Utopianism – specifically the writing out of a blueprint of a perfect society – has a long and legendary history in our western civilisation. In many ways it’s unique. Other cultures have had visions of heaven, or conceptions of perfect governance – like Confucianism – but only our Greek heritage has launched on a formal flight of fancy to describe a earthly heaven. In many ways Utopianism is the first literary genre, excluding the Greek plays. Either way, Plato’s Republic is a masterful vision; for the ancient Greeks it would have been both tangible and fantastic; it’s a text which covers psychology, education, society, economics, defence, culture…it covers everything.
Over the centuries, our most important texts often take the form of an utopia. I’m thinking of Thomas More’s Utopia (of course), but also Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Ernest Callanbach’s Ecotopia and Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun. I would also include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These are the classics. But the idea of “utopia” has shot through most of our writing on political philosophy and even science fiction. I seriously doubt the universe of fiction would be what it is today without The Republic to introduce the power of fantasy. Even our Robinson Crusoe stories draw upon the idea of an ‘Utopia’.
It’s important to understand that Aldous Huxley’s Island directly draws upon this tradition. In fact, I would say that Island is one of the best examples of the Utopia genre. It’s both an example par excellence, but a remarkably cogent and relevant ‘utopia’, one that has had a big influence on our society.
You see, Huxley is one of the leading intellectual grandfathers of the 1960’s social movements. By no means a hippie, he is indirectly a progenitor of that whole movement. I suspect that a lot of the interest in LSD, Hinduism and Bhuddism got it’s widespread exposure from Huxley’s late work.
Island tells of the story of a cynical English journalist who gets stranded on a the forbidden island of Pala in the south pacific. A generation or two ago, the ruler of the island – a bhuddist – and a Scottish doctor and man of the Enlightenment, worked together to overhaul and completely change this Palanese society.
The result is a mixture of Bhuddist philosophy -with its attending social mores – and Enlightenment, liberal, scientific ideas imported from the West. Thus Pala is the perfect fusion of Eastern and Western society.
One of the strengths of this book is that it’s set in the real world; a world that the reader of today will recognise. Huxley’s lost journalist is complicit in undermining Pala’s utopia; the book ends essentially with Pala’s end as political unit. To me this rings true; all attempts at utopian society in the real world have been ruthlessly crushed. Beyond that, the actual nuts and bolts of Pala strikes me as probably being truely functional in our contemporary society.
For example, Plato’s Republic is envisioned as a small city-state – maybe 20,000 people at the outside. It’s aristocratic and seems a bit facist by our standards. And while Plato’s ideas echo down to us today when we think of idea societies, it clearly has no reliance to 2016 America. Island, however, does. It addresses modern social malaise; overpopulation, capitalism, militarism, nihilism; it tackles the whole bag and has reasonable solutions to most of it. Huxley addresses the problems and needs of our society.
Published in 1963, it is late Huxley: the Huxley very interested in LSD and what it could do to expand human consciousness. And while I suspect that he overvalues LSD or hallucinogenic experiences in general – I think that his larger point that drug use under the proper and socially profitable circumstances is a good thing and can really help people come to better understand themselves and their world. Huxley isn’t really a great author – not like, say, a Tolstoy or a Conrad. No, he’s a technically competent author attached to an immensely civilised thinker and public intellectual.
The final point to make here is that Island is a counter point to Huxley’s major work: Brave New World. While BNW depicts a likely industrial dystopia; Island was specifically written to answer the problems of BNW. It’s Huxley’s vision of a way out.
We need more of that in our world, this world of ours which isn’t going very well these days.