The Revolution proceeds in each of our lives, in the smallest of acts, scaling outward and upward, each act its own reward. Take it into the kitchen, I tell myself. Make it personal. Sometimes, as the people of Pala realize, the Revolution is as simple as following a recipe for bread. “It’s all a question,” as Huxley writes, “of being shown what to do and then practicing” (Island, p. 277). This simple technique, like a seed, contains within itself an entire method of liberation. “Not complete liberation, of course,” notes Huxley. “But half a loaf is a great deal better than no bread” (277). By these means, we begin to slip free of money’s grip.
If I were an animal among animals, I imagine I’d be a seagull. But alas, I’m not. Instead, I’m the landlocked proprietor of a botched life, hours passing unheeded. What dreams I once had of rising from this wretched state! Of course, it isn’t always wretched. I text with friends and find a book on Tai Chi in the Goodwill bins. I meet the day’s paper-grading quota and go for a run midafternoon. Alan Watts coaches me in the Taoist principle of wu-wei, which he defines as acting without forcing, “in accordance with the flow of nature’s course which is signified by the word Tao, and is best understood from watching the dynamics of water” (Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, p. 2). My reading for class teaches a similar lesson. We act, say the Palanese of Huxley’s Island, “to make the me more conscious of what the not-me is up to” (243). The day ends with a minor life achievement: I prepare a biga so that tomorrow I can bake my first loaf of Italian bread.
Friends, allow me to report on my second pass through Aldous Huxley’s Island. The book assembles for us an elaborate alternative culture, by which I mean (in Raymond Williams’s sense) a “whole way of life,” from the perspective of which we might imagine ourselves anew. What might we do after reading this book? How might we live our lives differently?
Like Aldous Huxley’s character Robert MacPhail, I am a proponent of “poetry as an autonomous universe, out there, in the space between direct experience and the symbols of science” (Island, p. 136). By which I mean poetry as liberated ground, liberated domain of being. Time and space set aside for breathing, listening, mulling anxiously, retraining awareness (birds in trees: over there! can you hear them?), so as to allow the totality to grow anew.
A tall amaryllis sits beside me, both of us seeking light. Subjects must act: punch and kneed dough. As Sarah says, “Something doubles in an hour — it’s exciting!” Imagine change and witness it. Invent a good wizard, in the tradition more of Yoda than of Gandalf. I worry, though, about the prevalence of battle in the myths that house these characters. I suppose one enters the role, as Huxley says, “by knowing what had to be done — what always and everywhere has to be done by anyone who has a clear idea about what’s what” (Island, p. 40). In my case, it begins with a shift from soda to fruit juice. One has to live out total acceptance, even of conflict. We proceed by acquiring knowledge of what we think we are, but are not. The knowledge we imagine we lack we in fact possess. Trust the mind to furnish images to guide us. Move into a non-dual perspective, subjects and objects released from use. Dream now of pyramids lifting from a base: “Whitey on the Moon.” The whole face of the world down to details as small as Cleopatra’s nose, as seen from above.
A rainy evening. Streetlights help us symbolize a mood. Slim branches of bushes bend beneath weight of falling water. I sit watch and bear witness beside a window, dazing, dreaming, pondering the relationship between Ernst Bloch’s theory of an eternal utopian spirit and Aldous Huxley’s presentation of that spirit as a will for self-transcendence. How do we who find ourselves here in language preserve what Fredric Jameson, in a book of 48 years ago, saw fit to describe as “the almost extinct form of the Utopian idea” (Marxism and Form, p. 116)? How do we pry this idea out of the clutches of a total system that even then, as Jameson could see, “may yet ultimately succeed in effacing the very memory of the negative, and with it of freedom, from the face of the earth” (115)? Huxley called this system the Brave New World. To forestall that outcome, let us imagine freedom and then go there! “Complete the thoughts of the past,” as Marx wrote in his “Letter to Ruge” of 1843. This has always been our duty: to develop a clear idea of what the world has long dreamt. Let us confront Huxley’s mystical consciousness so as to awaken in it an Egalitarian Giant. Let us restore to the dreaming subject the political direction which rightfully belongs to it. I do this in my classroom with my assembly for students of “a hermeneutic which offers renewed access to some essential source of life” (Jameson 119). For Paul Ricoeur, Jameson claims, this source is the sacred. What about for Huxley? Is the latter’s positive hermeneutic secular or religious in its orientation? Who or what is it that winks at us in recognition in the wake of ego-dissolution? We could ask the same question of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Who is the woman who escapes from the yellow wallpaper? Identification shifts over the course of Gilman’s story. Of course as readers, we, too, are in the same position as the story’s narrator: observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who herself is observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in the yellow wallpaper. All stories are the same story. But it matters, I suppose, whether the prison from which we dream ourselves is to be transcended or transfigured. “This to that,” or “that in this”?
The “Murugan” character in Huxley’s Island is far more a dramatis persona (literally, a “mask for drama”) than the student interlocutors who engage with Socrates in Plato’s Republic. Murugan is willful and petty, his every statement an outburst of bitterness and longing. But it would be wrong to read him as an imp borne of Freud’s unconscious. The would-be tyrant — whose wish is to dominate and rule — appears in Huxley’s narration as an identity captured or possessed, rather, by Ego. Or as Huxley says: “an all too familiar kind of psychological ugliness” (Island, p. 48). “A spirit of delinquency” against the Good, or against collective well-being, waging war against traditional wisdom. In the particulars of Murugan’s case, this means hoping to “modernize” Pala through international sale of oil. Modernization means cities, mass media, confiscation and expenditure of social wealth by the false Son, or by all who would imagine themselves above the Given State. Why is this personality structure present as an irritant within Huxley’s vision? Let speak that which profiteth not, a spilling forth, a babbling brook, buzz, chatter, flight, passage, awareness settling experimentally into a great listening to surroundings or environment, other beings. Wim Hof is another of these false Sons. He interpolates and interpellates through application of a method to breathing, converting those who use his method into “alchemists” of their own chemistry. Part of me fears what he might signify. A dangerous fantasy, perhaps — like Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Perhaps this danger lurks in all attempts to modify consciousness.