Sometimes, the books of an author’s old age comment on or continue the work of their younger years. Almost everyone knows how Aldous Huxley thought the world might go wrong from his 1932 Brave New World; less often read is his description of a (doomed) utopian society in Island, published thirty years later and not long before he died. Huxley describes for us a peaceable kingdom on the island of Pala, which is about to be upended by contact with and exploitation by the outside world. Unlike Hesse, Huxley is not writing an individual’s life, but, rather, the life of a culture from its beginning to its apparent imminent demise. And we get Huxley’s vision of how life might be lived in a society which was supportive rather than exploitive.
Huxley was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and his island culture spun out of Buddhist beginnings to a place where mynah birds are trained to call out “Attention” to get listeners to pay heed to the present moment. Sex is open even to children; this makes for uncomfortable reading today as adults on Pala sometimes “teach” young people the finer points of physical love. There is a large extended family structure, allowing children to move between households. Huxley was obviously influenced by Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa on both these traits. But the main emphasis in Pala is on cultivating mental health. My favorite scenes involve teaching children the tricks of mind control. They are, for instance, told to imagine different animals or people, to multiply them in their mind, and then wipe them away in an exercise to show the youngsters how they can control their own minds and not be victim to random and hurtful thoughts. We could all use that lesson.
Drugs are presumably bad in Brave New World (soma makes you feel good, but it also controls you). By the time we get to Island, drugs are put to better use, with all young people going to through a rite of passage that includes the use of a mescaline-type substance (called moksha) that makes them cognizant of their place in the universe. Long passages relating drug experiences could and should have been edited out of this otherwise interesting book. Other people’s drunken or drugged adventures are seldom interesting.
The thinking process that got Huxley to Island can be traced through his non-fiction. Thirteen years after Brave New World, he wrote the brilliant Perennial Philosophy, where he tried to pull together the convergent ideas of many of the world’s religions (called the “ultimate anthology” by the New York Times). It might have served as a Bible to the residents of Pala. In 1954, he wrote the less brilliant Doors of Perception, which encouraged the use of mescaline for enlightenment. Huxley himself asked his wife to inject him with LSD on his deathbed in 1963. (Sidenote: President Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died on the same day, meaning the latter two got very little press upon their demise.) Huxley apparently never gave up the idea that chemical assistance was a part of the life well lived.
Huxley’s Pala is doomed, however. There is oil on the island and the capitalists are at the door. The people are peaceable and have no weapons, no standing army. They are going to lose control. So, while this is the picture of a utopia it clearly reminds us that the real world is anything but.
Here’s the thing though – the people know it is coming and they are rational enough to know they probably can’t stop it. Their training, however, makes them sure that they will cope (“even in the worst society an individual retains a little freedom”), and, as the tanks roll in, the last thing we hear is a mynah bird telling us to pay attention. At this point, the reader is at once deeply sad for the lost utopian vision, but heartened by the realization that, perhaps, all utopias are in the heart and the way in which we relate to the world.
And Huxley gives us other words of truth here. “Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.” As I read this, I could not help but think that “planned obsolescence” applied not just to appliances and cars, but to the planet that nurtures us.
Novels of old age do not usually offer happy endings, nor do they conclude that the human race is perfectible – or even good (think of Melville’s The Confidence Man). Old people know these things. I would not trust an old person who hadn’t realized that the Eden of childhood was not recoverable. The question is how to live within the world as we find it. Not to say we shouldn’t try to improve it, but denial is the worst kind of soma.