Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.
Huxley is a prophet, and with his final novel Island, he offers us a vision of redemption. Each of us is the island of Pala. Let us work together as allies. Youth for Bernie! There it is: let’s do this! “Uncover honey / where maggots are,” as Charles Olson prompted at the end of his poem “The Kingfishers.” We determine with the genres we teach different kinds of subjects. By assigning utopias rather than dystopias, we arrange for students to confront within themselves stirrings of hope rather than fear.
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.
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.
According to the Old Raja, the philosopher-king in Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian society would be a society in which “most good doing is the product of Good Being” (42). Through the fictional persona of the Old Raja, Huxley asks readers to know who in fact they are, while also knowing, moment to moment, who they think they are but in fact are not. We must be aware in every context, the character suggests, at all times, no matter the manner of the particular doing or suffering. The excerpted passages from the Old Raja’s “small green booklet” end with the author championing “Faith…the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are,” rather than Belief, which is absorption in the Word — the projected symbol, the reified name. I see Belief, for instance, as the disposition fostered not just by churches and organized religions, but also by obsessive-compulsive daily exposure to social media. The latter’s “Gestus” of swipes and clicks is a kind of genuflection, is it not? Social media’s economy of “likes” establishes through aggregation of ritual blessings a pantheon of mythic minor deities to whom users then become subject.
To soundtrack my second time through Huxley’s Island, I hit play on World Cup’s new CD-R of “adventure” music, Marsala.
Electronic tones keyed to other eras evoke imaginary videogame daydreams, images paired with sounds. In her first session treating Island‘s protagonist Will Faraday with a form of hypno-therapy, the book’s female lead Susila MacPhail offers him (and us, as we read along) a portrait of “perfect reconciliation”: a veritable church in the wild. “There were daisies in the grass and dandelions, and across the water towered up the huge church, challenging the wildness of those soft April clouds with its austere geometry. Challenging the wildness, and at the same time complementing it, coming to terms with it in perfect reconciliation” (33). The vision continues by imagining “White swans moving across a mirror of jade and jet — a breathing mirror that heaved and trembled, so that their silvery images were forever breaking and coming together again, disintegrating and being made whole” (33). What are we reading at this point? Through the reading experience, it is as if we become spellbound, consciousness led by words to a point of deep satisfaction. “Effortlessly floating,” the book repeats, “Effortlessly floating.” It feels as if one is both here and there, alive and yet already dead, following an echo down a hallway. A masterful bit of indirect suggestion, this chapter! It even announces itself as such by chapter’s end. All pain, all suffering is remade into “A miserable little thing in revolt against a huge and splendid thing. There can’t be any doubt as to who’s going to win” (36). And for me, it works: the words become the experience, the image becomes the thing. I imagine all of human history as a kind of “bad trip” caused by the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as in the famous creation myth — but with the reminder inserted into the trip that it is just a trip and that already, outside the trip’s false appearances, outside of the prison-dimension we call time, we are here and now awake and forgiven.