Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Conradian Reminders in Aldous Huxley's Island: Will Farnaby's Moksha-Medicine Experience and "The Essential Horror"

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Conradian Reminders in Aldous Huxley's Island: Will Farnaby's Moksha-Medicine Experience and "The Essential Horror"

Article excerpt

Island is the only utopian novel to climax with a drug-taking. Will Farnaby's ingestion of the moksha-medicine, closely modeled upon Huxley's experiments with mescaline and LSD, (1) fills chapter fifteen. Although Susila MacPhail, Will's guru, considers him ready for an expansion of consciousness, the jaded journalist is no prodigy. Most Palanese first sample "the reality revealer" (I 136) as part of a religious ceremony to mark their coming of age. Nevertheless, Will has progressed. (2) He entered Pala by subterfuge as a sort of"secret agent" (I 111) for the West's oil companies; his mission: to secure mineral rights. Fourteen chapters later, enamored of the Palanese way of life, he is a candidate for visionary experience, which Huxley regarded as a prelude to enlightenment. (3)

The moksha-medicine "can take you to heaven," Susila explains, "but it can also take you to hell. Or else to both, together or alternately," or "(if you're lucky) ... beyond either of them" (1261-62). Will's guide catalogues five distinct varieties of drug-inspired journey: to heaven only, hell only, both together, both alternately, and beyond both. Farnaby takes the fourth type with perhaps a glimpse of the fifth. (4) After he swallows the "truth-and-beauty pill" (I 136), temporal reality, the world of sight and sound, is gloriously transfigured: Farnaby feels "blissfully one with Oneness" (1263). Unluckily, this serenity soon changes to a nightmare of Conradian hue. Farnaby is engulfed by negative visions: "Horrors of vulgarity and horrors of pain, of cruelty and tastelessness, of imbecility and deliberate malice" (I 272).

Heart of Darkness ushered in a century of horrors-colonial exploitation, world wars, the holocaust, the atom bomb. When Marlow overhears Kurtz's dying words--"The horror! The horror!" (HD 68)--they sound prophetic; the ivory gatherer seems to pronounce judgment on atrocities already committed and on worse crimes still to come. Conversely, when Farnaby's impressions of reality deteriorate, Huxley's utopia suffers a setback. It is as if a tropical Eastern paradise reverts to the Belgian Congo of Conrad's nineteenth-century novel. Even on Pala, Will is forced to confront "the Essential Horror" (I 272); his moksha-medicine experience reiterates Kurtz's negative epiphany in capitals. One is reminded that Kurtz's "supreme moment of complete knowledge" (HD 68) only sounds beatific; actually, it registers a disillusioned idealist's disgust for modern life and human behavior, his own included.

"For scholars," Huxley scoffed, there is only one "all-important problem": "Who influenced whom to say what when?" (DP 61). Nevertheless, Conradian echoes throughout Island clamor for attention, especially Farnaby's emphatic allusion to Kurtz's final utterance. This leads to an intriguing question: Why does a large section of the concluding chapter in Huxley's last completed novel, a utopia no less, recall Heart of Darkness?

Initially, the drugged William Asquith Farnaby disappears into a blissful luminousness said to be "the mind's natural state" (I 263). He remains aware that civilization consists of "three thousand millions of insulated consciousnesses, each at the center of a nightmare world in which it was impossible for anyone ... to take yes for an answer." Ensconced in "the firmament of bliss and understanding" revealed by moksha, however, Farnaby can be affirmative about the nature of things and his place in it. He need not go "down into ... the thickening horrors" of anger and disgust brought on by memories of life's agonies, whether "inflicted or suffered" (I 264). (5)

When the musicians play Bach's Suite in B Minor at Lady Edward Tantamount's party in Point Counter Point, their instruments "combine for a moment to create a seemingly final and perfected harmony, only to break apart again. Each is always alone and separate and individual. `I am I,' asserts the violin; `the world revolves round me. …

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