In his final major work, the novel Island (1962), the evils that Aldous Huxley had been warning the world about in his earlier works: over-population, coercive politics, militarism, mechanization, the destruction of the environment, and the worship of science find their opposites in the gentle, life-enhancing, yet doomed, Utopia of Pala. Huxley’s portrayal of the Palanese beliefs demonstrates the principles of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Island is literally brimming with this ancient wisdom as well as myriad contemporaneous concepts and reflections drawn from Huxley’s own lifetime. Huxley’s experimentation with drugs, especially mescalin, had convinced him of the transcendent meaning of the universe.
‘…Huxley imagines Western empirical science reinforcing Eastern mystical philosophy to reinforce the best-of-both-worlds utopia of Island’ ( Beaucamp, 1990, p.61)
The novel relays how the Palanese had effectively built a society based on humanism and rationality. The population is under control, and overconsumption and mass production is not the key element of industry; science is deployed for the betterment of humankind rather than to destroy it. Nobody is excessively richer than anyone else and people are compassionate rather than self-serving. Thus, Huxley,’.. created a utopia where fundamentalist religion and omnipotent leaders did not exist, where no one could earn more than five times anyone else’s wages and where the nuclear family and puritanism were replaced by vast extended families and liberated sexuality.’ ( Campbell, 2002).
Indeed, in the early part of the 21st century its multitudinous themes appear to be incredibly prescient:
‘…in the current climate, the novel’s warnings about religious fanaticism, the exercise of massive military power, the geopolitical importance of oil and the development of artificial insemination seem extraordinarily prophetic.’ ( Campbell, 2002)
The first significant description of an ideal society can be traced back to Plato’s Republic (375 BC), in which the time-honoured philosopher constructed a theoretical city of ‘perfect’ justice and described how individuals should best live. Plato presumed that every earthly particular has an ideal, eternal form. In the Renaissance, Sir Thomas More gave a name to this type of literature with his novel Utopia (1516). The word ‘utopia’ derives from the Greek language and is a pun. For it can mean either ‘outopia’, no place, or ‘eutopia’, a good place. These two meanings more or less divide today’s utopian literature into two parts: utopias of escape and utopias of reconstruction. Utopias of escape are often characterized by journeys to a distant place or time traveling and they are usually a fantasy, or a dream projection, close to the heart of the writer, no matter how remote from realization. Utopias of reconstruction, on the other hand, deal more with realizable ideas which provide encouragement for changes in the real world. They are attempts to provide a plan and a program of living for a better society. Since the 18th century, the latter has been the more common form of utopias.
In a previous novel, Brave New World(1932), Huxley describes another fictional society in the future without religion, but with a philosophy of mass production and mass consumption, where people lack individuality and personal freedom and are mere manipulatable tools for the state. Brave New World reveals the dreaded consequences of authoritarian control and the mechanization of society and can consequently be called an anti-utopia or dystopia novel. Island, on the other hand, can be considered a utopian counterpoint to Brave New World, because it describes an ideal society with the main goal individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness:
.’ Pala, the island run on vaguely Mahayana Buddhist lines, has certainly interesting parallels with Brave New World. Here sex is not an opium of the people, a way of channeling potentially challenging or destructive feelings towards the rulers of the World State, it is an instrument of enlightenment.’ ( Murray, 2003, p.445–446)
Indeed, there are several marked differences between the societies featured in Island and Brave New World. For example, in Island, drug use is for enlightenment(‘ …the drug moksha is a means to the same end rather than a mind-numbing pacifier.’ ( Murray, 2003, p.446) and social bonding whereas in Brave New World it is used for pacification and self-medication. Moreover, in Island group living (in the form of ‘Mutual Adoption Clubs’) is provided so that children do not have constant exposure to their parents’ neuroses. This approach is in stark contrast to Brave New World’s group living for the elimination of individuality. Another notable difference is that, in Island, contraception is freely-available to enable reproductive choice and expressive sex, whereas in Brave New World contraception is mandatory and recreational; and promiscuous sex is socially encouraged. Assisted reproduction in Island is in the form of low- tech artificial insemination whereas in Brave New World it is high- tech and designed for the mass production of test-tube babies.
