Spiritual utopias have a key advantage over pragmatic or rational utopias. They don’t have to make sense. They just have to express conceptual paradoxes in attractive ways.
In a drug-induced vision, the irrational appears to make sense precisely because, to the addled user, the rational no longer does.
These are the kinds of thoughts that were running through my mind as I was reading Aldous Huxley’s Island, surely the most annoying serious book that I’ve read in a long time.
What led me back to the fairyland of my own slack-brained past, the Sixties, was a recent Continuing Ed course on utopias, a course that has already prompted reviews of Zamyatin’s We and Wright’s Islandia. Would that Huxley’s late-career opus had stood up to time as well as these other works!
Among the novel’s many problems is the complete absence of narrative. In the first half, our protagonist, the obligatory stranded outsider, lies in bed, recovering from injuries he suffered on the trip to the remote island of Pala. For interminable pages, nothing at all happens other than that he is visited by a succession of islanders who engage him in deep conversations, in which they convey the philosophy of their island paradise and he reveals all of the neuroses he carries from the failed culture from which he has come. Does it really take just a bump on the head or two to make a repressed Brit start delving into the private secrets of his conflicted family life with total strangers?
Whenever the parrots stop screeching “Attention!” and other advice to live in the moment, he falls asleep from the sheer boredom of his circumstances. Even when there is “action” in the second half of the novel, it consists almost entirely of our British avatar moving from one place, where he has an extended conversation about the Palan philosophy, to another, where he has, you guessed it, another extended conversation about the Palan philosophy.
Huxley recognized this problem with utopian fiction, as evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son in 1959, while he was writing Island:
I am working away on my Utopian novel, wrestling with the problem of getting an enormous amount of diversified material into the book without becoming merely expository or didactic. It may be that the job is one which cannot be accomplished with complete success.
Huxley was right about the problem, but surely the solution is not just to put the exposition and didacticism into dialogue form.
Another major problem for me was the inescapable thought that I was reading an inferior version of Islandia. Huxley had been accused by Orwell of borrowing freely from Zamyatin’s We for Brave New World, and this time there are so many similarities to Wright’s utopia that it’s impossible to imagine that Huxley didn’t have it in mind — or, in his novel’s own terms, in “not-mind” — while he was writing.
Then there’s the suggestion that spiritual utopias don’t have to make sense as long as they give the impression of being deep and significant. Here’s one bit of evidence from Island:
Effortlessly floating. Not having to do anything at all. Just letting go, just allowing myself to be carried along, just asking this irresistible sleeping river of life to take me where it’s going — and knowing all the time that where it’s going is where I want to go, where I have to go: into more life, into living peace. Along the sleeping river, irresistibly, into the wholeness of reconciliation.
In the 60’s, I would have believed this passage to be profound and meaningful. But it’s been a very long time since Huxley and I shared recreational drug tastes — these days, I rather go in for a glass of red wine. There’s nothing to pin down in the passage, nothing but the unenlightening claim that enlightenment is a species of daydream. It’s vacuousness for its own sake. What does passively floating on the “irresistible sleeping river of life” actually mean? It’s too convenient to claim that, by asking the question, I just don’t get it. I know that I don’t get it. That’s why I asked the question. Why not answer the question, rather than patronize me with a knowing smile just before you declare my question pointless?
Here’s just a taste of the just-add-Enlightenment-and-stir revelations at the heart of the book, with a large spoonful of the vituperative scorn the author heaps on anything to do with Western Civilization, which of course is the bastard child of the evils of rational thought.
Major premise: God is Wholly Other. Minor premise: man is totally depraved. Conclusion: Do to your children’s bottoms what was done to yours, what your Heavenly Father has been doing to the collective bottom of humanity ever since the Fall: whip, whip, whip!
Dualism . . . Without it there can hardly be good literature. With it, there most certainly can be no good life. “I” affirms a separate and abiding me-substance; “am” denies the fact that all existence is relationship and change. “I am.” Two tiny words, but what an enormity of untruth! The religiously-minded dualist calls homemade spirits from the vasty deep; the nondualist calls the vasty deep into his spirit or, to be more accurate, he finds that the vasty deep is already there.
