Wednesday, 3 July 2013


This week's #edcmchat book is Aldous Huxley's "Island".

Very loosely, it's a novel that shows the opposite side to the dystopia he wrote of in Brave New World.

The group will be discussing it on Twitter this Saturday at 21:00GMT.

Do join us at #edcmchat if you can...

"After 37 years of adult education, I'm almost human". This could be the byline for the book. It is an observation from Dr MacPhail, a doctor on the island of Pala where the protagonist of the story, Will Farnaby, washes up after being lost at sea. On the titular island, he discovers a community which is very different to the one he knows and the one he has been brought up in. The novel is Will's journey of discovery on the island, and through this, Huxley's various expositions on what he believed a utopian society could look like. It is a mixture of eastern/Buddhist philosophy and western socialism.

·           The islanders are motivated by knowledge and enlightenment, not material gain or profit. Mynah birds on the island have been trained to say, "Attention" and "Here and Now" to remind people to focus their minds on the present. Traditional religions are vilified in the novel as being dogmatic, narrow minded, and repressive, "a few gifted manipulators of artistic or philosophical symbols". Similarly consumerism is viewed as negative, and something that leads to a mob mentality with no-one thinking for themselves. Self awareness is key on the island of Pala.
·           Education is inter-disciplinary. At one point children are asked to biologically and anatomically study and draw a flower as precisely as they can. Later they take their first psychedelic mushrooms - part of all children's initiation - and are asked to draw the same flower again, and to think about the differences in observation. There is reference to the etymology of the words whole, holy, and healthy, and this links to this idea of holisitc education:"our kind of family, the inclusive and voluntary kind, is the genuine holy family. Yours is the unholy family".
·           Physical labour and activity is welcomed. It is a way to communally produce what the island needs, and a way to stamp out neuroses. Mr Menon, one of the school teachers, describes how they assess each child to see how they learn - what motivates them, how do they act physically and mentally, what are their strengths and weaknesses. Once they have identified them the teachers can help bring this out. This is Education as the word literally means, and reminds me of Ken Robinson's TED talk on "Are Schools Killing Creativity" - he makes exactly the same point.
·           Children are also given duties to perform outwith school, so they can appreciate their role in society, "Sampling all kinds of work - it's part of everybody's education. One learns an enormous amount that way - about things and skills and organisations, about all kinds of people and their ways of thinking". Is this something we can adopt in our school systems? 
·       There is a much more open attitude to sharing. People do not live their lives in private. Love and sex are to be shared, children will grow up in "Mutual Adoption Clubs" where they rotate parents as and when is needed. This is a contrast to last month's EM Forster story where people lived entirely private lives hooked up to the Machine. It recalls the utopia of William Morris though, where people share equally and achieve contentment through this.

·           The opposite to this in Island, is the neighbouring state who are oil rich and wish to industrialise their nation with their wealth. The young heir to this rich nation is depicted as naive, impetuous, child like, and obsessed with the material goods of the Sears catalogue. Huxley seems to be arguing that on the Island they have everything they need - why strive for more? Huxley is damning of societies who go down this line. There are frequent references to fascism and Nazi Germany, how they became brainwashed and automatons. The "ignorance, militarism, and breeding" inherent in the World Wars - Huxley wrote the book in the early 1960's - is torn apart. One stand out quote from the novel is, ""Armaments, universal debt and planned obsolescence - those are the three pillars of western prosperity". Another describes the local oil tycoon as, "a bomb dropping spiritual crusader under the oily name of Joe Aldehyde". Has much changed in our society now?
·           On the other hand, the islanders use "Destiny Control", a from of selective breeding. They have Artificial Insemination where couples can choose the parents of their next child. Of course, on the Island, they all choose wisely and communally - but what if this went wrong? This is not really explored in the book, and this would be one of my criticisms - there are no viable opponents to the philosophy of the Island. One character, Rani, is the main opposition. She has her own Spiritual Crusade movement but it is motivated by money and power rather than genuine enlightenment. Nevertheless she is described as having a "domineering calm" and a natural charisma and hold over people. It would have been interesting to see how the people of Pala could dismantle her ego, but there is no real battle of wits in the book. Rani is just derided as a charlatan and that is that. The Palanese people can often come across as smug, so it would have been good for them to have had a genuinely philosophical opponent.

