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.
Before arriving to the thing itself, I instruct myself to regard the 9-acre suite of Japanese gardens on the grounds of the Huntington not only in cynical terms, as a tourist site and a marker of social status, but also in more hopeful terms, as a site for encounter and self-actualization: manifestations, in other words, of Amida Buddha’s Western Paradise, enabling rebirth on a path toward enlightenment. Our observations, these gardens teach us, are always contingent, based on changing points of view. In the library itself, I request access to the “Aldous Huxley Oral History Papers, 1985-1990” and several rare books by Huxley’s friend and fellow mystic Gerald Heard. I also browse old issues of a journal called Aldous Huxley Annual. Consciousness airdrops into an altogether different Earth, however, some postindustrial world, an Earth of a different geological period, once the Subject exits the library and actually enters, sets foot into, the desert garden. Curvilinear profusion, flesh of the Earth thorny, prickly, and hairy. Morning doves and amber-bellied fox squirrels in the trees, lizards scurrying up the torsos of cacti. This is my Utopia, my garden at the end of time: this hot, wet, earthy, noisy, citrusy, fruit-bearing, sun-absorbing, multi-scented surround. I’m swept with the conviction in this moment that, whatever the details of this Utopia (apart from “full communism now”), our presence in it should be airy, minimal — an attentiveness to life’s formal richness that nonetheless remains light in its imprint. Let us be great lovers, tending only to our role as gardeners, nurturers, machines of loving grace, I’s who preside over the self-presentation of being. In these gardens and their surrounding bungalow heavens, this gift, this experience my love has given to me, LA prefigures its nickname “City of Angels.”
Let us begin like Homer with an invocation of the totality. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of the man of many ways.” A kit of pigeons crosses a sky of blue and grey on a warm afternoon. I prefer to sing of these nonhuman organisms, since A) I object to the above translation’s movement from the many to the singular-universal under the gendered sign of “man”; B) my own life continues to trouble me, particularly in its isolation from its Utopia, its beloved community; and C) to the extent that the personal under capitalism can still aspire to the scope of the political and the form of the epic, its universal human of many ways would unfortunately be a tragic figure, in many ways unfree. Stripped of ease, most especially, by its society’s demands upon its labor. “How can one self-actualize,” we might imagine this figure of subjection thinking to itself, “when one is separated from one’s fruits, the matter into which one bestows one’s energy?” Why would there be any surprise, in fact, if this figure, the human under these conditions, the subject with whom we identify, prefers to sing not of itself but of the nonhuman, multiple and singular, the paradoxical ever-changing presences that have thus far accompanied each day of the subject’s lived experience? The answer, of course, is Love, as this latter is the means by which that which we are—the subject, the “human of many ways”—finds in this world a companion. History may yet wish to make of me a casualty of the class war, I tell myself, but in the meantime I prefer to walk outdoors with Sarah, the two of us stopping over at a friend’s screened-in porch for wine and Goldfish, talk revolving around movies and TV shows we’ve been watching, punk-rock twentysomethings with bleached hair passing us on our way.
Imagine reality evolving into the unthinkable of existing sets and disciplines. Call the results of this dream-work The Ones Who Follow: A Modern Mythology. The Jonestown Massacre lies on the outskirts of all ventures of this sort, utopian communities of joy derailed everywhere, cursed, denounced, undone. How might we again induce a change in people? How might we together achieve self-actualization, group-realization? As opposed to just repeating over and over again history’s pattern of conquest, domination through separation of people from their lands. The “altered state” is what we’re after. That phrase, in its various senses, is what we mean by our Utopia. Lovers as hemispheres, fused at the mouth, as in John Donne’s “The Good Morrow.” We’re trying to raise consciousness, awaken the sleepwalkers from their deadly slumber — beginning with ourselves if necessary.
Tobacco’s “Yum Yum Cult” tunes me in, helps me switch on to life in an alternative future, the psychedelic machine-in-garden paradise of Richard Brautigan’s “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.”
Long-haired commune-dwellers sit on grassy hillsides worshiping the moon with cups of wine, the night sky a thing there for them to ponder while listening on headphones to Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra.”
Shapes drift across an inky cosmos. Here in the other future, the one in which you and I reside, where ordinary folk are born to be hurt, the words most appropriate are those of the Talking Heads song, “Born Under Punches.”
The tea leaves that show up sometimes in my Facebook feed suggest that in the days ahead, we may be facing another constitutional crisis. Imagine a harrowing chase scene. Will we take to the streets and participate in work stoppages? Or, like dogs, will we roll on our backs and submit? For answers, I look to John Berryman’s “Desire is a World by Night.” The poem’s reply is none too reassuring. “If anyone could see,” he writes, “The white scalp of that passionate will and those / Sullen desires, he would stumble, dumb / Retreat into the time from which he came / Counting upon his fingers and his toes.” Jingle bells, morality tales, big webworks of meaning. Hissing voices whisper. Recruit the right words, intones a booster, and we can give and take — everything multiplied sevenfold.
Does it help? Does growth occur when subjects reexamine their origins? Their earliest fears, for instance? Reality says, “Follow the signal! Create a new world.” Beautiful old decrepit landscapes, abandoned train tracks. Consciousness imagines itself occupying other identities. Matter, form, laws, energy. We know ourselves only in the midst of higher and lower orders of being. We play games and hope to attract others to join us. Utopia is a place where we all descend into our own mazes, families of selves who improvise being in keeping with the teachings of the Emerald Tablet or Tabula Smaragdina. Another afternoon, another walk timed to the sun’s descent. Pine needle arrangements on a piece of blacktop. I know not why the sky is so gray, but I like it. Gusts of wind lift ends of ribbons tied to trunks of trees. Heads lift, too, with help from Asheville, NC improv duo LULO.
The day starts to stack up, one stimulating experience after another. Everything creator David O’Reilly supplies a brain-busting animated short called RGB XYZ.
I experience a confusion of levels, political reality seeming a mere myth-performance atop an abyss. Imagine this abyss as an infinitely large room, where Left, traveling through a wormhole in space-time, comes out Right, time an eternal beast one can’t defeat. We are only ever here and now, even when compelled to bring growth and wealth to the owners of capital. Yet we puzzle over our origins and seek purpose. There are no truths, just stories. And presumably bodies. I lose myself amidst a collapse of images and memories. Some shifting space of menace. And then, like that, I can breathe again. Montage transmits a composite of synoptic slices of a person’s narrative arc so as to prompt recognition of archetypes. The composite governor, Zhuangzi, drives paradoxes into the grammar of reason. Noise enters the oikos through the psyche. Of course it does, we add: the future self who at other times plays the part of the Big Other, commands it.