Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 7: Aldous Huxley’s Island

July 15, 2014 § Leave a comment



Over the course of my lectures this summer, I have often pointed to Aldous Huxley as a kind of grand theorist of psychedelic aesthetics.  One need not dig too far into psychedelic literature to see that by the end of the 1960s, many had left behind the notion of controlled setting and medical supervision promoted by Huxley.  In last week’s lecture I suggested that Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man describes an ahistorical and ever “present” society perpetuated by false needs – a present that in some ways slows down History.  I suggested that this ahistorical moment also invokes the perennial in psychedelic aesthetics and that the conflation of perennialism and one-dimensionality perhaps blocked the social progress of the psychedelic movement.  On the other hand, however, because they are also entrenched within secularist narratives, psychedelic critiques have been deprived of the quality of enchantment that was truly liberating because that enchantment itself was coded as play and the inability to be serious. In Marcuse’s terms, the narrative of secularization lost its own potential to liberate and has become a force of oppression.  Marcuse’s turn to at the end of his book to Maurice Blanchot’s “Great Refusal” in order to find what may be left of enchantment.  This enchantment, according to Blanchot appears in poetics and writing.  As Blanchot says with respect to the “victory” of modernity over Gods: “There is, however, defeat in this victory; in this truth of forms, of notions and of names, there is a lie, and in this hope that commits us to an illusory bond, to a future without death or to a logic without chance, there is, perhaps, the betrayal of a more profound hope that poetry (writing) must teach us to affirm” (33-34).  Blanchot’s appeal to fabrication, to making, appears on one hand to hyper-extend the manufactured nature of modernity, the automatic – that is, if we read the passage in a secularist frame. In this frame we see the opening to a kind of nostalgia for the enchanted era of gods. If we read it in a postsecular frame, however, there appears to be an enchanted quality to the process of writing and making to which he attaches hope.  On one hand we could see this as an appeal to a kind of infinite liberalism, of artifice as the appropriation of the power of gods to itself propel the economy and the world.  On the other, the hope is mercurial rather than Promethean.  It is hermeneutic rather than appropriated or stolen.  As hermeneutic, a kind of enchantment prevails in the anagogical process of interpretation and writing as translation.  As such, the process exceeds the action and the form of the aesthetic work.  That it comes to exist in form, in time, only anchors a kind of access point to another resonance.  In this week’s lecture I want to focus on Aldous Huxley’s later work to suggest first that it attempts to perform such resonance; and second, that in that performance Huxley is acting as a political theologian.


Aldous Huxley’s growing interest in psychedelics worried some of his intellectual peers early on.  When considering Huxley as not just a theorist of the psychedelic experience but also as a political theologian, it is worth comparing him briefly to the most well known aesthete and political theologian of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin. Huxley was one of many intellectuals from abroad, who arrived in the United States as the result of political strife during and between the wars and had tremendous cultural impact on the 1960s.  Walter Benjamin, who died trying to get to the U.S. in the late 1930s, has a somewhat surprising affinity with Huxley when we consider Huxley as a political theologian.  It is easy to forget that Aldous Huxley and Walter Benjamin were born only two years apart in countries that became political rivals during the first decades of the twentieth century.  They were not only contemporaries, but shared similar interests – aesthetic and politico-theological –as well as mutual acquaintances (Murray 402).  While one can only speculate, as Scott J. Thompson does in “From ‘Rausch’ to Rebellion,” as to whether Benjamin and Huxley would have likely met had Benjamin been able to cross the Atlantic, Benjamin was certainly interested in hashish and aesthetic experience.  The interest in psychedelics perhaps makes Benjamin’s work less rigidly dialectical than his Eastern European Marxist contemporaries like Gyorgy Lukacs and Thomas Mann.  Mann, who succeeded in emigrating the United States in the late 1930s, had received a copy of The Doors of Perception in the 1950s from Ida Herz, was critical of Huxley.  Thomas Mann writes Herz in response,

