TAC Bookshelf for the Week of April 30
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor: Author Aldous Huxley’s idea of Hell on Earth was the World State, otherwise known as London, dateline 2540, in his famous dystopian clarion call, Brave New World. But less recognized is Huxley’s perception of Heaven on Earth. In Island, Huxley conjures a lush counterweight to the totalitarian state of BNW, under which test tube babies are socially engineered for ultimate subservience to the state. But if you’re expecting the kind of jarring narrative—part sci-fi, part dark satire—of Huxley’s 1932 masterwork, you’ll be disappointed. Island is the culmination of its creator’s long journey of spiritual, intellectual and social exploration and reads like it. The best way to approach this is like a textbook: the characters and setting are interestingly drawn, but serve mainly as vessels for Huxley’s utopian libations, or better yet his moksha mushrooms, the ultimate deliverer of psychic enlightenment and understanding.
But first, we must put Island into context. As an Eton-bred, young social satirist in 1930, Huxley wanted to “pull the leg” of his friend (and brilliant novelist) H.G. Wells (In the Days of the Comet, A Modern Utopia) for his early 20th century immersion in utopian themes. Brave New World was supposed to be a parody but instead became a powerful harbinger of what Huxley’s current Europe—ravaged by economic depression, war, Stalinism, fascism—may become. His totalitarianism, unlike George Orwell’s 1984more than a decade later, subjugated the masses by indoctrinating them in over-consumption, hyper-sexualization and the elimination of personal identity and family. This “velvet glove” of tyranny would become an urgent warning in much of Huxley’s writing and intellectual ruminations until his death. His 1958 interview with Mike Wallace is eerie—so much of what Huxley had predicted about this type of modern servility would be true within a generation.
By 1960 when he began Island, Huxley was dying of cancer. A universalist, he and his wife were already quite connected with the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta and its associations in southern California. He was openly testing the psychosomatic benefits of LSD and other mind altering drugs, as detailed in his bestselling The Doors of Perception. Here, the author experiments with mescaline for one day in 1952, which he calls a “gratuitous grace.” With the acuity of a social scientist, Huxley surmises that for the intellectual, a mescaline “trip” offers transcendence stripped of self, symbols and language, which often obscure the path to heightened understanding. He was a man ahead of his time.
Thus, Island. The main character, Will Farnaby is an uptight, chronically depressed Brit who one imagines is sort of a young Huxley young alter-ego. His sex life is is both a source of guilt and boredom, and his emotional impotence makes him tragically non-committal. Farnaby grew up in a puritanical, emotionally abusive Anglican household and is working for a cynical predatory corporate magnate who sends him on a mission to find “Pala,” a near-forbidden island that has so far, resisted corporate drilling of its rich oil reserves. Pala is a paradise and everything the World State is not, the utopian ideal of Pyotr Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism. There is no powerful centralized state, rather local economies and self-governing units in full ownership of resources, trade, and education. The religion, unsurprisingly, is a complicated mix of Buddhism and Vedanta, with plenty of mysticism threaded throughout. The philosophy is a “higher utilitarianism”—which Huxley once described as the belief “in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle—the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: ‘How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?'”
In Pala, there is population (self) control to keep resources plentiful and social strife to a minimum, but not for state control, like in BNW; sex is used for meditation, not social distraction, and the ugly character traits and impulses of sociopaths, bullies, and egomaniacs have been all but wiped out via a hundred years of strategic artificial insemination and chemical therapy (eugenics!) which is never fully explained in the book. No military, no war, no domestic violence, nor insecurity. Intellectual, physical and spiritual fulfillment service the whole person. Everyone is happy because this type of communal life, rather than cloying, eases individual burdens and smooths out wrinkles. There is rational answer for everything, which the Palanese people mete out at length for Farnaby’s benefit in terribly long disquisitions. Whether the cynical Brit will be won over or ultimately turn over Pala to the oil-grubbing devil and an accompanying Western armageddon is the book’s primary tension.
This is not a story of action, but of reflection. Huxley’s own disgust with capitalism, class, education, modern Christianity and social conformity are in full bloom here, along with the hope, that in another world, these external plagues on man will be left far behind in the rearview of his friend H.G. Wells’s Time Machine.
Island, simply put, is the wish of a dying man. He lived out his days in search of peak enlightenment, and died on November 22, 1963, ironically sharing the afterlife within a matter of hours with his friend, novelist C.S. Lewis, and his adopted country’s president, John F. Kennedy.
Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: I’ve begun reading God’s Own Junkyard, a neat 1964 book by architecture scholar Peter Blake about the “planned deterioration of America’s landscape.” It is actually a broadside against Suburbia—Blake renders it with a capital S—along with neon signs, billboards, FHA-approved tract houses, and the ugliness and environmental degradation that came with all of it.
I have three thoughts about the book so far—I can’t reveal everything, because I’m planning to write at greater length about it. First, reading its mix of barking-up-the-wrong-tree tangents (Blake devotes several early paragraphs to an infernal device that can project advertisements onto the sides of skyscrapers or the walls of the Grand Canyon) and prescient insights (he understood the basic sprawling, rootless nature of suburbia long before the construction was even finished) makes for entertaining reading more than 50 years out. Reading old social criticism is almost like reading science fiction.
Second, this book, though somewhat forgotten, is obviously the source of a lot of what we talk about now. Blake is at times Kunstler-esque (or perhaps it’s the other way around), and his urging ordinary Americans to learn more about neighborhood and street design calls to mind the New Urbanist movement. Whether today’s critics of suburbia have read Blake himself or not, they repeat him often (and that’s a good thing!)
Third is a more policy-related thought that touches on a claim some of our writers have made before: that suburbia is substantially a project of the federal government. This is a controversial claim, and it must have been even more controversial in the days of Eisenhower, post-war free enterprise, and the Cold War. But Blake makes it convincingly, with an emphasis on the Federal Housing Administration rules that dictated which types of new construction qualified for FHA-backed mortgages. In those post-war boom years, whatever qualified for these mortgages got built, and what got built was identical tract homes on small plots, spread out amid commercial highway strips. Blake demonstrates that what came to be known as “Suburbia” was, along with the Interstate Highway System, a sort of crony-capitalist public works project rather than the finest and purest expression of American free enterprise. This claim really upends a whole way of thinking about America, and it turns a lot of self-proclaimed right-leaning capitalists into something very different. Read the book—and look out for my review!