"In framing an ideal we may assume what we wish, but should avoid impossibilities."~Aristotle
I will be forever grateful to the person who recommended this book to me: Island by Aldous Huxley. It is one of the best books I've read. If I were deported to a distant island and asked to choose only one book to take with me out of all the ones I’ve read in my life I'd pick “Island”.
"Island" is an antidote to Brave New World. It is about an ideal society that has flourished for 120 years in Pala, an imaginary island in the Pacific Ocean.
Aldous Huxley wrote “Island” in 1961, thirty years after “Brave New World”. It was the last story he wrote before his death in 1963.
"Island" is not just a philosophical novel. It is possible that it will be rediscovered by the world for what it is: a fountain of original ideas and thoughts and a potential resource for scientists, educators, psychologists, priests, nuns, social workers and, hopefully, politicians with good intentions. I will not be able to transmit what this book encompasses. This post is only the tip of the iceberg.
Many themes are interwoven into it to create a unique masterpiece.
I will not focus on the predictions that became a reality nor shall I reveal the most original complex ideas here.
This novel starts with the scene in which William Farnaby is shipwrecked on the island of Pala. William is grappling with emotional and ethical dilemmas. Landing on this island will become a blessing in disguise. It will be the beginning of an enlightening journey. During his stay in Pala William will have conversations with different people and he will learn how this ideal society has evolved.
Pala is a federation of self-governing units where there is plenty of scope for small-scale initiative and democratic leaders, but dictators do not have a chance there because people are educated to think for themselves. Potential dictators and bullies are spotted early on and anger and frustration are channeled into healthy behaviors. Love and compassion are the driving forces of this society --not hate and revenge.
In Brave NewWorld people are blissfully ignorant to respond to the demands of the system. They are conditioned to hate nature (check page 23 for details on this). In Pala, on the other hand, education makes children aware of their unity with nature and this is what the Principal of a school told William:
“Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and the country around it.
“And let me add that we always teach the science of relationship in conjunction with the ethics of relationship. Balance, give and take, no excesses—it’s the rule in nature and, translated out of fact into morality, it ought to be the rule among people.”
There are simple reminders that would make a difference in today’s societies. Bear in mind that he wrote this in 1961; yet these are timeless truths:
“Treat Nature well and Nature will treat you well. Hurt or destroy Nature and Nature will soon destroy you.
“Conservation morality gives nobody an excuse for feeling superior, or claiming special privileges. ‘Do as you would be done by’ applies to our dealings with all kinds of life in every part of the world. We shall be permitted to live on this planet only for as long as we treat all nature with compassion and intelligence.”
There are many insightful ideas that could be considered by educators today. For example, the ones that he described as being part of the Practical Elementary Psychology lessons. He also introduced the concept of creative body movements as a sort of dance that helps to deal with emotions.
Pala is neither communist nor capitalist. There is a conspiracy to take over Pala because it attracts the envy and enmity of the surrounding world. Pala is unpopular because it is not compatible with the greed of other countries. Besides, Pala possesses oil, which increases the risk of being invaded. Yet they don’t succumb to a state of futile paranoia. They choose the path of wisdom:
“Pala unfortunately, is in nobody’s books. We don’t want the communists; but neither do we want the capitalists. Least of all do we want the wholesale industrialization that both parties are so anxious to impose on us—for different reasons, of course. The West wants it because our labor costs are low and investors’ dividends will be correspondingly high. And the East wants it because industrialization will create a proletariat, open fresh fields for Communist agitation and may lead in the long run to the setting up of yet another People’s Democracy. We say no to both of you, so we’re unpopular everywhere.”
Pala is able to do what the rest of the world does not: it adapts their economy and technology to human beings—not their human beings to somebody else’s economy and technology. Their wish to be happy and their ambition to be fully human are the beacons and goals of their economy.
It was hilarious to read what the Palanese thought about Western intellectuals.
“Western intellectuals are all sitting-addicts. That’s why most of you are so repulsively unwholesome. In the past even a Duke had to do a lot of walking, even a moneylender. And when they weren’t using their legs, they were jogging about on horses.” In Pala even professors and government officials take to digging and delving, not as a form of therapy but to make therapy unnecessary. It is considered preventative.
A group of American physicians traveled to Pala because they wanted to find out why they have such a low rate of neurosis and cardiovascular trouble. The Palanese have a more integrative approach to medicine and a completely different lifestyle altogether.
Aldous Huxley also incorporates mindfulness into medicine and education. He was far ahead of his time if you consider that now psychologists and physicians in America are learning how mindfulness can improve relationships and mental health.
A nurse in Pala mentioned that in America the concept of a normal human being is that of one who is adjusted to society. Then she ventured to ask these questions:
“What about the society you’re supposed to be adjusted to? Is it a mad society or a sane one? And even if it’s pretty sane, is it right that anybody should be completely adjusted to it?”
When William asked a person from Pala how they solved their economic problems successfully, this was the answer:
“To begin with we never allowed ourselves to produce more children than we could feed, clothe, house, and educate into something like full humanity. Not being overpopulated, we have plenty. But, although we have plenty, we’ve managed to resist the temptation that the West has now succumbed to—the temptation to overconsume. We don’t give ourselves coronaries by guzzling six times as much saturated fat as we need. We don’t hypnotize ourselves into believing that two television sets will make us twice as happy as one television set. And finally we don’t spend a quarter of the gross national product for World War III or even World War’s baby brother, Local War MMMCCCCXXXIII. Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste and moneylenders were abolished you’d collapse.”
In addition to pondering over the innovative ideas and reflections on medicine, education and society that he presented, I celebrated the spiritual nature of this book.
William Farnaby, the man who would not take yes for an answer, was transformed.
This is a book that made me think, ask questions, dream and understand life from new perspectives. For example, we can ask: is human health dissociated from Nature? No, it is not. Only ignorance considers them as separate entities.
I will share a few quotes but don’t take them seriously. Read this book yourself and make your own choices. The quotes I selected here are not even close to the succession of ecstatic experiences I had while reading “Island”. I did not want to finish it; I longed to stay in Pala, a place where honesty, free love and peace prevail.
“Life flowing silently and irresistibly into ever fuller life, into a living peace all the more profound, all the richer and stronger and more complete because it knows all your pain and unhappiness, knows them and takes them into itself and makes them one with its own substance. And it’s into that peace that you’re floating now, floating on this smooth silent river that sleeps and is yet irresistible, and is irresistible precisely because it’s sleeping. And I’m floating with it, effortlessly floating. Not having to do anything at all. Just letting go, just allowing myself to be carried along, just asking this irresistible sleeping river of life to take me where it’s going—and knowing all the time that where it’s going is where I want to go: into more life, into more living peace, along the sleeping river, into the wholeness of reconciliation.”
“Landscapes are the most genuinely religious pictures because they lend reality. Distance reminds us that there is a lot more to the universe than just people. It reminds us that there are mental spaces inside our skulls as enormous as the spaces out there. The experience of distance, of inner distance and outer distance, of distance in time and distance in space—it’s the first and fundamental religious experience.”
“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 worshiper 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.”
A note for the regular readers of this blog: I’m taking another blog break to complete other writing projects, spend time with my family, read and work on our garden.
I will be back in a few weeks with more blog posts on books, literature, art, writing and everything in-between.
Thank you for joining the literary blog ride.