"Brave at Last: Huxley's Western and Eastern Utopias."

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Author: Peter Firchow
Date: 2001
From: Aldous Huxley Annual(Vol. 1)
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 151)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,151 words

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[(essay date 2001) In the following essay, Firchow contrasts the pessimistic dystopian vision presented in Huxley's Brave New World with the more ideal society found in his later novel, Island.]

The problem is to evolve a society that shall retain all or most of the material and intellectual advantages resulting from specialization, while allowing to the full the life of generalized human beings. To solve this problem will be hard, but not I am convinced, impossible.Aldous Huxley, Beyond the Mexique Bay (1934)

"He's being sent to an island. That's to say, he's being sent to a place where he'll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world."Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)

Huxley is unusual among writers on utopian subjects for having produced both utopian and dystopian novels.1 He is unusual in this respect but he is not unique, for H. G. Wells had anticipated him by doing the same in The Time Machine and in A Modern Utopia. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in the case of both writers the dystopias precede the utopias. Living without hope--or, better perhaps, consorting with despair--seems possible and perhaps even, from a romantic point of view, desirable when young, but with increasing age it becomes a position increasingly difficult to maintain. Saying "yes" may seem impossible, as Huxley's protagonist Will Farnaby initially maintains in Island, but continuing to say "no" to the very end is certainly no easier. Not that the choice is always so compelling or the dividing line between dystopia and utopia so clear. Is the world of the Houyhnhnms described in the fourth book of Swift's Gulliver's Travels utopian or dystopian? After nearly three centuries of commentary, critics still have not been able to make up their minds one way or the other. And it is surely significant that most dystopias contain powerful utopian elements, either explicitly, as with the "Golden Country" in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, or implicitly, as in the case of the islands to which dissidents are exiled in Brave New World. There is also the curious psychological fact that whenever utopia is pushed to its extreme it lapses into dystopia. The best known example of this is the first and probably still the most influential utopia in the Western tradition, Plato's Republic. The good place (or the no place) where nothing ever changes resembles, after all, nothing more than the grave.

In Island Huxley sets forth his vision of what a realistic utopia might be like. As his epigraph from Aristotle puts it: "In framing an ideal we may assume what we wish, but we should avoid impossibilities." It is a utopia that, quite deliberately, I think, often presents a kind of mirror image of the world he had described thirty years earlier in Brave New World. Not that the reversal is simple, or that Huxley merely says "yes" now where he had said "no" before. Taking "yes" for an answer may have become necessary for him but it never became merely axiomatic, either for himself or for his audience. Huxley's vast and precocious international reputation, after all, had been established by a young man who was accustomed to describe himself as a Pyrrhonist, a deflator of intellectual and other pretensions whose first novel Crome Yellow was hailed by F. Scott Fitzgerald as the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon sophistication and whose celebrity status caused Proust to mention him in flattering terms in A la recherche du temps perdu, the only living British novelist to be so honored.2 But brilliant though he was, Huxley was also helped along by his distinguished family origins, for skepticism, along with extraordinary intelligence, were already qualities widely associated with the name of Huxley. T. H. Huxley, the great Victorian biologist and man of letters, the man who had introduced the word "agnosticism" into the English language and had taught Tennyson that nature was "red in tooth and claw," was Aldous Huxley's grandfather.

Still, during the twenties, it was the poet and the novelist rather than the naturalist whose name was to become a byword for irreverent iconoclasm, partly owing to poems like the "Second Philosopher's Song," where, like Voltaire before him, Huxley ironically praises the marvelous system according to which "this best of worlds is wisely planned."3 The only rational response for Huxley's philosopher--and by extension for himself and us too--is to bow one's head and throw up one's hands in incomprehension. Small wonder, then, that, as another one of Huxley's poetical and philosophical alter egos puts it:

God's in His Heaven: He never issues
          (Wise Man!) to visit this world of ours.
Unchecked the cancer gnaws our tissues,
          Stops to lick chops and then again devours.
(CP, 107)

Huxley's ironic, irreverent, corrosive skepticism was to reach a climax in Brave New World, the novel which established him as the greatest English-language satirist of his time. This circumstance in itself, however, was to prove in hindsight profoundly ironic, for not long after publishing Brave New World in 1932, Huxley underwent a kind of mid-life spiritual crisis which led him to take "yes" for an answer, though at first only hesitantly and with important qualifications.4

The position that he first started saying "yes" to publicly in the mid-thirties combined pacifism with personal/public responsibility; it was an outlook that had its roots largely in the revulsion against the rampant militarism and Realpolitik that had brought about the Great War and now threatened to issue in another, even "greater" war. It was also indebted, however, to Gandhian ideas of passive resistance that he had encountered personally some years earlier while visiting India for the first time (a visit vividly described in Jesting Pilate). It was a "yes," however, that he might not have spoken had he not been subjected at this time to the very different pressures of virulent Hitlerism in Germany and the aggressively passive Peace Pledge Union founded by Canon Dick Sheppard. The complex reasons why--and the ways how--Huxley was impelled to shed his seemingly inbred Pyrrhonism and adopt a radically new, positive social and moral outlook are movingly described in what is arguably his best novel, Eyeless in Gaza (1936).

