E S S A Y S  > Island Blues

A mosaic of island fantasies. Or “The undiscovered island calls with its perfume, like a courtesan”. (Guido Gazzano)

For many people, including the author, islands have an almost irresistible appeal. Is it because the dream of a different life might come true here? Is it the experience of infinity? Another sense of time and space? Is it the clear air and the sweeping views? Or the generally slower pace of life? Is it the comforting embrace of the sea? Or the contrast to our stringently organised industrial society? It may well be a little of all these things.

The romantic South Sea islands with their palm-lined beaches, turquoise lagoons and beautiful Polynesian women in brightly coloured clothes inevitably spring to mind – as does the potently symbolic myth of Tahiti. The reports by Louis Antoine de Bougainville about “naked nymphs with divine bodies” brought many Europeans to these shores. Descriptions of the contacts with the islanders often went into salacious detail, touching upon the repressed drives of a – literally – corseted European society. The novelist Jean Paul freely admitted “feelings of lust” on reading such descriptions of the South Sea islands. When family duties and financial difficulties forced Paul Gauguin to return briefly to France, he wrote, “Farewell, land of hospitality, land of delight, home of freedom and beauty. On leaving I am two years older and twenty years younger, more primitive than before my arrival, yet wiser. Yes, the savages have taught the civilised people many things; these uneducated people have a great knowledge of life and the art of happiness.” When he returned to the South Seas he was disappointed to find that Tahiti had changed: “It was Europe – the very Europe I thought I had escaped – exacerbated by colonial snobbery”. He moved to the more remote Marquesas Islands. Instead of the motto “Be mysterious and be happy” on his hut, he now inscribed over the entrance the words “TE ATUA” – the gods have died.

Property-sharing and free morals – the people of Tahiti did not even have a word for faithfulness or jealousy – became constructs of an ideal, model society between natural reason and rational nature. It was as though Rousseau’s concept of human reason had become reality. In Diderot’s famous fictitious dialogues Tahiti was the example set against a European society out of touch with nature and bound by economic and moral contraints. His notions of anti-colonialism, liberty and the common weal went far beyond the ideals of the bourgeois revolution.

In the utopian genre of literature, islands were frequently the setting for ideal societies. Plato’s Atlantis is the setting for a society in which peace and virtuous respect for the cornucopian wealth of Poseidon’s isle prevailed until the arrival of avarice and the thirst for power brought the wrath of Zeus upon the island. It sank into the ocean, never to be found again. Thomas More’s Utopia, that model state peopled by rational beings, was originally linked to the mainland by an isthmus. It was only after General Utopus destroyed the isthmus that this unique and ideal society blossomed.

Today, such constructs are barely conceivable. Even the most remote islands have been integrated into a standardised and one-dimensional globalisation of economic and cultural values. Such questions as who is globalising whom or what, and for whose benefit, to what purpose, against whom or what – questions which ought to be posed anew, and answered, at every turn in the globalisation process – tend to be ignored. Islands would certainly benefit from a closer and more critical look at the WTO dictum of overpriced seed and pesticides with all their destructive potential, and from a return to the healthier alternative of mixed agriculture. Monoculture is not the only thing that is threatening island life: there is also global warming and the pollution of the oceans (depletion of fish stocks, bleaching of coral reefs, rising sea levels).

Islands are part of the whole, and yet distinct. It is no more true to speak of “nature as such” than it is to speak of “islanders as such”. Even with the most consistent avoidance of ahistorical abstraction, it is difficult not to come up with the apodictic assertion that “islanders are different”. But what does that mean? Their pride in the little piece of earth that has no direct neighbours – a pride nurtured by centuries of defence against conquest and survival in the face of adversity? The hospitality that islanders, more readity than any others, extend to strangers, inviting them to take a drink or a delicious local meal – an instinct deeply rooted in the custom of offering the traveller some initial compensation for the long journey and of giving him something for the road when he leaves? The willingness to fight for their own culture, their autonomy, their centuries of tradition?

What is more, islanders feel nearer to the sky. Where but on an island with its clear air would anyone come up with idea – as Psarantonis does in Crete – of throwing stones at the moon (2/12). And of doing so at the very place where Zeus, father of the gods, was born. Zeus actually means “the radiant one” (from dyaus, meaning brightness or heaven). The Greeks made the bright sky their god of gods. Henry Miller was drawn here too. On the south coast of Greece, he realised that the sense of being nearer to the sky can unleash an exhilarating quest for cosmic expanses. “To reach the sky is nothing – child’s play – from this supreme earthly mansion, but to reach beyond, to grasp if only for an instant the radiance and the splendor of that luminous realm in which the light of the heavens is but a faint and sickly gleam is impossible,” wrote Miller, musing on “... the desire to bathe in the sky. You want to rid yourself of your clothes, take a running leap and vault into the blue. You want to float in the air like an angel.”

It is surely no coincidence that so many islands bear names that have something to do with light. The Marquesas Islands means “world of light”, the island of Raiatea means “clear sky”. Is it the proximity to the heavens that fills us with such feelings of contentment and makes us want to merge with the universe? According to D.H. Lawrence, “… once you isolate yourself on a little island in the sea of space, and the moment begins to heave and expand in great circles, the solid earth is gone, and your slippery, naked dark soul finds herswelf out in the timeless world … you are out in the other infinity.” For Lawrence, “The moment is your little islet in time, it is the spatial universe that careers around you.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived on an island for some time, longed to return there, to the place where he experienced an “enchantment that is heightened the longer it lasts, so that one eventually reaches the highest state of bliss”.

Baudelaire, in his Voyage to Cythera, writes: “Isle of sweet mysteries and festive loves, above your waters ancient Venus moves; like an aroma, her imperious shade burdens the soul with love and lassitude”.

Our yearning for islands seems to be hopelessly directed at places where we wish to create the world anew, both inwardly and outwardly – at least in our dreams. This dream voyage charts the evocative music of far-flung islands, setting sail for the fringes of known society with bluesy ballads that tell of personal suffering and courage, of sadness and yearning. Rather than indulging in hectic island-hopping, we have chosen to drop anchor in five major regions and take on board the prevailing atmosphere and mood. Other voyages and other ports of call may follow.

Our journey begins on the Comoros Islands ...