O Brave New World That Has Soma In’t

pink "soma"

I was cleaning out some books from my overcrowded shelves and found my high school copy of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. At one time, it was on the standard reading list in high school. I read it before anyone assigned it and I loved it.

It is a dystopian social science fiction novel published in 1932. Set in a futuristic World State where citizens are engineered at birth into intelligence-based social classes, it anticipated many scientific advances.

The book is often paired in courses with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (written in 1948; he flipped 48 to create his future 84.) Orwell was concerned with government control, surveillance, and the impression of individuality.

Although Huxley’s future state has much to do with government, he was really thinking about things that were in the air in the 1930s, some of which didn’t even have an official name then: reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning. Like Orwell, his future world opposed individuality but also had at least one individual who challenged the dystopian society.

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest

One of the things that fascinated me in my first read of Brave New World was the drug he calls “soma.” That is not surprising considering I was reading it in the late 1960s. It is a happiness drug that the upper-class citizens took regularly to stay in a state where they were unbothered by anything that was less than perfect about their world. It sounded quite appealing. In his novel, it is readily avavailabe and without side effects.

In his book, Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna says that he thought the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis.

I’m no ethnobotanist but I don’t think that a hallucinogenic mushroom that grows in cow dung in certain climates is what Huxley’s soma seems to be. His soma is a happiness drug and has no side effects. The description of people on soma in the novel is more of a “blissed-out” state than a hallucinogenic state.  In looking up “soma,” I found that there are a number of things that Huxley might have been thinking about when he used the word.

Huxley was certainly familiar with biology and the soma (pl. somas) cell body is the bulbous, non-process portion of a neuron or other brain cell type, containing the cell nucleus. (Although it is often used to refer to neurons, it can also refer to other cell types.) The word “soma” comes from the Greek ‘σῶμα’, meaning ‘body’.

In the Vedic tradition, soma is a ritual drink made by extracting the juice from a plant, but the identity of the plant is debated among scholars. Plant candidates include the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, Psilocybin mushrooms, McKenna’s candidate Psilocybe cubensis, wild or Syrian rue, Peganum harmala, and ma huang, Ephedra sinica.

I think Huxley was mixing a number of uses of the word. Chandra, also known as Soma, is the Hindu god of the Moon, and is associated with the night, plants, and vegetation.

“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. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is.”   ―   Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Of curse, it was inevitable that some drug manufacturer would eventually create a drug and use soma as its name. In this case, soma is a muscle relaxer and not without side effects.

By the way, Aldous Huxley followed this book with a reassessment in essay form called Brave New World Revisited (1958), and with his final novel, Island (1962) in which he considered a utopian counterpart.

Published by

Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

Add to the conversation about this article

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.