Huxley suggested that his utopian novel could perhaps be perceived as pointing to potential remedies for many of the ills of the modern world:
‘ It’s a kind of fantasy, a kind of reverse Brave New World, about a society in which real efforts are made to realize human potentialities. I want to show how humanity can make the best of both Eastern and Western worlds. So the setting is an imaginary island between Ceylon and Sumatra, at a meeting place of Indian and Chinese influence.’ ( Huxley, 1963, p.198.)
The novel centers around Will Farnaby, an English journalist, who is recovering from an unhappy love affair when he is recruited by a British press baron to travel to the oil-rich island of Pala in the Indian Ocean. He is to help negotiate a commercial treaty that will allow the exploitation of Pala’s natural resources. After a brief stopover on a nearby island, ruled by the dictator Colonel Dipa, Farnaby proceeds to Pala. He is shipwrecked and cast up on the island’s beach.
‘… the shipwrecked Westerner, is a representative of the fallen species, the damaged man from the West with its overpopulation, environmental prodigality, war mentality, and materialistic consumerism.’ ( Murray, 2003, p.446)
Will lands on the island to the call of a mynah bird alerting him to pay “attention, attention, here and now…” ( Huxley, 2005, p.12). The bird’s call is the novel’s leitmotif and one of the main ways in which Huxley’s progressive notions transcend the sociocultural context in which they were first presented. Our failure to recognize the urgency of ‘now ‘seems to be one of the main reasons why we are mired in the profoundly precarious situation ( particularly with regard to possible environmental catastrophe) we find ourselves in currently. It appears that we have created a world where the obsession with mass production and excess consumption has created a schizoid culture that desires everything, at the same time as being desperate for escape.
‘ Attention’- that is the first-word Farnaby hears on Pala, the first word in Island. It is croaked by a mynah bird, taught to repeat this reminder- a sort of momentoe vitae- to experience every moment of every day with the fullest possible awareness. Unlike Platonism or Cartesianism or Christianity, with their duality of mind and body, spirit and matter, self and the world, the Palanese religion is monistic, locating the transcendent in the immanent, arriving at an awareness of the mystical by fixing attention on the concrete.’ ( Beaucamp, 1990,p.67.)
Once on Pala, Farnaby gradually discovers that the isolated realm is an authentic utopia. Farnaby learns that the Palanese culture started with the cross-fertilization of Oriental philosophy and Western science, respectively represented via the characters of Raja of the Reform and the Scottish physician, . The Raja and Dr. MacPhail and their descendants worked together “to make the best of all the worlds-the worlds already realized within the various cultures, and beyond them, and the worlds of still unrealized potentialities.” ( Huxley, 2005, p.129). . At several points throughout the novel, Farnaby feels guilty about betraying his guests. Farnaby comforts himself with the thought that if he didn’t do it, somebody else would as the relentless( often brutal) forces of history are always at work. Indeed, this utopia, seemingly too good to be true, contains the seeds of its own destruction. The Rani of the island and her son, Murugan, who has been Colonel Dipa’s homosexual lover, is plotting with the nearby dictator of Randang to seize control of the island and exploit its oil resources.
The ideas on which the Palanese base their cooperative governance of society, where self-awareness and self-realization are compatible with living in the interests of the greater good, are based on careful consideration of the arguments for and against religion, science, medicine, governance, sex, and health. Furthermore, the Palanese live in accordance with the ecological cycles of the Earth, subsisting on agriculture and without mass mechanization.
The Palanese have lived by the land, importing electricity but little else, and avoiding material concerns. Nevertheless, there is an appetite for ‘progress’ on the island, embodied by the Rani and her allegiance to the building rebellion in Rendang. With no army to defend it, Pala faces an insurmountable threat. Progress, as the Rani and the outside world deem it, is coming. And with it, the paradise lost. Huxley’s point is that progress in these terms is short-sighted and ill-fated, but inevitable. Throughout Island, Huxley, ever the polymath, seems to be asking himself: “How can we create the best kind of people and the best kind of society possible?” Economically, politically, culturally, educationally, and spiritually, he appears to have the answer. Clearly, his ultimate goal is to create a society of happy, well-adjusted, evolved humans, not mere cogs in a machine constantly being pushed around by abstract, economic forces. With this in mind, Doctor Robert patiently explains to Will the democratic and egalitarian philosophy behind Palanese society:
‘ Well, to begin with, we don’t fight wars or prepare for them. Consequently, we have no need for conscription, or military hierarchies, or a unified command. Then there’s our economic system: it doesn’t permit anybody to become more than four or five times as rich as the average. That means we don’t have any captains of industry or omnipotent financiers. Better still, we have no omnipotent politicians or bureaucrats. Pala’s a federation of self-governing units, geographical units, and professional units- so there’s plenty of scope for small-scale initiative and democratic leaders, but no place for any kind of dictator at the head of a centralized government. Another point: we have no established church, and our religion stresses immediate experience and deplores belief in unverifiable dogmas and the emotions which that belief inspires. So we’re preserved from the plagues of popery on the one hand and fundamentalist revival on the other. And along with the transcendental experience, we systematically cultivate skepticism. Discouraging children from taking words too seriously, teaching them to analyze whatever they read or hear- this is an integral part of the school curriculum.’ ( Huxley, 2005, pp.146 -147).
