"Accompanied by a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments (luckily most of them had already been destroyed during the Nine Years' War); by the suppression of all books published before A.F. 15O.''
"There were some things called the pyramids, for example."
"And a man called Shakespeare. You've never heard of them of course." (3.188-92)
It would seem from this and other related passages that history is dangerous to this society because it offers people an alternative. If the citizens aren't even aware of such notions as "freedom" and "truth," they can't miss them. They can't be discontented.
"You all remember," said the Controller, in his strong deep voice, "you all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's: History is bunk. History," he repeated slowly, "is bunk."
He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk. Whisk—and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk—and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom – all were gone. Whisk—the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk… (3.40-1)
Notice that abstract ideas like "passion" are whisked away along with literature and history. In this novel, literature is a reflection of the range of human emotions—which is exactly what makes it dangerous to a society where the only feeling permitted is a sort of passive contentedness.
Chapter 4: Part 2
"Oh, as far as they go." Helmholtz shrugged his shoulders. "But they go such a little way. They aren't important enough, somehow. I feel I could do something much more important. Yes, and more intense, more violent. But what? What is there more important to say? And how can one be violent about the sort of things one's expected to write about? Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly—they'll go through anything. You read and you're pierced. That's one of the things I try to teach my students—how to write piercingly. But what on earth's the good of being pierced by an article about a Community Sing, or the latest improvement in scent organs? Besides, can you make words really piercing—you know, like the very hardest X-rays—when you're writing about that sort of thing? Can you say something about nothing? That's what it finally boils down to. I try and I try…" (4.2.29)
Helmholtz's outlet for his individuality and his sense of human passion is writing. For John, it is Shakespeare. Mustapha, we find out later, once felt the same way about science. Bernard, on the other hand, seems to have no outlet—this may be why he ultimately ends up a weak character.
He hated Popé more and more. A man can smile and smile and be a villain. Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain. What did the words exactly mean? He only half knew. But their magic was strong and went on rumbling in his head, and somehow it was as though he had never really hated Popé before; never really hated him because he had never been able to say how much he hated him. But now he had these words, these words like drums and singing and magic. These words and the strange, strange story out of which they were taken (he couldn't make head or tail of it, but it was wonderful, wonderful all the same)—they gave him a reason for hating Popé; and they made his hatred more real; they even made Popé himself more real. (8.41)
Interesting—John claims that fictional characters make Popé seem more real—how is this possible?
The boys still sang their horrible song about Linda. Sometimes, too, they laughed at him for being so ragged. When he tore his clothes, Linda did not know how to mend them. In the Other Place, she told him, people threw away clothes with holes in them and got new ones. "Rags, rags!" the boys used to shout at him. "But I can read," he said to himself, "and they can't. They don't even know what reading is." It was fairly easy, if he thought hard enough about the reading, to pretend that he didn't mind when they made fun of him. He asked Linda to give him the book again.
The more the boys pointed and sang, the harder he read. (8.29-30)
Here we get some insight as to why literature is important for John: it helped him have a positive sense of his own individuality. This is particularly interesting in light of the new world, where individuality is an antiquated, taboo concept.
The strange words rolled through his mind; rumbled, like talking thunder; like the drums at the summer dances, if the drums could have spoken; like the men singing the Corn Song, beautiful, beautiful, so that you cried; like old Mitsima saying magic over his feathers and his carved sticks and his bits of bone and stone—kiathla tsilu silokwe silokwe silokwe. Kiai silu silu, tsithl—but better than Mitsima's magic, because it meant more, because it talked to him, talked wonderfully and only half-understandably, a terrible beautiful magic, about Linda; about Linda lying there snoring, with the empty cup on the floor beside the bed; about Linda and Popé, Linda and Popé. (8.40)
Shakespeare helps John to understand his feelings about Linda and her lover(s). The texts give words to what previously were unvoiced emotions.
John the Savage
"Do they read Shakespeare?" asked the Savage as they walked, on their way to the Bio-chemical Laboratories, past the School Library.
"Certainly not," said the Head Mistress, blushing.
"Our library," said Dr. Gaffney, "contains only books of reference. If our young people need distraction, they can get it at the feelies. We don't encourage them to indulge in any solitary amusements." (11.65-7)
Shakespeare is outlawed in this society for the same reasons that make John likes it so much (in this case, the fact that interacting with a text is a solitary activity).
