In his last major work, the Island, the evils that Aldous Huxley has been warning us about in his earlier works – over-population, coercive politics, militarism, mechanization, the destruction of the environment and the worship of science will find their opposites in the gentle and doomed Utopia of Pala. (Woodcock,18) Aldous Huxley used his books to explore his struggles against personal tragedy and to search for the meaning of human existence. His interest in eastern philosophies and mysticism began in the early twenties with the study of Blake and Bohme. His fascination with eastern religion was one of the reasons he departed on a world tour in 1925. The island of Pala is probably one of the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. In Island, Huxley’s portrayal of the Palanese beliefs demonstrate principles of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Confucianism. The beliefs, values and struggles of a lifetime are combined to form this culmination of his life’s work.
The Palanese culture, as described in the book, started with the mingling of western science and oriental philosophy, in the characters of Raja of the Reform and the Scottish physician, Dr. Andrew MacPhail. The Raja had hired Dr. MacPhail to remove a tumour from his face during the early nineteenth century. The Raja and Dr. MacPhail and their descendants worked together “to make the best of all the worlds-the worlds already realized within the various cultures, and beyond them, and the worlds of still unrealized potentialities.” (130) Will Farnaby, a journalist whose boss also owns Southeast Asia Petroleum, finds himself shipwrecked on this island. Under two motivations, Farnaby asks and is given permission to stay for a month. Farnaby, or Huxley, is genuinely interested in learning the culture, not only for literary reasons, but to find out more about himself. His second motive is to negotiate a lease between Southeast Asia Petroleum and the Palanese government, for which he will earn a large sum of money. At several points throughout the novel Farnaby feels guilty about betraying his guests. Farnaby comforts himself with the thought that if he didn’t do it, somebody else would. The forces of history are working. (84) As in the Hindu philosophy outlined in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna explains to Arjuna that he is an instrument of the action, it is his fate or destiny to fight; the same holds true for Farnaby, his destiny has brought him to Pala for a reason.
Dr. Robert MacPhail, the grandson of the Dr. Andrew, suggests “to have a better understanding of what was actually done to develop the Palanese culture, you start by knowing what had to be done, what always and everywhere has to be done by anyone who has a clear idea of what’s what.” (34) And so Farnaby begins his learning about Pala by reading the underlying principles of its existence, the Notes on What’s What. The Palanese are described as Mahayanists Buddhists “shot through and through with Tantra.” (74) The first principle “Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there” (35) shows an element of Taoist philosophy. The fictional version of Tantra can be interpreted as Taoism; since being a Tantrik means you don’t denounce the world and try to escape into Nirvana – you accept the world and everything about it. The Mahayanists Buddha philosophy of the Palanese aims at the passage beyond suffering into the Clear Light of the Void of all living beings (Nirvana); while living according to the Tao, appreciating and working with whatever happens during a person’s life on earth.
Nirvana is a blissful state or freeness of mind. You can see the true essence of things; you can see their Reality. The Palanese are taught to understand and appreciate life by being constantly aware of who you are in relation to all experiences. Over a thousand birds inhabit the island mimicking the word,”Attention”, reminding people to pay attention to everything they do. From the beginning, children are taught to do things with “the minimum of strain and maximum of awareness”. (145) By the time children are fourteen they’ve learned to get the best objectively and subjectively out of any activity. (146) The Palanese make use of everything they do, everything that happens to them, all the things they see and hear and taste and touch, as a means of liberation. (74) By being fully aware of what you’re doing, work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living. (152) One of the means of becoming aware of yourself in relation to the universe (being enlightened) is through “meditation.” Meditation is considered “Destiny Control” since it opens your mind to an intuitive level to a greater understanding and awareness. The Palanese believe the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is universal, but one-third of it is sorrow inherent of the human condition and two-thirds is homemade as far as the universe is concerned (85). Life is full of “changes and chances…beauties and horrors and absurdities” (26). Destiny Control cannot take away all the pain of suffering in bereavement, for that would make a person less than human (98). With meditation your mind can be “blue, unpossessed and open”, (86) understanding that “man is infinite as the Void.” (185) The body is merely a covering, the Hindu and Buddhist) karma, and (Taoist) mind of your loved one lives on.