Thank you very much for TheDoors of Perception, though the book does not excite me with the enthusiasm which it has you. It presents the latest, and, I might add, most audacious form of Huxley’s escapism, which I could never appreciate in this author. Mysticism as a means to that escapism was, nonetheless, reasonably honorable. But that he now has arrived at drugs I find rather scandalous.” (qtd in Thompson)

Clearly, Mann is familiar with Huxley’s recent work on mysticism, The Devils of Loudun (1952) and perhaps Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy (1945) as well.  Mann’s concerns about drugs were informed by the Nazi regime’s human subject testing, which he was able to escape.  What he calls Huxley’s escapism is a human rights issue.  However, as Thompson argues: “Both Huxley and Benjamin were attempting to recover a concept of experience which had become entirely alien to the neoclassicist thinkers of the Enlightenment.”  While I am unsure that “recovery” is the right term here (it may have remained present), Thompson is onto something.  It is clear, however, that throughout the Enlightenment there are plenty of examples of Enlightenment critiques, and as I have argued, enchantment never disappears completely, and Max Weber’s idea of “disenchantment has been challenged.”  What thinkers like Thomas Mann were unable to see was a significant shift in Huxley’s approach to drugs, the State, and religion between Brave New World and his works on psychedelics in the 1950s.

The often-made claim against Huxley is his utopianism.  William M. Curtis’s notes the affinity between Aldous Huxley and Richard Rorty, perhaps the most important theorist of liberal utopia in the latter twentieth century (in Curtis 91).  Rorty, as Curtis discusses, is interested in an idea of liberal utopia as “an imaginative extension of our best liberal democratic ideals,” where malleability of human nature maintains a kind of optimism. Building off Curtis, I suggest that not only is Huxley’s work prescient of the world crises occurring fifty years after his death, but that, through allegory and dialogue, Huxley’s literary works provide important venues for deliberations in states of exception.  In starkly pragmatic terms, literature can help to deliberate in times of political crisis.

Aldous Huxley has not been given enough credit as a thinker in these matters, however, partly because literary works are often perceived as inefficacious in political matters in the United States and partly because the psychedelic aesthetics suggested in Huxley’s work (and those he has influenced) takes an approach to character and citizenship that blends private and public spaces with mystic traditions in ways that may make proponents of secularism squeamish in traditional public deliberations.  The excessive psychic attributes made present in psychedelic aesthetics afford artistic works a more overt presence in terms of politics.

Island is a particularly useful choice of study because it presents Huxley’s most mature presentation of a working society.  Huxley scholars often read his work as a progression between the earlier, satirical English works and the more overtly “spiritual” American novels.  Brave New World, Huxley’s most well known book, sits at the center between the phases of Huxley’s writing.  Less well known than Brave New World, Island is sometimes wrongly considered the lesser artistic achievement.  In an initial review in The Nation (1962), Arthur Herzog wrote of Island: “It is a curious book, more successful as a vehicle of ideas than as a novel.  It is written heavily and without the incisiveness of Brave New World.  The characters are weak and poorly drawn” (74).  In contrast, Gorman Beauchamp has argued,

if by novelistic criteria Island appears thin and didactic, by utopian criteria it has more than usual complexity of character and plot […] the extensive attention paid to the process of spiritual enlightenment among the Palanese and the demonstration of its effects on the soul of the cynical Farnaby tip the balance of Island more toward the personal than the systemic, the eupsychic than the eutopic.

Island is an example of Huxley’s “third option,” from the essay “Brave New World Revisited.”  Huxley had suggested in later introductions to Brave New World he would offer John the savage an option beyond madness and death.  This option moves toward an emphasis on self-transcendence by way of an immanent view of the spiritual that accompanies the collapse of Pala’s (the island in the novel) government.  This immanent view is also embodied in Huxley’s theories of the perennial and mysticism.  In presenting this option, Huxley helped to shape psychedelic aesthetics as a politically theological motivating force, where a mystical or psychedelic experience obliterates and then re-norms an individual’s sense of civic morality and allegiance beyond traditional ideas of the nation state.  But it requires that we take a kind of postsecular enchantment seriously – an enchantment that is itself historical rather than perennial and fabricated in the sense that fiction constructs narratives.

