18 February 2008

Huxley's 'Island'

Shiva Nataraja
"Nataraja at play among the stars and in the atoms. But also," he added, "also at play within every living thing, every sentient creature, every child and man and woman. Play for play's sake. But now the playground is conscious, the dance floor is capable of suffering. To us, this play without purpose seems a kind of insult. What we would really like is a God who never destroys what he has created. Or if there must be pain and death, let them be meted out by a God of righteousness, who will punish the wicked and reward the good with everlasting happiness. But in fact the good get hurt, the innocent suffer. Then let there be a God who sympathizes and brings comfort. But Nataraja only dances. His play is a play impartially of death and of life, of all evils as well as of all goods."

- Island, p205

In my experience, the greatest works of art (or at least those which I consider the greatest, everything here being the result of my highly subjective personal opinion) have in them in the ability to create distinctly opposing impressions in the viewer/reader. One finds oneself presented with the view of human existence as ultimately insufferable, bleak and possibly meaningless and yet, at the same time, vastly beautiful with the possibility of self-transcendence.

On the usage of entheogens (referred to as 'moksha-medicine'):

"You're assuming," said Dr. Robert, "that the brain produces consciousness. I'm assuming that it transmits consciousness. And my explanation is no more farfetched than yours. How on earth can a set of events belonging to one order be experienced as a set of events belonging to an entirely different and incommensurable order? Nobody has the faintest idea. All one can do is accept the facts and concoct hypotheses. And one hypothesis is just about as good, philosophically speaking, as another. You say that the moksha-medicine does something to the silent areas of the brain which causes them to produce a set of subjective events to which people have given the name 'mystical experience.' I say that the moksha-medicine does something to the silent areas of the brain which opens some kind of neurological sluice and so allows a larger volume of Mind with a large 'M' to flow into your mind with a small 'm'."

- Island, p168

I often wonder if this has something to do with the fact that, in its highest forms, art has the capability to offer us an experience of reality that is unadulterated by the filter of our intellectual mind - which compulsively compartmentalizes and verbally labels every facet of human experience. I think that art can potentially offer us an experience that is beyond our mundane dualistic experience by unifying opposites in a greater whole - reminding us that they way our intellect perceives things may not necessarily be the only way, nor is it a complete apprehension of reality and experience. In short, I think that art offers us a glimpse of the totality of human experience.

On living in the present:

"No Alcatrazes here," she said. "No Billy Grahams or Mao Tse-tungs or Madonnas of Fatima. No hells on earth and no Christian pie in the sky, no Communist pie in the twenty-second century. Just men and women and their children trying to make the best of the here and now, instead of living somewhere else, as you people mostly do, in some other time, some other homemade imaginary universe. And it really isn't your fault. You're almost compelled to live that way because the present is so frustrating. And it's frustrating because you've never been taught how to bridge the gap between theory and practice, between your New Year's resolutions and your actual behaviour."

- Island, p114

I mention all this because I have just finished reading Aldous Huxley's final novel, Island and it provoked such a response from me. I was deeply moved by it, but in equal parts I felt both hope and despair with regards to humanity and its potential. Somewhere along the line, I got tired of reading dystopian fiction in the vein of We and thought it would be nice to pick up a book that dealt with a utopian society for a change. I was a little worried that such a novel would be excessively preachy and unrealistic, and while Island seemed to show small signs of these in the beginning, I have to say that by the end it all works out remarkably well. Utopianism viewed through the eyes of a world-weary cynical protagonist, who struggles to reconcile the joys of a simple life with the "Essential Horror" of death and human suffering. Huxley leaves no stone unturned in this argument - nor does he offer a solid, final answer; just a series of very interesting possibilities. Which is really what I liked best about this book. On the fictional island of Pala, human society manages to find a balance between hedonism and asceticism, between the philosophies of East and West, between science and religion.

On faith:

"Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalysed words much too seriously. Paul's words, Mohammed's words, Marx's words, Hitler's words - people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history - sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending to the victims of their own church's inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief."

- Island, p43

Island manages to be beautifully idealistic but with it's feet on solid ground. Not for a moment is any tenet of Palanese philosophy left untested or unchallenged. It really does seem like a lot of the material from this book comes from Huxley's personal life experience (and that makes me wonder just how incredible his own life must have been). Because it isn't just a nice collection of thoughts about what reality should, could or might be, but rather the book is an active dialogue between living life in a holistic manner versus the constant experience of anxiety and despair through an inability to deal with transience and sorrow. As per the Four Noble Truths, sorrow exists. But so does the ending of sorrow.


posted by Abigail at

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