In his final novel, Island, Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) created a vision of utopia that was the very antithesis of his dystopic Brave New World. The Pacific island of Pala is an “oasis of happiness and freedom” where for 120 years, the inhabitants have resisted the trappings of capitalism, consumerism, and technology.
That is, until the journalist Will Farnaby becomes the first interloper from the outside world to find his way into the idyll. His mission is to scope out Pala’s potential for exploitation, on behalf of his oil tycoon pay master, the industrialist Lord Joseph Aldehyde. True to the form of a good novel with a flawed antihero, Will enters this Pacific paradise as a cynic. But his investigation leads him to an epiphany that discredits the world he has come from and reveals the purity of the Palanese way of living—according to the principles that will bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
It is, of course, too little too late. His realization comes after his clandestine dealings with Lord Aldehyde and Pala’s own band of resistance from the neighboring country and empire in wait, Rendang, have helped to ensure its downfall. The end is sorrow, “the work of a hundred years destroyed in a single night.”
Some, including Huxley’s widow, have suggested that Island was the writer’s vision of humanity “at its sanest and most admirable,” according to which, Will’s enlightenment is symbolic of Huxley’s own hope in the face of the unrelenting doom he anticipated in his previous works. The likes of David Bradshaw, however, have argued that Island is Huxley’s most pessimistic work to date, an indictment of humanity’s characteristic inability to rid itself of the materialistic desire to have rather than to be.
So, what was Huxley’s point in creating then destroying a vision of paradise?
What kind of a world is this?
Will lands on the Island to the call of myna birds alerting him to pay “attention, attention, here and now.” The bird's call is the novel’s leitmotif and one of the hallmarks of how Huxley’s ideas transcend the sociocultural context in which they were first presented. Our failure to recognize the urgency of now is what got us into the mess we now find ourselves in, a world where the obsession with mass production and excess consumption has created a schizoid culture that desires everything, at the same time as being desperate for escape.
Huxley’s disgust at the vulgarity of the modern word is well documented. In his 1930 essay, “Boundaries of Utopia,” Huxley disproved the ideas of justice, liberty, freedom, and democracy as universally achievable ideals:
Every right, as we have seen, is something which we have at other people’s expense. The machine is the only ‘other person’ at whose expense we can have things with a good conscience and also the only ‘other person’ who becomes steadily more and more efficient.
The novel is Huxley’s intellectual experiment, testing out the premise of his philosophy through a detailed exploration of humanity at its limits.
The ideas on which the Palanese base their cooperative governance of society, where self-awareness and self-realization are compatible with living in the interests of the greater good, are based on a careful consideration of the arguments for and against religion, science, medicine, governance, sex, and health. Furthermore, they live in accordance with the ecological cycles of the Earth, subsisting on agriculture and without mass mechanization. As the principal of Pala’s school explains to Will: “Treat Nature well and Nature will treat you well. Hurt or destroy Nature and Nature will soon destroy you.”
It’s James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory made real in a parallel universe—people living in symbiosis with and respect for the physiology of the Earth.
Lovelock began to formulate his theories of planetary physiology in the 1960s, around the same time that Huxley was concluding his own investigations into the limits of humanity as they would emerge in Island in 1962. Both Lovelock and Huxley were suspicious of groupthink, aware that emotions, feelings, and selfish agendas will always conspire to bury the truth of science and logic. They were both vocal contrarians whose ideas were backed by empirical evidence. And yet neither’s wisdom was heeded at the time.
Ultimately, the Palanese are encircled by the unavoidable creep of territorial expansion and industrialization, their idyll soon to be destroyed by the desires of the outside world whose insatiable quest for oil and so-called progress supplants the Palanese ecologically and ethically minded values.
The hubris of progress
From the outset, Pala is headed for a fall—the fantasy of paradise on a collision course with reality. As Mr. Bahu, Ambassador to Rendang’s Colonel Dipa, forebodingly explains to Will: “So long as it remains out of touch with the rest of the world, an ideal society can be a viable society.”
So, what’s so wrong with the rest of society? For Huxley, it was “mass production, mass slaughter, mass communication, and, above all, plain mass.” In 1962, when Huxley wrote about the suffocating effects of the “plain mass” of an over-extending society, the world’s population was around three billion. Today, we stand at seven billion, the unfeasible growth posing the gravest challenges to face us yet in terms of social cohesion, food supplies, and healthcare.
Limited procreation and a practical approach to resources means that Pala has survived while the rest of the world has succumbed to the perils of excess, as Dr. Robert McPhail, descendent of the Scottish doctor on whose philosophy Pala is based, explains:
Our equations are rather different. Electricity minus heavy industry plus birth control equals democracy and plenty. Electricity plus heavy industry minus birth control equals misery, totalitarianism and war.
Decades prior to Huxley, John Stuart Mill was expounding the virtues of self-restraint. In 1859, in On Liberty, he wrote of the benefits of limited procreation as a necessary means to preserving freedom and ensuring equitable distribution of the Earth’s limited resources. Huxley was partly decimating Mill’s ideas as an impossibility, based on the evidence of humanity’s exponential growth—his point being that to aim for a utilitarian society is a negation of reality.