The benign 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 holistic outlook seems increasingly relevant in an imbalanced world where science and technology are worshipped at the expense of other significant forms of knowledge. It is perhaps more beneficial to our current societies to consider how each discipline plays a part in the wider context of the human experience. It seems that we always run into trouble 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.
Farnaby discovers further that Pala’s culture has removed all the traces of guilt, shame, and antagonism that mark Western culture, particularly those regarding sexual relations. On Pala, sexual relations are embraced as a positive, natural force assisting, rather than detracting from, spiritual growth and development. For the first time in his life, Farnaby is able to engage in, even indulge in, sex without a feeling of mingled guilt and disgust.
In order to provide a high standard of living and enough food for everybody, the Palanese have devised a birth control system. Contraceptives are available for every Palanese; they are free and delivered by the postman in a thirty-night supply at the beginning of each month. In Pala, Will is told, nobody is supposed to have more than three babies and most people stop at having two, anyway. The result is that the population is increasing at less than a third of one percent per year. The concept behind this system is that Pala is prevented from becoming overcrowded and miserable. Without it, Pala would soon be transformed into the type of festering slum that Rendang, the neighbor island, will become or that India is now. Thanks in significant part to birth control, there is no famine, no pestilence, and no war on Pala.
In 1962, when Huxley wrote about the suffocating effects of the “plain mass” of an over-extending society, the world’s population was around three billion. Today, we stand at almost eight billion. This unfeasible, exponential growth poses the gravest challenges to us yet in terms of social cohesion, food supplies, and healthcare. Limited procreation and a practical approach to resources mean that Pala has survived while the rest of the world has succumbed to the perils of excess. James Lovelock has echoed the same sentiment. In his 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, he wrote: “The root of our problems with the environment comes from a lack of constraint on the growth of the population.” Why? Because “all life is urged by its selfish genes to reproduce, and if the only constraints are competition and predation, the result is a chaotic fluctuation of populations.” ( Lovelock, p.34, 2006).
‘Mutual Adoption Clubs,’ are also featured in Island. They provide Palanese children with approximately twenty family homes that they can roam freely between:
“Take one sexually inept wage-slave, one dissatisfied female, two or three small television addicts; marinate in a mixture of Freudism and dilute Christianity, then bottle up tightly in a four-room flat and stew for fifteen years in their own juice. Our recipe is rather different: take twenty sexually satisfied couples and their offspring; add science, intuition, and humor in equal quantities, steep in Tantrik Buddhism, and simmer indefinitely in an open pan in the open air over a brisk flame of affection.” ( Huxley,2005, p.90).
Huxley goes on to explain (via a native of Pala: Susila) how this system of family differs from the new Chinese communes in which children are handed over to official baby-tamers, whose business it is to turn them into obedient servants of the State, and how, while children in these MAC’s experience freedom to a much greater degree than their liberal or communist counterparts, ‘it doesn’t guarantee them against discipline,, or against having to accept responsibilities. On the contrary, it increases the number of their responsibilities; it exposes them to a wide variety of disciplines. In your predestined and exclusive families, children, as you say, serve a long prison term under a single set of parental jailers. These jailers may, of course, be good, wise, and intelligent. In that case, the little prisoners will emerge more or less unscathed. But in point of fact, most of your parental jailers are not conspicuously good, wise, or intelligent. They’re apt to be well-meaning but stupid, or not well-meaning and frivolous, or else neurotic, or occasionally downright malevolent, or frankly insane. ( Huxley, 2005, p.92).