Island is Huxley’s vision of the possibility of social progress.  Like Marcuse’s claims that the possibility of revolution remained that – a possibility – Huxley’s plan remains just that: an option.  The plan is performed in his writing, which unifies his characters as different aspects of one Self existing in their own times.  I want to suggest that Huxley’s psychedelic aesthetics perform metempsychosis within the characters in Island, but to do this it requires more sophisticated reading of Huxley than those normally performed (something closer to Leo Strauss’s readings of Machiavelli)

While Huxley began formally experimenting with this in Eyeless in Gaza, it is his critique of high modernist aesthetics like Proust, Eliot and Joyce that informs his less overtly experimental and certainly less elite style.  This comes as a product of his belief in mysticism, which blossomed in him during the 1930s and 1940s.  In Ends and Means (1937), which can be considered Huxley’s non-fiction follow-up to Eyeless in Gaza, Huxley says the only way to peace is through the time-proven mystical ideals of non-attachment and charity.  He identifies thinkers in various traditions, East and West, as having espoused this.  He says,

charity cannot progress toward universality unless the prevailing cosmology is either monotheistic or pantheistic – unless there is a general belief that all men are “the sons of God” or, in Indian phrase, that “thou art that,” tat tvam asi.  The last fifty years have witnessed a great retreat from monotheism toward idolatry.  The worship of one God has been abandoned in favor of the worship of such local divinities as the nation, the class and even the deified individual. (8-9)

Either way it goes, monotheistic or pantheistic, Huxley’s answer is enchanted.  In his literary work of the period, Huxley tries to perform this charity by writing very simply with multiple simultaneous meanings.  He consciously rejects high modernist literary aesthetics as elitist, and while his work seems simpler, what he is really up to is critiquing the self of the European Imaginary, just as his contemporaries like Artaud, Benjamin, and Marcuse were doing.

Understanding Huxley’s psychedelic aesthetics requires a literary approach to allegorical reading that I believe constitutes a necessary skill-set for understanding the dynamics of figuration in political discourse in the twenty-first century – hence my attempt to build a bridge between Huxley’s work and Political Theology.  I want to give context to current discussions of Political Theology that have difficulty relating spiritual discussions to public discourse, offering a model of cosmopolitanism for discourse concerning spiritual and civic life.  This again requires a reading Huxley’s Island in light of Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism and liberal utopia; that is, as “an imaginative extension of our best liberal democratic ideals” (Curtis 91).  This draws upon Rorty’s distinction between “ironist” intellectual elites who utilize the liberal value of free thinking and speech to promote revolutionary ideas to the general public discourse which “will be reformist and pragmatic.”  This distinction between the “elite” and the “normal” recalls Huxley’s advisory conditions for the uses of psychedelic drugs.  Importantly, Huxley’s turn toward compassion does not mean the creation of a platitude between smart people and stupid people, or some kind of land where people are heavily normed.  In Brave New World the intellectual elites choose a different life outside the World State; in Island both must learn to cohabitate.

The social use of psychedelic drugs, for Huxley, was to allow people who could not see a bigger picture access to it.  But the spread of drugs – both controlled and uncontrolled – into society since the late fifties captures Rorty’s “ironist” who is “experienced” and the “naïve” or unreflective “normal” person (who may perhaps still be on some sort of prescribed antidepressant).  One can see this in visions of the hipster or the beat, whose drug-using edginess keeps him or her on the “edge” of society.  While Huxley was certainly a social critic of mass society in the United States, he chose to engage with the public and its problems rather than drop out.  Controlled use of psychedelics could help even the overly intellectual elite commit to a bigger view of what humanity is.

