Friday, July 15, 2011

A Man is an Island Part 2

3. The effect of islands is almost wholly regressive.

Islands infantilize people even as people idealize islands. Those with appetites and no souls think they would be safe from the eyes of the world. Those with Soul and little appetite believe they can fall under an island's benign and teaching gaze.

The island repeats a fantasy of human beginnings. The fetus - castle of the ego and keep of the soul - is effectively an island for the first nine months of life, entirely surrounded by an amniotic moat and connected to the mainland only by an umbilicus. Soon afterward the playpen becomes an island, probably the most fabulous of all. Not only does the infant command its every square foot, he commands the world which his own supreme frontiers deign into being by marking off. His shores, his limen; and so by extension his ocean, his continents, his world.(1) Moreover, the fantasy of a private island always takes on that infantile characteristic of absolute flexibility in being able simultaneously to stand for almost any desire and to serve as the ideal locus for practically any fantasy. For islands are also sexual places because they have the air of being extralegal, extraterritorial, out of sight and censure.. Every so often a film appears depicting torrid intimacies among the conveniently marooned. For this cinematic purpose the island must be tropical and the state of undress constant. It would not be at all the same for two nubile castaways to find themselves stranded in the Bering Sea.

The island is thus the perfect territorial expression of the ego. As such, it is all too easily a metaphor for the individual. Sometimes the metaphor is used at one remove, so the island takes the place of a wise alter ego. The message here is that man learns by true experience of himself. The lessons may be practical and moral (as in The Swiss Family Robinson or the story of Alexander Selkirk) or spiritual (as in Richard Nelson's The Island Within).

The infinitely flexible nature of islands, of their being at once safe and adventurous, constraining and boundless, erotic and polemical, has made them ideal destinations in a long literary tradition of imaginary voyages. More than a thousand years before Homer there was a twelfth-dynasty Egyptian story about a castaway on a marvelous island, and Plato's account of Atlantis functions as a kind of blueprint on which he might later have constructed a more complete utopia. When Sir Thomas More produced his own original Utopia in 1516 he put fresh life into an ancient genre. The dignity of his Latin must have induced many a lesser writer to indulge his own intellectual fantasies under the disguise of gravity, for the literature of the next three centuries abounds with all kinds of utopias and ideal commonwealths, most of them sited on an imaginary islands. (At this point, and quite gratuitously, I wish to note an allegation that Sir Thomas More "used to thrash his grown-up daughters with a rod made from peacock-feathers." Without bothering to try and put a finger on it more precisely one feels this sort of behavior is not inconsistent with thought about islands and ideal societies.)

It is curious there was no discussion in English of the imaginary voyage as a genre before the nineteenth century. Indeed, there was not even any recognition that it was a literary type worth discussing. In France, on the other hand, there were all sorts of studies and by 1787, when Garnier's remarkable Voyages Imaginaires, songes, visions... was published, he was able to subdivide his classification of Allegory into a whole variety of islands, among them an île d'amour, an île de la félicité, an île taciturne, an île enjouée, an île imaginaire, and an île de portraiture. After Crusoe's great success in France, several imitative Robinsonades showed what man might be capable of when thrown entirely on his own resources, whereas adventures on an île inconnue tended to depict what happened to a domestic society cut off from the rest of the world. In this respect they constituted something of a counterpart interest to that in feral children (such as Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron), around which at that time all sorts of arguments revolved concerning what exactly constituted "the natural" and "the civilized".

The genre still exists. The French writer Georges Perec in a novel published in 1975 (2) uses an imaginary island off Cape Horn as the setting for a fascistic society obsessed with sports. And what else is one kind of science fiction but a convenient locating of utopias and dystopias off-Earth on imaginary planets which are, from our perspective and by any other name, islands in space?

4. An island's boundaries can never be fixed.

It is archipelagoes and chains of islands which are so often the geographical versions of displaced persons, holding at best a temporary passport. The Sulu Archipelago is a perfect example. One has only to sit on the wharf in Jolo to be prey to a literary sense of unreality. The waterfront of huts built on stilts over the sea, the lumps of islands at every distance, the decaying ferries and wooden launches full of fish and copra and red logs: allowing for a lack - but not complete absence - of sail, it is Conrad's horizon still, and filled as ever with the dreamy tropic energy which slops across all boundaries. Politically, Sulu is part of the Philippines right down to Tawitawi, at its closest reaching to within a few miles of Sabah in northern Borneo. However, it was recently declared an autonomous region with special barter-trade rights between it and Malaysia. This was in response to the long and bloody war waged by the Moro National Liberation Front against what they thought of as an attempt by Christian Manila to oust or dilute Islamic culture and greedily expropriate whatever it is that governments habitually do greedily expropriate.