"Twelve hundred and fifty kilometres an hour," said the Station Master impressively. "What do you think of that, Mr. Savage?"
John thought it very nice. "Still," he said, "Ariel could put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes." (11.30-1)
Now we see the results of John mixing up notions of religion, fiction, and science: all are equally real (or equally unreal) in his mind. So why marvel at a technological advancement that pales in comparison to a fictional one?
John the Savage
The Savage shook his head. "Listen to this," was his answer; and unlocking the drawer in which he kept his mouse-eaten book, he opened and read:
Let the bird of loudest lay On the sole Arabian tree, Herald sad and trumpet be…
Helmholtz listened with a growing excitement. At "sole Arabian tree" he started; at "thou shrieking harbinger" he smiled with sudden pleasure; at "every fowl of tyrant wing" the blood rushed up into his cheeks; but at "defunctive music" he turned pale and trembled with an unprecedented emotion. The Savage read on (12.65-7)
For Helmholtz, Shakespeare isn't just about the language—it's about the subject matter. As he said earlier, one can only write piercingly if one is writing about things that matter. He recognizes from this passage that the text is doing just that—it's writing about passion, danger, and emotion.
Yesterday's committee, Sticks, but a broken drum, Midnight in the City, Flutes in a vacuum, Shut lips, sleeping faces, Every stopped machine, The dumb and littered places Where crowds have been:… All silences rejoice, Weep (loudly or low), Speak—but with the voice Of whom, I do not know. Absence, say, of Susan's, Absence of Egeria's Arms and respective bosoms, Lips and, ah, posteriors, Slowly form a presence; Whose? and, I ask, of what So absurd an essence, That something, which is not, Nevertheless should populate Empty night more solidly Than that with which we copulate, Why should it seem so squalidly? (12.56)
It is fitting that Helmholtz's first poem has to do with solitude. This is what John likes about Shakespeare, after all—that reading it is a process of self-examination and discovery.
"And yet," said Helmholtz when, having recovered breath enough to apologize, he had mollified the Savage into listening to his explanations, "I know quite well that one needs ridiculous, mad situations like that; one can't write really well about anything else. Why was that old fellow such a marvellous propaganda technician? Because he had so many insane, excruciating things to get excited about. You've got to be hurt and upset; otherwise you can't think of the really good, penetrating, X-rayish phrases. But fathers and mothers!" He shook his head. "You can't expect me to keep a straight face about fathers and mothers. And who's going to get excited about a boy having a girl or not having her?" (The Savage winced; but Helmholtz, who was staring pensively at the floor, saw nothing.) "No." he concluded, with a sigh, "it won't do. We need some other kind of madness and violence. But what? What? Where can one find it?" He was silent; then, shaking his head, "I don't know," he said at last, "I don't know." (12.75)
In this passage, it seems as though Helmholtz's position is an impossible one. He wants to write about something passionate, but all the big issues (sex, lust, jealousy, family, love) are inaccessible to him. He suspects there's something else to write about—some other passion that he could understand—when in fact his society has engineered him to find all passions smutty or ridiculous.
O sweet my mother, cast me not away: Delay this marriage for a month, a week; Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed In that dim monument where Tybalt lies…
When Juliet said this, Helmholtz broke out in an explosion of uncontrollable guffawing.
The mother and father (grotesque obscenity) forcing the daughter to have some one she didn't want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having some one else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred! In its smutty absurdity the situation was irresistibly comical. He had managed, with a heroic effort, to hold down the mounting pressure of his hilarity; but "sweet mother" (in the Savage's tremulous tone of anguish) and the reference to Tybalt lying dead, but evidently uncremated and wasting his phosphorus on a dim monument, were too much for him. He laughed and laughed till the tears streamed down his face—quenchlessly laughed. (12.72-4)
As unique as Helmholtz is, Huxley doesn't let us forget that he, too, is a product of the World State's conditioning. One of the tensions we see as his character evolves is the question of whether or not he will be able to overcome this limitation.