In Island, Dr. Robert says that he and his dying wife, Lakshmi, with whom he has recently tripped, have taken moksha-medicine – a fictional variation on psilocybin – “once or twice each year for the past thirty-seven years” (169).  While this is a more frequent use of psychedelics than Huxley himself took part in, it both blends the experience of reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead to his dying wife, Maria (in 1955), and it precedes his own death in 1963 in which he famously took LSD and slipped away as Laura Huxley describes “like a piece of music just finishing” (266).  Huxley, unlike the later Timothy Leary and Art Kleps, thought that psychedelics should be used in controlled situations with guides to encourage the embracing of the “pure light.”  Such is the way that Island’s protagonist, Will Farnaby, takes the moksha-medicinewith Susila as guide during the climax of the book. It is here that Farnaby comes to actualize his belief in the political ideals of Pala, which he has learned about through characters who act as travel-guides and the Old Raja’s Notes on What’s What.  The book lays out Pala’s philosophical ideals blending the best of East and West.  At the climax of his trip, Will has an intense awareness of his subjectivity:

This dark little inspissated clot that one called “I” was capable of suffering to infinity and, in spite of death, the suffering would go on forever.  The pains of living and the pains of dying, the routine of successive agonies in the bargain basement and the final crucifixion in a blaze of tin and plastic vulgarity – reverberating, continuously amplified, they would always be there.  And the pains were incommunicable, the isolation complete.  The awareness that one existed was an awareness that one was always alone. (341)

Yet despite this eternal isolation, Will’s trip is a participatory ritual that convinces him that the ideals of Pala are right just as Pala is being invaded by an army that will bring western industrialization and commerce to the island.

Will trips just as Murugan, the young Raja who has been raised and corrupted in the West, allied with the neighboring dictator, Colonel Dipa, invade Pala with plans to use island’s rich oil supply to build a military and “modernize.”  Will’s consciousness expansion during his trip both destroys his pre-existing metaphysics and reinstates him into a new moral perspective as he comes down and a new and much scarier reality sets in – a reality that Will as a political intriguer has helped to bring about.  Huxley’s destruction of the utopia accompanies Farnaby’s enlightenment.  His new perspective allows him to navigate himself according to an authority that transcends both religion and State.  Nicolas Langlitz correctly notes, with reference to an essay by Reinhardt Koselleck (on Carl Schmitt’s utopia, “Buribunks: A Historico-Philosophical Meditation”) (1918), that in contrast to Schmitt’s temporalized utopia, Island is spatialized.  But if we connect Island to psychedelic aesthetics’ use of the perennial, it is not spatialized in a territorialized way.

If Huxley is being ironic in Rorty’s sense, then it is only in showing that modernization, ruling royalty and colonization are all archaic and destructive and that enlightened individuals must find ways to proceed amid idiotic rulers.  But such a clear distinction between the “ironic” elite and the stupid masses is too easy a way of putting things because in Island Huxley presents intellectualism as its own sort of handicap.  This is the compassion from Ends and Means coming in here.  It is precisely the subjectivity of the ego that must be transcended, no matter how smart or stupid one is: as Mrs. Rao tells Farnaby, “Pala’s the place for stupid people.  The greatest happiness for the greatest number – and we stupid ones are the greatest number” (228).  Will’s moksha-experience is a transcendence of western transcendence, just as Walter Benjamin’s court of the Trauerspiel in Origins of German Tragic Drama transcends the very idea of sovereignty as transcendent.  The sovereign decision here is not in the sovereign as ruler, but in the personal commitment of the individual to come to terms with his or her own state of consciousness by merging with the transcendent and recognizing a different kind of citizenship.  A term like “personalism” is not quite adequate to deal with the psychedelic experience.

If one considers the process of ego death as described by Huxley along with thinkers like Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, it is clear that in the psychedelic and mystical experience there is a blurring of subject-object distinction, and irony cannot work without an audience for such a distinction.  The dialectic between irony and naïve earnestness – the faith of the innocent – Nietzche’s child after the camel and the lion in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – moves between the characters in Huxley’s work.  Island begins with the one liberation of Will Farnaby, the death of his fear of Evil.  This process begins with a young Palanese girl using mesmeric first-aid to help Will get over his encounter with a snake at the beginning of the book.  As late as the summer of 1963, Huxley writes to Leary who with Richard Alpert had “left” Harvard and started IFIF (International Foundation for Internal Freedom) in Millbrook, New York, that

the idea of a school is excellent . . . one should make use of all the available resources – the best methods of formal teaching and LSD, hypnosis (used, among other things to help people re-enter the LSD state without having recourse to a chemical), time distortion (to speed up the learning process, auto-conditioning for the control of autonomic processes and heightening of physical and psychological resistance to disease and trauma, etc. etc….  (Moksha 246)