I’m sure that this all made sense to Huxley, calling the “vasty deep into his spirit,” but that doesn’t make it anything other than abstruse word play. Huxley reveals perhaps more than he should when one of his noble semi-savage representatives says:
“If you knew,” she was saying, “what trouble we have with books in this climate! The paper rots, the glue liquefies, the bindings disintegrate, the insects devour. Literature and the tropics are really incompatible.”
Indeed. And it soon gets even more florid:
It was a long time before Will answered her. Speaking was difficult. Not because there was any physical impediment. It was just that speech seemed so fatuous, so totally pointless. “Light,” he whispered at last. “And you’re there, looking at the light?” “Not looking at it,” he answered, after a long reflective pause. “Being it. Being it,” he repeated emphatically. Its presence was his absence. William Asquith Farnaby—ultimately and essentially there was no such person. Ultimately and essentially there was only a luminous bliss, only a knowledgeless understanding, only union with unity in a limitless, undifferentiated awareness.
Despite its insuperable flaws, Island manages to be interesting in one respect, at least. Having just read Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind, I am keenly aware that spiritual utopias like Island — and the Eastern religions on which they are based — are narrative proselytizers for living life at the level of what Damasio calls the “core mind.” These transcendentalist utopias all urge the same thing: abandon the rational mind, the “autobiographical self,” and live at the level of “primordial feelings” and immediate sensory inputs. In essence, these Eastern philosophies are the rational mind’s advocacy for its own death, a call for a liberating act of intellectual suicide.
Here’s a typical passage, something that Damasio himself might have written after a few nibbles of one of Huxley’s favourite magic mushrooms:
“Awareness of one’s sensations and awareness of the not-sensation in every sensation.”
“What’s a not-sensation?”
“It’s the raw material for sensation that my not-self provides me with.”
“And you can pay attention to your not-self?”
Pure contemporary neuropsychology, anticipated, with the help of a rather impure pharmacology, fifty years ago. But Damasio doesn’t stop with the vagueness of sensory awareness. Unlike Huxley, he continues on to the fully active mind. But that’s a large topic, one for someone with more knowledge of Damasio — and more sympathy for Huxley — to tackle.
One other area where there are a few palatable ideas is the extended dialogue — what else? — about Palan elementary school education. Tucked into the many, many pages of conversation is a small clutch of educational reforms that are of enough merit to pique the interest of a retired educator like me — but you have to sift through a whole, great forest of jargonizing to find the few bearing trees.
While Islandia shares some of the “forbidden island” advantages of Pala, its society is particularly well grounded in an agricultural clan structure that might even work on a regional or national scale, if carefully enough applied. In contrast, it’s hard to imagine Pala’s “Mutual Adoption Clubs” and genetic engineering and drug cult philosophy working anywhere in a “real world.”
The great plausibility problem is Huxley’s novel’s lack of a real story through which we can see its ideas in action. There is no action in Island, almost literally so. There are ideas and assertions everywhere, but they are never shown “at work.” In contrast, Islandia presents its utopian vision in the context of a complex story, populated by dramatized characters. You see much of the practical application of the ideas, giving you an opportunity to assess their feasibility.
It’s one thing to promote a version of perfection. It’s quite another to tie that vision closely enough to reality to make it relevant beyond the level of mere curiosity. Mermerism and psychic touch, tantric sex in middle school, drug cult rituals with magic toadstools, social engineering through artificial insemination — this is the “purple haze makes happy days” recipe for the future? Sorry, but while Huxley may have longed to stay eighteen and stoned, the rest of us moved on.
However, it is Huxley’s love of the chemical experience that provides the novel’s only stretches of good prose, in an extended toadstool trip near the end. Here’s one passage that illustrates how attractive the unnatural high was for him:
Silver and rose, yellow and pale green and gentian blue, an endless succession of luminous spheres came swimming up from some hidden source of forms and, in time with the music, purposefully constellated themselves into arrays of unbelievable complexity and beauty. An inexhaustible fountain that sprayed out into conscious patternings, into lattices of living stars. And as he looked at them, as he lived their life and the life of this music that was their equivalent, they went on growing into other lattices that filled the three dimensions of an inner space and changed incessantly in another, timeless dimension of quality and significance.
Pretty, those “lattices of living stars.” As a description of a good dose, it’s quite well done. As a description of a utopia, perhaps not so illuminating.
Wright’s worldview is just maybe, and very attractively, possible. Huxley’s is not, and, given the novel’s only action — a gratuitous, pessimistic ending — he knew it, too.