AN ISLAND

What if you had lived all your life on an island, alone.

Suppose, when you were a baby, your mother had set you adrift in a laundry basket, having heard that the queen was planning to have you drowned because you, lying in your cradle in your sprigged lavender dress and natty little red patent leather shoes, were more beautiful than the princess, and because the people adored you?

Or suppose that, when you were a baby, your mother had set you adrift because the king your step-father wanted to drown you, virile and good-looking as you were even in the cradle, so that his own son should become king, and because the people adored you?

Whichever your gender, there you are, washed up on the beach of an island unknown to navigators. You grow up in symbiotic fusion with this island, embedded in the landscape and the weather and the demands of your belly. This is not Lord of the Flies, this is radical innocence. Becoming thirsty you crowd in naked among the zebras and hamadryads at the waterhole. When you are confronted with flattened ears and bared teeth, you either back off or you bare your own teeth, depending on your judgement of the situation (a misunderstanding here could be fatal). When you have slaked your thirst and are no longer parched, you are in some other state of mind. Bored . . . ? Sexually aroused . . . ? Hungry . . . ? Whatever it is, you react. You do not think, “I am hungry,” you lack the language to think “ I am,” or “I am not.” You look for food. Do you, in fact, think at all?

Your world is composed of two elements: death and food. You are another animal at about the 150-pound level on the food chain. Creatures bigger than you are look upon you as a juicy morsel. You yourself are a predator pitiless to morsels smaller than yourself. When you glimpse a sinister movement in the jungle you shinny up a tree in a flash. At a flicker of movement in the grass, you pounce. Between the desire and the act falls no shadow, as Eliot said. You are acutely alive to menace, and to dinner. You are oblivious to flowers and sunsets. They are what perceptualists call ‘ground;’ flowers and sunsets do not ‘configure.’ Here you are, in the midst of the primeval, dangerous, erotic paradise at the heart of all our dreams, and you don’t even know it!

And so you grow up on this island, eating . . . sleeping in the sun. . . lolling (alertly) in the lagoon – a pleasant life much of the time.

Suppose, then, a boat lands on your beach and people get out. Do you make the connection between yourself and these pallid creatures teetering about on little shiny black feet?

The strangers teach you to talk. The first thing they do is introduce you to category. They cannot rest until they have re-arranged your mental world to suit themselves. They din it into your head that you are one of them, not an animal, and that animals and all the other things are different from you, and somehow—how to put this?—not quite as good. “We are ourselves,” they say, “and everything else is nature.” Of course, when you understand this you can’t help becoming a little proud; you are now better than the animals, because they are only animals. You know they are animals and they don’t, and this gives you power. But these people go on classifying and sub-classifying until it makes your head spin. All your life you have had to deal with a large black animal that growls at you if you go near, and which is truly dangerous, and another animal, a harmless little creature that seems to confuse you with its mother. You are astonished to find the people lump these creatures together as ‘baboon.’ How can this be, you think; anyone can see that they are quite different. Of course you learn to subdivide baboon into naive young baboon and cantankerous old bull. This is hard to master, but what is harder to understand is why it matters. There are times when you wish these new friends of yours would get back into their boat and go away.

But of course it is too late. You are no longer part of the island. You are apart from it because you know it is an island. You have been thrust out of nature. You even come to see that you are ‘naked’. You are estranged from nature and can never go back. The flaming sword turns each way, to keep the way of the tree of life. So, you throw in your lot with these strangers: you put on the clothes they give you and you become one of them. You become People. You belong.

Or so you think.

But then these people want to know your name. What? they say, you have no name? You must have a name. Everybody who is anybody has a name. To make the concept easy to understand, they walk about with name tags attached to themselves: “Sir Nigel Fflunch,” “Gertrude,” “Alonso Dogsbody” and so on, and they make one up for you. It says “Kim.” And indeed you see that it is useful because it is very hard to tell human beings apart. Whereas baboons don’t need name tags because anyone can tell one from another. So now you say “Kim hungry” or “Kim person.” But they say, “No no! Not Kim hungry’ – I am hungry, I am a person.'”

And so at last you learn to say “I.” Kim is a label for others to use, “I” stands for Identity. You learn that you are an individual and you can never be one of others. There is no going back. From this moment on you will be truly human; you will be lonely. Welcome to the club.

And now our revels all are ended. It turns out that the people who wanted to kill you are dead themselves, so you can leave the island and claim your inheritance. Indeed, you must leave. You don’t want to. You want desperately to throw off your clothes and stay on the island, but you see that you can never again be one with the goats and the hyraxes. You would always be a human, naked and absurd, playing at being “natural.”

And so you go back across the sea and play at being a human in your palace of many rooms. You amuse yourself with the chess board, the neurosis, the printed menu and all the other set-pieces of society. As the years go by, a curious change takes place. The great dangerous and exciting events of your life on the island begin to fade. The escape from the panther is played over and over, but each time it becomes more stylised, less ‘real,’ until you can’t be sure whether it happened or you read about it. But now all the various elements of your childhood come flooding back at unexpected moments. You discover you have a profound knowledge of the odours of all the flowers which you don’t remember even noticing at the time, even the faint lemony fragrance of what you now know as cowslips, at the edge of the swamp. The sting of frosted grass on bare feet catches you unawares, sharp as yesterday, unsettling you with waves of pleasure and pain. These are the large losses and the meager compensation for those who have been wrenched out of paradise.