Sunday, June 30, 2019

Islomanes (1): Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia

Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980)

'Now,' he said as we left the bridge and walked into Anglesey, 'now you are like Robinson Crusoe, you are on your island. How should you like to live in that house all the year round, winter and summer?' he said pointing at a white house on a little rock island in the straits. I said I thought there might be worse places. 'They live like fighting cocks there,' winked the old man with the merry twinkle in his eye and his tall white hat nodding from side to side. 'They have got a weir there and they catch all the fish.'
- Kilvert’s Diary: Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert, 1 January 1870 - 13 March 1879. 3 vols. Ed. William Plomer. 1938 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977): I: 360.

Walter de la Mare: Desert Islands and Robinson Crusoe (1930)

The fascination of islands and island living is something a great many people have written about. English poet and whimsical anthologist Walter de la Mare devoted an entire book to the subject, and of course that old reprobate Lawrence Durrell also had a good deal to say on the subject as well:

Lawrence Durrell: Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953)

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. These are people, Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. We islomanes, says Gideon, are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is toward the lost Atlantis that our subconscious is drawn. This means that we find islands irresistible.
― Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953)
He went on to say, in a letter to a friend, that 'Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication.'

One of my students, Carlota, comes from the Canary Islands. She tells me that it sometimes seems to her as if the whole of New Zealand were enclosed inside a bubble – 'like a floating island.'
'I know, because I'm from an island too,' she goes on. Hers, though, was first settled by a blue-eyed, fair-haired race ('perhaps Vikings') before the Spanish arrived to wipe them all out.
'Atlanteans?' I ask. She agrees that many people think so. She's a little sceptical, though.
'A floating island.' She describes it like something out of Jules Verne: a huge transparent membrane, sealing us off from the pressures of the world outside. Or perhaps a better comparison might be with José Saramago's 1986 novel The Stone Raft, where the whole Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats into the Atlantic Ocean, splitting apart, once and for all, the pillars of Hercules.
- Jack Ross, "The Stokes Point Pillars." 11 Views of Auckland. Edited by Jack Ross & Grant Duncan. Social and Cultural Studies, 10 (Auckland: Massey University, 2010): 155.
Carlota's islands, the Canaries, are a small archipelago of seven islands situated 100 kilometres off the coast of Morocco. By contrast, our two main islands, Te Ika a Māui and Te Waipounamu - complemented by 600-odd others - are pretty much on their own: 2,000 km east of Australia and 1,000 km south of New Caledonia. 'Next stop Antarctica,' as they say.

Janet Frame: To the Is-land (1982)

One more quote before we get going properly:
When the New Zealand writer Janet Frame was 7, she found in her school reader an adventure story, 'To the Island,' that she read as 'To the Is-land.' Though corrected by her teacher, she accepted the word thereafter as meaning what it said, the Land of Is, not the Was-Land, not the Future. In this first volume of her autobiography, which she calls 'a selection of views of the Is-Land,' it is the place of her childhood and adolescence.
Helen Bevington, 'The Girl from New Zealand.' New York Times (21 November, 1982)
All of which should serve to prepare us for the actual subject of this post, the strange utopian romance Islandia (1942), by eccentric American lawyer Austin Tappan Wright:

Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia (1942)

Wright had been dead for eleven years when his immense novel finally saw the light of day. Not that the publishers of the day were prepared to contemplate the publication of the whole thing. In her afterword to the 2001 paperback edition, his daughter Sylvia explains that this 1,000-page tome 'represents only a part of the total Islandia papers.'
The original novel, containing close to six hundred thousand words, was so vast as to be virtually unpublishable, particularly during a wartime paper shortage. It was in this form, however, a manuscript contained in seven thick spring binders, too heavy for me to carry by myself, that it was accepted by the publishers.
- Sylvia Wright Mitarachi, 'Afterword.' In Austin Tappan Wright. Islandia. Ed. Mark Saxton, Margaret Garrad Wright & Sylvia Wright. 1942. Introduction by John Silbersack (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2001): 1015.

