As Helmholtz leaves to check on Bernard, John and Mustapha Mond continue their philosophical argument. Whereas their conversation in Chapter 16 covered human experiences and institutions that the World State has abolished, in Chapter 17 they discuss religion and religious experience, which have also been expunged from World State society. Mond shows John his collection of banned religious writings, and reads aloud long passages from the nineteenth-century Catholic theologian, Cardinal Newman, and from the eighteenth-century French philosopher, Maine de Biran, to the effect that religious sentiment is essentially a response to the threat of loss, old age, and death. Mond argues that in a prosperous, youthful society, there are no losses and therefore no need for religion. John asks Mond if it is natural to feel the existence of God. Mond responds that people believe what they have been conditioned to believe. “Providence takes its cue from men,” he says.
John protests that if the people of the World State believed in God, they would not be degraded by their pleasant vices. They would have a reason for self-denial and chastity. God, John claims, is the reason for “everything noble and fine and heroic.” Mond says that no one in the World State is degraded; they just live by a different set of values than John does. World State civilization does not require anyone to bear unpleasant things. If, by accident something negative occurs, soma is there to take away the sting. Soma, he says, is “Christianity without tears.”
Christianity without tears—that’s what soma is.
John declares that he wants God, poetry, real danger, freedom, goodness, and sin. Mond tells him that his wishes will lead to unhappiness. John agrees but does not relinquish his wishes.
Bernard and Helmholtz say good-bye to John. Bernard apologizes for the scene in Mond’s office. John asks Mond if he can go with them to the islands, but Mond refuses because he wants to continue “the experiment.” Later, John chooses to seclude himself in an abandoned lighthouse in the wilderness. He plants his own garden and performs rituals of self-punishment to purge himself of the contamination of civilization.
One day, some Delta-Minus workers see John whipping himself. The next day, reporters come to interview him. John kicks one reporter and angrily demands they respect his solitude. The newspapers publish the incident and more reporters flock to John’s home. He reacts to them with increasing violence. One day he thinks longingly of Lenina and rushes to whip himself. A man films the scene and releases a sensationally popular feely.
Fans of the feely soon visit John and chant, “We want the whip.” As the crowd chants, Lenina steps out of a helicopter and walks toward him, arms open. John calls her a strumpet and proceeds to whip her, saying, “Oh, the flesh! . . . Kill it, kill it!” Fascinated by the spectacle, the crowd mimes his gestures, dances, and sings the hymn, “Orgy-porgy, Orgy . . .” After midnight, the helicopters leave and John collapses, “stupefied by soma” and the extended “frenzy of sensuality.” When he awakes the next day, he remembers everything with horror. Having read about the “orgy of atonement” in the papers, a swarm of visitors descends on John’s lighthouse, discovering that he has hanged himself.
Bernard and Helmholtz leave the scene, and the novel, at the beginning of Chapter 17. By being exiled to the islands, and by accepting their exile, they have lost the fight against the World State. Helmholtz may continue to struggle through his writing. That is the implication of his choice of a particularly harsh environment. But both of them are being physically transported to a location where they can cause little harm to the World State. Only John is left to criticize and debate with Mond.
The discussion of religion carries the book to its most abstract and metaphysical level, and the reader may have difficulty following the thread of the argument from Chapter 16 to Chapter 17, particularly given the long passages of quotation. However, this section goes to the heart of what is wrong with Huxley’s dystopia: the fact that nobody conceives of any purpose for existence beyond the gratification of their own appetites. The passage from Newman that Mond quotes suggests that individuals feel the need for religion as they lose the sense that they are in complete control of their own lives, as they experience loss and the weakening that comes with age. The sense that one is not in control of one’s life precedes the understanding that one is part of something larger (God’s plan). In the World State, no one grows old or experiences loss, so no one ever arrives at religious experience.
