By Aldous Huxley
384 pp. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. $17.
“Attention!” This is exactly the kind of book the world needs right now, perhaps more relevant today than it was upon its publication in 1962.
Looking out the window, at the smoke-filled skies, the streets full of protesters, the degradation of social and democratic norms, one can’t help but feel we’re on a precipice of sorts. Every day seems to bring with it more horrors than the last. Who can help but look ahead and grimace at the thought of what is still to come?
Imagine that last year at this time you got a glimpse into the world of today, a view onto the marches and the masks, at the division tearing at us all. It would be horrifying, to say the least. It’s perhaps even more horrifying that today, we’re almost used to it. We’ve become exhausted by it all, desensitized. We can’t move but are paralyzed and rubbed so raw by the actions taking place all around us that we can only sprawl, exhausted and immobile, at the damage being done.
I saw a gif the other day of a woman stepping out of her house only to see government buildings exploding in front of her in a scene out of the 1996 film “Independence Day.” She nonchalantly waves it off and goes back inside.
You’ll see a lot of criticism of “Island” based on the fact that many believe it to not be a “novel” at all. But how would they know? What is a novel, anyway? Is Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” novels? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s largely autobiographical “My Struggle” series novels?
The concept of the novel has been evolving as long as the novel itself has existed. You can find valid arguments that the works of Homer really aren’t novels, that Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” isn’t a novel, and so on.
Is “Island” really a philosophical treatise masquerading as a novel? So what if it is? What is a “novel” if not something needing to be said packaged as something else? I don’t think “Island” should be judged harshly on that account. Rather, the general definition of a novel is that of an at least vaguely fictional premise and/or fictional characters. By that standard, “Island” more than fits.
Throw in the fact that “Island” is as captivating as anything you might find on the “Fiction” shelf at your local bookstore, and I’d say that “Island” is a successful “novel,” all the more so because it leaves you changed, or at least gives you something to think about.
Here, Aldous Huxley imagines a utopian society and the threat that encroachment from the outside world presents to it. To my mind, Huxley diagnoses what ills modern society perfectly. Largely, materialism and dogmatism, particularly as it concerns religion.
There are so many absolutely brilliant exchanges throughout the book, but one of my favorites comes in the form of children in a field who are controlling scarecrows in an effort to protect the land. The scarecrows have all been created in the likenesses of various deities.
Will Farnaby, our shipwrecked capitalist who’s washed ashore on this strange utopian landscape asks his hosts what the purpose of such a display is.
We “wanted to make the children understand that all gods are homemade, and that it’s we who pull their strings and so give them the power to pull ours.”
In another exchange, corporal punishment is criticized as destroying children’s creativity.
“Major premise: God is wholly other. Minor premise: man is totally depraved. Conclusion: Do to your children’s bottoms what was done to yours, what your Heavenly Father has been doing to the collective bottom of humanity ever since the fall: whip, whip, whip!”
In short, “A people’s theology reflects the state of its children’s bottoms.”
I could quote this book all day, there is so very much to take away. But perhaps nothing more so than that which is repeated ad infinitum by Pala’s mynah birds.
“Attention! Attention! Here and now, boys!”
It may be that, right now, we’re on the precipice of something great, or something horrible. It may be that, years from now, we’ll have the ability to look back and say that we had already tipped over the edge of that precipice and that today, September 25, 2020, we were already falling fast down the other side.
Regardless of which side of the divide we may be on, looking ahead or looking back is futile.
The only thing we can do is take action and pay attention to the here and now.