In their initiation into adolescents, Palanese youth climb a dangerous rock precipice to remind them of the presence of death and the essential precariousness of all existence. At the end of the climb, the children are introduced to the moksha medicine or revelation of life. As outlined in the Wisdom of China and India, Enlightenment or Nirvana, is divesting oneself of the illusions of the sensory world and constantly rising to a higher conception of an ideal world. (Yutang 550) The moksha medicine is described as the banquet of enlightenment, while meditation is considered dinner. During the moksha ceremony, the Lord of the Dance, Shiva-Nataraja, dances in all worlds, the world of the senses, the world of matter, the world of endless coming and passing away, and the world of Clear Light. (170) The flame can be considered representative of the “Tao” or thread that holds all the universe together. With the ceremony, the people understand the nature of their existence, the “One in plurality, the Emptiness that is all, the Suchness totally present in every appearance.”(170)
Nevertheless, the Lord Shiva is described as a man-made image. Everyone is taught that worshipping symbols will not get prayers answered. (183) The Old Raja wanted children to understand that Gods are all homemade, and that it’s people who pull their strings and thus give them the power to pull ours. To demonstrate this idea, the scarecrows in the fields are images of Buddha and the Christian God the Father. If prayers are answered, it is because in this “odd and psychological world, ideas have a tendency if you concentrate your mind on them to get realized.” (184) The Palanese, like the Confucian, believe the standard of goodness is not to be sought in heaven, but in one’s fellowman. Palanese culture is “to be judged by what all the members of the community, the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.” (177) Knowledge of the past and what works is incorporated to make a better society. The Confucian ideal based on ethics and man’s function in this world to serve society has created Pala, “a federation of self-governing units, geographical units, professional units, economic units” with room for initiative and democracy but no place for a dictatorship.” (149) The Palanese believe that balance, (known as the “middle way” in Buddhism) with no excesses is the rule in nature and ought to be rule among people. They only manufacture enough products to maintain their community with just enough exports to get what they need from the outside world. All industries work on a part time system so that people can change jobs. All aspects of the society is based on human satisfactions first.
As in Hinduism and Buddhism, people on Pala have no right to destroy or hurt any other living being. Babies are stroked while they are being fed and while being stroked, they are introduced to animals they want the child to love. As the King of Snakes wrapped himself around the Buddha to protect him from the wind and the rain, so babies are nursed by their mothers wrapped in the coils of a cobra snake. “Good Being” results in “Good Doing”, the right thoughts and actions towards all is part of the Buddhist philosophy in the Palanese culture. The Palanese believe by acting in a compassionate manner to other living beings will result in them acting compassionately towards you. Dr. Andrew MacPhail admits there has never been such an ideal society, but it also does not mean that the people of Pala are fools for trying. (35)
As with the Tathagatas in the Buddhist philosophy, the older people can provide the children with the techniques and opportunities of this life on Pala, it remains with them to decide whether they will co-operate. (173) The last Raja had married a princess of Rendang. Rani detests the life on Pala and influences her son, Murugan, so that when he comes of age he takes on the militaristic philosophy of the neighbouring Rendang. By making every man, woman and child as perfectly free and happy is a false happiness, an indulgence of the Lower Self, the Rani, told Farnaby.(55) In the Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, once a person realizes he is a part of the omnipresent Self, he takes an humble view of his individual or “lower self” and ceases to quest for things in this world. Desires, such as sexual lust, is considered immoral in the Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. In the Palanese culture, the interpretation of love and compassion for all is achieved through “maithuana”, the art of love making. Adolescents are taught the yoga of love as an attempt to regain paradise by awareness of your self and not-self. According to the Palanese culture, there is no such thing as sacred love or profane love, Buddaness or enlightment is in “love.” (74) This may be combination of the Taoist philosophy that we learn to appreciate life on earth and the modern day influences of having sex.
The Palanese believe in making the best of all worlds.As well as understanding that people are a part of the universe, they are also taught to understand themselves individually. As in the Hindu Panchantra, children explore themselves through animal fables. Taoists believe that in every man, there is a clever person, a know-it-all, but each person must reach beyond these parts of his personality to the basically good “inner nature”. In the Palanese society, science and religion are combined to reach this inner self. For example, the Palanese found there were two types of children who would become dominant adults. Pills are used to control the personality of one type and the other is taught to engage in tasks that enable him to work off his aggressions. The Taoist appreciates the value of scientific knowledge about the universe and believes it increases his understanding of the “Tao.” However, the “Taoist” would not use science to change a person, nor as a means to change the intelligence of society, as the Palanese did – that would be interfering with the laws of nature.
In the end, the Taoist “non-interference” philosophy is one of the reasons for the doom of their society. The Palanese are pacifists with no army and so give up their island to the neighbouring Rendang without a struggle. Will Farnaby betrays the Palanese by arranging a oil deal, thus prompting the young Raja Murugan to arrange the coup with Colonel Dippa of Rendang. Ironically, this happens at the same time that Will, through his experiences with these beautiful people, has become convinced that Pala is the ideal society.
Island is a book filled with reflections and thoughts of Huxley’s lifetime. Huxley’s experimenting with drugs, especially mescalin, had convinced him of the transcendent meaning of the universe. Death and suffering, he had seen during his lifetime, loses their sting in Island “by believing that life is to be lived out in awareness of itself and of the light beyond it.” (Woodcock 282) The Palanese had built a society on humanism and rationality. Population is under control, overconsumption and mass production is not the key of industry; science is used to better mankind rather than destroy it. Nobody is richer than anyone else. The people are compassionate concerned for the betterment of mankind; however it is the evilness of militarism and capitalism that wins out. The young Raja has been tempted by the world of technology and progress. “The serpent tempted me and I did eat” (134) is just one of the cynical analogies, Huxley has made to Christianity. The portrayal of Huxley’s character, developed throughout the book to appreciate the society, comes too late; greed had prompted him to betray the Palanese. Huxley’s pessimism and cynical attitude towards mankind wins out. “The work of a hundred years are destroyed in one single night.” (294)
ISLAND Aldous Huxley