Moksha is Huxley’s vision of a perfect psychedelic; a cultivated yellow mushroom that grows in the mountains of Pala. Unlike soma in Brave New World, which is an escape from reality, moksha is a drug that is intended to bring the Palanese ego liberation — enlightened awareness — neatly reflecting its Sanskrit meaning. The moksha medicine is described as the banquet of enlightenment, while meditation is considered dinner.
During the moksha ceremony, the Lord of the Dance, Shiva-Nataraja, dances in all worlds, the world of the senses, the world of matter, the world of endless coming and passing away, and the world of Clear Light. (Huxley, 2005, p.169). This ceremony enables the people to comprehend the nature of their existence, the “The One joined in marriage to the many, the relative made absolute by its union with the One.”(Huxley, 2005, p.169)
In Pala, the philosophical outlook is drawn freely from Hinduism and Buddhism. Human beings are considered to as having both an individual self and a share in the Universal Self or Buddha- nature. ‘Life is viewed as essentially all one. If a person has perception, he understands that his individual self is really only part of the Oneness of all things; he understands too that all opposites are reconciled in this Oneness and that he must learn to accept everything that is natural and beyond his control, even if is unpleasant, painful or destructive. Thus he can face death as well as life, sorrow as well as the ending of sorrow.’ (Kennedy, 1965, p.44.)
The Palanese are taught to understand and appreciate life by being constantly aware of who they are in relation to all experiences. Henceforth, over a thousand mynah birds(just like the one Will Farnaby encountered at the beginning of the novel) inhabit the island mimic the word,” Attention”, in order to remind people to pay attention to everything they do. From the beginning, children are taught to do things with the minimum of strain and maximum of awareness. By the time children are fourteen, they’ve learned to obtain the best objectively and subjectively out of any activity. In their initiation into adolescents, Palanese youth climb a dangerous rock precipice to remind them of the presence of death and the essential precariousness of all existence. At the end of the climb, the children are introduced to the moksha medicine or revelation of life. )
‘ In Pala, the emphasis is on life here and now. This increases the importance of awareness. This also means that no concern about the afterlife is encouraged. Death is seen as a release from a worn-out body; the union with the Universal Self ( “ The Clear Light,” “ The Suchness of Things”) then takes a different form.’ ( Kennedy, 1965, p.44–45.)
Huxley also cleverly deploys the spiritual and philosophical approaches of Confucianism and Taoism throughout Island. The Palanese, like the Confucian, believe that the standard of goodness is not to be sought in heaven, but in one’s fellow human being. Palanese culture is judged on the basis of what all the members of the community, the ordinary as well as the extraordinary do and achieve in life. Knowledge of the past, and what works, is incorporated to make for a more effective society. The Confucian ideal based on ethics and man’s function in this world to serve society has created Pala, The Palanese believe that balance, (known as the “middle way” in Buddhism..Aristotle’s golden mean also springs to mind) with no excesses is the rule in nature and ought to be the rule among people. They only manufacture enough products to maintain their community with just enough exports to obtain what they need from the outside world. All industries work on a part-time system so that people can change jobs. All aspects of the society are based on human needs first and foremost.
Taoists believe that in every human being, there is essentially a good “inner nature”. In the Palanese society, science and religion are combined to reach this inner self. For example, the Palanese found there were two types of children who would become dominant adults. Pills are used to control the personality of one type (‘ Peter Pan’ type…Hitler is used as an example) and the other ( Muscle Man type..Stalin is used as an example) is taught to engage in tasks that enable him to work off his aggressions.
Essentially, Taoists don’t believe in interfering with nature, or acting in ways contrary to it ( wu wei). Wu wei is not about, ‘ abstaining from activity but abstaining from a certain kind of activity, activity that is out of harmony with the ongoing cosmic process.’ (Fritjof, 1983, p.20).
Ultimately, the Taoist “non-interference” philosophy is one of the reasons for the doom of their society. The Palanese are pacifists with no army ( as previously mentioned) and so relinquish their island to the neighboring Rendang without a struggle. At the end of the novel, Rendang’s troops are on the horizon, paradise is about to be torn to pieces, as its oil reserves are plundered, and its way of life replaced by the march of what James Lovelock termed “disputatious tribal animals with dreams of conquest.” ( Lovelock, 2006, p. 146) Invariably, the rampant forces of militarism and capitalism win out.
