gerasimos vokos text

As soon as anyone mentions the Aegean, the first thing that comes to mind is the sea – of course. And yet the Aegean does not exist without its islands, and the concept of an island is by no means a simple one, because an island carries a complex symbolic burden. Yes, an island is a place which cannot exist of itself, but that is the exact reason why it can be isolated. Rather like people: to be isolated we need everyone else around. Just as the mountain needs the plain for its existence, so the island needs the sea. Except that with the last pair three of the four elements which make up the cosmos already co-exist: earth, water and air. The missing element, fire, shows by its very absence that an island is inconceivable, is incomplete, has something missing without the presence of human beings. The more desert an island, the more it challenges human beings; it has already called to them because it must be recognised as a desert island. It can exist only through that characterization : actually, somebody has to call it a desert island.

[ This text was originally written for Island_builtEvent announced in the lecture one can find in the project's diary. It was first published in the catalogue for the Greek pavillion, Biennale de Venezia, 2006 ed. Lois Papadopoulos, Ilias Konstantopoulos. ]

A land can be a desert land, but this is metaphor. An island can be a desert island, but this is literal. And here is a proposition which will doubtless sound strange: an island can be many things, but first and foremost it is a construction of language. As soon as someone mentions Makronisos or Gioura they have, at their immediate disposal, in the universe of the Greek language a source of countless narratives, real and imaginary. The same applies as soon as Mykonos is mentioned. And in these islands, in these Aegean islands, pain and pleasure already play their own song. In other words, an island is a literal concept bursting out into numberless metaphors. Perhaps literature has recognized this, has occupied and has exploited the island as its own particular territory, as its own particular world. From this standpoint, it can be no coincidence that on most of Jules Verne’s islands there is a volcano, which is expected to erupt at the right moment, at the end of the book, causing the island to vanish off the face of the earth. Obviously because the island must disappear after completing its specific literary mission. As an abstract literary concept, however, the island remains, voyaging from book to book, a vessel ready to carry new images, in new stories, the stories always the same as the old ones, but without being like them in any way, since the island in which they unravel is different every time, yet still the same. The island poses, in its own way, the philosophical question of sameness and difference.

Daniel Defoe wrote in the 17th century of the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. A lone shipwrecked sailor, with all the accumulated experience of the civilisation he carries, will construct the world from start. In the second half of the 19th century, Verne wrote The Mysterious Island. In this story, a group of people will dominate nature thanks to the inventiveness of an engineer and indefatigable work by the whole group, to eventually discover the chief engineer, who gives the meaning to the island, and solves the mystery which surrounds it. In the former book, Robinson is the hero. In the latter, the protagonist is the island itself, which, however, finds meaning in the one, in the subject which it is hiding in its bowels. In the title of his book, Verne defined once and for all the predestination of the island: mystery.

The second thing which needs to be recognized in order to explain the symbolic burden of the island is just as simple as the first – if not simpler; the island is a place with borders, but without frontiers. The difference is not without significance. Indeed, while frontiers are the work of civilisations - I would also say of politics – borders are more a work of nature. In other words a more complicated reality. When and how can we speak of borders? Do they define themselves? If not, who defines them? This, apart from anything else, is a philosophical problem. For Aristotle, for example, borders are defined by the shape which surrounds the contents. For the Stoics, however, this definition is inadequate because it only applies to static entities. If the entity is dynamic, how do we define the borders? From this standpoint, how are the borders of a forest determined? If we do not limit it, or it is not limited by nature, a forest is able to take over the whole earth. From the moment that an island has borders without having frontiers, it somehow resembles the Universe, which has borders, yet has no end. The island is a miniature Universe. Perhaps this is the reason why the island is a whole world in itself. This very island, that is the Universe, is what Pascal believed to be our prison. Besides, Utopias – without exception, I think – are islands: worlds of their own, exemplary worlds for our own world.

In The Children of Captain Grant there is an impressive passage in which Verne combines praise of the sea with the literary and ambivalent character of the island. The weather is good and lends itself to conversation on the elegant pleasure yacht Duncan, as it voyages in search of Captain Grant. The words are those of the geographer Paganel:

‘The sea! The sea’ repeated Paganel, ‘is the particular field in which the powers of humankind are put to the test, and the ship is the real vehicle of civilization! Only think, my friends. If the earth were only one great continent, we would not know even a thousandth part of it in the 19th century[…] A thousand miles of desert divide people more thoroughly than five hundred miles of ocean. We are neighbours across one coast to another, but strangers when a forest divides us! England touches Australia, while Egypt, for example, seems a million miles from Senegal, and Peking at the further antipodes from St Petersburg!’

During the conversation the subject shifts to the subject of islands, following the unexpected enquiry of Lady Helen, who wonders whether there are still any Robinsons ‘Take my word for it, madam’ replies the geographer, ‘I know few islands which have not had an adventure of that kind, and whose destiny has not already been realised even before the novel of your immortal compatriot, Daniel Defoe’

The geographer himself will be called to take responsibility for his own island, simultaneously a work of art and of luck. ‘Would the idea of being stranded on a desert island make you very afraid?’ the young Mary Grant asked him. Paganel replies that he would not find the experience very unpleasant, ‘I would begin a new life. I would hunt, I would fish, I would make my home in a cave in the in the winter, and in a tree in the summer. I would make a colony of my island’. ‘All by yourself? the girl continues to question him.

‘By myself if necessary’, replies the geographer, dangerously succumbing to the charm of romantic fiction. ‘Besides, are we ever alone in this world? Can’t we find friends among the animals, tame a little goat, an eloquent parrot, a friendly monkey? And if fate should send us a companion like the loyal Friday, what more would we need to be happy? Two friends together on a rock! That is happiness!’

But as soon as the idea of Happiness comes up, at that crucial point when literature threatens society, the conversation takes a serious turn, and Lady Helen’s practical words intervene, to bring matters back to earth ‘Dear Monsieur Paganel, you are letting your imagination run away with you. It is my belief that reality is very different from dreams. You are thinking only of those fictional Robinsons, who have been placed with care on a well-chosen island, and who Nature treats like pampered children. You only see the good side of things!’ ‘But madam,’ replies Paganel. ‘Do you not believe that someone could be happy on a desert island?’ Lady Helen’s final answer reconciles society with literature, on condition that the latter will serve the former:

‘I don’t believe it. Human beings are made for society, not for solitude. Loneliness can only breed despair. It’s a matter of time. Perhaps at first the difficulties of material existence and the necessities of life may distract the unfortunate creature who has just been saved from the waves; perhaps present necessities will conceal future threats. Perhaps. But later, when he feels alone, far from his fellow-creatures, hopeless of ever seeing his native land and the people he loves ever again, I wonder what he will think, and how much he will suffer. His little island is his entire world. The whole of humankind is contained within himself. And when death comes, so dreadful in that solitude, he will be like the last man on the last day of the world. Believe me, Monsieur Paganel, no-one would want to be that man.

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