THE ISLAND, A Mirror for the Soul - BOOK REVIEW
by Michael Asher FRSL
Book Review. The Island. A Mirror for the Soul. Journeys to the Heart of Dhamma, by David Beatty
David Beatty, best known in East Africa as a photographer, came to Kenya to work with the late Mohammed Amin, and has more recently established his name as a teacher of Mindfulness in Nairobi. The Island, an account of his life before Kenya, tells an unusual story — a reverse mirror image of the age of materialism and obsession with the individual self that his life spans.
Born in 1946, the grandson of a celebrated naval hero, Beatty grew up in a stately home with servants, expensive motor cars, and exotic foreign vacations...An easy passage into the establishment, with its promise of affluence and material comfort was virtually guaranteed. Instead, Beatty cold-shouldered the system, and, fleeing an unsuccessful marriage, escaped to an almost untouched island off the coast of Sri Lanka, where he lived, under the most basic of conditions, in a monastery with Buddhist monks.
Part autobiography, part travel book, and part philosophical enquiry, The Island is Beatty’s examination of his relationship with the societies he grew up in, both British and American, and a quest to find his true self. Using the physical island both as a base and a metaphor for the island he felt himself to have become, he intermingles vivid descriptions of the tropical setting, journeys to other parts such as Varanasi and Kolkata, his daily life with the monks, lessons learned through Buddhism and western philosophy, and detailed excursions into the past.
It is in this last field that his writing is most illuminating. Abandoned by his American socialite mother as a child, he turned to a father, whose serial marriages — one to a woman only a few years older than Beatty himself — provided little sense of stability. As a ‘diehard capitalist of the old school’, his father’s frustration with his reluctance to adopt the ‘manly arts of hunting, pursuit of profit, and the making of financial killings’ led to mutual estrangement.
Required to kill a stag as a rite of passage, for instance, Beatty shot the animal but felt ‘branded for life with the death of this magnificent creature’, leading to his conclusion that civilisation tends to ‘separate us from the world and …breed in us a perverted enjoyment of cruelty’.
Later sojourns in America with his mother, now remarried, made him aware of racism, of the double standards that prevailed in both Britain and the USA, and of the pretence of tolerance that concealed a ‘disparaging view of … cultural, racial, or religious difference[s].’ Some of Beatty’s most scathing criticism, though, is reserved for his schooling at Eton, where he experienced humiliation and fear. His four years there, he writes, had ‘little to do with learning, but was aimed at breaking my spirit and moulding me to the status quo.’ Beatty must be one of very few graduates of that venerated college — one thinks of George Orwell — for whom the ‘moulding’ project failed.
Beatty is very adept at showing how his own experience of rebellion against tradition reflected the social turmoil that was a feature of his youth in the 1960s, when ‘the old, stuffy pre-war Britain was being swept away by popular music, outrageous clothes … psychotropic drugs and the discovery of oceanic consciousness.’
His inward journey in search of the dhamma (the Buddhist way of overcoming the dissatisfaction of suffering) is supplemented in the book by wide-ranging allusions to western philosophy. Beatty uses both as a kind of therapy, a means of working out for himself a better mode of envisaging his relationship with the world.
Though the reader can sometimes get lost in this erudition, persistence is rewarded, as Beatty’s dilemma is not far from any of us in industrial civilisation. Indeed, the spectacle of a young man possessed from birth of all the things most people aspire to — wealth, celebrity, security — throwing them away in a bid to find happiness, is a savage critique of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our ‘brutal, competitive, utilitarian’ world.