Summer 2010

On the Monstrosity of Islands

Betrayal, solitude, madness, despair

D. Graham Burnett

John Webber, The Death of Captain Cook, ca. 1781–1783.

“Nothing changes form so quickly as clouds, except perhaps rocks.”
—Victor Hugo

An island is a bit of earth that has broken faith with the terrestrial world. This quite naturally gives rise to concern about the reliability and good will of these landforms, which have so clearly turned their back on geographical solidarity. Creeping anxiety along these lines likely accounts in some measure for the prominence of islands in the robust literatures of betrayal, solitude, madness, and despair. One is abandoned on islands (Ariadne, Philoctetes), trapped on them (Odysseus, repeatedly), and subjected thereupon to the whims of lunatics (e.g., the islands of doctors No and Moreau). Prisons and penal colonies abound, encircled by an oceanic moat: Devil’s Island, Alcatraz, Rikers, Robben Island, Saint Helena, Guantánamo.

Yes, one can be “saved” washing up on an island (Lost, Robinson Crusoe, “The Most Dangerous Game,” Lord of the Flies), but this tends to be the beginning of a disaster still more exquisite and grotesque than that from which one initially rejoiced to escape. Under the palms, a castaway is more or less guaranteed to encounter atavism, primitive reversion, cannibal appetites, and primordial blood lust. Neighbors, if any, tend to be unreliable, since islands are consistently home to mutineers (Pitcairn, Cocos), wreckers (Anegada, Stroma), “savages” of one description or another (New Guinea, the Marquesas, Tierra del Fuego), and, of course, pirates, those great enemies of humanity (hostis humani generis), who’ve long holed up in inaccessible insular outposts from Tortuga to Reunion, Jamaica to the Solomons. One sees a fair number of monsters, too: Sirens, Komodo dragons, Scylla and Charybdis, the Minotaur, King Kong.

What about those “happy isles” adverted to in assorted legends? To be sure, the trackless oceans of mythology are speckled with a blessed archipelago (Atlantis, The New Atlantis, Cythera), but the coordinates of these inviting havens remain conspicuously uncertain, and those who report visits reliably encounter great difficulty returning. Are there edenic islands? In principle, yes. But in practice they turn out to be uniformly as illusory as that dogged “no place” lying nascent in the etymology of every u-topia. And what about the promise of an earthier sort of paradise? Yes, great sex gets offered on some important islands (Aiaia, Tahiti, Capri, Hawaii, etc.), but then there’s nearly always some serious mourning in the morning (seeing all your friends turned into pigs; contemplating the demise of “natural man”; reckoning with Tiberius in his madness; witnessing the murder of Captain Cook, etc.).

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