From saying "yes" to pacifism and from refusing to accept ignoble means to achieve ostensibly noble ends--an ethic passionately elaborated in Ends and Means (1937)--Huxley proceeded to take another step towards affirmation when he embraced Mahayana Buddhism towards the end of the decade. Here again, oddly enough, the outward circumstances were ironic, for Huxley's "conversion" (if that's what it should be called) took place in Los Angeles, a city where he had settled in 1937 to work on film scripts and which was to become his home until he died in 1963. Los Angeles had also been the original model for what he once called the City of Dreadful Joy, a city of the plain embodying the American Nightmare which, Jeremiah-like, Huxley had been pleased to despise at the end of the journey described in Jesting Pilate a decade earlier. To the world outside, therefore, and to most of Huxley's critics, it almost seemed as if in middle age Huxley had suddenly and inexplicably determined to espouse all those wrong views and values that he had once so rightly and effectively denounced. The scion of British skepticism and the epitome of European sophistication had apparently succumbed to the lures of Hollywood cash and California religion.

That this is not a fair statement of what had really occurred should have been apparent to anyone who bothered to read Ape and Essence (1948), Huxley's apocalyptic vision of what might happen in and to Los Angeles, along with the rest of the so-called civilized world, after a nuclear holocaust. The infernal dystopia presented in this work is as corrosive and pessimistic as anything Huxley had ever written before, including Brave New World. Saying "yes" was evidently something that still entailed the possibility of saying "no." In fact, not just the possibility but the duty to do so, for while in Island Huxley (and his protagonist, Will Farnaby) do utter a resounding "yes" to Pala, they simultaneously say "no" just as emphatically to Rendang and the rest of the unreconstructed world. Saying "yes" to something, as we have seen, inevitably involves saying "no" to some other thing. More on this later.

In Island Huxley depicts a world that is very contemporary. Unlike Brave New World, which is set some six centuries in the future, the events recorded in Island take place in the present. Huxley, it seems clear, wants us to realize that utopia is not something located in the distant future but is almost tangibly close to us in the here and now. It is a so-called "near-in utopia," not a "far-out" one, to use the distinction Huxley draws in a 1962 talk recently unearthed by James Sexton.5 It is also a state (and a state of being) that we ourselves can enter, and not just our remote descendants. To be sure, as an island, Pala belongs very much to a traditionally characteristic utopian space. Sir Thomas More's Utopia is after all, as its original title informs us, an insula, an island, one which is, in fact, located in terms of fictional geography not far from Huxley's Pala. But, as we all know, islands in the age of jumbo jets and helicopters are not what they used to be in those early days of global exploration when More composed his fantasy. Pala may be far away and difficult to get to, as Farnaby discovers to his own dismay, but it is by no means isolated. During the early 1960s it was probably only a little more difficult to reach than Bali, the island whose geography and history it most closely approximates.6 Intertextually, however--a feature it shares with the New World State of A.F. 632--it has at least as much to do with the utopian (or dystopian) island inhabited by Prospero, Miranda and Caliban, a connection which, however, we unfortunately do not have time to go into here.7

That is not to say that the society Huxley depicts in Island is utopian in the sense of being ideal or of not displaying any flaws. The rules of nature continue to remain in force in Pala as they do in the rest of world; there is disease and sorrow and death, even though the latter may have ceased to be the "essential horror" it is for most outsiders like Will. Pala is, as Huxley very much wanted it to be, a realistic, if not a real, utopia. (Witness the epigraph from Aristotle.) Significantly, however, while Pala is clearly a society--that is, it is a social organism that provides efficiently for the physical and spiritual well-being of its members, as well as for their education and medical care--it can hardly be described as a "state." Nor can the Palanese be described as citizens in the usual sense. For example, there is no mention in the novel of any country-wide elections or even of voting on a smaller scale. Pala possesses, so far as one can tell, no police, and it certainly has no army or navy. Its administrative structure can only be very vaguely surmised. Indeed, once one begins to ask such overtly political questions about Pala, it becomes clear how little importance, and even relevance, they have for Palanese society.

To be sure, the notable and surprising absence of any detailed description of the operations of the Palanese government may simply be due to the fact that mid-twentieth century Pala has retained the original absolutist rule of the founding Raja. But if so, how then should we account for the obvious weakness of the current Raja and his scheming mother? It would appear that the real sources of power in Pala lie elsewhere. But where? There certainly is a good deal of evidence of intelligent long-term planning and administration in Pala. Some administrative body, however constituted, must after all have ordered the construction of the medical facilities and the schools that Will makes use of and visits. Similarly, the teachers and the school inspector with whom Will converses must have been trained and examined by and according to some established and officially recognized set of rules. However, the fact that no attempt is made in the novel to inform readers about such administrative procedures and bodies suggests that they function more or less by themselves, behind the scenes and without much bureaucratic fuss. Indeed, the implication seems to be that Palanese society is actually ruled by a kind of grass-roots consensus, with its "real" rulers virtually indistinguishable in any overt way from other, less powerful members of the society. Though never explicitly named, there can be no doubt that such powerful figures do in fact exist in Pala. Robert MacPhail is one of them. That is evidently why he is among the first (if not the first) to be "liquidated" by the invading forces of Colonel Dipa, even though he possesses no official governmental position in the conventional sense.

A society like Pala, virtually without an executive branch or even any overt power structure, can only function because of widespread agreement among its members about first principles. It is on the specific means by which this essential end has been reached that much of the attention of the novel is focused. Pala's remarkable social consensus has been achieved chiefly by means of a variety of innovative educational strategies, including, as we shall see, conditioning. The final result is what can only be called, despite its multicultural origins, a uniform and homogeneous society, something that may strike many readers living in very different and often conflicted, heterogeneous societies, as abhorrent and even reminiscent of the bland conformity of the New World State as described in Brave New World. Still, whatever we, as outsiders, may think of such uniformity, it is obvious that, in the absence of an interfering governmental force, there can be no social continuity and stability without it.