So what got left out? Sylvia Wright goes on:
With the intelligent and sensitive help of Mark Saxton, then an editor of Farrar & Rhinehart, I cut the [twenty-three hundred pages of the] original novel by about a third. This is its form today. As I indicated in a note in the original edition, my father knew the exact lineaments of every scene John Lang saw, down to its geological causes, and enjoyed describing such things. Much of the cutting was of this sort of leisurely observation. Also, as Mr. Basil Davenport pointed out in his essay on the Islandia papers, published as a companion volume to the novel, my father's writing became more succinctly his own as he went on. The bulk of the cutting, therefore, was in the early part of the book. [1016]

Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia (2006)

It seems rather a pity that the decision was taken to include this essay by Basil Davenport as part of the original publication, rather than more of the ancillary papers associated with the novel itself:
My father knew the country so well because he had considered it and travelled around it in so many guises. In one, he constructed its history, a scholarly work entitled Islandia: History and Description, by M. Jean Perier, whom readers of the novel will recognize as the first French consul to Islandia.
This document, of about 135,000 words, is the major part of the remainder of the unpublished Islandia papers. In addition, there are a large number of appendices to the history, including a glossary of the Islandian language; a bibliography; several tables of population; a gazeteer of the provinces with a history of each; tables of viceroys, judges, premiers, etc.; a complete historical peerage; notes of the calendar and climate; and a few specimens of Islandian literature. There are also nineteen maps, one geological. To use Leonard Bacon's phrase from the introduction he wrote to the first publication, here one discovers, 'the very Devonian outcrop of Never Never country.' [1016]

John K. Wright: Map of Islandia

So what is the book itself like? That phrase 'never never country,' with its echoes of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, implies a kind of fantasy world, with fairies and elves and other mythological trappings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Islandia is a fully fleshed-out, realistic fantasy world with politics, history, and - above all - human relationships to the fore.

Ursula K. Le Guin, a big fan of the book, once wrote that she and her family was Islandia-philes in the same way as a later generation would be Tolkien-freaks. They quoted from it, argued over details, and generally lived through its pages.

So, it seems, did the entire Wright family. Austin's brother John, a professional geographer, contributed the splendid topographical map pictured above to the enterprise, and his daughter Sylvia recalls it having been an inextricable part of her childhood:
We always knew about Islandia, although apparently my father did not talk very much about it outside the family. We had ideas of what it looked like, from comments like, 'This view looks like Islandia.' Our boat was called Aspara, the Islandian word for seagull. [1019-20]
It's in this same section of her afterword that she explains how the word should be pronounced: 'Aye-landia' - rather than 'Iz-landia' or 'Ee-landia':
My father originated Islandia as 'my island' when he was a boy. This is why the name is the only exception to the rule that there are no silent letters in the Islandian language.

Interestingly, this genre of imaginary Islandian landscapes appears to be alive and well in the alternate Never-never world of Facebook. There are a number of pages devoted to the subject (though it is quite easy to confuse it with Ísland, Íslendingur - Iceland, Icelandic - especially when Islandia happens to be the word for "Iceland" in Spanish and various other languages).

It's important to emphasise the slightly ponderous - though very serviceable - nature of Wright's plotting and prose generally. Islandia is a perfectly readable novel, though its interests are not quite those of the 1920s, when it was written.

It bears only a slight resemblance to a work such as outsider artist Henry Darger's 15,000 page magnum opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger's work is unpublished, and will probably remain so, though extracts have appeared in various catalogues as well as in Jessica Yu's wonderful 2004 documentary about his life, also entitled (what else?) In the Realms of the Unreal.

A great deal of Wright's text, by contrast, is devoted to a rather wistful, Edwardian-flavoured exploration of the nature of love, which the Islandians divide into four separate concepts:
  1. alia: love of place and family land and lineage
  2. amia: love of friends
  3. ania: desire for marriage and commitment
  4. apia: sexual attraction
John Lang, the hero, experiences all of these in the course of the narrative, and it is this aspect of the book which is referred to specifically in Ursula Le Guin's almost equally ambitious fantasy work Always Coming Home (1985), devoted to the future anthropology of the Kesh, inhabitants of the land now known as Northern California (and now available in an expanded, 'definitive' edition through the Library of America):

Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home (1985 / 2019)

Curiously enough, Islandia is not really set on an island - in the strictest sense of the term, at any rate. The country of Islandia is merely the tip of the immense 'semi-continent' of Karain, whose location is as elusive as that of the lost continent of Atlantis.

Johnny Pez: Karain Continent, 1907 (2006)

Sylvia Wright (as usual) sums up the evidence judiciously, if inconclusively:
Elmer Davis, and other writers, decided that Islandia is in the South Pacific. Both Lang and Perier assume that everyone knows where the country is, so neither mentions latitude and longitude. M. Perier does say, however, that the Karain subcontinent is not on the Spanish side of the Pope's line, which I have been told by so eminent an authority as Dr. John K. Wright, former head of the American Geographical Society, means that Islandia cannot be in the Pacific proper. Dr. Wright has studied the situation. He also feels that the Atlantic is too crowded.

For those of you unfamiliar with the expression, the 'Pope's line' refers to an imaginary line drawn by Pope Alessandro Borgia in 1493 (and subsequently shifted slightly in 1494) which divided up the entire world into (respectively) the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of interest.

