The child peeled another banana, gave two-thirds of it to Will and offered what remained to the mynah.
“Is that your bird?” Will asked.
She shook her head.
“Mynahs are like the electric light,” she said. “They don’t belong to anybody.”
“Why does he say those things?”
“Because somebody taught him,” she answered patiently. What an ass! her tone seemed to imply.
“But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?”
“Well …” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”
That’s from Island, Aldous Huxley’s last novel. It’s not as famous as Brave New World, which is a shame. Huxley said that his earlier novel was a failure because it only offered a choice between two insane societies. There had to be a third way and Island was it: a novel set on a small Pacific island that has developed a good and just and sane society. Sanity, though, isn’t self-sustaining–it takes some effort. The island’s mynah birds, trained to say “Attention, attention,” and “Here and now, boys, here and now” provide gentle reminders to be mindful of the present, to be aware.
In a small well-organized society that’s easy but it’s not hard to imagine the whole program breaking down on a larger scale and the mynahs dropping f-bombs eventually fading to background noise. The problem with Huxley’s ideal society is there’s no room for jokers, tricksters, or chaos–which makes it far from ideal.
Both Brave New World and Island raise big questions about the nature of freedom and its limits but neither one really offers any answers. Answers are beyond any single person, but the key to finding the answer is to first know what the question is.
Maybe the question is down there in the weeds.
Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org, located in a small island somewhere.