Islands, Lovers, and Others

By Lowenthal, David | The Geographical Review, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Islands, Lovers, and Others


Lowenthal, David, The Geographical Review


Islands are for lovers, it is often truly said. But lovers seldom have them all to themselves. Honeymooners share paradise islands with ticks and sand flies and mosquitoes, tourists and touts, the flotsam and jetsam of sojourners past and present. Quintessential lovers' havens--tropical palm-fringed islets set in balmy seas--are hardly the only islands, nor are lovers their only owners. Islands belong also to children and castaways and convicts, to pirates and pensioners, to selfish autocrats, and to ascetic reformers. Indeed, they belong to all of us, however reluctant we may be to acknowledge possession. Or perhaps it is better to say, with Jose Saramago (1999), that islands really own us, for in seeking them we are more often than not in search of ourselves.

It is a seeming paradox that island parochialism is also commonly invoked to disparage others--the bluff, intolerant insularity habitually ascribed to the English and latterly deployed to denigrate "America: The World's Most Insular State." Our age is one of "unprecedented insularity," rails a critic, "of individual islands of furious opinion,... entire archipelagos of tribes, sects and groups ... marooned by their own sense of moral or political rectitude." (1) To be insular is to be out of touch, narrowly prejudiced in feelings, ideas, or manners. Yet it is precisely being out of touch that makes islands such popular destinations.

Island fascination is age-old. From Homer's Odyssey to Augustine's Confessions to Shakespeare's The Tempest, from Defoe's Robinson Crusoe to Golding's The Lord of the Flies, islands have served as archetypes of good and evil, dream and nightmare, despair and fulfillment. They commonly harbor both castaways and conquerors, with cautionary warnings for each. Shipwrecked on the seemingly desolate coast of Rhodes, the Socratic philosopher Aristippus at length espied geometrical figures drawn in the sand. "Let us be of good cheer," he cried out to his sailing companions, "for I see the traces of men." Heartened by signs of intelligent life, Aristippus found his way to the island's capital, where he taught for many years. Earlier human traces in Rhodes were less cheering. A century previously, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus had laid the island waste in her conquest of the Aegean. To commemorate her victory she installed in the city a huge bronze statue of herself, a long-lasting loathsome reminder of the islanders' subjugation. (2)

As seemingly self-contained miniature worlds, islands became seedbeds of fertile imagination. Greek civilization emerged in substantial measure from the idiosyncratic isles of the Aegean. Odysseus wandered beyond the Aegean to confront the classic conundrum of Scylla and Charybdis. On Ogygia, Calypso's island (probably Gozo [Cuisenier 2006, 417]), he enjoyed seven years of carnal bliss shadowed by nostalgic anguish. At Patmos, Saint John's isle of exile and epiphany, the apostle penned his fearsome Revelation. Islands were famously denizened by demons, troglodytes, satyrs, cannibals. The sixteenth-century cosmographer Andre Thevet's "Grand Insulaire et Pilotage" envisioned the whole world from the perspective of hundreds of maps of thousands of islands, many of them imaginary (including two named after himself); some of Thevet's inventions survived as actual islands on British Admiralty charts well into the twentieth century. From Plato's Atlantis to the Duchesse de Montpensier's Isle Imaginaire, from the typographer's San Serriffe (twin islets of Upper and Lower Caisse, peopled mainly by colons and half-caste semicolons) to Planet Far Cry's "Micronesian" archipelago of Jacutan, mythic islands have delighted mapmakers and bedeviled wishful voyagers (Figure 1). (3)

But today's lust for islands is unmatched in scope and avidity. It is fueled by a yearning for seclusion from modernity. Islands are fantasized as antitheses of the all-engrossing gargantuan mainstream--small, quiet, untroubled, remote from the busy, crowded, turbulent everyday scene. …

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