While the social uniformity of Pala is clearly a good thing for those who agree that it is a good thing, not everyone agrees. The disagreement, in fact, is what constitutes much of the plot of the novel, with the initial skepticism on the part of the protagonist, Will Farnaby, giving way in the end to unqualified assent. There is, however, another character in the novel who disagrees and who does not yield to persuasion of any sort. This character is Murugan, the Raja in waiting. Given his exalted position, it is clear that, as far as the future of Pala is concerned, the failure to convert Murugan to Palanese values will have far greater and more immediate social consequences than Will's very private conversion. Also, unlike Will, Murugan cannot simply be deported; he must be suffered, though not necessarily gladly. However, leaving aside his mother, who is in any case an outsider, there is only one Murugan. Indeed, Murugan, as it turns out--and this is probably a serious flaw in Huxley's novel--is the only insider in all of Pala who prefers the values of outside to those of inside. For the rest, everyone whom Will encounters seems content to have things stay pretty much as they are. To be sure, the outside world is very consciously kept out, except for very occasional exceptions like Will Farnaby.8 There is no tourism in Pala and there are only occasional academic meetings to which outsiders are invited for brief stays. Clearly, Pala's very independent, self-confident society does manage to work without outside help, and is in many respects admirable, but, like the New World State of A.F. 632, it has paid a price for its efficiency and stability. It has not paid the same price, or anything like it, for the Palanese are fully human, very different from the mechanical animals of Huxley's earlier dystopian vision. Nonetheless, the price they have paid is, in our terms at least, quite high, for the Palanese are not, it is important to remember--and as Philip Thody has reminded us--free.9 The fact that they do not miss their freedom is important but it does not alter their fundamental intolerance of radically deviant behavior or opinions, such as Murugan's.

The encapsulated, inward-directed nature of Palanese society is to some extent evident in the very title of Huxley's novel, Island. It is a title that is deceptively simple, for in fact it resonates complicatedly with a variety of utopian echoes. The title is also significant in ways that relate directly to the novel itself, though this is something that becomes apparent only after repeated readings.10 It is, to begin with, an "is"-land, a land where, as the mynah birds continually remind us, we live in the "here and now." It is also an "I"-land, a country where people are at last able to realize their individual identities to the full. It is also--and without contradiction--an "'I'"-land in the sense intended by the latter of the two great Rajas of modern Pala, the so-called Old Raja, who in his little green book, Notes on What's What, describes a society where the "I" is not simplified reductively but where it is essential to recognize one's status as a "dividual," that is, a multiple self. Island is the land of many "I's," the land where it is possible to persuade the various "I's"--both individually and collectively--to live in harmony while inhabiting the same physical and social space. Or, as the Old Raja puts it in terms of the dualism the young Huxley had once espoused and now abhorred: "What in fact I am, if only the Manichee I think I am would allow me to know it, is the reconciliation of yes and no lived out in total acceptance and the blessed experience of Not-Two."11

Pala is also "Eye"-land, the country where you need to look carefully before you leap, where even the birds exhort you to pay "attention," to "see" in both senses of the word. It is the only place where people's eyes have been fully opened, something that is symbolically rendered in the moving scene at the close of the novel when Susila physically forces Will's eyes open. For Huxley this action also had profoundly personal associations, for at the age of sixteen a severe attack of keratitis punctata left him with only partial vision during the remainder of his life. That is why, in a strictly autobiographical sense, Pala is also very much an "I"-land for Huxley himself. Most obviously Will Farnaby is a version of the early, deeply skeptical Huxley, just as Andrew MacPhail is a version of his famous biologist grandfather, T. H. Huxley. As Philip Thody has pointed out, even the fact that Andrew MacPhail reads eighteenth-century enlightenment philosophy is reminiscent of Huxley's grandfather, who, among his other manifold achievements, wrote a book on David Hume (Thody, 125). According to Keith May, the character of Dugald, Susila's late husband, may be based in part on Huxley's brother, Trevenen, who committed suicide in 1914.

But not just people, also important events in Huxley's life are recognizably rendered--often very movingly--in the novel. So, in depicting Lakshmi's painful and long drawn-out death from breast cancer, along with her husband Robert MacPhail's response to it, Huxley is recalling his own experience of Maria's death not long before he began to write Island. That Huxley means the informed reader to make the connection between Maria and Lakshmi's deaths is further suggested by the fact that, like Huxley, MacPhail has been married to Lakshmi for thirty-seven years when she dies. Indeed, it may be that Huxley actually began Island as a kind of memorial to Maria, though he ended by dedicating the novel to his second wife, Laura--again saying in this way, as it were, "yes" when he had started by saying "no."12 Thus, when Robert MacPhail tells his wife how she helped humanize him, it could almost be Huxley speaking of Maria:

If it hadn't been for you coming and pulling my hair and making me look at the world and helping me to understand it, what would I be today? A pedant in blinkers--in spite of my training. But luckily I had the sense to ask you to marry me, and luckily you had the folly to say yes [!] and then the wisdom and intelligence to make a good job of me. After thirty-seven years of adult education I'm almost human."(Island, 33)

Like Maria, Lakshmi jokes about her mastectomy, using the very same words: "'Now I'm an Amazon.'"13 Similarly, Will Farnaby's account of his beloved Aunt Mary's death (also of cancer) when he was sixteen recalls the profound impact that his mother's death had on the fourteen-year old Huxley: "She was the only person I ever loved, and when I was sixteen she got cancer. Off with the right breast; then, a year later, off with the left. And after that nine months of X-rays and radiation sickness. Then it got to the liver, and that was the end. I was there from start to finish. For a boy in his teens it was a liberal education--but liberal" (Island, 100). And, finally, of course, Huxley was himself dying of cancer as he finished the novel.14

