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Island by Aldous Huxley

September 21, 2011

So my good friend Peter says to me, he says, “I’m reading Island right now. You have to read it.” He thought it was amazing, and being part of the My Favorite Book is Brave New World Club, I took his advice seriously. I told my book club partner about it, and we read recently read it—and discussed it to near-death.

The thing with Island is, it’s sold as a novel—but it’s a half-assed novel, if you want the truth. The plot and character development are super-thin. But the ideas? Oh, they’re grand. Many of our book club members hate-hate-hated the book, because they just couldn’t get into the narrative. However, once we talked about it, they realized it wasn’t “a bunch of hippie bullshit”—it is incredibly thought-provoking and amazing for discussion. But as a summer read? Not that hot. I had an enjoyable experience with it because I read it as a philosophical treatise: I used a ton of Post-It flags and wrote notes on the back flap to provoke my thought. (Confession: I’m a nerd, so I do that any time a read a book, regardless of genre or topic. Shhh.) Knowing that I would be discussing this book with a group of smart people made the reading easier.

It’s not horribly written, mind you. Yes, Huxley’s ideas are far more grand that his writing, but he isn’t horrible at it. This book just disappointed a lot of people who were expecting a story. Another reason I enjoyed it immensely is it fits in my liberal world view. I agreed with much of what Huxley posited. So what, exactly, is it about?

Plot: this guy, Will Farnaby, is a journalist hoping to facilitate a dirty deal between his rich boss and a small island, Pala, over oil. His boss is hoping for exploitation, whereas Will is just thinking about the paycheck. It was serendipity when he found himself crashed on the island and taken care of by its inhabitants. This island is the namesake of the book. It is also Huxley’s idea of a utopia. As Will’s health improves he becomes more interested in how Pala works. He is the Skeptical Outsider finding it tough that things really work here; he just wants to find out who is in charge and exploit them. By the end, however, he’s bonded with the residents and drank their semi-Buddhist/Tantric Kool-Aid.

That’s the gist of the plot. Not too much more intrigue than that—there is some political intrigue, but it, altogether, adds up to about ten pages. Most of the character development results from explaining how people handle emotions—mostly pain—in this utopia. It boils down to “mind over matter,” if you must know. Psychology, education, population (control), consumerism, religion and drug policy are all Huxley’s targets. I don’t want to spoil it all should you read it. But here’s your warning: if you aren’t too socially liberal you will have a hard time with this. As a fawning fangirl I agreed with a lot. Not all. Having discussed it in book club, I don’t have it in me to say much now. I will leave you with some choice quotes, however.

On sex (89):

Maithuna,” she answered gravely, “is the yoga of love.”
“Sacred or profane?”
“There’s no difference.”
“That’s the whole point,” Ranga put in. “When you do maithuna, profane love is sacred love.”
Buddhatvan yoshidyonisansritan,” the girl quoted.
None of your Sanskirt! What does it mean?”
“How would you translate Buddhatvan, Ranga?”
“Buddhaness, Buddheity, the quality of being enlightened.”
Radha nodded and turned back to Will. It means that Buddhaness is in the yoni.”

On Family; everyone belongs to a Mutual Adoption Club where you become family with more than your blood relatives (107):

“Take one sexually inept wage slave,” she went on, “one dissatisfied female, two or (if preferred) three small television addicts; marinate in a mixture of Freudism and dilute Christianity; then bottle up tightly in a four-room flat and stew for fifteen years in their own juice. Our recipe is rather different: Take twenty sexually satisfied couples and their offspring; add science, intuition and humor in equal quantities; steep in Tantrik Buddhism and simmer indefinitely in an open pan in the open air over a brisk flame of affection.”
“And what comes out of your open pan?” he asked.
“An entirely different kind of family. Not exclusive, like your families, and not predestined, not compulsory. An inclusive, unpredestined and voluntary family. Twenty pairs of fathers and mothers, eight or nine ex-fathers and ex-mothers, and forty or fifty children of all ages.”

Fulfillment, from the Notes on What’s What (160):

“‘Patriotism is not enough.’ But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.”

This book is great for debate—I didn’t quote any of the anti-capitalism, anti-Catholicism, anti-sit-in-your-desk-education passages. There’s also a bunch of words about enlightenment through drugs. (This is Huxley we’re talking about.) If you’re into reading an interesting mix of Eastern spirituality, Western criticism and humanism, hey, you might like this. If you’re looking for a breezy summer read, stay away. It’s not a beach read.


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