Aldous Huxley : Island

An amazing book, and one of the few which I wouldn’t hesitate to qualify as a book which everyone should read. I’m pretty certain I’d only read it once before, a long time ago, and I was very glad to have finally re-read it now. As a work of literature it’s not quite James Joyce, although for a book intended primarily to convey a set of ideas it’s way above the level of most science fiction. Just as in the books of Philip K. Dick it isn’t the story, the character development or the use of language which are important here, but the ideas, and in that respect this has to be one of the most interesting books ever written, mainly because Aldous Huxley was himself such an interesting character with so many worthwhile things to tell us. Just as with Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, there’s no point noting down interesting quotes while reading Island : there are just too many of them.

(details below)

To mention just a few of the wonderful ideas put forward in this book…

  • The Mutual Adoption Club: like an old-fashioned extended family, but not just consisting of one family and therefore more conducive to cultural mixing, more like a commune or Wohngemeinschaft – healthier and more pleasant for the children, easier for the parents, and better for society as a whole.
  • Artificial insemination sometimes replacing natural fatherhood, to increase the cultural mix within the family, making it more fun, more interesting, and better for all concerned, and to get rid of bad genes and propagate good ones, therefore improving the race – a daringly positive view of eugenics for 1962.
  • The programmes to give people a chance to experience many different occupations and lifestyles while growing up, and to learn many different skills, in order to produce happier and better-rounded adults. Similar to the Chinese communist programmes whereby students were sent to work on farms and in factories, the principle of which I’ve always very much approved of, and (not entirely coincidentally) also similar to my own early work experience.
  • And then the amazingly healthy attitudes towards almost everything: sex, drugs, religion, death, physical exercise and work, technology, progress, economics and population control, to name but a few.

This is a tale of utopia, and Huxley was certainly an idealist. However, his wife Laura Huxley wrote in a letter, just days after his death:

Aldous was, I think (and certainly I am) appalled at the fact that what he wrote in ISLAND was not taken seriously. It was treated as a work of science fiction, when it was not fiction because each one of the ways of living he described in ISLAND was not a product of his fantasy, but something that had been tried in one place or another and some of them in our own everyday life.

So maybe it isn’t quite as idealistic as it looks, even if I have my doubts about one or two of the amazing techniques he describes, such as people going into a deep trance and being able to do the equivalent of hours of mental work in minutes or seconds. Regardless of whether all his ideas would really work in practice, regardless of whether Huxley exaggerated a bit here and there, there are so many obviously and non-controversially good ideas in this book, so many things with which anyone who’s thought seriously about life and about human nature would have to agree, that this book definitely deserves to be taken very seriously indeed.

Not that I’d agree with absolutely everything in it. Huxley’s late-19th.-century birth and civilised English upbringing do show through occasionally, especially in what, in spite of their generally liberal attitudes and their devotion to ‘the yoga of love’, I’d regard as a slight anti-sex attitude on the part of the island’s inhabitants: nurse Appu hates the Rendang ambassador because he offered her money for sex (p.80), and Andrew MacPhail “happily” got rid of his habit of masturbation (p.139). For my taste these days it’s also perhaps slightly too religious, and specifically too Buddhist. In a foreword to a 1946 edition of Brave New World, in which many of the ideas in Island are first presented, Huxley writes:

Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s Final End, the unitive knowledge of immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: ‘How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?’.

As far as I’m concerned he’s making a serious mistake here, falling into the typically religious trap of putting something in which he believes, but which is by definition outside of experienceable everyday life, at a higher level than experienceable everyday life itself. He finds this ‘Final End’ in which he believes more important than the non-final end which every one of us experiences every day, i.e. the end of human happiness, and that’s something I find intrinsically dubious, if not directly dangerous. Not dangerous in Huxley’s case perhaps, as he was such a well-meaning individual, but still the top of the slippery slope towards holy wars, terrorist attacks and the Inquisition. This is Aldous Huxley’s personal religious philosophy, but he’s intelligent enough not to make it a compulsory or dogmatic feature of island life, nor to shove it down the throats of his readers. Like that of the Dalai Lama, practically all of the islanders’ philosophy is based entirely on direct experience and simple logic, with no belief required. When Will is taken to visit the local Buddhist temple, the rites being practised are described as something some people need:

Given the nature of spiders, webs are inevitable. And given the nature of human beings, so are religions. (p.209).

The experience in communist countries (and in France!) seems to confirm this opinion, and if you have to have religion, this type of Buddhism is about the best you could hope for.

— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

Apart from this slight religious bias, Huxley’s philosophy seems to be mainly that the state of the world depends largely on how you see it, i.e. on the state of your own mind, and that by changing your own mind, whether by drugs, yoga, religion or learning to think in the right way, you can change the world for the better. He’s realistic enough, however, to not forget that other people may well be thinking very differently, and that becoming better doesn’t necessarily mean becoming stronger – as the end of the book makes all too clear. In the account of Pala’s history it’s made plain that luck played a large role in the development of their sensible, rational culture: the luck of never having been colonised, and the luck of certain enlightened individuals having met there and worked together. In other words the success of Pala isn’t the work of any gods, spirits, extra-terrestrials or other super-human intelligence, but just the result of cause and effect, of events logically influencing other events in a meaningless, indifferent universe, some of those events having been the result of positive, rational human thought and action. And the (apparent) demise of Pala at the end of the book is also the result of cause and effect in an indifferent universe: the survival of the fittest (in this case, the triumph of the physically strongest) does not in any way imply the survival of the best. Proof, if any were needed, that such a utopia will never come about in a world without a world government!

Up to now I’ve always tended to take a pretty negative view of ‘culture’. My favourite home-made quote is

The concept of ‘culture’ can be very useful in describing and explaining human behaviour, but can never justify it and should certainly never prescribe it.

Perhaps due to having been brought up in a repressive Catholic culture with a lot to be said against it, I’ve always tended to concentrate on culture as a straightjacket, as an excuse for not thinking for yourself, and as something which has to be overcome as an essential part of the process of becoming a mature human being. It can’t be denied, however, that there are also a lot good things to be said for culture, and Aldous Huxley put it very well in this book, using the skeleton as an analogy:

The dancer’s grace and, forty years on, her arthritis – both are functions of the skeleton. It is thanks to an inflexible framework of bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheelchair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into complete human beings is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing. (p.201)

A wise man was Aldous Huxley!

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Details:

author Aldous Huxley
title Island
first published 1962
language English
read 30/01/2011 – 07/02/2011

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