Island, then, is "I"-land autobiographically speaking, but it is also "Eye"-land, the country where, as it were, the three-eyed person is king: the person who sees stereoscopically with both outer eyes and therefore sees the fullness of external reality, sees, in other words, the "whole truth," including both the beautiful and the ugly, but who also looks inward with a meditative, spiritual eye, thereby seeing both the good and the bad. And, finally, it is also "Aye"-land, the country where Will Farnaby, the man who defines himself as someone who never accepts "yes" for an answer, does in the end say "is" and "aye"--and "I" and "'I'" and "Eye." And, paradoxically, he is only able to do so by forgetting the "I," by at last putting aside his insistent, selfish self. In doing so, he allows his own private and public worlds to become brave at last.

There are, of course, also very practical reasons why Will (and Huxley behind him) are able to say "yes" to Pala, though the point is made again and again that this is a society where theory and practice flow in and out of each other naturally and inevitably. While Pala has a pastoral, idyllic dimension reminiscent of Edenic utopias ranging from Milton to Morris, there is also something very modern and technological about it. Food production, for example, combines relatively small-scale cooperative techniques with some hard-nosed, efficiency-oriented agricultural research carried out at a very up-to-date Western-style station called New Rothamstead. Pala's preference, however, is, as June Deery says, for a "warm" over a "cold" science, for a technology that works with nature rather than against it, for a technology that seeks to be in ecological harmony with the world around it rather than dominate that world by means of machinery.15 On some crucial points, however, warm and cold science arrive at roughly similar conclusions. One of these is the question of procreation. While, on the one hand, population growth is kept in check through a very "warm" and old-fashioned maithuna (otherwise known as the yoga of love), this is not enough but must be supplemented by regular installments of "cold" condoms and early sex education. Ensuring that population does not exceed sustainable levels was something that Huxley viewed as an absolutely fundamental pre-condition to all workable utopias, for without population control, food production must inevitably lag behind. On this Malthusian point, the very different societies of Island and Brave New World are in complete agreement.

They also agree in other ways. In Pala, just as in the New World State, the traditional family has been radically altered. While in Pala children are still brought into the world by the usual, traditional means, there is a trend to participate in a voluntary program of eugenics based on artificial insemination. There are also non-voluntary MAC's or Mutual Adoption Clubs, which allow children who are unhappy with their biological parents to seek alternative parents elsewhere, usually but not necessarily on a short-term basis. As Susila MacPhail, herself a mother, makes clear to Will Farnaby, being a mother in Pala is nothing special: "'In our part of the world "Mother" is strictly the name of a function. When the function has been duly fulfilled, the title lapses; the ex-child and the woman who used to be called "Mother" establish a new kind of relationship'" (Island, 88). This, to be sure, is by no means the same as making "Mother" the dirty word it has become in the New World State of A.F. 632, but it is certainly a sign that the old nuclear family is disappearing, and for much the same reason as in the New World, namely that the horrible intimacies of family life in childhood breed even more horrible neuroses in adulthood, as they did for Will Farnaby (who still hates his father) as well as for Andrew MacPhail's numerous, tragically unhappy siblings. As Mustapha Mond, ever didactic in a manner that unfortunately anticipates Robert MacPhail, asks his pupils: "Try to imagine what 'living with one's family' meant." What it meant, he goes on to explain, is

a few small rooms, stiflingly over-inhabited by a man, a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, no space; an understerilized prison; darkness and disease and smells. [...] And home was as squalid psychically as physically. Psychically it was a rabbit hole, a midden, hot with the frictions of tightly packed life, reeking with emotion. What suffocating intimacies, what dangerous, insane, obscene relationships between the members of the family group! Maniacally, the mother brooded over her children (her children). [...] "Yes," said Mustapha Mond, nodding his head, "you may well shudder."16

There is even a wonderfully comic scene from Brave New World which Huxley deliberately repeats in Island, though with a single, very important difference. This is the scene where Lenina, dressed in "a white acetate-satin sailor suit, and with a round white cap rakishly tilted over her left ear," pays a surprise visit to John Savage and, on discovering that he loves her, immediately removes her clothing, presses her naked body against him and asks him to "hug me till you drug me, honey." Much to her astonishment, these actions cause the Savage to call her a whore and threaten to kill her. As she beats a hasty retreat to the bathroom, the Savage lands a cruel, Penitente-like whack on her exposed behind. That is why, once in the bathroom, Lenina refuses to open the door and only allows John to reach her clothing to her through the ventilator above the door (see BNW, 189-96). In Island, this scene is retold from the perspective of the would-be female seducer, Radha, who has fallen in love with the spoiled brat and future Raja, Murugan. "'You've never seen Murugan in white satin pajamas,'" is her explanation for trying to seduce him. Though, unlike Lenina with John, she does manage to maneuver Murugan into bed, she soon finds that "'when I started to kiss him, he jumped out from between the sheets and locked himself in the bathroom. He wouldn't come out until I'd passed his pajamas through the transom and given him my word of honor that he wouldn't be molested'" (Island, 69). The main point of retelling of this scene seems to be to show the alert reader that, as far as the old Huxley was concerned, the young Huxley had been dead wrong to mock Lenina's overt sexuality. Though she may not have been altogether right in acting as she did, she was still less wrong, and definitely less neurotic, than the Savage.

