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Book Review - Island

Island

Aldous Huxley

New York, NY: Perennial Classics, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2002 edition (originally published in 1962). ISBN-10: 0-06-008549-5; ISBN-13: 978-0060085490 (paperback), $14.95 ($10.17, Amazon.com). 354 pages.

Reviewed by Joe Szimhart

Huxley’s Island and Leary’s LSD Experiment

“Attention!” This novel begins and ends with “attention.” Trained, talking birds on the idealized island of Pala randomly repeat that word and others, including “karuna” (compassion), like mantras for all within earshot. The mynahs remind people to stay in the moment, to observe the “fact” of the environment and the immediacy of being. Talking birds are only one odd feature that Will Farnaby, a shipwrecked spy, journalist, and inadvertent seeker, discovers on Pala. Throughout the story Farnaby harbors a secret that his powerful employer wants to take over Pala politically. The nearby nations envy Pala’s relatively isolationist prosperity built over 120 years.

The island of Pala is too good. Without a military and lacking greed for power, it is vulnerable. The conspiracy to take over includes Pala’s young ruler in waiting who adamantly rejects the culture’s way of life while siding with another nation’s imperialist scheme. Pala’s people seek a practical life based on rational, modernist advances in medicine, technology, and psychology, as well as in spirituality. Pala’s religion combines elements of modern psychology, Hinduism, Taoism, and insight from “moksha medicine,” derived from a psychotropic plant. The Palanese employ technology sparingly to preserve the value of human labor.

Soon after a wounded Will Farnaby arrives on Pala, a young girl finds him. She takes him to meet Dr. Robert, an important official, for treatment. Dr. Robert shares a philosophical treatise with Will, “Notes on What’s What,” written by the Old Raja of Pala. The odd gospel elaborates the culture’s non-dualist philosophy. Citizens of Pala avoid dualism, or what “Manichees” (dualists) practice in the main Western religions. As the novel progresses, we read the treatise along with Will Farnaby. It offers important distinctions between faith and belief, with the latter taking “unanalyzed words too seriously.” Faith is “the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are…” The empirical justification comes not only from practical application of life skills, but also from the ritual use of a drug called “moksha medicine.”

Dr. Robert explains it this way:

You’re not being asked to believe it ... 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. (162-3)

If philosophical soliloquies bore you, I suggest you avoid this novel. The abundance of didactic passages reflects the author’s thinly disguised spiritual and social prejudices. Farnaby is Huxley’s foil through whom he deigns to teach and transform the reader. Farnaby transforms from cynic to believer as he progressively experiences the kindness, openness, and practical values of the islanders. His spiritual eyes open when he finally consumes the moksha medicine toward the end of the novel. Farnaby is “born again” sixties’ style; but, alas, Pala and its harmonious culture are doomed to takeover. It was too good to last because the world around it is so spiritually dense and corrupt.

Island is Huxley’s personal legacy, his testament and model for a better future. A few people have taken up the banner, including the Island Web, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the creation of a psychedelic culture (www.island.org). My interest in this book comes primarily from Island’s influence on late 20th-century cults or intentional communities. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD fame, specifically modeled his quasi-religious social experiment that he called International Federation of Internal Freedom (IFIF) on ideas in Island that reflect Huxley’s belief in transformational drugs.

Timothy Leary (1920–1996) and Richard Alpert (born 1931, a.k.a. Ram Dass) originally established IFIF in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They soon moved the social experiment to the infamous mansion at Millbrook, New York, near Poughkeepsie, to create a better “setting” for tripping on LSD. New laws by the FDA scheduled to take effect in June 1963 threatened the licentious LSD “research” of Leary and others. To better implement an all-important setting for psychedelic experience, the IFIF found a temporary home during the summer of 1962. An old resort, the Hotel Catalina north of Acapulco near Zihuatanejo, Mexico, served as the residence called Freedom House. There, Leary and a loose company of several dozen followers implemented LSD-inspired ideas while taking notes during self-observation. Huxley’s Pala culture provided a rough blueprint for the IFIF experience.

Leary and his motley collection of professionals and Harvard students wanted a place apart in a relatively pristine environment to scale what Jay Stevens called “an Everest expedition of the mind.”