Huxley himself though the book, "a disbalance between fable and exposition, The story has too much weight, in the way of ideas and reflection, to carry". I would agree. Some chapters are devoted to the plot of Murugan and Colonel Dipa, others are just long vehicles for Huxley to put across his philosophies. However, this is a utopian novel so it is the ideas, perhaps, that matter most. The ending of the book I took to reflect this. Will has the option to listen to Murugan and the Colonel's plans for invasion. Instead he shrugs him off, considering his moksha medicine trip more important. In this regard, Will becomes personally enlightened - but is this at the expense of Pala? The final line is ambiguous. The Mynah birds are still calling, but "a semitone lower".

I also read "Brave New World" to compare the two books. In "Brave New World", society has created what it thinks is a utopia, but it is actually more like a dystopia. "Everybody's happy nowadays...but wouldn't you like to be free to be happy in some other way? In your own way, for example, not in everybody else's way". 

"I'm claiming the right to be unhappy" says the Savage character near the end. It's a novel about what it means to be happy. Do you accept someone else's definition of happiness, or do try and work it out yourself - but suffer in the process? It is fascinating because a society has been created that aims to please everyone; the individual is no longer relevant because humans have understood what it means to be happy and can create a world without old age or ignorance or unhappiness. Isn't that a good thing? This is the philosophical dilemma in the book. It is brilliantly written, and the themes and issues raised are profound and unsettling. I liked this passage below. It is poetically written, but also contains the crux of the philosophy within the book. 

How similar to you does this passage sound to our digital age today? Are we heading into a Brave New World, and what are the implications if we are?

(the characters are contemplating....) "the lovely music that came out of a box, and all the nice games you could play, and the delicious things to eat and drink, and the light that came when you pressed a little thing in the wall, and the pictures that you could hear and feel and smell, as well as see, and another box for making nice smells, and the pink and green and blue and silver houses as high as mountains, and everybody happy and no one ever sad or angry, and every one belonging to every one else, and the boxes where you could see and hear what was happening at the other side of the world, and babies in lovely clean bottles–everything so clean, and no nasty smells, no dirt at all–and people never lonely, but living together and being so jolly and happy, like the summer dances here in Malpais, but much happier, and the happiness being there every day, every day"

At around this time, I have also been looking into buying a smartphone. Browsing around, I was struck by how similar the advertising language sounded to passages from Brave New World or other dystopian fiction. Have you noticed too? And isn't it a bit chilling how easily these soundbites could be switched around without you really noticing? For example:

1. Current advertising slogans from technology companies

  • "Redefining how your memories live on" - HTC One
  • "Inject life and emotion into your memories" - HTC One
  • "Life companion...Make your life richer, simpler, and more fun".
  • "Each feature was designed to simplify our daily lives.Furthermore, it cares enough to monitor our health and well-being." Samsung Galaxy S4
  • "The Samsung GALAXY S4 is all about ‘togetherness’. It brings people together when they’re apart"
  • "It can suggest TV programs based on what you like....the ultimate productivity device"
  • "Get the current status of your surroundings for your activities with the Samsung GALAXY S4’s Comfort Level. It shows your comfort level based on temperature and humidity".
  • "sound that comes to life" Bang & Olufson

2. Quotes from Brave New World.

  • "every one belongs to every one else" 
  • "No pains have been spared to make your lives emotionally easy" 
  • "Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache" 
  • "Everybody's happy nowadays"
  • "progress is lovely"
  • "people never lonely, but living together and being so jolly and happy"
  • "O brave new world,"

1 comment:

  1. Seemingly another great "Island" book. (The Tempest, The Magus, The invention of Morel are the ones that come to mind, and I'll make an effort not to mention the series Lost, since its nature is not comparable with the books.)
    Adding this to "will read" list. Thanks.