In one sense, this can be seen as yet another criticism of consumerism. But Huxley is actually criticizing something larger than 1920s England and America, with its Ford motor cars, diamond rings, and conspicuous consumption. He’s criticizing the way philosophers, economists, and social scientists have been thinking about society for almost 400 years—roughly since Shakespeare’s day. Before that time, political philosophers from the ancient Greeks onward thought of civil society as serving some purpose. What that entailed varied from culture to culture. For Pericles, an ancient leader of Athens, the purpose of the polis (city-state) was to enable the small minority of free men to perform heroic exploits. In the Middle Ages, the purpose of the nation was frequently conceived as being to carry out God’s plan by serving the king, his representative on earth.
Seventeenth-century writers and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes began to conceive of societies as governed by observable laws, such as the law of supply and demand, which could determine the behavior of large numbers of people. The models of society promoted by Hobbes, and later by the political economists, ultimately generated a sufficient understanding of economic and sociological dynamics to permit governments to effectively promote greater stability, as the government does in Brave New World. But these models simplify human life to the mere struggle to survive and escape starvation, and their insights come at the price of the earlier sense that human lives or societies have a greater purpose. And while the lack of a purpose, divine or otherwise, may be a serious flaw in the worldviews of sociology and economics, Huxley observes a much more dangerous tendency within them: the tendency for the government to produce more and more intervention into human life.
The meaning of the novel as a whole lies in Huxley’s critique of modernity, characterized by technocratic government, social sciences dedicated to the control of society, and rampant consumerism, and the remarkable observation voiced by Mond in Chapter 3, that everything we think of as fundamentally human—love, passion, desire, art, and culture—comes about because of the experiences of loss and unsatisfied desire. It appears that the point of Brave New World is that modernity is developing in a direction that will ultimately change human nature itself. A world in which consumerism is developed to the extent it is in the World State, where desires are immediately gratified, in which “external secretion” is carried to the baby before it has barely begun to cry, would eradicate the most fundamental fact of human existence: its inconvenience.
But at the same time that it points to this conclusion, there are signs throughout the novel that this alteration in human nature has not yet taken place, and perhaps could never take place. Just as we are being told that there are no more jealous lovers, we meet Bernard Marx. Beneath the surface of the “free love” practiced among the higher castes lurks the specter of monogamy and violent passion. Lenina has already dated one man exclusively for far too long, and she indulges with an entire feely-going audience in a scandalous fantasy of monogamy practiced in a helicopter. Routinely, the citizens find themselves having to supplement their soma ration with drugs that replicate pregnancy or violent attachment. And there is the continuing problem of the dissidents who have to be exiled.
The last section of the novel consists of John’s departure to the lighthouse to punish himself. His self-flagellation is a desperate attempt to hold onto his own values—truth over happiness among others—in the face of overwhelming pressure from the world around him. Lenina Crowne symbolizes that pressure. John feels a powerful sexual attraction to her, a temptation to give in to the “pleasant vices” that he finds so loathsome and prevalent in World State society. When she arrives along with the chanting crowd, his resolve collapses and, when he wakes the next morning, his realization that he has succumbed to the very thing he was most set against drives him to kill himself.
The language of these chapters continues in the same tone as in the rest of the book: it is a mixture, at times awkward, of didacticism, satire, and farce. The later chapters have a more serious and didactic tone, particularly in the conversation between John and Mustapha, when issues of free will, morality, God, and society come to the fore. In the last chapter, John’s frantic self-flagellation contrasts with the superficiality of the gawking reporters and crowds that come to watch him at the lighthouse. The comparison between the two groups symbolizes the basic difference between John and the society in which he finds himself.
Replacing the concept of a belief-based, non-verifiable being with Ford, a man who existed, eliminates all the wonder and mystery related to traditional religions.
Also eliminating all other belief systems with a single, inarguable "godhead" rids the World State citizens of anxiety and conflicts based on religious beliefs and orthodoxies.
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