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Utopia / Dystopia
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Island by Aldous Huxley
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(1962), a fantasy and science-fiction novel written by Aldous Huxley, depicts the near-utopian society on the island of Pala. The
society is built off of the belief that the purest human nature is the most simplistic and naturalistic and that human existence is at its best when the issues society faces are minimalized. It places much emphasis on human potential. This philosophy is strongly reflective of Huxley's own beliefs and the book itself was the last work Huxley ever produced.
Huxley (1894-1963) was born in Godalming, Surrey, England. His grandfather, T.H. Huxley, was a well-known biologist, and his father, Leonard Huxley, was a biographer. Huxley was educated at Eton. He went partially blind early on after suffering from keratitis. Despite this, Huxley was still able to read, although he did eventually learn braille. In 1916 he graduated from Balliol College in Oxford, the same year he published his first book. Huxley spent most of his time in Italy until the late 1930's at which point he moved to California. Throughout his works, Huxley examines ideas of science and technology during the 20th Century and how they impact human life. He used his writing to further examine personal tragedy and human existence, much influenced by Blake and Bohme
The story begins with protagonist Will Farnaby arriving shipwrecked on the island of Pala,
thought to be on the Indonesian Archipelago. Pala is an island that appears utopic in its peaceful and free-flowing ways. There is no military, and much of how people live is up to them. Farnaby has been sent there by industrialist Lord Joseph Aldehyde in hopes of establishing an oil trade with the island. He stays under his identity as a journalist at the start of the novel. In order to establish this deal, Farnaby must win over the Rani, the mother of the Raja and a princess of Rendang, the nearest neighboring country. The Rani and Raja disapprove of the current structure of Buddhism and Lush science, established by the Old Raja, the current Raja's great-grandfather. The young Raja and his mother want to gain more power through their prospective new policy. This desire is reflected in their alliance with the dictator of Rendag, Colonel Dipa. Such an alliance is not desired by the people of Pala who support the current system, so the royal connection is kept hushed. Farnaby himself visits Colonel Dipa and finds him an extremely reputable man.
When Farnaby arrives on Pala, he sustains a serious injury, and is rescued by two children: Mary Sarojini and Tom Krishna MacPhail, native sister and brother. The children call for their grandfather, Dr. Robert MacPhail, to help Farnaby with his injury. Dr. MacPhail's daughter-in-law, Susila MacPhail, helps soothe Farnaby's injury by psychologically moving him to an ideal, restful place- a form of what they call "destiny control" and "word therapy". Such tactics are common in the novel. Nurse Radha Appu also gives Farnaby an injection. The presence of drugs and their liberating ability also plays a significant role.
Sarojini helps Farnaby get over many of his fears by working through their intensity with him. She asserts that human problems are not as heavy as they are made out to be and that it is essential to get over them.
Farnaby soon learns of the community-type parenting system that takes place on the island. The Mutual Adoption Club, MAC, allows children to move from parent to parent as they wish. Parenting on Pala is seen as a necessary calm. Recuperation programs are in place for parents who lose their temper. The idea is that everyone belongs to each other, and that society is able to grow most productively in that way. The people of Pala appreciate the freedom and community available through MAC. Palanese sociologists claim that the "hybridization of microcultures" is achieved along with sympathy and human understanding (Mathisen).
Huxley goes on to give more detail about the history of Pala and the Old Raja, and the philosophies the island's culture was built upon - philosophies which are in line with Huxley's own beliefs.
is primarily concerned with the potential of human culture founded in spirituality. It is a stark contrast to another of Huxley's works,
Brave New World
, in that it offers a much more optimistic view.
is Huxley's adaptation of a utopia while
Brave New World
is his take on a dystopia (Zigler). The novel has been considered Huxley's final view of dualism, a resolution after the examination of the issue in his earlier novels. Yet it is thought by other sources that
may in fact be seen as a pessimistic work, when one examines the "world of increasing greed, mass communication, oil-guzzling transport, burgeoning population, and inveterate hostility" that tries to contaminate the utopic Pala (MacDonald 103).
It is also suggested that the ending to the novel alludes to Huxley's pessimism for the world. While Pala is a "genuinely positive utopian vision", in the end the outside world brings it down (MacDonald 107). It has been thought that this may also simply be part of Huxley's belief that history is an endless cycle, and not a direct progress towards utopia. The optimism lies in the idea that such a utopic society is indeed worth striving for (MacDonald 108).
has been called an "existential utopia", and believed that the real challenge in human society is to "choose utopia in whatever terms the choice presents itself in our different lives" (MacDonald 109-10).
Huxley, however, is not suggesting that this is the only utopic society. He is merely offering some ideas that can be applied to an ideal culture (Zigler). Freedom of individuals, as well as sexual expression, are notions that are liberally addressed on Pala. It is thought that open sexuality helps further spiritual enlightenment (Witkoski).
