No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
- John Donne
But that’s not entirely true, is it? John Donne was an Englishman, and England is an island whose inhabitants have seldom considered themselves part of the continent– of the Eurasian land mass. Everyone there used to know the apocryphal headline “Fog in Channel, continent cut off.” England, as an island, relied for its defense, not upon a land army, but upon the Royal Navy. In 1940 Hitler ruled all nearly all of mainland Europe except for Russia, and Stalin was to be his ally for another year, pouring tons of raw material into the Nazi war machine. England was isolated. Across the pond, the Americans were isolationist.
On June 4th, Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke in the House of Commons and concluded with these immortal words: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” (Emphasis mine.) FDR got his Lend-Lease plan to help Britain through a reluctant Congress; but it took the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, and Germany’s subsequent declaration of war on the United States, to get the New World to join the fight. I leave to theologians the question of whether all that was “God’s good time”.
Isola, Italian, “island”. Isolated, English– and England. Which was perilous but proved providential.
Insula, Latin, “island”. Insular, English– and the English. Which can be a problem but also made the British stubborn.
Isolationist– what America was in 1940, which demanded ingenuity of FDR to help the Sceptered Isle hold the Germans at bay.
You don’t need to live on an island to be one.
The man who sold me my house kindly stopped by today to help with a problem with the light switches. He wasn’t able to, but that’s not the point. I’m vaccinated against the coronavirus and so is he, but he wore a mask in his car, out of doors, and in my kitchen, where he would not take refreshment. A human island. Absurd: what began as a necessary hygienic measure soon devolved into a political gesture. Reactionaries refused to wear masks, even when not doing so placed themselves and others at greater risk of infection by the coronavirus. Resistance to vaccination is a further reflex of that dangerous and irresponsible stupidity. What calls itself the left turned mask-wearing and social distancing, even when those measures were not necessary, into forms of signaling their own virtue, their status of ideological salvation, to the other members of the congregation of the secular elect.
Wearing a mask, staying six feet away from people when you don’t need to, making your meetings virtual instead of real: this is what makes a man an island entire of himself, and no longer involved in mankind. The pandemic is not the reason any longer. It’s become the excuse. Greek atoma means, literally, “something that cannot be cut”, the Latin for which is “individual”. Fine, but what of a populace who are atomized, reduced to lonely points on the landscape? They are susceptible to easier manipulation by the powers that be, obviously: united we stand, divided we fall. People subsisting all alone grow dull, and it is not coincidental that another Greek word for an individual, for man-as-desert-island, is idiotes. Yes, that’s right. Idiot.
Sane, intelligent people– these are as rare as hen’s teeth in America today– wear a mask, stay six feet away from others, and consign social gatherings to Zoom. But they do so only as long as they have to, since all those things subtract from life and make man what he should not be. They make him an island, and no longer wholly human. To the self-righteous, the virtue signalers, such an island can seem a tropical paradise, a Tahiti with palm fronds clicking in the breeze. “But enough about me. What do YOU think of me?” says the well-heeled Angeleno or New Yorker to his virtual company as he sips his imaginary coconut daiquiri on a nonexistent terrace over the golden sands of the screen-saver beach, with the gentle digital susurrus of the inviting azure surf in the background. When will reality pull the plug and make the image go dark?
Or an island can become the opposite of paradise and serve as a prison; be experienced, as hell. The Republican Dreyfus or Napoleon paces impatiently on Devil’s Island, on St. Helena, boxed in by what the Norsemen called the “unharvestable plain”, the horrid, kraken-infested ocean of nightmare in whose freezing depths the dead hulk of the Titanic lies mired in eternal dark. The sea is a wall. I want to get back to Europe, sputters Napoleon, and reconquer it. I would like to see my friends and family again, Dreyfus muses sadly. Isolated by the plague, the social being wants to remove his mask and see complete faces, gather with the rest of the faithful under the solid eaves of the house of worship of his choice, break actual bread with flesh-and-blood friends, and travel. The pre-corona laptop screen, the screen of one’s phone, the screen of the television set, the screens between cubicles at the office– weren’t these shadowy projections on the walls of Plato’s cave incarceration enough?