John the Savage
"Listen, I beg of you," cried the Savage earnestly. "Lend me your ears…" He had never spoken in public before, and found it very difficult to express what he wanted to say. "Don't take that horrible stuff. It's poison, it's poison." (15.20)
It's interesting that John finds himself at first ineloquent, given that he's had so much experience with the greatest works of literature. But this raises an important question: does John think for himself, or does he simply regurgitate Shakespeare's words? He certainly uses Shakespeare as a safety net here…
The Savage stood looking on. "O brave new world, O brave new world…" In his mind the singing words seemed to change their tone. They had mocked him through his misery and remorse, mocked him with how hideous a note of cynical derision! Fiendishly laughing, they had insisted on the low squalor, the nauseous ugliness of the nightmare. Now, suddenly, they trumpeted a call to arms. "O brave new world!" Miranda was proclaiming the possibility of loveliness, the possibility of transforming even the nightmare into something fine and noble. "O brave new world!" It was a challenge, a command. (15.10)
The phrase "brave new world" changes many times throughout the course of the novel; John says it first with awe, later with disgust, and finally with defiance—of course, this reflects his changing perspective of the World State.
"He's mad," whispered Bernard, staring with wide open eyes. "They'll kill him. They'll…" A great shout suddenly went up from the mob; a wave of movement drove it menacingly towards the Savage. "Ford help him!" said Bernard, and averted his eyes.
"Ford helps those who help themselves." And with a laugh, actually a laugh of exultation, Helmholtz Watson pushed his way through the crowd. (15.39-40)
We're thinking that Helmholtz laughs here because, in all likelihood, he's probably the guy who wrote the phrase "Ford helps those who helps themselves." And if not, at least we see that he's laughing at the absurdity of his own profession—the writing of inane hypnopaedic phrases.
The Savage meanwhile wandered restlessly round the room, peering with a vague superficial inquisitiveness at the books in the shelves, at the sound-track rolls and reading machine bobbins in their numbered pigeon-holes. On the table under the window lay a massive volume bound in limp black leather-surrogate, and stamped with large golden T's. He picked it up and opened it. MY LIFE AND WORK, BY OUR FORD. The book had been published at Detroit by the Society for the Propagation of Fordian Knowledge. Idly he turned the pages, read a sentence here, a paragraph there, and had just come to the conclusion that the book didn't interest him, when the door opened, and the Resident World Controller for Western Europe walked briskly into the room. (16.5)
John isn't "interested" by this book because there is nothing of passion or poetry in it.
"Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about my ears and sometimes voices."
The Savage's face lit up with a sudden pleasure. "Have you read it too?" he asked. "I thought nobody knew about that book here, in England."
"Almost nobody. I'm one of the very few. It's prohibited, you see." (16.10-2)
This Shakespeare connection is a hint that these two men (Mustapha and John) have more in common than we might first suspect.
"But they're… they're told by an idiot."
"…he's right," said Helmholtz gloomily. "Because it is idiotic. Writing when there's nothing to say…" (16.32-4)
Helmholtz is still focused on the content of his writing. His maxims, the feelies—all his work is essentially "told by an idiot" because it doesn't address anything real. At the same time, Helmholtz still is not capable of understanding real passion. How, then, does he expect to write anything different?
Helmholtz rose from his pneumatic chair. "I should like a thoroughly bad climate," he answered. "I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example…" (16.68)
Notice that Helmholtz rises from his "pneumatic chair." We've seen the word "pneumatic" used over and over in Brave New World (fifteen times, actually, and you can read our in-depth discussion of it in Lenina's "Character Analysis"), but regardless of your interpretation we can all agree that it has much to do with the World State. When Helmholtz rises from his pneumatic chair, he's also rising away from Mustapha's world. Nifty, isn't it?
John the Savage
The Savage was silent for a little. "All the same," he insisted obstinately, "Othello's good, Othello's better than those feelies."
"Of course it is," the Controller agreed. "But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art." (16.28-9)
Does Mustapha's argument about happiness make sense here? It seems as though he's basing everything on the claim that "happiness" is only possible in a state of ignorance…
"He was a philosopher, if you know what that was."
"A man who dreams of fewer things than there are in heaven and earth," said the Savage promptly. (17.18-9)
This is an odd line for John, and a lot of scholars use it to establish the fact that John doesn't actually understand the Shakespeare he reads—he just quotes it.