Lovelock echoed the same sentiment. In his 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, he wrote: “The root or our problems with the environment comes from a lack of constraint on the growth of the population.” Why? Because “all life is urged by its selfish genes to reproduce, and if the only constraints are competition and predation, the result is a chaotic fluctuation of populations.”
Inventing our way of excess is oxymoronic. The Palanese have lived by the land, importing electricity but little else, and avoiding material concerns. But there is a hunger for progress on the Island, embodied by the Rani and her allegiance to the building rebellion in Rendang. With no army to defend it, Pala faces an insurmountable threat. Progress, as the Rani and the outside world deem it, is coming. And with it, the fall of paradise. Huxley’s point is that progress in these terms is short-sighted and ill-fated, but inevitable.
What price Palanese progress? Theirs has been a quest for knowledge, through meditation, science, and spiritual enlightenment through a higher state of consciousness. Yet not even these noblest of efforts can protect them from the inevitable trampling of progress led by the masses.
The philosopher John Gray makes a similarly cogent point in his 2002 book, Straw Dogs:
To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. […] Progress is fact. Even so, faith in progress is superstition. Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics.
The Palanese, as the intellectually superior beings that they are, live in full awareness of this. Asked how he maintains an optimistic attitude in the face of what Will sees as the despair-inducing rate of humanity’s historical demise, Dr. Robert McPhail says it is “by remembering what history is—the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their ignorance as a political or religious dogma.”
Ultimately, the end is indeed nigh for Pala. Rendang’s troops are on the horizon, paradise is about to be torn to pieces as its oil reserves are plundered and its way of life replaced by the march of what Lovelock termed the “disputatious tribal animals with dreams of conquest.”
We don’t get to see what happens next, but it’s pretty obvious. Utilitarianism only works if all are united, and that is simply not in our nature. Utopia and dystopia two ends of a tug of rope that will always collide in the end, resulting in mutually assured destruction.
Can any hope prevail? Perhaps. The fact that Pala was a man-made experiment is the limits of humanity in the first place. It happened once, it might happen again. As Lovelock has said:
Human beings are very tough and will survive—have survived for at least a million years. Civilizations, though, are fragile. Thirty or so have come and gone in the past 5,000 years. And there’s no reason to assume that ours is permanent. Indeed, there is little evidence that our individual intelligence has improved through recorded history.
Though perhaps we should turn to Huxley himself for the essence of the Island. In “Boundaries of Utopia” he wrote:
My own hopes are tempered, I must confess, with certain doubts. For there’s a divinity, as I see, that misshapes as well as one that shapes our ends. Suitably enough (for like bad dogs, bad gods deserve bad names) this malignant deity is called the Law of Diminishing Returns.
In the preface to Brave New World, Huxley suggested that man’s choice is between lunacy and insanity. His final work, 16 years later, was the culmination of a lifetime’s work railing against our flawed Nature in the ultimate realization that there is no escape from it. As Mr. Bahu points out to Will, they are each from “aberrated” worlds, victims of the same twentieth-century plague known as “the Grey Life”:
We’re all demented sinners in the same cosmic boat—and the boat is perpetually sinking.
Aliya Mughal is a freelance writer and communications consultant, who has spent her life capturing stories about people, ideas, and places the world over. She specializes in reading, writing, and wondering about philosophy, science, art, music, human rights, and human wrongs. Follow her on Twitter: @AliyaMughal1.
Tom Vandenbogaerde says
So if we are all inescapable sinners you’d think the sensible thing to do is accept that fact and do something about our perception of sin. It’s only sin because we can think of some ideal world wherein things are better. If there is no alternative it’s like complaining about the fact that it rains. At some point it seems better to accept it, and buy a rainshield, no?
Marco D. Beest says
Or move to a place with a sunnier climate? But then you’ll bitch about how hot it is all the time…
Steve Lawton says
While reading an article in the “New York Review of Books” about “…was the (British E)mpire not beneficial on the whole?”, I recalled that the ending of Huxley’s “Island” has always left me wondering: What does Huxley mean to tell us about Rendang’s conquering of the Pala utopian society? Certainly, the message is doubly cynical: 1] if you have the resources [oil, in this case], others will want it; and 2] if you don’t defend it, even a perfect society will be wiped out by aggressors who want what you have.
Eschewing militarism as anti-utopian, and existing not in isolation but among other societies, Huxley realistically presents the vulnerability of utopia, which so many other idealistic writers have not chosen to address, either by having their place so isolated as not to be known [Shangri la], or the writer just ignores the question altogether [most 19th century Brits … often waking from a dream].
A second virtue of “Island” is that I don’t think it ends negatively. As I recall, many of the leaders and believers in the utopian ways of Pala will carry their ideas and processes to the next place, where they can try again. As long as there is competition for resources, there will always be struggle for those resources, & even after there is enough for everybody [look around you now], there will always be greed and avarice. Only after there is not greed will it be possible for utopias to survive, prosper, and continue evolving.
And when will there be no greed in the world? We all have to look inside ourselves to answer that.