Aristotle defined man as a logikón politikón zōon, that is, an animate being who can reason and who lives in cities (logical, political zoos). By logoshe meant reasoning for oneself, not repeating the cherished fictions of the New York Times; and by polis he meant working with others to manage the affairs of a fairly small community, not consigning one’s fate and fortune to a far-flung clan of wealthy thieves and their partners in crime in Sacramento and Washington. The model of the polis is a chimaera, of course. Aristotle never lived in one, and further compromised his principles by tutoring the moody young thug Alexander; your reporter wasted his own modest talents by teaching in the Ivy League– the death star of unfreedom in a country whose liberty is a hollow memory at best– and living to see most of his pupils grow up to be monsters. Man is a social animal and employs that instinct to enslave people (Alexander the Great) or sell snake oil (Academia, the Media, and, never to be outdone, the Church). Sometimes it’s better to be an island. L’enfer, c’est les autres.
But that’s okay, if we can regard the predicament with a dose of stoical humor. When you pack those books you’d sworn you’d take to that desert island with you, just make sure one of them is Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle. The action of the book, after a wintry prologue in upstate New York, takes place, as a matter of fact, on a Caribbean island, San Lorenzo, where a black castaway named Bokonon is the local prophet and seer: his sarcastic, self-mocking, absurdist, occasionally profound teachings are transmitted in the psalmodic genre of the tropics, calypso songs. The military dictator of the island has forbidden Bokononism on pain of death, but in the absurdist spirit of the new faith both the tyrant and everybody else in San Lorenzo practice it anyway. As events proceed towards universal apocalypse, the narrator, a journalist writing about the doomsday weapon Ice Nine, becomes converted to the Bokononist path himself. Everybody dies a terrible death at the end.
In his memoirs, Bokonon muses:
“I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be. And yet, when I showed her a blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me, ‘I’m sorry, but I never could read one of those things.’ ‘Give it to your husband or your minister to pass on to God,’ I said, ‘and, when God finds a minute, I’m sure he’ll explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you can understand.’ She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm. When she saw a worm, she screamed. She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he can see what God is Doing.”
Prostitute your philosophy to the Macedonian world-conqueror, teach the classics to the over-privileged, wear a mask when it’s unnecessary or refuse to put one on when it could save lives.
Man is an island. Man is not an island. It doesn’t help either way. “So it goes,” Vonnegut used to chant. “It is what it is,” says a local farmer friend of mine, in the calm of resignation. “It BE that way sometime,” say Folks, on the island where I’m from.
Aristotle was a fool, and so am I, and so are you.
I was born on an island called Manhattan, in a neighborhood just north of Harlem. My parents were from Brooklyn: it and Queens are on Long Island. I went to school in the Bronx, which is on the American mainland. Those four places plus Staten Island make up the five boroughs of New York City, which has many more little islands here and there in its bays, rivers, and sounds, and they are all connected by bridges, tunnels, and ferries. But when my relatives in Brooklyn used to talk about “going to the City”, they meant Manhattan.
In 1976, the year of America’s bicentenary (if anybody cares anymore about 1776 and All That), the New Yorker published on its cover the now-famous map of the world from 9th Avenue by the Romanian Jewish immigrant artist Saul Steinberg. It is an ironic paean to the insularity of The City. Here comes the ekphrastic description: The West Side of Manhattan is shown in loving, vibrant, minute detail. West of the Hudson River is a narrow strip of featureless desert punctuated by absurd-looking mountains, with names like Las Vegas and Los Angeles scattered here and there. Beyond that is a whitish void, the Pacific Ocean, with indistinct, flattish lumps labeled China, Japan, and Russia on the horizon, where the world ends.
It used to be that maps petered out into Terra Incognita or empty stretches of ocean featuring picturesque sea creatures (cf. the Kraken, supra). The real boundary is between places that matter (New York island) and other places that don’t and are therefore not worth drawing detailed maps of (the United States of America in particular, but most everywhere else as well). Heading homewards, uptown on the A train, long, long ago, I used to reflect, with real satisfaction, that I’d not been off Manhattan island in nine or ten months. And now, having lived off the island, in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Fresno, California, one can testify that Steinberg drew it like it is. Russians used to call the prison camps of the GULAG the zona, “zone”; the rest of the USSR, the bol’shaya zona, “big zone”. Greetings from the Big Zone.
Most New Yorkers don’t focus on the rivers except as views you pay higher rent for, or something you look at through the windows of a car or train during your commute. But the rivers are watery, with waves, fish, vegetation on the banks, ice floes in winter. The Hudson, unlike, say, Boston’s Charles, whose volume you can alter by taking a piss in it, is a real river, a mile wide and hundreds of feet deep. Under the George Washington Bridge, near the Little Red Lighthouse, we used to picnic by the water’s edge fifty, sixty years ago. Us kids would scamper over the rocks to poke at anemones, eels, and crabs in the tide pools. Eels are admirably pugnacious: they would poke back at us, fangs bared. Way up river in Saugerties, years later, I once saw a fat, furious green eel lunge in midair at the fisherman who had hooked it and just wanted to throw it back. A few days later, I made a spirit-painting of that intrepid eel. Way to go, eel!