Huxley commented on
that, "It's a kind of fantasy, a kind of reverse
Brave New World
, about a society in which real efforts are made to realize human potentialities. I want to show how humanity can make the best of both Eastern and Western worlds. So the setting is an imaginary island between Ceylon and Sumatra, at a meeting place of Indian and Chinese influence" (Watts 149). In fact, one of Huxley's greatest desires was that Western and Oriental worlds learn how to work off of each other (Watts 151). It is said that the book is a solution to "psychic atrophy" and "the specter of the bomb in the world of the 1960's (Watt 149). The society on Pala is an alternative from both communist and capitalist culture. Instead of trying to further some type of progress for the benefit of the country, the people on Pala exist for "'actualization, for being turned into full-blown human beings (Watt 152).
Huxley uses the novel as a vehicle to express his thoughts on human interaction and how it would change in an idealized society. Through the Old Raja's "Notes on What's What, and What It Might be Reasonable to do about What's What" Huxley conveys the principles of Pala to his reader. Huxley creates in Pala a society that is free from "over-population, coercive policies, militarism mechanization, the destruction of the environment and the worship of science, issues which he finds problematic with society" (Lush).
The philosophies and religious sentiments expressed on Pala reflect influences from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism. One such principle is the belief that "Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there". The people on Pala believe in the idea that it is important to live for what one has. Everything should be accepted and embraced and residents of Pala should take what life gives them readily and not try to find an escape. This is carried over to the text by the use of birds called mynahs. These birds fly around the island an say things like "karuna, karuna", "here and now", and "attention" to remind its inhabitants to live for what is (Lush). Huxley operates Pala on the notion that the important lessons in life are indirect and possibly subliminal, an idea that also appeared in "Brave New World". Much of this is facilitated by the mynahs and their "suggestions" (Witoski).
The state of acceptance that inhabits the members of Palanese society is aided by
medicine. Dr. Robert refers to the medicine as "the reality reliever, the truth-and-beauty pill" that allows users to "catch a glimpse of the world as it looks to someone who has been liberated from his bondage to the ego" (Huxley 157). He also says that it "does something to the silent areas of the brain which causes them to produce a set of subjective events to which people have given the name 'mystical experience'. It 'opens some kind of neurological sluice'" (Meckier). Drugs are used to create an ideal calm and acceptance (Lush). The drug use in
is closely modeled after Huxley's own experimentation with mescaline and LSD (Meckier).
Palanese philosophy is centered around the idea of accepting what is by whatever means possible. Pills are given to children who demonstrate personalities that stray from what is desired (Lush). Much emphasis is put on the belief that the best kind of medicine is the therapy each person can perform on themselves. This is seen in practice when Susila uses "word therapy" to help heal Farnaby after his initial injuries (Watt 156).
In Palanese society it is thought that children receive their education from additional influences outside of school. The idea is that there are forces that complete and compliment a child's primary source of education in their upbringing. Huxley advances this idea through MAC and the flexibility that is available to youth. This philosophy is similar to the opinions of the American pragmatist John Dewey. Both Huxley and Dewey show much influence from Charles Darwin and his views on human potential. As is the philosophy on Pala, Dewey and Huxley believed that human nature and society were always changing and improving, given they take advantage of the opportunity to further themselves. These themes have much to do with the idea of a communal society (Witoski).
Pala demonstrates freedom of religion, however, children are taught that the world is possible without a god, and left to choose their own belief path. The society is against violence and hatred of any kind, and teaches love and understanding of and for all beings. While the people of the island admitting accept that what they have is not a utopia, they run it under the belief that they strive to achieve the most utopic society they can. It is believed that in each person there is the potential to find understanding, and an optimistic outlook on life is desired (Lush).
The people of Pala are pacifists, a practice that will eventually work against them. Death and suffering are strongly examined and reflect Huxley's own struggles with the issues. Palanese society is prominently rational and humanistic. The culture values acceptance and non-violence, but the ending negates the belief that such a society can exist without harm (Lush).
It has been suggested that the name of the novel corresponds with the nature of human society. That while people may be separate and individual on the surface, they are connected underwater (Watt 156).
Farnaby goes through psychological, relational, and spiritual transformations throughout the novel on his way to enlightenment (MacDonald 105). Yet Huxley's novel expresses the understanding that such an "independent contemplative community" was not realistic in the 1960's (Watt 159). One essential idea that helps characterize Pala as a utopia is the rejection of determinism. But at the place the world was then, it did not look realistic to think a utopia could be built under the circumstances at the time (MacDonald 109). Although the utopia in
did not work, it is suggested that such a society is possible if people are willing to choose it (MacDonald 111).
"Island" is a story that deals with human interaction and existence. Much of the book is focused on how the characters get over the restrictions they place on themselves within their minds. The people of Pala are into philosophies that are not considered accurate by other cultures, but are able to live in peace. Much of happiness is thought to be within each individual person's control. In order to be happy one must create a peaceful mindset and be able to get over whatever is hindering the happiness. The ideology in Palanese society is very simplistic and resembles how a child might think. Farnaby's first encounter on the island is with two children who indeed think in this way. This is significant in that it suggests how valued children are in Palanese society. The ability for children to choose who they call parents and live with demonstrates this freedom and respect for all ages. Such an open community creates a more nurturing and peaceful environment.
