Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Here and Now

It seems appropriate that I would follow up a less-known book from Orwell with a less-known book from Huxley.  People generally speak of the two in the same breath, thanks to the similarities between their best-known works, "1984" and "Brave New World."  Being obstinate, I'm drawn more to the differences between the men and the (rather profound) differences between those books, but that's probably too tangential even for me to get into here.

So: "Island" was Huxley's last novel.  I thought it was pretty good.  If I had read it during high school, though, I would have thought that it was AMAZING.  It has the kind of free-wheeling, mind-expanding, thought-provoking, consciousness-expanding sensibility that I was addicted to at that time.  There's a nominal story here, but almost all of the book is devoted to plumbing the questions of practical philosophy: how a person should live, the best way to raise children, how a healthy society would behave, how we can approach life and death, and similar weighty issues.  If you've ever read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" or "Ishmael," it's very much of a piece with those.

As usual, Huxley was ahead of his time.  The book was published in 1962: before The Beatles formed, before the SDS, before the Summer of Love and flower children.  The values taught by this book completely fit with the morals of the late-60's hippie, though.  The book preaches the union of Eastern values with Western knowledge, Buddhist attitudes with English science.  It promotes (occasional) drug use as a gateway to deeper understanding (which, I'm guessing, kept this book from being included on the Junior Seminar reading list).  It's against oil exploitation, against imperialism, against multinational corporations, against military dictators, against organized religion, against any absolute doctrine.  It's for casual family arrangements, for birth control, for early sex education, for spirituality, for natural medicine.

After reading this book, I really want to go back and re-read Brave New World, which I think I last read in high school.  I kind of get the impression that Huxley changed his mind about some issues between that book, which was written about thirty years earlier, and this one.  In BNW, soma was bad, a drug that kept people docile and harmless; here, the moksha-medicine is good, a drug that empowers people to reach self-actualization.  In BNW, early sex ed seemed horrible; here, it seems rational, and its absence becomes horrible.  That said, I may be missing some distinctions or mis-remembering those parts of BNW.

Of course, I also may be missing the point of either or both books.  It's natural to assume that an author's prejudices are the same as the narrators, but that isn't always the case.  I remember my great shock at reading Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" after reading his "Stranger in a Strange Land," and realizing that those two utterly opposite moral philosophies flowed from the same mind.  BNW's morality was always ambiguous, anyways.  (Uh-oh, I think I'm sliding into that tangent now...)  In 1984, there was a very clear sense of and source of evil: Big Brother and the Party had seized power and were oppressing the people with absolutist technological control over everything.  In BNW, though, the future system feels much more organic.  There's no single villain, no overarching sinister plot.  Most terrifying of all, in BNW you get the sense (or at least, I got the sense fifteen years ago) that the people had done it to themselves... people had developed new technology, embraced the things that made life easier and more pleasurable, and ended up with that book's system.  I can point at that and say that it's bad, but from Huxley's perspective, it may have just seemed inevitable.

In contrast, the system shown in The Island is extremely fragile.  It has become self-perpetuating, but arose out of serendipity, and the islanders must guard themselves against the outside world, which has the capability to crush what they have.  Or at least to try.  The ultimate hope of The Island is that, by embracing changes in your personal life, you can change your relationship with the world; even when horrible things happen, you can save yourself from hopeless despair.  It isn't a "don't worry, be happy" sort of philosophy.  Instead, it urges people to really see, to really pay attention, to the actual, physical experiences around them.  Then, having paid attention, to understand and explain them.  Tell yourself a story that makes sense of those experiences, and so put yourself in the best possible world.

Like I said, I would have eaten this up in high school.  Now, I enjoy reading it and certainly agree with parts of it, but seriously doubt that any long-term changes will occur as a result.

Pick up Island if you're looking for some cool hippie philosophy.  Pass if you want a sequel to Brave New World.  It's a good read, but frankly not much of a story.

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