[1] Leary envisioned IFIF as a core “cell” or a “small transpersonative [sic] band of evolutionary pioneers” that would train “guides” for other cells of folks learning to expand consciousness with psychedelic drugs. Thus, IFIF would spread exponentially around the globe to transform all of mankind. Predictably, the Hotel Catalina experiment and IFIF went the way of most poorly conceived utopias and totalistic social movements. Personality disorders disguised as inner freedom or enlightenment surfaced among the grandiose leaders in short order. However, before things got totally out of hand, the federales of Mexico shut down Leary’s Freedom House for operating a business without a license.

Next, the IFIF members tried to relocate in Dominica, but they were forced to leave again by a government suspicious of Leary’s political motives. Next, they went to Antigua to set up shop. Within a week or so, one of the IFIF students “disappeared” on Antigua. He became psychotic (catatonic) under LSD, thinking that he must sacrifice himself to save IFIF. He ended up in a hovel at a remote jungle asylum run by a quack Hungarian psychiatrist who did lobotomies. Within days, an IFIF leader found and retrieved the young man, who was by then quite sane and happily untouched by the eccentric doctor. He was sent home. A few days later the officials of Antigua summoned Leary to inform him to leave the island and to take IFIF with him. So, in the space of less than three months IFIF was kicked out of three countries and one prestigious university.[2] Referring to the Millbrook mansion days of IFIF, Jay Stevens writes this:

It was exhausting, it was exhilarating. As with any group who lived together and took LSD regularly, the outlines of a group-mind began to form, with all the strange nonverifiable phenomena (precognition, telepathy, ESP) that that implies. One byproduct of this phenomenon was a quantum increase in the us-versus-them mentality. When [Frank] Barron returned for a visit in late 1962, he was alarmed at how much they resembled a cult—and one that excluded him.[3]

The subsequent Catalina Hotel commune that Leary named Freedom House also fell into a cult-like atmosphere within weeks.

Residents of Huxley’s Pala limit mechanization, control overpopulation by training young males in yogic retention of semen during premarital sex, and practice ritual ecstasy with “moksha medicine,” which reflects Huxley’s personal experience of mescaline. LSD became IFIF’s premier moksha medicine after psilocybin. On Pala, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism combine with modernist rationalism to form the utopian religion of the people. The Palanese disdain theistic religious ideas, especially Christianity, if not Christ. Likewise, Leary’s new LSD religion rejected his Catholic roots in favor a drug-laced amalgam of Eastern and futuristic perspectives within the burgeoning New Age milieu. In contrast to Palanese society, sexual expression in Leary’s camp featured the “free love” variety of the sixties with no formalized yoga involved.

Huxley and Leary met around 1962 to share their ideas, shortly before Huxley died (incidentally, while tripping on 200 mm of “acid” or LSD injected by his wife, who remained at his bedside coaching him to go “up to the light”). Leary co-opted an insight from Huxley to use the bardo levels of post-mortem soul travel as outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead to guide LSD “trippers.” Alpert (Ram Dass) later remarked that the “2500 year old” Tibetan Book of the Dead contained “the most vivid descriptions of what we were experiencing with psychedelics but hadn’t been able to describe.”[4] Huxley was taken with Leary’s charisma, but he misjudged the man’s utter self-absorption. Neither man understood at the time how misguided and narcissistic a drug-dependent enlightenment could become, as it did.

Unlike Prometheus, who successfully stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, IFIF trippers “experienced” grand visions and insights among the gods but were clueless as to practical social applications, if indeed there were any. LSD and related drugs have proved to be of minimal therapeutic value and tend to cause more problems than they relieve. Leary and IFIF were on a mission to revolutionize human consciousness in one generation through a cult of psychedelics, much like Huxley was with one book, Island. Both ventures failed. Huxley’s Island predicted failure of Pala’s harmonious culture at the hands of imperialism and materialism. Leary’s optimistic if reckless IFIF movement burned out in strikingly tragicomic fashion as a naïve victim of the very same sacramental drug it sought to glorify.

Reference

Stevens, Jay, 1988. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row.

Endnotes

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2009, Page


[1] Jay Stevens, 1988. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, p. 185.

[2] IBID, p. 201.

[3] IBID, p. 194.

[4] IBID, p. 186.

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