Later on, mythopoetic glorification gave way, as it tends to do with Bokononists, to sardonic humor.
Sturgeon, that prehistoric, tasty fish, used to abound in the Hudson. I’ve never painted one of those, but the Russian graphic artist Ivan Bilibin used to love depicting sturgeon gamboling in the Volga.
My boyhood bedroom window looked out over the Hudson towards the Palisades, and once I had a dream that Atlantis was on the river bottom, just north of the bridge. At the end of the day the Atlanteans, who worked in the city but kept their residential address secret, would board a submarine to go home. The submarine was operated by a brass lever on a brass disk that moved it up and down, like the old cage elevators in the grand apartment cliffsides of Riverside Drive.
Sometimes, in college, I’d walk all the way back to Washington Heights from Morningside Heights (upper Manhattan is hilly), hugging the riverbank all the way. Some bits were pathless, but one was rewarded with the view of the grey, choppy waters of an inviting bay, the buildings of the city invisible behind the thick canopy of trees along the shore. Uptown towards home one had to run across a highway to get back to the grid of streets and the insular, insulated life of our insula. That was a crazy dangerous thing to do, but one was eighteen. (That was the summer when Alice Cooper was singing “I’m Eighteen”. There are no songs for sixty-seven-year-olds. Well, that’s not true, there’s always Kaddish. Allen Ginsberg, anyone?)
My folks had a summer cottage on Fire Island, a sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island Sound. Our village, Ocean Beach, was middle-class and straight. It even had a Reform temple where my parents met Herman Wouk, the nice middle-brow Jewish writer. Ocean Beach was an unfriendly place. I would walk miles eastward in the surf to Sunken Forest, a dense, magical little national forest of wind-stunted holly oaks behind the dunes. It was usually empty, a great place for daydreaming. But you got a sense of the loneliness of Fire Island only at night. I’d set out after sunset and run for miles along the beach and then stand still, petrified with fear of the tremendous crashing waves, the yawning vault of indifferent stars, and the darkness. The island, like Prospero’s was full of voices, but they were menacing.
On Fire Island I imagined an island somewhere on the planet Saturn, surrounded by a moat-like watery barrier. I named the place Far Eshoth, because, as its furtive cone-headed denizens would boast, it was “far from anywhere”. Crags, called The Crags, ringed the moat, which I christened, unpronounceably, the Yyryydyy. Tree mushrooms dot the lonely landscape. A rather plump, alligator-like creature, the Earless Thing, lies in wait, pounces, and eats European explorers. (Here it is featured as a slide show)
Far Eshoth is still one of my favorite places to visit when I’m falling asleep. California Dreamin’ indeed.
Judith Schalansky, a writer who grew up in the enforced isolation of East Germany, published a little over a decade ago a strange, beautiful little volume, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will. Lonely Island, Russia, in the Arctic, had an observatory during the Cold War. Now everything is buried in the snow and nobody’s there. Nobody lives on the UK’s Southern Thule, either. In 1871, the English crew of a ship that ran aground on St. Paul Island found two castaways living there. One called himself the Governor, who described himself as “a very good man”; the other, the Subject, was “a thoroughly bad man”. France’s Possession Island has a Mont Jules Verne, a Mont du Mischief, an Aréte des Djinns, and a River Styx. The ring of Disappointment Islands adorn French Polynesia.
Not too far away is Rapa Iti, whose old sacral language came to a boy in the Vosges named Marc Liblin in a dream. Nobody could identify it, for years, till a bartender, a navy veteran, remembered having heard it in the South Pacific. Liblin met a woman from Rapa Iti. She could speak his language. They moved to the island, where Liblin’s strange gift aroused the suspicion and dislike of the locals. He died in obscurity and poverty. Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared in July 1937 somewhere past Howland Island, which belongs to the USA. Norfolk Island, Australia, was a harsh penal colony. Everybody on Pingelap, in Micronesia, is color-blind. Семисопочной (Seven Hills), in the unpleasantly-named Rat Islands, is perhaps the westernmost point in the US, a mere 1200 kilometers from Kamchatka. The arctic foxes have blue fur and Mt. Cerberus is spectacular. Takuu, in Papua New Guinea, has nearly six hundred souls, and is sinking.