More openly than in Brave New World, Huxley also affirms in Island humanity's obstinate insistence on remaining human and free, despite the worst (and the best) that conditioning can do to it. Just as Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson (and Lenina Crowne!) are, for different reasons and to different degrees, able to experience emotions that their conditioning should have prevented, so too Andrew MacPhail escapes the conditioning inflicted on him by his narrow-minded parents and his Calvinist origins. As his great-grandson, Robert MacPhail, points out:

By all the rules of the Freudian and Pavlovian games, my great-grandfather ought to have grown up to be a mental cripple. In fact, he grew up to be a mental athlete, which only shows [...] 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.(Island, 119)

In Brave New World, of course, Freudianism and behaviorism--"Our Freud" as god and our Watson as one of his leading saints--are also in "complete agreement" to shut out any possible apprehension of an unconditioned reality.

Not that all conditioning is bad, for unlike the Fordian future, in the Palanese present education is fully integrated into all other aspects of people's lives; it is, to use the adjective Huxley applies to it, "holistic." At the very early stages it involves a mild kind of conditioning, where, for example, a baby is stroked while being associated with some other person, animal or thing, with the word "good" being continually repeated. It may be "pure Pavlov," but in Pala, as Vijaya tells Will, it is "Pavlov purely for a good purpose. Pavlov for friendliness and trust and compassion" (Island, 195). More formally, education involves combining bodily self-awareness with increased intellectual and spiritual consciousness. In school, all subjects are taught in relation to each other rather than in isolation. This educational process culminates in an initiation ritual, with each graduating class participating in a communal taking of the so-called moksha medicine, a Buddhist ceremony (with some Hindu additions) which also evokes the communion ritual of the Christian Church, as well as, in a very different way, the Solidarity Service in Brave New World.17 Moksha is the Palanese equivalent of mescalin, raising awareness rather than deadening it, as was notoriously the case with soma.

A prerequisite to the ultimate success of the entire educational enterprise in Pala is the early and accurate sorting out of children into various psychosomatic groups, who are then subjected to different kinds of conditioning and education, a procedure that evokes the grouping into castes practiced in the Fordian future. Though W. H. Sheldon is never mentioned by name, it is safe to assume that, given Huxley's intense and long-standing interest in Sheldon's classificatory system, Pala has learned to use it in order to identify potential trouble-makers, as well as potential geniuses and utopia-makers. Here again the apparently quite disparate worlds described in Brave New World and in Island seem to meet and merge.

While the details of population control and education are very carefully thought out and, on the whole, vividly presented, the spiritual dimension of Pala--aside from the descriptions of the effects of taking moksha--is less successful. There is simply too much talk and too little action, something that is admittedly more or less inevitable in literary transcriptions of the inner world, unless one wishes to resort to old-fashioned techniques like allegory. Here Huxley attempts to use symbolism instead, though (as elsewhere in his fiction) he tends not to trust his reader sufficiently to leave the symbolism unexplained. Like his mynah bird, his symbols are always calling attention to themselves. What's missing too is what, for want of a better word, one might call the non-utopian dimension of utopia. So, there is very little discussion, and almost no presentation, of what people do in their spare time. Susila, to be sure, writes poetry; Vijaya does a lot of mountain climbing; and Radhu and Ranga practice a lot of maithuna; but there is almost no description of organized group activities beyond a Palanese puppet play offering a radically revised version of Oedipus. Perhaps what the Old Raja says of Palanese culture--or, for that matter, Mustapha Mond says about aesthetics in the Fordian future--is also to be applied to these activities and possibly even to a critical appreciation of Island itself: "Palanese culture is not to be judged as (for lack of any better criterion) we judge other cultures. It is not to be judged by the accomplishments of a few gifted manipulators of artistic or philosophical symbols" (Island, 176-77). Or, put more succinctly and more directly with reference to the arts of writing: "Dualism ... Without it there can hardly be good literature. With it, there most certainly can be no good life" (Island, 179).

It is surely significant that "old" Mustapha Mond's views on literature, while differently expressed, are not really different in substance from the Old Raja's. To John's--and Helmholtz and Bernard's--question as to why Othello cannot be written in the New World, he replies sensibly:

Because our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel--and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get. [...] You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art.(BNW, 220)

Where ignorance is bliss, just as where bliss is awareness, it is folly to expect great art.

On the evidence of this novel, most of the time when they are not working, the Palanese seem to spend their time in talk, and the principal subject of their talk is how wonderful things are in Pala. Like the protagonist of Huxley's first published novel, Denis Stone, most of the Palanese characters appear to have been saving up their prepared remarks for long periods, with the primary intent of unloading them on some unwary listener like Will Farnaby. While Will very early makes clear his adamant refusal to take "yes" for an answer, he nevertheless shows extraordinary patience in listening to others discourse on their often longwinded versions of "yes."

To some extent, of course, this criticism is unfair. The root of the problem is not the Palanese; it is Huxley himself. It is his fault if they do not come alive, not theirs; it is his fault if they lack sufficient depth--lack, in almost all instances, any real personal history--to turn them into real, fallible, believable people instead of superbly informed guides, all speaking in complete, impeccably correct sentences, all (even little children like Mary Sarojini) able to provide the desired information without a moment's hesitation. Nor are they ever nasty to each other, not even to the extent of engaging in gossip. The whole thing is simply, to coin a phrase, too utopian.

