Choosing Utopia: An Existential Reading of Aldous Huxley's Island *

By MacDonald, Alex | Utopian Studies, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Choosing Utopia: An Existential Reading of Aldous Huxley's Island *


MacDonald, Alex, Utopian Studies


THE WELL-KNOWN ETYMOLOGY OF "UTOPIA" expresses a central problem in the interpretation of Island. eu + topos means good place, and it is arguable that Pala is a good place which represents a triumphant positive conclusion to Huxley's life-long battle with dualism, that Will Farnaby's conversion from cynicism to utopian faith is the culmination of the progression of the earlier novels. On the other hand, ou + topos means no place, and it is equally arguable that Island, especially its horrific ending, represents the return of Huxley's profound pessimism, as David Bradshaw has claimed: "Island is perhaps Huxley's most pessimistic book, his poignant acknowledgement that in a world of increasing greed, mass communication, oil-guzzling transport, burgeoning population, and inveterate hostility, a pacific and co-operative community, like Pala's `oasis of freedom and happiness' has little hope of survival" (viii). Island is an important modern utopian novel and such radically different interpretations are worth considering. It is my contention that Island is not pessimistic, that in fact it is a profoundly optimistic book, optimistic not just about the possibility of individual enlightenment (the "eupsychian" view) but about the possibility of utopia in the social sense. The basis for this is what I call an existential interpretation of the text, which I shall try to explain.

Aldous Huxley wrote eleven novels in his career. It is interesting to note that the titles of all but one contain two or more words. The exception, of course, is Island, which illustrates clearly the movement toward unity which is characteristic of Huxley's thought. It is arguable that the central trend in Huxley's novels was the movement from a view of reality which was thoroughly dualistic at the start of his career to one in which, at the end, dualism had been resolved.

The famous jazz age novels were constructed upon exploiting the splits in human nature, and they exemplify the condition described in the epigraph to Point Counter Point:

   Oh, wearisome condition of humanity, Born under one law, to another
   bound....

Huxley took particular delight as a satirist in writing variations upon the duality of flesh and spirit: Theodore Gumbril Junior of Antic Hay, for example, who in the midst of a religious service develops the idea of inflatable under wear to ease the rigours of hard chapel benches (10), or the episode of the Lapith girls in Crome Yellow:

   They waved away whatever was offered them with an expression of delicate
   disgust, shutting their eyes and averting their faces from the proffered
   dish, as though the lemon sole, the duck, the loin of veal, the trifle,
   were objects revolting to the sight and smell. George, who thought the
   dinner capital, ventured to comment on the sisters' lack of appetite. "Pray
   don't talk to me of eating," said Emmeline, drooping like a sensitive
   plant. "We find it so coarse, so unspiritual, my sisters and I. One can't
   think of one's soul while one is eating." (107)

Of course, in the privacy of their room the girls gorge themselves. The duality reaches a less comical climax in Brave New World, in which John Savage whips his flesh for lechery and at the end hangs himself because there seems no resolution, no way out of the dilemma. The starkness of the dystopian alternatives gives Brave New World dramatic intensity, even though Huxley in his 1946 Preface regretted that the Savage was not given an option.

It was in the novels of the thirties and forties that a way between the horns of the dilemma began to appear. In Eyeless in Gaza Anthony Beavis reaches a state of spiritual calm, suggesting the mystical experience which can transcend the duality of the world. The basis for the leap beyond satire to positive vision was elaborated in Huxley's spiritual anthology The Perennial Philosophy (1945). In this work Huxley noted that the etymology of the word "two" contains the notion of badness and suggested the possibility and the necessity of moving beyond duality to awareness of the Divine Ground of Being which unifies creation. …

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