Will’s time on Pala may culminate in his moksha experience, but he is set up by hypnosis, dialogue with the islanders, and the reading of the treatise, Notes on What’s What, which summarizes Spinoza:

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. (43)

This passage analogously situates the subject’s experience with God while nodding to the history of Political Theology.  While moksha-medicine democratizes mystical experience, it does not end there.  The expectation is that the liberation the medicine provides helps the society as a whole.  The individual subject, “Will,” is always part of a larger whole, and the moksha experience is a limit-experience, which, like the state of exception defines the norm – the distinction with Carl Schmitt being that for Schmitt, this is the sovereign decision whereas in Island, the beautiful young warlord sovereign Murugan is the very person who refuses and is disgusted by the moksha-experience.  Huxley’s narrative thus ideologically deposes the sovereign by reoccupying the decision in the enlightened subject, characterized by his participation in a ritual that democratizes the mystical through a sacrifice of the nation-state.  Rather than Schmitt’s concept of the sovereign who makes a decision in the state of exception, the psychedelically informed citizen communicates with the divine for moral guidance.

Huxley’s work is more than a utopia; it is an allegory for disparate character-incarnations that are present throughout much of Huxley’s works.  It does not project a future imagined space but more of an alternate possible reality.  A “midrashic” and typological interpretation of Huxley, like that of Walter Benjamin employs in The Origins of German Tragic Drama and Leo Strauss in How to Read Spinoza,[1] helps evidence this.  Will is a character we see replicated in various ways through Huxley’s work.  He’s the satirist of the early Huxley novels like Antic Hay and Chrome Yellow, the outsider of Bernard Marx in Brave New World, the English script-writer narrator who presents William Tallis’s masterpiece in Ape and Essence, the internal thoughts of Sebastian Barnack in Time Must Have a Stop.  Similarly, Dr. Robert can be seen as Bruno Rotini from Time Must Have a Stop blended with the worldly wisdom of John Rivers in The Genius and the Goddess.  Huxley’s characters age throughout his novels, as the author himself ages, but he retains atavistic versions of himself in his characters.  One sees obvious parallels between Lakshmi and Dr. Robert’s marriage and that of Huxley and Maria.  But the cynical outsider remains in the form of the flawed character, even if it is also a younger version of Huxley himself.  So, for example, in Time Must Have a Stop we get the story of a brilliant but bratty youth who gains wisdom through the mentorship of quasi-mystic, Bruno Rotini, and who tells his overly-political father: “‘peace can’t exist where there’s a metaphysic, which all accept and a few actually succeed in realizing [unless it is through] direct intuition’ he went on; ‘the way you realize the beauty of a poem or a woman’” (276).  Romantic conceptions are held within “post-Romantic” conceptions.  Much of the narrative, we find out later in the story, has been the memory of Sebastian as he’s looked back on his foolish youth and romantic misadventures.  A certain perspective or way of being – call it wisdom or enlightenment – takes narrative precedence over both romantic and political action of the linear unfolding of time.  This is metempsychosis or reincarnation expressed as psychedelic aesthetics.

Instead of presenting ego expansion through a narrative return to the perennial, as the later 1960s fiction writers discussed earlier did, Huxley solves the problem of linearity in the medium of text and plot by casting a variety of similar characters in dialogical situations.  While some have found this stylistically overly transparent, it is the blending and tweaking of characters throughout Huxley’s works that displays a reincarnated dynamic between characters that might otherwise seem stock.  Keith May, for example, compares Will Farnaby’s experience of Bach while taking moksha – one that parallels Huxley’s own experience on mescaline – with Spandrell listening to Beethoven in Point Counter Point and argues that Island is Huxley solving a longstanding problem with Plato and idealism:

If Huxley at the time of the earlier novel was tempted by Spandrell’s view that the purest music proves the existence of another world, a God who stands apart from His universe, by the time of Island he was sure that such music proves the occasional heavenliness of earth itself.  Likewise, the purity of the music is no longer regarded as the antithesis of evil (the “Essential Horror”) but as the quality that somehow flows into evil.  Good and evil are not finally separable. (423)

Huxley’s characters are ideas existing on a spectrum, but never just one idea, and that is why he is not just writing thinly disguised philosophy.

