Island by Aldous Huxley
Island by Aldous Huxley is the lesser known cousin of his two more famous psychedelic essays The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell and brilliantly demonstrates his own unique understanding of the role of psychedelics in society in fictional form. First published in 1962, it is, on the one hand, a synthesis of Eastern philosophy and Western science and, on the other, a bubbling narrative, thick with social reflection and psychedelic idea.
For psychedelic literature the book represents the familiar ground of utopian vision but yet simultaneously acknowledges a pessimistic realism that is often lacking in other psychedelic works of literature. A construct that was later used, very successfully, by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where the dystopia is threaded through our everyday world.
The protagonist of the Island is Will Farnaby; a journalist who is in search of oil reserves on the island state of Pala. He discovers a utopian oasis that has crafted itself into an idealistic culture that has based its structure on a synthesis of Western science and Eastern philosophy. Beautifully written passages on education, behaviour and the workings of society in Pala manage to portray relatively complex ideas in a lucid and entertaining manner.
Whilst some critics, including Huxley himself, have said that the narrative is often too swamped in philosophical idea, there remains a driving discourse that leads the reader skilfully through the book. The discourse itself is as relevant today as it was fifty, or even a hundred, years ago – the discourse of industrial modernity and the tradition of nature. Yet, with the meta-theme of the psychedelic experience underlying he whole narrative.
As Will is slowly shown the structural workings of the society he begins to fall for its idealism, which puts him at odds with his oil-laden premise for being in Pala: the acuteness of which leads inextricably to the finale of the novel. But what makes Island a work of psychedelic literature as opposed to being just another polemic on industrial complex capitalism?
On the surface one would immediately say that the use of the Palanese moksha-medicine, made from a local toadstool, as part of the local culture conjoins the ideas of utopianism and psychedelia but the meaning is far deeper. When taken in conjunction with other Palanese applied ideas like maithuna, or the ‘yoga of love’, you can see that the psychedelic element of the society, indeed of the novel, is the psychonaut tendency toward healing: both individual and social.
The psychonaut tendency is proliferated throughout by the use of self-examination on the part of Palanese education and re-examination on the part of Will Farnaby himself. Objective symbology is pushed to one side as a human consequence, or inevitability, and in its place is thrust a subjective realism from which an individual may depart for a time from their everyday belief and behaviour.
Island is a real gem of a novel and I can’t recommend it enough; its pivotal role in drug texts of the 1960s will come as no surprise when one delves into its pages. Great read, not only for those who enjoy psychedelic literature but for anyone who has an interest in politics, philosophy, sociology or just simply, quality writing – which of course Aldous Huxley has in bundles.