On Jolo's jetty Conrad's azure map lies ahead, while immediately behind is a troubled, dark green backdrop of conspiracy and heavy weapons. Conrad would have recognized that, too, since men here have always gone over-armed. A drunken fight can lead within minutes to mortar rounds. The Republic of the Philippines, with its implied promise of centralized law and institutionalized order, covers Sulu with a cartographer's fiction. The islands of the archipelago are defined and individuated by language, usage, tribal politics, gangs, bandits, even pride. They are crisscrossed by the interests of disparate ethnic groups, trading links, smuggling, piracy, local tyrannies, fishing, seditious movements and intersecting anarchies. In such places official boundaries vanish entirely unless drawn fleetingly by the wakes of Navy patrol craft or coastguard cutters. I once went on a week's fishing trip in an open boat from Palawan southward. We fished for lobster off Bugsuk and Balabac islands, sleeping at irregular intervals wedged into the brows or on occasional dry land. I lost all sense of time and position. On the way back I discovered we must have spent one night on Borneo. The same thorns, mangroves and littoral clutter, it had seemed nowhere different.

There is one last kind of island, one whose elusive presence flickers at the edge of vision, quick as fish. This is the imaginary island faithfully mapped in every psyche, mostly unsuspected, infrequently discovered, even more rarely inhabited. An outcropping of the self, it lies across a treacherous strait which discourages acquisitiveness, and even on clear blue days may have vanished as if it were roaming the oceans in search of the one worthy inhabitant. Then on a rare day the rare person wakes and it has swum out of the corner of his eye and stands before him. On such a morning it takes no effort to cross over, paddle flashing in the sun, until the skiff's bows nudge grindingly into the shore.

And then what pleasure to set up a hut, a fish drier; to pare things back to water and light, to knives and spearpoints, to order and silence! All men have an island, Donne should have said, for a suspended wheel rim being beaten in a cement-block chapel on the distant mainland ought to tell us no more than the fish curling and flapping between our hands, bleeding rusty threads into the sea. That steely tolling from across the water brings no news, nothing we do not already know as later we climb the headland to watch soft dusk well up over the world's rim and efface the ocean below. It is not interesting to tot up the sunsets seen and perhaps to come. Those deaths, our deaths, are not plangent affairs but matters of geology. We are all at best marginalia in another era's fossil record. Go down to the hut instead through a drift of fireflies. Light the lamp, cook rice. there is nobody else on this island; there never was and never could be. Outside, the waves wring green flashes from plankton. The great mineral machine turns its fluid gears. the firefly in the thatch tugs us into gravitational field.

(1) Part of the island's haunting quality may be because its exclusivity reminds us of the family as we once saw it through infant eyes: self-contained and self-sufficient. A family's underlying sadness resides in its conspiracy of immortality. When decades later we come to look at it with an almost-stranger's eyes, a family relic such as an old tablecloth now stands poignantly revealed in its faded colors and moth holes as having always been both altar cloth and shroud.
(2) W ou le souvenir d'enfance.

from James Hamilton-Paterson's Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds.

I live on an island big enough to be a province but small enough to be the smallest province in the Philippines. The only way you could find it on a map is by first locating what it is adjacent to. It used to be a "compartment" of a much bigger island to which it is still connected by a bridge. So far it has attracted no foreign tourists and only a handful of expats who share the same desire, evidently, to fall off the edge of the world.

The island offers me plenty of solitude from the lunatic world far over the horizon, but not from humanity, from the sharp and quick emotions of a people cut off from the machinations of Manila and the global community, but never very far from what matters - family, friendship, and the embrace of a natural world that is as much inside them as all around them, taking pleasure in the moments that make up their lives. Just as Eliot said, another American on another island that he learned to love:

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

*"Little Gidding".

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