Will Farnaby is partially exempt from such criticism, but then, of course, he is not Palanese. He enters their world from the outside and therefore comes equipped with his own individual past, much as the Savage does in Brave New World. He is also a very familiar and easily recognizable Huxley type--a highly intelligent, sensitive person whose natural gifts, emotional warmth, and idealism have been stunted and even distorted by his upbringing and his experience of the so-called hard realities of life. (In this he also closely resembles Spandrell in Point Counter Point and Anthony Beavis in Eyeless in Gaza.) He is, as Dr Robert MacPhail recognizes at once, a Baudelaire type, someone who is fascinated by the negative precisely because he so desperately wishes to believe in the positive. His bravado in asserting that he will not take "yes" for an answer is really an attempt to provoke/evoke from others a "yes" that he can perhaps at last say "yes" to himself.

But Will does not merely resemble Baudelaire or various characters in Huxley's earlier fiction. As the situation at the beginning of the novel probably suggests to most experienced readers, there is at least one other great Western story being echoed here. Watching as a confused Will Farnaby awakens in great pain in the jungle after having risked his life in climbing the face of a huge cliff and after having been frightened nearly out of his wits by an encounter with a snake, we are inevitably reminded, I think, of the powerful opening scene of Dante's Divine Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.18

Here too there is a lonely, nearly despairing seeker; a lofty mountain of truth; a dark wood of falsehood; dangerous animals; and a helpful guide (Dr Robert MacPhail) who is also something of a Virgilian magician. There is even a Beatrice in Susila MacPhail. Will Farnaby's age is also just about right for finding himself in the mezzo of his cammin. Though his specific age is never mentioned, from what he says about growing up in the twenties and thirties, he must be in his late thirties in 1960 or 1961.

But, of course, the differences are nearly as striking as the similarities. Most obviously, there is no "inferno" here; or if there is, it is an internal, psychological one. Will Farnaby, resembling in this Milton's Satan more than Dante's, brings his own hell along with him; his fear of snakes is, as little Mary Sarojini realizes almost at once, a fear of himself. Escaping this hell--escaping the Mephistophelean "Geist, der stets verneint" (a spirit, in other words, that will not take "yes" for an answer)--is something that will occupy most of the rest of the novel, but it is Will's problem (and the problem of the world outside), not Pala's. Pala has already emerged from hell and is well on its way to travelling through Purgatorio. In fact, in scenes like the initiation ceremony on the mountain top in the Shiva temple, or in the final chapter with its vision of the divine, Pala is only a step away from Paradise.

The crucial question, however, is whether all of this is just a pipe-dream instead of a paradise, even granting that Pala is not simply a kind of tropical, Calvinist Scotland turned inside out. The strenuous and often rather humorless way the Palanese lead their lives and conduct their affairs would strain most observers' credulity, and one is surprised at times at Will Farnaby's astonishing tolerance in this respect. Maithuna or the yoga of love, for example, reminds one uncomfortably of the Scotsman who fornicated gravely but without conviction. Here, to be sure, the Palanese apparently copulate with enthusiasm, but they do so, nevertheless, with profound earnestness as well as very sensible precautions.

What is more, even if we grant that something like Pala might actually work--or might have worked, or perhaps even might yet work--can we also go on and take the next step and agree that, while utopia works, worked, or will work on a small, fairly obscure, self-encapsulated island in the Indian Ocean, it could also work elsewhere? Could it work on a world scale? In London, say, or in New York? It is a question which the novel seems to want us to consider seriously and presumably answer in the affirmative. For, if on the one hand, the invasion of Pala by Colonel Dipa at the end of the novel suggests that a single unarmed Utopia--and Utopia for Huxley must by definition always be unarmed--will always fall prey to the combined onslaught of militarism, capitalist consumerism (in the shape of Sears, Roebuck catalogs), and big oil corporations, then the only real, if not altogether realistic, hope for a utopian future is for Pala to turn the tables and "invade" the outside world and conquer it in turn by means of persuasion and example rather than by force of arms.19 That is, of course, precisely what Huxley's novel Island hopes to accomplish.

Symbolically and fittingly, therefore, just as Murugan, aided by Colonel Dipa's army, makes his way to Dr Robert MacPhail's residence in order to kill him, Will Farnaby becomes a convert to the Palanese dream. The suggestion seems to be that you can eliminate the dreamer but you cannot eliminate the dream. And, further, that there will always be people who say "yes" because they will be recruited from the vast mass of those who say "no." Even Murugan--if, that is, he ever overcomes the effects of the Rani's saccharine affections which have led him to avoid nubile women--even Murugan the Nay-Sayer may breed a daughter or a son who will grow into a Yea-Sayer. After all, he is himself the descendant of notable yea-sayers--of "Aye"-landers.

There is hope, then, and there will always be hope, and perhaps even more than hope, for as Will's example proves, an apparent enemy can be transformed into a friend. If, like Will, you have the will, you can be reborn. As in Auden's well-known poem about the desirability of a "change of heart," in the final analysis the only unforgivable sin is the sin against oneself, against, as Auden puts it so peculiarly and yet so memorably, "will its negative inversion." Will's conversion bears out Huxley's hypothesis that "even a man who is perfectly adjusted to a deranged society can prepare himself, if he so desires, to the Nature of Things, as it manifests itself in the universe at large and in his own mind-body."20

Though on a very much reduced scale, Will Farnaby had originally been nearly as much of an invader and agent of the multi-national petroleum entrepreneur, Joe Aldehyde, as Colonel Dipa is. One is therefore justified in supposing that these subsequent invaders too will someday be spiritually invaded in turn. As the school principal Mrs Narayan informs Will, "'This island justifies a certain optimism'" (Island, 227). Or as Shanta replies, when Will tells her that good examples will not necessarily elicit good responses, and that, in fact, the known way of the world actually seems to lead us to the opposite conclusion: "'But one has to run the risk; one has to make a beginning. And luckily no one's immortal. The people who've been conditioned to swindling and bullying and bitterness will all be dead in a few years. Dead, and replaced by men and women brought up in the new way. It happened with us; it can happen with you'" (Island, 196). Though Menon, the Inspector of Schools,21 agrees with Shanta, he is really less optimistic. For him the countries of the so-called First World are irretrievably lost. Hope really only exists for the underdeveloped countries that belong to the so-called Third World. But even these are well on the way to perdition rather than salvation: "'They could still choose our way; but they don't want to, they want to be exactly like you, God help them.'" So what's to be done? Not much, except to hope against hope and go on doing as before. "'There's very little chance of success,'" Menon concludes; "'but it just might happen.'"

