Gilles Deleuze: ‘Desert Islands’
in Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974, translated by Michael Taormina, edited by David Lapoujade, LA: Semiotext(e), 2004, 9-14
This is an essay, impressionistic, personal (though authoritative in manner), provocative. It belongs broadly in the kind of writing we can roughly define as French Theory – writing that aspires to use, or cannot but use, words like ‘only’, ‘whole’, ‘always’, ‘must’. So one must take its trenchant , only-always-must statements for what they suggest rather than test them for empirical validity. For instance, ‘that an island is deserted must appear philosophically normal to us. Humans cannot live, nor live in security, unless they assume that the active struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained’ (9) – a remark that says less than at first appears, as the concluding ‘or at least contained’ begins to concede. In addition we have to note that Deleuze is seeking to define certain concepts, firstly that of separation, and thence that of the originary, and in both cases he seeks to define the concept in an absolute, in I think we could say an ideal form.
He begins by noting that islands are the product of various relations between earth and water, but then suggests that humans imagine them into being, out of experiment with separation: ‘It is no longer the island that is created from the bowels of the earth through its liquid depths, it is humans who create the world anew from the island and on the waters.’ A particular concept of and a particular valuation of separation is the clue to much of the essay; the desertedness of an island stems from this separation, and does not depend on the trivial practicality (my phrasing) of whether the island is inhabited or not. He is speaking here of ‘absolute’ separation, though without defining it: a kind of ideal, evidently, which humans (for instance, if shipwrecked) can help the island to attain: ‘The island would be only the dream of humans, and humans, the pure consciousness of the island’. We can see our authors in Castaway Tales tentatively approaching Deleuze’s ideal at times, in imaging the island as a body, which opens the way, via a sense of presence or haunting, to the island as having consciousness (Muriel Spark, Michel Tournier) or as an illusion, imagined into being (William Golding in Pincher Martin). Not that Deleuze would tolerate this imperfect suggestiveness; he insists on an ideal human, ‘a man who would be almost a god, a woman who would be a goddess, a great Amnesiac, a pure Artist’ (11), an ideal that is at times played with (Jean Giraudoux Suzanne and the Pacific; John Barth, ‘Anonymiad’), at times critiqued (the castaway as madman, monster of egotism – H. G.Wells’s Moreau, Tournier’s Robinson before Friday arrives, Golding’s Pincher Martin).
Deleuze arrives at a brief consideration of ‘the facts themselves’ (11): ‘The island is what the sea surrounds and what we travel around. … What is deserted is the ocean around it.’ He is right in that the castaway’s island is usually full of stuff for the castaway to make use of, while the sea is barren (the concrete in Ballard’s Concrete Island is not the island but the freeways that surround the place of grass where Maitland is cast away), and the castaway, so often eager to exploit every resource on the island, seldom bothers to fish in the sea: the sea is that which is not island. However, Deleuze himself has little time for the fiction we have just tentatively connected to his generalizations. He briefly discusses Suzanne and the Pacific and Robinson Crusoe, but only as texts in which myth has gone to die, literature being the failed attempt, in his view, to reimagine myth. He is more severe on Robinson Crusoe, finding it boring in a dismissal of the bourgeois which was already itself boring in 1953 and has hardly become less so in a million repetitions since then. Still, he says, the myth might be recovered from aspects of these failures; though he specifies several aspects, I think that it is really only the way in which a castaway is re-beginning a world that he seizes on. This happens in a passage that rapidly segues into a series of stipulations about the originary, and arrives at a paradox: the second moment (for instance, the arrival of the castaway on an island to rebegin … Deleuze does not say exactly what is rebeginning since he finds everything that castaways actually do in fiction to be hopelessly banal) is ‘more essential than the first’ because it gives us the law of repetition. His example at this point is the arrival of Noah’s ark on Ararat, an island (for the moment). In this idealization of the second origin as the true origin in this case he does not mention what preceded it in the story of the Flood, the elimination of almost everything else living, except fish and whales. But instead his mind flickers to very different island communities, exclusively female, ‘such as the island of Circe or Calypso’ in the Odyssey – no doubt this shift reflects the fact that he has recalled that Noah’s community in the Ark and then on the island Ararat was (as is said nowadays) heteronormal, based on male-female pairs. That Calypso’s island is thronging with males changed into animals, and Circe’s is the site of her years with Odysseus, is not mentioned. The underlying problem raised by what might seem my quibbles about details in these stories is that myths – which Deleuze is appealing to, in contrast to fictions – tend to involve problems, difficulties, imperfections, just as fictions do. They lack the ideal which Deleuze is seeking and which he can only find – or rather, in my opinion, gesture at – in a rhetoric of concepts.
Deleuze’s eloquence flows on to the end of the essay. An earlier reader of my (library) copy has underlined almost every line of this last paragraph, and much else in the essay, and he or she must have been the kind of reader the essay perhaps needs, one who finds a rich suggestiveness in what I find to be bombinating in a void. So I will end by quoting some of Deleuze’s conclusion, and the reader of this note can test my response for his or herself:
After all, the beginning started from God and from a couple, but not
the new beginning, the beginning again, which starts from an egg:
mythological maternity is often a parthenogenesis. The idea of a
second origin gives the deserted island its whole meaning, the
survival of a sacred place in a world that is slow to re-begin. In
the ideal of beginning anew there is something that precedes the
beginning itself, that takes it up to deepen it and delay it in the
passage of time. The desert island is the material of this something
immemorial, this something most profound. (14)