The Island is #21 in Jordan Peterson’s list of 100 great books.
“Nice comfortable people just don’t have any idea what the world is like.”
Will Farnaby is a cynical, depressed, neurotic but witty journalist who works for a rich man he despises (the average westerner, basically).
His worldview changes drastically when he is shipwrecked on the forbidden island of Pala.
According to the locals, Pala is exempt from the horrors that the rest of the world considers inevitable — war, poverty, depression, addictions, late night infomercials. The Palanese have taken the best of Eastern and Western ideas, filtered out the corrosive, and infused it with their own brand of laid-back Buddhism. The result is the “happiest” society in the world. The Palanese have protected themselves from external influences for 150 years.
But not for much longer…
Farnaby, who has his dark reasons for coming here, sojourns in the island, while his curiosity and the locals’ willingness to show him around results in a thorough exploration of their way of life.
If you are a policymaker in your country, here are some of the Palanese initiatives that you can implement. There is no guarantee that they will be beneficial, but after trying the Moksha medicine I don’t think the locals will care that much.
Pala’s version of ayahuasca. Aids the Palanese in their self-discovery.
“Liberation,” Dr. Robert began again, “the ending of sorrow, ceasing to be what you ignorantly think you are and becoming what you are in fact. For a little while, thanks to the moksha-medicine, you will know what it’s like to be what in fact you are, what in fact you always have been”
“Take four hundred milligrams of moksha-medicine and find out for yourself what it does, what it can tell you about your own nature, about this strange world you’ve got to live in, learn in, suffer in, and finally die in. Yes, even you will have to die one day—maybe fifty years from now, maybe tomorrow. Who knows? But it’s going to happen, and one’s a fool if one doesn’t prepare for it.” ”
Mynah birds are trained to repeat “attention, attention, attention” to remind the population to live in the present.
It’s through awareness, complete and constant awareness, that we transform it into concrete spirituality. Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”
Pala’s medicine is preventive.
“We’ve been asking that question for a hundred years, and we’ve found a lot of answers. Chemical answers, psychological answers, answers in terms of what you eat, how you make love, what you see and hear, how you feel[…]”
“So whether it’s prevention or whether it’s cure, we attack on all the fronts at once. All the fronts,” she insisted, “from diet to autosuggestion, from negative ions to meditation.”
They focus on practical lessons and are not afraid to show children the reality of life.
“Discouraging children from taking words too seriously, teaching them to analyze whatever they hear or read—this is an integral part of the school curriculum. Result: the eloquent rabble-rouser, like Hitler or our neighbor across the Strait, Colonel Dipa, just doesn’t have a chance here in Pala.”
“You never saw anybody dying, and you never saw anybody having a baby. How did you get to know things?”
“In the school I went to,” he said, “we never got to know things, we only got to know words.” (Will commenting on Western education).
“Psychology, Mendelism, Evolution—your education seems to be heavily biological,” said Will.
“It is,” Mr. Menon agreed. “Our primary emphasis isn’t on physics and chemistry; it’s on the sciences of life.”
“Reading Plato or listening to a lecture on T. S. Eliot doesn’t educate the whole human being; like courses in physics or chemistry, it merely educates the symbol manipulator and leaves the rest of the living mind-body in its pristine state of ignorance and ineptitude. Hence all those pathetic and repulsive creatures that so astonished me on my first trip abroad.”
“What about formal education?” Will now asked. “What about indispensable information and the necessary intellectual skills? Do you teach the way we do?”“We teach the way you’re probably going to teach in another ten or fifteen years. Take mathematics, for example. Historically mathematics began with the elaboration of useful tricks, soared up into metaphysics and finally explained itself in terms of structure and logical transformations. In our schools we reverse the historical process. We begin with structure and logic; then, skipping the metaphysics, we go on from general principles to particular applications.”
Western philosophers, even “the best of them—they’re nothing more than good talkers. Eastern philosophers are often rather bad talkers, but that doesn’t matter. Talk isn’t the point. Their philosophy is pragmatic and operational. Like the philosophy of modern physics—except that the operations in question are psychological and the results transcendental. Your metaphysicians make statements about the nature of man and the universe; but they don’t offer the reader any way of testing the truth of those statements. When we make statements, we follow them up with a list of operations that can be used for testing the validity of what we’ve been saying.
