- Icelandic Resettlements
How can an island be a statement? Literary scholars might want to respond: How can an island not be a statement? For islands play an important role in the history of literature (from the Odyssey through Grettis saga and The Tempest, to Robinson Crusoe, The Treasure Island, and To the Lighthouse, andperhaps the whole oeuvre of James Joyce, all the way through to the contemporary poetry of Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney. The island metaphor appears, among other places, in the classic question: What books would you take with you to read on a desert island? Is there any question that better sums up our impulse toward canonicity? The desert island is really a treasure island. The paradox is, of course, that the question implies the desire of an individual to imbibe or come to grips with works which in most cases have probably been culturally preselected. The island to be settled, in this context, is therefore a statement of both the subjective (in the subjunctive!) and the social. It is at once a place of a fresh start, a clean slate, and a colony in which a resettlement of tradition is bound to occur. I shall use the concept of settlement fairly consistently in the dual sense of agreement and demarcation of a new region or colony.
This literary island game seems to confirm a classic pronouncement: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Thus John Donne in 1623, and he continues: “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or thine own were.” 1 Many readers are familiar with this text as the motto of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about how Spain is turned into an island or a “clod” about to be washed away. It is tempting to use it as a metaphor for the history of Iceland—a clod situated in the Mid-Atlantic, geographically right between Europe and North America, with complex ties in both directions. Historically and politically Iceland is primarily a part of Europe, but the island’s geographical location has merged with a world view that is based on a clear distance from Europe—or “the [End Page 153] idea of Europe.” In this case, the concept of island has buttressed an ideology that stresses a nation’s separateness, its unique historical, cultural and economic condition. Icelandic poets have sung hymns to the trinity of land, nation, and tongue, three unities whose outlines appear to coincide with one another with the clarity of an island’s coastline; unities which, if working together, might ensure a cultural and political sovereignty for a “minor” nation which sees its survival as a “major” achievement. We are religiously reminded that the three must not be sundered. 2 (I shall be coming back to “minor” and “major” as cultural attributes later in this essay.)
Small wonder, then, that Iceland is now caught in a rather distressing bind in its relation to Europe, constantly hedging when it comes to deciding whether to apply for membership in the European Union; caught between the fear of being swallowed up by a huge confederation and the anxiety of being too late, of missing a train. (There are no trains in Iceland, by the way, which may be beside the point here, except in so far as trains function as a metaphor, a sign of foreign traffic or transportation.) Besides, developments in Europe are quite bewildering at this point in history, with the move toward unification on the one hand and a rampant nationalist fragmentation on the other. And what is each national separatist group shouting if not “we are an island,” thus reminding Icelanders, in not too positive a fashion, of the way in which their nationhood is also an islandhood or insularity. I say “remind”, for in the Icelandic world view the concept of island is continually suppressed by that of “land” (a word that in Icelandic is used for both “country” and “land”), if...