It is very clear that the people of Pala want nothing to do with the outside world. The language they use to describe their history - words like "lucky, and good timing"- depicts how they don't want to fall into the pattern the rest of the world is. Palanese society is free from the intense constraints that face the rest of the world. The government does not try to control what its people do, but instead offers it the resources they need to lead a free loving life.
One such example of this is the distribution of birth control. The Palanese government incorporates the fee for contraception into their taxes, and distributes the materials to each household liberally and equally. The result of this action has helped maintain a steady population, resulting in a society that does not face the intense growth issues of other nations.
Pala once faced a time when its population was growing rapidly like the neighboring countries. This was when the country was facing a time of significant agricultural success and resource development. The society realized that in order to maintain its population, they could take the necessary action to curve the growth in a more manageable direction, of they could let nature take its course. This would mean letting the country fall subject to things like famine, sickness, and war. None of these options appeal to Pala, and it chooses to deal with the issue head-on, this is when the birth control project started.
It is said that this program is loved and eagerly practiced by the majority of the population. The island seems to embrace the notion of love in a much more intense yet liberal way than other countries. In other countries love needs to be strict and defined. It can only take place between a man and a woman of acceptable ages and they must conform to the expectation of society. In Pala people are free to love whom they want, and no one considers anyone "theirs". There is such strong trust in one another that lovers don't tie down their partners they way people of other cultures do. The people of Pala love whom they want but truly want their lovers to be happy as well. If this means they will be happier with someone else, that's just what they will have to do. This form of love is so genuine in comparison to other practices. It really is the emotion and connection that is expressed and followed the most, not the societal constraints that go along with it.
It is described in the novel that young people have a very pure sexuality that fills the whole person. Later in life this energy is focused in the genitals. The goal of the Palanese program is to maintain that innocent and natural sense of sexuality throughout one's whole life. By not restricting love in any way, people are able to express themselves so that they do not feel excess frustration. Because of this, Palanese society is more focused on people as opposed to gender, sex, and definitions. Love is not only allowed, but fully accepted, by two people of the same sex. Pala is not a heteronormative society. It is not expected that a person should love someone simply because that is the way it is with most people. In point of fact, many love different types of people throughout their life. This can be attributed much to the idea that sexuality in Pala is associated with the entire person. This notion allows people in many different places in life to form a connection. Love that would be hidden in other societies is wholeheartedly accepted and common on Pala.
The philosophy of Pala is one that embraces the present. This belief, called "Tantra", focuses on accepting the world as it is and making the most of it. This impacts the way the people of Pala operate. They don't seek change and revolution. They are happy with their world and want it to remain the same. When they compare their society to outside ones they find many similar features. However, the attitudes of the Palanese are what allows their country to thrive in such an open and accepting society.
It appears to me that the expectations and societal customs that most cultures practice do not impact the Palanese to such a high degree. On Pala, institutes like marriage are accepted but in no way demanded. People are free to love whom they want and pursue a relationship with them in any way they see fit. In mainstream society it is very much expected that men and women marry and have a family. In Pala, there is not such rigid concern. If that is what people want, then that is what they can do. But it is in no way insisted that lovers follow such reform.
Farnaby comes into the society with the intent to change the entire system so that it would resemble the progressive ways of mainstream culture. This is an idea that is vehemently opposed by members of the country. They have seen what has happened to other countries that follow such practices, and are truly happy living in the manner that they do. It is only outsiders who take issue with the way that Pala works.
The Palanese people are not preoccupied with material things or power. They see certain things as necessary to help them get by, but think that the real focus on life should be naturally manufactured - things that are felt, expressed, and created by people's hearts and minds. Outside influences are not able to understand the way Pala works, and their desire to change it is ill founded and selfish. Pala does not want to change. It is extremely happy and accepting of its current way of life. It is the people who enter into the society with preconceived notions of the way the world is supposed to work that take issue with Palanese practices. The way Pala is free from stereotyping and societal assumptions supports the idea that human practices are influenced and in many ways controlled by its environment and influence.
The people of Pala are very much in tune with their inner person. They know how to control their own minds and care extremely connected to their individual being. This aids them in creating their utopia type society. The people of Pala appear to be happy, but it's virtually impossible for them to maintain their society in an outside world. Those who have been exposed to other systems thirst for material and power-driven gains. I think this utopia works only for those people who truly accept its practices and see it as the best possible system. People who have been raised in a soceity they prefer will not enjoy Pala. One must be open to the idea of a place like Pala in order to be able to understand and enjoy it. The society of Pala is feasible and successful if it remains in isolation and its members agree with the mission of their society.
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