“Whenever the parental Home Sweet Home becomes too unbearable, the child is allowed, is actively encouraged—and the whole weight of public opinion is behind the encouragement—to migrate to one of its other homes.”
“How many homes does a Palanese child have?”
“About twenty on the average.”
“Twenty? My God!”
“We all belong,” Susila explained, “to an MAC—a Mutual Adoption Club. Every MAC consists of anything from fifteen to twenty-five assorted couples. Newly elected brides and bridegrooms, old-timers with growing children, grandparents and great-grandparents—everybody in the club adopts everyone else. Besides our own blood relations, we all have our quota of deputy mothers, deputy fathers, deputy aunts and uncles, deputy brothers and sisters, deputy babies and toddlers and teen-agers.”
Will shook his head. “Making twenty families grow where only one grew before.”
“But what grew before was your kind of family. The twenty are all our kind.” As though reading instructions from a cookery book, “Take one sexually inept wage slave,” she went on, “one dissatisfied female, two or (if preferred) three small television addicts; marinate in a mixture of Freudism and dilute Christianity; then bottle up tightly in a four-room flat and stew for fifteen years in their own juice. Our recipe is rather different: Take twenty sexually satisfied couples and their offspring; add science, intuition and humor in equal quantities; steep in Tantrik Buddhism and simmer indefinitely in an open pan in the open air over a brisk flame of affection[…]”
“But, although we have plenty, we’ve managed to resist the temptation that the West has now succumbed to—the temptation to overconsume. We don’t give ourselves coronaries by guzzling six times as much saturated fat as we need. We don’t hypnotize ourselves into believing that two television sets will make us twice as happy as one television set. And finally we don’t spend a quarter of the gross national product preparing for World War III or even World War’s baby brother, Local War MMMCCCXXXIII. Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and moneylenders were abolished, you’d collapse. ”
“Aren’t you supposed to be intellectuals?” Will asked when the two men had emerged again and were drying themselves.
“We do intellectual work,” Vijaya answered.
“Then why all this horrible honest toil?”
“For a very simple reason: this morning I had some spare time.”
“So did I,” said Dr. Robert.
“So you went out into the fields and did a Tolstoy act.”
Vijaya laughed. “You seem to imagine we do it for ethical reasons.”
“Certainly not. I do muscular work, because I have muscles; and if I don’t use my muscles I shall become a bad-tempered sitting-addict.”
“With nothing between the cortex and the buttocks,” said Dr. Robert. “Or rather with everything—but in a condition of complete unconsciousness and toxic stagnation. Western intellectuals are all sitting-addicts. That’s why most of you are so repulsively unwholesome. In the past even a duke had to do a lot of walking, even a moneylender, even a metaphysician. And when they weren’t using their legs, they were jogging about on horses. Whereas now, from the tycoon to his typist, from the logical positivist to the positive thinker, you spend nine tenths of your time on foam rubber. Spongy seats for spongy bottoms—at home, in the office, in cars and bars, in planes and trains and buses. No moving of legs, no struggles with distance and gravity—just lifts and planes and cars, just foam rubber and an eternity of sitting. The life force that used to find an outlet through striped muscle gets turned back on the viscera and the nervous system, and slowly destroys them.”
“So you take to digging and delving as a form of therapy?”
“As prevention—to make therapy unnecessary. In Pala even a professor, even a government official, generally puts in two hours of digging and delving each day.”
“Nobody enjoys a monopoly,” Dr. Robert assured him. “There’s a panel of editors representing half a dozen different parties and interests. Each of them gets his allotted space for comment and criticism. The reader’s in a position to compare their arguments and make up his own mind. I remember how shocked I was the first time I read one of your big-circulation newspapers. The bias of the headlines, the systematic one-sidedness of the reporting and the commentaries, the catchwords and slogans instead of argument. No serious appeal to reason. Instead, a systematic effort to install conditioned reflexes in the minds of the voters—and, for the rest, crime, divorce, anecdotes, twaddle, anything to keep them distracted, anything to prevent them from thinking.”
