The Island in Imagination and Experience is the title of a fascinating and wide ranging new book by Barry Smith. We are pleased to share the following extract which takes as its subject the universal archetype of the island retreat.
Throughout the Western world, islands have been sought after as retreats from mainland values, and as means of seeking redemption closer to God. The coasts of Britain and Ireland have an abundance of off-lying monastic islands: Iona was an important stepping-stone in the spread of early Christianity, as were the Aran Islands. Fifth-century monastic occupation is evident in the remains of wells, cells, chapels and beehive dwellings on Scottish and Irish western islands. In the seventh and eighth centuries, hermits in Canna, the small islands off Barra, Harris and the Uists, St Kilda, the Flannans, North Rona and the Shiants selected sites with water and fertile soil. But they were also far out into dangerous territory. Here would be experienced nature in the raw, not because nature was held in a pantheistic relationship with God, but because its horror set them at God’s mercy. Accordingly, “the sea itself terrified them. It was the zone not of divine beauty but of destruction and chaos. Only God and the saints could control it. Others were at its mercy.”
Indeed, penitence often seemed to demand the close proximity of Heaven and Hell. As Samuel Johnson noted in his journal through the Scottish Hebrides in 1773, “the religion of the middle ages, is well known to have placed too much hope in lonely austerities. Voluntary solitude was the great act of propitiation, by which crimes were effaced, and the conscience was appeased; it is therefore not unlikely, that the oratories were often built in places where retirement was Paradise and Purgatory sure to have no disturbance.” Living in cells elemental in the extreme, freezing and half-starved and confronting what was often a ferocious western ocean, the monks on Skellig Michael, fourteen kilometres off the south-west coast of Ireland, “may have thought that their last battle against the demon host might be carried to a conclusion. Cut off from all the easy ways of the world with all the issues of life simplified ... they offered themselves up in a white martyrdom of utter privation.” For many, the “martyrdom” was complete when Vikings sacked the island.
The term “utopia” derives from the Greek outopos – ou meaning “not” or “no”, and topos meaning “place”. Therefore, its meaning – or its implied meaning – is an idealised place that does not or cannot exist. However, the word most often refers to somewhere sought after by people wishing to realise a more ideal world. Utopias are places, often communities, underpinned by progressive or retrogressive ideas about human values and notions of society, religion and economy.
Islands off the British Columbia coast of Canada have received a seemingly disproportionate interest from utopists. Danes at Cape Scott on Vancouver Island and Finns on Malcolm Island attempted to develop socialist-cooperative communities. And Brother Twelve ruled over a community on De Courcy and Valdes islands in the 1920s with a distinctly self-interested world view. Stephen Guppy’s short story “Ichthus” captures the spirit of some of the more eccentric and flamboyant enterprises on a myriad of islands in the strait between the Canadian mainland and city of Nanaimo where “one could hardly pull in at a sheltered cove or knock at the door of a moss-covered cabin without coming face to face with the last of the Romanoffs or a disciple of Aleister Crowley”. Some of these eccentric outcasts from the mainland were just plain antisocial, some claimed obscure religions or to be bringers of good news about some new faith, and some were just conmen who came and went in a moment.
The British travel writer Jonathan Raban, sailing the coast from Seattle to Juneau, is confirmed in his suspicion that “the idea of creating utopia in the wild is programmed into the far-western imagination, and the Northwest coast was littered with such projects, started by Hutterites, vegans, Indian spirit channelers, survivalists, Christian sects so fundamental that even fundamentalists thought them eccentric.” Within a few years loneliness, the raincoast weather and the relentless battle against the rainforest took their toll. What started off as abandoned logging camps and canneries would revert to nature again, sprouting ruins within “ruins within ruins, as successive bands of hopefuls tried and failed to make a go of it.”
The life and death of utopias is a significant theme in literature and, just as the first ill-fated “New World” colony was sited on an island – Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina in 1587 – so fictional utopias have often been located in remote and inaccessible places. Like the biological closed systems that characterise small remote islands, utopias appear unable to survive in proximity to alternative societies. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) was located between India and Brazil, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) was in Ceylon, Johann Valentinus Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619) was in the “Ethiopian Sea”, and Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) was in the South Pacific. Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) provides a celebrated account of the inability of a utopic society to co-exist with a powerful and proximate continental neighbour.
The Island in Imagination and Experience is published by Saraband Books and available to buy from all good bookshops.
Barry Smith is, it goes without saying, an islomane. He has spent much of his 60-odd years at work, rest and play on islands all around the world – from Scotland’s Western Isles to Sicily, from Alaska to Cape Horn. To cap it all, he has completed a doctoral dissertation… about islands. He lives in northern Scotland and France.