Monday, March 23, 2015

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Aldous Huxley, Island

Aldous Huxley, Island
Harper & Row, 1962

As I read ‘Island’ I thought, “Wow, this is just the book for the world as it is right now” -- and I assume that readers have felt that way for all of the fifty-plus years this book has been in print.

‘Island’ is a tribute to the care and attention that is possible even now, as Big Oil, Wanton Destruction, Fake Spirituality and Sheer Nonsense roll in with their final victory, their FINAL final victory, bigger even than yesterday’s final victory.  Appreciation and real care remain not just possible but inescapable -- at least for those who are paying attention.

This book is intensely full: so many ideas, griefs, hopes, plans, theories, varieties of mischief.  It’s easy to imagine Huxley, terminally ill by this time, saying, “What the hell!  I’m putting it all in.”  Thus it’s natural that ‘Island’ succeeds far better as a mass of ideas, passions and energy than as a traditional plotted novel.  Seamlessness and efficiency are not the point.

I enjoyed this book a lot, was glad I read it, and this is despite loathing the first chapter, disliking the second, and thinking, “Oh, no.  Oh, God.  He must have been fond of D.H. Lawrence.”  (Yep, I guessed right...)  When, in the midst of the drama, we are treated to 35 pages on Huxley’s educational theories, I wanted to say, “Aldous!  Dude!  Reconsider!”

I ended up cheering the book because Huxley is so daring and so determined to include everything -- death, disease, loss, fury, grief, as well as five dozen theories, and the nature of ultimate reality -- you know, in case you had any lingering doubts about the nature of ultimate reality.  A dying man, he clearly used this book to instruct himself how to die.  To me, that’s stunning.

One more thing: nowadays it often seems that Huxley is the private property of New Age spiritual types -- after all, Eckhart Tolle refers to this book.  Thus, I was surprised to discover that there is nothing Huxley is better at than exposing the delusions, self-aggrandizement and sheer madness of self-proclaimed spiritual people.  Chapter 5, with its scary and hilarious portrait of the Rani, is the crown jewel of this novel.  I assume that Huxley meant to lampoon Theosophical types, as well as the devout ladies who clustered around the Vedanta Society in the mid-20th century.  I was chagrined to discover that the Rani seemed exactly like many of today’s New Agers and Neo-Advaitins.  (Like Huxley, I attempt to navigate contemporary Buddhist and Hindu traditions without becoming either nuts or a jerk.  It ain’t easy.)  To judge from Huxley’s portrait of the Rani, it appears that self-delusion has not needed to learn any new tricks -- the old tricks still work just fine.

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