Even minor Huxleyan characters are revised in Island.  Will’s impression of Mrs. Rao parallels Sebastian Barnack’s relationship with the homely but nurturing librarian, Mrs. Ockham in Time Must Have a Stop.  The English matron who is a bit thick but so nurturing as to make the sharper youth feel guilty for despising them transforms in Island.  To Will, Mrs. Rao at first

seemed like a browner version of one of those gentle but inexhaustibly energetic English ladies who, when their children are grown, go in for good works or organized culture.  Not too intelligent, poor dears; but how selfless, how devoted, how genuinely good – and, alas, how boring! (216)

His perception changes a bit when he finds that Mrs. Rao teaches young adults maithuna, “the yoga of love,” which is not just safe sex and preventative measures but a how-to guide for “doing it” (219).

The older Huxley is softer in his approach to non-intellectuals.  They have important things to teach.  Both Will and Dr. Robert are aspects of Huxley, just as Murugan, the beautiful young despot-in-the-making is also an incarnation of Murugan the fierce and beautiful Vedic deity.  The drama that plays out with the island is Shiva dancing, creating and destroying; and Will’s experience is Huxley’s suggestion for us in the face of that, more than it is a warning of the problems of a society that lets technology get the best of it.  Though a deity, Shiva is pure immanence, and recognition of this is what provides the groundwork for tolerance among the Palanese.

Dialogue between both characters and texts maintains underlying social value throughout Huxley’s works.  Huxley’s characters are always expressing opinions as if they are manifestos, even despicable characters like Colonel Dipa or the Rani desire to explain themselves to Will, to convince him that their way is best.  The underlying foundation for the text is perhaps a liberal-democratic one.  Language serves deliberative political ends.  But dialogue and tolerance are also temporal qualities that change, progress and digress over time, like Shiva dancing.  A whole approach to society manifests in a whole citizen who instantiates citizenship in a variety of ways.  In the end, Will is convinced through the summing up experience of liberation catalyzed by the medicine he takes that temporarily destroys his ego, literally destroying “Will,” the character Huxley referred to as “the serpent in the garden” (in Watt 169).  The medicine is both scientific and spiritual – and his trip is sponsored and guided by citizens of a dying nation state.  Like Spinoza’s subject, Will recognizes, even if belatedly, evidenced by his choice in taking the “sacrament” moksha, the continuance of his own power in the interest of the community.  Insofar as the moksha experience is state-sponsored, the psychedelic experience disseminates sovereignty into the liberated citizens.

This is also similar to Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise, who has a vexed relationship between theology and politics, especially concerning scriptural interpretation, which he does not separate from politics.  Religion in Pala is neither separate from the State nor controlled by the State.  The society is regulated by a philosophy that has recognized the necessity for symbolic spiritual activity but has done away with what Huxley identifies as the perverse contradictions of European religion and embraced a kind of Mahayana Buddhism.  The society of Pala, again like Spinoza, recognizes the usefulness in religion for social commitment, especially with the “less rational” among the citizens, but also with the overly intellectual characters like Will Farnaby.  There is a spectrum of modes of worship for all.

But the thing about Pala is that most of the citizens tend to “naturally” choose a subordination of religion to philosophy, following an almost Epicurean notion that religion need not be based on fear – that it provides something functional.  Instead it can be a motivating force for hope, and that having passions is not the same as being evil or corrupt.  The citizens of Pala have thereby chosen a post-secular society.  This is partly why Will has to overcome the binary of the evil snake as his first initiation to the island.  This is again tempered and fulfilled through the state-sponsored moksha-medicine, through which Huxley is very deliberate about unifying the material and the spiritual.  He had been exploring the idea for at least thirty years.