The idea was to keep the Spanish out of the Portuguese discoveries in the far East, and the Portuguese out of the Spanish discoveries in the Americas. However, as you'll observe, the existence of one Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America - Brazil - is due largely to this shifting of the lines. Moreover, as you'll see from the image below, any line drawn on a sphere such as the earth must come, literally, full circle, so considerable latitude for debate remained even after this apparently 'definitive' decision had been reached.

There's an indescribable atmosphere to the slow unfolding of Wright's long tale which makes it immensely beguiling to read. I'm on my second run-through myself, and am finding it quite as attractive as the first time round. What's more, I'm fascinated to discover that the entire text is finally available online, through the good offices of Harvard University Library.

Here's what you'll see if you click on the link above. You can (if you wish) read the typescript of the entire novel there, without the 1942 cuts, as well as examining in detail the text of M. Jean Perier's comprehensive guidebook Islandia: History and Description.

Like all utopias, however, Wright's has its fly in the ointment. Isolationist Islandia is unquestionably dominated by white people. The 'natives' to the south are regarded by the Islandians with a certain disdain (not unmixed with fear). As described, in fact, the continent of Karain sounds a lot more like South Africa than, say, Australia, with which it would otherwise tempting to identify it.

Is it a racist state? Certainly it betrays many of the characteristics of its era. Wright describes the 'blacks' and 'mulattos' who surround Islandia with the patronising attitudes of his time. He is, moreover, careful to make it clear that the people he is interested in originated somewhere in Northern Europe. They sound quite a bit like Icelanders, in fact - stubbornly independent and proudly different - albeit displaced from the North to the South of the globe.

Hard though he tries to sideline it, this is one of the features of his work which makes it difficult for me to embrace it quite so wholeheartedly as Ursula Le Guin and all of its other fans. It also explains why this constitutes only part one of my consideration of Islomania.

In part two I'd like to look further - at the risk of being accused of reductionism - into this political dimension of such 'pure' creations of the imagination. It is with a certain discomfort that many New Zealanders, myself included, have observed the conscious transformation of our country into an ersatz simulacrum of Tolkien's Middle-earth over the last couple of decades. The fact that so many Māori were cast as Orcs (albeit with a leavening of whining Dickensian cockneys), while the Elvish roles were reserved for willowy Europeans, was, to say the least, a trifle disconcerting.

Let's not romanticise this island-mania too much, then. One of the important points about islands is that they are more easily policed and kept under control than other parts of the earth - witness the infamous rounding-up of the aboriginal population of Tasmania: a pointless enterprise in other parts of that vast, turbulent continent.

The Celtic New Zealand hpothesis does not exist in a vaccuum. Many of us would like to rewrite the history of our world to our own satisfaction, leaving certain key aspects out - islomania, in its more extreme forms, could be seen to lend itself awfully easily to ethnic cleansing ...

For the moment, though, I would like to emphasise the immense charm and complexity of Wright's Islandia. Little could be said to happen in the novel, but then it exists really to provide a setting for his own sense of displacement and Heimweh: that belief we all share that there is a true home for us, somewhere, if only we could find it - if not in the real world, than in memory, or (better) still, the realms of the imagination.

That, it seems to me, is at the heart of this thing called Islomania.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home (1985)


Martin Edmond said...

Great post, Jack - thank you! Karain must be from Conrad? The ms of that story went down with the Titanic - en route to that Irish American collector in NY.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Thanks, Martin. Yes, I had the same thought about 'Karain' - though the native races of this particular 'sub-continent' seem more African than South-East Asian to me. Wright started writing the book around 1905, when Conrad's influence would have been at its height, so 'Karain' would presumably have been known to him - Tales of Unrest, if I'm not mistaken ...

Anonymous said...

Wright seems to have associated the Karain with an Arab civilization (Saracens); the description of the city of Mobono is reminiscent of Baghdad or Khartoum. The Bants are obviously Bantu, and the towns and names (M'popo, Fisiji) seem more southern African.

Bish Denham said...

Thank you for this post and the links! I just stumbled upon it. I have long been an Islandian fan. Since John Lang travels from New York to England and from England travels south, I've always felt Islandia was in the south Atlantic. The Arab and African influence on the Karain continent makes it seem obvious as well. But that debate is minor in comparison to the detailed life Wright gives to Islandia and its people.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, I take your point about the South Atlantic - some of the maps people have made of Islandia make the continent of which it's the tip look quite a lot like Athanasius Kirker's conjectural chart of Atlantis. The truth is, of course, that it doesn't really fit anywhere, which is one of the reasons we like it so much, I guess.