"'Unless,'" Will replies, "'Greater Rendang happens first'" (Island, 217).

Greater Rendang, of course, does happen first, thereby apparently making Pala an interesting but unique and therefore ultimately irrelevant social experiment. The ominous surname of the man who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the creation of modern Pala, has, so it would appear, proved prophetic. Though at first he brought success, Andrew MacPhail ultimately brought failure--a failure made symbolically manifest in the summary execution of his great-grandson, Robert MacPhail.22 Colonel Dipa--to take up the implications of his name--has apparently not only seen "deeper" but further as well.

Or perhaps not? For success and failure are relative concepts. Relative to us, it may look as if Pala has failed; relative to Pala, it may actually have succeeded. For in terms of the Buddhist world-view underlying this narrative, there is not only sorrow, there is also the ending of sorrow. The very name of Pala, after all, derives, as Peter Bowering has pointed out, from the eighth-century Bengali dynasty "under whose patronage Tantric doctrines flourished and developed."23 This means that for Huxley the Buddhist--just as much as for Huxley the longtime pacifist--there must always be cause for hope as there is always cause for despair. And vice versa. Palanese Buddhism is in this respect quite as deterministic as Scottish Calvinism, though it is less doctrinaire and makes less of a fuss about things. Sorrow and joy balance each other; heaven alternates with hell, as Will discovers when he takes the moksha medicine at the close of the novel. In the end therefore, we can only learn to accept such balance and learn too to live with it and within it. In the end, Buddha and Pangloss agree, though for very different reasons, that this is the best of all possible worlds--if only because it is the only possible world. So, even if in terms of collective humanity Utopia may ameliorate the conditions of political and social existence, for the individual the eternal verities remain outwardly unchanged. Inwardly, however, with the help of spiritual training and the moksha medicine, the individual's perspective on those verities may also change, for the prior changes in outward circumstances may allow them to be understood as never before in an appropriate emotional and psychological context.

What, then, is the last word we should take away from the novel? Also the first word: "'Attention.'" We must become increasingly aware of the good and of the bad--of the yes and of the no. Aware of the false good--the Rani's spiritualism, for example--as well as of the real good--Susila's spirituality/sensuality; and aware of the false bad--the consciousness, for example, that lies on the other side of spiritualism, and of the true "bad" which is embodied in inescapable sorrow. The final or real answer, therefore, is not "yes" but "maybe," for "maybe" conforms to the Buddhist exhortation to say "yes" and "no" simultaneously, to the ethic which Huxley had begun to endorse when he himself had reached the mid-point of his life, the ethic of "not-only-but-also." "Yes" and "No," after all, belong to the realm of a dualistic "only," whereas "maybe" also belongs to a continuum of "also." But it must be a "maybe" spoken with conviction and even enthusiasm, as it is here, a "maybe" through which one clearly hears the firm negation of "no" as well as the hopeful affirmation of "yes."


1. This is the expanded version of a keynote lecture given at the Aldous Huxley International Symposium in Singapore on 31 December 2000.

2. Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical and Biographical Studies, ed. Raymond Weaver (Garden City, 1930), 63.

3. The Collected Poetry of Aldous Huxley, ed. Donald Watt (New York, 1971), 106. Hereafter, CP.

4. To be sure, in the late twenties Huxley had undergone a brief conversion to the ideas of D. H. Lawrence but by the time he sat down to write Brave New World, he had largely abandoned those beliefs. Indeed, the Reservation and the Savage's upbringing there represent implicit criticisms of Lawrence's views regarding the possibility and even the desirability of returning to the pagan past.

5. See above, p. 2.

6. According to his letter of 14 March 1956 to Humphry Osmond, Huxley originally intended his hypothetical island to be located near the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Bengal and Burma and not very far from Sumatra. (Letters of Aldous Huxley, ed. Grover Smith [London, 1969], 791; hereafter, Letters.) However, the mix of Buddhism and Hinduism characteristic of Pala, along with its quasi-enclave status and size, suggest that Huxley had Bali in mind when he finally got around to writing the novel. The name "Pala" evokes, probably intentionally, the word "Pali," the sacred canon of the Hinayana School or Little Vehicle of Buddhism.

7. As Jerome Meckier points out, in both Shakespeare and Huxley, tempests play important, though rather different, roles. (Jerome Meckier, "Cancer in Utopia: Positive and Negative Elements in Huxley's Island," Dalhousie Review, 54 [1974-75], 631.) In the end, however, Island turns out to be a much more pessimistic work than The Tempest, for while Will (Ferdinand) and Susila (Miranda) may have a future, Robert MacPhail (Prospero) does not. Therefore, in Meckier's view, "as do Prospero's revels and all insubstantial pageants, Pala fades away." It seems, then, that the Shakespearean intertext not only makes Island darker but also infuses it with a profoundly ironic cynicism. Is one therefore justified in extending the implied metaphoric identifications even further? And are we to conclude that Colonel Dipa (Caliban) and his "mother" Sycorax (the Rani) emerge triumphant, after having received assistance from an Ariel (Murugan) that should rightly have been offered only to Prospero?

