Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Island of the Absurd, Part I

We are, you might say, island enthusiasts. We recently read a good book by Robert Dean Frisbie, a man who spent many years on a coral atoll in the South Pacific, which relates many absurd insights and observations.

The absurd’s core ideas of a meaningless existence, acceptance of eventual death and all its corollaries seem to come out more readily when one is on a remote island. There is something about the islands that teach us much about the absurd nature of our existence.

This is what we aim to explore here, perhaps inspired by our own vacation, in which we spent many days lulled by the sound of waves and seagulls, fanned by salty sea breezes, under a bright and warm sun…

The island literature is expansive… We have read Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his experiences amid the palm shades and trade-winds of the South Pacific, on the Marquesas, Paumotus and Gilbert Islands. (Just to say the island names seems magical.) We’ve read the tales of Defoe and Melville and Gauguin and others who spent time on those little worlds surrounded by sea. We’ve devoured such stories since we were boys.

As adults, the lure of following in their footsteps, of going bamboo, remains. We have had the pleasure of spending many days on tropical islands. Growing up, we’d spend weeks hopping Caribbean islands when we visited our grandparents. And in our position today, we have ventured to islands from the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean all the way to the Tasman Sea.

We think that being a good bit removed from the patterns of our daily lives, modern society’s futile efforts come out in more stark relief. This is not say, as we’ve pointed out before, that one can’t be absurd anywhere. But we’ve come to appreciate that certain environments make it easier to be absurd (and the see the absurd) than others. As more than one reader has pointed out, perhaps if we were less comfortable, we’d find it harder to say nothing matters. Perhaps they are right, though we like to think we can maintain our sense of equanimity in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

In fact, it may be that life’s trials bring out the absurd in someone who otherwise was comfortable. That was the case with Alexander Selkirk.

Defoe found inspiration for his Robinson Crusoe in the real story of Alexander Selkirk; a Scottish seaman marooned for four years between 1704 and 1709, on Mas a Tierra, an island 400 miles off the coast of Chile.

At first, Selkirk was miserable. His depression lingered for 18 months. He’d have crying fits. He thought about killing himself.

But eventually Selkirk began to make the best of it. He learned to hunt game – the island had goats – and fish. He cooked up stews of goat flavored with native berries. He boiled lobster. He made clothes from goatskins. He found ways to entertain himself, hunting for fun and releasing his catch. Selkirk read aloud from his Bible to maintain his ability to speak and he found ways to write.

After awhile, Selkirk becomes relatively content. He writes how “he never had a moment heavy” and that his life was “one continual feast.” He also did a lot of thinking…

Selkirk had an epiphany – a realization shared by the absurd and certain other philosophies and cultures. He came to believe that “all our discontents” sprang “from the want of thankfulness for what we have.” He thought living on the island, removed “from all the wickedness in the world” helped him realize the folly of his past life, filled with work and striving and worry for some elusive success as defined by social conventions. The island, though it would appear very confining, was more liberating. Though it might seem lonely, he found his existence there contemplative.

The island taught Selkirk how little the old world mattered, how ridiculous it all seemed as viewed from a distance. He accepted his marooned circumstances, despite their apparent difficulties. (And we are, in a sense, all marooned here on this spinning planet).

In part II, we'll look at the experience of Robert Dean Frisbie, a lone trader on a South Sea Atoll, through an absurd lens. On the atoll, Frisbie finds a people with many absurd traits, including some refreshing views on death...


  1. Hi, please tell me where this photo was taken, if it was photoshopped or accurately reflects current conditions - and if it is recent.

    I have not seen skies that blue since long ago.


    gonzo horse girl at geemail dot commie.

  2. This one is a stock photo of the island of Niue, in the South Pacific.

    And yes, they are very blue...


  3. Hi
    Found your blog when i googled my blog, The Absurd Island!
    Come visit me sometimes :)