The contemporary appeal of islands

The contemporary appeal of islands

Lawrence Durrell described the condition of “islomania” as “a rare but by no means unknown affliction of the spirit” in people who find islands “irresistible.” He was describing the psychological compulsion which drives many writers, in particular, to try to satisfy an inner need. Durrell’s own “island books” include Corfu (where he discovered both Greece and himself), Rhodes and Cyprus. Today, we would call this “the tourist gaze,” the outsider wondering what it is like to be an insider.

Greece, with its hundreds of inhabited islands, and thousands uninhabited, offers a huge variety of unique island cultures. It’s been a perennial attraction for island-hopping backpackers and an early factor in the Greek tourist industry. It would be crazy to suggest that there is any single pen that could do justice to this spectrum of island lives.

The other side of the coin is the writer born and bred in an island community, such as Konstantinos Theotokis (Corfu, 1872-1923), Alexandros Papadiamandis (Skiathos, 1851-1911) and Nikos Kazantzakis (Crete, 1883-1957). It’s no accident that they all became pioneers of Greek writing and exponents of the Greek landscape and character. Their depictions of the mores, rhythm and syntax of island thought are never fully available to the visitor.

The outsider and the insider have quite different perspectives on the politics, aesthetics, ecology, economies and daily habits of an island. In Ireland, the case of John Millington Synge (the outsider) and Liam O’Flaherty (the insider) in the western island of Inishmore (the name would translate into Greek as “meganisi”) is a signal of this insider/outsider dichotomy.

There is, however, another sense in which, to repeat Durrell’s term, an island is “irresistible.” This occurs when much more is at stake than the basic elements of the land and the surrounding sea. An island like Kastellorizo might seem relatively unimportant; it hardly figures on maps of the Eastern Mediterranean, a mere 12 sq.km and less than 500 residents. But it is, as Durrell wrote, “a small, undefended island in such a remote corner, overlooked by the Turkish mountains, which has had a long and checkered history of invasions and conquests. It has been owned by seven different nations.” Why would they want to do that?

If Durrell were alive today he wouldn’t be surprised at the Greek-Turkish focus on Kastellorizo, along with other Dodecanese islands, which have been part of Greece since 1947 and which Turkey would like to control.

What is “irresistible” is – no prize for guessing – the oil and gas deposits which are invisible to the tourist gaze but a gleam in the eye of the hydrocarbon vigilantes and economists. The proceeds could pay off the national debt of several small countries.

It may be callous and cynical, but the case can be made that the international interest in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), continental shelf, territorial waters and airspace is hardly, if at all, concerned with the culture or the lives of Kastellorizo’s inhabitants, and everything to do with the wealth on which they have sat during the centuries when that culture was honed and expressed.

Since the early 20th century, the history of the Middle East, including the Levant and the eastern Balkans, has been the history of war and diplomacy for the control of the mineral deposits on which our civilization seems to depend. The western coast of Turkey is part of this “irresistible” impetus toward the exploitation of liquid gold.

The most ludicrous, yet scary, instance of an international dispute is the Atlantic rock named Rockall, which was appropriated by the UK by act of Parliament in 1972, but whose ownership is disputed by the Irish government. It would probably take a well-trained mathematical seagull to determine whether this barren rock, smaller than a football pitch, is actually nearer to Ireland or the UK. Its significance lies in whether or not it is within the UK’s EEZ. The complexity of the thing is found in the Irish government’s argument that it is of “no significance for establishing legal claims to mineral rights in the adjacent seabed or to fishing rights in the surrounding seas.” Greek and Turkish legal eagles, take note.

Changing the ownership of an island cannot affect its inner cohesion: The 1913 and 1947 transfers of the Dodecanese prove that. It is when we look at the two aspects of “islomania” – the insider/outsider psychology and the geopolitical context – that we can see the same complexity: The inherent value of the people and their land, contrasted with the submarine assets from which they themselves will probably never benefit.

Geopolitics is all about place and displacement. The fact that Thessaloniki was Ataturk’s birthplace should give us cause to reflect on the moving of borders, people and ideas. One of the commonest words in the lexicon of geopolitics is “balkanization” – the splitting apart and joining together of lives and identities smaller and more vulnerable than those who wield the scalpels of international surgery. That any island can be bartered in the geopolitical game tells us much about the culture of politics and little about the politics of culture.

At the Durrell Library in Corfu next June we are hosting “Islands of the Mind,” a unique gathering of experts to examine the issues of literature, biodiversity, psychology and politics in an island context.

Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”

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