“ISLOMANIA” or my madness for islands

Cheyenne Morrison © 2007


īl-o-mā'nē-āk' - One with a madness for islands


“Those who suffer from [islomania] can be recognized by the faraway look in their eyes, their horror of enclosed spaces and their lust for certain colors, such as royal blue with depths upon depths of gold in it, which can only be seen in the Aegean and along the coasts of Greece.”

Robert Payne, The Isles of Greece Simon & Schuster 65

Do you daydream about tropical islands, graced by drooping palm trees, surrounded by turquoise lagoons, where you can lie in a hammock and do absolutely nothing except drink a Mai Tai and watch the waves ripple on the sugar white beach?  If so, then you suffer from a medical condition called Islomania (pronounced 'i-lo-ma-ne-a') or an obsession with islands.

Many people since the beginning of time have dreamed of living on an island, perhaps for just a few days, or a month, a year or even forever. But it was the poet, writer, traveller and island lover Lawrence Durrell who first made famous the term “Islomaniac”. In 1956 he wrote at the beginning of Reflections on a Marine Venus…

"Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. These are people, Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. We islomanes, says Gideon, are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is toward the lost Atlantis that our subconscious is drawn. This means that we find islands irresistible.”  

In a letter to a friend he wrote… "Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit.  There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication.” 

Only another islomaniac could understand the power islands can exert on the mind and heart of man, the way they can stir up feelings of love, contentment and belonging. Lawrence Durrell notes that a man named Kimon Friar claimed to have lived on 46 different islands. Philip Conkling has apparently visited more islands than anyone else. The director of Maine's Island Institute, he has been to about 1,000 islands in that state. Some people in the Travelers' Century Club, whose members attempt to visit as many countries as possible, have been to islands in over 100 countries.

I’m undoubtedly an islomaniac, almost all islands are beautiful to me, and very few are lacking in interest. I personally know of no greater joy in life than to get my first sight, in the half-light of an early dawn, of an island looming off the bow of a boat. If it is an unknown island, better still. Life on an island is simple and satisfying - if you are the right kind of person for it. But if you cannot do without all the small conveniences of life the modern age has given us, don’t go. If you’re the kind who must have the morning and evening paper, a cinema round the corner, your favourite show on the TV, and all the other mundanities of urban life, stay at home. But if you are the sort who craves adventure and new experiences, you will find in islands a happiness that is inexpressible, something real and vital that you will never forget as long as you live.

The dictionary defines island as “land surrounded by water”, but no island-lover would ever allow such a commonplace description to detract from the romantic sound of the word and all that it conveys to the imagination. Islands, like emerald yachts on a powdered sapphire sea, are places of magic, for there is something unpredictable about an island. The water which isolates it from the main-land cuts it off at the same time from the banality of everyday life, so that anything may happen on an island; the laws of probability have no jurisdiction there. Avalon, Hy-brasil, Lyonnesse, Atlantis, they offer the dream of a Utopian, Shangri La existence.

Islanders are renowned for being anarchic, and insular - from the Latin Insula - island, and being insular they attract eccentrics. Islands are the natural repository of witches, monsters, hermits, castaways, beachcombers, artists, writers, exiles, expatriates, the fabulously wealthy, pirates and buried treasure, they are even home to the gods. They are the setting for both Heaven and Hell; the island of Vulcan, was home to the Greek god of fire Haephestos, and purported to be the entrance to hell. The Maldives were claimed to be the original setting of the Garden of Eden by General Gordon of Khartoum fame, and Sri Lanka was thought by the Arabs to be the site of Eden, with Adam's footprint on the summit.

An island, like the Garden of Eden, is a finite, concentrated world, complete in itself and whose boundaries are fixed. Being small and circumscribed by water, islands can be imagined as a magic circle, both encompassing and including, offering protection and exclusion. Because of this islands are easily explored, which gives the illusion that they can be conquered and thus they possess the imagination. Islands are the world on a human scale, the boundaries of the island encourage us to think we can get to truly know it, and they are easily imagined as a map. Local events are magnified into world history since it is a miniature, a model of, and a model for, the wider world, but one more open to observation and personal control than the whole atlas. Limited in size and isolated, islands provide security and protection from the unsavoury aspect of reality.