“When I was twenty,” Vijaya now volunteered, “I put in four months at that cement plant—and after that ten weeks making superphosphates and then six months in the jungle, as a lumberjack.”
“All this ghastly honest toil!”
“Twenty years earlier,” said Dr. Robert, “I did a stint at the copper smelters. “After which I had a taste of the sea on a fishing boat. Sampling all kinds of work—it’s part of everybody’s education. One learns an enormous amount that way—about things and skills and organizations, about all kinds of people and their ways of thinking.”
Will shook his head. “I’d still rather get it out of a book.”
“But what you can get out of a book is never it. At bottom,” Dr. Robert added, “all of you are still ”
“We produce all we need and a surplus for export.”
“And those villages supply the manpower?”
“In the intervals of agriculture and work in the forest and the sawmills.”
“Does that kind of part-time system work well?”
“It depends what you mean by ‘well.’ It doesn’t result in maximum efficiency. But then in Pala maximum efficiency isn’t the categorical imperative that it is with you. You think first of getting the biggest possible output in the shortest possible time. We think first of human beings and their satisfactions. Changing jobs doesn’t make for the biggest output in the fewest days. But most people like it better than doing one kind of job all their lives. If it’s a choice between mechanical efficiency and human satisfaction, we choose satisfaction.”
Rites of passage
When kids finish school they do rock-climbing. Once they reach the top of the mountain wall they have their first taste of the Moksha medicine.
“An ordeal,” Dr. Robert explained, “which is the first stage of their initiation out of childhood into adolescence. An ordeal that helps them to understand the world they’ll have to live in, helps them to realize the omnipresence of death, the essential precariousness of all existence. But after the ordeal comes the revelation. In a few minutes these boys and girls will be given their first experience of the moksha-medicine. They’ll all take it together, and there’ll be a religious ceremony in the temple.”
“Something like the Confirmation Service?”
“Except that this is more than just a piece of theological rigmarole. Thanks to the moksha-medicine, it includes an actual experience of the real thing.”
“The real thing?” Will shook his head. “Is there such a thing? I wish I could believe it.”
“You’re not being asked to believe it,” said Dr. Robert. “The real thing isn’t a proposition; it’s a state of being. We don’t teach our children creeds or get them worked up over emotionally charged symbols. “When it’s time for them to learn the deepest truths of religion, we set them to climb a precipice and then give them four hundred milligrams of revelation. Two firsthand experiences of reality, from which any reasonably intelligent boy or girl can derive a very good idea of what’s what.”
“And don’t forget the dear old power problem,” said Vijaya. “Rock climbing’s a branch of applied ethics; it’s another preventive substitute for bullying.”
“Don’t you have any candidates for the asylum?” he asked.”
“Just as many as you have—I mean in proportion to the population. At least that’s what the textbook says.”
“So living in a sensible world doesn’t seem to make any difference.”
“Not to the people with the kind of body chemistry that’ll turn them into psychotics. They’re born vulnerable. Little troubles that other people hardly notice can bring them down. We’re just beginning to find out what it is that makes them so vulnerable. We’re beginning to be able to spot them in advance of a breakdown. And once they’ve been spotted, we can do something to raise their resistance. Prevention again—and, of course, on all the fronts at once.”
“And it does make it easier,” Ranga confirmed. “And that’s the whole point of maithuna. It’s not the special technique that turns love-making into yoga; it’s the kind of awareness that the technique makes possible. Awareness of one’s sensations and awareness of the not-sensation in every sensation.”
Then there’s our economic system: it doesn’t permit anybody to become more than four or five times as rich as the average. That means that we don’t have any captains of industry or omnipotent financiers. Better still, we have no omnipotent politicians or bureaucrats. Pala’s a federation of self-governing units, geographical units, professional units, economic units—so there’s plenty of scope for small-scale initiative and democratic leaders, but no place for any kind of dictator at the head of a centralized government.
In the course of my prison visiting I’d begun to see evidence of some kind of a built-in pattern—or rather of two kinds of built-in patterns; for dangerous delinquents and power-loving troublemakers don’t belong to a single species. Most of them, as I was beginning to realize even then, belong to one or other of two distinct and dissimilar species—the Muscle People and the Peter Pans. I’ve specialized in the treatment of Peter Pans.” […]
“I’m trying to think,” said Will, “of a good historical example of a delinquent Peter Pan.”
