Aldous Huxley’s “Island” invites us to imagine the best of all worlds

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I’m not in the same league of erudition and wisdom as Aldous Huxley, nor as full in experience (not yet, anyway). I don’t have his masterful wit, nor have I taken mescaline, about which he wrote beautifully in 1954’s The Doors of Perception. In an odd way, his final novel, 1962’s Island, is the book I was trying to write for three years. And would have written, had I not found wise teachers of Story craft and other guides and critics who came along at just the right time to ask questions like, “Do you want other people to read this?”

For all its density, I did love Island as an intellectual exercise. I learned a great deal about Eastern philosophy, especially appreciating the mash-up concocted by Huxley with the best of modern Western scientific inquiry and intellectual rigor. In his fictional island of Pala, over 100 years, the residents have built their culture out of the best of all worlds, picking and choosing from Buddhism, Tantric philosophy, Enlightenment skepticism, and scientific method to name a few of the influences that go into the Pala stew.

Huxley uses the whole book (over 350 pages) to spin out the breadth and depth of what’s at stake when the young, Western-educated Raja comes of age and ascends the throne. We see and hear about how they raise and educate children, stay healthy, own and govern co-operatively, meld the best of science and mysticism. It’s all very compelling. If I had a quibble, it’s that nothing much happens to test the protagonist, Will, a young Englishman who shipwrecked there. He is but a passive observer, questioner and commentator.

Huxley’s world is very appealing, not least because we have a manifest lack of such visions of late. The good people of Pala understand that wellness, education, relationships, and healing take place on multiple levels, including psychological, physiological, philosophical, spiritual, artistic, biochemical, ethical, and cultural. This holism fits with what I understand of the marriage of ancient and modern knowledge that the philosopher Ken Wilber has been after with Integral since the 1970s.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with science or technology when considered in the wider context of the human experience, and this includes our psychology as well as the natural systems of which we are a part. Where we run into trouble is when one discipline believes it’s got THE answer. Or, at least, that its answer is better than any other, previous or contemporary, answer. With no appreciation of the broader context, single disciplines are raised above others in an artificial hierarchy.

From the beginning, Huxley’s knowledge of Eastern spirituality shapes up in fine contrast to the screwed-up modern civilizations of the West, with their tendencies to anthropocentrism, exploitation of both people and resources, and the violence of war.

The most memorable image from this book is a grand landscape painting in a meditation room. The scene depicted in the painting is right after a rainstorm, when the sun has just peeked out from a mountain of clouds. Huxley writes eloquently of distance, of seeing that which is inaccessible, secret, mysterious. And of the dark shadows as contrasted with the light. Perceiving the fleeting nature of time in eternity. The entire scene is a view, as Will’s guide tells him, of your own inner landscape, your mind: its spaciousness, its near-and-far, its bright places and shadowy ones.

In the final three pages, Huxley destroys his lovingly-created utopia: the young Raja ascends the throne, partners with the neighboring warlord and goes on a rampage to kill Pala’s leaders and seize power for himself. Don’t we know from history that utopias cannot survive in real life? We have many examples in the homogenized, sanitized-for-your-protection idealizations that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We studied utopian cities and towns in Architectural History class, mostly for the relationship between ideology and urban form, which tended to be hierarchical and ordered with Euclidian geometry. It wasn’t lost on us that most of these communities failed after a few generations. They became oppressive in their attempts to force people into narrow, cleansed definitions of humanity.

Though I haven’t made an exhaustive study of utopian fiction, I did read Thomas More’s 1516 novel, Utopia, a couple of years ago. The word he coined for his island’s name means, literally, “no place.” I could move on to William Morris’ News from Nowhere, and possibly Erewhon, published by Samuel Butler in 1872 and referenced several times at the beginning of Huxley’s book. (It’s also an anagram of “nowhere.”) These books are all commentaries, some satires, of the contemporary mores and foibles of their day. I’m mostly interested in the details of daily life that manifest from a reconsideration of human identity, purpose and context in the larger community of life. But the contrast they present with modern civilization is certainly instructive as well.

It is significant that the places in More’s story and Huxley’s are both islands. They are literally and figuratively separated from the rest of the tainted contemporary world, giving their residents the chance to re-invent society from whole cloth. And yet, Huxley’s ending tells us, it’s impossible to escape the juggernaut of modern civilization. Given its wealth of unexploited oil reserves and plenty of land on which to build fertilizer factories to make chemical weapons, Pala looks to become yet another Easter Island, ruined by greed, shortsighted ambition, hierarchy, narcissism, and violence. Just like the rest of the civilized world.

But wait. Who is to say that the people of Pala, as carefully educated as they’ve been, won’t find a way to carry on their education and traditions? And even if they don’t succeed, they aren’t naïve. They know that the All of Life contains both good and evil, light and darkness, every aspect of reality. The clue is that our Everyman protagonist Will has recently taken mescaline and realized the Suchness of the world. He has discovered that his own compassion has been there all along, though he buried it under a modern crust of cynicism and willful blindness to the truth.

We’ve had plenty of dystopian stories lately. Perhaps we would do well to make a study of utopias, not as a literal blueprint to remake society but for the questions they raise in our modern minds. For example, what are the assumptions and mindsets behind either a utopian or a dystopian story? Why does dystopian fiction seem to be so popular these days? What need in our cultural psyche is it feeding? Does utopian fiction seem Pollyanna and unrealistic? Isn’t it just as possible—or likely—as dystopia? And the question on my mind these days: What can we take away from these fictional utopias to inform modern civilization?

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