Study Guide

Brave New World Chapter 17

By Aldous Huxley

Chapter 17

  • Helmholtz's exit leaves the Controller alone with John, who thinks that beauty and truth are a big sacrifice to make for happiness.
  • Mustapha adds that they also sacrificed religion.
  • The Savage tries to say something about the moments of spiritual sublimity he experienced on the Reservation, but he finds "there were no words" to express this. "Not even in Shakespeare."
  • Mustapha says that the notion of God has always interested him. He removes from his safe a copy of the Bible, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, and a third text, William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. Humorously, he calls them all "pornographic" (because in this world, any such outlawed material is considered smut.)
  • John wants to know why the Controllers don't let people read these books. According to Mustapha, it's the same problem as with Shakespeare's works—they're too old. People wouldn't understand it because God doesn't really exist anymore.
  • He compares the new position of Arch-Community-Songster to that of a Cardinal back in the day. He hands John a book that has something to do with Cardinal Newman (we aren't told which book it is, but see the "Allusions" page for some speculation and general fun) as well as a book by French philosopher Maine de Biran.
  • John responds with a variation of a quote from Hamlet about philosophers: they dream of fewer things than there are in heaven and earth.
  • Mustapha then reads aloud from the Cardinal's book, a passage that says man is not independent, but rather that he is God's property.
  • He then reads from Maine de Biran's work (again, the title isn't revealed, but check out "Allusions" for the fruits of our research). The passage in question observes that, as man finds himself getting old, he tries to pretend (foolishly) that it is a sickness from which he can recover. Many people think fear of death is what makes the elderly turn to God, but de Biran counters in this passage that, as we get older, our thoughts are less obscured by reason and passion. God emerges, "as if from behind a cloud." Therefore, we don't use God to comfort ourselves in death. It is only in approaching death that we can finally see God, a God who has been present our entire lives.
  • Mustapha closes the book and says that this very passage explains why there's no God today. When you never have old age, no one can ever get to the point where they can start turning to God. (Remember, in this brave new world, people maintain the health of a thirty-year-old until they suddenly die.)
  • People also turn to God for comfort in times of misery, but in this new world, there is no misery. There is no suffering. There is no reason to imagine a greater salvation because there's nothing from which to be saved.
  • John asks if this all means that Mustapha himself doesn't believe in God. The Controller responds that, actually, there probably is a God, in his opinion. It's just that God takes many different forms across time, and in this particular part of history, he happens to take an absent one.
  • Now John interrupts with a key question: isn't it natural to think there's a God?
  • A-ha, says Mustapha, but what is a "natural" state. Is it instinct? They've all created "instinctual feelings" through conditioning. The "instinct" to believe in God used to be just another form of conditioning.
  • John knows that solitude often brings on thoughts of God, but Mustapha reminds him that they have essentially outlawed solitude.
  • Mulling this over, John finally responds with a reference to King Lear. He quotes Edgar's lines that the gods are just, and that the vices plaguing us are merely their tools.
  • Mustapha responds that the justice of the gods is merely a reflection of man's laws. Providence is whatever we decide Providence ought to be.
  • John ventures that perhaps today's society is god's punishment; that is, men have been degraded by the society they live in.
  • OK, this part is a little bit tricky to wrap your head around.
  • So, basically, Mustapha responds that man hasn't been degraded at all: he's happy, he's perfect. He realizes that what John means is that, from the point-of-view of an unconditioned person (like those of us reading the text), the current state of things is pretty awful. By our standards, all the Deltas and Epsilons are degraded because they don't have free will, because they're controlled by soma, and because they're essentially brainwashed.
  • But, he says, you can't judge this world (the brave new world) by the rules of the old world. That just doesn't work.
  • John disagrees; he doesn't think you can judge a world by any set of values you want; he thinks that value is intrinsic. It just comes down to whether or not you can recognize an object's value. If these people all believed in God, John says, they wouldn't allow themselves to be degraded in this manner. That's how it works with the Indians on the Reservation. Through their belief in God, they are able to bear through the unpleasantness of life.
  • Mustapha replies that in this civilized world, people have technology. There's no need to combat anything unpleasant.
  • John then asks, "What about self-denial?" What he means is, what about intentionally refusing your desires, or intentionally putting yourself through pain?
  • Mustapha counters that his industrial world is only possible if people indulge their every desire. In his world, there is no such thing as self-denial. That's why they have no concept of chastity; if people had to withhold from sex, they would start to lust after things they weren't allowed to have.
  • John is getting upset. You need a God, he says. God is the reason for everything that is noble and heroic.
  • Mustapha answers that there is no need for the noble or the heroic. In fact, he and the other Controllers have taken away the opportunity for anyone to be noble or heroic. It's easy to prove yourself a hero during war or chaos, but they don't have stuff like that anymore. Try to be a hero when everyone is happy—there's no one to save!
  • He continues to outline the way in which they all control society. First, make sure no one really loves anyone else. Then make sure there are no temptations that people have to resist. And keep a healthy supply of soma in case anything unpleasant does crop up.
  • Then he says that soma lets you carry your morality around with you in a bottle. He says soma is "Christianity without the tears."
  • John replies that tears are necessary. He quotes Othello to explain that we all need suffering, that it is a part of life and getting through it is what makes us human, what we can be proud of. Life is in the suffering, and the calm after the storm is what makes the storm worth enduring. He then quotes a few lines from the famous "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet, lines that ask the question: is it better to endure and suffer through the "arrows of outrageous fortune," or to end them once and for all? This world, he says, doesn't do either: it simply abolishes the arrows.
  • Suddenly, John thinks of his mother, and how she just escaped into the world of soma. He thinks of the Director Hatcheries and Conditioninghis fatherand how he now has escaped into the same world, in order to avoid the mockery of having had a naturally born child. He declares that what this world really needs is more tears. In other words, people should be forced to face suffering and endure it.
  • Then he asks, "Isn't there something in living dangerously?"
  • Mustapha agrees that, yes, there is. In fact, people have natural urges to live just this way.
  • But, to make up for that, they just give people their V.P.S. treatment ("Violent Passion Surrogate"). What's that, you ask? Well, once a month, every citizen has to go and get his system pumped full of adrenaline. Physically, it simulates what it's like to be full of fear and ragefull of the same kind of emotions you find in Othello, "with none of the inconveniences."
  • And John, competing for the greatest fictional character ever, replies: "But I like the inconveniences."
  • "We don't," says Mustapha. He adds that they simply want to be "comfortable."
  • And now for one the greatest speeches in all of Brave New World, in which John says that he wants God, poetry, danger, freedom, goodness, and sin. He claims the right to be unhappy.
  • Mustapha replies that John is welcome to have these things.
  • And that's that.

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