When I was a toddler, I spent two weeks in the nursery aboard the Queen Elizabeth II which steamed from Bombay harbour across the Arabian sea, through the Gulf and the Suez Canal (before it was closed), through the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic to New York Harbour. One ocean and three seas away. There were marigold garlands when we slipped away and ticker tape at the final port.
A ship is an island, bounded by a black steel hull, a complete miniature civilization, with its own social code, transient citizenry, micro institutions, canned rituals, beautiful and crazy people with no escape learning to thrive with or tolerate each other. A ship has it’s figurative birth and death too, arrivals and departures, tinged with sweetness and sorrow.
In university I read the modern Irish playwrights and novelists, their obsession with the sea: how it gave life and took it, how their strong women watched their sons go out on boats, how they were wracked with worry, buoyed by hope and then, inevitably, emptied again by word of the loss of another boy. Their worlds were bounded and also harsh and isolating.
But, is an island like a big ship? It has all the constraints which, you would think, make a different kind of society and people. One can’t just wander off, forge west, because there’s a boundary: a beach and a sublime, treacherous, roiling sea. Stand and stare awhile, ponder the infinite, figure it could be good for fishing and even sport, plan to come back and build a shack at the edge of the trees, but eventually and ultimately, turn back and resolve to live within the constraints, in towns that were built millennia ago by people as crazy and beautiful as we are, adopt the quirks and rules, fully participate, accept social station, learn how to love living and life.
I live in America and one of the hallmarks of life here is the myth of limitlessness. I can’t think of anyone I’ve met in America who doesn’t – when the topic comes up – get that frozen far away look and intone, rote, that there’s lots of space to spread into. And maybe there is.
It’s a complicated myth rooted in love of land and – as complex things are – its collary, water aversion. In a sense, it’s inwardly limitless. So, starting at the edge (the oceans) and moving in: some examples of water aversion.
Consider Manhattan’s water averse development: the city is just now building parks around it’s perimeter generations after comparable cities – London, Paris, Rome, made their beautiful edge of water parks and walkways. In New York’s development, the river edge was for docks and warehouses and the poor; the affluent built on … central park where they could gaze from their well appointed rooms out onto lawns and ponds and trees – solid ground. It’s only recently that you can find a place with a river view in America’s greatest city.
Also, people in America don’t fly over the ocean much for vacations, admittedly for economic, but also for cultural, reasons. We distrust the continent, we actually hate the French – huh?, and our version of east Asia is Hawaii – a sort of west coast paradise that happens to be in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Just don’t look out the window. Spam sushi, anyone?
And, Americans don’t or can’t or won’t swim. Of course there are sub beach and lake cultures who do. And one can argue that urban dwellers can’t swim because their municipalities didn’t invest in public pools in the way that suburban communities and schools do. But, for the most part, America is a nation of non swimmers.
So, America likes its land legs. They’ve taken the edict ‘go west’ quite literally and grown to love land and its accoutrements: green green grass, mortgages, garages, field and stream, freeways, staking claims, gas stations, God’s green earth, drive-ins, hell’s half acre, GPSs, fields of dreams, pitches, turf.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes – in his essay excerpted below – about two kinds of islands: continental – which split away from the land – and oceanic – which come out of the sea. These two kinds of islands make two oppositional mythologies: continental islands tell us that the sea covers the earth; oceanic that the land undergirds the sea. Continental islands are made by “separating” and land is dominant; oceanic islands are made by “creating” and the sea is prime. Continental islands are accidental, derived, separated, disarticulated, eroded fractured and survivors. Oceanic islands are originary, essential, organic, erupted.
The mythology of island making is exactly paralleled in people, the author says. We are drawn to islands, and this drawing mimics the geographic realities of separation and creation which we see in the making of islands. When we think of islands, we dream of separating from society and of beginning anew, or recreating.
So, the processes of islands are like those of people, but in key ways they are different. Islands exist timelessly, in eternity before and after people. Their processes of separation and creation act in the background as the lore which attracts us to them.
And, curiously, in our imaginations, in mythology, they are always deserted — even when occupied. We hold them in our imaginations as something to escape to or somewhere to begin anew and therefore, we must go on seeing them as deserted. And our own coming and going, yearning for change and instincts to create anew play out separately from the lives of islands.
That islands could mean so much! My round the world tour from the nursery of the QE2 put the island instinct feverishly in me; I dream of islands, of separating and creating. And also of living in a city near the sea like New York or London, Hong Kong, Singapore. Is it a coincidence that two of the largest and most creative and interesting cities in history – London and New York – are island associated? They are powerful, mythic places of creation.
Following are two paragraphs from the essay:
Geographers say there are two kinds of islands. This is valuable information for the imagination because it confirms what the imagination already knew. Nor is it the only case where science makes mythology more concrete, and mythology makes science more vivid. Continental islands are accidental, derived islands. They are separated from a continent, born of disarticulation, erosion, fracture; they survive the absorption of what once contained them. Oceanic islands are originary, essential islands. Some are formed from coral reefs and display a genuine organism. Others emerge from underwater eruptions, bringing to the light of day a movement from the lowest depths. Some rise slowly; some disappear and then return, leaving us no time to annex them. These two kinds of islands, continental and originary, reveal a profound opposition between ocean and land. Continental islands serve as a reminder that the sea is on top of the earth, taking advantage of the slightest sagging in the highest structures; oceanic islands, that the earth is still there, under the sea, gathering its strength to punch through to the surface. We can assume that these elements are in constant strife, displaying a repulsion for one another. In this we find nothing to reassure us. Also, that an island is deserted must appear philosophically normal to us. Humans cannot live, nor live in security, unless they assume that the active struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained. People like to call these two elements mother and father, assigning them gender roles according to the whim of their fancy. They must somehow persuade themselves that a struggle of this kind does not exist, or that it has somehow ended. In one way or another, the very existence of islands is the negation of this point of view, of this effort, this conviction. That England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents. Islands are either from before or for after humankind.
But everything that geography has told us about the two kinds of islands, the imagination knew already on its own and in another way. The elan that draws humans toward islands extends the double movement that produces islands in themselves. Dreaming of islands—whether with joy or in fear, it doesn’t matter—is dreaming of pulling away, of being already separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone—or it is dreaming of starting from scratch, recreating, beginning anew. Some islands drifted away from the continent, but the island is also that toward which one drifts; other islands originated in the ocean, but the island is also the origin, radical and absolute. Certainly, separating and creating are not mutually exclusive: one has to hold one’s own when one is separated, and had better be separate to create anew; nevertheless, one of the two tendencies always predominates. In this way, the movement of the imagination of islands takes up the movement of their production, but they don’t have the same objective. It is the same movement, but a different goal. It is no longer the island that is separated from the continent, it is humans who find themselves separated from the world when on an island. It is no longer the island that is created from the bowels of the earth through the liquid depths, it is humans who create the world anew from the island and on the waters. Humans thus take up for themselves both movements of the island and are able to do so on an island that, precisely, lacks one kind of movement: humans can drift toward an island that is nonetheless originary, and they can create on an island that has merely drifted away. On closer inspection, we find here a new reason for every island to be and remain in theory deserted.
Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953-1974, ed. David Lapoujade, trans. Michael Taomina (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004), 9-10.
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