It seems that here Huxley is suggesting. that the only viable way in which a utopia could be established is if it remained isolated from the rest of the world. With this in mind, 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, providing their residents with the opportunity to re-invent society from scratch. And yet, Huxley’s ending tells us, it’s impossible to escape the inevitable encroachment of modern civilization:
‘ Huxley sought to frame an ideal knowing that its acceptance, perhaps even its tolerance, in a materialistic world was impossible, yet believing that its relevance to men as individuals was supremely real.’ ( Watt, 1968, p. 159)
Given its wealth of unexploited oil reserves and plenty of lands on which to build fertilizer factories to make chemical weapons, Pala looks to become yet another idyllic island, ruined by greed, shortsighted ambition, an arbitrary, irrational hierarchy, narcissism, and violence.
“ …always, everywhere, there would be the yelling or quietly authoritative hypnotists; and in the train of the ruling suggestion—givers, always and everywhere, the tribes of buffoons and hucksters, the professional liars, the purveyors of entertaining irrelevances. Conditioned from the cradle to the grave, unceasingly distracted, mesmerized systematically, their uniformed victims would go on obediently marching and countermarching, go on, always and everywhere, killing and dying with the perfect docility of trained poodles.” ( Huxley, 2005. p.285).
Alas, the insatiable quest for oil and so-called progress supersedes the ecologically and ethically minded values of the Palanese. The young Raja has been tempted by the world of technology and ‘progress’: ‘ The serpent tempted me and I did eat’. ( Huxley, 2005, p.134). This biblical allusion, earlier in the novel, to Eden and The Fall is telling. Murugan has brought inevitable misery and ruin to Pala, ‘the work of a hundred years destroyed in a single night.’ ( Huxley, 2005, p.285).
Nevertheless, Huxley clings on to the hope of individual salvation, notwithstanding the inevitable doomed attempts to create a long—lasting utopian society here on earth.
‘And yet in spite of the entirely justified refusal to take yes for an answer, the fact remained and would remain always, remain everywhere — the fact that there was this capacity even in a paranoiac for intelligence, even in a devil worshipper for love; the fact that the ground of all being could be totally manifest in a flowering shrub, a human face; the fact that there was a light and that this light was also compassion”
( Huxley, 2005, p. 285)
Unfortunately, given current circumstances, it is highly improbable that any significant social development will occur in the direction that Huxley points towards in Island:
‘But the individual can work his or her own salvation, in whatever social context. Utopia for Huxley can be an internal state, carried within the enlightened individual on any journey. Thus, even in the darkness enveloping Pala, the fact of enlightenment remained.’ ( Beaucamp, 1990, p.70).
To conclude, it is interesting to me that Huxley ends his novel precisely as he started it with a call for attention…for conscious awareness… moment by moment:
‘ And the mynah birds of Pala, who endlessly repeat the Buddha’s call to awareness ( in contrast to the mind—numbing advertising jingles of Brave New World) have the very last word indeed: “ Attention.” This was Huxley’s ‘ message’ to the modern world: be aware.’ ( Murray, 2003, p.447).
Or… Join Atlas to make Pala a reality…
Beaucamp, G. ( 1990) Island: Aldous Huxley’s Psychedelic Utopia, Penn State University Press,Vol. 1, №1 (1990), pp. 59–72.
Campbell, D. ( 2002) Island of Dreams. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/apr/27/artsandhumanities.highereducation ( Accessed 24 04 2021)
Capra, F. ( 1983) The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture,London: lamingo.
Huxley, A. (1963) In: Writers at Work: The “Paris Review Review” New York, Interviews ( Second series;,1968).Utopian Studies.
Huxley. A. ( 2005) Island. London: Vintage Classics.
Kennedy, R.S. ( Winter 1965) Aldous Huxley: The Final Wisdom .Southwest Review, Vol. 50, №1 , pp. 37–47 : Southern Methodist University
Lovelock, J. (2006) The Revenge of Gaia. London: Penguin Books.
Watt, D.J. (Oct. 1968) Vision and Symbol in Aldous Huxley’s Island. Duke University, Twentieth Century Literature 14 (1968), 3: 149–160.