Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Man is an Island

In the human imagination, an island represents many things, from a prison to its opposite, an escape hatch. Something strange happens to people who are shipwrecked on inaccessible islands, whether singly or in a group that novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have often explored.

In 1902, J.M. Barrie stranded an aristocratic family and their friends, along with a butler, on a deserted island in his play, "The Admirable Crichton". Ostensibly a satire on the English class system, Barrie safely ends up reinforcing the old standards. On the island, it is the butler, Crichton, who rises to the occasion and who proves he is the most resourceful and capable man in the group. He quickly becomes the dominant figure in the group, is addressed respectfully as "the Guv'", and even arouses the affection of Lady Mary, Lord Loam's daughter.

Once they are rescued and returned to England, the old distinctions reassert themselves and the events on the island are discounted as "sentimentalizing". The island may have exposed the injustice of the class system, but, happily, we all have to live in society, haven't we?

In Gerhard Hauptmann's extraordinary but forgotten 1928 novel, The Island of the Great Mother, a lifeboat filled with women and children, sole survivors of a sunken ship, come ashore on an unknown island. With no men in their company, the women set about establishing a gynocracy. Several years pass and as they mature, the male children are segregated to a remote corner of the island, from whence they cannot interfere in the society of women, which has eliminated social strife with the expulsion of the aggressive males. A crisis comes when the young women rebel against their elders, their mothers, and seek union, both physical and psychical, with men.

Barrie\s polite satire is given sharper teeth in Lina Wertmüller 's film Swept Away (1974 - aka Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August), in which a snobbish young socialite finds herself alone on an island with a deckhand from her husband's luxury yacht. She suddenly has to depend on the boorish but resourceful man, who revels in the reversal of power. His dominance over her is complete when she discovers a passion for him and for her own submission to him.

But their inevitable rescue brings her back to her senses, causing him to curse her as, with perfect Marxist logic, an "industrial slut" as she is spirited out of his life by a private helicopter.

The 2000 Robert Zemeckis film, Cast Away (not to be confused with the much better film Castaway [one word], q.v.) excitingly showed how a FedEx apparatchik survives a plane crash only to find himself all alone on a tropical island. The details of his learning to make fire, of making tools out of things like ice skates and videotape (washed ashore in FedEx packages), and the astonishing arrival of a title that reads simply "Four years later" are gripping. The man finally finds a way to sail clear of the punishing surf surrounding the island and, for me, the most poignant moment in the film comes when he looks back at his island home of four years as it disappears behind a veil of rain. The film falls to pieces when the poor man returns to civilization, only to find bitter disappointment.

These various island experiments, and many others, all begin with the assumption that civilization, with its laws and rules of behavior, is nothing but a rather thin veneer that evaporates as soon as people discover that there are no policemen, that no one is watching and there is nothing to stop them from doing what they always wanted to do.

In a chapter from his book, Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton-Paterson explores our often contradictory ideas about islands.

Objects of Desire

Four things about small islands:

1. They look like objects, and hence like property.
2. The concept of the "private island" satisfies most people's major fantasies.
3. The effect of islands is almost wholly regressive.
4. An island's boundaries can never be fixed.

1. They look like objects, and hence like property.

Everyone looks at an island, whether consciously or not, much as a tyrant eyes a territory. It takes a long time to have any relationship with a land or a country, but the mere sight of an island from an aircraft's window or a ferry's deck mobilizes the beginnings of possessiveness. The place is small enough to treat with, to become familiar, to exhale an air of exclusivity, even if it is quite nondescript. A slight grammatical shift can mark either social desirability or small size - usually going together. Thus, one has a house in Malta, but a bungalow on Gozo. He lives in Jersey, she on Sark. (But they have a house on Long Island as well as one in Jamaica.)

This unit of land which fits within the retina of the approaching eye is a token of desire. The history of the Isle of Buss shows this desire working so strongly that successive mariners appropriated a portion of a long coastline and changed it into the island they would have preferred to discover. To have happened upon an unclaimed continent while lost in a small fishing smack would have been inconvenient, but to have found an unknown island was both manageable and enviable. How, then, could its discoverers have extrapolated a self-contained shape from a length of coastline? How were they able to draw the fictitious "back" of this "island" which remained forever as hidden and theoretical as the dark side of the Moon? Medieval cartographers often solved this problem by giving the Atlantic islands stylized shapes: circles, clover leaves, rectangles and crescents. The Isle of Mayda retained its crescent or indented circle shape on map after map, and eyewitness accounts of it seemed to conform to this outline with remarkable faithfulness. Quite possibly this reflected its rumored Islamic origin.

There for the taking... Ever mobile, for several hundred years the lost islands of the Atlantic might bob up anywhere from behind freezing mist, in a hurricane, or during a search for somewhere else entirely. The point was they could be possessed at the drop of an anchor, named for a vessel, claimed for a monarch. Even today, visitors and holidaymakers may "discover" an island which becomes "theirs" in respect to their friends, envious neighbors, peers.

2. The concept of the "private island" satisfies most people's major fantasies.

The "private island" remains the correlative of a particular dream. Islands are at once objects of desire and a locus for desires. The dream embodies fantasies of autonomy, independence, security, sex, grandeur, individuality and survival, in recognition that modern metropolitan and suburban life connotes powerlessness, dependence, defenselessness, frustration, lack of status, anonymity and a general feeling of expendability. In waiting rooms people eye color advertisements in Country Life, aerial views of yet another Scottish island about to come under the auctioneer's hammer, while an easily decoded dream crosses their mental retinas and glazes their eyes. Estimated price: $1,316,300. The same dream leaks into all sorts of stories and films set on private islands where the unities of time and place can be rigidly controlled. These may be tales of manhunts with the narrator-guest as the next quarry; reigns of terror; ghoulish experiments; masterminds plotting the world's overthrow from their flamboyant yet top-secret lairs; elaborate erotic baroqueries. Science fiction carries the dream on, being full of expansive futures in which the rich and powerful own private planets, while even the moderately wealthy may aspire to a humble asteroid as the site of a kingdom, retreat, hideout or love nest.

Nor is the dream confined to adults. In their coastlines, as in their potentiality, all lost islands go on reappearing in the maps which every powerless schoolchild draws.

(to be continued)

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