but his heart is stirred. Warning him never to return, the old man releases Jesus into the streets of Seville. Perhaps it is time for a similarly compassionate type of civil disobedience: the Covid-19 protest kiss to counter, in Huxley’s words, the “great misfortune” that is “regimentation” and which goes against the great good that is freedom and the great virtue that is tolerance that together respect and permit the uniqueness of each individual to flourish.

“For practical or theoretical reasons, dictators, organisation men and certain scientists are anxious to reduce the maddening diversity of men’s natures to some kind of manageable uniformity,” Huxley says. “Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.”

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