Islands, I think, are metaphors for ourselves: they are part of a larger whole, but separated from it, too. That larger whole sustains them, and they contribute their small piece to it. But they are also worlds unto themselves, with well-defined boundaries. Each island is like ourselves: unique. And like each of us, each one is surrounded by elements that can be delightful one day and destructive the next.

Only a true island-lover can appreciate to the full the fascination of standing upon land surrounded on all sides by a glittering girdle of water; but every child is an island-lover. How is easy it is for children to create an island, their appeal to children lies in the sense of safety and security they provide, because an island encloses but also secludes like a magic circle. Children can turn anything into an imaginary island, a cardboard box, a tree house, underneath a bed, the imaginary island provides safety and isolation, like a womb. Perhaps it's this simple concept, most appealing to children, which is the largest factor adults seek islands as places of refuge from the realities of the world, a place where you can create your own reality.

It was as a child that I became obsessed with Islands, and a single book is responsible. A book absorbed in childhood can give a lifelong colour to the soul; as Thoreau said in Walden (1854) “how many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book”.

The critical moment for me was when my Grandmother gave me an illustrated copy of Robinson Crusoe. That simple, comic book version of one of the world’s greatest pieces of literature opened the doors of creation to me, tempering my imagination. I could see, hear and touch every part of Crusoe’s island, it possessed my dreams and gave birth to a life-long obsession. By the age of ten I knew my life’s purpose, to live on a desert isle and escape from civilization, where I could be safe from all the problems of an unhappy childhood.

The second turning point in my life was when I was given a colour photography book of Captain Cook's explorations for my 12th birthday. Filled with beautiful drawings, maps, and photos of tropical islands and South Sea islanders, the book made me realise that in my escape to an island, I had been looking to close to home. If there were an Island Paradise, then it had to have Palm trees, sandy beaches and exotic cultures.

Now when was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America or Africa or Australia, and lose myself in all glories of exploration.  At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one look particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on and say “When I grow up I will go there.” Joseph Conrad - Heart of Darkness

While other children were fascinated with the normal pursuits of children like sport or comics, my greatest pleasure like Conrad was to be left alone with an atlas. I pored over maps of Polynesia, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean until I was more familiar with them than my own neighborhood. I remember well the day I first learnt the word Archipelago, how magic the connotations of that word to me; a collection of islands, what joy that thought bought to me.

As a teenager, and my passion for islands grew, I read anything I could lay my hands on about voyages and exploration, Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Captain Cook, I knew each island they visited, pictured their expeditions in my mind, and their accounts of islands only continued to fertilise a love I already possessed. I knew intimately and by heart the Tuamotus, the Maldives, The Caribbean and the Fiji Islands; any explorer could happily rely on my skills as an island navigator.

Scouring libraries for island tales, I found that I was not alone in my passion: I found that many great writers were as obsessed with islands as I was. The 19th century saw many writers head to the South Seas, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Becke and Jack London.

“Awfully nice man here tonight… telling us all about the South Sea Islands till I was sick with desire to go there; beautiful places, green forever; perfect climate; perfect shapes of men and women, with red flowers in their hair; and nothing to do but study oratory and etiquette, sit in the sun and pick up the fruits as they fall.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

Private letter of spring 1875

Gauguin writing to his patron in September 1901, knowing he was dying, explained why he had chosen Hiva Oa as the place to end his life.

It is an island, still almost cannibalistic. I think the savage element there, together with complete solitude, will revive the fire of my enthusiasm before I die, give new life to my imagination and bring my talents to a fitting conclusion.”

Then, in the aftermath of World War I, the South Pacific again attracted a host of writing talent in search of a simpler world. Americans James Norman Hall, Charles Nordhoff, Robert Dean Frisbie, and Frederick O'Brien, in particular, wrote numerous short stories and serials about Polynesia which provided a literary foundation for the well-known South Pacific stories written after WWII by James Michener, W. Somerset Maugham and others. 

I devoured the works of these island lovers, but even that didn’t satisfy my appetite; my fascination grew from the islands of imagination, to those of reality. I well remember the day when we happened upon a garage sale where there seemed to be a veritable mountain of National Geographic magazines. I kept my whole family bored for hours while I dug through the pile sorting out only those that dealt with islands, and those two boxes of old magazines kept me dreaming for many years. Years later when were cleaning house I had to throw them out and it was almost like losing a part of the family. My only compensation being that I knew every single one by heart, and every map and photos was permanently engraved in my memory.