Schalansky devotes a page to Easter Island. But I know the place better myself, and have been there. It is a small tropical, volcanic island, triangular (the longest side is about nineteen miles), about 2500 miles off the coast of Chile. There is nothing between it and Antarctica, seven thousand miles to the south. Its twelve tribes created one of the great ancient civilizations of the world. Platforms with giant monolithic statues of the ancestors, the moai, dot the landscape. The lichen-starred rocks bear petroglyphs: frigate birds and other symbols. The people carve wooden figurines of exquisite delicacy and beauty unmatched by anything else I have seen anywhere: guardian lizard spirits, the baleful house spirits called aku aku. They wear polished stone fish hooks around their necks. The Polynesian name of the place is Rapa Nui; and its old name is Te Pitu O Te Henua, the Navel of the World. You can get around on horseback and catch rainbow-colored fish. There are folktales about annoying octopi who come up on land, perambulate around, and steal people’s cooked sweet potatoes. Once the sea god Tangaroa swam to Rapa Nui in the form of a seal, and flopped onto the beach to rest. Hungry islanders started clubbing him. “Don’t hit me, I’m the god Tangaroa!” he said. “You lying seal,” they replied.
Easter Island has the only indigenous writing system in Polynesia, a beautiful apparently hieroglyphic and mnemonic script called Rongorongo, incised on polished mahogany tablets. In the 1860s and 70s the islanders were decimated by disease, enslaved, and massacred. In this genocide most of the tablets were destroyed, along with all but a few of the people who had known how to read them. There are twenty-five Rongorongo boards extant, and the script is undeciphered. I have been working on it, on and off over the years, and have come up with a promising methodology.
On the island I was adopted as a brother by a local man my age who, he told me, had cancer and was given but a short time to live. He took me to a restaurant he owned, and gave me the best tuna I have ever eaten. The aku aku he carved as a teenager stands at my bedside. The restaurant is a few feet from the water; and all that evening, as we sat together or drove along the coast in the dark, I kept having the feeling that the real party was going on down there, in the ocean. There were lights, the sense of a vibrant and sentient life which we on the island came from once, of which we preserved a memory in myths and tales– the feeling that we were anything but alone on our isle. It was a feeling I’d had before.
At the end of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, which I first read on Fire Island, the narrator ends what one would have expected to be a tale of horror, with a revelation of liberation and joy. It became for me a personal scripture and has remained so all these many decades.
“One night I had a frightful dream in which I met my grandmother under the sea. She lived in a phosphorescent palace of many terraces, with gardens of strange leprous corals and grotesque brachiate efflorescences, and welcomed me with a warmth that may have been sardonic. She had changed—as those who take to the water change—and told me she had never died. Instead, she had gone to a spot her dead son had learned about, and had leaped to a realm whose wonders—destined for him as well—he had spurned with a smoking pistol. This was to be my realm, too—I could not escape it. I would never die, but would live with those who had lived since before man ever walked the earth.
“I met also that which had been her grandmother. For eighty thousand years Pth’thya-l’yi had lived in Y’ha-nthlei, and thither she had gone back after Obed Marsh was dead. Y’ha-nthlei was not destroyed when the upper-earth men shot death into the sea. It was hurt, but not destroyed. The Deep Ones could never be destroyed, even though the palaeogean magic of the forgotten Old Ones might sometimes check them. For the present they would rest; but some day, if they remembered, they would rise again for the tribute Great Cthulhu craved. It would be a city greater than Innsmouth next time. They had planned to spread, and had brought up that which would help them, but now they must wait once more. For bringing the upper-earth men’s death I must do a penance, but that would not be heavy. This was the dream in which I saw a shoggoth for the first time, and the sight set me awake in a frenzy of screaming. That morning the mirror definitely told me I had acquired the Innsmouth look.
“So far I have not shot myself as my uncle Douglas did. I bought an automatic and almost took the step, but certain dreams deterred me. The tense extremes of horror are lessening, and I feel queerly drawn toward the unknown sea-deeps instead of fearing them. I hear and do strange things in sleep, and awake with a kind of exaltation instead of terror. I do not believe I need to wait for the full change as most have waited. If I did, my father would probably shut me up in a sanitarium as my poor little cousin is shut up. Stupendous and unheard-of splendours await me below, and I shall seek them soon. Iä-R’lyeh! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! No, I shall not shoot myself—I cannot be made to shoot myself!
“I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”
No man is an island.