8. As Bernfried Nugel has pointed out, part of the reason why Will may have received a warmer welcome in Pala than he had any right to expect may be attributable to the recent publication there of a novel describing the conversion of an Indian Communist refugee who had infiltrated the country with the intention of subverting it but then had gradually come round, as Will does too, to accepting it. In revising the typescript of Island, however, Huxley deleted all reference to this incident, presumably in order to make Will's visit more unique. (See Bernfried Nugel, "Aldous Huxley's Revisions in the Final Typescript of Island," in: "Now More than Ever": Proceedings of the Aldous Huxley Centenary Symposium Münster 1994, ed. Bernfried Nugel [Frankfurt am Main/Bern, 1995], 233.)

9. Philip Thody, Aldous Huxley: A Biographical Introduction (London, 1973), 127.

10. That Huxley was concerned that no changes be made to his title emerges clearly from a letter in which he complains bitterly that the French translation had added a definite article to the title (Letters, 963).

11. Aldous Huxley, Island (New York, 1989), 35. Hereafter, Island.

12. The first recognizable description of the novel that was to become Island occurs in the letter to Humphry Osmond, mentioned earlier and dated 14 March 1956. The details of the plot given there are, in many respects, quite different from those of the finished novel but the principal aim is surely the same, namely to depict "an imagined society, whose purpose is to get its members to realize their highest potentialities" (Letters, 791). According to Christopher Isherwood, however, Huxley had spoken as early as January 1940 about "the subject-matter of what was to be, twenty-two years later, his last novel, Island" (Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963: A Memorial Volume, ed. Julian Huxley [London, 1965], 160).

13. Island, 242; David King Dunaway, Aldous Huxley Recollected: An Oral History (New York, 1995), 83.

14. Jerome Meckier argues persuasively that in Island cancer functions both as an actual physical disease and as a symbol for the "existential horror" which, even in Pala, is inescapable. "The history of Pala begins and ends," Meckier tells us, "with an emphasis on cancer" (Meckier, 621). What he means is that Pala's history begins with a real cancer and ends with a spiritual one. That is, specifically, it begins with the outsider Andrew MacPhail (eventually to become, like Will, an insider) curing the Raja of his cancer and thereby conferring life on him and creating the pre-conditions for the ensuing utopia; and it ends with the outsider Colonel Dipa, who suffers from the moral equivalent of cancer, invading Pala, and destroying both Robert MacPhail and Palanese society.

15. June Deery, "Technology and Gender in Aldous Huxley's Alternative (?) Worlds," in: Critical Essays on Aldous Huxley, ed. Jerome Meckier (New York, 1996), 112.

16. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York, 1998), 36-38. Hereafter, BNW.

17. According to Huxley's sister-in-law, the spiritual/educational background of Island (including presumably this scene) is drawn from Krishnamurti (Dunaway, 124). While it is true that Huxley admired Krishnamurti and may even have modeled aspects of the Raja of the Reform on him, his admiration was not without qualification (Letters, 917; 938). Significantly, Krishnamurti is not mentioned in the novel. According to the account provided by the novel itself, "Buddhism came to Pala about twelve hundred years ago, and it came not from Ceylon, which is what one would have expected, but from Bengal, and through Bengal, later on from Tibet. Result: we're Mahayanists, and our Buddhism is shot through and through with Tantra" (Island, 74).

18. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, tr. with commentary John D. Sinclair (New York, 1961), 22.

19. In this context, Laurence Brander's claim that Pala's downfall is due to its complete lack of any administrative services seems true enough but also rather obtuse. "The ignorance of imaginative writers of administrative machinery," so Brander informs us, "is extraordinary and most unfortunate." (Laurence Brander, Aldous Huxley: A Critical Study [London, 1969], 110.) What he does not say, however, is that the presence of such administrative machinery, even when well-meaning, would have made Pala into a tropical welfare state rather than into a tropical utopia.

20. Aldous Huxley, "Foreword" to Hubert Benoit, The Supreme Doctrine (New York, 1960), viii.

21. Huxley's granduncle, Matthew Arnold, had exercised the same profession.

22. Huxley is also remembering here the quite non-fictional Dr MacPhail whom he had met in Quirigua, Guatemala, some twenty-five years earlier. In Beyond the Mexique Bay, he describes how he had spent "three very pleasant days with Dr MacPhail, the head of the United Fruit Company's hospital. The place was astonishingly beautiful, and our host one of the best and most charming of men. The doctor's professional reputation stands very high; but it is his kindness and his wisdom that have made of him the universal godfather of Guatemala. You cannot travel anywhere in the Republic without meeting people who will talk to you--and talk invariably with affectionate gratitude and respect--of Dr MacPhail. He is an institution, one of the best in the country." (Beyond the Mexique Bay: A Traveller's Journal [London, 1950], 39-40.) In a letter to his father, dated 24 March, 1933, Huxley gives a slightly different but almost equally enthusiastic account of MacPhail: "[We] went up to Quirigua, where the United Fruit Company has its hospital run by a most charming and saint-like old Scotsman called Dr MacPhail, with whom we stayed for two days" (Letters, 367).

23. Peter Bowering, Aldous Huxley: A Study of the Major Novels (New York, 1969), 195.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100164