Thus it was that islands became my passion, my idee fixé. As I grew older I ransacked libraries for books on real islands, the more desolate and remote the better. It was always the little islands I loved the best, when looking at a map I was always looking in the corners at tiny islands with no name. Even though Australia, my home, is an island it carried no fascination for me, it was far too large. Norfolk, Lord Howe, Cocos Keeling, even the islands of the Antarctic, those had the possibilities I sought, adventure, solitude and escape.

All my life I have been an escapist. Whenever I get the chance I flee normal life to some “ivory tower” an island of fiction, and if possible one of reality. I wanted to be anywhere apart from the mind-numbing suburbia in which I felt trapped and constricted by the small minds and smaller aspirations of those surrounding me. If faced with a choice of a high-paying office job, or a poorly paid job as a deckhand or cook on a ship, there was no choice involved for me. Some people who’ve met me and discovered my passion and lifestyle would sneer deprecatingly at what they termed my “rolling-stone life”. It didn’t worry me, car payments, a mortgage, commuting two hours a day on public transport, to work in the city, surrounded by concrete, grey faces and grey lives - for what? - the very idea sickens me.

The beachcomber, that most clichéd of island inhabitants, was often depicted in literature as drunken, useless wastrel; the dregs of western society. But upon reading the books of Rupert Brooke, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and all the other writers I loved who used beachcombers as characters to satirize “Normal” society, I realized that my greatest ambition was to become a beachcomber.

To live on some remote and untouched tropical island, with maybe a bar or a trading schooner for income, to marry some brown-skinned island beauty and raise a brood of kids and lie there in a hammock in the evenings, sipping a Mai Tai and watching the sunset, that’s my dream. Sounds simple, but I’ve spent half my life at 44 years of age and I’m yet to achieve it. 

My life has often been tough, and at times desperate, but I know it’s been worth it for I have memories and experiences that few men on earth are lucky enough to experience. The quote, which most sums up my feelings comes from the writer James Norman Hall. After spending several months on a schooner wandering the remote Tuamotu islands of French Polynesia, he came across another ship anchored in a small atoll whose captain gave him a pile of recent newspapers from Tahiti. Hall read the papers that evening, then wrote in his notebook:

 ". . . I heard as in a dream the far-off clamor of the outside world . . . but there was no reality, no allurement in the sound. I saw men carrying trivial burdens with an air of immense effort, of grotesque self-importance; scurrying in breathless haste on useless errands, gorging food without relish; sleeping without refreshment; taking their leisure without enjoyment; living without the knowledge of content; dying without ever having lived. . . ."

These words struck me as timeless and more valid now than when Hall wrote them nearly eighty years ago. I've experienced enough 'trivial burdens' and 'useless errands' in mundane jobs, and this single paragraph described a view of life that was uncannily familiar. Hall's nightmare can all too easily become your reality, if you let it. Conventional life with its fictitious scale of values was what I fled: what I escaped “to” is more difficult to explain. However, anyone who shares my dream of islands hardly requires any further explanations.

There is a long history of two opposing images represented by islands in literature and the public imagination, and this dichotomy seems to stems from our attempts to anthropomorphize islands. They are a blank canvas on which are written our hopes and fears.

Islands also are the emblematic archetypal image for loneliness, epitomized by the castaway washed up on a desert island. Since Daniel Defoe’s epic tale “Robinson Crusoe” castaways and islands have become synonymous. The desert island is seen as a place where separated from society and its accoutrements man eventually reverts to his savage nature. This was most effectively portrayed in William Golding’s classic ‘The Lord of the Flies”, which was turned into two movie versions. The long literary tradition of island castaways was utilized by Hollywood, at first with movies based on classic books, but this eventually led to the start of reality television. The first and most famous reality TV show CBS’s ‘Survivor’ was actually based on a Swedish show called ‘Expedition Robinson’, and the genre continues with the present success of TV’s ‘Lost’. Lost itself borrows from a variety of sources in the castaway genre, and the island theme allows us an avenue to look into the human psyche and ask ourselves how we would behave if we were trapped on an island.

While nowadays a tropical island is most people’s idea of an ideal holiday destination, many of the places that we now seek to see as Paradise were once places of suffering and banishment. Alcatraz, Robbin’s Island, Devils’ Island, Monte Christo, Norfolk Island, and the Andaman’s all bring to mind tales of horror and hardship. In the 19th century tropical islands were seen as remote backwaters, where condemned criminals, failed bureaucrats and society’s misfits were exiled. To us this now seems incomprehensible.

