Islands hold a special place in our collective unconscious. They are places of mystery, discovery, isolation, adventure, and occasionally horror. The mainland is where ordinary life occurs, but islands are special. Gods live on islands; so do monsters.
Throughout literary history, islands have played roles in many of our most revered texts. They have been portrayed as places to confront the unknown (The Odyssey), to remake yourself (Robinson Crusoe), to start a new life (Swiss Family Robinson), to found an ideal society (Utopia), or to face our cruelest selves (Lord of the Flies).
And it’s not just literature: throughout the history of mankind itself, islands have been places where exceptional individuals go beyond themselves to change the world: inventing new styles of art (Gauguin in Tahiti), creating revolutionary theories about the world (Darwin in Galapagos), or developing new ways to destroy the world (atom bomb testing at Bikini Atoll).
The undeniable romance to the idea of living on an island, spanning so much history and so many cultures, leads me to think that it must have several deeply ingrained, maybe even evolutionary, bases. I am currently thinking there are two primary ones: going to an island involves a treacherous journey, and an island is a complete world unto itself. There’s probably much more to it than this, but these facts help lend a mythological quality to island living that goes far deeper than whatever slick marketing techniques can be mustered to entice people to a destination.
Only a select few are born on an island; everyone else has to travel to it from the mainland. Reaching an island involves getting on a boat and crossing a body of water, an environment greatly inhospitable to human life, a place that we humans simply shouldn’t be. Even in a modern boat, with lifejackets, radios and multiple other safeguards, the journey is inherently dangerous, and you can feel it. In a bobbing boat, with waves lapping against the hull, waters churning around, and an unfathomable deep below, you becomes highly cognizant of the primordial ritual of baptism, and takes part in the Campbellian “hero’s journey” into the unknown, and unknowable.
Even without going to an island, the voyage out to sea puts you in a position to gain a new, deeper, and more nuanced perspective on mainland reality and one’s life there. However, arriving at an island adds an completely new dimension to this journey, and you can enter an entirely new reality.
A COMPLETE WORLD
While it may be true that “no man is an island,” an island is indeed an island, and upon stepping onto one, this fact is deeply, if inexplicably, sensed. Islands are a “whole,” they are complete unto themselves. Birds and winds may carry new forms of life to an island every so often, of course; but by and large, (natural) islands are complete ecosystems resting in equilibrium. The coastline creates a definitive, undeniable edge, and everything inside must work as a singular system. This leads, in a short time, to a realization among island inhabitants: even though the interior may be a frighteningly dense forest and not obviously comprehensible, the boundaries of the island are clear and unarguable. You know that the land is finite, and that with enough time, it can all be understood. An island is not just a world unto itself, but a world that a mere mortal can come to make sense of. It is a place where you can gain an existential foothold in the cosmos, and know everything there is to know — at least about this one world. This godlike understanding creates a sense of tranquility that simply can’t be matched on the mainland, where you can never really, experientially, know where you are.
Not all islands are “Islands” in the sense I am describing. A true “Island” in the sense of the Platonic ideal has no or very few people, and is not too big — otherwise it takes on too many characteristics of the mainland, and loses its “Island-ness.” If there are too many people on the island and a society too connected to the rest of the world, then it starts to feel like the mainland: an Island is an isolated escape, a place to find your true self, not a place where you remain tied to customary life. Likewise, if an island is so big that it can’t be readily and easily comprehended by a single person, then it again starts to feel like the mainland: a big mass of land which can only be known in bits and pieces.
Cuba and England thus fail as Islands, on both counts. The highly developed islands of the Caribbean, while often small, are too heavily populated and too tied to world culture to be a true escape. And places like New Zealand and Madagascar, while largely raw and uninhabited, are too large to be experientially understood as islands. And don’t even consider the Florida Keys or Long Island: as soon as you can walk or drive there, the land is no longer an island. These places may happen to be islands by geographical definition, but they aren’t Platonic Islands, since they don’t require a journey that separates them from “ordinary reality” and they aren’t able to be comprehended and understood in an experiential way.