Will, who has injured himself while infiltrating the island for the business prospects of a rich oil man, is cared for by locals who, in pure Huxleyan curatorial fashion explain the intricacies of their post-industrial society.  As in Brave New World, the society helps maintain emotional balance by having liberated views of sexuality and drug usage.  The binding nature of religion here is tempered by the liberating moksha-medicine.  Huxley’s views on drugs had indeed changed significantly since Brave New World.

Huxley’s civic religion in Island is immanent, and he is quick to criticize transcendent religion.  He seems to have come to a more firm decision since Ends and Means.  Dr. Robert tells Will,

I have a theory that, wherever little boys and girls are systematically flagellated, the victims grow up to think of God as ‘Wholly Other’ – isn’t that the fashionable argot in your part of the world?  Wherever, on the contrary, children are brought up without being subjected to physical violence, God is immanent. (139)

Will is quick to point out that child-beating has gone out of fashion in the 1950s to which Dr. Robert responds with a short lecture on Humanism’s positive effects on Christianity, resulting in the birth of New Thought and New Age religion “gathering momentum ever since” William James (140).  This is also apparent in The Perennial Philosophy, where Huxley claims that

rites, sacraments and ceremonials are valuable only to the extent that they remind those who take part in them of the true Nature of Things, remind them of what ought to be and (if only they would be docile to the immanent and transcendent Spirit) of what actually might be their relation to the world and its divine Ground. (262)

Huxley’s thought is radically materialist and follows a trajectory of immanent religion that develops in Enlightenment and especially in American thought.  While Huxley’s non-fiction, especially The Perennial Philosophy discusses this directly, Huxley thought that, rather than abstract philosophy, ideas should be grounded in “case studies” such as The Devils of Loudon.  In an interview from the early 1960s in which Huxley refers to Island as a “utopian fantasy” he has just written, Huxley is asked about his thoughts on the supernatural and says, “What people call the natural in our western tradition is in fact our projection of concepts on the world.  The genuinely natural world . . . is the world of immediate experience without all these concepts imposed upon it” (“Huxley Interviewed”).  Huxley thus moves from a disenchanted view of religion toward a religious view of culture and art as binding forces.  Culture’s fabrication itself produces enchantment.

This interpretive approach to culture can be seen in Island with the public performance of Oedipus in Pala.  In the Palanese version, Oedipus is talked out of blinding himself and Jocasta talked out of hanging herself by a boy and girl from the island.  The young Mary Sarojini explains to Will that both the play and Freud’s interpretations of it do not work well in Pala because their family relationships, strikingly similar to Margaret Mead’s interpretations of Samoan women’s sexuality in Coming of Age in Samoa, do not allow for strict biological relationships of authority between parents and children.  However awkward it may seem, the performance maintains a didactic quality for Palanese society and suggests a different aesthetic sensibility.  The category of ‘literature’ itself is in question in Pala, but it is also clear that young children are familiar with both Freud and Sophocles.  But Mrs. Rao tells Will earlier on in the book, “what trouble we have with books in this climate!  The paper rots, the glue liquefies, the bindings disintegrate, the insects devour.  Literature and the tropics are really incompatible” (217).  Aesthetics in Pala lose a sense of the tragic but maintain a participatory role.  Performance-based drama replaces physical books.  (One wonders if they would have Kindles in an updated version.)  In any case, Huxley’s move emphasizes an immediate experience that overlaps with the island-culture’s immanent sense of religion. It is with this trend that Huxley offers something to discussions of Political Theology and the role of religion in current liberal democracies.