Islands have also long symbolized Paradise, the ancient Greek version of Paradise was the Elysian Fields, a group of hundreds of island were the worthy lived in absolute happiness. From Plato’s story of Atlantis to Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Island’ there is a long literary tradition of islands being the perfect setting for Utopian dreams. Even the word Utopia stems from the fictional island invented by Sir Thomas Moore.

In the modern world islands have become the universal symbol for escape, one can hardly walk down any main street without seeing pictures of Fiji, the Maldives or the Seychelles used as seductive flypaper by travel agencies. Such images epitomize the desire to escape city life and return to a simpler place, in harmony with nature. The offer the appeal of allowing use to surrender ourselves to nature, but in a controlled method and all the trimmings so once we have absorbed them we can return to society reinvigorated.

Isolation has ceased to be a form of deprivation. In the world of mass travel, mobile phones, faxes and email, isolation is the scarcest commodity. With the advent of the jet, there’s hardly a spot on the globe which remains unexplored or untouched. Tourism has become one of the largest industries in the world, and more and more tourists compete for a limited amount of islands. Part of the power of islands is that, like Paradise, they can exclude. The harder to get to, the more it is worth going there. Wherever you travel to nowadays it is not the main island itself that is the star prize. It is that smaller island just out of reach: Maui, Bora Bora, Aitutaki or Turtle island.

In Alex Garland’s novel “The Beach” later turned into a film starring Leonardo di Caprio, we find backpackers always questing to find the latest, newest, “undiscovered” island, more remote from their peers, where they can experience the island idyll. Yet, their desire to experience a remote tropical island is exactly what ends up destroying it. Islands embody our deepest assumptions about Nature, they are good Nature, the sort that has to be preserved and cherished so they remain part of a benevolent world. Their isolation confers the hope of the discovery of the unsullied virginity of Nature but it also makes them vulnerable. So on islands we are immediately in the doublebind of being tourists in a place that should be beyond tourism. The response is twofold: ecotourism that makes Man servant of the environment, or offshore tourism where he seeks to go one step beyond.

I longed all my life to flee to an island where I could escape urbanity and all its ills. Sadly, there are no island refuges left, there is no spot on the globe where we can flee pollution, our disregard for our planet now threatens the very air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat. An island is a microcosm, the Earth in miniature. As a sailor for many years I visited many remote tropical islands. I was deeply traumatised when upon reaching Oeno atoll, one of the most remote islands in the world (which I assumed would be pristine) to find the beaches covered in the worst detritus of our modern world. Plastic flip-flops, plastic bags and bottles, and the ubiquitous cigarette butts. Even this fragile and stunning island paradise had fallen foul of our carelessness about the environment. To me it was like finding the Mona Lisa covered in graffiti, and the memory of that still provokes me to this day.

Castaways on desert islands, who learnt to live in harmony with themselves, their comrades and most importantly, nature, ultimately survived. Those that chose to go against nature, fight amongst themselves, and couldn’t resign themselves to a different way of thought perished. Many are the examples of islands where Europeans have introduced foreign plants and animals, which have gone on to totally destroy the environment. Our world is an island, and is just as fragile, if we don’t learn from the destruction of those islands, and alter our rape and destruction of the Earth we will shortly be left with nowhere to live whatsoever. The West's pursuit of a materialistic lifestyle has made the very sun itself a danger, and Global Warming threatens to drown those islands we call Paradise. I wonder, will my grandchildren be able to enjoy islands like me? or will they only be distant memories, something to read about in history books?

 When the Astronauts first set foot on the moon 30 years ago we were shown that first, extraordinarily powerful photo of the Earth taken from space. By seeing the Earth in its totality, enclosed, finite and very small, our thinking underwent a total paradigm shift. Our world was no longer the pre-Copernican centre of the universe we had thought it before. For the first time in history we saw the Earth for what it really was. That fragile, tiny, achingly beautiful blue-and-white-swirling marble peeking over the horizon of the moon, was alone, cut-off, and mysterious. The whole Earth had become no more than a desert island in the icy depths of the infinite black ocean of space. That photo proved that we had all become islanders, and like castaways trapped on an island we need to co-operate, or ultimately we will perish.

publicado por Pedro Quartin Graça às 14:07 | link do post | comentar