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Islands of Our Years

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 585-592 | 10.1353/sew.2013.0096

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Of the patterns and metaphors by which we relate and perceive and measure our lives, one of the oldest and most insistent is that of the journey. Shakespeare uses the image frequently, as in Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

Expressions such as "travel life's road" and "along our way" are stock elements of graduation ceremonies, sermons, and greeting cards; they are spoken at weddings and murmured at funerals. The literary-minded think back to the wanderings of Odysseus and Aeneas, of knights errant and the matière de Bretagne; they know that the picaresque novel arose out of such romances and adventure stories, and that numerous outstanding English novels are quasi-epics (The Adventures of Tom Jones, for instance), in the plots of which journeys and digressions from the journey play a significant role. One of these masterpieces features a real voyage over perilous seas by "an everyman," as J. Paul Hunter calls Robinson Crusoe, "a wanderer on a sea he does not understand," who is marooned for twenty-eight years—a story perhaps based on the real case of Alexander Selkirk and his island to the west of Chile.

If life can be thus felt—according to the pattern set by Odysseus in the "mid-earth sea"—as travel through space and time, especially as a sea voyage (with the related metaphors of ports, storms, rocks and eddies, wreckage), then it is also strung with islands—those clusters of years, activities, and associates that rise above the horizon and constitute stopping-places—places of relief, of discovery sometimes, perhaps of danger. Literature is full of such islands. Shakespeare needed an isle (inspired by Bermuda, some believe) as the setting for The Tempest. Think too of Treasure Island, which has haunted boys' imaginations since 1883; think of The Count of Monte Cristo and the two islands that play a role in the adventure of Dantès, first the Château d'If (the prison island), then the place of treasure, to which l'abbé Faria directs him. In American writing there is scarcely any place more fundamental than the island in the Mississippi on which Huck Finn and Jim find themselves.

More broadly, civilized lands are islands, so to speak, some of them literally—"the isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!" and Sicily. I think also of the oases of the Near East—gardens of art, science, and language surrounded by sand and desolation. Perhaps, on the other side of the world, the South Pacific islands should be mentioned, from which men in outriggers or canoes set sail, or drifted, to the east and the other hemisphere, where eventually they established the pre-Columbian civilizations. The earth itself is a kind of isle in the universe, surrounded by waves of time and space, "islanded in its stream of stars," as Henry Beston wrote. Astronauts have remarked on its singular blue beauty. Like Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince, we are travelers, fallen from the skies, finding a home on our cosmic isle.

Or are we ourselves unmoored islands, floating masses of stuff, half-directed by oar or rudder, half-driven by the winds of fate and the dark unseen currents below? "No man is an island," said Donne; but Arnold, for whom "the sea of faith" had ebbed, wrote:

Yes! In the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortals live alone . . .

Though Arnold spoke in moral and metaphysical terms—terms we would call existential, stressing the death of God and the forlorn condition of man—rather than from the sociological perspective of this new millennium, we can apply his insight likewise to the atomization of society (and its components, including in extreme cases the very self), or, rather, societies, as formerly constituted—that is, culturally coherent polities.

Among the earliest of such polities were those Greek city-states to which citizens belonged (Aristotle wrote that a citizen is one who has a share in judging and ruling); later, despite...

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