If we speculate cursorily on religion in the United States, even since Huxley’s death, during the generations after the permissive society of the 1960s we see a trend toward immanence, a moving away from transcendence.  This is characterized by a return to “natural” religion, which distorts a linear view of history of civilization as “evolving” away from religion and New Agism.  Of course, the ‘Wholly Other’ view is still with us, as Marcel Gauchet’s work attests, as well as Kass and Fukuyama’s views as Langlitz presents them.  But Huxley’s Pala is essentially an inversion of transcendent religion.  If modern states rely on document-centered laws and constitutions, Pala abides by the Old Raja’s more colloquial Notes on What’s What, which Will reads as he becomes acculturated to the island.  Island implicitly asks: is transcendent religion necessary for postmodern states? And it answers, No!  The implication is not that transcendent religions should go away but that the civic sphere of the post-secular must negotiate both transcendent and immanent religion.

Even so, western culture, for Huxley, cannot escape Catholicism and Calvinism – the religion of the punished, according to him.  Again, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra seems just behind the scene asking, “Don’t [they] know God is dead?”  The Overman is the maker, the poet who has companions instead of followers.  Yet unlike Nietzsche’s Overman, Huxley’s man is not a “bridge” between beast and Overman.  It is not such a linear progression.  He knows his evolutionary theory well enough to know it is not as simple as having one Pithecanthropus Erectus.  Instead of a linear trajectory away from religion, Huxley’s State is comfortable with mysticism and faith over belief.  Ironically, it is presented as the evolution of mixing East and West, a kind of globalization.  This “evolution” occurs in the liberal subject who is able to transcend subjectivity and then return to self informed by religious metaphysics.  There is nothing atavistic about religion for Huxley – though he might declare that unreflective attachment is dangerous.  This is performed by the Palanese children who go rock-climbing before being initiated by moksha:

Danger deliberately and yet lightly accepted.  Shared consciously, shared to the limits of awareness so that the sharing and the danger become a yoga. Two friends roped together on a rock face.  Sometimes three or four.  Each totally aware of his own straining muscles, his own skill, his own fear, and his own transcending of the fear. (202)

Huxley leaves us with the idea that consciousness change may be the only way for humanity to survive itself.  The change involves inter-subjectivity.  But how does this happen?

Huxley’s transcendence does not move only in one direction.  It is dynamic and it strikes a balance between form and formless.  Huxley relates this again to the image of Shiva dancing.  Dr. Robert explains to Will:

“Dancing in all the worlds at once,” he repeated.  “In all the worlds.  And first of all in the world of matter.  Look at the great round halo, fringed with symbols of fire, within which the god is dancing.  It stands for Nature, for the world of mass and energy.  Within it Shiva-Nataraja dances the endless dance of becoming and passing away.  It is his lila, his cosmic play.” (205)

Because it moves in more than one direction, Huxley’s transcendence is timeless, the perennial.  Explaining the effects of moksha-medicine to Will, Dr. Robert says,

you will know in fact what it’s like to be what you are, what you have always been.  What a timeless bliss! But, like everything else, this timelessness is transient.  Like everything else, it will pass.  And when it has passed, what will you do with the experience? (208)

Dr. Robert here sounds like Ken Kesey appealing to a graduation from acid tests.  Clearly informed by Vedic sciences where the human mind is a microcosm of the same design of the universe, Dr. Robert continues to discuss the State’s role:

all that Pala can do for you with its social arrangements is to provide you with techniques and opportunities.  And all that the moksha-medicine can do is to give you a succession of beatific glimpses, an hour or two, every now and then, of enlightening and liberating grace.

But it is within those couple of hours of grace that the subject seems to merge with the divine and then reemerge as self in the world, and it is from this fundamental psychedelic experience that one learns to navigate in the world.  In this transcendence, one must overcome all cynicism and sense of irony.  Rather than Rorty’s elite ironist then, it seems that Huxley’s vision calls for a different kind of political action.  In order to understand it, We must now move to integrating Huxley’s version of transcendence and his social planning with the more current discussions in Political Theology and the challenges surrounding secularization in times of liberal crisis.  In other words, if Huxley is giving us something like an enchanted “psychedelic citizenship,” what does that look like in 2014?


(For specific source information on citations, please feel free to email me)



Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 7: Aldous Huxley’s Island at


%d bloggers like this: