Island by Aldous Huxley


RATING: ★★★★

The Island is a detailed description of a utopian society wrapped into a story of Will Farnaby, who happens to be trapped on the island and thus gets a chance to explore it. The storyline of the book is rather uneventful, which makes the reader wonder whether Huxley chose the right genre for this otherwise hugely enlightening and inspirational set of ideas

This is the first book I’ve read from Huxley so I’m not sure if the Island represents his overall style, but it certainly qualifies as high quality literature as far as the vocabulary is concerned. It feels overwhelmingly high browed to the non native English speaker at times. 

In a nutshell, Farnaby arrives in the island with certain believes, values and intentions, which get transformed significantly by what he experiences on the island. His initial agenda, to help his rich boss exploit the natural resources of the island is overwritten by what he sees and he switches sides, meaning that he tries to prevent the exploit in the end, but it’s too late… In light of this my earlier description of the plot as “uneventful” my not seem fair, but the actual events are mostly only referred to in the book, they are not elaborated in detail. The plot ends with the neighbouring island’s army coming in to occupy the island, but how it turns out is left to our imagination. 

On the other hand, Huxley makes his characters go into great detail when it comes to describing certain aspects of their society. That feels unnatural at times: as if they are trying too hard to make a point, to show the visitor the right way of living. Too little plot and too much description for a novel. 

All that being said, the world the book depicts seems not like a dream world of an LSD inspired hallucination of some hippy, but like a world that could be very much real, and which could serve as a model, or at the very least a thought experiment for anyone in power, and for all policy makers.

The individual can also draw conclusions from the book that might open up new doors leading to more self knowledge and fulfilment.

The key message of the book for me is that we have built our civilization upside down. We put the cart before the horse. Our greed and desire for novelty and growth enabled us to create unprecedented technologies, but our self knowledge, emotional ripeness, relationships and social conventions, our psychological development equals that of great apes. We put all our eggs in the basket of progress and none in that of human nature and wellbeing. We’ve become slaves to our own smarts and we don’t even notice it.

Huxley doesn’t say any of that in the book explicitly. But he paints a world that is very much the opposite of all that. 

The central topics are:

“THE SUN WAS JUST RISING AS DR. ROBERT ENTERED HIS WIFE’S room at the hospital. An orange glow, and against it the jagged silhouette of the mountains. Then suddenly a dazzling sickle of incandescence between two peaks. The sickle became a half circle and the first long shadows, the first shafts of golden light crossed the garden outside the window. And when one looked up again at the mountains there was the whole unbearable glory of the risen sun.”

“I’am a crowd, obeying as many laws As it has members. Chemically impure Are all ‘my’ beings. There’s no single cure For what can never have a single cause.”

“Take one sexually inept wage slave,” she went on, “one dissatisfied female, two or (if preferred) three small television addicts; marinate in a mixture of Freudism and dilute Christianity; then bottle up tightly in a fourroom
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.”

“one has no right to inflict one’s sadness on other people. And no right, of course, to pretend that one isn’t sad. One just has to accept one’s grief and one’s absurd attempts to be a stoic. Accept, accept…”

“Which only shows,” Dr. Robert added parenthetically, “how hopelessly inadequate your two highly touted systems of psychology really are. Freudism and behaviorism—poles apart but in complete agreement when it comes to the facts of the built-in, congenital differences between individuals. How do your pet psychologists deal with these facts? Very simply. They ignore them. They blandly pretend that the facts aren’t there. Hence their complete inability to cope with the human situation as it really exists, or even to explain it theoretically.”

“Man is a machine, the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.”

“That’s what the human brain is there for—to turn the chaos of given experience into a set of manageable symbols.”

“What do they mean?” Vijaya repeated. “They mean precisely what they are. And so do the mountains, so do the clouds, so do the lights and darks. And that’s why this is a genuinely religious image. Pseudoreligious pictures always refer to something else, something beyond the things they represent—some piece of metaphysical nonsense, some absurd dogma from the local theology. A genuinely religious image is always intrinsically meaningful. So that’s why we hang this kind of painting in our meditation room.” “Always landscapes?” “Almost always. Landscapes can really remind people of who they are.” “Better than scenes from the life of a saint or savior?” Vijaya nodded. “It’s the difference, to begin with, between objective and subjective. A picture of Christ or Buddha is merely the record of something observed by a behaviorist and interpreted by a theologian. But when you’re confronted with a landscape like this, it’s psychologically impossible for you to look at it with the eyes of a J. B. Watson or the mind of a Thomas Aquinas. You’re almost forced to submit to your immediate experience”

“their ability to express the fact of distance—that’s yet another reason why landscapes are the most genuinely religious pictures.”

“Sometimes,” Vijaya agreed, “even more. For the simple reason that a talent for manipulating symbols tempts its possessors into habitual symbol manipulation, and habitual symbol manipulation is an obstacle in the way of concrete experiencing and the reception of gratuitous graces.”

“We begin,” said Mr. Menon, “by assessing the differences. Precisely who or what, anatomically, biochemically and psychologically, is this child? In the organic hierarchy, which takes precedence—his gut, his muscles, or his nervous system? How near does he stand to the three polar extremes? How harmonious or how disharmonious is the mixture of his component elements, physical and mental? How great is his inborn wish to dominate, or to be sociable, or to retreat into his inner world? And how does he do his thinking and perceiving and remembering? Is he a visualizer or a nonvisualizer? Does his mind work with images or with words, with both at once, or with neither? How close to the surface is his storytelling faculty? Does he see the world as Wordsworth and Traherne saw it when they were children? And, if so, what can be done to prevent the glory and the freshness from fading into the light of common day? Or, in more general terms, how can we educate children on the conceptual level without killing their capacity for intense nonverbal experience? How can we reconcile analysis with vision? And there are dozens of other questions that must be asked and answered. For example, does this child absorb all the vitamins in his food or is he subject to some chronic deficiency that, if it isn’t recognized and treated, will lower his vitality, darken his mood, make him see ugliness, feel boredom and think foolishness or malice? And what about his blood sugar? What about his breathing? What about his posture and the way he uses his organism when he’s working, playing, studying? And there are all the questions that have to do with special gifts. Does he show signs of having a talent for music, for mathematics, for handling words, for observing accurately and for thinking logically and imaginatively about what he has observed? And finally how suggestible is he going to be when he grows up? All children are good hypnotic subjects—so good that four out of five of them can be talked into somnambulism. In adults the proportion is reversed. Four out of five of them can never be talked into somnambulism. Out of any hundred children, which are the twenty who will grow up to be suggestible to the pitch of somnambulism?”

“(did one ever know what one really intended?)”

“But shan’t I be in the way?” “If you can get out of your own way, you won’t be in anyone else’s.”

“Knowing who in fact one is, being conscious of the universal and impersonal life that lives itself through each of us—that’s the art of living, and that’s what one can help the dying to go on practicing. To the very end. Maybe beyond the end.”

“Remember what you used to tell me when I was a little girl. ‘Lightly, child, lightly. You’ve got to learn to do everything lightly. Think lightly, act lightly, feel lightly. Yes, feel lightly, even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.’ I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig. Lightly, lightly—it was the best advice ever given me. Well, now I’m going to say the same thing to you, Lakshmi…Lightly, my darling, lightly. Even when it comes to dying. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic. No rhetoric, no tremolos, no self-conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Goethe or Little Nell. And, of course, no theology, no metaphysics. Just the fact of dying and the fact of the Clear Light. So throw away all your baggage and go forward.”