Island

While on Manitoulin Island this past week, I discovered an interesting literary coincidence.  I am always looking for bargain books and films to add to my collection, even in as unlikely a place as Manitoulin, and I purchased several things during the course of the week.  At the Providence Bay Fair, in a stall of used and abused odds and ends, I found Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet, a very good documentary on the history of how homosexuality has been depicted in Hollywood film.  At the Providence Bay Library, which is open all of three hours a day on two days a week, I also acquired George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and Aldous Huxley’s Island.  I watched The Celluloid Closet several months ago, and I have read The Princess and the Goblin several times over the years, so, the moment that I finished Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, I turned, with immeasurable relief, to Huxley’s Island.

Island is a fascinating novel in many ways, though it is sometimes a little stilted, in that the events of the plot often seem to serve the necessities of the philosophical argument rather than to tell an involving story.  This is probably a greater issue for readers today than it was for those who were contemporaries of the book’s initial publication, simply because so much of its philosophy is historically circumscribed and no longer compelling.  The sort of utopia that the novel advocates, a pseudo-Buddhism mixed with some scientism and topped with a little mescaline induced self-realization, is too much the idealism of another time to have much intellectual force any longer. Even so, the structure of the story is strong, and its conclusion, which I will not disclose for those who have not read it, is forceful.  Also, despite the now unconvincing solutions that it presents, the novel’s political, social, and economic critique remains often valid and insightful.  There is much in this respect, along with a very readable story, to recommend the novel even now.

None of this, however, has much to do directly with the literary coincidence that I set out to discuss, a coincidence that appears very early in the novel, when Will Farnaby, the protagonist, refers to another utopian novel, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.  The coincidence here is that I only just recently read Erewhon after finding it in a North Carolina used bookstore on my last trip, so that, with the strange illogic that seems to characterize my existence, I actually purchased two different novels by two different authors in two different countries on two consecutive trips, and one just happened to reference the other in an explicit and substantial way.

What makes this coincidence even more interesting is that it plays a significant role in establishing one of Island‘s central themes.  The reference consists in Farnaby saying, borrowing the words of Higgs, Erewhon‘s protagonist and narrator, “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”  Farnaby actually quotes these words three times, twice mentioning their source explicitly, and dwelling on their irony each time.  I am not interested in providing a definitive explanation of why Huxley emphasises this allusion so heavily.  There are probably several such reasons, and there have likely been more than one unreadable PhD dissertation written on the subject.  My own interest has to do with how the allusion defines the nature of Faraday’s appearance on the island, either as chance or as destiny.

Higgs, who spoke the words first, during his discovery of Erewhon, very much confuses the ideas of luck and providence.  Though he clearly believes himself to be under the influence of a divine providence, his words unconsciously make this providence seem to depend on luck, revealing that he is less a man of religious belief than he is a man of convenient belief, which is characteristic of how Butler depicts him.  His real religion is in profit, and providence is merely a convenient word, roughly equivalent to luck, that he can use to describe the good fortune that he finds in his pursuit of gain.  His story is not one of spiritual or even personal growth.  Quite the opposite, Higgs ends the novel almost precisely as he began it, determined to exploit Erewhon for his own ends just as he was initially determined to exploit the unclaimed mountain pastures for his own ends.  Higgs’ story is entirely irreligious, entirely unprovidential, in this sense.  He is not brought by an external force toward a salvation.  He merely pursues his own interests and uses the idea of providence to justify his successes after the fact.  He sees no irony in a providence that depends upon and is little different from plain luck.

Faraday, however, is acutely aware of how ironic Higg’s phrase really is, and he uses it to describe his equivocal feels about how has arrived on the island.  “As luck would have it,” he keeps saying, “Providence was on my side.”  Though he does not believe in providence, neither can he fully believe that the circumstances of his arrival on the island and of his survival of the storm are merely luck.  He seems to quote Higgs defensively, seeing something almost providential in what has happened to him, ans desperately placing Higgs’ irony between him and this possibility.  Whereas Higgs does not even recognize that he makes providence depend on mere luck, Faraday sees and clings to this dependence as a defence against the possibility of providence, even when other characters present him explicitly with the possibility that he was destined to come to the island.

Faraday’s fear and rejection of providence are interesting because his story, in contrast to Higgs’, is precisely a providential one, where he is brought to salvation, seemingly by forces beyond himself.  In opposition to Higgs, whose experience of utopia fails to change him any significant way, Faraday’s narrative is one of a journey to a kind of intellectual, political, social, and personal salvation.  His is a conversion story and a salvation story, though he is converted and saved in ways that are quite different from his preconceived religious notions.  His journey, though he fails to recognize it entirely, has all the markers of the providential.  It is a religious journey, for the same reasons that Higg’s journey is irreligious.  Where Higgs espouses a providence that really depends upon luck, Farady espouses a luck that comes to depend upon providence.

Huxley does not actually decide for his readers in favour of providence, of course, and I will refrain from doing so also.  Huxley does, however, decide for his readers in favour of posing the question of luck and providence, not just as a simple binary, as in most utopias, nor just as a simple irony, as in Erewhon, but as a complex question that cannot, and perhaps should not, ever be answered definitively.  Rather than argue for a providence that can be defended as such, he seems to propose a kind of providence that never appears clearly as what it is, but can always be understood as merely luck, a providence that might just exceed the very opposition between luck and providence.  I think there is something true in this.

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4 comments
  1. Dionysus said:

    I like your insight on this. I’m reading the book at the moment and I was just searching the quote to find the name of the book. Since I did’nt really understand it, I suppose you could say ‘providence was on my side’ in finding this hehe

  2. Dionysus,

    Yes, providence is a mysterious thing, especially when it works through the google search.

  3. Siobhan said:

    Fantastic post! I was in the same situation as Dionysus. I kept feeling like I was missing something when Farnaby kept alluding (and so explicitly) to Erewhon and providence. I feel much better equipped now to understand the ideas in ‘Island’. So, thank you, very much! 🙂 Just out of curiosity, did you find Erewhon to be a very good book? It sounds a bit dry, but it sounds like it would accompany my reading of ‘Island’ quite well.

  4. Siobhan,

    I’m glad to have been of help. As to Erewhon, I enjoyed it well enough, but I have a fairly high tolerance for philosophical fiction where the story is perhaps less interesting than the ideas. It would certainly be worth a try.

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