Sunday, 6 May 2012

Celebrating Aldous Huxley

The fifth of May is the day the investigative journalist William Weston arrives in San Francisco, the capital city of Ecotopia, in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 utopia of that title. It was also the day on which twenty of us assembled in the Kelmscott Coach House to celebrate Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island (which is itself centred on an investigative journalist, Will Farnaby) on the 50th anniversary of its publication. Chilly though the day was, the sun glittered gaily on the Thames at high tide, and the Coach House garden was beautifully awash with bluebells. This pleasant English scene could hardly be further removed from the tropical setting of Huxley’s island of Pala, with its eerie lizards and great snakes, its jungle creepers and ubiquitous mynah birds. In his essay on ‘Wordsworth and the Tropics’ Huxley famously argued that the Romantic poet’s genial pantheism wouldn’t have lasted two minutes if he’d been parachuted down in the tropics.

Where better to discuss utopia than Kelmscott House, which, in its guise as the Hammersmith Guest House, is our very own English portal to utopia, after all? The more you constellate utopias against each other, the more they give off their own distinctive meanings. Morris’s utopia is good on rivers, Huxley’s on mountains; movement in Morris is doggedly horizontal (horse and cart across London, rowing up the Thames), in Huxley consistently vertical (climbing up a ravine, ascent to the High Altitude Station). In both, we find Old Grumblers and Obstinate Refusers, but in Island they pose a deadly threat to the utopian community, as Morris’s don’t. So should you then, as in Callenbach’s Ecotopia, have a secret police to deal with them – can utopia have a secret police and still be utopian? And so on.

In his 1962 review of Island Wayne Booth remarked that it ‘carried me through to the end, arguing all the way’; and what finer tribute could one pay to any utopia? We shall in the days to come be arguing all the way about many more utopias in the Kelmscott Coach House.


Tony Pinkney said...

With special thanks to the member of the audience who spoke eloquently about what a formative book 'Island' had been for her and her schoolfriends when it first came out.

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