Island is a thoroughly challenging book. From the first page, Aldous Huxley’s complex diction and intelligently illusive opinions are like steam engines plowing through my consciousness. His brute force is not only limited to internal dialogue or reflection, nor is it softened by allegory. He confronts me on every page in the characters’ conversations, and forces me either to respond or tune him out completely.
My primary difficulty is in comprehending Huxley’s obscure language. He douses me with Eastern culture, along with completely alien words like shanti, moksha, Rajput, and Maithuna. Surprisingly, his Western vocabulary is no less confusing (majuscule, reified, canalize, scatological). I find myself bound to Internet searches, especially when he drops foreign quotes such as L’etat c’est moi and vini, vidi; terms like Weltanshauung; and phrases like N’exaérons pas without any explanation. Navigating Island is like travelling on a jerky Metro train – an uncomfortable ride with many abrupt halts.
Of the many blunt allusions made in this text, I understand half of them, thanks to my Christian education. Despite familiarity, Huxley’s frequent Biblical references are not easy for me to digest. He twists them out of context, like on page 96 when he quotes St. Paul, the “founder of Christianity.” Paul is explaining original corruption in Romans 7, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Huxley uses these words as a proof against Christianity, saying the Western world has never been taught to “bridge the gap between theory and practice,” promoting “the highest possible ideals, and no methods for realizing them.” Further mockeries are made in the following chapters and Luther is blamed for giving birth to the Third Reich (page 117). Clearly, Huxley’s philosophical agenda makes no room for Christianity.
Huxley’s views are 180 degrees from German Lutheranism. He persistently and even aggressively promotes atheism through the ambiguous, head-spinning lens of fragmented Mahayana Buddhism. His words are like guerilla warriors, muddling, sabotaging, and disorienting enemy worldview, while hiding in the bushes of his own shifting, fleeting, and non-committal ideology. His contradictions are hard to pinpoint and even harder to reveal in a short review. However, my passionate response seems to elicit an attempt.
A repeated theme in Island is the Buddhist emphasis on the temporal, physical experience, the “here and now,” as their mynah birds chirp. Susila says, “In the context of what I have to do now – yes, [then and there] are completely irrelevant” (p. 107). Dr. Robert says, “we make a point of being materialists concretely… you’ve got to be aware of the bits of matter you’re handling” (p. 151). Then on page 176, the island’s book of proverbs says, “tunes or pebbles, processes or substantial things? ‘Tunes,’ answers Buddhism and modern science. ‘Pebbles,’ say the classical philosophers of the West.” The latter refutes both former statements, while each is said to be the guidelines of Huxley’s island. First, Huxley confusedly claims a single point can create meaning of itself, by its own nature, and then he compares meaning to music. Music references itself, its own past notes and rhythm, and does not claim full relevance at any singular, isolated point of time, but lends to a pattern of structured, intentional cycles and repetitions. The author expects his reader to trust the mystical ‘here and now’ falsities, simply because they are placed in the context of small bits of truth. This is just one of Huxley’s painful contradictions.
A second major contradiction (in a similar vein) is Huxley’s simultaneous praise and rejection of symbols. He rejects them with the voice of the island’s founder, that “people ought to take their religion warm from the cow… not canned in any kind of theological or liturgical container. Even the sublimest of ideas is totally different from the cosmic mystery it’s supposed to stand for” (p. 113). Then he supports them in his positive description of the “liberating” Buddhist initiation ceremony starting on page 166. He describes Nataraja, the four-armed Lord of the Dance, as a symbol of the indifferent world, revealed in clarity by temple hallucinogens. Later, on page 187, natural distance represented in a painting is declared a truthful symbol that there is significance beyond the apparent. The obvious contradiction is Huxley’s indecision on symbols. A more subtle fallacy is his using metaphor in the words of a book to convince a reader that metaphor and words mean nothing, while experience means everything. Human sensory reactions in experience are themselves symbols of actual entities, and never the actual entity. Metaphor is consciousness working with reality.
Reading Huxley’s obscure vocabulary, irregular meanings, and illogical philosophy in this book has been a difficult task. I am growing tired of the Internet searches, and, though I appreciate the food for thought, his arguments are exhausting to continue to work through. Thankfully, there are only 100 pages left before I finish, so I will plug ahead and make the most of this intellectual hurricane.