“You don’t have to go far afield. The most recent, as well as the best and biggest, was Adolf Hitler.”
“Hitler?” Murugan’s tone was one of shocked astonishment. Hitler was evidently one of his heroes.
“Read the Führer’s biography,” said Dr. Robert. “A Peter Pan if ever there was one. Hopeless at school. Incapable either of competing or co-operating. Envying all the normally successful boys—and, because he envied, hating them and, to make himself feel better, despising them as inferior beings. Then came the time for puberty. But Adolf was sexually backward. Other boys made advances to girls, and the girls responded. Adolf was too shy, too uncertain of his manhood. And all the time incapable of steady work, at home only in the compensatory Other World of his fancy. There, at the very least, he was Michelangelo. Here, unfortunately, he couldn’t draw. His only gifts were hatred, low cunning, a set of indefatigable vocal cords and a talent for nonstop talking at the top of his voice from the depths of his Peter-Panic paranoia. Thirty or forty million deaths and heaven knows how many billions of dollars—that was the price the world had to pay for little Adolf’s retarded maturation. Fortunately most of the boys who grow up too slowly never get a chance of being more than minor delinquents. But even minor delinquents, if there are enough of them, can exact a pretty stiff price. That’s why we try to nip them in the bud—or rather, since we’re dealing with Peter Pans, that’s why we try to make their nipped buds open out and grow.”
What is the ideal society? “Definitely not the one I live in” you might think, and perhaps you are right. But is it possible to engineer such a balanced country as Huxley shows in The Island? It’s hard to find a contemporary society that followed their initiatives, so it’s hard to say. And it is very unlikely that any country will follow Pala’s example in the upcoming years, but I do see how some of the Palanese initiatives can improve our lives and communities individually. It goes to show that large economic, and political interests are generally against individual interests.
But Will Farnaby may not be the innocuous foreigner he seems to appear at the beginning, and he could be conspiring with powerful outside forces that are threatening to take Pala hostage to their whims.
Memorable passages from the Island by Aldous Huxley
“Remember what happened when you were a little boy,” Mary Sarojini was saying. “What did your mother do when you hurt yourself?”
She had taken him in her arms, had said, “My poor baby, my poor little baby.”
“She did that?” The child spoke in a tone of shocked amazement. “But that’s awful! That’s the way to rub it in. ‘My poor baby,’” she repeated derisively, “it must have gone on hurting for hours. And you’d never forget it.”
“I wouldn’t have thought the Colonel was newsworthy. “You’re mistaken. He’s a military dictator. That means there’s death in the offing. And death is always news. Even the remote smell of death is news.”
“What’s he like?” “The physique of a Messiah. But too clever to believe in God or be convinced of his own mission. And too sensitive, even if he were convinced, to carry it out. His muscles would like to act and his feelings would like to believe; but his nerve endings and his cleverness won’t allow it.”
“Conflicts and frustrations—the theme of all history and almost all biography. “I show you sorrow,” said the Buddha realistically. But he also showed the ending of sorrow—self-knowledge, total acceptance, the blessed experience of Not-Two.”
“The more a man knows about individual objects, the more he knows about God. Translating Spinoza’s language into ours, we can say: The more a man knows about himself in relation to every kind of experience, the greater his chance of suddenly, one fine morning, realizing who in fact he is”
“What a spiritual way of saying, This is what I want to happen! Not as I will but as God wills—and by a happy coincidence God’s will and mine are always identical.”
“Were you ever interested in power?” he asked after a moment of silence.”
“How difficult it is,” said Will, “to understand another man’s vices! “You’re right. Everybody should stick to the insanity that God has seen fit to curse him with. Pecca fortiter*—that was Luther’s advice. But make a point of sinning your own sins, not someone else’s. And above all don’t do what the people of this island do. Don’t try to behave as though you were essentially sane and naturally good. We’re all demented sinners in the same cosmic boat—and the boat is perpetually sinking.”
*Pecca Fortiter is translated as “sin without fear,” or “sin bravely.”
“So beware of being too rational. In the country of the insane, the integrated man doesn’t become king.”
“Why can’t criminals be frank about what they’re up to? All this disgusting idealistic hogwash—it makes one vomit.”
“What’s that phrase of Spinoza’s that they quote in the applied philosophy book? ‘Make the body capable of doing many things,’” she recited. “‘This will help you to perfect the mind and so to come to the intellectual love of God.’”
“Me as I think I am and me as I am in fact—sorrow, in other words, and the ending of sorrow. One third, more or less, of all the sorrow that the person I think I am must endure is unavoidable. It is the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we must pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world wholly indifferent to our well-being, toward decrepitude and the certainty of death. The remaining two thirds of all sorrow is homemade and, so far as the universe is concerned, unnecessary.”
“In your part of the world doctors get rid of the children by poisoning them with barbiturates. We do it by talking to them about cathedrals and jackdaws.” Her voice had modulated into a chant. “About white clouds floating in the sky, white swans floating on the dark, smooth, irresistible river of life…”
“His ideal was pure experimental science at one end of the spectrum and pure experimental mysticism at the other. Direct experience on every level and then clear, rational statements about those experiences.
“There and then Dr. Andrew accepted the invitation. Partly, of course, for the money; but mostly because he was bored, because he needed a change, needed a taste of adventure. A trip to the Forbidden Island—the lure was irresistible.”
“What one likes most about the universe,” he said to Will Farnaby, “is its wild improbability. Gongylus gongyloides, Homo sapiens, my great-grandfather’s introduction to Pala and hypnosis—what could be more unlikely?”
“But that doesn’t make the experience of the G-Minor Quintet any less rewarding. Well, it’s the same with the kind of experience that you get with the moksha-medicine, or through prayer and fasting and spiritual exercises. ‘
“Crass,” Dr. Robert agreed, “but crass precisely because you’re such inadequate materialists. Abstract materialism—that’s what you profess. Whereas we make a point of being materialists concretely—materialistic on the wordless levels of seeing and touching and smelling, of tensed muscles and dirty hands. Abstract materialism is as bad as abstract idealism; it makes immediate spiritual experience almost impossible. Sampling different kinds of work in concrete materialism is the first, indispensable step in our education for concrete spirituality.”
“Hitler’s the supreme example of the delinquent Peter Pan. Stalin’s the supreme example of the delinquent Muscle Man. Predestined, by his shape, to be an extravert. Not one of your soft, round, spill-the-beans extraverts who pine for indiscriminate togetherness. No—the trampling, driving extravert, the one who always feels impelled to Do Something and is never inhibited by doubts or qualms, by sympathy or sensibility. In his will, Lenin advised his successors to get rid of Stalin: the man was too fond of power and too apt to abuse it. But the advice came too late. Stalin was already so firmly entrenched that he couldn’t be ousted. Ten years later his power was absolute. Trotsky had been scotched; all his old friends had been bumped off. Now, like God among the choiring angels, he was alone in a cozy little heaven peopled only by flatterers and yes-men. And all the time he was ruthlessly busy, liquidating kulaks, organizing collectives, building an armament industry, shifting reluctant millions from farm to factory. Working with a tenacity, a lucid efficiency of which the German Peter Pan, with his apocalyptic phantasies and his fluctuating moods, was utterly incapable. “And in the last phase of the war, compare Stalin’s strategy with Hitler’s. Cool calculation pitted against compensatory daydreams, clear-eyed realism ”
“The answer depends on where you happen to be domiciled. For example, what are boys and girls for in America? Answer: for mass consumption. And the corollaries of mass consumption are mass communications, mass advertising, mass opiates in the form of television, meprobamate, positive thinking and cigarettes.
“I was thinking of two people I met last time I was in England. At Cambridge. One of them was an atomic physicist, the other was a philosopher. Both extremely eminent. But one had a mental age, outside the laboratory, of about eleven and the other was a compulsive eater with a weight problem that he refused to face. Two extreme examples of what happens when you take a clever boy, give him fifteen years of the most intensive formal education and totally neglect to do anything for the mind-body which has to do the learning and the living.”
“Sunsets and death; death and therefore kisses; kisses and consequently birth and then death for yet another generation of sunset watchers.”