Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Fifty Years On: Aldous Huxley's Island (1962) Reconsidered

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Fifty Years On: Aldous Huxley's Island (1962) Reconsidered

Article excerpt

To be capable of love - this is, of course, about two thirds of the battle; the other third is becoming capable of the intelligence that endows the love with effectiveness in an obscure and complicated and largely loveless world. It is not enough merely to know, and it is not enough merely to love; there must be knowledgelove and charity-understanding or pajna-karuna, in the language of Buddhism - wisdom-compassion.1

An island can be a sanctuary, a safe haven, an escape from the larger and fractious world, a place for hopes and dreams to be born. Shakespeare's The Tempest is set on such an island, one that is a metaphor for the inner life of the mind, and it remains the first modern effort to define an island as an aesthetic frame for ideas. Perhaps Shakespeare's play somewhat echoes a precursor, the Arthurian Avalon, where Excalibur is found, forever after assuring the isle's mystical aura. Later, Herman Melville's Moby Dick metaphorized the island as sanctuary in his chapter titled, "An Insular Tahiti". Alongside the many fictional islands one could refer to, representing places to which one escapes for solace, solitude or clarity, Aldous Huxley's Island (1962) stands out as the aesthetic frame for an exploration of love as a basic and indispensable element of life.

Huxley, one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of the twentieth century, spent a lifetime in quest of an inner island of mystical serenity. He learned early that love would be the predetermining condition in his search for serenity. On 29 November 1908, his mother, who was forty-seven, died from cancer. Aldous adored her and was devastated by her death. In a final letter to her son written on her deathbed, she told him: "Don't be too critical of people and love much." Huxley later added in 1915:

I have come to see more and more how wise that advice was. It's her warning against a rather conceited and selfish fault of my own and it's a whole philosophy of life.2

If his cynicism prevailed in his novels in the 1920s, in the 1930s, he began to formulate the idea to "love much" as a "philosophy of life". The change begins to appear in his 1928 novel, Point Counter Point, in which Huxley intimates that such a place as an island in the mind can be achieved through a surrender to contemplative music:

There are grand things in the world .... Johan Sebastian [Bach] puts the case. The Rondeau begins, exquisitely and simply melodious, almost a folk-song .... His is a slow and lovely meditation on the beauty (in spite of all the evil), the oneness (in spite of such bewildering diversity) of the world. It is a beauty, a goodness, a unity that no intellectual research can discover, that analysis dispels, but of whose reality the spirit from time to time is suddenly and overwhelmingly convinced .... The music was infinitely sad; and yet it consoled .... It was able to confirm - deliberately, quietly ... that everything was in some way right, acceptable. It included the sadness within some vaster, more comprehensive happiness.3

Huxley developed an intuition for mysticism very early in life. In 1916, at the age of twenty-two, in a letter to his brother Julian, he wrote:

I have come to agree with Thomas Aquinas that individuality in the animal kingdom if you [like] is nothing more than a question of mere matter. We are potentially at least, though the habit of matter has separated us, unanimous. One cannot escape mysticism; it positively thrusts itself, the only possibility, upon one.4

He continues this theme in 1925: "I love the inner world as much or more than the outer. When the outer vexes me, I retire to the rational simplicities of the spirit."5

Huxley's last novel Island was written in part after he learned that he had cancer and he may have believed that this would be his last opportunity to express his vision of a utopian society in which a key component would be mystical philosophy. Island was published in 1962 and Huxley died on 22 November 1963. …

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