Alone On An Island
by Michael R. Allen

Island, by Aldous Huxley
(HarperCollins reissue, July 1989) 304 pgs.

Suppose that paradise exists, Milton to the contrary. Suppose this paradise is very different from traditional notions of what paradise would look like in its most phenomenal manifestation. There is no Dionysius pouring delectable wine, no maidens feeding grapes to recipients of this majesty. Instead, the perfect world is a small island called Pala, with no military, no industrialization, and no developed technology. Education, tranquillity and spirituality are the trinity of important values. Sounds like a feast for the soul, correct?

If you are hardened journalist Will Farnaby, then your answer is no. Farnaby is introduced at the beginning of this story as a guide for the reader and, as careful analysis reveals, a stand-in for Huxley himself. Farnaby has just been through a horrible course of events: his pious wife died, and after the funeral his mistress and he made love. He finds his mistress appallingly desirable, and yearns for an inner sense of direction. In the short run, however, he needs money and money comes from Lord Joseph Aldehyde, the head of Southeast Asian Petroleum Company and a dilettante spiritualist.

Farnaby is sent to Rendang-Lobo, an authoritarian dictatorship run by the fascist Colonel Dipa. Here he is to leave by rowboat and become "shipwrecked" on the mysterious Pala. Once there, he is to infiltrate the nation and plant the seeds for industrialization, i.e. for the Aldehyde company to start drilling for its sacred mineral.

When he arrives, he is greeted by two "natives," with Anglo last names: "MacPhail." He meets their scholarly grandfather, Dr. Robert MacPhail, who plays the role of the island wisdom man. MacPhail tells of the story of his great-grandfather's coming to Pala from England, escaping a rigid Calvinist upbringing. This man, Dr. Andrew MacPhail, met with the Palanese head of state, the Raja, and Dr. MacPhail cured him of a tumorous growth. The impressed Raja made MacPhail his co-governor, and together they instituted many reforms which secured Pala from outside corruption. MacPhail shows Farnaby the many disciplines that make Pala so serene: an education that teaches cooperation, a traditional economic system that is free from outside investment, multi-parent families called Mutual Adoption Circles where children can spend time with different designated parents outside their biological family, the encouragement of sexual exploration in a spiritual context, called maithuna, and a wonderful sensory-enhancing drug called moksha.

Throughout the story, the elder MacPhail serves as the postwar Huxley, a man who had shifted to a peaceful, spiritual philosopher who is undergoing much introspective pondering. He is assuring the old Huxley (Farnaby) that the new world is better and more fulfilling; in this sense the exposition focuses chiefly on Farnaby's conversion to the Buddhist religion and way of life on Pala. The plot is neglected, but this is not a narrative book. This is a philosophical text in the manner of the works of Ayn Rand, George Orwell, and the earlier Huxley. Only, the Huxley of Island is not the familiar one of Brave New World. As one will recall, Huxley in his Brave New World was alarmed at the fictional soma drug, a supposed cure-all substitute for truly dealing with pain. And Huxley's original conservative view of sexuality as expressed in Brave New World, in which his protagonist John (the Savage) commits suicide after losing his virginity, is supplanted by a view that structured sexual yoga is conductive to spiritual maturation.

The paradise is threatened by the young Raja, Murugan, who is about to turn eighteen and rule for himself. His mother, the Rani, is a friend of Aldehyde and a believer in Divine Spirituality rather than in the pseudo-Buddhist Palanese islanders. She find them deplorable, and sees oil as the source of their economic and religious revival. Her son concurs, and besides, he is having a homosexual affair with the capricious Colonel Dipa. He has already announced an industrialization plan which MacPhail sees as contrary to tradition. The Raja and the Rani are treated as absurd misfits and are mocked to a great degree by the islanders. Yet, what other poetic justice could come of an arrogant ruler? Complete cooperation?

The philosophy of the island has a logical flaw. Though the islanders are trying to fight history, ". . . the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their ignorance or a political or religious dogma," as Dr. MacPhail says, they have reverted to the double standard. As Eric Hoffer advised, every movement needs a devil to oppose, and just as the western world is rigidly opposed to Palanese enlightenment, the people of Pala are cruelly contemptuous of the outside world and appear self-righteous and close-minded. Again, you cannot avoid dogma; the true dilemma is choosing which dogma to believe. And what are dogma to the Palanese are beliefs of the western world, and vice versa. It is a shame that Huxley could not have made his characters more tolerant of differing beliefs, as the intellectual snobbery of the Palanese is a fatal flaw that only keeps the reader from truly admiring the inhabitants of the paradise.

In the close of the tale, Farnaby is a changed man who has found the real Will Farnaby. He loves Pala, and refused to meet with his cohorts on the night of the raja's ascension to the throne. The next morning, the Raja takes over the Island, and promptly kills the Doctor MacPhail, the last wise man of the old days. Yet it is probable that Will Farnaby has acquired that knowledge and will carry it onward, just as Huxley convinced himself of a new realm of being.


Copyright 1997 Michael R. Allen