Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

utopia, utopia


artwork by KATERINA JEBB

donatien grau is a french writer, an art critic, a curator at the musée d’orsay in paris, and a long-time contributor to purple.

Islands are everywhere in contemporary thought. Or, at least, they represent a functioning pattern through which to consider the ways we live in the world. Christodoulos Panayiotou’s utopian art space in Limassol, Cyprus, is named “The Island Club.” Édouard Glissant, the leading thinker and author from Martinique, made the word “archipelago” into a concept, considering that we were to live not as islands, nor as part of the continents, but as ensembles of connected islands, existing together, each in its own individuality but united by a web of visibilities. The very notion of “creolization” — as coined by Glissant, as well — signifies a process of permanently shifting, blending identity, outside of the domination of the continent and its monolithic language. Across Western modernity, the island has been a place where things could be attempted, experimented — things that would not find their way on the mainland. It may be that all islands are treasure islands.

Thomas More’s original Utopia — his island that is not a place, a non-place, ou-topos in Greek — is the location of intellectual, cultural possibilities that would not have been conceivable within his lifetime: the premises of communism… Reading his book is striking, not merely because of the radicality of what he proposed, but also because of the comprehensiveness of his thinking: in describing Utopia, he names rules, religions, practices, trades, sexual behaviors. He constructs an alternative world in front of the world. [More’s book] Utopia is positioned as a mirror to the 16th century: the time of Henry VIII, the challenge to Catholicism, humanism. In this piece of literature and philosophy, everything is possible: this world — the island — exists separated from Europe, where the quarrels, the debates, and the oppressions occur. Utopia is located in the New World, the one that Amerigo Vespucci discovered. Utopia is in America: what a potent thought today…

More’s Utopia may appear as a radical new beginning for philosophy and culture. After all, it was More himself who coined the word “utopia.” However, this new word and the intellectual adventure in which it is rooted have a history: the fact that Utopia is located beyond the Strait of Gibraltar is a testament not only to the newly discovered America, but also to older conceptions of the otherworld — at some point, it was said to be the land of the dead. Utopia is the continuation of Atlantis, described by Plato in two of his dialogues, the Timaeus and the Critias. The Timaeus is a cornerstone of Plato’s late œuvre, featuring the theological aspects of his philosophy. Atlantis was an island given to Poseidon: from this original gift, a culture grew, richer and more powerful than any other, on the verge of ruling over parts of the world, before being subjected to hubris and destroyed by a tempest. The Timaeus presents the beginning of the theme of Atlantis; this is further elaborated in the Critias, which traditionally has been subtitled On the Atlantis. The dialogue’s narrative is cut short, but Plato seems to propose a form of the island’s history. The destruction of Atlantis is a motif for a number of classical authors — such as Critias and Timaeus themselves — whose work is no longer extant. It stands for an island that was offered possibilities and then fell. It is, therefore, a reminder for the polis — the Ancient Greek city — of how it is to be handled and led. Here, we are confronted again with the possibility of the island: to offer an alternative, to provide the Athenians — or anyone who might take the philosopher’s advice — with an example of what can be done and what cannot be done with power and with the might given by the gods. Because of its scale — the combination of Libya and Asia Minor, i.e. Turkey — Atlantis has been described as both a continent and an island. Arguably, this twofold identity is quite telling: as an island, it is an alternative world. As a continent, it is a paradigm. Already, in these late Platonic dialogues appears a solution to the ongoing discrepancy between continent and island, equally as between mountain and land, highland and mainland.

Islands played a significant role in early Greek culture and in Greek mythology overall. The Peloponnesus — the land of Sparta — literally signified “the island of Pelops,” the son of Tantalus and Dione, the lover of Poseidon, the ancestor of Mycenae’s royal dynasty, known as the Atreides. In the Odyssey, islands are part of the overall narrative: Odysseus goes from island to island. Calypso is on an island; the Phaeacians live on an island; the Sirens are gathered on an island; the Cyclops is on an island; Ithaca, his homeland, is an island. From Alexandrian times to today, scholars and thinkers have been trying to identify the locations of each episode. The geography of mythology is at least as symbolic as it is actual: each island represents a possibility, a window into a world of its own, in which the epic hero could engage. Each island is a possible life or a possible death. The power of the rhapsodic method is to assemble all these episodes, all those lives, under the auspices of one single figure: not so much a hero as a lead man, a thread that could embroider the several parts of the narrative fabric to make the dress — a metaphor present in the very notion of the rhapsode, literally “a seamstress.” Each episode is an island; each island opens up for an episode. This model enables us to conceive of the epic narrative as nothing but an archipelago in its own right. It is a series of islands connected by the flow of intermediary storytelling. That is why Odysseus is not a hero in the psychological, modern sense. He is a mirror along the way that marks the lives that could take place.

Already, through Atlantis and in the Odyssey, we witness two opposing models: Atlantis features the island as a potential continent, while the Odyssey paves the way toward the consideration of the archipelago. All the islands are separate; they each exist on their own, certainly not in the assembly of a geographical archipelago. And yet, they all function together; they coexist and make for an entity exactly because of their separation. An initial discrepancy might be noted in the fact that Atlantis is a model present mostly in philosophy, while each of Homer’s islands has become a source for poetic inspiration. Poetry — as Glissant himself would have argued — exists in the opening up of the unity to a plurality, or in the certainty that the unity is always initially and fundamentally plural. This may be a far stretch, but the Odyssey could be characterized as Deleuzian: the archipelago is the political, poetic grounding of the rhizome.

The plurality allows for more open possibilities: it also provides the possibility not for one alternative life but for many other lives that could live in one. Joyce was right to make the Odyssey into the model for his modern-times Ulysses: the Odyssey’s journey encapsulates our contemporary existence, being taken from place to place, from experience to experience. As we have recently experienced lockdowns and curfews all over the world, this may seem like an idealistic version of life: we have been stuck with the island as continent and have not been able to experience the geographic version of the epic, archipelagic journey. And yet, such is our life that this journey does not necessarily need places: distant journeys are not always exotic. Lucian of Samosata — the second-century A.D. author, philosopher, and fiction-writer — invented a tale called A True Story: he described a journey to the moon, to the sun. And it all starts with passing the Pillars of Hercules — the Strait of Gibraltar — and going to an island where the water is wine. And then, so he goes to one place, the other. And on to the moon… The Pillars of Hercules symbolized the end of the Mediterranean Sea and, therefore, common ground, shared space: passing their threshold meant leaving the realm of the normal. And what was expecting the traveler, afterward, was an island. Some may need a utopia; others may need Sirens. What we all need is to pass the threshold of the Pillars of Hercules, onto the archipelagos that our lives can be.



[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

Subscribe to our newsletter